Okay, I simply couldn’t resist tossing out a counterpoint here. This topic was started by Mark Greenfield (who was following up on a Steve Krug presentation) and continued here recently by my colleague Nikki. The reason that I want to run this from the other side is twofold: one, sometimes we just need a boost. Web work is hard regardless, and I think sometimes it’s too easy to get hung up on the bad. Second, there are plenty of people in the private sector that would trade places with us in a heartbeat, since there are a lot of different upsides to doing web development in higher ed. So, if you are thinking about a career in higher ed, or considering whether or not to continue with it, keep these in mind.
1. Job Security
Despite budget cuts around the country, we are still in one of the most stable parts of the industry available. If you’re an army of one, even more so. It’s not because you’re irreplaceable, it’s just that no one wants to hassle with replacing you right now. Most states tend to also have laws or unions that make it additionally hard to get rid of you after X amount of time. So, count your blessings, stay on your game, and you’re almost guaranteed to be here next year. Having that steady paycheck and the other benefits that come with the job can be worth more than the mere dollar number on your pay stub.
Maybe my situation is unique, but around these parts they basically shovel vacation and sick time on us. They can’t pay us like our private counterparts, true, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t compensated in other ways. And that not withstanding, I know if I picked up the phone and said my kid was sick (hypothetically, since I don’t have a kid), or I was sick, or pipes burst in my house and I have to wait on a plumber, I wouldn’t get an ounce of grief about it. In some cases I could even say I’ll VPN in and get someone to forward my office phone to my cell. There just aren’t many jobs that give me that latitude. And maybe it’s just as simple as “I’ll be in at 8:15 this morning because I’m running late.” I’ve had jobs in the past where something as simple as that was a major issue. Sometimes not sweating ten minutes here and there can be a big stress reliever.
3. Leadership Opportunities
Besides the chance for actual leadership classes and such, the number of committees and meetings we are exposed to come with a positive side effect. In the event you do plan to get out of higher ed, you have basically an endless stream of chances to get into leadership positions which you can reflect on a résumé. They might not be glorious or significant, but it still looks good. Use that as a chance to influence the things that bother you. Change the system a little here and there. I’d rather people be annoyed because I’m more ambitious than them, rather than have people think I’m lazy or complacent. A common complaint I hear is that someone’s coworkers are basically just trying to coast to retirement, and any initiative is met with resistance. Use leadership opportunities to change and improve the system for yourself and those after you.
4. Industry Resources
This might not be true everywhere, but many schools have various contracts that allow us to get into the latest, greatest versions of different pieces of software whenever there is an upgrade. When we bought Adobe CS3 a couple years ago, it came with a built in, free upgrade to the next version as soon as it came out. So we effectively got both CS3 and CS4 for less that the retail cost of one part of the entire suite. When CS5 comes out, we can get that at a discounted rate. Likewise, if you play the “game” right, it’s pretty easy to keep yourself awash in things like multiple monitors (I can’t debug without them!), Wacom tablets (you try graphic design with a mouse!), cameras (you want web video made with a pad and paper?), etc. In a lot of cases, we’re some of the best equipped web developers out there.
5. Professional Development
Okay, this one is a little iffy lately. In the past, things like conferences, manager training, certifications, etc have all been at our feet. Lately, not as much. But there will come a time where the tide shifts back on this. And even still, most of us at least have some kind of development options. Even if it means reaching out to someone like .eduGuru with an idea for an article you’d like to write for the community or something along those lines. There’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost money that you can accomplish to improve your standing, skills, and position (see leadership opportunities above). In most cases, if you go to your boss and say “I’d really like to do X to help me with Y,” they’re very likely to hold the door open for you and give you the room to accomplish it, money notwithstanding.
I like to think about the things that face us in higher ed as challenges to be overcome. Short or moving deadlines, scope creep, audience targeting, budget silos, you name it. These aren’t barriers, they are hurdles, and the trick is to get good at overcoming them. You do that, and you can make it in web development anywhere, because everyone has these problems to one extent or another, and if it isn’t those problems, it’ll be something else. You need those critical thinking and problem solving skills. I have a job to do, and if there’s something in the way of that, then we need to deal with it. If you do it right, in the process you can set it up so next time it’s much easier to handle. So bring it.
You are the reason I am here, writing at .eduGuru, and enjoying my day to day work life. You make the UWebD social network fun. You make me laugh on Twitter. You are there to help me when I need a second set of eyes on some code. The higher ed web developer community is one of the most open, friendly, active, helpful professional networks that I have ever seen. I can count on untold numbers of you to walk up and say hi to me at conferences, or email me with questions, or take part in surveys and research. I may be an army of one in the office, but I rarely feel alone.
Bottom line is that I think that while we do complain about a lot of things in higher ed, I don’t think a lot of those issues are necessarily unique to higher ed. We just feel like they are, because the environment we work in is far from tuned in to how agile the web is, and we all reinforce each other since we identify with each other’s pain so well. We end up feeling like we’re riding an elephant in a NASCAR race, but we fail to notice all the other racers are on pacaderms too.
photo credit: cobalt123