Working as a New Developer: Insights From Recent HackerYou Grads

Recently, the wonderful Emily Porta took the time to contact HackerYou Alumni to see how their careers have taken shape. I was thrilled to be able to contribute my experience as a Developer at Telus Digital Labs. The following was originally posted on Emily’s blog. Enjoy!

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I asked the amazing Hackeryou alumni community to chime in on what the months after graduating from the program have been like for them, whether they’re freelancing, working at a company, or a little of both. Their answers, including mine, are below! A special thanks to our contributors: Vanessa Merritt, Margaret Reffell, Logan Greer, Julie Jancen, Jessie Willms, and all the other Hackeryouians who volunteered.


SKIP TO: Logan Greer: Small Agency | Julie Jancen: Large Agency | Vanessa Merritt: Large Product Company | Emily Porta: Tech Startup | Margaret Reffell: Freelance | Jessie Willms: a Bit of Everything

What’s it like to work at…a small agency?

Logan Greer has worked at Zync Communications as a Developer since July 2014. Zync is a small agency with 14 people.

Q: What’s the development team like where you work?
A: Just 2 people, myself and a Senior Dev

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills: Javascript, HTML5, CSS, PHP, Foundation 5, Compass, WordPress etc.
Non-technical skills: Good sense of UX/UI, ability to communicate complex tech issues to non-technical people (and sometimes to extremely non-technical people…aka clients)

Q: What’s your tech stack?
A: LAMP for most projects, some projects require MEAN

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: A site for a famous Canadian Astronaut and some cool custom API’s to go along with it

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: How to integrate front and back end tech, how to build custom API’s

Q: What’s the best part about working for your type of organization?
A: With only 2 people on the dev team, my ideas get taken seriously and I am able to learn new things much quicker as I spend every day working side-by-side with a talented full stack dev who has 10 years experience

Q: What’s something unique about working at Zync Communications?
A: We count the amount of Keurig coffee pods that get used per month! the coffee stats on our homepage are based on facts!

Q: What personality traits fit best at the kind of place you work?
A: The ability to balance workplace maturity with creativity and total immaturity. You need thick skin and a strong stomach! My Co-workers are highly creative people who have 0 filters for “proper workplace speak”. We laugh a lot, talk about inappropriate things… watched messed up videos on youtube together.. its quite important that new people on the team share a similar sense balance between hard work and using silliness to stimulate creativity.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a job at a small agency?
A: Be prepared to learn fast. With less people comes more responsibility. As 1 of only 2 developers, I am often tasked with finding answers and solutions to things that I am not even sure of. I do alot of on-the-fly research and have to learn how to find creative solutions to complex issues in a timely manner. If you are someone who wants to learn fast and be connected to a project much more then what is contained within your basic job description, a small agency is the place to be!

What’s it like to work at…a large agency?

Julie Jancen has worked at Powered by Search as a Web Designer and Front-End Developer since March 2014. Powered by Search is a large internet marketing agency with ~60 people, including off-shore staff and team members who work from home.

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills:

  • Strong UX/UI skills,
  • Strong typography and layout skills,
  • Familiar with current web standards, cross-browser issues, coding XHTML HTML5 and CSS3,
  • Simple JS, Javascript coding and working with script libraries like jQuery
  • Ability to design/wireframe bold, responsive websites that work on all platforms and browser
  • High proficiency in photoshop, illustrator, axure, omnigraffle, google apps, ftp client, WordPress

Non-Tech Skills:

  • Strong verbal skills and writing skills… including good grammar,
  • Ability to interpret instruction and output high quality work based on that,
  • Keep learning new trade skills… stay on top of new web trends,
  • Manage deadlines,
  • Manage client personalities
  • Be aware of project budget and scope creep

Q: What’s your tech stack?
A: LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP)

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: I’m doing a ton of web design projects and taking a Javascript course in the fall to meet the needs of being a developer at my company

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: Everyday I think I learn something new. New code, new css3 animations, new UI design trends, new software for wireframing, new shortcuts in photoshop, new sites for inspiration, etc, etc. It’s why I love my field… everyday, I look forward to learning at least one new thing.

Q: What’s the best part about working for your type of organization?
A: My company offers two work-from-home days each week and run a monthly blogging contest to win $1000. The focus is on building a well-rounded employee who knows a little about what everyone’s role is. Even considering I’m in the “creative department”, as part of the contest, I need to write content. It’s a great way to learn and get a breadth of skills in the industry.

