With a formal education in visual arts—extensive experience in the photographic industry from professional printing services, to commercial image-making, to once-a-portrait-studio-manager, to self-published author—I have been well-prepared for my current occupation as a web developer. Say what?
Someday my kids will wonder how I migrated from one field of study to another, from one occupation to another, and my short answer will be “because you have to do, what you have to do.” For the long answer, I will point them toward the bookshelf, to find the dusty and spiral bound Project 365, directing them to one of the last entries of my year-long pet-project, which are the words in front of your eyes right now.
I originally titled this collection of verbs and pronouns as Will Code for Food (Or Coffee), but during the writing process, another title rose to the surface as a more poignant and supersonically awesome representation.
A previous entry titled Autobiography of a Shutterbug, Part I described the transition into selecting photography as a creative discipline. A future narrative, titled Autobiography of a Shutterbug, Part II, will round out the story between graduating college, and becoming disenchanted with the field of photography on a professional level. So between the two, I will have documented the process of entirely walking away from photography.
From a timeline perspective, you, dear reader, will be at this precise point in my life: when I adopt a career in the digital world, in exchange for food (or coffee).
Of course, it’s a bit dramatized—what isn’t a tad over the top, in this collection of stories?—but the generalized gist of how I became a web guy is a fun and interesting story. So enjoyable, I think I’ve told it 1,025 times before. In a collection of happenstance, luck, and simple good fortune, I quit my sales job at a retail photographic supplier for a gig as a professional (at least, semi-professional) web coder, web designer, web developer, web monkey, or whatever you want to call it.
But first, another backstory, in the form of a basic BASIC program…
10 print "I CUT MY CODING TEETH ON A PLATFORM"
20 print "THAT WAS MORE STUPID THAN MY COFFEE MAKER"
30 goto 10
Basically, BASIC was the basic form of programming, in the 1970s and 1980s, and basically responsible for the explosive growth of the home-computing industry. I just wanted to see how many forms of “basic” that I could fit into the previous sentence. Go ahead, say Thank You, for without the language, you probably wouldn’t have the space-aged iPhone in your pocket today. The language was highly functional, yet easy to work with as an amateur programmer or hobbyist.
Thank you, BASIC—I love my iPhone.
I guess that I was a very lucky kid, in the fact that my household owned a top-shelf, super-powered computer known by the moniker of Commodore VIC-20. That powerhouse of a PC—extreme sarcasm inserted here—boasted 5 kilobytes of RAM. In comparison, the iPhone in your pocket rocks out at 3 gigabytes of RAM. I can’t even figure out the conversion between the two units of measurement: it’s a huge difference.
Anyway, just believe me when I say that the VIC-20 was hot stuff, very hot stuff.
The bread and butter of the platform fell anywhere between home computing needs (spreadsheets and financing) to gaming (mostly graphic-less, text-based adventures), as well as a terminal for hacker-wanna-bees and amateur coders, like me. That’s where I first learned the art of computer programming, in the early 1980s: variables, if/else statements, loops, and conditional logic. Now, with much honesty, my programs were nothing to write home about—extremely simple, just like the code above which produced an infinite loop on the computer screen, printing line after line of programmed output.
Incidentally, the VIC-20 was my entry point into the world of “video games”, and I use the quotations for a specific reason—everything was text-based! For an example, check out this clip on YouTube for the game that rocked my world—Adventure 3: Mission Impossible. Yes, it was all text-based, and you had to use your imagination. Now, I love my Playstation 4 and the amazing textures and graphics, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of old “video” games.
By 1986, during my 7th Grade experience, home-computing was really taking off, and becoming incorporated into mainstream culture. At some point during 1986 or 1987 or 1988, I took a computing class in school. I can’t really remember which specific year, but I can vividly remember the hallway in my Junior High—as well as the TRS-80 computer that we used.
A few years after the debut of VIC-20, an upgraded personal computer, Commodore 64, replaced most of the ancient units in the American household.
By 1989, during my 9th Grade experience, I was enrolled in computing classes that focused on (I bet you guessed it already) coding in BASIC. I think I was pretty good at that class, but I could be remembering it incorrectly.
