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How I Went From Total Beginner to Senior Web Developer

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Think you’d like to get into web development but don’t have the right degree or background? The good news is that it’s never been easier to enter this field. Just tap into some of the resources that are available to you, dedicate some time to practicing and improving your skills, and you’ll be well on your way from total beginner to senior web developer.

Joey Nguyen began his career in marketing and advertising, but soon discovered it wasn’t the field for him. Guest writer Melissa Nguyen (no relation) interviews Joey about how he decided to pursue web development, what skills he needed to score his first developer job, and how he’s been able to keep learning and progressing in his career.

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Did you graduate with a major you’re not passionate about—or maybe you landed that first job out of college and turns out it’s not what you wanted? Senior Front-End Web Developer Joey Nguyen leads us through his career transition from advertising to web development. He shares his self-study techniques and strategies for success in your current job and beyond.

joey nguyen

What did you study in college and how did it help you land your first job out of college? Do you think it helped your career transition later on at all?

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor’s of Science in Advertising. I ended up with that degree after struggling to find a major I liked and chose advertising only because it was slightly more interesting than the other fields that I took classes in. Having that degree and my experience working part-time in the marketing department at The Harry Ransom Research Center played a large part in my landing a job in an ad agency right out of college. However, I don’t think my advertising degree had anything to do with my career transition.

Why did you decide to transition out of advertising and into web development?

I transitioned out for several reasons. I never enjoyed my job responsibilities nor did I have much interest in the topics that I needed to learn to get better and move up in that career path. I didn’t like being forced to promote products/clients that I didn’t believe in. Also, as a person who believes in and tries to practice minimalism, working in an industry based on consumerism wasn’t the right fit for me.

Describe that atmosphere of your advertising jobs. How did you navigate that environment to be able to do more of what you liked? How did you then facilitate your career transition?

After leaving my first job at an ad agency, I started at a new advertising company that was really small, less than 10 people, so I got to wear a lot of hats once I proved myself capable. I worked on SEO (search engine optimization), PPC (pay-per-click), Linux server administration, and web development. The first two were advertising-related so I learned them on the job. The second two I spent my free time on nights and weekends learning with guidance from a former coworker that I became friends with who was really good at IT and programming.

My friend saw some potential in me after noticing that I had a good grasp of computers from our conversations, and he was the one who convinced me to switch to a career in technology. He showed me a few things and helped me get started and then gave me a bunch of stuff to study (books, online articles, etc). He also showed me what software products I should be using, all open-source stuff.

So by working with him and studying on my own during my free time, I was able to convince my boss at the time to put my new skills to use for the company instead of paying an outside contractor more money to do it. I gained actual work experience this way, and after three years working full-time and studying in my free time, I felt I had gained enough skills to make the switch. (I wasn’t always studying. I made time for friends, family, and traveling, too. But over those three years, I must’ve spent a few hundred hours of my free time towards it.)

I was able to find a company in Dallas, Texas, that had a few openings for junior level web developers, so I applied and got the job.

What was your self-study process like while learning coding and technology?

My friend was a really great guy, and he offered to teach me some stuff to get started, so in the beginning I’d meet up with him after work or on the weekends once or twice a week. We’d hang out, do the usual stuff friends do like watch TV/movies, play chess and ping pong, and he’d teach me how to build and run a virtual Linux web server. When I wasn’t meeting with him, I’d spend my time reading online articles and blogs related to what he was teaching me.

After a while, he moved away so I kept learning on my own, building upon the foundation he taught me. I started learning how to code to build websites because there was a need for a person to do that at my company, but we had no one except an outside contractor to do it. I convinced my boss to pay for a membership to an online site called Lynda.com that does video tutorials on all kinds of topics, including web development. I’d spend my free time on nights and weekends on that site improving my coding skills, learning things like HTML, CSS, and Javascript (jQuery). I preferred these online videos over traditional classroom classes because I could do them at my convenience.

My advice to efficiently study is to find an atmosphere you’re comfortable in that’s conducive to studying and just force yourself to concentrate. Do your best to ignore social media and other online distractions, and look at them only during short breaks. I like coffee shops because there’s Wi-Fi, coffee to keep you alert, and food for when you get hungry so you don’t have to stop your studying to go get food.

What was your interview process like when you transitioned into your developer role in Dallas?

Since I was living in Houston at the time and the job was in Dallas, I had my initial interview by phone with the HR manager. We went over basic questions like my skills, experience, why I wanted the job, etc. It went well so I was asked to come to Dallas for an in-person interview. In my second interview, I met with the person who was going to be my manager and one of the lead developers on the team. It was a pretty relaxed interview. The guys were really friendly. They asked me to write some code on the whiteboard to prove that I knew what I was doing and could write code by memory instead of having to rely on a simplified code editor like Adobe Dreamweaver (BTW, don’t use Dreamweaver). It was a junior level developer position so the test was really simple, more so than I expected.

For my job search, I was using websites like Monster.com, Dice.com, and Indeed.com to search for openings around Texas for a job at a junior level.

What are your tasks and responsibilities as a junior developer? And how did you ask your boss for more challenging work?