Q: What personality traits fit best at the kind of place you work?
A: You have to be a quick learner, keep an open mind, move at a quick pace and implement new workflow processes as the company grows. Deadlines always feel like they’re due yesterday. So, keeping a birds eye view on the project is essential. There’s a lot of individual personalities you have to learn to manage internally and with clients. Always stay polite and respectful… Always over-deliver, never over-promise.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a job at a large agency?
A: Stay positive, stay hungry. Don’t be intimidated.

What’s it like to work at…a large product company?

Vanessa Merritt has worked at Telus Digital Labs as Front-End Developer for almost a month, and has a four month contract. Telus has ~50-100 people in the Digital Lab and thousands across the corporation.

Q: What’s the development team like where you work?
A: Mostly contractors with loads of great experience. The Toronto team works closely with the Vancouver team (more permanent employees are in that office, from what I understand) so there is lots of teleconferencing. Currently there is a team from Nascent working in the Toronto offices on the overhaul of the Telus website. So, there are lots people different backgrounds and experience.

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills: HTML, CSS, SASS, Git, command line.
Non-technical skills: working on a team, time management, general office etiquette :)

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: We are working on a Web Standards Guide to be used internally in order to keep web development on brand.

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: More SASS, working with code written by others. I’m also using a new CMS I’ve never used before (Statamic). I will have opportunities to shadow senior devs as they work on short sprints as well.

Q: What’s the best part about working for your type of organization?
A: Loads of people around to learn from. I applied for this job as a junior developer because I knew I’d have support from more senior devs, as well as my fellow juniors.

Q: What’s something unique about working at Telus?
A: We have the ability to work from home a few days a week. There is also a reasonably priced gym and outdoor eating area for employees.

Q: What personality traits fit best at the kind of place you work?
A: A balance of being hard working but with a good sense of humour.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a job at a large product company?
A: Have a willingness to learn and be a great team member.

What’s it like to work at…a small startup?

Emily Porta has worked at Shift Health Paradigms as Front-End Developer for almost three months. Shift, a health tech startup that makes a product called Tickit, has eight employees.

Q: What’s the development team like where you work?
A: We have three developers working full-time, including myself. It’s a very small team, obviously, and we keep things pretty laid back. We use the agile development methodology to keep the whole thing running on time.

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills: strong HTML and CSS and Less, flexbox, be familiar with frameworks like bootstrap, responsive design, Javascript and Angular. Git, of course.
Non-technical skills: solid understanding of web design, web standards, usability, and UI/UX concerns. Communication is key, as well as being able to work in a rapidly changing environment, and working modularly (both in terms of your time and your tasks).

Q: What’s your tech stack?
A: Our back end is Ruby (on Rails), and front end is Javascript, Angular, CSS3/Less, HTML5, and we use Grunt. Technically there’s some Bootstrap in there, but part of my job is weeding it out. Git for version control. Ummmm I think that’s everything major. Probably more back end stuff I don’t know about yet.

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Right now I’m working on making sure all of our 3rd party widgets are styled correctly and are fully responsive, taking in to account things like tooltips popping up, really small screens, and all the dynamically generated content that fills our app.

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: A couple days ago I learned that you can conditionally change the styling on child elements using only CSS, contingent upon how many children the parent container has. Super cool, right? I’m also trying to make time to read John Duckett’s JS/jQuery book, which I’m about halfway through. A tiny bit of Angular.

Q: What’s the best part about working for your type of organization?
A: Oh man. This is tough because there’s so many things. It’s very relaxed. You can have a profound impact on the company. What you’re good at (naturally or because of experience) is discovered and highly valued. You’re friends with the people you work with. You get a chance to get as close as possible to making the product pixel perfect. You get to work on something that could make a very positive difference to humanity. You get the thrill of seeing the company succeed, and you get to grow with it. We’re very agile, with very limited bureaucracy. Everyone cares deeply about what you’re making, and the development team is treated very well, but not better than anyone else, we’re all equals. Your skills beyond your literal job description are highly valued. I could go on! Of course this will depend heavily on the people in each company.

Q: What’s something unique about working at Shift Health?
A: The work-life balance is excellent, not something I thought I’d get at a startup!

