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Square peg, round hole

Around about the middle of 2008 I solved for the first time in my eight-year career the dilemma of whether I was a web developer or web designer. Though this may not seem like the greatest of dilemmas to the reader, it has been eating away at my soul for a great many years not knowing where I fit.

The skim reader can skip to the end of the article to find out what I discovered. Below is the bumpy story of how.

The prospect of losing my soul

On finishing my work with Milamex in the summer of 2007 I was not only left contemplating trivial life questions such as should I stay [in Mexico] or should I go [back to England], but I was also left asking myself where to take my career next. Since beginning my web development career in 2000 I was always tripping over the fine line of whether I was a 'developer' or a 'designer'.

I have one of these personalities which is both technical and creative at the same time, so never know in which camp I belong. I have both the passion of an artist and the logicalness of a mathematician (though sadly not the brain power).

At the time, it seemed that if I chose to be a developer, it would not be long before I were a full-blown programmer/database guy, my whole life being consumed with writing stored procedures, defining class methods and never seeing a ray of interface sunlight. On the other hand, if I chose to be a designer, I would be encapsulated away from the medium of the web for which I have a passion and would not be able to have a say about issues such as accessibility, usability, how to make web applications fit for the purpose and so forth.

At Milamex, as with previous jobs, I had walked the tightrope. Being relatively small/medium-sized projects, I could exercise both sides of my personality. I knew though, that the time would come for me to make a decision, one that would surely see me lose my soul.

The fall of the guillotine

In the autumn of 2007, with this fate firmly hanging over me, I landed the position of web developer at Arena Premier. I was brought in as part of a new team to build a web-based ticket-sales system, likened somewhat to TicketMaster, but only better. Not really knowing more than that, I was thrown onto a Microsoft training course to learn youWillBeAProgrammer.NET. As I traversed the dry course materials, I comforted myself knowing that at least I was getting professional training and positioning myself for a good money-earning career in programming. Soulless but stable.

After the training course, it was decided that, as I was the one with an HTML background, I should develop the interface for the web applications whilst other members of the team focus on programming. The idea was that HTML was a quick and easy thing to do, and I could integrate myself on the programming side once that was done. The relative passing importance of the interface was an oversight of my employers at that time, but all the same, a ray of hope.

Unfortunately, I was soon told that the graphic designer of the parent company would be in charge of the visual design of the web applications as I was formally a member of the programming team and this was not in my scope. It felt like meetings of countless suffering as I had to sit down with the graphics guy (who had little appreciation of user interface design) to hear him decide colours, button roll-overs and so forth. Every graphic decision I made was subjected to his approval. Soul crushing.

Furthermore, my comments for user interface design fell also on the deaf ears of the Director responsible for marketing. He would regularly call for a designer to be present in our meetings as 'they understand how to solve creative problems', overtly looking beyond me. Very frustrating.

The decision had been made: I was a web programmer and nothing more.

Fighting back

Although disheartened, one of the good things about being a web developer is that I'm the guy who actually builds the website. As such, I can exercise my influence over the design without necessarily making it official. With timelines and resources regularly being very tight, it's not possible to pass everything by the graphic designer.

One day I was asked to present 'wireframe' diagrams to the Directors of one of the web applications. What I actually presented was wireframes set in a visual template that I had designed, a design to which many immediately showed favour. Although the graphics guy was the official designer, my interface had been approved for further development.

My work eventually began to gain reputation. I developed a new innovative web-based interface for a touch-screen cash register which cut out much of the cluttered usability of it's windows-based predecessor. When seen in action, the Directors were duly pleased.

As I began to show off my competence applying my creative mind to 'front-end' matters, I began to receive more interface and design related tasks, with the 'back-end' work firmly being distributed between the programmers. Suddenly, I was beginning to see a new role for myself emerge.

The mythical square hole

One thing which I have not perhaps separated out here to its full is the difference between graphic design and user interface design - which strictly speaking are two distinct disciplines. Graphic design in the context of web development is, as my colleagues would say, putting 'make up' on the interface. Interface design is more to do with how to organise information on the screen.

Usability experts deride some user interfaces for the graphic design obstructing how users interact with the site. However, this is just the area in which I can be a specialist. In having a good understanding of the medium (my technical side) coupled with balancing usability and graphic needs (my creative side), I find myself fitting comfortably into a role which I often now see described as 'front-end web developer'. I'm not sure this term was in popular use a few years ago, but maybe this is the square hole I've been looking for.

Although I may never be a javascript 'ninja' or a database 'guru', neither will they likely be concerned with how to make a good user interface or if the quality of information on a website meets users needs. I have come to learn that in larger projects I can't be a jack of all trades; I must specialise.

