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Latest Bristol & SW tech news, updates and training dates for your diary.

Keir Moffatt our talented Front End Web Development Tutor can answer just about any question about  Front End Web Development!

1 – What does a Front End Developer actually do?

As a front-end developer, I always think of myself as the ‘glue’ between design and back-end programming – I build the interface that the user sees and interacts with. Front-end development primarily involves coding in HTML, CSS and JavaScript but there are many other languages and tools available too. I think of it as quite a ‘creative’ form of coding as there are always many ways to solve any given problem.

2 – Freelance Work and the Job Market – how will it benefit your career?

The web industry is an extremely healthy market – it is constantly growing and evolving, and there always seems to be more work than people available to do it. As a result, it pays well and offers a very dependable career path, with plenty of variety and areas of specialty.

3- What online courses/resource would you recommend for learning Front End Web Development if  on a budget?

I am largely self-taught and there are plenty of resources online to help you learn, if you are limited on time and budget. A good starting point are the free courses via Codecademy: https://www.codecademy.com/

4- Why pay for a classroom course with an expert tutor?

If you have the time and/or budget, the best approach is definitely a course – learning alongside others is really beneficial, and you can be assured the knowledge you are gaining is based on industry-standard approaches. Develop Me offer both full-time and part-time Web Developer courses, and have an impressive 98% employment rate at graduation.

5 – What kind of lifestyle can you have as a Freelance Front End Web Developer?

I have been a freelance web developer for over 18 years and I love the freedom and flexibility it gives me. I can work from anywhere with an internet connection, I can set my own hours, and I have been able to travel and explore other careers and hobbies. For example, I currently spend my winters teaching snowboarding in Andorra, and my summers travelling and doing web development. It is definitely a skillset that can help you build a good life/work balance.

6 – What can you earn as a Web Developer

Web development pays well – as a freelancer, you can expect a day rate upwards of £300, and even more if you work with London-based clients. In a full-time role, you can be looking at upwards from £35,000. These rates increase with experience and specialisation.

7 – What skills/background you need to become a Web Developer?

You don’t really need any specific background to get into web development – just curiosity and the desire and patience to learn. If you are logically-minded or quite process-driven, or have some experience of Mathematics or code, this will of course be beneficial – but people come to this industry from all walks of life, so anyone can learn. I sometimes think of coding as similar to what our brains do every day – as you make decisions, remember information and complete repetitive tasks; all things you will also learn to do in code!

8 – Why learn Web Development!?

For me, there are so many pros of web development – it is always evolving and presenting new challenges, so I have never grown bored in my 18 year career. There are loads of different technologies and specialties, so the options for growth and change are endless. It is in high demand, pays well and can provide freedom and flexibility. And finally is both challenging and fun – and quite addictive!

The only con is that you obviously spend a fair amount of time looking at a screen – but we all do that in this day and age anyway!

 

We are currently taking bookings for our Front End Web Development Course with Keir starting in September. More info here.

My journey into web development all started with my passion for creating things, learning skills, and messing about on bikes.

Whether BMX, flatland, trials, Mountain Biking or jumping, I loved learning tricks and improving, and it started at a young age:

While at university in Bristol doing Chemistry I become interested in bike photography and wanting to learn how to emulate the amazing photos I’d see in magazines like Dirt, RideBMX and MBUK:

Good bike photography is a challenging technical discipline with fast movement, the art of which is finding a good angle to turn a dynamic sport into an appealing still image.

I also really enjoyed the technical aspect of photography, learning about shutter speed, aperture, the use of off-camera flash with radio-controlled remote triggers, and spent hours experimenting and learning about lighting.

I also liked the speed of iteration and improvement that digital photography gave me.

During this time I was lucky enough to have my photos printed in magazines and used by bike companies:

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I also became interested in graphic design, illustration and generally creating things with computers.

Building my first websites

As my photography improved I wanted somewhere to show my work, so set about building myself a website.

I had no idea what I was doing, or the best way to go about things, but ended up taking websites I liked, copying the source code and changing the underlying HTML to see what would happen.

It took a long time to work out how things worked, with a lot of reverse engineering, and a lot of wrong assumptions about how things worked.

