Blog Post

Interview with Patricia Searl

Job Title:

Acting manager, Rotunda Digital Imprint

Place of Work:

University of Virginia Press (book publisher)

Industry your place of work utilizes:

I work in academic publishing. We create digital editions and web interfaces to interact with databases for research in history, literature and architecture. My relevant background is in graphic design, web development and Digital Humanities. 

What got you into Web Design/Development/working on the web?

In the early days, the web was seemingly intended for nerds to communicate with each other and share information about niche hobbies or interests. Back then, I was dorking out on musicals—particularly foreign language ones—and had plenty of time as a teen, so I taught myself to make fan sites. I cringe now, but it turned out to be a very useful exercise!

What does a typical day or week look like for you? What sort of things do you do?

I have a variety of sites to manage, and most of them require regular code and content updates. In some cases, the new material comes from digitized print books, so that has a complex workflow that allows us to add useful metadata in addition to the text. In other cases, I have to generate files from databases, or prepare image assets. Other sites are in various stages of redesign, so there is always some feature to work on or re-conceptualize (ideally with user testing and analytics). Then, the usual bug fixes and security and open source code updates. 

What types of web technologies do you work with most often?

The majority of the sites I manage at work are built within a NoSQL database and server system (Marklogic), so I need to learn XML related technologies (XSLT, XQuery) as well as the traditional HTML and CSS. I also have to work with Drupal as a CMS in one instance, and consequently PHP. Increasingly, I have been working with JavaScript in React-based sites, including static site generators like GatsbyJS, which I enjoy a lot more. I also rely on tasks in Python and bash scripting, and use regular expressions in many situations.

For design, I do try to keep up with the developments in vanilla CSS, but I have also worked with frameworks like Foundation, Bootstrap and Tailwind when they seem useful.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

Overall, I like that web development is a mix of logic and design puzzles. I enjoy my current job in academic publishing, in that it allows me to work with interesting subjects in the humanities, rather than commercial or marketing pages. The field of web development is also continually changing, so there is always something you can learn to keep your experience fresh.

What do you wish you could change about your job?

It sure would be easier if all that technological change in web development would happen just a bit slower, so there is a bit more time to relax without the anxiety of keeping up your knowledge and infrastructure.

Where do you see your section of the web development/design/etc industry going?

I’ve noticed the decline in popularity of the monolithic CMS model and expensive servers and going towards static sites and serverless functions. It’s much less expensive in money and maintenance to publish a static site, so being able to precompile your website, and use a server only when you need it, is enormously beneficial for digital projects in academia that have limited resources and need some confidence of preservation. This trend is coming at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed by the industry’s adoption of traditional programming patterns and increasingly complex skill requirements, so it’s been a relief that the end result of this has produced frameworks that can be accessible, practical and flexible.

My feelings are more mixed about the role AI will play in web development. It’s certainly already been helpful in solving some coding riddles in my work, and this will in theory allow us to create more advanced applications, but I’m less enthusiastic about AI-generated design and templates. It’s a helpful shortcut for those that need it, but like in coding, I worry about its effect on jobs, even if only in cheapening the value of human skills and talent.

What technology and/or skill do you wish you learned before you entered the industry?

I wish I had started earlier with an understanding of the fundamentals of programming. That would have made the evolution from web sites to web applications less daunting.

What are you looking to learn or what skill are you looking to build next?

I’m trying to understand how to make and use linked open data, and improve my skills in JavaScript and Typescript.

What would you tell someone to do who’s looking to get into the industry? How should they best prepare themselves?

Spend time each week tinkering and learning. Watch or take tutorials, and keep up with developments by following key channels on YouTube and in podcasts. Make sure you know pure vanilla CSS and not just frameworks. Use good note-taking software to create a library of reference code and keep yourself organized!

Anything else you’d like to tell future designers, developers and web people?

Get up and move! Stretch! Posture!

Last Question: If you had to be a zombie and you had to eat someone’s brains, whose would it be and why?

I’m not sure how it works, but assuming that doing so would nourish me with their knowledge: I’d choose someone really good at math or physics, since those bits are missing in my own brain…