The name of the company is Dealertrack Technologies. For the first two years, I worked on building new client sites and maintaining existing ones. For building the sites, I took the Photoshop files that our designers gave us and coded together the front-end of the website based on the design.

Early on, I didn’t really have to ask for more challenging work. As I kept working and improving, my manager noticed my progress through my interactions with other developers at my level, helping them with things they couldn’t figure out, as well as his discussions with the senior developers on our team about how I was performing. I was given more challenging work as a result.

We also had quarterly reviews that gave us a chance to talk with our manager about how things were going (there was always an open-door policy where we could speak to him at any time, but I usually felt more comfortable with waiting until these review meetings came).

The reviews were as casual or formal as you wanted them to be. My manager was an easygoing guy, but he always said that if he could help me in any way, that I should just ask. I can’t speak for the other developers on my team, but for me, the meetings were basically, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.”

After the first year, once I felt like I really had a good grasp of the technology and the day-to-day work became a bit too easy and boring, I started to use the review meetings to proactively ask my manager for more challenging tasks. One thing that sticks out in my mind is that in the first review meeting where I came in with a list of questions, he was pleasantly surprised and told me that no one on the team had done that before, and he liked the initiative that it showed.

I asked questions like, “What can I do to continue improving beyond the work that I’m currently doing?” and “What new technologies would you want to incorporate into our process that we haven’t yet and can I work on making that happen?” I think these are tactful questions that show your manager that you’re driven and if they’re a good manager, they’d want you to continue improving. And if you ask to work on things to help yourself grow while also benefiting the team, that’s a win-win situation for you and your manager.

How was your transition and how did you navigate it every time you were promoted? What was different after the promotions?

With my first promotion, there wasn’t really much transitioning involved. I stayed on the same team and worked on the same stuff. It was more a recognition based on my skill level and what I contributed to the team/company.

My second promotion followed shortly after I was moved to a new team, which I’m on currently. As opposed to my previous team where it was all front-end developers building and maintaining customer-facing client websites, I was brought to this new team as a front-end specialist where I work with software engineers, quality assurance analysts, and product managers to build a new web application system that allows clients to make edits to their sites. It’s much more challenging work, and I’m learning new things every day, which I’m very excited about.

What advice do you have in terms of working toward promotions?

Make time to continue developing your skills outside of work. Work on cool technologies that you don’t have a chance to at work. One day, your company may need someone with those skills, and if you already have it, it can lead to promotions (it happened for me). The opportunities are out there; you just have to be ready to receive them.

Also, talk to your coworkers about the things you’re working on. The people that are as driven as you are probably working on interesting new technologies as well. You’ll build a camaraderie and can help each other out by promoting one another’s skills if you hear those technologies being discussed by others in the company. Be helpful to others and they’ll be helpful to you.

Ask your manager what it would take for you to get to the next level and keep him/her updated with your progress towards that goal. If work gets to be too easy, don’t be content with coasting by; ask for tougher responsibilities.

What are your responsibilities and day-to-day schedule as a senior front-end web developer?

I work with my team to make sure that the features the engineers build look good and provide a good user experience for the customers who will eventually be using it. I write code to ensure that all of the features and web pages are responsive, which means they’ll look good and work on any device and browser that we support, ranging from tablets to Windows computers to Macs.

When I’m not busy with that, I’m working to improve my skills so that I’ll one day be able to do what the engineers are doing––building new features. My current goal is to transition from a front-end developer to a full-stack developer, someone who can do both front-end and back-end. Right now, I’m getting better by helping with small things like fixing bugs that our QAs find in the features.

Any other advice for new college graduates looking to get into web development or established folks who want to transition into web development?

Advice for people looking to get into coding: It’ll probably be frustrating in the beginning. Very frustrating. For a long time. Don’t beat yourself up. Most likely, you haven’t done anything like it before, so it’s only natural that things don’t make sense right away. It may take a while before you grasp what it is that you’re trying to learn. Be persistent and don’t give up. It’s a very rewarding feeling once you get it. And try to find a friend who understands code whom you can go to for questions. Having someone explain things makes a big difference versus reading about it. Video tutorials are great for this reason, so look for them. Teamtreehouse.com is a great paid resource for learning web development.

Oh, and get good with the command line—things like Linux, Bash, Vim, and SSH. No matter what type of web development you do, being proficient on the command line pays huge dividends. If you focus on the front-end like I did, it really sets you apart and gives you an advantage over your peers since most front-end developers (at least in my experience) don’t take the time to develop a good understanding of it. And command line knowledge is pretty much a requirement for back-end developers.

I’ll end my advice with some of my favorite quotes that focus on a single and simple, but important, theme:

  • “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” – Abraham Lincoln
  • “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” – Kevin Durant
  • “Dream big, work hard.” – J. J. Watt
  • “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien

Homework time! Check out some of the resources that Joey recommends, like Lynda and Teamtreehouse. And, if you know someone who already has some technical skills, see if they’d be willing to mentor you like Joey’s friend did.

Find more of guest blogger Melissa Nguyen’s writing at writingsbymelissanguyen.wordpress.com.

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