And then, in 10th Grade, I traded all of that computer coding curriculum in for studies in Drafting because I wanted to be an architect. All of my energy went into studying drafting with hopes of migrating to my Dream Profession. I’m sure that I’ve told the story before, but my grades were insufficient for the Architecture program at Penn State University, and I had to succumb to the realization that Some Kind of Visual Arts But I’m Not Sure Which path was in my immediate future. And that’s how I graduated with a focus in Visual Arts with a concentration in Photography, and no tangible direction or aspiration to speak of.
Ha ha ha, I should’ve stuck with the programming path!
Five years after my college education and graduation, circa 1999, endless and pointless toil in an awkward photographic profession, I decided that I needed to make Some Kind of Change, although I wasn’t sure what that actually looked like. My career change wasn’t based on boredom, but rather a mentality of because you have to do, what you have to do. I knew that there had to be more to my life. My fate wasn’t allotted to a depressing job that I hated, which barely paid the bills, that afforded little opportunity to buy a house or start a family.
Creeping upon the edge of a new millennium—the world was about to flip over to 2000—I had a wife and a dog and a car, and not much else to boast about. My career as a photographer was laughable, my skills were unmarketable, and my $7-per-hour was dismal.
And it was just about that point in the world, when the Internet was becoming hot stuff, very hot stuff.
A largely-analog world had started to dip its collective toe in the waters of digital-this and digital-that: cameras, phones, websites. Web what? Sure, I used tools like America Online for email and eBay for buying/selling photographic equipment, but that was stretching my experience with a world-soon-to-be-digital-everything.
The Go-buy-a-book Era
I can thank my wife for my trek down the dusty and overgrown path known as web development. While working at the camera store, knee-deep in my miserable minimum wage wallows, she suggested that I look into this new, emerging thing called the World Wide Web. The exact words of the conversation are lost on me, but this would accurately represent the discussion that followed:
Me: “I don’t know anything about the web, or programming anything web-related.”
Her: “Ok, well, go buy a book.”
And that was it, that was the start of it all. I found a used book store, purchased an intimidating, two-inch-thick book on how to program stuff—whatever that meant, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. In my spare time, I learned the basics—I’m not exaggerating when I say the bare minimum, literally—of web coding.
One day, my wife spotted an ad in the newspaper for an agency who was searching for a web developer. Hmm, that’s me? Umm, I mean…that’s me! I replied to the ad, secured an interview, and wore my best I Know Exactly What You’re Talking About hat to the interview. I can still remember when the recruiter—it was a head-hunter agency—asked me for my salary requirements: “I’m looking for $10 per hour,” I replied. I was shooting for the stars, a salary that eclipsed my wages at that time. Without hesitation, the recruiter drafted the papers, on the spot, for a six-month contract. I was to be placed at a corporation in Pittsburgh, specifically the Strip District neighborhood, as a web designer—at that time, the terms web designer and web developer were synonymous.
I joyfully quit my job at the camera store.
The contract period was beneficial in shaping my skills (or lack thereof), and I learned on the job. After six months, the corporation hired me directly, at the base salary of $38,000 per year, including full benefits.
Queue the Happy Dance in 3, 2, 1.
What an amazing point in my life! And I still remember it all so very fondly. From a financial viewpoint, I rocketed into the stratosphere of Wow, We May Actually Be Able to Buy a House Someday; from a professional viewpoint, I learned so much more during my tenure at that position.
After a year and a half, I thought I was hot stuff, very hot stuff.
I let the management know my expected, monumental salary jump for the new year, following my stellar yearly review. They wholeheartedly disagreed with my very hot stuff self-appraisal.
By the Spring, I had responded to a series of Help Wanted ads in the newspaper. I say a series of because I had two jobs that I really wanted: Job A paid more money, but Job B was at an advertising agency which I thought would be an amazing opportunity for experience in my field. With offers from both companies—at a significant raise in salary—I opted for Job A.
Money, get away / Get a good job with more pay and you’re okay / Money, it’s a gas / Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash / New car, caviar, four-star daydream / Think I’ll buy me a football team ~ Money by Pink Floyd
I was young and dumb (yes, I can admit that), and it didn’t take too long to realize that I made the wrong decision. Actually, it only took one day. I showed up on day one at Job A, and I was told (along with a handful of new recruits) that we wouldn’t be touching any code, any where, any time soon. The business was in the middle of a huge new product launch. I still can’t remember why I took a job there—oh yeah, the money, honey—although I can recall the distinct experience of quitting after one day.
One day: not many people can claim a job for one day. Cross that one off of the bucket list.