This was in 2002 and the reference resources or tutorials online weren’t very accessible for beginners, especially without a good foundation of the underlying concepts to make sense of the information I could find.

Learning and creating was a slow process.

Like most developers I look back on my early sites and wonder what on earth I was doing, but they were important steps in my learning and as I often say to our students you sometimes learn best by doing something wrong and seeing the consequences. This leads to a lesson you’ll always remember.

One of the first sites I built for someone else was for a local skatepark, and I wanted to make the site seem like it was made out of paper, with a paper texture and hand drawn-style font everywhere. This was only really possible using images for the entire page and due to the texture the image files were huge!

Needless to say the website loaded extremely slowly, especially in the days of 56k modems. For those who are too young to have experienced dialup internet; that’s 56 kilobits per second. At that speed an 8 MB JPEG from a modern digital camera would take 20 minutes to load!

It was also terrible from an accessibility point of view. Most of the text was within the images, with screen readers and other accessibility software having a hard time making any sense of the site.

Updates were also labour intensive, with any text changes requiring re-exporting all the graphics. Links were added onto the image using the <map> tag, a very early-days-of-the-web way of making parts of an image clickable, and, again, really not accessible.

This is a job?

At the end of my degree I didn’t really fancy being a chemist, so wondered if I could get a job doing what I was really enjoying doing; making graphics and building websites.

I’d never really heard about “web design” or “web designers” (what the job was called back in the day) and no one at school had ever talked about such a career. Unsurprising, since this was the early days of the web when not many homes had internet.

It turned out that this was a job people were doing!

Getting my start in tech

As most aspiring junior developers will tell you, getting that first job is really hard without experience and you can’t get experience without that first job.

I tried sending some of my sample work round to various Bristol agencies but received little response.

Eventually I got a job at a cartoon stock library company who were doing a lot of business through their website in 2006. My role involved mainly doing image editing with PhotoShop and making merchandise, but I also got to work on the company’s eCommerce website.

I was given a book on ASP VB Script, the server access credentials and told to get on with it.

It was a tough start and there wasn’t really anyone who could help me. I had to work a lot of things out by myself.

It was a great experience!

I learnt a lot about what not to do by regularly breaking the site or building things which were hard to understand and maintain. My bug fixing skills developed as well as thinking of different ways to continue moving forward when I’d hit a brick wall and didn’t know what to try next.

I also learnt a lot about better working processes; the importance of backups, how to test things, how to safely put things live that required code and database changes at the same time. This was all practice that drove better efficiency in building and maintaining things, and ensuring that the business critical website wouldn’t break!

During my role I moved the site over from using Microsoft Access as its database software (a terrible choice for a high traffic site) to MySQL. I taught myself PHP, which I was using for my own projects out of work and managed to sell my boss on converting the site from ASP VB. This was a big improvement in both performance and in modernising our codebase.

Going freelance

Eventually I had enough freelance projects outside of my day job that I decided to take the leap to working freelance.

This was a both a liberating and a stressful time!

Again I was on my own, there was no one to ask for help and no guarantee of regular income.

And, again, it was a great experience! It taught me a lot about dealing with clients, running projects, quoting, invoicing and running a business.

Digital Agencies

In 2009, after a few years of working freelance, I wanted more regular work and to work with others in a company, so took a job in a digital agency.

Over the next 5 years I worked in senior developer, technical lead and technical director roles in digital agencies doing interesting and varied work for our clients. There was never a dull day and I enjoyed both building things myself, and helping grow, train and support a team of developers to create websites, apps and software at all sorts of scales.

My personal development during this period of my career involved learning a lot about how to help clients with technical and organisational change; how to help them change the way they or their business worked.

Can anyone just, like, start a company?

During this period I met Pete New, who at the time worked as a technical recruiter. He helped me build my team at the agency I was working at, and we became friends.

At that time it seemed that everyone I knew was talking about the technical skills shortage; that there weren’t enough developers, that it was very hard to hire them, deliver projects and grow tech businesses in Bristol.

From talking to other technical directors and business founders, as well as people in various tech and education organisations across the UK, it seemed that everyone was seeing this problem, but no one seemed to be doing anything about it.

