Me at my desk in 1999

Two decades as a web developer

In mid-August 1998 I began my first job as a web developer, happily accepting the somewhat grand position of “webmaster” at Scottish Radio Holdings. Based at the offices of Radio Clyde in Clydebank, that first rung in the career ladder was a whirlwind of on the job learning fueled by the nervous excitement that came with being a part of a nascent industry.

I hadn’t ever worked as a web developer (not many people had!), nor endured the level of pressure that came with the workload of designing, developing and maintaining over 15 separate websites. How was I to know that one person couldn’t possibly do all that? It was my dream job in an exciting profession in an era – the turn of the millennium – that seemed to brim with untapped potential for what the internet could bring to the lives of everyday people.

In a time before today’s go-to sources of technical help, like Stack Overflow or Sitepoint before it, there were no support forums back then. If you were lucky there’d be a mailing list to join or obscure technical articles that were tricky to eek out in a time before Google. Almost everything I learned was either from books, magazine tutorials or viewing the source of websites to see how they achieved something. That and plenty of trial and error.

Back then, I didn’t look at what I did as a career that would have different stages, either. It never occurred to me that I would learn to a point and be considered a “middleweight” then forge on for a few more years and magically become a “senior” developer.  I just wanted to keep learning and keep building websites – to make a good job of doing so and for the client and end user to benefit from that. I took great pride in my work and whilst living in London at the turn of the millennium if I was asked what I did for a living, I concede that I felt quietly smug revealing that I was a web developer.

Over the years, of course, it became less cool – mundane even – and that kept me pretty grounded about my chosen profession. During my time at Sony, from 2002-2008, I actually felt a bit sheepish at being “just” a web developer when on the development team there were “proper” games programmers.

And, as red hot as I’ve felt at times during my career, I never felt comfortable with some of the nonsense job titles people bestowed upon themselves during that time. I’ve seen job adverts for or developers referring to themselves as a “JavaScript Rock Star” or “Web Ninja”, for example, and it’s been hard to stifle the eye roll. There are people who run into burning buildings to save lives or who are working slavish hours to help the sick – all we’re doing, for the most part, is making digital adverts.

Being humble about it never took away the kick that I get from creating a working layout from a clever design or from solving a challenge with some neat JavaScript. But, about ten years ago, I felt things had got a bit stale and took a dramatic career decision to switch to working as a developer on content migration projects.

I knew within a week that I’d made a huge mistake and despite trying to make the best of it I ended up miserable. As time wore on and my skills atrophied, a deep set panic set in. Even though there have been a plenty of reactionary, band-wagon jumping trends in web development practices, it’s still relatively important to be aware of what’s going on out there and I knew that I was slipping behind the curve. You don’t have to be the surfer that tries to ride every wave, but you should at least be aware of the bigger ones coming in so you can make the most of where it might carry you.

Fortunately, I got the chance to join a digital agency in 2009 and returned to what I love doing. Nine years down the line from that I’m glad that I was able to resume a career that, when it’s going well, doesn’t really feel like a job. It just feels like what I do because I take great satisfaction from doing it.

IndyCar driver, Scott Dixon, once said that what he gets paid for is all the sponsorship appearances, the hard work behind the scenes, the team technical meetings and all the other stuff that doesn’t involve driving a racing car. That, he said, he does for free.

I try to think of my job that way – I get paid for the meetings, the scoping sessions, the commute, the occasional late day when there’s a crisis. The fun bit I do for free, and that’s demonstrated by the number of extracurricular sites I’ve put time into over the years. WipEoutZone and IndyCar FanZone have been labours of love, to varying degrees, and the other sites I’ve put pro bono time into have mostly given me a way to flex creative muscles I might not have used in the day job.

Credit where it’s due

Over the years there have been people who have shown a kindness and faith in me that I’ve struggled to find in myself, so I want to name a few of them here in roughly chronological order.

Adrian Cockburn

I have to start with Adrian Cockburn – my longest standing friend whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with twice. First time around I shared an office with him when I arrived at Radio Clyde, fresh out of university and dazzled by the bright lights of a real job. Ade was there to steady my nerves when I was fraying under pressure back then and was also a shoulder to lean on ten years later when I was a fish out of the water, struggling with the demands of being a solution architect.

Demian Turner

When I went for an interview in London, back in the Y2K, Demian was the developer who grilled me on the technical side and, when I got the job, became a good friend. Demian was ridiculously enthusiastic when we were both learning PHP together, encouraging me to come and meet up with other developers to look at code and if it wasn’t for him I don’t think I’d have taken the leap to my second job in London. We’ve fallen out of regular contact as the years have worn on but, for a time, when I had a PHP problem, Demian had a solution for me.

Clemens Wangerin

Next up is Clemens, the development studio manager at SCEE Studio Liverpool during my time there. To this day I still don’t understand why he took a chance and offered me the best job I’ve ever had. Clemens stood back and let me enjoy an evolving role during my six-year stint. The result was nothing short of an incredible life experience and I could never put a price on the opportunity he gave me.

