Web Manager at Humboldt State University in California, Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast is a biologist gone through a complete butterfly-like metamorphosis into a museum webmaster in 1999. With her unique background, Andrea has an interesting perspective on university websites. She dissected these virtual yet living organisms in â€œWhy most university websites suck,â€ a series recently published on her blog: Interllectual. At Humboldt, Andrea belongs to Graphics Services, the office in charge of university publications and reporting to the VP of Advancement. She is responsible for the +15,000-page university website that is maintained via a CMS, Contribute and some [X]HTML/CSS.
1) What’s your background? What did you do before becoming a higher ed web pro?
I started my professional life as a biologist. I received a Master’s degree in Biology from Wake Forest University in 1997, focusing on avian behavioral ecology. I then went to work for a curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. A project I was involved in there (an online guide to the mammals of Washington State) kick-started my web career, and by 1999 I had changed professions and was the webmaster for the Burke Museum. I came to Humboldt State University in 2001 as the Online Learning Management Systems Administrator, and moved into the position of Web Manager in February of 2004.
The transition from scientist to web professional was a natural one for me because I’ve always worked at the interface of the technical and the creative. I have always been fascinated by using technical means, be it data collection and statistics or HTML and CSS, to describe a higher level phenomenon, such as a behavior pattern or a web page design. Web work takes it one step further than biological research and allows me to actually create the higher level phenomena, which is a combination I can’t resist.
I am mostly self-trained on the web– I had a couple of courses in grad school where we made HTML documents, so I learned the basics of mark-up, but that’s as far as the formal education went. I learned the bulk of what I know by reading books and by spending hours on the web itself, reading, pulling sites apart, practicing techniques and experimenting.
What’s your biggest achievement as a higher ed web pro?
When I came on board in February 2004, I was given a deadline of mid-August to launch a major redesign of the university homepage and top-level pages. This was six months from the time I moved into the office and plugged in the computer until I had to flip the switch on a new live site.
I had a fully-functional beta site up in about 3 months, and collected feedback from the campus for about 2 months. In the last month I made changes based on the feedback, ironed out the technical details, and fine tuned the content. We launched on time, and now have a standards-based site that validates and uses CSS for layout.
Although I would have liked to have taken the redesign further, I consider it a success given the resources and time frame I had to work with.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
For me, the hardest part is accepting the fact that I just can’t do everything I’d like with the resources I have available. Our Web Office consists of one staff person (me) and one half-time student assistant, and we don’t have an operating budget. So, while I have many big ideas about how I could affect the university site as a whole, the most realistic way for me to move the website forward is one department at a time, through relationship-building and a series of small projects.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work there is to be done, and the knowledge that I can’t possibly do it all. I have to perform triage to determine where my efforts can make the most difference. Work becomes a balancing act between what I believe to be the best solutions, what I can muster support for, and what I can realistically accomplish. That being said, we’re making progress and getting some good work out there, and the small successes are starting to snowball into larger projects.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge we face as web pros in our industry?
The disconnect between the reaction time of the university and the realities of the web. To use a biological metaphor, the university functions on an evolutionary time-scale –most changes occur relatively slowly over long periods of time. In contrast, the university web site has to be capable of reacting quickly to new situations, which is analogous to operating on more of an organismal time-scale. The ten years or so that the web has been around is a blink of an eye for a university, but in that blink the web site has become crucial to many aspects of its inner workings. This has left some institutions reeling, without a clear understanding of just what the university web site is, where it belongs on the org chart, what it takes to make it successful, and what it can do for the institution.
I also think the role of a web professional in general is unclear to many, and there is much education that could be done on this point. People are often surprised when I explain that there is a huge field of “web” with dozens of subdisciplines, professional meetings, publications, gurus, debates, and communities. Somehow we need to get the word out that we do more than code pages.
Any good advice to share with your fellow higher ed web pros?
Read obsessively about all aspects of the web. My RSS reader gathers feeds on topics ranging from graphic design to information architecture to accessibility to web standards to user experience. I glean mountains of useful information from these articles, even if they’re not related directly to university web sites. To be successful, especially on a small team, you have to have at least a working knowledge of all the parts that come together to make up the web site, plus know how to use your tools ([X]HTML, CSS, etc.) backwards and forwards.
Keep a sandbox or personal site where you can experiment and try new techniques. It helps to keep your skills up, since there are constantly new technologies to learn and evaluate, but it also helps to keep you excited about your work on those days when the committee meetings have dragged on.
Use web standards. This has become so second nature to me that I often forget about it, but I believe it is essential. I found it well worth the investment of time it took me to get over the standards learning curve– my products turn out better when I use good tools.
What about a couple of good links?