Last week I participated in the Hour of Code at a local middle shoool. I was tasked with assisting some classes with coding exercises provided by Code.org, and giving a career presentation. This was the first time I ever had to sum up my career in a non-interview setting, and for a much more hostile/indifferent audience: 6-8th graders.
I did not do a lot of preparation for this presentation. I approached it similar to how I would an open mic storytelling or standup set: thinking about it constantly, and arranging some bullet points shortly before I started speaking. I wanted to be able to read my audience and use their reactions to guide me in the moment. Having pulled a presentation out of my nether-regions three times now, I thought I’d compose the core of my story into a blog post.
I opened each grade’s presentation with the same question: What was the first memory you have of working with a computer? It was a bit of a trick because I knew what the answer would be: video games. That would have been my answer, and I have long credited video games with stoking my interest in computers. The first games I played on a computer were from Sierra: Kings Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry (the last one unbenknownst to my parents). My desire to play games led me into the first step of working computers, the Operating System. Initially, I learned the requisite commands to navigate DOS, and eventually learned how to quickly navigate Windows 3.1 and 95 in order to install the games I wanted to play.
By the time the Internet became accessible, I had a fluency with computers that many of my peers didn’t. In my senior year of high school, my best friend introduced me to HTML, via the “view source” option in Netscape. From there, I figured out how to upload files into my AOL account and set up my first gaudy, pointless website. From there, I offered to create sites for anything I could think of: theater productions, my college speech team, and so on.
Despite my proclivity and affection for computers, I ended up pursuing a BFA in Theater at my local college, Youngstown State University. My grades were nothing to brag about, I think I graduated with a 2.51, but I managed to land a scholarship based on a high ACT score and a performance scholarship following a successful audition. Unfortunately my inability to succeed in academic environments persisted from high school and I struggled to keep myself above a 2.5 GPA (the minimum required to retain my scholarships).
Wanted: Part-time HTML Coder
In the fall of 1998, early into my sophomore year, I happened across a classified ad posted by a local ISP and web development firm, cboss, looking to hire a part-time HTML developer. One interview and coding test later and the job was mine description. This was the first time that I ever had a job that wasn’t just a job but an occupation, and more than that I was being paid to pursue what was up until then a hobby.
If my grades were suffering before this opportunity, then this only made them worse. I found myself opting to learn new skills for the job rather than finish my homework or study for exams. By the close of my sophomore year, six months into my job at cboss, my GPA was below a 2.5 and I was going to lose both scholarships. So I found myself at a cross-roads: Do I buckle down and work harder to pursue a degree, the utility of which I was skeptical, or quit school and bet that the Internet turns out to be a thing? I chose the latter, and that turned out to be the right bet.
Proficiency through Paranoia
Ironically, dropping out of school ended up turning me into a better student and harder worker than I ever knew I was capable of. Knowing that not having a degree would be a major red flag on my resume, I attempted to learn absolutely everything I could on the job, and demonstrated an impeccable work ethic.
Aside from just learning how to become a better coder, I discovered an entirely new vocational trajectory: Graphic Design. I had no idea this field even existed until I found myself working along side a designer (thanks, guidance counelors). I set out to learn the trade in a similar manner to how I taught myself HTML: viewing the source. One of my primary duties was to take approved Photoshop files, slice them up, and convert them into working web pages. By deconstructing these files, I learned the techniques of digital design: masking, typography, effects, layer arrangement, etc.
To gain an understanding of the science and art of design, I would ask the designers at cboss about their creative process, read books on the fundamentals, and sought out opportunities to take on creative challenges on the job. Within a year, I had been moved into the position of Junior Designer and was regularly designing and coding entire websites on my own.
Moving On Up
By 1999, I had risen to the level of Senior Designer, which meant I was brought on to work on all of the company’s highest level clients, as well as leading the redesign of our website and all manner of their print and screen-based marketing materials. I might have stayed there longer if it didn’t mean having to continue to live in Youngstown. Most of my friends from high school and college had moved away, and I was feeling socially isolated in such a small town. I also felt that the small market clients at the firm were no longer sufficiently challenging, and being at the top of the design totem pole meant that I no longer had anyone who was technically superior to me that I could learn from. It was also important that I could prove to myself that this first job wasn’t an anomaly, that the skills I’d developed were sufficient to land another job.
