My Advice to Young Designers and Developers | March 16, 2014

I meet them on a regular basis, tech-savvy teens who’ve been coding websites from an early age. They’ll often seek my advice about breaking into the industry. Should they continue their studies or jump straight into the labour market? I usually tell them that ability trumps education and I don’t put much faith on the current raft of tech degrees. So I’d prefer to see three years of experience than three years of study.

That being said, I’ll also point out that University is about much more than just acquiring a skill. It’s a formative experience that will shape your attitudes for the rest of your life. It’s also a huge amount of fun, or at least it was in my day.

As University becomes more expensive, it’s understandable that people question its value. So it makes sense for many young designers and developers to skip higher education in favour of the workplace, and who can blame them? As somebody who was earning less than ‘300 a week throughout most of my twenties, I can’t imagine what it must be like for a twenty year old to earn that much a day freelancing.

However I worry that in the rush to join the establishment, people may be missing out on formative experiences they’ll never get back.

Now I don’t want to romanticise low paid jobs or suggest poverty tourism for the soon to be tech-elite, but there’s something to be said for getting by on minimum wage to enforce a respect for money. There’s also something to be said for working behind a bar, in a call centre or any number of service-based jobs to instil a sense of empathy for other people.

If you’re interested, I’ve worked variously at a chip shop, a supermarket, a warehouse, a watch factory, a restaurant kitchen, a bank, a call centre, a travel agent, a farm, a hostel and various dive centres around Australasia. In all of these situations I met interesting characters and learnt valuable life lessons.

The tech-sector is a wonderful place to work, but it’s also a homogenous and often self-entitled one. So I wonder if the young engineers making their way down to Silicon Valley may have been better equipped to handle the ire of ordinary San Francisco citizens if more of then had tried living in the city on minimum wage themselves?

When I’m asked for advice from school age designers and developers about breaking into the industry, my answer is usually the same ’ ‘don’t rush into a career at 18, only to look back when you’re 28 or 38 and wonder where the time went.’ ‘Instead’, I’ll suggest, ‘why not take a few years off to go travelling?’

I know it’s a clich’ but travelling really does broaden your horizons and expand your mind. Not only do you get to meet new people and experience different perspectives on life, but you also get to reflect on the choices you’ve made or are going to make. For instance I was convinced that I wanted to be a pilot at the age of 18 and even took up flying lessons. However it was only through travel that I realised what a mistake that would have been and what I really wanted to do with my life.

By comparison, the majority of people I know who went straight into a career ended up hating what they did for a living, but only realised this once it was too late. There really is no rush to start down the career path, so I find it weird how many people are settling into their careers so soon. It’s something I associate more with my parents or grandparents era and is oddly conservative.

More importantly, travelling is a lot of fun. It’s also something that gets harder to do as you progress in your careers, buy houses, raise families and settle down. So it’s something I always recommend people to do when they’re young, or risk missing out. After all, the tech industry will always be there, but you only live once so you may as well make the time count.

Posted at March 16, 2014 12:37 AM


Adam said on March 16, 2014 10:54 AM

Well said, I feel the exact same way. I feel lucky in saying that I truly do love being a web developer, but i’m young and this love could be premature. It’s my first and only career I know so maybe it’s too early to settle. With that said, I’m quitting my high paying job, and embarking for a round the world trip later this year by myself.

Life is short and I feel fortunate to truly grasp that concept.


Dave said on March 18, 2014 3:00 PM

As someone who’s sat on both sides of the hiring table, I totally agree! This industry moves so fast that by the time you leave school, what you’ve learned can be obsolete so make sure you get into it for the right reasons too.

A lot of people rush from high school to college and then they end of getting a degree that’s not really “them.” When you’re 18, sometimes there’s no way to know what you want really want do in life. I’ve asked applicants in interviews “if you could do anything you want, what would you really want to do?” I’ve gotten some interesting answers—a lot of them not even related to the position. Some people are really made for this kind of work, some are just going through the motions.

Even more important than experience is ambition. Make sure you actually have the drive to do this kind of work. I think it might be more prevalent with the tech degree folks but I see some prospects looking for work and all they’re interested in is pay because that’s what tech schools market for: “99% placement rate” they claim.

If you haven’t done anything beyond the typical school projects that everyone else who’s competing for their position has done, don’t expect to get hired. I see a ton of kids come out of college or tech school and think they’re hot ishh but they’re just too green yet, they need to tone it down a notch and get some worldly wisdom under their belt.

David said on March 18, 2014 4:01 PM

A point in favour of university: I didn’t get a tech degree, but I spent a lot of my time at university building web presences for projects I got involved with, both for courses and extra-curricular things. For a teenager looking to build a career in web development, the possibility an undergraduate environment presents to get involved in real-life projects can offer a lot in terms of learning many of the soft skills that go into delivering useful software/design products. Of university isn’t the only environment where you can get involved, but it stands out to me in that the stakes are usually fairly low, barrier to entry is low, and scope for experimentation is high.

Mike said on March 18, 2014 6:35 PM

My recommendation would always be to go to school. It is so much easier to go to college after high school than it is to go back 10 years later. But, instead of getting a degree in technology, maybe get a degree in management. Learn how to run a business, make cost estimates, balance the budget, and other skills that will allow them to become their own boss instead of just being a technical employee for someone else.

Joe Zimmerman said on March 18, 2014 6:36 PM

Mentorship/Apprenticeship would be wonderful. I went through college and learned several great things, but so much of what I learned provided nothing to my future. Plus, having to pay off student loans for myself AND my wife almost made college not worth it.

If my children end up interested in tech jobs, I plan on mentoring them myself. Who better to learn from than someone who is currently in the business and is passionate about it… and is your father! I just wish mentorship opportunities were more prevalent in the workforce. Internships aren’t enough and still require a lot of cash being given to colleges.

Karolis Ramanauskas said on March 19, 2014 8:34 AM

I think that since more and more people realize how lucrative technology business can be, especially after watching movies like ‘Jobs’ and ‘The Social Network’ or reading about Angry Birds they too get this excitement and desire to start doing something life changing early. I see nothing wrong with that. Let them fail. I think the problem arises when these people with mediocre technical skills and mediocre passion start developing shitty products that bring no value to the world. There is definitely at least one thing at which they would be excellent at but because of this hype about technology sector they are afraid of missing out and following their true passions. I worked in an apps development agency where they sold apps to businesses, say a paper company could have their own app. This agency used to sell it to client in premise of how much value this app will bring to their businesses while in the back doors everybody knew that no one will use this app and it is mostly a waste of money. I see it as a waste of potential of these people who are making these apps as they could be putting their skills to better use. But if you have no passion and no true desire to do something useful to the world, this is most likely the kind of job you will end up working at.

I too am a 20 years web developer thinking whether I should finish my studies since I already finished one year and am now on gap year travelling and working or whether go straight ahead to the real world. However, since I too don’t have a burning desire for anything yet, only a mediocre passion and haven’t really discovered a thing for which I could sacrifice anything, I figured I will go back to university and try to find something that will keep me awake at night out of excitement. If I don’t manage that, I will keep on travelling, reading books and enlightening myself in other ways. I totally agree with Andy that there is no rush and that people, not necessarily only from tech-world, should invest more time in themselves and figure what makes them tick. I realize I am still very young and it is possible that my opinions will change in 5 years or so but I hope not.