How I Became a Web Developer

The internet as my hobby.

By: Sean Orfila


Drifting

A Strange Path

I didn’t set out to write software for a living. I figured I’d work outdoors, tour with a band, or travel around living out of a backpack. But alas, life has a strange, meandering path.

What began as my hobby in college eventually became a full-time trade – how that all happened I will attempt to describe here. On the internet.

Drifting

Way back machine

In 2002 I was a student in the journalism department at CSU Long Beach. Luckily the university had the foresight to see the inevitable demise of the printed newspaper. We were encouraged to study html and css in addition to the regular curricula of design, copy editing, writing and investigative journalism.

By 2004 newspaper sales were crashing and we began relying on the web for our daily information. Twitter hadn’t even been invented yet.

Surf bum

Travel Days

I set about living my 20s on the road, living out of a surfboard bag and spending half my year lifeguarding in Huntington Beach and the other half traveling to Indonesia, Mexico, Central America, Canada or some other interesting place.

I continued dabbling in html and css while traveling. I did it for fun really. I’d grown up with computers so I knew my way around a machine. I’d make blogs with travel photos & writings, publish content and stories in surf magazines and write trip reports. I generally messed around on Blogger. Nothing serious.


Making stuff for other people

Things began getting a bit more professional in 2005. That was when I created my first (real) website for a local non-profit. I built it with Adobe DreamWeaver. The site launched successfully and was my first project that wasn’t a blogger site or a custom myspace profile. It was straight-up code! No CMS.

After creating that site, I was soon offered a few other jobs by word-of-mouth to create other websites. When I began saying yes all the time is things went south. After a year or so, I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t the code, it was the business of coding.

I had zero business skills.

Burn Out

The First Burn Out

In the beginning, I hadn’t set out to be a professional web guy. Teaching myself, I realized the hard way that I knew nothing about invoicing, scope of work, running a business, managing expectations and all the business stuff that comes with self-employment.

After one particularly tough client I had had enough. I hit eject. After that project I stopped taking clients altogether. I folded the laptop and focused elsewhere. I was burnt out on the business of website development. I returned to my seasonal job as an ocean lifeguard and lives were saved.

This was the view from my office:

Northside


Leaving the beach

The lifeguarding gig wasn’t a long-term option me. Permanent lifeguard positions are rare, and I was getting burnt out dealing with the hordes of people. I wrapped up another safe summer and tried my luck apprenticing with a master hardwood flooring contractor.

Hardwood Flooring

Lessons from woodworking

I worked with said carpenter for 16 months. Together we installed, repaired and restored hardwood floors. We worked in multi-million dollar houses. I grew strong hands and a strong back and worked all day with power tools. It was good.

In construction world I made a decent life for myself and, more importantly, learned skills that I still use all the time.

But things eventually slowed down. The US economy took a pause and without back-to-back jobs I was left out to dry.

The Do-Over

Studio

When the woodworking slowed, I decided to try another go with web development. But this time I took a contractor’s approach to the business. Looking back, I now had a mature approach to the business of web design.

You see, not only did I learn woodwork from that old master craftsman, I learned the importance of bidding, estimating, drawing a fair scope of work, and delivering something that truly pleased the end user. It was basically what I was missing the first time around.

After burying myself in code again, the freelance gigs and job offers picked up – and I’ve taken the craftsman’s approach to web development ever since.