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Andy Stitt
Andy Stitt

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Choose your own adventure to break into web development

If you are an aspiring developer, breaking into the industry can seem like a monumental task. There is so much to learn, and there are so many paths you can take to get in.

Following people on social media can make it seem like there's only one true path to success: learning the most complex, cutting-edge technologies and landing a job at a big tech company due to your engineering prowess.

But what if that's not the right path for you?

It's so easy to twist ourselves into pretzels trying to fit into something that looks cool to us, which is influenced by everyone else saying how cool it looks.

Other people's opinions influence us all the time. It started when we were young children, and we learned how things worked in our family system. We didn't always have the freedom to express our true selves and our true needs and desires in order to receive love.

Exploring why you, as an individual with a unique blueprint never seen before on this planet and never to be seen again, want to break into web development is an incredibly useful exercise.

A few things to consider as you choose your own adventure:

What type(s) of organizations do you want to serve?

What kind of work do you find interesting, exciting, and inspiring?

I did nonprofit tech for over a decade, and I'm now in state government. I have been in the "tech for good" lane since 2008. I love working for organizations that I believe are making a difference in people's lives.

How about you? What lights you up? What type(s) of organizations do you want to serve?

I intentionally say "serve" instead of "work for" because there are a number of ways to serve organizations. You can work for them directly. You can work for a consultancy that has them as clients. You can do freelance work for them.

There are lots of paths in.

What kind of web technologies do those organizations use?

If you have identified a type of organization/industry that you want to break into, look at the types of web technologies that they use.

When I started my career in nonprofit tech, I found WordPress to be easy for me to understand and implement. Lucky for me, WordPress is also heavily used in the nonprofit world, and I was the lead WordPress developer for a nonprofit for 2.5 years.

Luckier for me, I now work in state government, and all of the websites that we are in charge of are built in WordPress.

Heck, the incoming Biden-Harris administration's website is built in WordPress. That lets me know that I can stay the course in my current path.

See if you can identify web technologies that your desired organizations/industries use.

Your primary job is to build websites that get results

The people in charge of the organization that you serve want to use technology to get results, and they don't care what technology it is.

It's your job to build a website that gets more customers, more donors, more volunteers, more marketing leads, more [insert objective here].

The people in charge will not look down on you if you use jQuery instead of React, if it satisfactorily gets the job done.

Understanding the needs of the business, the current technical infrastructure, and the skills and abilities of your teammates is invaluable as a developer.

You need an organization that's a good culture fit for you

When you're breaking into tech, the best thing you can have is team members who can support you.

I went at it solo for 11 years, and using Google, tutorials, and Stack Overflow was my primary mode of getting help. I have been part of a team for over a year, and it has hugely built up my skills and confidence as a developer in a way that going solo never could.

Web development is complex and challenging. Going at it alone can be isolating. We are social beings, and having the safety of teammates who can help you allows you to have greater access to the analytical part of your brain required for problem-solving. If you feel like you're alone, then access to that part of your brain is inhibited.

Since I've started working as a member of a team, I've had the benefit of:

  • Asking for help to debug a problem that I can't solve
  • Asking someone to review my code to make sure that it makes sense and most effectively gets the job done
  • Asking if we have already have code for a piece of new functionality that I get asked to build for a website, so I don't have to write something from scratch

Freelancer vs. contractor vs. employee - whatever works best for you

I have bad news for you: you can't just start a freelance practice, magically generate five figures a month in revenue, and spend your days on a beach in Tahiti. It doesn't just magically work that way no matter how much some people want to make you believe it does.

I set up my own freelance WordPress development practice, and I had to close my doors within seven months because I ran out of work and money.

Doing the work AND drumming up new business AND managing my money and health insurance and everything else under the sun is absolutely not for me.

However, during that time, I learned how to play the game with tech recruiters. I've gotten temporary contract work, long-term contract work (my job right now), and full-time work from them as well.

I learned to align myself with recruiters who wanted to find the best possible job for me, and who had people banging down their doors trying to fill tech roles.

For the contract positions that I've had, my recruiters also provided benefits. In my current contractor role, I have health insurance and a 401k.

Whether you want to be a freelancer or contractor or employee depends on your unique needs. There isn't one way to do it. There are lots of ways to get in.

Open as many doors as you need to get in

If you're interested in tech, but the traditional ways of getting in that everyone raves about don't resonate with you, that's ok.

There are lots of people who have made satisfying careers for themselves in tech by choosing their own adventure.

Your journey is uniquely yours. Find those open doors, get support wherever you can, and go for it!

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