Aside: 7+1 Personal Finance Tips for Web Professionals

I try to keep this blog strictly related to its core purpose: Giving advice on improving your website and your career as a web professional. From time to time, though, I feel the need to talk about something a little further off to the side. This post will be the first in a category I’ll call, “Aside,” where I delve into topics of interest to web owners and operators that lie outside the realm of the purely professional.

It’s something I’ve preached in department meetings and coached to coworkers a lot over the past year. We all work to make money. That money doesn’t mean a thing, though, if you don’t know how to manage it properly. It’s the great dichotomy of wealth building: Make more and spend less.

I mention this as an aside because I’ve seen many web professionals, all of whom were smart, creative, all-around fantastic individuals, who struggled financially despite their earnings. What is the point of growing your expertise, your career potential, and your paycheck if you never get ahead because of poor financial management?

There isn’t one. When it comes to getting ahead in life, career advancement and personal finance go hand in hand. Here, then, are 7+1 personal finance tips for my fellow web professionals. Remember, this isn’t rocket science. As some of the smartest people on earth, learning this should be a piece of cake for you.

1. Get Your Credit Under Control

Credit cards are useful for their rewards and for tracking expenses. Beyond that, credit card debt is toxic. Pay off your credit cards every month. Period. If you’re carrying a balance, pay it off as soon as possible. If you can’t keep your credit cards under control, you’re better off not using them at all.

2. Track Your Expenses

Start tracking your expenses, down to the penny if possible. Financial software can help with this. I find that an ordinary spreadsheet works just fine. Figure out how much you spend, what you spend it on, and where, every month. You may be surprised to find how much those little expenses add up over time.

3. Reduce or Eliminate Unnecessary Expenses

Now that you know how much you’re spending, it’s time to reduce your expenses. Figure out what you can afford to trim from the budget. DVD collection getting out of control? Limit how many you buy, or, better yet, stop buying them altogether. Eating out for lunch every day? Brown bag it instead. Ask yourself which you’d rather have, prosperity and security, or stuff. You’d be surprised what sort of expensive luxuries you can live without, and a little effort goes a long way toward turning your budget deficit into a surplus.

4. Save Up an Emergency Fund

Unexpected financial troubles crop up from time to time. Medical bills, car repairs, computer trouble, job loss, etc. To keep them from putting you into debt, save up an emergency fund of at least $1,000. If you can, beef it up to three to six months worth of expenses. Keep it all in a high-yield online savings account.

5. Save for Retirement

Especially in the IT industry, many employers offer retirement accounts with matching. The sooner and more you start contributing, the better off you’ll be later in life. You should always contribute up to your employer match, if not more. Think you’re too young to worry about retirement? I’m 25 and plan to contribute 12% by the end of the year. Yes, it’s that important.

6. Pay Down Debt

Credit card debt is terrible, but any sort of debt is bad to have in the long run. Now that you’ve got an emergency fund established and retirement savings in place, your next priority should be debt repayment. For this, you use a debt snowball. Arrange your debts in order from highest to lowest interest rate. Pay as much as possible on the top debt and minimums on all others. Once you have that debt paid off, take what you were paying toward it and apply it to the next highest debt on the list. Rinse and repeat until you’re debt free.

7. Save for Goals

If you can get to this point, you’re in great shape. You have an emergency fund, retirement savings, a clear budget plan, positive cash flow, and no debt. Congratulations; you’re better off than some of the highest-paid web professionals out there no matter what your salary is. What you do with your money after this is a matter of goals. My wife and I are saving up for a house and our next car. A former coworker of mine (one who helped inspire this article) dreams of sailing around the world. Decide what’s important to you, then direct your wealth toward achieving that goal.

Bonus Tip: Read

And finally, read, a lot. I learned every word of what I just wrote on my own from the personal finance blogs listed below. Like I said before, it’s not rocket science. Take the time to self-educate and it’ll pay off for the rest of your life.

Just remember, excelling in your career is only one piece of the wealth puzzle; personal finance is the other. Earn more, then make sure every dollar is working for you. I practice every word of what I just preached, and my family is in great shape because of it. Here’s to hoping you’ll do the same.

