5 reasons I became a web dev

Nov 9, 202212 min read read time

Originally published through Educative.io.

Sean Swanson (he/him) is a Scrum Master and web developer of 4+ years.

I used to be under the impression that in order to become a software developer, certain qualities or abilities were hard prerequisites. Essentially: be born with a knack for engineering. For a long time, I didn’t consider myself an engineer and gatekept myself out of opportunities..

It turns out that the only barrier to entry was a limiting belief. As a college student, I was gatekeeping myself out of seriously considering certain careers. This caused me to delay learning about the software development life cycle with all of its moving parts and roles involved in creating software. I’ve learned a thing or two since I started on the path to becoming a software developer and can now confidently report- and I’m not being sensational when I say this- that anyone (with an internet connection) can do this and you can start today.

This article walks through:

  • How it started
  • i . Flexibility
  • ii . Culture & Community
  • iii . Creativity is welcomed
  • iv . Time off to do the things that I love
  • v . Make a difference and learn

How it started

I’ve not had the most traditional career path- especially for a web developer. In college, I studied philosophy at the University of Washington for my undergrad. At that time my hopes and dreams were traveling the world as a fashion model. I wasn’t thinking that I would transition into a career after college, I just loved learning and felt that it was important to finish my bachelor’s degree before I plunged into the world. I was focused on balancing being immersed in my studies and a growing awareness that my financial situation had to change to support my current life and how I wanted it to be post-college.

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, my modeling booker called to tell me about an opportunity of a lifetime: “This agency in New York City wants to sign you and invites you to come out to audition for Fashion Week this Summer.” This was the call I had been hoping for years to get so I decided to go all in. I was able to finish my degree online while working modeling gigs and began traveling a few months at a time, from New York to Los Angeles. I would inevitably come back home to replenish funds in between seasons by serving at the local restaurant and catering company I had been working for years.

Despite the seemingly rhythmic nature of traveling for castings and fashion week auditions, modeling jobs were not as frequent and predictable as I would have liked. I found the lack of stability challenging and quickly realized that this dream of modeling that I had been exploring since I was 18 truly wouldn’t be a viable primary career. So, I got curious and started to look at other career trajectories and almost immediately learned about the modern web development space. Within a span of a few months, I was hearing more about web development than I had ever been exposed to. I heard from a friend the concept of coding bootcamps and learned from another person of someone who graduated from one of these bootcamps and almost immediately landed a six-figure job. Suddenly my self-gatekeeping tendency started to melt away. I was determined to learn what it takes to become a software developer and was thrilled that I had a direction to start.

Once I seriously committed to coding, I began kicking myself for not seeing the similarities to what I learned in undergrad. I noticed that philosophy has undeniable connections to coding and computer science. One of the first things I learned to develop in my philosophy courses was critical thinking. Important to business, higher education, and many other disciplines, critical thinking is also a fundamental practice in coding. The other thing that never left my side was a dedication to ethics. A strong moral framework served me well to learn to code not just for money but for social good.

I ended up enrolling in General Assembly’s Web Development Immersive course that taught us how to build a web app from early project design all the way through to development and maintenance. This broad yet rigorous course granted me exposure to certain areas of coding that I wanted to try out but wasn’t interested in doing a deep dive into yet.

There were times when I would pick up a new framework or start a new project to learn some different concept only to realize that ‘Oh, this type of thing is actually not that fun or interesting to me right now.’ Some problems are more fun than others to solve, and I ended up gravitating toward things that come more naturally to me and that I had a specific interest in. In my case, it was front-end development. If you haven’t found your groove in one area, don’t worry, keep at it and you’ll find something that clicks.

i. Flexibility

Flexibility was the primary reason I sought out a career in tech. A constant whirlwind of modeling and service industry jobs made it hard to save money or have a structure that was fully my own. I wanted a career that gave me flexibility in how I lived and work.

If I knew that I would have all this time and flexibility as a developer, I would have wanted to take this job right out of high school!

