The Never-Ending Quest for Improvement

Well, here were are again – August. The time of year when summer is winding down, and everyone is racing to soak in the last of the abundant sunshine before our too-short autumn passes and winter takes hold.

I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted. Fall and winter to me means board games, obsessing over recorded music, and for the past few years, digging deep into personal coding projects and doing everything I can to further improve my skills as a programmer. Thus far, 2015 has been a challenging year, filled with client projects that come complete with a steep learning curve, and on a tight budget. All things considered, though, I feel that I’ve come out from each one a more skilled and seasoned developer. I’m starting to discover better tools to use to improve my workflow, notice inefficiencies in my code, learn more from my mistakes, and overall, make better decisions when it comes to planning the websites and applications I build for my clients. At this point in my career, I’m beginning to realize more clearly the long-term professional path I want to take and the kind of work I get more enjoyment out of doing. That’s exciting, and I’m hoping that means I can continue to take on projects that move me in that direction, because for the first time since I completed my college program just over two years ago, I’m starting to feel like I “get it.”

I’ve been very active in the developer community over the past year. I helped co-organize the 3rd Annual Midwest PHP Conference held in Minneapolis in March, and I’ve had the privilege to attend to additional PHP conferences in that time (Madison PHP in September ’14 and Lonestar PHP in Dallas in April ’15). In addition, I’ve attended two Prestige Conferences, WordCamp Minneapolis, and numerous developer meetups for the PHP, WordPress, and JavaScript communities. I went to my first MinneDemo this spring, my first MinneBar shortly after. Last weekend, my employer hosted the 1st anniversary party for the Minneapolis chapter of Girl Develop It, an event I was proud to have been involved with. And, next month, I’ll be attending the first-ever Pacific Northwest PHP Conference, at the tail end of an 8-night stay in Seattle, WA.

To say I’ve gotten out of the house this year has been a bit of an understatement. One of my professional goals for 2015 was to attend 12 industry-related events, and as of August 2nd, I’ve gone to 14 (with at least three on the docket thus far). I also aimed to speak at one event, which I achieved when I gave my first professional presentation ever at the MNPHP User Group two weeks ago (about Getting Started With Xdebug). I’ve started work on four separate WordPress plugins this year, at least two of which should be completed by year’s end. And I’ve set out to learn at least four new tools/languages/utilities, and I’ve since been exposed to a plethora of them (most recently Wordmove, which is a great Capistrano-inspired utility for deploying WordPress installations across different development environments, but also I’ve looked into and worked with many others, including learning how to write a cURL request, using Bower for installing front-end libraries, digging deeper into all of the features Xdebug and Composer provide, getting up and running with PHP CodeSniffer for validating how my code aligns with established standards, learning the WordPress Customizer, Settings, and Dashboard widget APIs, and getting a small module set up for a client site using AngularJS).

Some days, it feels like drinking from the firehose trying to learn all of this stuff. I don’t envy at all new developers who are interested in the craft but don’t know where to begin, because the amount of information there is to know even now feels daunting. But, as I complete various tutorials, or figure out how to integrate some new library into a client’s site, there comes a certain kind of validation that I’ve chosen the right path for me. I enjoy tinkering and putting something together, learning how to connect disparate code libraries developed by people who likely never suspected their software would have a shared synergy, and making something completely new to meet someone’s need for software.

I’m approaching 2 1/2 years of doing this full-time, and the amount of stuff I’ve managed to cram in my head in that short amount of time amazes even me. I can’t wait to see where I’m at just a few years from now. The never-ending quest for improvement of one’s skill set is never more satisfying than once you’ve finally found your place. I can only hope to become the kind of developer I want to be in the time I have.

 

 

Goals

Talking about setting goals isn’t the same as the actual setting of those goals, but allow me to venture down that path briefly.

For me, 2014 was lousy in terms of achieving goals. At the start of the year, I had set forth to achieve the following items:

  • Complete the Spanish track on Duolingo.com
  • Read 24 books
  • Give a presentation at a programming meetup
  • Work with Jonathan Sundquist to plan the Midwest PHP 2015 Conference
  • Build and launch a web application using OOP principles
  • Build a WordPress plugin
  • Play a show with my new band
  • Record a new album
  • Create frame-able artwork on paper (any amount – even just one!)
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer meats

Now, my new band played two shows this summer, and we recorded a demo in June; and I built the website for the Midwest PHP 2015 Conference, and read through 331 submitted talks to select just 32 for the event. Aside from those, though, I was pretty light on the completion scale of things – the Spanish track sits unfinished; as of today, I’ve completed just 7 books in 2014; I’ve drawn some, but nothing on paper; and…well, you get the point.