A Golden Delicious Lesson in Usability

Golden Delicious Apple

Case: A Hassle a Day…

I love apples. In fact, I eat one almost every day with lunch, to the point where you might think I’m testing the, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” hypothesis. As the title of the post might suggest, my favorite variety is golden delicious.

Now, aside from rinsing off pesticides, apples don’t really require any preparation in order to eat. That’s the beauty of them. You can eat them as soon as you pick them up. Of course, you could wash them, peel them, slice them, or use them as ingredients in other dishes, but if you’re like me, you value them for their convenience (and flavor, of course).

What I find to be decidedly inconvenient, however, are the stickers that get placed on them. At every grocery store I shop at, I find the same sticker with the “4020” item number on my apples, supposedly placed there to make them easier to process at checkout. This could possibly be valuable to someone who buys apples for the first time, but checkout is a no-brainer for the rest of us, so the added value is practically nonexistent.

On the other hand, it’s frustrating to peel off. What is supposed to be a no-preparation-necessary food instead requires me to take precious seconds prying a sticker off with my fingernails. It is a needless extra step that irritates me on a daily basis.

Point: …Keeps the User Away

Is this feature adding value? That is the question you need to ask whenever a design decision impacts the user experience. My question to the grocery industry is this: Do you think you’re adding value by putting product code sticker on my apples?

It may seem like a little thing, but any usability expert knows that little things can mean a big difference. In my case, the sticker is worsening my experience. It is reducing the value of my interaction with the product, and by extension the store, by needlessly increasing the steps toward achieving gratification.

Is it enough to make me stop buying apples? No, of course not. Assuming equal quality and convenience, however, it might mean the difference between me buying apples at a grocery store that doesn’t use stickers instead of one that does. Depending on how many people are irritated by these stickers, and how much, that might mean a significant loss of revenue.

The question to ask yourself is this: What are my apples stickers? What small things am I doing that are large problems in the eyes of my users? Am I listening to my users and addressing their concerns?

Remember, usability matters in every context, on every scale. Worry about the big things first, but don’t forget that little things matter, too.

The Three Things You Need to Become an Expert in Anything

Like many autodidactic web workers out there, I never received a formal indoctrination in my various fields of expertise. Sure, I learned some useful things in college, but there’s a wide gap between my education and my professional ability. Realizing this, and the fact that I learned at least half of my professional disciplines on the job, I came up with this list of three things you need to be an expert in just about anything.

1. Knowledge – Know What You’re Talking About

This one’s just common sense. In order to be an expert, you have to have expertise. You have to know your subject inside and out. If it has some sort of functional application, you must also be able to work with it. Without knowledge, you can sound like an expert, and people may even regard you as such, but you’ll inevitably give yourself away as a fraud.

2. Confidence – Regard Yourself as an Expert

Knowledge is not enough without the confidence to apply it. That is, you can’t just have the right answers; you have to trust that your answers are correct. Often, this means you have to fail a few times. That’s fine. In fact, it’s something most experts go through in their professional development. Learn from your mistakes and use those experiences to build confidence.

3. Voice – Get Others to Recognize Your Expertise

Knowledge and the confidence to apply it are enough to be an expert. Without voice, though, you’ll never be recognized as an expert by your peers. You’ll be a master of your subject, but never a leader in it. To make that leap, you have to make your opinions heard. Join in the discussions of your niche. Pioneer new advances and ways of thinking. Publish well-thought-out opinions on current and emerging trends. As others hear you, you will garnish a reputation as an expert.

Discussion

Granted, there are plenty of so-called “experts” out there who lack one of more of these three things. Beyond what I’ve listed, however, is there anything else that you need to be an expert in anything? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Output a Snapshot of All Defined Variables in PHP

The following line of code is one of the most useful diagnostic tricks in my PHP coding arsenal:

’; print_r(get_defined_vars()); echo ‘’; ?>

Simply input the above snippet of code into any PHP file and you’ll get a browser-friendly snapshot of all variables defined in the current scope. This is especially handy in larger systems like WordPress or Smarty where a needed value may already be defined by the system but you have no way of knowing the variable’s name.

