I recently started my first job as a UI Developer & Designer. This was roughly a year and a half from the day I decided I wanted to pursue this as a career. Looking back, I realize there was a lot of unnecessary frustration and anxiety I caused myself in my pursuit. So below are the rules I wish I would have lived by on my journey towards a career in web development & design. Although I wouldn’t change any part of my journey and could not be more grateful for how everything turned out, I think I could have saved myself much distress had I stuck to the rules below.
This was penned almost as a letter to my former self, but I feel the struggles I had are universal, so my hope is that this can act as a guide for others, perhaps not just those pursuing a career in tech.
You’re here, right now, and this is where you’re meant to be. Cliche maybe, but also true. Embrace the step you’re currently taking, and take it with confidence and pride. Don’t punish yourself for not being where you think you should already be.
Maybe you’re 6 months in, wondering why no one has hired you. You feel like you have the skills necessary for a junior position, what gives? Well guess what, you’re not doing all of this just so you can get a job, you’re doing it because you enjoy it. Maybe you’re looking to mentors or experts in the field with envy, wondering if you’ll ever achieve their stature. The truth is, they’ve just been doing it longer than you, and they’re still learning, just like you. Maybe you’re kicking yourself thinking “man, if I had just started 5 years ago I’d be a pro by now.” Where does that get you? Instead, think of all the others out there who wanted to pursue this career but gave up because they thought they weren’t smart enough, mathematically minded enough or (insert other lame excuse here) enough.
Goals are important, they remind you of where you’re going and why you’re doing what you’re doing. However, if you’re only thinking about the end goal, you miss what’s right in front of you and you’re not fully focused on the task at hand. This ultimately just keeps you from your goal even longer.
You become a web developer the day you decide you want to be one. From there, the only differentiating factor between you and the “professional” is experience, and of course, knowledge. But knowledge is acquired, it’s not given to you. As mentioned in the previous rule, the “experts” are just those of us that have been learning longer. They have not been hand-selected by a committee and endowed with superhuman capabilities 👽.
We’re all on the same learning journey, just at different points. NO ONE is ever done and no one can ever know it all. Those who do think they know it all have given up on continuous learning and will slowly realize that their skills are no longer relevant and the industry has passed them by.
The tribulations of Imposter Syndrome abound in the web industry. It’s definitely a thing, look it up. Just remember you’re not alone in feeling like you don’t belong, worried that someone is going to find out “you’re not worthy” and kick you out of the party. We all feel this way sometimes. It would be a lot easier if you could just study for a test and by passing it you officially became a certified Web Developer and were given a “license to code.” That also sounds very boring and rigid, I don’t like it and neither would you.
There’s no way around it, this is the best way to learn and in some ways the only way to learn. What will you be paid to do as a professional coder? To code. What’s the best way to learn how to do something? Do the thing. I can’t put it more clearly than that.
Looking back I realize I virtually wasted hours going through tutorials and simply “coding-along” with the instructor. Videos, blogs, tutorials, these are all immensely valuable resources, but are just supplements to help you build something of your own. Before starting a tutorial, start a project. Once that project is in motion, you’ll inevitably get to a point where you’re stuck, that’s where you reach for a blog or tutorial that explains how to do that specific thing. Repeat that same pattern over and over and get used to it, because that’s basically the life of a developer.
This applies to design as well. Want to learn? Start a project. Design a blog, or an online portfolio. You may still be staring at a blank canvas when you decide to look online for inspiration or ideas, but then you come right back to the canvas and get to work. It’ll be uncomfortable, you’ll be wondering if what you’re doing is any good, and chances are it won’t be, at first. It’s a lot easier and more comfortable to just pop on a video tutorial, thinking that when the course is through you’ll be a master, but it’s only through building things of your own that you’ll begin to see progress.
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
We’ve all seen the stats on how most jobs are acquired through referral. If not, a quick Google search should suffice for you to find out that the majority of jobs are not acquired by those who simply apply online. I got my first job through a referral, and so did my friend who referred me (shout out to Scott Stewart 🙏). Companies are looking for someone they can trust. They want to make sure their candidate is responsible, respectable, and qualified enough that somebody else would stick their neck out to recommend them. This in turn means they are less of a risk to the company.
Start by telling everyone you know what you are up to. Tell them you are looking to start a new career in tech. Tell the whole world you are a web designer and eventually the world will agree with you when you’re sitting at your computer, getting paid to design for the web.
When applying to jobs online without a referral, go into it with the mindset that you are just trying to get some interview reps in. You’ll be lucky to get an interview, and the job is almost always going to go to someone who was referred vs. someone who was not. It may not be “fair” but it’s the way it is. There’s no point in fighting against this practice, and the longer you do, the longer you will be applying to jobs cold, thinking this is FINALLY the one that will give you a break.
You have unique traits, strengths that differentiate you from others in the field, focus on those and highlight them. This is important to keep in mind in every step of the job hunt, but especially in interviews. You may be lacking in professional experience as a web developer, but your past experience in another field may be an asset. Your lack of experience alone can be an asset in some cases. I had a phone interview once where I was told they were ONLY looking for candidates with little to no experience. Newcomers are generally more hungry, motivated, and can be molded to the company’s liking through guidance and training.
When interviewing, be relaxed and comfortable in your own skin. Have the mentality of “hey, it would be great if this turns out to be a fit for both of us, but if not, I’m satisfied with where I’m at, just building and creating things for the sheer joy of it.” This takes the pressure off you and allows you to enjoy the experience. Have fun with it! It’s either going to lead to something more or not, and to a large extent that’s out of your control. So simply control what you can, your state of mind.
If and when you are turned down for a position, it’s simply because it wasn’t the right fit, or the right timing, not because the universe is out to get you. When you do get the career of your dreams, it’s not going to magically complete you and make all of your troubles go away. You’ll still be you, and that’s okay, because you’re already good enough.
Once I discovered that the career I was dreaming of was one in web development, I began feverishly striving towards it, as if nothing else mattered. Although our culture tells us that the #nodaysoff mindset is necessary to achieve anything worthwhile, it’s not always the most healthy or sustainable approach.
This approach can put you in a frenzy and cloud your judgment, in turn leading you to focus your energy in non-productive ways. This is especially true when you are learning something as complicated as computer engineering. You can’t hack your way through it (get it 🤓), and just throwing time at the problem usually doesn’t work either. So instead, before sitting down at the computer, make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. This means eating well and regularly, getting enough sleep, exercising, spending time with family and just unplugging. These are the obvious and basic guidelines that everyone knows but are all-to-easy to overlook or disregard.
You may think you’re doing the productive thing by hacking away even when you know deep down you’re running on empty. Take a break. Maybe you’re becoming overwhelmed with frustration at a problem you just can’t seem to solve, but still fighting like mad to solve it. Go for a walk, grab a snack, or just call it a day. I promise you everything will still be there when you get back, and with a re-energized mind you’ll likely solve that seemingly difficult problem with ease. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for working long and hard to get something done. And hey, we all get carried away sometimes, if you weren’t a passionate, hard-working individual you wouldn’t be pursuing this career in the first place. Ultimately, although coding and designing can bring you immense joy and a great career, it’s not everything. It’s certainly not worth sacrificing the MOST important thing, the thing that enables you to pursue this in the first place, your physical and mental health.
“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls — family, health, friends, integrity — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”
-Gary Keller from the book “The One Thing”
Thanks for reading!