Even pre-Covid, many software engineers could determine their own schedules and work on their terms. Now with the pandemic, working from home or a hybrid situation has turned this benefit into a non-negotiable. More employees are finding themselves mandated back in the office, but often there is still a choice to stay home. This level of freedom may be taken for granted by those who have worked in technology for a while, but coming from fashion modeling and hospitality, this degree of flexibility is a great blessing.

ii. Culture & Community

I have been delighted to find that during my time as a dev, people in this field are almost always willing to lend a helping hand. Your mileage may vary, and I recognize my privilege as a white man in the space, I believe that web development communities on the internet are a net positive for the entire industry.

One of the best parts of being a front-end developer is the ample opportunity to experience emerging technologies along with other curious folks. Contrast that with the fact that you can still find engineers writing code in a 50-year-old programming language in these internet communities, it’s true that everyone can find their niche and an audience for advice to be shared.

There is a unique “choose your own adventure” newness in web development that sets it apart from other fields. You could choose to work on marketing websites, full-stack web applications, native-like Progressive Web Apps, virtual reality, non-profits, and/or open source initiatives all with the same fundamental web development toolbox: HTML, CSS, JavaScript.

When I started working at DreamBox, I wasn’t initially assigned a front-end developer role. I transitioned from a Customer Support Specialist to a junior role in Engineering by learning the ins and outs of our product, networking with colleagues across departments, and establishing mentorship. It was a long journey to break into my first full-time SDE role but because of the nature of the industry, I was able to start contributing code and even became a certified scrum master for my team in relatively short order. There’s a positive culture built inside DreamBox that supports constant learning and provides the space to take risks, try new things, and most importantly make mistakes.

With the incredible amount of resources online, anyone can poke around and try as many specializations as they need to while figuring out what they like and what they don’t.

Here’s a message to the reader: You’re not alone in this nor should you be; find a supportive community online that rallies around an interest or passion of yours and you’ll not be led astray.

iii. Creativity is welcomed

As a callback to my self-gatekeeping tendencies, I used to think that coders were anti-creative or obligate left-brained. I was an artist who studied the humanities, I couldn't become a coder- could I? I wouldn’t think twice about software development because I thought I had the wrong interests. I have a hunch that other arts and humanities folks might have that same limiting belief. This is falling by the wayside to a certain extent thanks to an emerging creative coding meta (I’m looking at you TikTok | @muhtanya) but there is still a case to be made that software development is primarily stereotyped as analytic in nature. It turns out that it’s critical to flex creativity to solve the problems that come up in web development so to all my artist friends- web development can become a fantastic new medium.

It’s kind of ironic that I felt software development was out of reach despite 2 pretty big factors:

  1. My dad used to write apps in the ’80s in GW-Basic. He even had a floppy disk series called the “Doc Swan Learning Series” which was a suite of educational math, programming, and language arts games. He recognized that attaining deep knowledge about anything can be done by being curious about the intersections of each of the related domains.
  2. I’ve been coding with HTML, CSS, and (very basic) JavaScript on almost every social media site that offered custom templating since I was a kid. Starting with my Geocities page which was a slightly hand-coded glorified altar to childhood memes and flash animations, then came a custom MySpace profile makeover, later on, my Tumblr became a sandbox of CSS designs.

I can reduce these two factors to two virtues any new developer can reflect on that leverage creativity, no matter what “side of the brain” you are:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about how something you are interested in intersects with a related (or contrasting) thing. You can discover all sorts of beautiful patterns and unexpected connections that could become learning fuel. Embrace the rabbit hole!
  2. Start learning “how the sausage is made” by creating projects or playing in sandboxes with some of the tools of the trade. Experimenting and exploring at the early stages is crucial for developing unconventional thinking.

iv. Time off

One of the most important things I have learned over the course of becoming a developer is to take ample time to invest in yourself. Your physical and mental health is your wealth. It varies by organization, but many software engineers and web developers are afforded generous time off opportunities. Take advantage of it if you are able! It’s there for a reason.