With a slight variation, you can even use this trick on live systems without alerting ordinary users to the output.

’; ?>

This will produce the same output but limit its visibility to those viewing the source code.

In either case, be sure not to leave code like this active for longer than necessary, since a hacker could potentially use it to exploit your website.

Do any of you PHP coders out there have some similarly useful debugging tricks to share with the rest of us?

7 Keys to Courteous Coding

Clean, readable code adds value

All too often in my professional career, I’ve been tasked with working on legacy code. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “legacy” in the computing sense refers to old software that has been passed down. Often, legacy programs work just well enough to keep, but not well enough that they don’t require maintenance. Thus, the same code often gets handed down to a company’s next generation of programmers, who must then figure out what it does and how to perform updates without breaking it.

Unfortunately, many developers don’t program in a courteous manner. Courteous coding is the practice of leaving cues about your code to help the next person who works on it. He or she can then spend more time programming and less time deciphering your program logic.

It’s more than just professional courtesy, though. Coding standards are important from a business standpoint because, as the folks at Sun put it, “80% of the lifetime cost of a piece of software goes to maintenance,” and, “Hardly any software is maintained for its whole life by the original author.” By making your programs easier to read and understand, you increase their long-term value.

Whether you’re a developer or you employ them, then, it’s worthwhile to know these seven keys to courteous coding.

  1. Use meaningful names. File, variable, class, and function names are only as instructive as you make them. Ideally, they should accurately but succinctly describe the information being stored. Using names like “$temp” and “script.php” leaves the next programmer in the dark as to the intended purpose of your work.
  2. Leave meaningful comments. Every modern-day programming language gives developers the ability to comment out areas of code that are removed from the flow of execution. Naturally, comments are often used to debug and deactivate code. However, it’s worth noting that they’re called “comments” for a reason. Be sure to use them for their intended purpose. Leave notes for the next programmer explaining how your code works and they won’t have to do as much guesswork.
  3. Sign, date, and describe your program. In the same vein as leaving comments, it’s often useful to leave details of when the program was written, by whom, and for what purpose at the top of the file. Much like other comments, this helps the next programmer put your code into context. Also, if you’re still available to the company, he or she knows who to ask for help if needed.
  4. Use a standard casing convention. Exactly what casing convention you use is a matter of personal preference. For example, you might make all of your variables lower case, while “camel casing” all your functions and methods (i.e., capitalizing the first character of every word but the first). This enhances your code’s readability. Whatever convention you choose, however, any enhanced readability will be lost if you break from it, so be sure to case with consistency.
  5. Use proper spacing and indentation. Language interpreters and compilers strip out white space, so things like line breaks, spaces, and indentation are largely just tools for human understanding. Use them liberally and consistently. Add spacing around things like conditionals and variable declarations. Indent blocks of code once for each block. If you arrange your code neatly, the next developer will thank you for it.
  6. Maintain clean code. Even if you use proper spacing and indentation, your program may be difficult to read due to large amounts of clutter. Once development is complete, be sure to go back and delete unnecessary elements. Things to remove include repetitive declarations, output statements used for testing, and commented code that is no longer useful to keep around.  (Note: Jesse over at The Future of the Web recently clued me in to the term “code refactoring”, which describes the practice of cleaning up your code for future use.)
  7. Provide documentation when necessary. Particularly large programs can become labyrinthine in their complexity. Documentation is the road map that leads users and programmers through it safely. If your code is complicated enough to require it, take the extra time to write out its usage and function.

How to Pass the Google Advertising Professional (GAP) Exam

Last year, I managed millions of dollars worth of online advertising, well over a million of which was through Google AdWords. Adding up those numbers for my yearly review brought me to the sobering conclusion that I was long overdue for completing my Google Advertising Professional (GAP) certification.