Having interviewed with Job B, and gracefully declining their offer of full-time employment (at a lower salary than Job A), I promptly called the manager on the following day. I explained the situation, asked for another chance to take his job, and he gracefully extended another offer (for the same lower salary than Job A), which I promptly accepted.
And just like that, I became the official Senior Web Developer—incidentally, the first hired in a dedicated interactive department as a coder, for a major advertising agency. I’m going to park that right there, not telling you the specific name of the company, because the rest of the story, and the impetus for me to start my own web developemtn company, is to follow in the next section.
The You-can’t-have-your-morals-and-eat-your-cake-too Era
I was experiencing life in its full up-swing arc:
- we had saved enough money, over a year, to eventually shop for and buy a house,
- we upgraded vehicles to include a swank Isuzu Rodeo in our personal fleet,
- I belonged to a backpacking group with a few of the guys at the office and went on several memorable adventures,
- the contemplation of children-someday was on the horizon,
- I was experiencing a renewed surge of Christian faith after becoming too lax,
- my skills as a web developer were increasing,
- I has started a respectable freelance business (coding at night),
- and my career in said advertising agency was going really well.
As the senior member of the team, I was responsible for bringing new developers on to the team, hiring several people. I also became the person responsible for scoping web development requirements for major-named websites and clients, across the United States. The agency sent me, along with the account rep, to new business meetings in distant cities such as Boston, MA, Newwark, NJ, Chicago, IL, and Minneapolis, MN.
Life was really good back then. And then the agency landed their first (to my best recollection) million dollar contract with a software/hardware manufacturer.
We were all wondering: what the heck does a million dollar website look like? How big, how shiny, how swank, does it have to be for a million bucks?
I still don’t know the answer. During the development cycle (or lack thereof), we were supposed to be placing time into the project, building it out, making it awesome—you know, the typical behavior of a firm who landed a one million dollar contract. Each week, we were obligated to allot time to the project—in theory anyway, if not in reality—to move the project along, or maybe I should say, to move the billing along.
Yeah, maybe you’ve heard this one before? I was told to add time into my weekly timesheet, for a project that I wasn’t working on, and, for that matter, no one was working on. At least, none of my web development staff.
I told my legitimate, moral quandary to my supervisor—name withheld intentionally, but definitely the worst person that I ever worked for in my lifetime—and was met with the appropriate response of Yeah, So What’s the Problem? or something along those lines.
I redefined the problem, maybe different verbs and adjectives would work better: “I didn’t work on this job, so I will not say that I did, just to bill the client for time against the $1mil project.” To which, my response was met with an in-person, closed-door meeting, in my supervisor’s office, with the agency’s General Manager in attendance. As if there was some miscommunication, I was required to state the problem, once more at a slower pace, which was apparently My Problem alone.
If you know me, really know me, you can appreciate my bridled tongue, and the fact that I do not curse. It’s intentional, believe me. I would have loved to lay out a stream of profanities, from my boss’s office back to my cubicle. But I didn’t.
In my native tongue of Pittsburghese: jagoffs.
Shortly thereafter, forced to choose between my moral obligations in life and that of my profession, I quit my comfortable job. Everything was wrapped up in that job: my money, my future house, my experience, my benefits, my retirement—my everything.
And sometimes in life, you must choose which path to follow: the road paved in new bricks, or that dusty and overgrown path through the mysterious forest of uncertainty. I can tell you that it requires heaps more courage to follow the latter, into a tree-line which you can’t see beyond the edge.
The How’s $40? Era
At the time, I had one steady freelance client—in hindsight, he was a scoundrel also—that offered me an opportunity to work with him on a continued basis, with a guaranteed workload of 30 hours per week, at $40 per hour. I jumped on the chance to build out my own business, work from home, and scoff at the morally-challenged workplace that disrupted my cozy career.
On my own, I was forced to learn new technologies as new projects turned up. It was an amazing opportunity to advance my skills, and I sometimes miss those early days around 2001. As my business gathered more experience and new clients, I was able to ditch the $40/hour client and follow my gut by billing all new clientele services at $75/hr, eventually increasing that rate to $100.
With each new client, I’d offer to buy them a cup of coffee, or (if they had their own office) I’d bring a dozen of cookies to new business meetings. Inevitably, a new client would want to know how I got started in the industry, and I would recount one of several detailed stories—reflecting the actual experience, in varying complexity—to suit the mood of the conversation. It was a crowd pleaser, a real underdog story.