Working as a web developer affords me the time and capital to pursue creative hobbies which, frankly put, is great at fighting depression. A few years ago, I started breaking (popularly known as ‘breakdancing’, but that’s not the proper name) as a new way to get exercise, connect with others, and express my soul through movement. Forms of creative expression are important to ensure stability and groundedness when pursuing career fulfillment. This is especially true when it comes to establishing a healthy work-life balance.

Time off can help you realize your professional goals as well as be an outlet for creativity and exploration.

According to the Stackoverflow 2022 Developer Survey, 88% of professional programmers code as a hobby. This reveals a key aspect of software developers. There is a trend among software developers to constantly be productive. Unsurprisingly, this can create an environment rife with work-life balance stressors. To ensure a healthy relationship between you and your work, time off is essential.

Burnout is real, and something to learn to recognize. If something’s not working for you, be flexible and patient with yourself while you evaluate your options. Take rest and drink your water at the very minimum!

v. Make a difference and learn

I personally think that the most fulfilling work comes from being led by a purpose or a mission. This can be your own mission or someone else’s that you feel strongly aligned with. There is so much opportunity out there in the tech field that it is not just possible but likely that you can find an organization that you really mesh with.

I work as a front-end developer for DreamBox Learning. DreamBox creates adaptive math and reading software for K-12 students. Our mission is to radically transform the way the world learns. For me, it is important to have a sense of service and gravity in my work. I am fortunate enough that learning web development enabled me to choose how I spend my time and effort.

I write more about the idea of moral fulfillment in your work in the first piece I wrote with Educative: Learn to code for social good: my philosophy as an artist & dev.

My passion for learning helped get me to where I am today. Deriving joy from learning helped to get the ball rolling on my career transition at each stage. Consequently, it helped me find my current role at DreamBox where the company’s values align with my own. I am a part of a team that is developing a best-in-class learning solution for students around the world- I am pretty damn proud of the work we do.

Exercising a software engineering position as a vantage point to pass along knowledge is something I feel morally obligated to do. I aim to embody this in my professional life– both in my guest pieces here on the Educative blog and as a leader in my workplace. I am thankful that the organization I work for shares these values in the form of the dissemination of knowledge through education.

How DreamBox works:

  • DreamBox analyzes the data coming into the application with its Intelligent Adaptive Engine to gauge each child’s math development level and provide them with targeted lessons that meets them where they’re at.
  • Performance data is collected and processed in real time to be displayed visually in the Administrator Dashboard.
  • Educators can then access this dashboard to track progress.

The system uses this unique vantage point to introduce the right lessons at the right time so that the student is constantly engaged and appropriately challenged.

The most recent experiment in my web development career progression has been to become a certified scrum master. After studying for and passing the Certified Scrum Master certification as a project for an internal week-long “hackathon” event, I was phased into facilitating Scrum ceremonies for one of our sub-teams of 8 people. I was thrilled to have a new challenge. Over the next 8 months, I picked up new tools to solve problems by actually practicing as a servant-leader to help the team achieve its goals and operate with agility. This change came at a time when our company as a whole was adapting to SAFe or Scaled Agile Framework, so change management was especially relevant.

I think [relationship management] is a soft skill that engineering folks ought to be cultivating, among other traits that make up our emotional intelligence. Clear communication, maintaining good relationships with others, connecting with those from other cultures, working well in teams, and managing conflict is going to be very important for people looking to break into tech. By bringing that mentality to the workplace, you are able to unify your teams. There’s no requirement to be an extrovert or introvert, but it may be helpful to be able to banter with your fellow engineers but also know how to talk with your product owner and UX designer.

It fills me with joy to know that the web development space is continuing to become more accessible to more people. The list of resources available to learn completely free grows every month. The industry can always use fresh perspectives and people with diverse backgrounds to break down conventional tech silos and eventually create workspaces that are truly collaborative.

Happy learning!

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By Sean Swanson on November 9, 2022.

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