Web professionals? Quando, Quando, Quando

Can we call ourselves professionals? Given the age of the web, it can be claimed that a huge chunk of people in our line of work have really only been doing what they’ve been doing for maximum of ten years. I’m excluding folk like Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and other over-achievers of course.

Ten years is a long time for our small brains but not for an industry. We take for granted the existence of solicitors, accountants, nurses, politicians and so on, because well, they’ve always been there. Society has already categorised, stigmatised and attached symbolism to the people and places involved in these professions.

Young industries like ours have an advantage: because the rules are still being written, we have had the extraordinary ability to help define professionalism for ourselves, based on accepted levels of commercial practice nonetheless. But what I’m talking about deals more with culture. For instance, whoever said “no” to suits at the start, deserves free beer forever. I can tell you that the most daunting thing about becoming a lawyer in a city office was that you didn’t have a choice about what to wear. It sounds trivial but the lifestyle difference it makes is unbelievable. The standards of professionalism in the legal sector had been decided eons ago and the probability of changing the system is as stratospheric as the probability of any movie written by L Ron Hubbard becoming a success.

So how does the real world view what we do and the industry in general? Have we already reached status of web professionals? My answer is yes and no.

I only like to rely on dictionaries for scrabble, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. Let’s take a look on how our word professional, the noun, is defined:

Professional
Wikipedia: A professional is a worker required to possess a large body of knowledge derived from extensive academic study (usually tertiary), with the training almost always formalized
Merriam Webster: engaged in one of the learned professions [where a profession is defined as a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation]

Please excuse the North-Americanised spelling.

Hmmm.. extensive and intensive academic training. Doesn’t sound like most web developers and designers I know; these talented people gained probably 98 per cent of their knowledge doing what they do best which was just doing their job or through personal or freelance projects. In fact most of my colleagues and acquaintances who now call themselves web professionals gained their formal education in disciplines far removed from the internet, for example, law, archaeology, English literature and even the armed forces.

The lack of formal qualifications related to our careers says nothing about our willingness to study – we do it every day. I think it is more related to the ever-evolving nature of the industry. Already the division of labour in whatever call it – the web industry, internet, new media, computergeekdom – is mature and hundreds of new roles have emerged. Who had ever heard of a SEO consultant pre-Google?

Furthermore, we’ve all had to learn various protocols, languages, software and standards all of which change every week. Keeping up with all this requires many mornings of coffee and blog-reading. So while the basics can be taught and the sources of information passed on, the industry is so young that the main type of educational choices that we see are usually short courses on “Web publishing” or “Dreamweaver” hastily put together for immediate consumption. Creating a three to four year syllabus seems almost impossible unless we treat it like the humanities, that is, to establish a web design and technology faculty provided teaching in an array of disciplines. Until that happens we use the best tool available: the web.

Therefore we can throw the formal definition out the window. Many people don’t fit it, yet an officious bystander would clearly label as professional anyone who is:

  • aware of the latest standards of their industry and uses them
  • an intelligent communicator in relation to their area of expertise
  • a producer of excellent work

So we are “professionals”. But we always knew that.

If we had to further argue the point, sociological thinking lends a great deal of weight to prestige. We behave and react according to standards of prestige be they related to language, careers or the things that we own. Stereotypes about professions and careers are usually influenced by prestige and, together with academic qualifications, the main source of prestige in relation to a person’s career is “how much money?”. Fortunately for us the web is big business today and with million-dollar deals going down everyday there is no shortage of evidence that what we do is and should be taken seriously. I guess that when the epoque arrives in which everyone will have been born or have grown up in the internet age, we will be like the lawyers, doctors and pilots: just there because we have to be to make society work. I just hope our successors don’t have to wear suits.