Web Development And Me
I have been thinking of a little while that I should write a post about work – specifically what I actually ‘do’ and how that has changed over the last few years. This may not be of interest to everyone, but it is something I have given a lot of thought to over the last year and I figured that as well as explaining how I make a living, it might also have the added advantage of helping me collect my thoughts.
Since graduating from Cardiff University in 2008 with a degree in Computer Science I have been working as a web developer – initially for a company and then self-employed with my own clients. I’m pretty used to getting blank expressions from people when I say what I do. I am also used to people switching ‘web developer’ for ‘web designer’.
So what does a web developer do?
I build websites. I don’t ‘design’ them, but rather I am a computer programmer that does the technical magic to make a website function the way it was designed.
Transitioning to freelance… and then not
My first job after university was as a web developer at an adult shop in Cardiff. Passion has a store in Cardiff as well as a large online presence. My job was to look after the website and in this role I learnt a lot about not only life as a web developer but also about business and myself. I have Faith, the owner of the company to thank for this as she taught me a lot about setting up and running a business – she also helped me find the confidence I needed to go self employed. So I did it.
At the start of 2012, after a year of being full-time self employed (I was able to built up my freelance work gradually over several years thanks to Faith) I decided that it wasn’t for me. I was stressed, burnt out and it was seriously affecting my health so I decided I had to stop.
It was a pretty big deal for me going full time self employed – as long as I can remember I have wanted to run my own business and carve my own path in life, so the fact that I wasn’t enjoying it really got to me. I have spent a lot of time over the last year trying to figure out why I wasn’t happy doing freelance web development. I can’t really put my finger on one specific thing that was causing me to not only not enjoy it but created so much stress for me.
I have spoken to a couple of friends about this recently and having some time away has helped me take a mental step back. I think the main thing that got to me was that I could never get confident in my own skills. In some professions you work really hard at it and after many many hours you become an expert. The more you do it the better you get and the more confident you become. With the web every day there is something new to learn, new considerations, something new the client is asking for (whether they understand what ‘it’ is or not) and lots of new problems. This sounds like an exciting challenge, but for me this meant I could never tell how long a job would take because there were always parts that I had never done before – and there always would be, no matter how many jobs I did. I know people that thrive in this kind of environment but for me it was not a good mix. I’m not a bad web developer – but I need to feel confident in what i’m doing.
I was always on the back foot and this stressed me out… quoting was a nightmare. It got to the point where I was turning down work left right and centre just to avoid the stress. Which is s shame because the demand was there.
Also – web jobs are never finished and there was rarely a job that I did that was simple to get signed off. There are always so many changes and stupid bugs that almost every job dragged on to the point where you don’t care any more – you will do anything to get rid of it. Which is a shame when you slave away on something and are proud of what you have achieved. Once it is signed off you can then start chasing payment… sometimes for months. This isn’t me venting and badmouthing my clients – I have worked with some amazing, very talented people over the years and there were jobs that were a pleasure to work on. However web jobs seem to have a habit of creeping into very patience testing territory.
Once I decided to stop freelancing I started doing a few days a week at a great little design studio in Cardiff. I knew that tackling these big jobs alone was part of the reason I was getting so stressed and I hoped that working with someone to share the load and handle the parts of the business I wasn’t comfortable with could be the answer. The situation was perfect – working with a great designer, in a sweet studio, on cool jobs, earning good money and part time… but I realised that despite all of this I still wasn’t enjoying the actual work. That’s when I decided to call it a day.
Something that made this decision easier was that I had some money coming in from an online tool called Auction Nudge which I started a few years previous which was not only doing well, it zero stress and it was my baby – something I started from scratch and I enjoyed every part of the process.
So what have I been up to?
After realising that building websites for other people wasn’t something I could make work for me I decided to dramatically change things up and move to Canada for a while. Other than my love of travel and a desire to live in another country, a big part of my trip to Canada was to do some soul searching about what I wanted to do next if freelance web development wasn’t for me.
I was in a very fortunate position because I had enough money coming in from Auction Nudge that I wasn’t under a lot of pressure to find work right away. After the distraction of the best summer of my life with friends on Vancouver Island I started thinking a little about work. I did some physical work during this time, which was a nice change from sitting behind a desk and I also had a little time to ‘play’ with a few web-based projects of my own. After all, I still enjoy building websites. This meant I could enjoy myself while trying a few different things and perhaps finding out what was ‘next’. However in typical Joe fashion this manifested itself into putting pressure on myself to work out what this ‘next’ thing was… when it comes to work I don’t do well without a clear focus in mind. I felt lost.
Around Christmas time, after a couple of months of kicking myself about not finding my new vocation I had a great chat with Richard’s mum Hilary. I explained how I felt and she basically told me to not worry about it and just enjoy this year – even if that meant not working at all. This very simple piece of advise was just what I needed – I had to be told not to worry about it and just go with the flow. This has always been how I have approached travelling but for some reason I have never been able to treat my work life the same – i’m a bit of a split personality in that sense. So I decided to give it a go – not worry about work and see what happens.
Around this time I was reading an excellent book called Finding Square Holes by Anita Houghton which struck a few chords with me. I started to realise that actually what I was doing at that moment – working on my own websites and playing with a few ideas while seeing the world seemed like a pretty amazing way to spend my time! Perhaps there was something to this. Perhaps what I had been looking for was in fact what I had been doing while I was ‘searching’.
What’s next for me?
At the moment things are going well enough that I can have an excellent work-travel balance, but I am aware that this may not last forever. At present the majority of my income comes from a single source, which isn’t an ideal situation to be in – after all things change… especially online. My dream situation right now would be to have a few eggs in different online baskets which would enable me to weather any storms on the horizon and have some sort of job security (if there is such a thing) and travel.
As I ‘play’ with a ideas at the moment I have this in mind – planting a few seeds in the hope that one day one of these ideas may make me some money. That is what I did with Hot Officing (now defunct), a site I set up a couple of months ago which aims to cater for people like me who work and travel and like to find great places to work in (like the cafe I am writing this from!)
I am not alone in this dream – there is a huge community of ‘digital nomads’ out there – people who utilise technology to work remotely all around the world while travelling for long periods of time. I would love to have a bit of base back in Cardiff that I can return to when I want to ground myself and then work and travel when I don’t. I am not quite there yet, but I am excited to once again have something to aim for and have found focus.
I don’t exect this to happen over night – I expect ups and downs, failures and successes and a lot of hard work. To get through the downs I may need to seek some kind of employment in the mean time, be it web development once again or something else. It might never happen, but for the first time in a long time I am not worried about work – I am excited to see what happens.