Mark DuBois, Executive Director of the Web Professionals Organization, shares his reflections on the 25th anniversary of the organization. Mark was asked to take over the organization in April 2016 and has been running it ever since as Executive Director.
The Web Professionals Organization was originally founded as the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW), which was established in April of 1997. The founding Executive Director, Bill Cullifer, was a webmaster who was early to the scene of web design. Bill saw a need for the burgeoning wave of webmasters, content creators, and new internet businesses to come together in a community to share, collaborate and propel the web profession forward. Bill pitched his idea to many companies, and three of the largest gave WOW their start-up grants. We are still thankful to Adobe, Microsoft and Macromedia for our initial funding. The organization was registered as a 501(c)(6) organization, and the early years were full of growth. Bill Cullifer was deeply involved in growing the organization as Executive Director until 2015. He bowed out due to illness, but his legacy lives on.
The mid-1990s was kind of the wild wild west of the web, if you will. In 1992 I built my first web page, which no longer exists. I first came across the World Organization of Webmasters in 2001 in Chicago. I had been working in web technologies for a while at that point and created many websites including one for a multibillion-dollar utility company in 1995. Four years later, I felt a need to do more. It was then that I decided to give something back to the community. Like so many others who feel the call, I decided to teach the next generation. So in 1999 I started teaching at the local community college, and met some folks from the World Organization of Webmasters at a conference a few years later.
Coming from industry, I liked what the organization was doing. I began to seek ways to get more involved, so I took some certification exams and established a local chapter at the community college I taught at. I guess I made a name for myself and my program because a few years later, in 2006, I was offered and accepted the role of Director of Education for the organization. Remember that this was still early in the industry—I became an officer of the association the same year Steve Jobs announced the iPhone.
Under Bill’s leadership in the early years, we participated in many meetings of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) at various venues around the world from Edinburgh through Beijing. It was at these meetings that we gave presentations and had the opportunity to meet with a number of luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, known as the inventor of the world wide web. These events were key in expanding the reach and influence of the organization—especially internationally.
Around 2006, I took my students to a web design competition in Springfield, Illinois that was held under the auspices of SkillsUSA. That was a state competition, as there was no national web design competition. I felt that the competition was not run as well as it could have been, opened my mouth, and the conference organizers invited our organization to run it ourselves. So that’s what we did. In 2002, we had a much-improved web design and development competition, where students actually had to compete at the state level. The Illinois SkillsUSA chapter loved what we had done, which got the National SkillsUSA executive team to take notice of our organization.
In 2004, the organization collaborated on our first national demonstration competition for web design and development. And we had a number of teams that competed in that initial competition— it was something like 12 or 15 teams of secondary schools that competed. At this point it was no longer a demonstration contest—it was official. And we’ve been doing the national web competitions for SkillsUSA ever since. I was responsible for competitions through 2008, when I passed it to a former student of mine named Jonathan. He has been doing it ever since for the state of Illinois. We have never missed a year and even continued to run the competitions, albeit virtually, through the COVID-19 pandemic. We are committed to giving students access to competitions run by industry professionals.
As an organization, we decided early on to get involved in web competitions to highlight industry best practices. Our experience with all the workshops, teacher training, and seeing what student competitors produced showed us that many schools don’t teach the business fundamentals that are so important in addition to technical skills. Because of this, we decided that the best way to drive professional standards is to have students compete at both the state and national levels. In our competitions, the students’ code has to adhere to international web development standards for them to have a chance to win.
Prior to the national competitions, all competitors participate in mandatory training so they are exposed to new concepts. We enjoy seeing the competitors discover that they don’t know as much as they think. This has helped us drive our message of professionalism and expand our influence as the competitor-students go back to their schools and encourage their teachers to teach industry best practices. We know this works as more teachers ask us about industry standards every year. Little by little we are helping secondary schools prepare future professionals, which is a big part of our mission.
In 2009, we were invited to be a part of the Web Standards Project, which unfortunately has been archived and is no longer active. We were thrilled to participate, as web accessibility and security has always been a focus of the organization. That year the meeting was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee with a number of people who were responsible for web standards. As you may remember, back then there were a number of different browsers emerging like Internet Explorer and Netscape. In the early 2000s, each browser came up with their own browser codes— there was the blink tag from Netscape, the marquee tag from Internet Explorer, and so forth. And the Web Standards Project was created to establish that all browsers implement similar code so that web designers could create websites that would work on any browser. This was something I felt strongly about, and I was delighted when I was chosen to be co-chair of the Education Task Force for the Web Standards Project.
