Starting at Zero: My Web Development Journey

I’ve had several people ask me how I got involved in web design and development. If you’d told me 2-3 years ago that I’d be developing websites full-time, I would have laughed. It would have been even funnier if you’d asked me what HTML, PHP, or JavaScript was. Web design and development was the furthest thing from my mind.

The truth is, most of it was by accident. I have no formal training in web design or development. My degree is in Political Science, and my experience was all in campaigns or public policy. Like most poli-sci grads, my plan was to go to law school. I even went as far as structuring my classes around pre-law, studying for the LSAT, and interning one summer at a law firm.

But I decided against law school. Instead I took two internships: One with a public policy organization in Washington, DC and later one at my dad’s advertising agency. While I was offered the opportunity to stay in DC and really enjoyed what I was doing, I never felt comfortable enough to commit full-time.

The Beginning

My internship with Design4 Marketing was helpful in getting me where I am today. It exposed me to various aspects of marketing, including ad buying, digital/social media tools, graphic design, and web development. I eventually gravitated towards development as it was a better fit.

When our in-house web developer left in 2013, Design4 had little website work. At the time I was mainly do administrative and support tasks. We had several websites we built (I use that term loosely, as we mainly just re-purposes WordPress themes).

In the fall of 2013, I joined Design4 full-time as the “Digital Communications Manager”. I was responsible for web/social media/digital advertising. My web development consisted of WordPress themes and changing fonts and colors. But it piqued my interest and gave me a desire to learn more about web

In January of  2014, my VP of Marketing and I made plans to aggressively pursue web work. In 2013, we had completed 3-4 websites. Our goal was to double that number. We also set goals of fully designing our own websites, and significantly lowering the amount of outside help we hired.

This was an ambitious plan for someone whose knowledge of web development was 0. I set my own personal goals, wanting to learn HTML and CSS and to gain a better understanding of best practices for the web.

To accomplish this I took various classes online and read several reference books. Both Thinkful and Udemy were helpful, and Jon Duckett’s HTML/CSS book gave me the basics. But nothing replaced building websites, even when they consisted of black headlines and paragraphs on a white background.

Breaking Lots of Things

Real growth requires making mistakes. In my case, that meant lots of mistakes, often on client websites. Not having another developer on staff meant I was learning on my own. I can’t even count the number of websites I broke, not to mention the horrible code and poor design. But it was all part of the process I had to undergo in order to get better.

The embarrassment and frustration I felt from my mistakes was nothing compared to the immense pride I felt about launching my first website. It was a simple 3-4 page website for a client, but knowing that I had coded it was a great feeling.

Where I am Now

I’m still a newbie. I have a huge problem calling myself a developer when I have little training and still don’t know JavaScript, MVC development, or backend languages very well. In many ways I feel like a fraud. I’ve started taking classes on JavaScript, because I’ve hit the ceiling personally and professionally on where I can go without understanding that language.

Where I want to Be

By the end of 2015, my goal is to be proficient in JavaScript. From there I want to learn frameworks like AngularJS, React, Ember, and Meteor to build full web applications with the goal of becoming a full stack web developer in the near future.

Lessons

The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. I’m still very much a beginner, but if you’re brand new to web development, here are a few pointers I hope guide your learning.

1.) Books are helpful, but nothing replaces practice. If you’re learning a new concept be sure to code it in real life.

2.) Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. You will very quickly realize that many developers don’t have it all together. We all visit forums on a daily basis to get help. Yes, some people will laugh at you or get frustrated. That is their problem, not yours.

3.) Learn the fundamentals of good design. This is a little harder because you’ll probably have to search out this opportunity. I was lucky because my wife is a designer. But as a front end web developer most of your jobs will be taking designs and coding them onto a webpage. I’ve sent multiple developers PSDs only to get back a website that doesn’t match the design. Learning to understand things like letter spacing, font sizing, spacing, etc. and how that fits into good design is going to make you a valuable asset to any development team.

4.) Challenge yourself constantly. If you’re living, you’re learning. And the best way to learn is to push yourself. When I first started developing, everything was a massive challenge. I never remembered code, I was constantly looking up basic things like how to capitalize all the letters in a word or how to position elements correctly. It was all uphill. But I eventually got to a place of understanding the basics well enough that I could put together websites pretty quickly. That only happened because I kept pushing myself to learn more.

5.) Help other people. I hope this blog becomes a resource for you. I plan on writing regularly about what I’m learning and what I’m doing in my job. I freelance on the side, and I frequently work with companies whose staff need help understanding the basics. It’s been a great tool for me to pass along the knowledge I do have about design and development.

Everyone starts somewhere. I hope this helps you, and if it does please leave me a comment below!

Austin F Cline is a Digital Marketing expert.

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