J. Michael Ward

Web Developer, Drummer, and Teller of Bad Jokes

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.