Q: What languages/tools do they use on the back end for storing, retrieving, and updating data? (SQL Server, Access, etc.)?
A: Perl and/or C are what process the input from the user. What database you talk to depends on the system you're running on. Unix-y things you're more likely to be talking SQL, on NT you're most likely to be talking to Access. If you happen to have a Mac server, you're almost certainly talking to FileMaker Pro.
Q: What other types of things do I need to consider?
A: How much you want to do initially. It's quite possible to get a job crafting web pages that don't have any forms or anything like that. It's getting tougher since more people know that now, but it's still possible, especially if you're willing to take part-time work. Many organizations need weekly or monthly newsletters, and putting the whole thing together is only a couple hours every week or month, but it's a good way to get started, and enough of those add up to full-time.
A: You'll definitely want to learn HTML. You'll also need to know how the same HTML behaves in different browsers. Everything you need is online, but you may prefer to buy a book and study that way.
Good websites to start learning html (in no particular order):
- Jakob Nielsen's UseIt.com
- David Siegel's WebWonk
- Killer Sites
- Ask Dr. Web
- The HTML home. You'll want to look at HTML 2.0 and 3.2, since they're what browsers like today, but you should be aware of HTML 4.0, since that's the future.
- And once you've got a clue, The Willcam Group's Compact Reference of HTML tags is very useful for getting the syntax of a specific tag. I use it a lot.
You should have all the browsers you can get your hands on for testing your HTML so you can see how it looks. I figure you can get Netscape and IE for yourself, but you should also look at the WebTV emulator. You may not think you're designing for a TV, but your HTML should at least be viewable on one. For HTML 4.0, iCab (Mac only) will check your HTML and tell you what's not 4.0 compliant. It can also be set to check for 3.2 compliance. Good sanity check to make sure you're only breaking the rules you want to.
I wouldn't worry about other languages until you've got a good grip on HTML.
A: That's a trickier question. I generate all my html in Frontier, and do all my pictures (you'll notice there are a total of less than a dozen on my whole site) in PhotoShop. I'd recommend against FrontPage or DreamWeaver initially. They both will generate HTML for you, but it's awful html and nearly impossible for a human to read, and reading html is much of what you'll need to do. The only way to get worse HTML is to generate it using one of the Microsoft Office products. They truly create a powerful stench. The best way to learn for me was to read other people's html (just "View Source"), and figure out how to do what I wanted. You'll definitely need to know some image-editing software, but if you've got to buy it, you may want Adboe ImageReady rather than PhotoShop. PhotoShop is the king, but ImageReady is designed for making graphics for the web, and is a lot cheaper.
Q: I'm trying to figure out what's the learning curve if I try to do this. How big of a hill am I looking at? And what's a good place to start climbing it?
A: Well, I gave you a few references to look at. I've been nibbling away at html since the days of Netscape 1.1, but I suspect I could teach enough to make people very dangerous in a week-long seminar. At LM I gave a lunchtime talk that went just a little over an hour that was enough to get people started. I'd send you the notes, but I can't seem to find 'em anymore. Dive in and try it. If you crank on this, you should be able to crank out at least one web-page every evening that has something new (html-wise) in it. A dozen of those, and you'll probably have a pretty good grasp of html.
Here's the order I'd suggest for exercises:
- Make a correct page (headers, correct HTML structure). Save it as a template for future work.
- Make a minimal page with links.
- ditto images with links.
- ditto each of the lists. Can you change the bullet style?
- ditto table
- ditto nested tables
- use a single-pixel gif to do page layout. compare & contrast browsers
- use tables to do page layout. Compare & contrast browsers
- build a page using a style-sheet
- move all styles into a style-sheet, and save it as a template
That's 10 exercises. I think if you take 'em in that order, most of them will be something you can get done in an evening (say three or four hours). Some are easier to get done, but offer more opportunities for messing around. For example putting images on a page is pretty easy. Spend the rest of the time playing with alignment and other options for the images. The style-sheet ones are probably the most complex, but I'm trying to aim you towards producing a stylesheet you can use in the future.
Finally, use the simplest text editor you can for these exercises. BBEdit, for example has a ton of whizzy things that help you write HTML. It's great for production, but for learning, you're better off using SimpleText (and the 32K limit is a GOOD thing in web-pages) on the Mac or NotePad on Windows.