All of this led me to look for something new in the neighboring cities of Akron and Cleveland. I found that something at Mozes Cleveland, a digital branding agency based in Fairlawn, OH (a suburb of Akron). I was brought on as a position similar to the one I started out in at cboss: an HTML producer who acted as a liason between design and development by bringing PSDs to life in the browser. This position proved to be everything I was looking for. I got to work with designers of a caliber I never could have in Youngstown, and on major brands such as FedEx, GE, Smuckers, and Sherwin Williams. During my time at DigitalDay, I followed a similar trajectory as I did at cboss, moving from HTML producer to Junior Designer, and eventually Senior Designer.
Shortly after I joined, MozesCleveland merged with two other firms to become DigitalDay, and ballooned from a 40 person company to over 120 in the space of a year. This was in 2000, and little did I know that we were all experiencing an artificial elevation from the looming dotcom bubble that would finally burst in the summer of 2001. Over the course of a few months we went from 120 to 80 to a skeleton crew of 20 people. Amidst the company’s downslide, I found personal pride in the fact that I survived each wave of layoffs, until eventually I was one of the last people standing in the production department.
DigitalDay finally dissolved in August of 2001, and I spent several months on unemployment contemplating my next move. This ended up being my first foray into freelance, as I was eventually contacted by each of the top executives that comprised DigitalDay’s management team to do contractual work for their next endeavors. One hired me to design the logo for his new company, Q42, another hired me to mock up an interface for an HR-centric website that allowed employees to manage their health benefits, and a third hired me to design email newsletters for Sherwin-Williams as part of a new digital branding agency he’d formed.
Then in June of 2002 I landed my next full-time gig, this time taking a step forward in my starting point being brought on as a Project Leader at <eyemg>. Now instead of just working as a designer and coder, I was responsible for assesing and estimating new projects, learning <eyemg>’s proprietary content management system, and working with their developers to expand its capabilities. The only downside to the job is that I was no longer working on major Fortune 500-1000 companies, but more regional-based clients.
My tenure at <eyemg> was interrupted when one of my former DigitalDay supervisors reached out and offered me a position with the company’s new incarnation, DigitalDay Creative Group. The opportunity to work with their design team and client roster was one I couldn’t pass up, so in December of 2003 I amicably parted ways with <eyemg>.
It was during my second stint with DigitalDay that I added Flash to my aresenal of skills. At first animating simple banner ads, but eventually moving into more complex projects like this game I designed and developed:
Then one day two of the founding partners announced to the company that they had decided to let go the third. About a month later, I happened to get in touch with this third partner and he informed me that he was starting up a new company and wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming onboard as his lead designer/developer. I’d be free to work from home, and for more money. This aligned well with my plans to move to NYC in a few months since I wouldn’t have to find a new job when the time came. So I joined up with him, and a month later he managed to get us aquired by another digital branding agency, Attevo. I spent a year working with Attevo, the last six months while living in NYC, before the company ended up dissolving the partnership.
I was relieved to find another job quickly at an agency named Wilson Rusch (now Wilson RMS) as an interactive designer. During my time at Wilson, I designed primarily websites, emails and banner ads, but was also given my first motion design projects that required learning After Effects. I designed several demo reels for the company, as well as an RFP video for AOL that landed Wilson a contract and earned me a “Demmy”, Wilson’s monthly employee achievement award.
Leaving Design Behind
My time at Wilson came to an end after the company suffered some losses that resulted in a substantial layoff. It was at this time I came to the next major crossroad in my career. After nearly a decade working as a designer, I’d become burned out on having to constantly muster creativity for corporate clients. So I started looking for opportunities to get back to coding, filling the role I had early on in my career bringing creative concepts to life.
This first came to me working several freelance projects for Behavior Design. I was brought on to build out Flash sites for HBO’s Trueblood series and the John Adams miniseries. Through these projects I learned how to incorporate XML and setup dynamically driven sites that allowed for content management without recompiling new SWFs.
Following the gig at Behavior, I got my first full-time development gig at RDA, International. My job was to build out complex Flash sites and landing pages, as well as rich-media banner ads. In this role, my sklls as a programmer first started to fully develop, and I moved into AS3, gaining experience in Object Oriented Programming and using class-based design patterns.
After a year at RDA, I was contacted by a recruiter who had a well-paying permalance job at a pharmaceutical ad agency, JUICE Pharma. The hours were flexible, the pay was substantially better, and the role I would be filling came with a lot of developmental challenges that appealed to me.
