The Problem

I've been lucky to have worked on a wide range of web projects in my career, from one-page wonders to national online retailers to global community sites. Of course, that meant working with hundreds of clients, each one bringing their own unique view of what it takes to get a web site made. I've been even luckier to watch both the web design industry and the hosting industry grow, learn and mature into the global economy it is today.

Back in the mid nineties everyone thought we were gods, us crazy web guys were gonna rule the world. We could do no wrong, we were web wizards abundant with magic code and dazzling animated gifs, the likes of which Gandalf could only dream about. We knew all kinds of cool acronyms, we hated AOL way before anyone else. We were kings.

Ah, the golden times.

Fast forward to 2001. The bubble has burst. Sites are flopping on the venture capital floor like frustrated tuna, national dotcoms are on eBay for $10. And everyone including your 12 year old nephew is a web designer.

Every client you get now has been burned at least once by some unqualified, over-charging, over-promising under-delivering fly-by-night, or simply their web guys went out of business leaving them floundering in the ether at the mercy of Network Solutions and a fax number. Hell, I've practically been burned by myself in all the confusion.

So where do we stand today? Thanks to the openness of the web and it's driving technologies, anyone can have a crack at being a web designer, developer, host or all three. I was a web host for over 200 domains for five years, and to this day I don't recall actually planning to do it, it just kind of happened.

With so many competitiors and such low levels of entry, the market has of course become flooded with a very wide range of skill levels, and with that range comes an even wider range of ethics. Think back to your last client pitch, or job interview. Five bucks says there was some mention of trust. Will you be in business in a year? Will you stay at this job long enough to make it worth hiring you? How do we, as ethical web professionals, ensure that we get the respect (and money) we deserve? How do we display our professionalism? How do we educate our client base to understand the difference, to discern the true master?

Respect Your Peers

Take your car to a new mechanic and chances are as soon as he pops the bonnet he'll start ranting and raving, or at least muttering, about the shoddy work the previous mechanic has obviously wrought upon your vehicle. Nevermind that the previous mechanic was featured on Car Talk, or that he won Best Mechanic In The Universe three years running, your new mechanic will be able to spot a half-dozen things the previous guy did wrong simply by sniffing the dipstick.

Wow. Your new mechanic must be great. For me, when I hear a mechanic start telling me about all the stuff wrong with my car, I just start hiding my wallet. His recognition of failure in others does little to calm me, or to impress me.

Sometimes, the previous guy will actually have done a few things wrong, and sometimes he may have completely effed your car up beyond all recognition. It happens. But most of the time, he did the best job he thought he could, maybe he didn't have all the experience in the world but he learned, he read books, he asked people, he tried his best.

And where does the world stand on the car mechanic? As far away as possible in general, car mechanics are only slightly higher in public trust levels than car salesmen, and worse - they know it. I have a couple of mechanic friends, and they're the first to admit that the biggest problem they face is gaining a customer's trust.

We've all seen the television special where John whats-his-face takes a perfectly good car for a checkup and gets handed a $600 bill for work that wasn't needed, which simply perpetuates the myth that all mechanics are evil by association.

So a new client walks in to your office, looking for some upgrades to his site, maybe some new features. He asks would you mind looking over his site? Just to get a feel, of course. You pop his site up in Opera, hoping he'll notice your choice of browser. You snort past the page and charge into the source code, where, much to your feigned amazement... there's no Document Type Definition!

Holy Jesus!, your breath is running short as you try to explain to Customer X that this page doesn't validate, you restrain a seizure while worrying if the W3 are probably on their way right now, people with sixty year-old browsers have absolutely no chance of ever viewing this site and what's more even Opera won't display it properly because look - there's a spacer gif right in the middle of the page!

As blood vessels burst all over your face, you feel sure that you are vindicated, that Customer X can be safe in the knowledge that you have many DTD's at your disposal, that you only code for Opera and that no, you do not use spacers.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but have you ever come close? 'Fess up, I know I have. I'll often grumble at source code I'm seeing for the first time, yet my own is far from perfect. Whose isn't? Web sites - like our well-oiled vehicular carriages - are complex beasts, and it takes complex people with complex skills to tame them. Many clients simply don't have the budget for perfection. So how can you stand out like a shining beacon of trust and ethical greatness?

The Solution (Ethical Cleansing)

Are you proud of the work you've done for others?

Way too few of us go to any trouble to keep a good portfolio around. Ask your clients for a review of your work, a reference, a note, whatever. When you get one, display it proudly, online or at your place of work (with permission, of course). And when the bad ones come in? Address them, a happy client is worth his weight in gold, an unhappy client who you've made happy is worth ten times as much.

Get communal.

Volunteer for some stuff online or off. Put it on your CV, put it on your web site. It doesn't have to be huge, like developing Apache, you can volunteer for the likes of the Open Directory Project, or anything you want to.

Get some good training.

The Certified Internet Webmaster courses are becoming well-known and respected, but any decent certification will show potential clients you care enough and are dedicated enough to take the time to do it.

Join an organization or association that holds its members to high standards. Display your membership on and offline. Participate.

Read up on other people's ethical standards. Rinse and repeat.

And wear sunscreen.

The Point

So hey, this isn't an exhaustive list. It's worked for me, I believe I have built up great trust and trust-building skills. I take pride in the fact that I have very low churn, and that less than one percent of my clients has ever been pissed at me. I hope they went on to bigger and better things just a little less worried about the next guy, knowing that even if I didn't get exactly what they wanted, that there are good guys out there waiting to do a good days work for a good days pay.