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WebRookie -- The Pros: Interview With Project Cool
Project Cool
Teresa A. Martin

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Teresa A. Martin, one of the co-founders of Project Cool, shares information about contract work and creating a team oriented company in this interview.

<WR>As a freelance web designer, how do you begin to work on a contract basis? What are the pluses to working on contract? The pluses for working within a company as an employee?

A few notes about contracting ...
It is a great way to get a wide range of experience, to have freedom in your own schedule, and to try different environments.
But there are also some downsides and some situations of which you'll need to be careful --

  • First, be sure you don't get trapped in a situation where you are really an employee being treated as a contractor. Some companies will pay you hourly, have you work at their site full-time, provide no benefits, pay no taxes, and continue this relationship indefinitely. This is a red-flag; if this is what they want, they should be hiring you.
  • Second, get yourself a contract template (the Project Cool bookstore -- http://www.projectcool.com/books -- has a legal section that sells several good books with pre-written sample contracts) and think through the contracting issues. You'll need to be clear about expectations, schedules, deliverables, payments, where and how the work is done, and ownership of the work. Don't bog yourself down with legalese, but understand what you are agreeing to do. Clarity in writing up front can be a lifesaver down the road, especially if something like a change of project managers happens mid-contract.
  • Also, it helps to understand what contracting is like. You get to work on lots of different project but you'll seldom take any project from beginning to end. Other people are likely to take your work and adapt it after your time is done. You won't have the on-going support of a group of co-workers; often you'll do most of your work in your home office. You won't have a path for growth or the chance to take on different tasks within the same environment. Contracting is great for some people but for others it is a personality mis-match. So take a little time to know yourself and decide which environment is a better match for your workstyle and personality.

    <WR>How did you come up with the concept of Project Cool?

    Project Cool -- http://www.projectcool.com -- launched on January 1, 1996. Glenn Davis and I co-founded the company because there was a clear need for a place where people of all skill levels could go to find easy-to-understand information about different web technologies. Glenn was the first web critic and had been getting literally hundreds of emails a day asking "how do I do this?"

    Project Cool now has about 3.5 million page views per month. Our forums and mailing lists connect web builders of many different skill levels. We have material for people who are just beginning to build their very first page as well as for people who are exploring options like JavaScript, DHTML, and XML. We joke that there no "geek-speak" here -- that is, we present technical information as straightforwardly as possible.

  • In the Developer Zone -- http://www.projectcool.com/developer -- we have scads of immersive tutorials that address everything from basic HMTL to JavaScript, DHTML, XML ...
  • In Sightings -- http://www.projectcool.com/sightings -- Glenn Davis highlights one good example each day. If you're building for the web you need to see the best work out there and learn from it by example. Plus, it's fun to see good stuff.
  • In Future Focus -- http://www.projectcool.com/focus -- we run weekly opinion pieces about things that are effecting the web and the people who work with it.
  • In PeopleSphere -- http://www.projectcool.com/peoplesphere -- forums and mailing lists connect readers with similar questions and development interests.
  • In devSEARCH -- http://www.devsearch.com -- we offer the first vertically-integrated search tool for web developers -- 22 sites are indexed and searchable from one location. Right now we're redesigning devSEARCH, but the new version will be live by December 1 1998.
  • <WR> How do you go about hiring employees? What skillset do you search for? Tell me about the teamwork and atmosphere you have at Project Cool.

    We are very tightly staffed. It is difficult to find the right people. We don't have a deep-pocketed investor backing us, so we can't offer huge salaries and we need to be able to cost-justify everyone we hire.

    (BTW, I find that a lot of people have read too many popular press reports and have very unrealistic expectations about what they are worth given their skillsets. In the past few years, lots of people have learned to code HTML and create basic web pages. There's a lot of work, but it is fairly entry-level work. In 1996 someone who knew HTML could command a lot of money, but that's not true any more. HTML is the bare minimum.)

    When I'm hiring I look for people with potential more than specific experience. I look to see what the person's personal website is like -- a personal website is a place to really show off one's skills and looking at the work and how it was done tells me a lot about the person's ability. I also look for people who are comfortable within a small company. Many people, when it comes right down to it, really want to be in an environment with support staff, nice offices, etc. So cultural fit is very important.

    Because we're a small company, people really need to work together. And to be willing to do a lot of different things. And to be willing and able to teach each other. We have a fairly flexible environment; people can set their own schedules as long as work gets done and they are able to work with each other to reach the goals and there is a minimum of very direct supervision and a lot of mutual trust.

    <WR>What is most satisfying to you in the creation of an excellent site such as Project Cool? What was your vision for Project Cool, and has it exceeded your expectations for the company?

    We started out to create a web-based publishing company. It has been a struggle -- there is not much capital available for content-based companies and we've basically done this off my credit cards and a very small amount of invested money. But it has also been very rewarding. In January 1996, a few hundred people came to the site. Today hundreds of thousands of individuals visit each month. I have had people come up to me at events and say things like "I used to be a waitress and then I learned about the web from Project Cool and this week I got my first web job." So I know that what we're doing is making a difference and that's a wonderful thing.

    <WR>What are the most exciting inovations you see happening with web design and the web itself?

    One of the most exciting things is the growing number of people who have voices on the web. I sometimes fear that the web will be taken over by mega-corporate interests, the same people who feed you television shows and other mass media products, and who sell you soap and toothpaste and cars. If that happens, then something very special is lost. But I am heartened every time I see a new face trying to do something interesting and innovative. On the technology side, things like JavaScript and CSS are exciting because they let us do more with our sites, to create better reader experiences.

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    Copyright 1998 by D. Goetsch, WebRookie