For those who don’t know, the Google Advertising Professional program is a certification awarded by Google to ad managers who meet certain qualifications. If you manage AdWords frequently, it’s a great way to improve your knowledge, boost your confidence, and add a nice bullet point to your resume. Here’s how I did it.

I read up on the requirements. In order to become a Qualified Individual, you have to manage an AdWords account through My Client Center and maintain a total spend of at least $1,000 for all of the accounts that you manage for a 90-day period. You also have to pass the GAP exam. Obviously, I already met the first two requirements, so all I needed to do was pass the exam.

I read through the training materials. In truth, all of the answers to the GAP exam can be found somewhere in the AdWords Learning Center. Much of it is useful, although some will come across as elementary if you’re an experienced marketer. I took a few days to study it thoroughly, paying particular attention to the videos and practice quizzes. Remember, of course, that you don’t have to memorize the lessons; just familiarize yourself with them well enough that you can find an answer quickly when you’re taking the exam.

I tried out unused features. New features are added to Google AdWords often enough that even the most experienced users lose track. For example, before I read the training materials, I had never known that you could geo-target a defined radius around a specific point on the globe (a useful feature for, say, a pizza delivery business). Whenever I came across a feature I’d never used before, I logged into my account and gave it a try.

I registered for the exam. The GAP exam is administered by Prometric and costs $50 to take. Except for the charge, registration is painless.

I opened a few reference sites. Take advantage of the fact that the GAP exam is administered online and open some valuable references ahead of time. I made sure to open the AdWords Learning Center, a standard Google search page, and my AdWords account page for the questions pertaining to menus and dashboards.

I saved the hard questions for last. You only have 90 minutes to take the test. At 117 questions, that means you can only devote an average of 46 seconds to each. Others who have taken the exam will tell you the same: Answer what you can from memory and skip the rest your first time through. Only when you’ve answered all of the easy questions should you go back and hit the hard ones.

I used every minute. Assuming you have time left after you answer all of the questions, don’t stop. Take any remaining time to review your answers. I had enough time to review about three quarters of the questions after I had answered them all, and I’m confident that I scored a few more points as a result.

I basked in the result. The exam was tough, but not impossible. If you review all of the training materials and know your stuff, you’re sure to score well above the 75% passing grade. I managed 91.5% following these steps. Good luck!

Death of the Computer Guy

RIP, Computer Guys

(Rant Warning: This article is a departure from my normal tone. I’ve dealt with this issue far too many times to word it less strongly. I hope you’ll bear with me.)

You wrote the cover letter. You submitted the resume. They knew who you were, what you could do, and why you were interested in the position before you even walked in the door. Now that you’re sitting down and talking, though, they throw you a curve ball. Can you do X? Um, no… of course you can’t do X. If you could, you would’ve said so by now! Besides, if they wanted someone who could do X, why didn’t they say that in the ad!?

If you’ve ever been on an IT job hunt, you’ve probably run into this problem before. Many potential IT employers have the mistaken notion that you’re just another “computer guy,” and that all computer guys must know X, Y, and Z. It’s just common sense, right?

I like to call this the myth of the computer guy. Far too many employers of IT personnel don’t understand IT themselves. That’s not a problem in and of itself; after all, that’s why they’re hiring. When they take their ignorance of such an expansive array of subjects and lump it under the heading of “computer stuff,” however, they do IT workers a grave disservice.

Let me ask you this. Just because you can translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, does that mean you know how to manage an archaeological dig site? Just because you’re a novelist, does that mean you can write newspaper articles? Of course not. These are related skills, for sure, but they’re nonetheless exclusive to one another. Why, then, when I say I’m a web developer, would you assume that I’m also a server administrator, or a web designer, or a support technician?

I have a confession. I know tons about making websites, but I know next to nothing about computer hardware. I know how to work a computer just fine, but if you ask me to assemble one from scratch, I’m as much in the dark as the next guy. Much like other IT professionals, I’ve developed a specialized skill set to handle a specialized field of information technology.

The reality is there’s too much to know. Decades ago, when information technology was in its infancy, computer guys did exist because much of the knowledge available today hadn’t been developed. They were Renaissance men, polymaths, experts who knew every in and out of a burgeoning field of study.