The point here isn’t to hem and haw about the things I didn’t accomplish. In fact, I accomplished some great things I didn’t set out to do in January of last year, like greatly reducing my debts, taking on my first freelance projects, and assembling a weekly gathering of programmers to work on personal projects (alas, since disbanded). The point is that life happens, often in ways one doesn’t expect, and yet it’s still important to take stock of where we’ve been so that we can move forward with purpose.

I’m beginning to draft goals for the new year, and have already submitted several to my boss that I’d like to achieve in a professional capacity in 2015. Some of those are modifications of unachieved items from this list (speaking at a meetup; building a WordPress plugin and/or web application using OOP principles). As I’m reviewing last year’s list and evaluating where I’d like to be twelve months from now, I’m reminded of the importance of setting goals that are measurable and attainable. ‘Read 24 books’, sure – that’s two per month, and in 2013, I read 39. ‘Create frame-able artwork on paper’ – that’s a bit more obscure. Who determines whether it’s frame-able? I could scribble on a sheet of paper, buy a frame for it, and hang it on the wall like I’m the next coming of Picasso, but that doesn’t make it art, does it?

It’s important to have goals. It’s more important not to use your unachieved goals against you, because you can take stock and determine whether that goal was actually worthwhile to yourself to achieve. If it was, give it another go next year. However, what’s most important is to make sure that your goals are measurable, or you’ll never know whether you achieved them at all.

The Second of a Twice-yearly Check-in

I wouldn’t exactly call it a ‘crazy’ past 6 months, but life has ramped up a bit and, as usual, I haven’t bothered to write about any of it in this space. It’s probably for the best.

Here are a couple of exciting things that have occurred since the last time I wrote:

1. I got a new job! On November 3rd, I joined the development team over at Westwerk, where I’ve been taking all of the things I’ve learned about WordPress and have been applying them to myriad customization projects for clients big and small. It’s been great being back in a larger office after several years of working for companies with just a handful of employees. We have 19! When I haven’t been working on development projects, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to brush up on my foosball and Super Smash Bros. skills, both of which have been collecting rust for years. One of these days, I may become a feared opponent, but more importantly, I hope to be viewed as a go-to employee and someone who’s able to solve any challenging problem that can be thrown at him.

2. My new band played some shows! And we recorded a demo this summer! We’ve been quiet these past few months while Zabby learns what it’s like to be a dad for the first time, but the whole gang’s been back in the rehearsal space for the last couple of weeks, so perhaps we’ll find ourselves on a stage again before long this winter.

3. Since sometime around mid-May, I’ve been helping Jonathan Sundquist organize the annual Midwest PHP Conference, and this morning we just began sending out acceptance letters to our panel of speakers. As with previous years, the conference will be a two-day event, and this year we’ve accepted 32 talks on a variety of topics (from a collection of 331 submissions!). The website will be updated very soon with information about the talks we selected and the speakers who will be giving them, and registration is now open. It’s been a long road thus far and there’s still much to do, but it will be March before long and I’m looking forward to catching as many presentations as I can during those two days.

In addition to the items above, I’ve been keeping busy with some freelance work, catching a show here and there, and planning out some ways to be better about setting and achieving goals in the new year. I’ve been so focused on my weekly routine of activities that I’ve let some other important goals slip by the wayside, and I’m looking forward to sitting down and figuring out how to broaden my horizons in the new year. Hopefully, I’ll get to enjoy a little traveling, do some cycling, join a bowling league, and catch up on all of the reading I’ve been putting off in 2014. Nothing is more satisfying than going through your list of goals from January and seeing just how many you’ve accomplished, and unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get much satisfaction from reviewing that list this year. That said, I’ve been working on some things that will help put me in a better position for the new year, and I’m really excited about all of the potential 2015 has in store. Keeping my fingers crossed for big things!

May 2014: A Brisk Whiff of the Year to Date

Man, how time flies – I can’t believe it’s May again already! I can’t pretend like I’m going to get around to blogging regularly again, but I’ve been keeping busy so it seems like a good time for an update.

Readers who are seeing this on the actual site itself will notice that I did a relaunch of sorts last weekend. I’ve been toying around with Javascript and non-Javascript based navigation, interactions, and presentation, and although the site has a long way to go before it’s at the point where I’m feeling good about it (and where it covers JS and non-JS use cases), I felt it was far enough along that I wanted to get it out into the world. There’s still much to do, but at least there’s a base now. Many thanks to Abby Haddican for designing the transparent monogram at the top of the page.