I still root for underdogs, whenever possible.
We bought a house, spawned a child, and upgraded to a mini-van. Work was steady, and life was much more simple back then. Year after year, the demands of a growing family became more difficult to fulfill: more food and additional expenses demanded more income—a feat that isn’t always easy to manifest, as an independently employed man.
Have you ever had that moment when you looked back on something and said, ‘Well, gosh, that seems obvious now… why didn’t I see it then?’ I like to call this the Face Palm Epiphany. Oh, hindsight, you magical, humbling thing. ~ Alethea Kontis
Wedged between 2003 and 2005, was a multi-year episode of starting another web-based business with yet another scoundrel business partner. The decision to walk away from my established freelance business was flat out the wrong decision. The details of which are not suitable for this forum, but that endeavor was one of the best and worst experiences of my life. Completely ruined on a financially level, and empty on a spiritual level, it afforded me the opportunity to return back to God and the relationship with Him that I had previously turned my back upon.
The Above-a-bakery-the-smells-are-so-so-sweet Era
By 2012, I had rebounded from financial decimation by rebuilding my freelance business back from nothing. With hopes of establishing a business larger in scope than just myself, I signed a lease for an office above Bethel Bakery. During my four-year residency in that space, I attempted to build that business. I hired a full-time developer, which didn’t work out for so many various reasons. I hired a part-time subcontractor, which actually worked out terrifically. I landed my biggest project of all time during that period, which will always be a notable accomplishment in my entrepreneurship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I experienced the cruelty of the business world when a client came after me, for a large financial claim, on a project that had failed for too many reasons to mention.
Such is the life of a business owner, and for the most part, I would not have changed a single experience over the years. Each one of those experiences has defined my character, for better or for worse.
Metaphorically speaking, I couldn’t keep enough water in the bathtub to bathe my family, before it all ran down the drain. Debt accrued, but then a big job would pay out, I’d pay my bills, immediately followed by the span of I’m in a Waiting Pattern to Bill or Yes That Client Owes Me Thousands of Dollars, and the cresting wave of feast or famine was my on-going reality. For years and years, I followed that pattern. Believe me, you don’t want to be in that boat when the wave finally breaks, sending you plummeting into a deep dark sea of stress and uncertainty.
With a flux in projects—by 2014 or 2015—adjustments to the client roster, along with some not-so-fantastic business decisions, I once again found myself in a well-known situation. I was, once again, feeling the familiar pinch of “because you have to do, what you have to do.”
But in the end, I knew that I had to give up the self-employment dream. I couldn’t produce and complete enough work to pay the bills, and it was as simple as that. In February of 2016, I chose to not renew the yearly lease and packed up my belongings, migrating to a home office environment, once more.
The Werkin’-for-da-man Era
I had been actively searching for a full-time position for 18-months; that was a very long year and a half. But, in my heart, I knew that the perfect position would present itself—even if I had to interview with handfuls of businesses. In May of 2016, I interviewed with the University of Pittsburgh, and, as they say, the rest is history. I landed a full-time job that I love, loaded with more benefits than I deserve (including a future education for my children), that pays a very fair wage.
In a career of web development, spanning nearly 20 years, I have come full circle in my career. I now work “for the Man,” happily, I will add. Freelance business still occurs, in the evening hours, and helps to build a savings account (in theory, at least) and meet additional financial needs. I just wish that I didn’t have to take that twenty year detour, circling the airport runway, waiting for a lane to open so that I could land.
Sometimes—no, always—we do not get the opportunities to shape our own lives in a manner that we can imagine or design for ourselves. You can plan and plan all that you want, but life never goes in a specific direction that you mandate on your own.
Don’t tell me it’s not worth tryin’ for / You can’t tell me it’s not worth dyin’ for / You know it’s true / Everything I do / I do it for you ~ (Everything I Do) I Do It for You by Bryan Adams
Dear child, should you find yourself sifting through the pages of this dusty year-long narrative, seeking wisdom or simple entertainment, you may find this point in your life familiar. Without the ability to see into the future, it is my greatest hope that this transition back into the workforce will be marked as one of the best decisions that I ever made—for my career, for our household, and for your future education. I could be wrong, but I hope that I’m not.
Maybe the song lyrics were a bit over the top, but the sentiment is true. Each decision (sometimes for the better and sometimes for worse) has been made with my family in mind “because you have to do, what you have to do.”