Graham Irwin is a computer programmer turned website designer and I interviewed him for International Systems Engineer Day.
Graham, I believe you started off your career as a computer programmer? What made you interested in computer programming as a career?
Graham: “At further education college, I had a maths lecturer who was interested in teaching, what was then a very new subject, computer science. We had access to Hatfield Polytechnic’s (now the University of Hertfordshire’s) computer facilities. I found it was something I enjoyed and was good at.”
Since graduating from university what types of jobs have you held?
Graham: “My first job was programming cash dispensers. Again, these were quite rare beasts, and the ATM (as they were then known) handed out just 10 crisp one pound notes. My job was working on the firm’s earlier model which was used by one of the UK’s top 4 banks. The later models were mainly sold in America.
My second job was programming seismology applications. My employer, a seismic consultancy, used to drill exploratory wells for oil companies, and the software I maintained was used to analyse the data that came back from these wells.
Then I moved to Pye Records as Head of Programming Services. My job was looking after the company’s ordering and stock-control systems. After that I joined a software house and spent most of my 4 years there was as project leader, and later project manager, for the development of an accounting system for one of the top City firms of solicitors.
Later, I joined a City management consultancy firm where for most of the time I advised solicitors on their IT systems. When I was made redundant I set up my own business doing much the same sort of work but, with a greatly reduced daily rate, I was able to help much smaller firms. I also set up with a colleague a software business and wrote an accounting system for the really small firms of solicitors. This business is still going, although my partner retired long ago.”
Looking back, what was the most interesting job you had and why?
Graham: “Probably the most interesting thing that happened was at the seismic consultancy. At 4 o’clock one afternoon, my boss appeared while I was typing some punched cards. “Have you got a passport?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, puzzled. “How do you fancy a trip to the Irish Sea?” Thinking he was joking, I said, “Sure. When?” He then said he wanted me to go as assistant to the Survey Manager to an oil rig in the Irish Sea as there was no one else available and that we were flying from Biggin Hill at 8 o’clock the next morning!”
When did you first start designing websites and why?
Graham: “At one point, just for the heck of it, I thought I would rewrite my accounting system user manual as a web document. This got me interested in web design and I offered to design a website for a charity I was involved with. My first websites were a bit grim by today’s standards. However, my first real client came to me as a result of that first website, and I have developed and redeveloped several sites for that client since then.”
What types of websites have you designed?
Graham: “I have developed 8 or 9 charity or community group websites, 4 parish council sites, 3 for lawyers one including a ‘quoter’ for conveyancing fees, and several for individuals and small businesses. One of my favourites, because it is so popular and includes a number of fun features, is an online tarot readings site. Another is for a bed and breakfast facility which includes a diary and guestbook.
I am currently developing an online course which includes registrations, audio lessons and a forum; another site I am working on has a database of videos and user registrations. Other features I have created or used include payment systems, blogs, photo galleries, databases, news tickers, animations, multi-lingual content, random photos or quotes, and search engines.”
What changes have you seen over the years in relation to web design?
Graham: “There has been software to aid the development of websites for as long as long as I have been designing, but the software has become more sophisticated to the extent that non-professionals can develop their own websites. The development of content management systems has also made an impact on design, and more recently the need to develop ‘responsive’ sites which can be viewed on any device from a mobile phone through a tablet to a desktop computer.”
What are the biggest mistakes people make with designing websites?
Graham: “I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on search engine optimisation rather than content. Conversely, when using do-it-yourself systems, the mistake is paying no attention to search engine optimisation. One of the problems I have encountered more than once is a client who had a volunteer develop their website. Whilst it may sound like a good deal, if the volunteer moves or simply loses interest, what happens then? If you’re paying someone, you maintain their interest!”
Finally, what makes a good website in your view?
Graham: “The most important thing in my view is that a website contains appropriate information for its target audience, and that it is easy to use and to navigate. Too many large images can make a site slow to download and give search engines nothing to index.”