Making magic on the Web

When he was a young boy, David Holland used to dream about a magic book. "The pictures on its pages moved, and the people in it talked," he says. "Maybe that influenced me somehow."

Maybe. Today, as a Web application developer at Dark Horse Comics Inc. in Milwaukie, Ore., Holland makes comic books come alive for the thousands of fans who visit the company's six Web sites.

There, they can see exclusive animated serial movies, read online comic books, join discussion groups, download screen savers and games, sign up for free e-mail and order print comics, art, memorabilia and other merchandise related to fantasy and adventure entertainment ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Ring of the Nibelung.

But what the public sees is only part of what Holland is responsible for as a Web application developer. He also creates and maintains internal browser-based applications that support the site and Dark Horse's business, from content management tools for editors to sales reports for accountants to an inventory management system for the IT department.

"It's equally important to make a site that people outside the company can use easily and to satisfy our internal customers' needs for applications," Holland says.

Achieving those goals requires a Web application developer to be proficient in much more than writing code and using technology: The developer must also be part marketing strategist, part business strategist and always focused on the customer.

"You cannot hide from the customer," Holland says. "Our customers know their material, and they'll let us know if we do something wrong."

Team Play

At Dark Horse, Holland is one of nine members of an Internet team that includes developers, designers and specialists such as content editors and Flash multimedia artists. They must all work together with Dark Horse's editorial staff to create successful public sites, so communications skills and teamwork are important aspects of his job, Holland says.

"I learned to put my own ego aside," he says. "A lot of programmers guard their little trade secrets, but there's no room for that here." Instead, Holland says, the Internet team members share their capabilities with one another, as well as with other Dark Horse employees.

For example, the Dark Horse editors continually create content for the site, from interviews with comic book authors and artists to announcements about upcoming releases. Holland says the Internet team realized it could help editors by building them a tool that enables them to create content, test and review it, and then schedule it for automatic posting on a specific date to a company Web site.

The team also supports Dark Horse's brick-and-mortar retail partners, creating a password-protected area on the company's Web site at which retailers can check on their orders, account status and inventory levels.

In addition, Holland and the Internet team are expected to get into the mind of the Dark Horse customer so they can create cross links on each page of product content. That lets a fan who's checking out the latest Star Wars paperback for sale also see hyperlinks to pages selling original artwork, clothing and more books, which is all part of the company's strategy to make each Web site a marketing tool for the other five Dark Horse sites.

Holland and the Internet team regularly browse through the customer e-mail Dark Horse receives and also see results from minipolls conducted on the company's Web sites. Customers can also preorder products, and the team can judge from those orders which products are hot.

The Challenge of E-Commerce

While a Web application developer today needs these softer marketing and communication skills, that doesn't mean the technological challenges have diminished, especially if e-commerce is involved.

For example, Holland says providing a real-time inventory function on Dark Horse's sites is a "really, really hard thing to do" because it involves tracking not only Dark Horse's inventory but also items from other suppliers, too.

Another challenge is maintaining server response time on the Web sites. The Dark Horse site itself contains thousands of pages of archival data on virtually every comic book the publisher has issued, and users routinely conduct searches by author, series, issue date and other criteria, returning hundreds of pages of content. "Those are a pretty big load on the servers," Holland explains.

As a Macintosh shop, Dark Horse has been using WebCatalog from Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Smith Micro Software Inc. for e-commerce. But Holland says his company is researching more open, scalable server options, including Linux and Unix. "We need to make the site handle throughput more quickly," he says.

He's also looking forward to offering more 3-D animation, movies and interactive features once the majority of Dark Horse users have high-speed Digital Subscriber Line or cable modem Internet connections.

"We have so much content to distribute, so we're really rubbing our hands with anticipation over the prospect of more bandwidth," Holland says.

In the meantime, Holland says, he loves coming to work each day and literally rubbing elbows with the editors, writers and artists who create Dark Horse's products, while he, too, gets to use his creative talents.

"The ability to create something people can use and play with and comment on - even if negatively - is really its own reward," he says.

Just the Facts

David Holland

Job title: Web application developer

Company and location: Dark Horse Comics Inc., Milwaukie, Ore.

How he got the job: Holland had four years of experience in e-commerce for an online jewelry store and had created interfaces for presenting items on eBay Inc. and for working with database systems. He also designed his own Web site, which served as an example of his skills.

Skills required: Good knowledge of the company's Web and e-commerce tools, fluency in HTML, understanding of information design and structure, the ability to write elegant code and fluency in Perl or PHP server-side scripting languages.

Key soft skills: Communications skills, business savvy, the ability to work as part of a team and the ability to anticipate customer needs.

Training needed: Most of Holland's training was on the job; he taught himself HTML. He says he expects his degree in computer graphics and animation to aid him as the Internet team adds more Flash and other multimedia features to Web sites.

Job and salary potential: Holland says Web technology is "boundless" and he can see himself in this position for a long time. Demand - and pay - for Web application skills remain strong, he says, and developers can expect starting pay to range from US$40,000 to six figures "if you're very skilled." He noted that a colleague in the Bay area is offering Web application developers $100,000 and more to start.

Career path: Being a Web application developer in a Web-based company provides the opportunity to learn about the overall business, as well as the information systems infrastructure, to a detailed degree. "When I get more comfortable with e-commerce, I might want to move into management," Holland says.

Advice: "Find a company you'll enjoy working for," Holland recommends. Know that employers will review and critique the Web sites you've worked on to get a sense of whether you'll fit in with their firms.

Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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