Working with Adobe and a number of other companies, we established the criteria for what curriculum should contain. And this became the career cluster for things like digital media that are out there today. If you look it up, you’ll find there’s a digital media career cluster. This provided the impetus for us to work with the Department of Labor around 2011. We also worked with professors and universities around the U.S., including John Gunderson of the University of Illinois, to do seminars and events about web accessibility. We also worked with the WordPress team on their accessibility task force.
One of the biggest pushes for the Web Professionals Organization has been certifications. As we are made up of industry professionals, we had plenty of contacts to help us develop what would become our international industry-recognized certifications. With the blessing of our whole certification team we started to issue industry credentials in 2001. Back then, everything was paper-based. When I later became Director of Education, one of the first things I did was eliminate paper and make it all online. We thought this was a big step forward to modernize the organization and make it easier for more people to earn certifications. From 2006-2008, we had meetings in Las Vegas, with people representing businesses, workforce, secondary and post-secondary schools to define what should be taught in the way of curriculum as a general outline, and what should be covered in terms of certifications, technical skills, soft skills, and more.
As a professional organization, we take credentialing seriously. The first certifications we offered were designer, developer, and webmaster. Today, we are proud to offer far more. What constitutes a web professional is far more diverse and demanding than back then. We do not teach to the test—you cannot find a sample test out there that you can practice with. For our professional levels, we ask to see examples of his or her work. For secondary and post-secondary students, we asked the teacher to assemble a portfolio of their work. To us, certifications signal that someone has the ability to produce and pull their weight in the industry—it does not mean that they are capable of cramming for an exam.
As an aside, I have been in the industry and education for decades. I have seen it all and understand what does and does not help the web profession. Testing companies will give you samples of their exam, and often will sell you a book to use to prepare for the exam. These exams usually have little to no basis in industry standards. We are proud to have higher standards than just scoring well on an exam that you can study for from a book. We are not so much about the number of professionals we welcome into our organization, but the quality of those professionals.
We have continued to make our certifications good for two years. Some have asked why they are not good for longer. It is for the simple reason that the world of the web changes so often that we must always be learning new skills. We are always focusing on the fundamentals. Frameworks come and go—we could make a list of those that have come and gone in just the last couple years. All that said, we focus on giving people a professional foundation that allows them to continue growing and adapting. We are about building true professionals.
A quick story: there was a high school that had a number of students earn apprentice-level certifications, and they did well. That teacher retired and they were replaced by somebody from a different department. The following year, 100% of their students took the exam. All 30 students failed miserably. The teacher called me and was apologetic. And we discovered in a very short order that the teacher was not teaching what the students needed to know. The teacher had just grabbed a book and focused on just coding and nothing else. However, the next year they turned it around by focusing on the appropriate things in the following year, and the majority of students passed the certification exam. Educators seek to develop whole learners, and we want to grow whole professionals. Our expectation is that the certification represents the fact that students have the knowledge and portfolio to demonstrate proficiency.
In-person meetings have also been important for us. We haven’t been doing as many in recent years because of COVID-19, but fortunately we understand how to use the internet to stay connected. Our members are webmasters, developers, and technologists from schools and companies of all sizes all over the world. Just as the internet is international, so is our organization. We work with schools and professionals in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia. In addition to helping schools, we also help workforce partners train and re-engage adults in high-demand web careers. We are constantly working with industry and education partners to understand how we can better serve the web professional community, and it’s why we are industry-driven and industry-recognized.
Around 2010, we started the School of Web. We included a lot of the course materials that I had put together at the community college level, as well as courses from professors at other schools. We started the School of Web because in conversations with industry people we realized there was a hunger to develop their skills and knowledge. This started our efforts to offer micro-credentials.
This year, we have begun to expand to doing more state competitions within SkillsUSA. We have seen early success so far. We’re trying to bring the state competitions to a new level of excellence, so that those who participate are better prepared before arriving at the national competition. For the national competition, each state can enter just one team at the secondary level and one team at the post-secondary level. By getting involved with these state competitions, we are now impacting many schools around the country.
We continue to go out of our way to build community and get people involved—everything from Slack channels to local chapters that meet. We strive to make sure our members have a solid understanding not only of web technologies but also best business best practices. We also have expanded our international presence— we have participated in the international WorldSkills competition, starting in 2013 in Leipzig, and we have had international members on our advisory board. Our mantra continues to be “Community, Education, Certification.”
It has been a wonderful 25 years for the Web Professionals Organization. When we started out, the web was in its infant stages. Today, the internet is more integral than ever to people around the globe in industries ranging from manufacturing to education and healthcare to energy. People work, learn, and play on the internet every day, making our mission more relevant and important than ever.
Stay tuned for a future article on where the Web Professionals Organization would like to go in the next 25 years. And if you would like to get connected, please contact us today. We are always seeking to expand our ranks both nationwide and worldwide and look forward to connecting with you.