My career path

Yazil asked in a comment:

How did you get into becoming a freelance web designer if you majored in mathematics? I’m sorry for all of these questions, but I’m just very interested in web design myself. I have been since I was a freshmen in high school. I will be graduating next year from SJSU with a major in Business Management and am hoping to get into the Nursing Program soon.

How did you start off and find clients? I am very interested in becoming a part-time web designer myself so I can pay my way through college.

So, here’s a summary of my career path:

  • Childhood: I have two older sisters (10, 11 years older) who were convinced that I was a baby genius, so they taught me to read when I was 4 and how to touch-type when I was 6. I think it says more for their patience than it does for me, because my development has definitely leveled off since then. 🙂 My family has always encouraged me in the areas of art and writing, so both of those interests were strong when I was young.
  • Teens: My oldest sister got a degree in graphic design and began working full-time and eventually moved to freelance. One of my first paid jobs was helping her align endpoints in technical diagrams in-then Aldus Illustrator. I also generally had free access to her computer(s) and graphics programs, so played around quite a lot with Illustrator. This enabled me to be general go-to graphics girl for high school and later, college organizations that I was in. I also continued to develop drawing skills — or at least keep from getting rusty — by taking art classes during school and during the summer. Some belated thanks are due my parents for paying for summer art classes and not forcing me to take more “academic” electives, as well as to my sister Angela for letting me “help” her during my formative years. I did very well in school, which does help on resumes.
  • College – Math: I majored in math at UC Davis partly because of an awesome calculus teacher and partly because I was getting tired of people sticking me in the “art box,” which seemed to imply that I had no brains other than making things pretty. Seeing someone’s eyes slightly widen in respect when I casually mentioned that I a math major became rather addictive. In hindsight, this is a terrible reason for choosing a major and I would not recommend it. On the other hand, as a math major I had to take two computer science programming classes; this was the first time I had any exposure to programming languages, debugging, etc., so I think that was pretty valuable in the long run. Again, doing well in school is good for resumes.
  • College – Graphic Design: I took a few art classes for fun, mainly studio art, so didn’t do anything formal with graphic design. I would still like to do that someday. However, being a student carried an awesome perquisite of FREE access to the best computer equipment and software, including Photoshop and Illustrator and PageMaker and all those other yummy programs. I would bike over to the lab to make fliers for organizations, t-shirt designs, etc. My biggest project was helping to research, update, and produce a new edition of a short book, Windows on the Past, which talked about the people the campus buildings were named after.
  • College – Internship: My other sister, Leslie, and her husband, Ling Yi, took it upon themselves to help broaden my horizons and paid for me to fly out to Cambridge (MA) to live with them for a summer after my junior year. They even lined up a phone interview for me for a summer internship with Co-nect, Inc., a web-based education company. At this point, I thought I would try to be a math teacher, so I think they were looking for an education-related opportunity for me. As it turned out, this became a critical turning point towards web design. As an intern, I had to learn some basic HTML to help update their site and create new sections for projects using BBEdit and Photoshop. Meanwhile, at my sister’s house,  was making use of an extra computer and their super-fast cable internet to make a new, free yahoo and geocities accounts and build a content-heavy graphics-light web site for myself.
  • College – New computer: This led to my very first purchase of a PC for myself (eMachines). Up ’til then, I had a hand-me-down Mac Plus and a really nice laser printer which basically enabled me to check email and type papers and track household expenses in Excel. Now, I had a color monitor (oooooooo) and, ahem, illegally obtained software (I plead ignorance; back then I didn’t know what was legal and what wasn’t) that allowed me to completely revamp my personal web site and start offering myself as “web developer” for the various student organizations I was in. I think I had it a lot easier back then than now (we’re talking 1999) because there wasn’t much competition in the sense of anyone else knowing how to both code HTML and make non-cheesy graphics. Now I have people like my 11-year-old niece building web sites. Sheesh. Thanks to the waybackmachine archive, you can see one of my sites for a college religious organization here. I think I’ve come far. 🙂
  • Post-college, first job: After graduating and going on a summer mission trip to Africa, I came back to Davis with no job lined up. I was determined to stay in Davis (not live at home), so I had to find a job that was local. And, I didn’t have a car, only a bike, so I had to find something really local. My solution was to pull out the yellow pages and look under “internet services.” There were three companies listed. Two (let’s call them A and B) had web sites (which makes me curious why the third one was even listed). Both web sites were very clean and cool-looking, one was an all-Flash site, even. I fired off an email to both with my resume attached. B never replied back (and as it turned out, their web site was designed by A anyway). A emailed me back to offer an interview in a couple of days. The office was a 8-minute bike ride away. Less than a week later, I had a full time job with a low-ish salary and later on, benefits. Looking back, I really have NO IDEA why they hired me; I was such a newbie to the web design arena.
  • Full-time employent: Thus began an idyllic season of full-time employment with Advantrics (parent company of PixelMill). My job was to design web site templates (starting out, only for Microsoft FrontPage) and the occasional client web site that came along. Eventually the senior designer moved on, and I got an in-name promotion. We collected really cool people to work with. The hours were fairly flexible, I could bring my dog to work (where it wrestled with the president’s dog), and for a season we even had free Mountain Dew in the fridge. Even better, I could learn and research on company time. I got really good at building tables-based layouts, would write support articles as I was learning about stuff, played around with Flash and data-driven Flash movies, and eventually got into CSS and CSS-based layouts. I was never a real “programmer,” but learned how to tweak ASP code by osmosis; just don’t ask me to build anything from scratch!
  • Forced into freelancing: Unfortunately in early 2004, internet sales tanked. All of us were laid off, although I was retained as a freelance consultant for something like 15 hours a week. I did a few odd jobs here and there, but the layoff happened to coincide with a big event/campaign at our church, so I ended up putting most of my daytime hours into volunteering and coordinating it. Not until 2005 did I finally get into seriously becoming a freelancer by building out my own web site and pursuing word-of-mouth referrals. At that time, I also increased my hours with Advantrics/PixelMill to something like 30 hours a week, so I still had an almost full-time job there.

And that brings me to where I am now. Currently I have a small handful of regular clients who I do some basic web maintenance for, and another handful of clients that I’ve done significant new projects with. Most of these clients were through word-of-mouth from other clients, friends, or acquaintances. I’ve been blessed to not have to seriously look for clients yet; my guess is that after asking my current networks of friends and clients, I would start with the plethora of job boards that are available for freelancers.

I don’t think I’m the best model for a would-be freelancer, as most of my contract work is still through a company that I used to work for. I’m also definitely not the best model for someone who is job-hunting (as I recall, when I told my sister that I had sent out two resumes, she said, “WHAT?! You should be sending out something like THIRTY!”). My career and financial — if not “success,” at least … um… “solvency,” has come about through a combination of luck and others’ good-will, with a dash of natural artistic “eye” and skill.

Does anyone else have actual advice for Yazil?


3 thoughts on “My career path

  1. Wow, I don’t even remember your helping me align end points. “Helping” me… yeah, you’re too nice to say it was actually “free slave labor.” Ha ha!

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