Five years ago I decided to make a 180 degree career turn and become a web devloper. At the time I was pretty good at using computers, but I had no programming experience aside from a few vague memories of typing in DOS statements in middle school. I still remember asking the web devloper in our office what CSS was and nodding along as if I understood the answer.
I’ve come a long way baby, but there were times when I wondered if I would ever know enough for someone to actually pay me to make websites. Luckily, I’ve been able to keep my fine coworkers here at Metal Toad from finding out that I still have no idea what I’m doing. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Start Networking From Day One
One of the reasons I chose the Art Institute of Portland was that it is located in the heart of Pearl District close to scores of agencies and also within easy distance of a lot of great networking opportunities. Many of our instructors are professionals who work in the industry—and that means you can pick their brains about what you need to know to be marketable. It is entirely possibly that your instructor may be your future boss, coworker or at least a reference.
While you’re networking, don’t forget about your fellow classmates. The ones who graduate or start working before you are the ones who will be able to recommend you to their bosses—unless you become known as the one who always slacks on team projects. Likewise, if you are hardworking and awesome people will remember that too. When Joaquin asked me if I knew someone who knew about search engine optimization and had excellent writing skills, one person came to mind immediately and now he works here too.
Put The Your in Your Education
I figured out pretty early on that the term ‘required’ can actually be pretty flexible if you push on the sides of the box. In any college curriculum, there will be painful classes that you cannot escape. But when it comes to your core major, you should strive to study the things that interest you the most. Photography yanks my chain a lot more than typography and websites use both so I’ve squeezed as many photography classes into my elective slots as I could. If you want to learn about a topic that isn’t offered, consider an independent study or an internship.
Speaking of Interships…
Internships are a great way to get real world experience but they can also be a great way for companies to scam free work out of you without teaching you much in return (which, by the way, is illegal). Planning ahead can help you steer towards the former and avoid the latter. (Do as I say, not as I do). If you’ve reached the point in your education where you’re starting to narrow your focus to specific technologies you’d like to learn, that is a great time to start looking for a company who can offer you real world experience in that area. In my case, I had gotten a taste of Drupal and knew I need to be hanging around some smart people who knew a lot more than I did. I was extremely lucky to get a great mentor who really enjoys sharing his knowledge. Chuck taught me more about Drupal in two days than I had learned in six months of taking classes. (Drush, anyone? Yes, thank you!)
What’s that you say? The company you have your eye on isn’t looking for interns? What does that have to do with anything? Get your notepad ready, I’m about to offer up a free Rule For Life. Ready? Here it is: If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Metal Toad wasn’t looking for an intern, and in fact I was the first intern the company has ever had. I found this out on my second day when Chuck asked, “So how did you talk Joaquin into this—he’s been anti intern forever.”
I just asked. Specifically, I emailed and explained that I was a senior at the Art Institute who was eager to learn and was there anything I could do to help him? I got a reply in about 15 minutes from Joaquin, inviting me to meet. Once I had a meeting, I had to prove that I could actually be useful which brings me to my final point:
Choose Your Tools, Learn Your Tools, Love Your Tools
Remember way back in paragraph two, when I talked about picking the brains of your instructors/industry professionals? One of the most valuable lectures I ever heard was in my first CSS class (yes, I did finally learn what CSS is!). In the computer labs at AI, we are constrained to the limitations of the software offered, which means a lot of us end up learning to code in Dreamweaver. The professor took some time in our first class to let us know that no one in her professional environement uses Dreamweaver. Although it has evolved greatly as a program, it is still considered by many to be a WYSIWYG crutch for programmers who don’t know what they’re doing.
She strongly encouraged us to find and learn one of the many excellent text editors out there and said that most people in her office use Textmate. I made the commitment right then to try Textmate, and downloaded the free trial that week. The learning curve was STEEP, my homework took twice as long, if not more, but after few weeks of unlocking the features and memorizing keyboard shortcuts, I couldn’t imagine living without it. I’m not going to tell you what editor to use—wars have been fought over less. Whether you’re on Windows or Mac, there is probably something out there that will float your boat.
In general, make a habit of keeping your ear to the ground and finding out what it being used in the industry, and then make an effort to learn those things—whether or not they are being taught in a classroom.
Here are a few other tools that will help float you to the top of the candidate pile:
- Start tracking your time. Even if it’s just for homework assignments. You will develop the habit which will be one less thing to get used to when you start working. You can also celebrate as the time it takes for you to do the same tasks becomes shorter. Harvest seems to be the cool kid on the block right now. They offer a free account and have a complimentary iPhone app and dashboard widget for Mac.
- Learn a version control system. Git is hot hot hot right now. Yes, the command-line can be scary if you don’t have any previous experience with it, but with beautiful amazing tutorials and new powerful GUI clients, you really have no excuse.
- It makes me sad to have to include this last item, but based on the two interventions I’ve had to initiate, I guess it needs to be said: Get a decent email address. No, Hotmail and AOL (I’m not kidding), don’t count. At first I thought maybe I was being too judgemental about this, but I’ve asked around, and so far all the developers I talk to say they would have a hard time taking a developer with an AOL account seriously. I’m not the boss of you, but it’s a good way to get your resume tossed in the recycle bin, so if you love trees, just bite the bullet and get yourself a nice Gmail or personal domain address.
When I showed up to my meeting to infiltrate my way into Metal Toad, I think the fact that I was already familiar with almost all the tools we use every day counted as much if not more than my knowledge of Drupal (which was not much). It showed initiative and willingingness to learn new things. That is something you can’t teach in a classroom and something employers get excited about.
Have you had an awesome internship or job opportunity or have any tips to add? Share in the comments.