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Do you really need to know HTML nowadays?

I’ve been following a recent discussion on whether you really need any technical skills at all to maintain a website if your content management system (CMS) is up to scratch. It started with a community member mentioning they had just taken over a new site and whether they should learn some HTML or CSS.

I was somewhat surprised that the overwhelming consensus from the group was that you should leave the technical stuff to the experts (i.e. external contractors) and simply concentrate on developing and writing good, optimised content, learning simply to cut and paste embed code from YouTube or Flickr when you need it. You don’t need to know how to strip an engine down just to be able to drive from Bournemouth to Aberdeen.

Whilst this is true, I’d argue that you also don’t want to have to call out the AA whenever you need to top up your radiator.

You are not a robot

I started working on websites ten years ago, with no skills other than an enthusiasm for all things digital and an eagerness to learn, so the original poster was a position I could empathise with. Without a basic foundation in HTML, I’m not sure I’d have floundered, but things would certainly have taken longer to sink in.

In particular, I’d have learned the ‘how’ of website maintenance (‘to apply an <h2>, click here’) simply though using the CMS, but not the ‘why’ (‘Why do I need to apply <h2> here? It’s easier just to make it bold.’).

You don’t need to be an expert on coding, since the CMS will do all the work for you. However, if you have any desire to produce an accessible, compliant and visible site—in effect, to be a true website manager—simply following a list of instructions will not get you there. You need to know why are doing what you are doing. And at a time when budgets are tight, you don’t want to be so mystified by the backend process that you are ringing up your outsourced technical agency every time you are struggling to wrap a some text around an image.

A good introductory course will also stop you making sites that will prevent a good portion of your audience from using it. Many CMSs will, for good reason, let you insert tables into your page. Even if you are already aware that tables are something to be Treated With Caution, a good foundation course will help you explain to your Head of Communications why its worth paying a couple of hundred pounds to get the stylesheet updated rather than simply setting up a two column layout with that handy tables button. You don’t want to spend good money marketing your site to the world only to have those, say, using screenreaders blocked from using it once they get there.

Where to start

So what would I suggest is an appropriate foundation for the newbie, non-technical website manager?

Firstly, a beginners (usually 2-day) course on HTML and CSS is a must. Then I’d leave it for a couple of months while it all sinks in. It’s also worth getting into the habit of looking at the source code of any sites you like: it’s amazing how quickly it’ll all start to make sense.

After that, I’d look at some sort of dedicated ‘introduction to accessibility’ course. I’ve always found these really fun, not particularly techie, and really help you understand why standards and accessibility is important right now (hint: it’s not just for the benefit of disabled people). You should come out of it knowing about standards like WCAG 1.0 and 2.0 as well as having an awareness of newer standards like BS8878.

Next, I’d recommend doing an introductory Photoshop course, and convince your organisation it’s a worthwhile investment if they don’t use it already. Images can still be problematic online, particularly if your CMS let you upload a 5MB, 600 dpi image unchallenged. You’ll find out about ideal resolutions, the difference between jpegs, gifs and pngs, and how to optimise for the web. Your CMS may well do this for you, but once you know what you’re doing it’s often quicker to do it yourself. You also have control over the compression: personally, I’d rarely trust a CMS to do it properly.

Once you’ve done all that, and if you are still keen, it may be worth looking into a basic course on server management, server-side scripting and databases (e.g. PHP and MySQL). You really need to be comfortable with how sites work before you do one of those, so I’d leave it at least six months, ideally a year, before you even start considering it. You won’t come out of it an expert coder, but you should be able to talk to your contractors sensibly, and (more importantly) recognise if they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Not that they would ever do that, of course.

Being a digital ninja

By the time you have worked through all those, you won’t be a digital ninja, but you will certainly have the foundations to enable you to be one. And more importantly, you have the ability and confidence to know that your site has the framework it needs to let your content really shine. All these initially baffling rules will soon become second nature (I promise) and in time will help you shape and develop your site, whether it is an image library, information and advice, or a community into a truly professional resource.

1 Comment to “Website maintenance: the how versus the why”

  • Totally agree!

    I studied computer science at degree level and it’s always been a major help in not only fixing small problems but also in negotiating quotes from agencies. I find I can more easily spot areas which could be squeezed or descoped.

    I don’t think you need a computer science degree – the suggestions you’ve made should be more than enough for most digital comms teams. A few of my team members have gone on HTML primer courses over the years and the self-sufficiently and efficiencies that come as a result are always noticeable.

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