Q: What personality traits fit best at the kind of place you work?
A: Casual, but driven. Likes to joke around, but also get things done. We’re “young” not in the sense of age, but in our iterative approach to success, agility, and team personality. Someone responsible, and dedicated to what they do. Generalists who aren’t afraid to learn and champion new things.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a job at a startup?
A: Well, if you’re a new front end dev definitely try to learn as much html, css, js and angular (or similar) as you can. Learn a bit about the back end, I certainly wish I knew more. Go to tech meetups, tweet about technical things (and non-technical things) all the time. Go after the companies that already have one or two full stack devs – startups looking for their first developer need a full stack dev first. Know that getting a job at a startup is usually a lot less traditional process than other jobs.

What’s it like to work as…a freelance developer?

Margaret Reffell has worked as a freelance Front-End Developer for just under three years, and wishes she did it sooner!

Q: Do you have a business name?
A: I currently operate under my own name Marg Reffell as a Sole Proprietor, but I’ll be changing structures to incorporate soon, so I guess I’ll have to pick out something a little catchier :)

Q: Do you have a typical location you work from? Set hours? What’s the breakdown of your day like?
A: I work from home and coffee shops at the moment. I have tried shared working spaces, but I often have to hop on skype for quick conversations with clients, so I feel more comfortable doing that at home where I don’t bother anyone. As far as hours, I know many freelancers who draw a line in the sand between work and personal life, but my line is very blurred. I’m very selective with who I work with, so I really love my clients! I’ve been to their houses, I’ve met some of their families and I’ve even celebrated launches with them (and a glass of bubbly). I also keep my own life and schedule intact by having a pretty solid daily routine. I’m an early riser, so I typically get up at 7ish, check emails, train, make breakfast, then work until about 4pm. Although, on product launch days it’s not unusual for me to be working until 1:00am.

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills:You have to be a bit of a “jack/jill of all trades” because every project has a new set of technical challenges. I find this is why it’s especially important to surround yourself with a “virtual team” of experts. I’m always asking for help, but I’m also always giving out free technical help whenever I can. Freelancer Karma, ya know?
Non-technical skills: Ah, I feel like these are just as (if not more) important than the technical skillsets required. I work primarily in the development of e-commerce and membership sites so I would say the biggest and most valuable soft skill is asking the right questions. It’s important to get to the root of the clients business goals, and then find the appropriate software you need to build them something they need to move their business forward, rather than something they think they want. Establishing trust and realistic goals with your client is a key to success.

Q: What’s your tech stack?
A: Working as a freelancer, you often have to learn programming skills as well as a lot of 3rd party software that’s frequently used by online businesses. Here’s my Tech/Software stack

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript/JQuery
  • PHP
  • WordPress
  • CRM’s (Mailchimp/Aweber/Infusionsoft)
  • e-Commerce (Paypal/Stripe/WPe-store/WooCommerce/Infusionsoft/Shopify)
  • Membership Platforms (Wishlist/Sensei/Optimize Press)

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Right now I’m working on 2 Shopify builds and 1 custom e-Commerce system for a client in Australia.

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: I’m diving a little further into JavaScript and PHP. I am also interested into diving into Magento, but that might have to wait until the new year.

Q: What’s the best part about working as a freelance dev?
A: So many things! I get to work from anywhere with people all over the world. I get to choose my own clients and choose my own projects. I (sort of) get to choose my own hours, but often, my projects end up choosing my hours.

Q: What’s unique about working as a developer?
A: When people are really happy with the work you do for them, they give you gifts! I’ve never experienced this at any other job before. I think the most unique/interesting gift I received was from a client who is a sex coach. After we launched, I got some interesting gifts in the mail haha!

Q: What personality traits fit best for freelance work?
A: Organization! I can’t stress this enough. The second trait would be boundaries. Saying “yes” to completing certain tasks when you really like your clients is easy, but you have to get good at saying “no” and setting boundaries. I have learnt that it is much easier to say no to clients when the ground rules are set before you begin to conduct business.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to work as a freelance developer?
A: Ok, I’ll try to be as brief as possible by putting it in point form:

  • Stay on top of tracking your invoices and expenses – there’s lots of good software for this.
  • Establish an equation or system of how you price your products before you enter freelance. Don’t undersell yourself. It’s easier to start at a higher rate than it is to start low and increase rates on your clients.
  • Trust your gut and know when to say “No!” to a project. I recently said no to a $20,000 project because it didn’t feel right. Am I crazy? Maybe. Am I happy? Yes!
  • Create an expiration date on project proposals. My proposals are required to be accepted within 30 days. Otherwise, I reserve the right to re-quote and possibly increase rates.
  • Get really, really good at something. Get a stack of software you specialize in. If you can become a JavaScript guru, or a Magento developer you will never have a problem finding work.