Speaking of Abby, I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with her on a couple of web projects recently, one on a freelance basis (her own portfolio site linked above) and another for the design agency where she did an internship last summer, Werner Design Werks, as part of my full-time work at Room 34. Abby’s clean, minimalist designs make it a joy to put these sites together, and I feel pretty proud about how both of them have turned out. While there remains as much to learn as ever about web design and development, I feel as though my skills have improved immensely in actual, measurable ways over the last year of doing this full-time. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

In non work-related news, the band I’ve been playing with since February 2013 has finally come up with a name – Loud Nerves – and we’ve even booked a show! Our debut performance will be on Wednesday, June 18th at Stevens Square in Minneapolis as part of the Cinema & Civics series that happens there every year. We’ll have the esteemed honor of opening for the 1990 classic movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m looking forward to it! There’s also talk that we’ll be doing some recording soon, so I’ll have actual music to share with others for the first time in quite awhile.

That’s it in terms of major announcements right now. More soon.

A brief reflection on 2013: the year my life changed entirely.

Well, folks, it’s Christmas. It’s been almost 5 months since I’ve written anything proper in this space, but with 2014 just around the corner, now seems to be as good of a time as any for me to jot down a few notes and reflect on the past year. Let’s step into the Wayback Machine, shall we?

Goals

Each year, I put together a list of goals for myself. Individually, I deem them all to be reasonable and attainable, but often, the list itself is so cumbersome and unwieldy that there’s just no way I’ll accomplish it all. Here’s my checklist for 2013:

  • Finish my Associate of Applied Science degree at SPC
    • Do my best to finish with a 4.0 (It seemed uncertain at times, but I managed to pull this off!)
  • Land a sweet web development job (I’m so proud to work for Room 34, and I can’t wait to see the assortment of problems we get to help solve in 2014)
  • Participate in two professional conferences (I went to one – MidwestPHP in March)
  • Read 35 books (I’m at 39 as of this writing – hoping to check off #40 before next Tuesday)
  • Go to the gym 12 times in all 12 months
  • Redesign my personal website (There’s still more to be done on that front, but hey, it does look different than last December!)
  • Develop and build a message board application
  • Redesign and build the bowling league administration application I started in college
  • Design and launch a collaborative creative writing website
  • Write a short story
  • Do at least one set of stand up comedy
  • Start a new band (No shows yet [and no name, to boot], but it’s been a blast getting together to play with this set of awesome dudes)

  • Learn six songs on guitar
  • Make three pieces of art (illustrations) (Many thanks to my pal Matt and his recommendation for the excellent iPad app, Procreate. I’m planning on making this part of my regular routine in the coming year)
  • Learn to use PhotoShop and Illustrator (Illustrator, you’re next!)
  • Finish motorcycle repairs and ride!
  • Ride my bicycle once a week
  • Take a vacation! (I had the pleasure of spending three fun-filled days in NYC with the lovely Abby in November, our first real trip together)

Clearly, I set out to accomplish more than I actually achieved, but I feel pretty good about the progress I’ve made in the last year! There’s still work to be done, and that’s the fun with goals.

Many things happened that weren’t on the list: I’ve had the privilege of tutoring my friend Phil in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and we’ve been getting together frequently since March. I’ve begun taking lessons in Spanish (via the very fun and excellent Duolingo.com), and am hoping to become proficient in 2014. I’ve learned how to build websites in WordPress and Shopify. I’ve taught myself to use SCSS, Git, and the Linux command line, and took a real-life crash course in learning Responsive Web Design techniques. I’ve continued to study Object-Oriented Programming, and hope to improve upon my existing skill set in the next year. I’ve begun getting together with a mentor to assist with improving those skills.

There is much I want to accomplish in the next year, and some of the goals I set for this past year will likely roll over. I still want to get back on my motorcycle, and I want to begin writing more regularly again. It’ll be great to revisit my list next year – it’s certain that I’ll have learned much by then, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how far I’ve come in another 12 months time.

Projects

Through my work at Room 34, I got to build a ton of great websites this year. Here’s a small sampling of projects I had the pleasure of working on:

Room 34 develops responsive websites for all of our clients by default, so every one of these is set up to work well on mobile devices as well as tablets and desktop/laptop environments. It’s been an absolute joy working on client sites this year, and I’m very much looking forward to building on the experiences I’ve had this year in my future client work.

In addition to my full-time work, in 2014, I’m planning to spend more time working on a few personal projects, some of which were outlined as unaccomplished goals for 2013. I’ve been tinkering around on CodePen a bit lately, and it’s a great tool to work on small front-end projects and quickly lay down some ideas to refer to later. In addition, I’m planning on putting up code for my personal projects on GitHub in the coming year so that I can make better use of that collaborative resource.

It’s really been an amazing year, and looking back to reflect on all this helps me better understand just how far I’ve come. I’m looking forward to learning even more in 2014.