One important skill: Seeing a project from a bird’s-eye view. (Flick photo by Irene Grassi)
The sheer excitement of creating something valuable fueled his early interest in writing code, and the pride of accomplishing something his peers found genuinely interesting left an indelible impression.
For Dan LaMotte, now a web application programmer for internal projects at software giant Symantec in Wakeeney, Kan., that moment materialized from a simple calculator program he wrote in junior high school to remember common math formulas for area, volume, and more.
“At the time, it didn’t quite register as ‘programming,’ but it was a ton of fun writing it and watching as people flocked to it because of the value,” LaMotte, 28, says.
Often it’s that very appetite to create, to meet a need and to achieve that propels us into web development and design in the first place and carries us through the first ups and downs.
Eventually, though, it becomes apparent that creativity and enthusiasm alone aren’t enough.
You need skills, too.
And not just “I can code” skills. Rather, for those of us just starting out, these high-demand and often-used skills are ones we don’t even realize we need.
For web design convert Tim Brown, 28, of Minneapolis, navigating that transition is still relatively fresh in his memory.
“For someone who’s just getting started in web design, I’d suggest keeping your eyes on the path directly in front of you, get excited when you can manipulate basic HTML and CSS, and do fun projects that exercise your current abilities,” says the freelancer, whose artistic expression steered him toward web design and led him to learn more; he has been his own boss for more than two years now. “Then slowly add jQuery and PHP or other next-level languages, and be proud of yourself for getting over speed bumps; each one sets you farther apart from the broader fold of non-coding designers. It’s difficult, but it’s rewarding.”
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To help take your raw talents and basic skills to the next level, here are five important but not intuitive strands of advice from developers and designers who spoke to Treehouse recently:
1. Ask the Right Questions
On the heels of new clients and new challenges comes a new skill: the art of asking the right questions and drawing out the client’s dos, don’ts and unspoken expectations.
Web designer Jake Peterson of 5j Design in Sioux Falls, S.D., says he feels that even if clients say they don’t have any idea what they want, they often leave things unsaid about what they don’t want.
“Make sure to ask a lot of questions up front and get as close as you can to their vision,” Peterson, 30, tells Treehouse.
And ask all the stakeholders, Brown adds.
“That’s where creative curation and a thorough initial discovery become major assets in a designer’s arsenal, and it’s something that I’m learning pays off later in the project,” he says.
2. Translate Between Technical and Visual
Having all the information and direction you need for a project is a great first step. But knowing how to translate that vision into the optimal technical components of a website’s code or design is more of a problem-solving skill than a simple matter of knowledge.
In the design space, you can sometimes become overwhelmed by requests or changes, Brown says:
“Knowing how to process that information and create relevant modifications while maintaining the integrity of the design is an invaluable skill.”
Sometimes the challenge is vice versa, and sometimes, LaMotte notes, instead of just writing code, “programmers get put in odd spots where they need to understand the code as well as how to structure it.”
Being tasked with an end result, like reports with easy-to-understand graphs or charts, means first identifying what data needs to be gathered and then translating that data into a program that showcases the data visually.
“I have the unique position of understanding the technical details as well as the ‘soft details,’ which people lean on,” he says. “Understanding what is possible technically as well as what needs to be accomplished in the big picture is very important.”
3. See the Big Picture
Stepping back from the details of the code to get a bird’s-eye view of the project as a whole doesn’t often come naturally.
“At some point, programming becomes a tool in your toolbox, just like a hammer,” LaMotte continues. “Understanding when to use the hammer is important, and understanding that not all issues need a hammer is even more important. In my experience, when you start out, the only thing you need to worry about is how to code. Eventually, ‘how to code’ is simple, and of course there are new things to keep up with, but understanding the effects of the code and how it plays a part in the big picture is the most important skill someone needs to learn.”
For him, learning the craft well enough to start focusing on the bigger picture required time spent outside of class. For Peterson, it took the form of countless online forum posts, Google searches, instructional videos and frequent calls to his father-in-law, a programmer. Once you have developed a good grasp of the technical details, the challenge is to position the client’s vision within the right context.
“Try to see the small nugget of truth in what they’re asking and then weigh that against the rest of the product,” LaMotte says. “Also weigh it against what the real audience needs. Keep looking for what people need and not what people want. Get as much time as you can with the people who make the decisions and pick their brain. Understand their vision before understanding how they ‘want’ it implemented, and understand how they need it implemented.
“Vision is different from the product. The vision gives you understanding into how it needs to be used and worked with. The product they think they need can be very different because they don’t understand the technical details in play like you do.”
4. Position with Persuasion
There is skill and experience in learning to translate the abstract into the concrete and to see from a bigger perspective, but clients typically don’t — and often can’t — take all of that into account when dreaming up their vision for a project. That’s where the skill of persuasion comes into play.
Through “many, many, many failures,” LaMotte says the thing he “found most useful was asking trusted people (I’ve always had great working relationships with my managers) about how I acted in meetings and different situations and getting feedback. … The biggest lesson with soft skills is that technical prowess, knowledge and correctness will not win your battles. You’ll be persuading people who have no idea how things work on that level. You need to position yourself properly.”
Brown applies the same principle to career advancement.
“I never realized how important networking would be when I got into web design,” he says. “In this current market, even people who aren’t technically in sales will do well to sharpen their sales skills. It’s all about ‘non-sales selling;’ even technical coder types can go farther in their career if they can phrase their expertise in the right way, selling themselves for roles in consultation, freelance and contract positions. To be agile and able to adapt is huge, and although I was aware this was the case, I’ve realized people migrate so much in our current web design industry that you’ve got to have the mentality of a freelancer in a lot of ways.”
He developed that skill by networking with online communities of fellow web designers, members of a professional association, classmates and others in natural social situations he found his way into, all the while noticing needs for his services and intentionally starting those conversations on his own.
5. Keep It Simple
The culmination of translating the right information into the right context in the right way is then distilling it all back into its simplest form. Keeping things simpler than they need to be has been a key takeaway for Peterson, who notes that a client who asks for 10 pages describing all his products would likely be better served through streamlining that information on half as many pages or organizing them better.
The challenge is taking things that usually sound complex and designing them in a way that will achieve a positive, lasting effect on the user, and it involves more than just the text and images.
“There’s so much more to design than what it looks like,” he says. “It’s how you navigate a page, where you draw the eye to. On the web, things can move and change, so how do you create a flow?”
It’s taking the client’s ultimate goals — producing leads, making sales, conveying a message or prompting a phone call — and integrating them in a way that doesn’t get lost in clutter.
Call it clean, minimalist or simple elegance. “More and more, that’s what people want,” he says.