Andy Watt

I met Andy in April 2008 when I moved into the content migration role. He already had a dislike for a job he’d been reluctantly farmed out for and was pretty much dead set on handing over the reigns to me – showing me the ropes with urgency in my first few weeks. He was a hard taskmaster and, at first, I didn’t think we’d get on.

However, when we were placed on a project together down in London for several months we ended up becoming firm friends. I learned a lot from Andy about how to conduct myself professionally and how to look after myself when the sharks were circling, too.

Keith & David Skilling

Through Andy, I met Keith Skilling and his dad David. We chatted now and then about me doing some freelance work for their company, but I didn’t think it would amount to anything because I was working almost 80 hour weeks in the day job.

When that came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2009, Keith stepped in and got me involved in a project that one of their clients needed building from scratch. It was a lifeline when I was at rock bottom in terms of confidence and financial standing, and Keith’s calls for progress updates became more like support calls for me on everything else that was going on with my former employer.

Although the initial project lasted just six weeks it led to a lot more work over the years that followed. During each phase I looked forward to my regular calls with Keith’s dad, David, so we could iron out the details and work to satisfy demanding clients.

Tragically, Keith passed away from cancer in May 2014 and I think, after that, David’s heart wasn’t in the business anymore. Although we had spent countless hours on the phone I’d only ever met Keith in real life a few times, but he was like the wee brother I never knew I had. It’s a similar story with his Dad – we maybe met just a handful of times over the years, but I’ll never forget what the pair of them did for me nor the confidence they showed in me.

Robert Tweed

When I went for an interview at Curious Group in 2009, Robert Tweed was the technical director. His interview technique was unique, to say the least, as we laughed through my answers to a strangely academic test I’d been set. When I got the job he became something of a mentor to me as object-oriented programming had never come naturally to me. Robert was really patient as I learned on the job and told me how best to go about things whenever he was in the office.

When Curious went under and I came to take the same position at Bourne, I believe Robert had a lot to do with ensuring that happened. Over the years we’ve enjoyed more than a few beers and plenty of banter and that’s continued, albeit less frequently, even after Robert moved on to new challenges.

Kieran Ashley

Where do I start with Kieran Ashley? Well, Kieran was the lead developer on the tech team at Curious, then Bourne/Bite/BiteDA. He was regularly late, loud, seemed completely erratic and would spend at least some portion of every day in a quiet rage over something or other, pounding away at the keyboard as he fumed. Initially, I kept my distance but once the Bourne tech team social evenings became a regular thing I warmed to the man immensely.

The mentorship double act between Robert and Kieran would frequently pull me in two different directions at once. Robert was quite puritanical about code and strived for elegant solutions. Conversely, Kieran liked mashing things together in clever ways until they worked and was usually delighted when they did. I ended up falling between those two stools and Kieran once told me that I was probably better off for it. I learned a lot from him in our time together at Bourne/Bite/BiteDA and when he moved on I knew that my own time at the agency was coming to a close.

Too many more to mention them all

That seems like quite a short list when I read it back, but those are just the big hitters. There have been so many others who have played a part in shaping who I’ve become, at least professionally, such as;

  • James McCormack, my workmate at Radio Clyde who was probably the nicest man I’ve ever met. James kept smiling even when we were completely up against it.
  • Mick Peacock, my boss for just a few short months at iii whose quiet, controlled demeanor made a lasting impression on me – a great boss, just in the wrong industry for me.
  • Stef Emiljanowicz was a developer I sat beside when I started at iii who would go on to introduce me to the boss I’d have in my next job and we’re still friends to this day.
  • Mr. Jess Unwin, who I met there, was an inspiration in the way he was willing to switch roles and learn from scratch.
  • Dave “Bunny” Burrows at Studio Liverpool. If he wasn’t so damn clever he could have been a proper mentor, but he was just completely out of my league!
  • Same goes for Martin Linklater – professional and methodical in his approach. Linky stuck card around his monitor so he wouldn’t be distracted in a workplace with no shortage of distractions and impressed upon me the fact we were there to get stuff done.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the junior developers I’ve worked with or mentored who made me better at what I do. Emma, Rachael, and Karen were all a big part of my time at Bourne/Bite. Karen, in particular, became a teammate who took the pressure off me and we developed a seamless working relationship. I thank them for putting up with my idiosyncrasies and for the letting me impart some of the knowledge that this old dog had to offer.

Footer

All good articles on the web have a footer, so I figured I’d make this long ramble complete with an attempt at summing up.

My career as a web developer, to date, has been quite some ride with just enough high points to keep the seemingly despairing low points in perspective. On balance, I think I’m pretty lucky to do something I enjoy for a living and to have survived 20 years without burning out completely.

I wonder what the next 20 years will bring?