It seemed like a great opportunity to do something about it, by starting a training company to help people get into web development careers. But the idea of starting a viable company ourselves seemed like utter fantasy!

We put together a business plan, which at the time seemed to make sense, and set to work.

Running a successful Bootcamp

4 years later we’ve trained over 80 web developers, helped them get their first jobs and helped build an amazing community of Develop Me graduates in Bristol, who are now all on their own journeys of growth and personal improvement.

Things have now gone full circle as Pete and I started our own agency business Lunar, a web development agency (or dev house), doing client work and hiring some of our bootcamp’s fantastic graduates.

My day-to-day gives me the opportunity to do all the things I love; teaching and supporting people in their growth, using my technical knowledge to help clients solve their problems, and managing the more technical side of hosting and server administration.

Not an easy journey, lots of self doubt

My journey of teaching myself to code, entering a career that I had no formal training in and eventually starting a business in that industry hasn’t been easy, and there has been a lot of self doubt at times. But that is a subject for another article.

Hannah Smith is one of our newest instructors at Develop Me. She is an agile technical project manager, WordPress developer and leads Bristol WordPress People. Hannah teaches the WordPress unit of the Develop Me Coding Fellowship, when she’s not snowboarding…

Here’s her story of a life in code.

I’ve been programming since about the age of 15, circa 1998. When I look back I find it hard to recall exactly what attracted me in the first place. It definitely wasn’t one thing that lured me in, but a combination of things. I won’t bore you to death with an analysis of those things but there are definitely two major influences:

Dial-up internet arrived a year or so before. My parents ran a business from home and realised that they were missing out by not having emails so we got connected. At the time I was really into tropical fish — I loved the way they swam around in shoals being all sparkly and pretty. I wanted a way to share that passion with others, and knew that building a website would be a great way to do that. As a teenager with £3 a week pocket money I knew this meant learning to build it myself.

I would wait until my parents had finished working in the office for the evening and would sneak in to code my site with the lights off, hoping the dial-up noises didn’t alert them to the fact that I was yet again running up the bills. I found myself getting a kick from mastering HTML and being able to present my information as I wanted.

Making websites and digital art opened up an entirely new way of being creative to me.

To my amazement, all that work paid off and people actually visited my site and chatted in my forums. I still put that down to my awesome animated gifs!

Another huge influence was The Matrix, which came out in 1999 and totally blew my mind. I saw that the world of computers had almost limitless potential if you could just imagine what to do with them and knew how to use them. Neo and Trinity were so blistering cool.

Suddenly being a geek meant you could actually save the world.

Roll on a few years and at age 18 I went to university to study Computer Science. You might expect me to say I’ve never looked back and I skipped off into coding nirvana….

It didn’t quite go like that.

I loved my degree but I didn’t finish it. I signed up for a 4 year MEng but dropped out a little way into the fourth year. The tutoring and 1:1 help wasn’t great and when I got stuck I didn’t really feel that I had anyone to turn to. It was a case of re-reading the same instructions in my notes or text-book and trial and error until finally something ran. Stack Exchange wasn’t on the scene back then — oh how I love it these days!

My experiences of being left to get on with it during my uni years is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much these days. Being able to help and support others as they start their coding journey and retrain their brains to think in the right way is a real privilege.

I always felt very different from most of my class mates. Out of one hundred, five of us were girls, and one of the girls only lasted a term. Most of the fellas seemed scared to talk to me because… well I never really got it, but I suppose it was because I had boobs and the fact I had other interests outside of coding. The whole gender diversity thing is a topic for another blog… but I am immensely chuffed to see how things are changing and how much support there is for women in tech now. Nice one ladies! Anyway, I digress…

I was so saddened by my decision to quit.

I have never quit at anything in my life. Part of me felt like I’d failed, but part of me knew that it was ultimately the right thing to do. Thankfully that feeling of failure didn’t last long as I walked away with a BSc and three weeks after quitting I got my first techy job. I worked at a small digital agency who made websites, games, animations, films and software. Yes all those things. It was mental but I loved it! I worked hard and learned a lot about coding in the real world. It ended up being a brilliant move. I felt like I had finally arrived.

