First off let me start by saying that I don’t consider myself a ‘Successful Web Developer.’ Though on occasion I’ve had the privilege of finding some level of success, I can’t recall ever feeling satisfied with my level of career achievement either personally or professionally. Yet, success is subjective – what may be a major accomplishment for one might not necessarily be for another. I’m not too complicated… my definition of success, in the context of being a web developer, is simply to achieve a level of proficiency at my career to sustain a comfortable living and provide an honest value to my clients. Sounds simple enough… right? Yeah.
How to Become a Programmer in Ten to Twenty Years
At the age of 13 I decided my goal in life was to become a successful programmer. However, I didn’t have exposure to programming until 15 where I took a programming class at my high school studying BASIC on the IBM 5170. Learning BASIC seemed like a monotonous chore… I despised it. For the rest of the semester I did just enough to get by in the class. Looking back now I probably should have just stuck it out. However, at 15 the idea of sitting behind a computer mashing keys all day wasn’t too cool.
In 1996 I finally decided to pick up programming on my own. I found Instant JAVA by John A. Pew at a book store and set out to attain my life-long dream. The only thing I honestly remember about the book was that I was lost after a few chapters. The seed was planted now… but it was five years later that I attempted programming again.
In 2001, I decided I was going to get a degree in computer science. I did great in school but didn’t finish… I was too impatient. The reality of surviving for four years without a significant income stopped that idea. I decided that if I was going to learn, I’d have to do it on my own. I started to think that maybe programming wasn’t for me after all. I had to find a way to make a decent living and learn to program at the same time. I needed to learn on the job.
Around 2006 I landed a job at an internet marketing company selling advertising to lawyers. The company’s core competency was lead generation. Though it wasn’t a bad job and I saw a real value in the ser
vice, it paid far less than I expected… so I decided to quit. Upon tendering my resignation the owner of the company looked at my history, saw that I had ‘studied’ computer science and asked me if I wanted a job as an SEO. So, I decided I’d give it a try. I was instructed to start learning about web development to gain a better understanding of the SEO industry. Being so closely related to web development, SEO seemed like the perfect opportunity to support my since abandoned dream. I had finally found a job where I could learn how to program and make enough money to pay the bills. I was content.
Success is Infectious
I looked forward to going to work for the first time. I actually enjoyed what I was doing and earning money doing it… I set out on a personal goal to learn everything I possibly could on web development, programming and search engine marketing. Only ninety days after beginning in my new position I was promoted to SEO manager. I was now responsible for the success of twenty high traffic domains. Totally psyched about my new role, my enthusiasm spread to my teammates and colleagues. We soon started to realize that our hard work and dedication was making a significant impact on the properties we maintained and the sites performance soon skyrocketed. Nearly all of the sites we managed were ranking on position one, page one for their primary keywords – inbound leads were at an all-time high and new clients were eagerly signing up – the salesmen were happy as the websites we managed were simply outperforming the competition. I was starting to get a taste for success … and it was nice. I found a career that rewarded me on a personal and professional level and I was able to make a few bucks doing it too. The experience was so rewarding that I set out to completely immerse myself into web application development, the lead generation industry and search engine marketing.
Unicorns Meet Rainbows
On the job we had a total of 35,000 domains running on ColdFusion 8 and MS SQL and Windows Servers. Though many of the sites were just ‘portfolio filler,’ around 4,900 were somewhat valuable and 100 or so were good. At the end of 2007 the company was acquired for 25 million by a company named GeoSign. Though I don’t have all the details, at some point during this period, GeoSign had received 160 million dollars from an investment round with American Capital Partners. Apparently most of the profits from GeoSign were created by purchasing ad traffic at a low price and reselling that traffic at a higher price… By leveraging traffic that were making profits via arbitrage. However, the leadership at Google quickly thwarted this plan by shutting down all of GeoSign’s Advertising accounts… within a week GeoSign announced the layoff of 300 employees and the writing was on the wall… Get out now.
End of the Road… Pave a New Way
At first I decided to look for work as an SEO. I figured I could easily land a job with my skills… But I didn’t have a lot of savings and I needed to generate an income fast. I started cold-calling… something I loathed but I had success at before… I hated cold-calling but I was trying to save my… self, not my face. Most of the people I spoke with had little clue what ‘SEO’ was… though I was clear in my 30 second elevator pitch, most just though I was a web developer or designer. Seeing most small to medium sized prospects were operating on limited to small marketing budgets, I decided to try to ‘control’ the outcome of my services as much as possible by selling them into using WordPress as a content management system and offering them a custom theme I had built myself. This worked well for the clients that conceded… I had built the theme with SEO in mind… If they converted to this theme they were sure to see major gains. My plan worked… in a short period I was back in black.
