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How to Become a Front End Developer (Pt. 1)


Jason C.
Front End Developer

There’s not just one path to becoming an amazing front end developer.

Which is why we picked the brains of a few of our favorite FED talent to see how they got to be so danged good at what they do, ask their advice for up and coming developers, and see what trends they expect to see in 2014.

First up: Jason C. from Portland, OR.

How did you start coding and what was the first language you learned?

I first started coding in 1991 in 5th grade on a Commodore 64. I was the only kid in class who typed his homework. I wanted to make the headline font bigger for a paper and the computer couldn't do that. So I learned how to write a small program that could.

In high school I wrote math programs on my TI-82 calculator. One program I wrote took an algebra word problem and showed you line by line what to write out to show your work. One kid complained about me using it. The teacher said if I was able to write the program, I could use it. I loved the kid’s reaction.

My first real programming didn’t happen until 2004. I was an entertainment video editor at the time and repeatedly asked by clients if I could make Flash movie websites. I saved up funds and hired people who were smarter than me to do them. I learned a lot from those folks as they did the projects.

If someone wanted to learn to code, what would your one piece of advice be to get them started?

I used to work at a TV station and off in the corner of the building there was this guy I desperately wanted to be like. I had no connection to him, but knew I wanted to make the kind of money and do the kind of work he was doing, but I didn’t know how to get started.

I walked right up to him, sat down, and stared at him. He probably thought I was some kind of psycho as he turned toward me. I simply said “Can I be your friend”? He did what every person would do and laughed awkwardly. I told him, “I don’t want to bother you or distract you. I just want to watch what you do.”  He then said, “Of course.”

The “Can I Be Your Friend” method is the one piece of advice I suggest to break into any trade. It lets you establish a relationship with a professional, and it’s those personal connections and skills that lead to employment. You also get to learn in a real world environment.

I could list all kinds of colleges, books, and tutorial sites, but none work as well as a relationship with someone that does the work you want to do. They can provide all that knowledge and so much more.

How do you network/meet other developers?

I meet other developers by working onsite during projects. I’m rarely the only developer in a building and oftentimes I’m not even the only developer on a project. I also go to Meetups and do game nights with developer buddies and their families. But going to work onsite is the best way to meet other developers.

As a developer, what resource do you rely on the most to do your job?

There are different kinds of resources. I use a MacPro with four 27-inch monitors as my primary workstation and couldn’t do much without a computer. I rely on other colleagues a ton. We help each other via Teamspeak and keep each other sharp. We talk about trends, techniques, and problems throughout the workday. I rely on client referrals for business development and on the open source community for technology and information. I use tutorial sites like Tuts+, Pluralsight,, follow industry leaders on Twitter, and listen to podcasts to make sure I always keep up. I also make sure to spend at least some time each morning catching up on what I could be doing better or differently.

How often do clients request or expect you to have design skills (and how do you feel about that?)

My clients don’t expect me to have design skills. I have a design background and have done years of After Effects, but most of my clients have no idea and supply me with PSDs. Clients expect me to understand the technology. They bring me in during wireframing, design, or just after design is complete, so I can run with it from there. Most developers have trouble keeping up, so designers really need that collaboration with front end developers. The best work comes from UX, UI, front end, and back end all working together to figure out what’s cool together. Companies that let any of those areas take priority let the end result suffer. Designers need to be willing to make concessions for what makes sense technically. Developers need to understand that taking the time to design something better is actually making it more functional. Details matter. In general, there’s very little that’s not possible with a great team working together.

Agency vs. corporate environment for development, what are the pros and cons?

It depends on the agency and company. I think I’ve grown the most at agencies because I get to apply the lessons learned on the prior project to the next. But if you work at an agency and get stuck doing HTML email campaigns, pulling metrics, making text updates, etc., you’ll have a hard time when you move on. But I’ll say, the constant stream of new projects can make it awesome to play with new technology.

At corporate environments the pay is generally better and you get to work on larger initiatives. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to incorporate new technology in a corporate environment because of the project types.

Personally, I work in both.

What do think the biggest Front End Development trend will be in 2014?

I think the biggest development trend for 2014 will continue to be in mobile. Most Internet traffic now comes from mobile devices and clients are already aware mobile needs to be a first-class citizen. Not just in responsive CSS. Understanding touch events, high-density displays, animation, loading times, Javascript SPAs, and data abstraction will continue to become more important as wearables, automotive UIs, smart TVs, and other devices fall into the category Steve Jobs defined as the “Post-PC Era”.

Clients need to start thinking about separating their data from the presentation of that data. Tying copy, images, and media into something where you can’t easily add another one of these connected devices without throwing away code is not smart. Clients need to understand the future business ramifications of restricting their content to specific platforms, technologies, or languages. To be specific, understanding what an API is and how a single API can power websites and mobile apps and really future-proof an initiative. It also reduces reliance on a specific technology or language making course corrections more cost-effective.

What brands/companies are doing cool stuff right now from a front end development perspective?

I’m working on a fun project with Pollinate right now. It’s an AngularJS/HTML5 Canvas app that let’s you customize a product. I find the coolest stuff is done in small teams working on projects you haven’t really seen before.

Generally speaking, if you can say you’ve seen it done in Flash or it was created by more than one developer and you have no idea how to do it, you’re probably talking about a cool front-end project.

Development is about figuring out how to pull off something. You are developing a solution. You’re also a professional Googler. I try to take on projects where I know how to do 75% of the project, have a pretty good hunch I can figure out 15-20%, and have no idea how to do 5-10%. That way, each project forces growth for the next one.

Many thanks to Jason, for taking the time to help everyone better understand the world of front end development!

If you’re curious to know what a FED job description looks like, check our Quick Hire page.

And when you’re ready to get a front end development job, be sure to connect with a Vitamin T agent.

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