Designer to Developer

Heather shares her not-so-straight path to becoming a developer and what happens when a designer turns developer.

Chasing Dreams

A couple months ago, I was looking through my high school senior scrapbook and came across a questionnaire that asked ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I answered ‘graphic designer.’ I always knew I wanted to be a designer, but the younger me lacked the confidence to believe I could truly make a career out of design. I enjoyed making things, but I couldn’t even draw a straight line, why would I think I could be a designer? I was an artsy nerd who loved math and science and took my first computer programming class during high school where I conquered the Oregon Trail!

I was intrigued but unaware of how to combine my love for art, math, and science into a career, so I pragmatically chose to venture onto a completely different path: I earned an associate’s degree in psychology, then began working towards a bachelor’s degree in human resource management. Surely I would be happy with a successful, secure career in the world of business. During my junior year of college, my husband and I decided to start our family. Life took over and my dreams of earning a bachelor’s degree soon became a memory.

Flash forward ten years, and I knew it was time for me to return to school. I had a decision to make: finish the degree I started in business and fulfill my desire to earn a bachelor’s degree or change course and pursue my dream of a career I was passionate about. I was torn, but giving up on my art/computer passion was not an option. I began the first steps of my journey.

Getting Started

Print designer, graphic designer, UX designer, UI designer, web designer, frontend developer...there were so many intriguing career paths to choose from! Unable to pinpoint exactly what I wanted to focus on, I chose to enroll in the Visual Communications program at Sinclair Community College to gain a firm foundation in design.

I love taking classes and learning new skills. When I returned to school to study design, part of me always knew that it wouldn’t be enough. Contrary to the right-brained stereotypical design student, the left-brained, analytical, problem-solving part of me also craved to learn how to code. Although the degree program I chose focused primarily on print design with a taste of web design via Dreamweaver and Flash classes, I had high hopes that I would find the perfect position at a local design agency that would open the doors to the world of designing for the web.

Designer to Developer

For the next four years, I focused on refining my design skills while working part-time for several different non-profit agencies, local government entities, and small businesses. I enjoyed my work as a print designer, but once again I knew it was time for more. I enrolled in the Computer Science program at Sinclair Community College to evolve into web development.

In What it Takes to Start a Web Development Career, Nathan shares several tips for someone looking to begin a career in the web industry. My path from designer to developer began with the pursuit of a certificate in web programming where I learned object oriented programming via C++, ASP.net, and Java classes. I continued to work as a designer while taking one programming class at a time for the next two years. Never giving up on the idea that I might find a position with a local design or development agency that would lead me down the path to working on the web, I continued to search and seek out new opportunities. During the course of an interview with a local design firm, I learned about Sparkbox. Curiosity led me to seesparkbox.com, where I discovered the apprenticeship program. I knew I had found the opportunity I was looking for.

With a couple of programming classes under my belt, in the fall of 2015, I applied and interviewed for Sparkbox’s full-stack developer apprenticeship. The full-stack developer apprenticeship is an intense six-months of learning. The apprenticeship includes: learning how to build responsive, standards-compliant, content-focused, well-crafted, accessible, valuable, beautiful websites and apps; how to work on a team; and empathy.

I wasn’t accepted for the Sparkbox apprenticeship in 2016, it simply wasn’t my time, but the encouragement and direction I received during the interview process was a very important next step in my journey. During the apprenticeship interview process I learned about the Dayton chapter of Girl Develop It (GDI). Previous work experience had taught me the importance of networking, so I began attending meetups hosted by Girl Develop It, UX Dayton, and Dayton Web Developers. I continued to look for additional opportunities to learn and attended my first Build Right Maker Series Workshop featuring Girl Develop It co-founder and CEO of Jewelbots Sara Chipps. I jumped at the opportunity to enhance my studies with workshops offered by Girl Develop It Dayton in Git/Github, HTML/CSS, Sass, Ruby, JavaScript, Database design, and Python. And on quiet evenings and weekends, I would work through tutorials offered on Codecadmy and Treehouse.

In the fall of 2016, I was finishing my last class at Sinclair and would soon earn my web programming certificate. I again applied and interviewed for Sparkbox’s full-stack developer apprenticeship and this time, I was selected! I completed the apprenticeship in June of 2017 and in July, began my journey as a web developer.

What Happens When a Designer Becomes a Developer

Usually, the roles of designer and developer are segmented into two different categories, but in reality there are many people who crossover between both roles in varying degrees. In Maintaining Design Vision, Andrew describes the spectrum of design roles at Sparkbox.

As a designer, I found it extremely gratifying to create the perfect balance of type, color, contrast, line, shape, and space that translated into a visually aesthetic design. When beginning a design project, I would ask myself, what should it look like? Are there brand guidelines that must be considered or do I have carte blanche creative freedom? Will it be used across other platforms (print, web, social media, video)? What is the message and how do I accurately communicate it?

As a developer, I love bringing beautiful designs to life through code. When joining a development project, the questions I now ask myself are quite different. What platforms, tools and utilities will I be using? What new tools and/or languages will I learn? Who do I pair with when my code is broken? What do I need to know to set up my local environment? As the project progresses, my questions change. Am I correctly interpreting and implementing the designer’s vision? Can the code I’m writing be better in any way? How will my work in the project affect the work others are doing in the project? How can I make the user’s experience better? What animation, performance, and accessibility considerations should be made? Am I writing documentation that is clear, concise, and easy to follow?

While my questions have shifted, there are still similarities at the core. As Ivana McConnell said, “We forget how similar design and development are, both of which boast creativity as their foundation. Great designers and developers see creativity as a key part of their craft. Great code is its own form of artistry, and it is expressive and beautifully elegant. A great solution to a development challenge shows ingenuity and imagination just as much as a design challenge shows logic and science.”

Never Stop Dreaming

Whether your dream is to be a designer, a developer, or a director of human resources, follow your passions, never stop learning, and never stop dreaming.

Now that I’m a developer, you may wonder what’s next. I still have much to learn. For now my dream is to simply be better, do better, inspire, contribute, help others, and to fight something called imposter syndrome. But I’ll leave that for another post.