20 Years a Web Developer

Twenty years ago this month — and very possibly this week, though I’m not 100% certain of that — I entered into the very nascent industry of digital marketing. At the time, the project had been little more than a simple idea, something to possibly prove my own abilities, a problem that sort of needed solving. And yet, little did I know at the time, it would send me down a long and sometimes disturbingly windy path.

It’s also a milestone where one does need to consider … well, everything. Honestly, a bit of reflection and introspection is needed from time to time, but the decade markers seem to have a certain extra amount of importance. Though to be honest, that’s just a perceived thing; there’s no legal or social reason that I’m aware of. It’s more about having a well-defined chunk of time to really take that step back and say:

“Ye gods I’m getting old…”

Twenty years seems like such a long time. Indeed, it’s just less than half of my life at this point. A lot has happened in those twenty years, not just in my own personal life (which is considerable), but also in my industry, which as I noted earlier, barely existed when I started.

I learned HTML in my ENGL 209 course at the University of Waterloo, taught by Professor Neil Randall. Why an English professor was teaching markup was a bit baffling at the time. I learned later that he wrote frequently for PC Magazine, and was a hardened geek. (He still is.) When he gave us the option of filing “webpages” instead of papers, I leapt at the change. (Yes, change, not chance.)

Not long afterwards, I took at a job at a company near Don Mills and the 401 in Toronto, writing manuals for a financial software company. Nearby was a small store called “Movie Poster Warehouse”. One day, at lunch, I strolled over to peer in and see what it was all about.

Shelley, the owner, told me a bit of their history, most of which went clear through my head at the time: I was absolutely enthralled with the (literal) warehouse of movie posters. Not the junky Imaginus stuff that does the campus circuit. I mean real movie posters. Some of them decades old, and many in pristine original condition. As a rather hard-core movie addict (at the time, anyway), I couldn’t resist buying one before my lunchtime ran out.

But as I left, I asked if they had a website. “What’s a website?” she asked. And so it began…

Their first website went up in March 1995. My friend Scott did the design, I did the build. I look back on it and cringe a bit, but it was my first professional foray, and my first real beginning to understand how marketing and commerce would work online. (They’re still online, though under a different domain.)

Since then, I’ve done websites for so many companies that I’m not even sure I can remember them all. I’ve done nearly every kind of website at some point, for companies and organizations of nearly every size, in a dozen different languages, in at least a dozen different countries. I’ve lived the Agency Life™, and lived to tell about it. Well, tell about some of it. I can’t tell you all of it, either due to having forgotten, or … well, some things do need to remain a secret.

So, twenty years down the road, I’m still at it. I’m still a developer at heart, looking at the technology and technical needs of a solution. Not necessarily “site”, I should add — not all problems lead to a website, and the internet is so much more than HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. You need to know a lot more to make a solution work: you need to know what works, how it works, and when best to use it. And all of that has changed from those first few HTML tags I learned so many years ago.

I look back and I can say there’s been really only one constant in all of this: change. I know that’s something you’ll hear a lot in nearly every industry, but the truth is that digital marketing changes constantly. Daily, even. There hasn’t been a single week in those twenty years when I’ve not had to look into something different or new. Because that’s the nature of the internet, which is the real basis for digital marketing: it allows that kind of change.

And if you don’t keep up with that change? You die. Or worse, you become irrelevant. Not changing, not keeping up with change, is a death sentence. Others will eclipse you in short order, and no matter how loud your thunder may have been, someone else’s lightning will be crisper, brighter, and faster.

In a way, web developers become slaves to change: we’re always on the watch for new things, new ideas. We’re simultaneously excited by them, and terribly burdened by them. The vast majority of us are self-taught, having learned by trial and error, and often trial by fire. We’ve all been burned, overloaded, unappreciated, misunderstood, belittled, and regularly forgotten.

It’s an ugly reality, but it’s a painful truth of where web developer lie in the digital marketing world: we’re the nameless few. We don’t win awards for amazing code; we get praised for being on budget (which is difficult), and chastised when things don’t work perfectly (it’s exceptionally difficult — and expensive — to be perfect).

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke. I offer a corollary: “Any sufficiently skilled developer can make the impossible seem magical.” When we do our jobs well, no-one notices. How’s that for irony?

Actually, that’s not entirely true. When you do your job better than someone else, then you’re noticed … and not in a good way. Hence, the first rule of the internet: There will always be someone better than you. That means you need to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. And the day I can no longer adapt is the day I forever leave this industry, because I won’t be able to keep up.

Today is not that day. Tired, I may be. Exhausted even. That’s a result of age (I’m no spring chicken, anymore), home life (my kids are awesome, but they have boundless energy), and evolution (the act of changing is draining). But I’m not done.

I won’t be done until I say I’m done.

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