Alumna Strives to Stay on the Cutting Edge of Website Design
Leora Wenger '80
Leora Wenger ’80 has been designing websites longer than almost everybody in the industry. But that doesn’t mean she can relax. “You can’t stop with this,” she said about learning new technologies. “If you stop, you will be out of date in a second. You have to learn every system they throw at you.”
Leora and her family live in Highland Park, NJ, and these days she does most of her work for nearby Rutgers University. “They pay me to learn, and sometimes the learning is longer than the doing,” she said.
Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Leora said, computers were part of the household because both parents worked with them. “We had exposure to computers when we were young.” However, that didn’t extend to school. “I have this vague memory that there was a computer available, and nobody made it interesting to me.”
Leora was an artist in high school and served as an assistant yearbook editor. After Maimonides graduation, she enrolled in the Boston University School for the Arts. “I discovered that art school was different than I expected, so I took a lot of liberal arts classes,” she said. Now, “the work I do is more technical, though I have an interest in art.”
She graduated with a double major in urban planning and art history. After a stint with the City of Boston planning office, she worked as an administrative assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Computer Science. “In my group at the Laboratory for Computer Science, people realized I could do technical support, so it became part of my job. That really boosted my confidence,” she noted. In 1990 “I was working with a secretary who knew how to program, and together we wrote a program so people in the Lab could access the Lab phone directory with just a few keystrokes.”
At MIT, she recalled, “everybody knew about computers.” She began taking programming courses, financed by her employer. “Then the Web came around and I said, ‘Well, I am going to teach myself that.’” It was 1993, the year Leora left MIT. “I didn’t think I would like it — until I did it,” she said of computer coding. “Now my son has taught himself coding.”
After mastering HTML, “I started learning how to build a website,” she related. Her first project was as a volunteer, some 20 years ago — a site for her son’s school. She moved on to a local commission, then small businesses, and, beginning in 2002, Rutgers University.
“Initially, I used to do the whole website myself. Now, I almost always work as part of a team — better websites are usually a teamwork effort,” Leora explained. Her approach is to “design how the information can be presented. For example, a home page can have a variety of links, subtitles and what I call home stories, and the content publisher just edits a series of forms to update those stories.”
“I especially like building sites with Drupal, a content management system, because the system itself has so many components,” Leora said. “For Rutgers sites, we are moving toward having sites built in Drupal 8; those providing the content, faculty or staff, are given a form built specifically for their needs, and pages can have different views of similar information, organized in unique ways.”
She still does some site-building for small businesses, and “I often have to start at the most elementary level at explaining what is needed for a website. When I build a website for faculty members at Rutgers, they have often worked on other sites and have their own ideas on how to present the information. For the Highland Park Public Library, every few years I work with the director, and we tweak the design and the way the site is maintained.”
The client provides the content, Leora said. “With WordPress, a content management system, I am changing more complicated sites with new tools so clients can easily update pages on their own. Drupal 8 has more of these tools built in, but it is more costly to maintain, so I don’t recommend it to small businesses.”
“I often refer my clients to graphic designers, photographers or writers — there are a lot of talented people who can help build a sophisticated site,” she added.
Rutgers has a student population well over 50,000, and Leora said the university’s approach to its Web identity is somewhat decentralized. “There are basic guidelines but not much more than that,” she explained. Her work over the past 12 years includes a range of disciplines, including the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and components of the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. She currently works for the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.
Over the years she has met the “challenge of a woman doing freelance work in what is still a male-dominated field,” Leora said. She also feels like a pioneer in the workplace. A little over 20 years ago, “I was working for this little company after my oldest child was born. I remember saying to them how much I could produce if I could work at home — at that time people in the industry weren’t yet working at home much.” Today she handles most of her projects from home.
Leora and her husband Aaron Epstein have three children.