Succeeding in Uncharted Waters
Having a steady paycheck had its benefits. You go to work, do your job and you get paid. I didn’t have any experience working as an independent contractor much less running a business on my own so being responsible for generating a consistent income was foreign to me… I was in uncharted waters. I simply knew that I had to make enough to pay bills and survive. That was my first goal… keep money coming in. To keep generating an income I made an outline of my daily goals to simplify my life.
- Prospect for Clients Every Morning.
- Work for my Clients Every Afternoon.
Maybe I just got lucky… who knows… but I was able to survive by cold-calling, networking, referrals and inbound leads to my site. In six months I had more work than I could handle. My life-long dream and come to fruition… but with a serious caveat. I was now getting paid to learn on the job… However, I was expected to be delivering the quality of a highly experienced pro…. I wasn’t highly experienced… I was highly desperate. I was learning how to do what I needed real-time… on demand.
I’m Sorry You Don’t Qualify…
Looking for work sucks… I don’t care if it’s looking a full-time job or new clients… either way it’s one of the most unpleasant tasks I can think of. Yet, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do. Unfortunately when you’re marketing for clients you have to ‘massage’ conversations to highlight your accomplishments and successes. Clients don’t want to do business with an ‘inexperienced newcomer…’ they want a pro… So when you’re marketing for them you have to come out pitching your best assets… not your issues and problems. As a result, I had polished my pitch to generate work… not to turn down clients so I was getting a lot of opportunities that required skills I didn’t have… I had to learn on the job… That period taught me to be very careful what you wish for… you just might get it. I was now forced to learn to program in languages I had little or no experience with. Welcome to the real world.
Ready? Set? Code…
Change is Inevitable
After the market crash of late 08′ I found my clients quickly falling off. I went from landing clients with big budgets to scraping for work. By the end of 09′ I was in trouble. I was building web sites for a third of what I was making just a year before and the leads were coming in fewer and farther between. I wasn’t really ‘known’ as a web developer or designer per se… I was known as an ‘SEO’ who knew how to program and design. That made it tough to find new clients. I hadn’t really marketed myself ‘as a developer’ and few knew of me in that context. By 2011… I had taken a contract opportunity with my ex-employer as I had no clients left and zero leads coming in. It truly looked like I was going to have to forget working on my own… I had panned out. I had to change to survive.
What Do I Do… Now?
Once the job started winding down I had to consider what I was going to do next to survive. Working as an SEO I had developed a lot of experience building applications and sites for the purpose of lead generation. However, I still wasn’t generating any new business. I started cold-calling but that wasn’t working quite as well as before. I decided to try and get a job working as a developer but nobody would hire me. I guess they figured that I had been working for so long on my own that they weren’t going to gamble on me leaving. I decided that I’d focus more on development than SEO as who knows if that industry will even be here in ten years. Think about it.
In 2011, I had put in a lot of effort to really transfer most of my focus to becoming an application developer full-time. I didn’t want to ‘be’ an SEO forever… my first love, programming, was what I wanted to focus my attention to so I decided to commit my time to learning java. I may have gone a bit overboard as I was broke for the entire year. I studied nearly twelve hours a day – I really wanted to from a good web developer to a serious professional. After studying nearly all year I landed a good paying contract with a client as a developer and marketing consultant in 2013. However, that finished abruptly in June so I was back to studying shortly thereafter. By the end of the year I was forced to find work. So I did.
So Maybe I am a Successful Web Developer…
The job I took was awesome to get some real experience in a full-scale enterprise java shop. However, the team didn’t know English and it was just too difficult to communicate with them. I’ll miss the team but it was time for me to move on. Interestingly enough… the years of experience I gained working on my own and as a contractor for clients gave me a huge edge working along-side seasoned, college educated engineers. My experience came in handy with them at solving problems they hadn’t been able to accomplish. That gave me a much needed ego boost as they were quite good at core programming. Now I’m back out on the beaten path working as a contractor. I don’t think I’m really ‘successful’ as a programmer still… I’m still looking for clients and not earning… much. But what really matters is that I’ve finally reached my goal… I learned how to program. I may not be the most successful web developer in the world… I may not be making much money… But I’m happy. I love programming and maybe one day I’ll be a success at it. That is… making a comfortable living doing what I love.