Perhaps then, I could define my specialism as this: to bring together various technologies in a creative way to develop a good user interface; to champion the content or function which the website/web application is serving and ultimately make the life of the human being sitting in front of the computer that little bit easier.

As my career progresses, I hope I may be able to abstract myself further to the level of creative director so that I can see my values better implemented. Until then, I'm happy to have discovered a specialism that doesn't require me to sacrifice one side of my personality in favour of the other.

It's hip to be square (at last).

4 Comment(s):

Anonymous Anonymous said...

just wondering are you ok out there? Am in wetherspoons having a beer and thought would look at your website as not heard from you in a while Monday, April 27, 2009 5:04:00 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

bet you know who sent the above ~ if want to ring then do so tomorrow Monday, April 27, 2009 5:05:00 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think everyone is torn between the logical ('developer') and creative ('designer') aspects to their nature, although the words may change from discipline to discipline, the best solutions come from somewhere in between, it's finding the balance between the two that excites us. (Tim Thompson - Belfast). Monday, November 02, 2009 6:54:00 AM  

Blogger Tim Thompson said...

Thanks Tim for your comment, it's good to know there are others who deal with this tension also. Saturday, May 01, 2010 9:42:00 AM  

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I'm back

It's been almost two years since my last post, detailing my adventures in Latin America. Since then, Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, Facebook became a big thing and more recently Capitalism was brought to its knees. But I'm back, and looking to see where to take this site next.

To round up the past two years in a nut shell, in the months following my last post my projects with Milamex in Mexico and Unela in Costa Rica drew to a close. I got engaged to a Mexican girl in the Summer of that year, and was tasked with finding employment here in Mexico. Since November 2007 I have been working as a web application interface developer for the Mexican technology company Arena Premier (whose new website I designed should launch in the next couple of weeks). The November of 2008 proved even more memorable, as we married in a beautiful garden along the canals of Xochimilco.

My new family

Photo of Tim, Mirna and Arely

The wedding was a very emotional and exciting day, and afforded me the opportunity to invite my family from England so they could meet the new in-laws and experience first-hand a part of the world which has shaped me so much in these past three years.

My wife Mirna brings with her a 9-year-old daughter Arely, thus over night I went from being young free and single to responsible dad and head of family. It's an exciting new life but full of challenges.

Another overnight change that took place is that now in the region of ninety percent of my family live in Guadalajara, Mexico. Mirna has 20-something aunties and uncles, all with large families of their own. I really can't put a date on when I'll know all their names!

The future

It's been on the cards since the day we met - the possibility of a return to England.

It's a sad fact of life, but whilst we both remain employees of Mexican companies, we will never have the opportunities that a life somewhere else might afford us. This is a subject I may expand upon in a future post, but I'm going to cite just one example of the difficulties which Mexicans face.

The great majority of companies here offer the legal minimum of holiday (vacation) days as stated by Mexican law. An employee here must work their first year without a single day of holiday (with the exception of bank holidays - of which I'm taking advantage of today) so to earn in their second year just 6 days. The third year 8 days, and so on. When you move employer, you start from scratch. The company for whom I work have been very gracious with me and gave me three weeks paid holiday so I could enjoy a honeymoon and show my family around, but this is quite an exceptional case. Together with longer working hours and significantly lower salaries, were we to hope to even visit England, it could almost certainly never be achieved.

So, as I begin a new life with my new family, I am seeking new foundation upon which we can grow, that is both economically secure and can offer us both adventure and new opportunities.

As a Christian, I look back over these past three and a half years since first coming out to Mexico, and can see more than ever now the importance of the work which Christians do here - working in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to see a new 'politic' of the love of Christ work throughout this society for change. I would hope that God can still use me as an instrument for change too in the years ahead.

The two-year new year's resolution: revisited

As a final point of reflection, I am reminded of the first blog post I published back in the December of 2005, The two-year new year's resolution - written just over three years ago. In the post I pondered on where I might be in two years. It doesn't matter that we're three years down the line (see Steve's comment at the bottom!), perhaps now is the right time to look back as I seek to put some closure on the past few years and look ahead to the new. At the time I was embarking on a new adventure and was uncertain what the future would hold. In many ways I'm in the same boat now. Just as I can see now how my future eventually unfolded and how God protected and guided me at that time, I rest in the belief that God still accompanies me in those same travels today. I faced over the years that followed some great challenges and emotional trials, and now I must seek to trust God as the next chapter is written, not knowing what lies ahead.

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