You might be expecting me to say that I’ve been working in tech or coding ever since, but no.

My passion had always been for the environment so after three years I went off to the Environment Agency to do good. I took an eight year detour away from coding and focused all my career energy on getting good at management: people management, programme management, portfolio management, systems management and strategic business change. Decision making, basically.

You might think that knowing how to code had nothing to do with that career sidestep into management, but far from it.

Learning to code trained me to problem solve, think critically and make decisions and those skills were invaluable in my management career.

After the Environment Agency, I felt burnt out by trying to save the planet, especially when we got hit by the government’s austerity programme, so I went travelling for a year with my other half. We went to New Zealand, bought a van and lived like hobos for a while. We did a heck of a lot of surfing, biking and snowboarding out there. It was cool! It gave me space and time to think about what to do next and what my life priorities needed to be.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could get my work life balance to a better place.

I noticed a curious thing start to happen. If it came up in conversation with people we met that I knew a bit of coding and how websites worked, invariably the next part of the conversation would go, “I’ve got a website, can you help me?”. Literally every time. I got offered so much paid work it was crazy, even though my skills were pretty rusty. It even paid for a ten day stay in the Maldives on the way home.

On our return home, I realised just how much I loved coding and that I’d missed it a lot. It was such a refreshing contrast to working in management and business change, where it could take two years or more to see the fruits of your labour. Coding is very instant and those receiving your finished work get the benefits of what you have done almost straight away. I decided to set myself up as a freelance web developer. I used to know a lot and be good at it, how hard could it be?

Answer: much harder than I thought.

I just hadn’t appreciated how much web development had moved on in eight years. We now had CSS3, and responsive web design was a thing. Javascript was everywhere and there was so much new tooling available it made my eyes water.

The learning curve was immense and whilst I still knew how coding worked and how to think in the right way, my knowledge was seriously archaic. I do love learning, and that’s part of why working in this industry thrills me so much. Every day is a school day. Nonetheless, I got sick of never having heard of all these different tools and feeling like I knew nothing. What the hell was Gulp, Grunt and WebPack? Didn’t they all do the same thing? Why were there so many solutions that solved the same problems? Or did they do the same thing? Argh!

If I was to make that switch again, I would definitely book onto an intensive bootcamp or training course like the Coding Fellowship that DevelopMe offer. Having more guidance from trusted developers to find my way through the possibilities would have accelerated my transition a whole lot. Instead I felt like I was back at uni — billy no mates who learned through getting it wrong a thousand times before figuring it out.

The good news is after about a year, I found myself evening out a bit. I was starting to actually know what these different tools were and how to use them effectively. I also became involved in several tech meet-ups in Bristol which helped enormously. The big moment came for me when rather than saying yes to a project and figuring out how to do it later, I would actually have done it or something like it before. Such a weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt I could look people in the eye and say “I am a web developer, not a fraud”.

The best bit about coming back to coding? The freedom.

The remote working opportunities are amazing. Right now I’m away in the Italian Dolomites for three months soaking up some of that work life balance I mentioned a while back. Every morning I have breakfast and then head out into the mountains to snowboard, toboggan or just hike. Then I settle down in the afternoon and write some code. Magic really.

I’m sure my journey won’t end here. But one thing that is constant in my story is just how good a decision learning to code has been for me. Whether or not I’ve had jobs as a programmer, the training I got to think critically, break problems down into bite-sized chunks and view feedback as a gift have been skills that have been the backbone of my career to date.

Mark Wales has been an integral part of Develop Me from the beginning, running some of our very first one-day workshops and short courses. We had no doubts whatsoever about making him a major part of the Coding Fellowship when it launched and he now teaches five out of the 12 weeks on the bootcamp. He is a fountain of knowledge, an excellent instructor, creator of How Secure is my Password, co-runs CodeHub and teaches the programming fundamentals, JavaScript, React + Redux and Laravel modules on the bootcamp.

