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Start Playing! A Day in the Life of a Front-End Developer

glen elkins
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Learn the key to finding a job you love, remind yourself of the importance of play (hint: they’re connected), and discover what on earth a “sprite” is as we chat with Glen Elkins, who works as a front-end developer at Room 214, a social media agency based in Boulder, Colorado.

What is your current job title? If you’ve changed titles since you started at your company, what was your job title when you started?

I don’t have a very fancy title, just “web developer,” but I think that’s more a symptom of the culture at the agency I work in: Everyone has pretty normal-sounding titles. My very first job title out of college was “web designer,” which meant I was responsible for coming up with a few graphical elements and piecing them together on the front-end.

In my short career thus far, I’ve worked at two agencies and a start-up and one thing has remained constant: You’re required to wear many hats in web development. Sometimes it can feel a little like “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but you do tend to focus on the presentation layer the entire time, and the context just shifts around some.

What is a typical day at work like for you?

9:00 a.m.

Just got into the office. I set up some tunes, throw on my headphones and get to cleaning up my inbox and writing my daily sets of to do lists (I use Wunderlist a lot these days). Usually, in cleaning up my inbox, I end up hounding down a few account people for project status (e.g. “When’s creative delivered for this?” or “Did the client ever get back to us with those copy changes?”). Those brief conversations help build my lists, and structure the rest of my day.

This prep time usually involves running through my RSS reader and catching up on some news as well.

10:00 a.m.

The interactive infographic project that I started yesterday is well on its way, but it’s due for internal QA in two days and there’s still a lot to be done. I tap the volume key on my keyboard a few times and get in the zone. Aside from a few random interruptions or breathers, I’ll continue working on until lunch time.

12:00 p.m.

Lunch! Boom.

1:00 p.m.

After lunch, I’m feeling a little hazy from the food-baby kicking in my abdomen, so a couple fellow developers and I rest up by playing Super Smash Brothers on the GameCube in the other room (nerd power!).

1:20 p.m.

“Back to work, monkey!” they scream at me (jk, lulz). Headphones, volume, the zone. I’m back working on the infographic for the foreseeable future, trying to hack up enough to show the lead creative before our 3:00 p.m. meeting to review an upcoming project. Since I knocked out the HTML last night, I’m working on slicing out the images and sprites* from the PSD** and getting the CSS in order. From there, I’ll start adding in the animations.

*sprites = a single image that holds a bunch of little images. Front-end developers make these because browsers would rather download one large file than a bunch of little ones.

**PSD = Photoshop document

2:45 p.m.

I’ve made some progress on the chop***, but have a few questions for the designer about the PSD and the way he’d like it to perform (animations, and load time). I hound him down and bug him with the prototype in front of us just before the 3:00 meeting.

***chop = An HTML with no dynamic parts to it. Typically, a front-end dev will take a design from a designer and build a page that is only HTML and CSS. That page is the “chop.” It is then handed to a back-end dev who will assist with adding dynamic content.

3:00 p.m.

I’m called into the main conference room with another developer, a designer, and an account person. The account lead reviews an upcoming project and wants my opinion on the level of effort and a baseline price estimate for the development portion of the project. After reviewing the project in enough detail to understand the technical implications, I feel reasonably confident about my estimate.

4:00 p.m.

I’ve spent most of my day working on one infographic, and I’m likely to continue in that fashion for at least two more days, unless something comes up, which happens… A client wants a quick change to one of their existing apps, so I have to switch gears and start working on that for the remainder of the work day. It’s a pretty basic change that adds some analytics (Google) to a static HTML/CSS/JS quiz app, but after reviewing with the account lead, implementing, testing, pushing code to production, and more testing, the day is all used up.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?

I love having the opportunity to work with stellar designs and help inform the user’s experience by thinking through a digital application from their perspective. I enjoy working in a field that promotes so much learning and change. There’s always more to learn with new technologies like HTML 5, CSS 3, and new JavaScript libraries.

You also find that there’s a lot of crossover between front-end development and both design and back-end development, so you’ll find yourself working in both worlds as a front-end developer.

