My father used to say, “Life’s what happens while you’re busy making plans.” Back then, I couldn’t appreciate how true that phrase really was. When I was growing up, I didn’t make very many plans. Driven mostly by impulses and a stockpile of assorted energy drinks, the only real plan I maintained was that, somehow, I would be a doctor. More specifically, I was to become a trauma surgeon.
It wasn’t that I was in love with the work, or that I felt some need to be looked at as a hero. It just seemed like a real swell way to get paid. I suppose the inherent respect and prestige didn’t hurt either. So, I spent my adolescence applying myself just enough to maintain an excellent GPA and avoiding any trouble that might otherwise derail my plan.
One day I returned home to welcome the newest addition to my family. Her name was Packard Bell. She was a blazing fast 90 megahertz Pentium powered PC boasting 16 megabytes of ram and running Windows 3.1. The seed had been planted. To this day, I can still vividly remember my frustrations when trying to run newer applications and instead being met with a fury inducing error message informing me that the application required a 32-bit environment.
The internet changed everything. Long before broadband internet, BitTorrent, and NetFlix, there was America Online (AOL.) Back when internet usage was doled out in 30 hour trial discs and the mere act of connecting meant listening to a painful symphony of beeps and modem static, AOL was busy redefining how and why people used their personal computers.
The first website I’d ever built was through “AOL Hometown”, a service which allowed AOL subscribers to create simple personal web pages by offering them a massive 12 megabytes of web hosting and an unintimidating wizard-driven page builder. At some point, I realized that you could connect separate pages together to form something greater using hyperlinks. The term web developer hadn’t yet grafted itself to our lexicons, so that day I became a “webmaster.”
By high school, I found myself completely addicted to online gaming. You know you’ve got a problem when your dreams, (and nightmares,) are consistently set in your game world rather than the real one. I used to wake up a few hours early every morning just so I could get my fix before being carted off to school.
I had never been overly athletic or popular. Let’s just say that my lunch table had plenty of unoccupied seats. Whereas most kids find their niche in some school-sponsored extracurricular or art, I felt most at home on the internet. Online gaming was becoming a much more social and organized pastime. Whether it was a team, a clan, or a guild, I always belonged to some collection of equally addicted individuals who sought to bring legitimacy to their hobby.
One common approach was to establish a website and other infrastructure. On these occasions, I was thrilled by the chance to be seen as valuable. I could build a website. These frequent requests to develop a web presence for otherwise anonymous organizations gave me a reason to spend hours pouring over tutorials and guides which comprised my original education on the topic of web development.
This was still well before anybody had ever heard of WordPress, and anything I built that wasn’t simply a static site typically relied upon an ancient sorcery known as PhpNuke. (Quite possibly the first widely used PHP content management system) I found myself learning something new after each site I built and I could tell that I was getting better at it, but this talent and curiosity wasn’t making me any money. I was still going to be a doctor.
Eventually, it was time to go to college. Thank God I was given a full scholarship because a few months working at Blockbuster doesn’t quite cover tuition. I entered as a Biology/Pre-Medicine double major. Here I was finally working down the path that would ultimately lead to a PhD at the end of my name. The only problem was I absolutely loathed Biology.
After a few weeks, it was clear that I wouldn’t survive several years following this track. This was a terrifying realization. For years, I had been introduced by my parents as their son Justin, who was going to be a doctor. I felt as though I’d forfeited my identity and my future. I scrambled to set my sights on some equally noteworthy alternative fate.
It occurred to me that I enjoyed working with computers. I’d already demonstrated a gift with programming that set me apart from my peers. Perhaps this was what I was meant to do. (Or at the very least, it had to be a little easier than my previous ambitions.) So after one semester, I converted into a Computer Science major and set to work trying to determine how that would translate into a worthwhile career.
At the time, students interested in programming could follow one of two tracks: software development or web development. I’d grown fascinated with the internet over the years, so it seemed like an easy decision. My coursework focused more heavily on software development through traditional languages like C+ though, so I was left to teach myself the skills I needed to be productive as a web developer.
I’ll always be grateful for the hundreds of tutorials and articles that introduced new techniques, technologies, and concepts to me in a very approachable way. If it weren’t for these tremendous resources, I don’t know where I’d be now. Hopefully I’ll be able to contribute some of my own in the near future to give back to a community that has given me so much.
My first few years were spent freelancing alongside my day job as a bill collector for General Electric. I think GE preferred the title “Collections Associate” or “Account Representative”, but the customers had much more creative and far less dignified names for us. It was by far the least enjoyable and most soul-crushing occupation I’ve ever held and was a fantastic motivator for me to find a more fulfilling livelihood.
Freelance opportunities were somewhat scarce, but I knew that I was going to need some relevant experience in order to get a job doing what I wanted to do. So I took on any gig that would help put notches in my belt and a few dollars to my PayPal account. Most of the work centered around building or updating dinky little websites for local businesses. It didn’t make me rich, but it did help keep me focused on landing a meaningful job.
After a couple unfortunate interviews with large organizations like Goodyear, I replied to a Craigslist posting for an intern position at a local web development and hosting company. It wasn’t Google, but it was a chance to transform my sporadic freelancing into a legitimate profession.
The interview was a nerve-racking experience. I struggled to present my freelancing efforts and side projects as relevant work experience and continually swore that all I really needed was an opportunity to prove myself. A month went by before I received a call back. Honestly, I’d given up hope when I answered the phone and was offered the internship. That was the best day I’d ever had at General Electric. After thanking the voice on the other end of the phone, I gathered my things and wished my manager good luck before striding out of that miserable call center feeling as though I was on top of the world.
All of the sudden I was working somewhere that allowed me to stand out and make a difference. The skills I’d worked to refine for so many years were finally putting food on the table. Each day I’d have to teach myself more and more to keep up with the miscellaneous development requests that would come in. I could feel myself becoming more valuable and more confident.
There is a particular kind of pride and sense of accomplishment that accompanies the ability to create something useful for someone who never could have done it themselves. I’m sure that feeling doesn’t rival saving somebody’s life on the operating table, but it’s good enough for me.
I’m Justin Sims, a 27-year-old web developer. I joined the team about 5 years ago, and I know this is where I belong. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got things to build.