The most valuable insight I gained from that job was getting to peek behind the curtain of how sophisticated and aggressive Big Pharma’s marketing was. I was primarily responsible for building Flash sales applications that sales reps loaded onto tablet computers and utilized when trying to convince doctors to prescribe whatever meds they were peddling. The most difficult component of these builds was incorporating components that tracked everything a sales rep showed a doctor. This data was then uploaded to a central database and analyzed so that the pharma company could identify the efficacy of the sales materials, comparing the amount of scripts written by doctors with what a sales rep had shown them. Seriously icky stuff. I stuck it out there for about two years mostly because the money was good, but also because I really enjoyed the team I was working with.
In the early spring of 2010 I met my wife to be, and by late spring we were expecting our first child. The stars aligned quite well for us because shortly after I set out to find a full-time job with health benefits, my boss from JUICE reached out and told me he’d taken a position as Digital Director at Publicis, and wanted to know if I’d like to come on board as a Senior Motion Specialist, producing banner ads.
I spent just under three years at Publicis, and in that time produced hundreds, possibly thousands of banner ads. I became the leader of the team, often tasked with the most challenging builds, and to train up new hires on best practices. All in all, I consider my time at Publics to be the pinnacle of the corporate chapter of my career, at least from a clientele aspect, getting to work on Citibank, Loreal, Cartier, and dozens of P&G brands. It was a cushy, simple gig that I imagine I could have stuck out much longer, but I started to worry that my Flash skills were plateauing, and more than that I knew that Flash wasn’t long for this world with the explosion of the mobile market.
Sucked Into the Sponge
In February of 2014 I was contacted by a recruiter at Spongecell, a technology company specializing in programmatic creative. A few phone calls, emails and interviews later and I was offered the position of Senior Production Engineer. I chose to take the position for several compelling reasons:
- One of the mandates of the position was that I would need to learn HTML5 in preparation for Flash’s inevitable demise.
- I would be responsible to provide training and technical support to producers. Helping my junior coworkers was one of my favorite aspects of the job at Publicis, but it only came up incidentally, whereas at Spongecell that would be part of my day-to-day
- A more diverse array of clients than I’d ever seen at a single agency, largely due to the fact that Spongecell was primarily hired by ad agencies, rather than beholden to their own stable of brands and clients
- No mundane or repetitive tasks would be part of my workload, if I was tasked with coding something it would be because it was extremely unique and fell outside the capabilities of their standard platform’s capabilities
- Working closely with the product development team to identify bugs and prioritize feature requests
Of all the companies I worked for, none was more fun, challenging, or cohesive than Spongecell. I went through an exponential phase of growth, and had opportunities to leverage every skill I had cultivated and more during my tenure there. It was hard for me to believe how much respect and stature I acquired after only a short while. At most of the other agencies I’d worked at in NYC, I only knew and was known by those in my immediate circle: fellow designers and developers, project managers, and my department supervisors. At Spongecell I felt like I had achieved rockstar status, and all the hard work and creativity I put into my job was always recognized and rewarded.
The Long Goodbye
After my wife and I had our second child in 2013, we started to have conversations about leaving New York City. The daily struggle was incredibly arduous, both for her as a stay at home mom dragging strollers up and down subway stairs and for myself dealing with a 60-90min commute each way that gave me no time with the family in the morning, and exhausted by the time I got home at night. By the end of 2015, those conversations became more and more specific, and we made the decision to move back to Ohio to be closer to my family and cut down on our cost of living.
Since leaving the agency world behind seven months ago, I’ve been busy with work I picked up from clients I moonlighted for as well as a few new ones. I have deepened my knowledge of WordPress, gained fluency in Sass, web development frameworks such as Bootstrap and Foundation, incorporated Git into my workflow, and regained proficiency in command line tools. To me it feels like I have gone back to the school of the self-taught to get my masters in Website Production, Planning and Development.
The hardest project I’ve had to execute by far has been this web site. Having to write all the copy, make all the creative decisions, and execute them is far and away more challenging than any of the technical hurdles. I’ve had to stop myself several times from going into the rabbit hole of learning a new framework, technique or language I’d like to deploy on this site, when I know I’m just doing it to avoid the work of generating original content or marketing materials. I’ve spent nearly two decades executing creative and technical strategies for other people, now I have to learn how to do it for myself, which may be the toughest challenge I’ve taken on yet.