Here’s his story of a life in code…

 

I first realised the potential of code when the family computer started saying “There is an error in WIN.INI”. The idea that a single file could stop a computer from working intrigued me. I decided to delete the errant file from the computer only to be presented with a blank screen the next time the computer booted. It turns out it was quite an important file. My Mum took the computer back and got it fixed and, with a fresh install of Windows 95, my journey into coding began.

I initially played around with C and then, finding the command line rather unappealing, moved onto Visual Basic — which was a popular way to make Windows apps at the time. This was all around 1996, so the web was just starting to take off. I decided to create a website, with neon green letters on a black background. I honestly can’t remember what it was about. My main recollection is spending about a week trying to get it to work online before realising that I needed to rename my `Index.html` file to `index.html`.

By the time I was 16 I’d decided that I would do a Computer Science degree at Cambridge University once I finished my A-Levels. This, however, was not meant to be. It turns out that if you spend all of your free-time teaching yourself how to code, you don’t have much time for homework or revision. There was no way I was getting into Cambridge with my grades. Around the same time, having already applied for six different Computer Science degrees on my UCAS form, I discovered that Computer Science didn’t actually involve much programming and was mostly electronics and maths. It turns out that if you spend all of your free-time teaching yourself how to code, you don’t have much time to do the most minimal research about how to spend the next four years of your life. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

I took a “year out”, which consisted of sitting at home programming. I was still keen to go to university, but, no longer wanting to do Computer Science, I threw around various ideas including animation, psychology, and philosophy. I think largely due to a Douglas Adams reference in my personal statement, I was offered an unconditional offer to study Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, so the decision was made for me.

So, five years later, with an undergraduate and masters degree in Philosophy, I decided it was time to enter the real world. I moved home and started looking for jobs. But this was near the end of 2008 when even someone with a useful degree might have struggled to find something to do. After not finding anything to do for a few months I started doing a few websites for mutual acquaintances. And so began my life as a freelance web designer.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a great start. I spent almost the entirety of my first year’s earnings on a copy of Adobe Photoshop. Partly that shows how much Photoshop cost, but also that I really didn’t earn much that first year. The next two years weren’t much better. It was only in my fourth year that I made more than minimum wage. If it hadn’t been for my Mum letting me stay at home rent free for three years I don’t know what I’d be doing now.

I learnt a lot during these first few years by taking on projects that I was ludicrously unqualified to take on. There’s a lot to be said for throwing yourself in at the deep end: it really focusses the mind. I took on projects involving technologies I’d never even heard of and then spent the first month of the project trying to work out what I’d signed up for. I’m still not entirely sure how I got away with it; but ever since I’ve always taken the attitude that I’ll only take on projects that involve some technology I’ve not worked with before.

I moved to Bristol in my fourth year as a freelancer and started charging more for my work. It was around this point that I moved more towards web-development as opposed to web-design. I love a good typeface, but design was never my strong suit. I realised that programming was both where my skills lay and also what I enjoyed doing the most. By my fifth year as a freelancer I’d given up the design side of things, although I was still writing HTML and CSS.

Moving to Bristol turned out to be a really good decision: the tech-scene here is really thriving and after making a few good contacts early on I never needed to search for work again.

One of my first big projects with a Bristol company was working for Aardman. They make lots of educational games for the BBC and they were struggling to get one of their first non-Flash based games working well. On my first day I got lucky and spotted a single line of code that was causing the game to run about 100 times slower than it needed to. Having impressed them with a 100x performance increase on my first day they offered me a 9 month contract to work on a new game from scratch. Those nine months were really amazing. As you can imagine Aardman is a really fun place to work and they were a very friendly bunch. When we were done we were all proud of the game we’d created.

I worked for various agencies in Bristol over the next few years on all sorts of different projects: some simple websites, some games, and some WebGL experiments. I also continued doing work for the University of Leeds, who had been one of my first clients.

A few years ago I started doing some one-off workshops for DevelopMe and a year later we began discussing running the Coding Fellowship. I taught a couple of weeks on the very first cohort of the Coding Fellowship and nowadays I teach five of the twelve weeks. In my spare time I’m mostly writing Haskell and macOS applications and studying for a maths degree with the OU. I also help run CodeHub, which runs hack nights and workshops in Bristol for people trying to get into coding.