In the 21st century, though, the all-in-one computer guy is long extinct. Instead of one person who knows everything about computers, you have a dozen who know everything about different aspects of computing. You’ve got database administrators, online marketers, computer engineers, network administrators, graphic designers… The skills necessary to be competent in any one discipline are now so intensive that specialization is a fact of life.

Here, then, is my plea to IT employers. Please, for sanity’s sake, recognize that computer guys don’t exist anymore. They were killed off a long time ago by information overload. In the modern era, there is no longer one person who has every computer skill you need to make your business work. Even if there were, you couldn’t hire them for less than the fortune they would be worth. Instead of expecting every IT professional to live up to this antiquated ideal, take the time to identify the skills you really need and hire as many IT professionals as it takes to get the job done.

IE to Lose Dominance Among Web-Savvy Users by Q3 2009

If I had written the script for Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket would have sung, “Let your intellectual curiosity be your guide.” It’s part of my appeal as an analyst; I just can’t help but try to answer any question that crosses my path.

The most recent item to pique my curiosity was the browser statistics chart at W3Schools. This chart shows the share of users surfing W3Schools with a particular web browser month by month over the past six years. Obviously, the chart itself doesn’t do the data much justice. When you graph it out, however, it paints a very interesting picture.

W3Schools Browser Usage Over Time

There are a lot of interesting points in the chart above. You can clearly see how IE 6 has grown, plateaued, and declined as the dominant browser over the last few years, at once taking share from the IE 5 user base and then ceding it to the IE 7 user base as one would expect. You can see how Netscape gave way to its successor, the Mozilla Suite, in 2003, and how the Mozilla Suite in turn gave way to Firefox when it launched at the end of 2004. At the same time, you can see how other browsers like Opera and Safari have struggled to even show up on the radar.

Perhaps the most striking trend, of course, requires a simpler view.

W3Schools Grouped Browser Usage Over Time

In the chart above, I’ve combined all versions of Internet Explorer into one trend line and all versions of Netscape, Firefox, and the Mozilla Suite into another. As you can see, IE has declined over time as the Mozilla/Firefox family has risen in popularity. In fact, if you apply some linear regression, you see that the two lines cross in the not-too-distant future.

If these trends continue, Internet Explorer will continue to lose an average of 0.51% of the browser market per month. The vast majority of those users (all but 0.01%) will migrate to a browser in the Mozilla/Firefox/Netscape family. Then, some time in Q3 of 2009, Internet Explorer will be overtaken as the dominant browser.

Discussion

Naturally, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for anyone who’s kept an eye on browser usage over the past few years. Thanks to a passionate community of open source supporters, Firefox has grown into a phenomenon among the web-savvy. Just last month, it set out to get in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most downloads in a single day with the release of Firefox 3.

Of course, this data only speaks to the web-savvy audience that visits W3Schools. For the vast majority of web users, it’ll still be a long time before Firefox attains widespread usage. Much to the disdain of us Firefox fans, Internet Explorer is too common and familiar among average web users to oust from the number one spot so quickly.

Disclaimer

This was an off-the-cuff analysis of a single website’s publicly-reported browser usage statistics. Naturally, it shouldn’t be taken as authoritative evidence of anything. It is nothing more or less than one analyst’s predictions based on a limited dataset. It’s interesting, for sure, but try not to blow it out of proportion. 😉

Amidst the TLD Frenzy, Bank on Trust

For those who haven’t already heard, the folks over at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) recently opened the door for tons of new top-level domain names (TLDs). If the acronyms are spinning your head, here’s the simplified version: Instead of .com, .net, .edu, .gov, .org, and the other URL-enders we all know and love, there will soon be many more.

There doesn’t seem to be much public support for the decision. Most rightfully argue that ICANN is just being greedy. Many believe it will be a big mess, especially for online reputation management. Corporations, of course, particularly those in the pornography and gambling industries, will be making a mad dash to lay claim on the juiciest online real estate.