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?

I studied mass media and graphic design in college. Mass media gave me the opportunity to try a lot of fields before I knew what I was drawn to. I had always enjoyed working with computers, but I got to work in media productions, where I learned about lighting, sound mixing, video, and editing; they wouldn’t seem to have much to do with web development, but there’s actually a lot of crossover there. In any media production, you’re trying to communicate to a stranger through an artifice and how effectively you design that artifice determines how successful your communication will be.

I can’t claim to be a very good graphic designer, but those classes did give me a good foundation on the fundamentals. Although I’d be lost if I tried to illustrate a character or design a logo, learning about grids, color theory, and how to draw helps inform my front-end development. I can use those learnings to identify what the designers’ intentions are where there may be some gray areas.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

Start playing. The only way I’ve been able to learn is to start doing things, testing ideas, making small side projects and showing them off. Once you start doing that, you can identify what areas you’re really interested in, and that’s important. I think today’s web industry rewards specialization. If you can maintain your focus on the skills you want to grow, you’ll make it easy on yourself to find a job you’ll enjoy.

Does your company hire interns in your field? If so, how would someone go about applying?

They do hire interns. Anyone can apply for open positions on the website: http://www.room214.com.

To learn more about Glen and see some of his work, check out GlenElkins.com.

Homework time! Make a list of ten companies you think it’d be cool to intern at. Check their websites and see if they have any openings listed.

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4 Responses to “Start Playing! A Day in the Life of a Front-End Developer”

  1. numediaweb

    Thanks for this interview, quite intresting!
    I have some questions to ask; how much time do you need to finish a Front-end project? Of course it depends on each project but generally speaking, what is the average time you spend on a project, could you give a productivity “meter” for a good front-End developer? Another one; Do you have any advise on how to estimate the price of a project?
    Sorry! too many questions haha!

    Reply
    • Kellen McKillop

      Hi,
      There’s no such thing as too many questions! We’re happy to answer them to the best of our abilities.

      To address your first question, it’s hard to give an average time for a project since every project is different and every developer works at their own pace. Here’s a link to a blog describing different daily timelines for real-life front-end developers.

      As for your question concerning how much you should charge, here’s a great article about how a freelance front-end developer can determine if they’re charging the right amount.

      Finally, here’s a link to a post that has graphs showcasing different salaries for front-end developers based on contracts, locations, etc.

      Hope that helps!
      -Kellen

      Reply
  2. nyhunter77

    Hi, thanks for this article / interview! I ran into it today and it’s very relevant to me because I’m a career changer going from medical imaging (back) to technology. I’ve had this battle inside me going on a long time whether to be in the health industry or tech.

    These past few months, I find the stress level so high in the health imaging field, I needed to make a change or go bonkers.

    I’m about to start a code academy tomorrow! I’ve done all the prework but it’s not all cemented in my brain I have to admit, especially the jquery. I’m hoping that will be the same for everyone.

    Anyway, I’d like to know since you wrote this, is life still pretty much the same? Is being a web developer full of deadlines but are they manageable? From friends, I gather most companies want to create a lower stress environment so we can create our code in peace for the most part. Is that a fair assumption?

    Anyway, I used to be a sales engineer for a hosting company and it was the happiest time full of testing new projects, training sales teams, trying to update our websites with my limited skills at the time. I’m looking to get back to that but be able to build and rebuild code as well if needed when needed. I think that’s why I was so easily let go last time. I was more of a middle manager and you know what happens to them ….

    Anyway, let us have a short update of how your day goes now.
    What can I expect when I want to find a development position in December?

    Thanks a lot!
    Hunter

    Reply
    • Melissa Suzuno

      Hi Hunter, thanks for stopping by and congratulations on starting Codecademy! I hope it’s going well so far. I’m sure it’ll be a little scary at first, but it sounds like you have a realistic attitude about what to expect. Regarding your question, I know that Glen changed positions since we did the AfterCollege interview, so his new role and day-to-day life on the job may be a little different. I’ll check in with him and let you know what he has to say!

      Reply

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