What’s it like to work as…a little bit of everything?

Jessie Willms has worked as a designer/developer for two months. She currently works for iPolitics.ca, who cover federal politics and public policy issues in Ottawa with

Q: Do you have a typical location you work from? Set hours? What’s the breakdown of your day like?
A: Every morning at 9:00 a.m., we have an editorial story meeting to go over what’s happening and what we’ll cover for the day. I usually chime in with what I’m working on that day — sometimes code, sometimes an infographic — and pitch graphics or interactive elements I think could be added to stories. I usually get into the office during or a little after the meeting (we mostly call in), 9:30/9:45 a.m. and head straight for the coffee pot, catch up on some emails, and the headlines of the day. After that, it’s two or three hours of coding/designing. Today, I coded a interactive chart to be used alongside coverage of the annual meeting of the provincial leaders. Usually go for a walk around the Market, run an errand, or grab a coffee. Code/design until 1:00 p.m. when a colleague and I stroll around the Market for 15-20 minutes. In the afternoon, I’ll check in with my editor about progress on whatever I’m working on, or chat with some of the other reporters about whatever. 5:30/6:00, I try to pack up and leave for the day (unless there’s breaking news to be infographed (unusual), or I need to work late to meet a deadline.

Q: What are some key skills you need to have for your job?
A: Tech-related skills:
Web development: HTML/SASS/jQuery/Javascript. We use WordPress as our CMS, but I usually don’t tinker with that.
Non-web: Illustrator, Photoshop, a little bit of InDesign.
Non-technical skills:
My sense of humour (no, really, I collaborate with a reporter on a weekly humour graphic column, so being as hilarious as I am comes in handy). Hmm, communication, email, ability to focus when there are one million people conducting interviews in the background.

Q: What’s your tech stack?
A: HTML/SASS/jQuery/Javascript.

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Currently coding a big feature story on mining plus a freelance project developing a web app for a non-profit, and some infographics about urban issues.

Q: What new technical things are you learning?
A: Javascript. Re-learning basics JS all the time … trying to dig into Angular a bit, too.

Q: What’s the best part about working as a bit of everything?
A: Working as a designer/developer and freelancing means you don’t have the time to be bored with what you’re working on. (And because I’m really the only developer person in the office, I get to pitch projects — big and small — that I think would be a good fit for our site and our audience.) I really like being able to flip back and forth between projects; if I do get border — or more commonly, stuck — on a piece of a project, I can switch over to a different project.

Q: What’s something unique about working in your situation?
A: If I spot something cool online that I want to try, I usually can find a home for it. For example, when I wanted to give Haml a whirl, I had a project in the early stages that I could use it for.

Q: What personality traits fit best at the kind of place you work?
A: I can be super scatter-brained sometimes (especially if I’ve got a bunch of projects on the go), so it’s super important that I force myself to keep detailed notes with specific actions items with reasonable deadlines. Working in a newsroom — a super small newsroom — it’s important to communicate effectively with my reporters and editors. We all have a million-plus-one stories/projects on the go, and if we fail to talk to each other, things fall off. When stories break across beats — think Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau being suspended from the Senate on the same day Rob Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine on the same day committees were sitting on the same day, etc, etc — it’s essential we keep in touch and on the same page. As a developer, I rarely (never) have to run to a press conference on a moment’s notice, but I do have to be ready to pitch ideas across a variety of beats — stuff that I can turn around in a hour, an afternoon, or a week.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a job doing what you do?
A: Learn a little bit of everything — especially how to read the documentation, and find the best tutorials — but carve out the time/space to have a favourite thing. Talk to your clients/editors/co-workers. Outsource work if you’re overwhelmed, ask for help if there’s something you’re not sure about, keep notes on what you’re working on for who, with specific deadlines. Javascript sucks but it’s so important to understand.

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This post was written by Vanessa Merritt

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