As far as SEO goes, however, I don’t anticipate much will change. Search engine algorithms are designed to determine trust and authority, things that none of these new TLDs are likely to have until they’re better established. Even after they’ve had time to mature, I expect that very few of them will elicit the same level of trust as the tried-and-true TLDs.

So, as far as SEO goes, don’t concern yourself with the frenzy of new TLDs coming next year. Like I’ve said before, stick to trusted TLDs like .com or .net; .org, .edu, or .gov (if you qualify); or country-specific TLDs like .co.uk.

The Secret to Blogging for Money

For many, professional blogging is a dream job where you sit at home, work your own hours, and earn boatloads of money with little effort. You can live freely and make your living writing about your passions, all without changing out of your PJs. These starry-eyed dreamers look up to the greats and say, “Me too!”

Wake up. You’re drooling.

Here’s the truth of the matter. For most, professional blogging is just that, a dream. It takes a distinct combination of writing ability, charisma, blogging savvy, and luck to make a living through blogging. Most of us are fortunate to have a functional blog that remains active for more than a few months. A few of us eventually manage to extract some monetary value from our blogs. It is a rare, rare few, however, that have the panache to go pro and make a decent living at it. Much like becoming a rock star, some succeed at pro blogging, but the vast majority fail.

This post isn’t about them. Professional bloggers are already vocal about how they got to where they are. In fact, it’s an integral part of their appeal. My question is, how do the rest of us earn money through blogging? If you don’t have the savvy to go pro, where does that leave you?

I thought about this question for a long time. I even managed to build my personal blog up to the point where it earned a nice residual income. However, the time and effort required to get there proved to me just how difficult professional blogging is.

Let me illustrate my point. Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger takes regular polls of his visitors’ earnings. Darren’s audience includes bloggers of every niche with an interest in getting the most out of their blogs. Of the 3,000+ who responded to last October’s poll, only 16% earned $2,500 or more (the equivalent of a $30k annual salary) from blogging. These are bloggers who put forth the time and effort to succeed, and most of them don’t earn anywhere near a decent wage from it. I myself fell into the “$100 – $499” range at the time, and even that meager amount put me ahead of half of the other respondents. I believe Darren puts it best himself when he says:

For me the most striking ‘lesson’ from these surveys is that while there is significant hype around the idea of bloggers making money – that the vast majority earn very little (or nothing). A quarter of those who earn something make less than 0.33 cents per day. If that’s not a reality check then I don’t know what is.

So what’s an ordinary blogger to do? To answer that question, first answer this one: What do ordinary people do to earn money?

Hopefully, you answered work. Most people work at ordinary, non-blogging jobs to earn their income. Since we’ve already established that most people cannot make enough money directly from blogging to earn a decent living, the question becomes, how can blogging help an ordinary person earn money?

You’re looking at my answer to that question. I started Ward on the Web in order to enhance and expand my real-world career potential. I tried to generate income through advertising on my blog. I tried to generate it by getting paid to blog for others. In the end, neither of those income streams came anywhere close to the salary from my everyday job.

So I thought, “Why fight an uphill battle?” If I earn the most by working at an ordinary job, why not repurpose my blogging activities to aid that income stream rather than compete with it? By accepting that blogging is not my profession, I could begin to blog about my profession instead.

It’s a shift in perspective. Instead of focusing on the immediate gratification of a blogging payday, you focus on the long-term advantages of blogging to aid your career. Consider my case. In the three years I’ve been blogging for money, I’ve made around $4,000, which is hardly worth the time, energy, and expense it involved. If I had spent that time blogging about my work as a web professional, however, how likely would it be that I’d be earning a substantially higher salary as a result? I don’t know about you, but I think three years spent honing my professional profile could easily net a lot more than $4,000.

Therein lies the secret to blogging for money: Don’t. Blog to improve your career instead. Done correctly, you can expand your networking opportunities, enhance your resume, establish your expertise, and broaden your exposure to the professional marketplace. In the end, you’ll earn more by improving your career potential than the pittance you’re likely to earn from blogging alone.