Twenty-something: Q&A with a front-end web developer

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Mike Lynch is a fourth-year media theory and production student at the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. He is also a freelance web developer and graphic designer at Rhyme With Orange Creative, and manages The Happiness Machine and Valkyre Records. Currently, he works at Toronto design firm NuBrand as a junior developer.

Q. What is a web developer? Is it different from a web designer?

A. A web developer is someone who codes for the web. The title is meant to distinguish between a web designer, the person who designs the look and feel of a website (UI design, or user interface design). More often than not, web designers are also developers (to an extent), so the terms do cross over. Those who cross over are generally considered front-end web developers – they . . . design and develop the look and feel of the website. The opposite of that would be a back-end developer who only does code. They build the functionality/logic of the user experience.

Q. Could someone become a web developer without post-secondary education?

A. Web development is based in multiple, different languages (XHTML, CSS, PHP, .NET, JS and plenty others). A lot of these languages can be self-taught using books and the internet, but a classroom environment definitely helps. Most important is practice; trial and error.

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“Walking down a street I look at every sign, poster and media outlet to evaluate it’s worth and style: is it successful? What kind of font are they using? Do those colors work? Is that company doing well?” —Mike Lynch

Q. How did your journey into development and design begin?

A. I got into design in Grade 9 and started ‘freelancing’ around that time under the name “Step Outside.” I would make really terrible websites and posters for local bands. I’d like to think I have got a lot better since.

I started taking freelancing more seriously two years ago once my skill set aligned with industry standards. I started under the name “The Highway Coyote” (inspired by a song by Joni Mitchell), but soon changed it to “Michaelynch” to make my name more prominent. I specialize in making clean, simple, usable CSS websites. I have en eye for user interface (UI) design and typography. I work alone as a freelancer, but sometimes sub-contract certain jobs.

Q. Is there a demand for what you do, even during the recession?

A. Websites are in high demand. People are being told to advertise in the recession and that this is the best time to do it. This would probably include a new website. I’ve read a few articles on MSN saying that web development/design is a good industry to be in right now. Everyone needs a website these days so I’d say I agree.

Q. Have you completed any internships?

A. I did an internship at Exclaim! Magazine. At the time, I was also asked to intern at Paper Bag Records. I was lucky enough to have a choice. Exclaim! seemed a bit more laid back and they were able to accommodate my hours better, so I went with them. It paid off because after my internship was over they hired me as a WordPress blog developer.

Q. How did you score the internship at Exclaim! Magazine?

A. Email. Starting in January, I would go on Craigslist and surf the Internet to try to get contacts, and reply to as many jobs and internships I possibly could. I probably sent out at least 15 emails every day and in the end, the emails I sent to Exclaim! and Paper Bag Records were two of thousands.

Q. What is your opinion of internships?

A. Today, the word ‘internship’ is code for ‘free work.’ I try to stay clear of internships unless the company is highly reputable and I truly believe that the experience would be beneficial (if this is the case, I would like to think such a company could pay a student minimum wage for the summer).

Too many companies use this front to take advantage of students. Some of them have the nerve of giving students full-time work hours and responsibilities. Not only is that insulting, but it is making our job market slimmer by the second (just what we need in a recession).

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“Practice – the only way to get good at something is to do it, over and over again.” —Mike Lynch

Q. Describe a work project that you found particularly difficult. What were the obstacles?

A. The Nubrand website is currently giving me some problems. The site is based on these neat javascript functions that make a scrolling portfolio. Javascript isn’t really my forte and it has been a challenge working with it. It’s kind of like trying to read a book in French after taking French class through the Canadian curriculum. Conjugating verbs just don’t cut it!

Q. Describe a project that you found particularly rewarding. Why was it rewarding?

A. I think the most rewarding project was a handout I made for ING Canada. They are my biggest clients. It was my first time working with a public company that had branding guidelines. It was definitely a learning experience. It gave me a new appreciation for paying attention to detail.

Q. From where do you draw most of your design inspiration?

A. I like philosophy a lot, so as far as my message is concerned, I like to draw inspiration from theorists, think-tanks, and big ideas. In a more literal sense, when it comes to the aesthetic choices I make, I look to current trends: what’s on the streets, television and the Internet. For instance, on the Internet I have a few regular go-to’s: I Believe In Advertising, idsgn (a design blog), aeiko (the online portfolio of UK designer Pete Harrison), and designer Frank Chimero’s website.

Q. Who inspires you and why?

A. Martin Lindstrom, Stephen Levitt, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and so many others. These are people who see the ways of the world in a new light and are able to explain to the rest of us how and why we do the things we do. I think that’s pretty remarkable.

Q. What scares you most about venturing out into “the real world?”

A. What scares me most is routine. I can barely do the 9-5 for the summer as it is. I can’t imagine doing that for the rest of my life. I am making it my goal to achieve a day in which I control. That may mean sleeping in, or meeting a friend for lunch, or playing tennis mid-day, all while keeping my work process intact and my clients happy. To do this, I plan on starting my own design firm and working odd hours. What is most important to me is balance and moderation.

Q. What are three traits you need to do your job well?

A. Patience, creativity, diligence.

Q. Three pieces of advice for someone who wants your job (or who wants to work in a related creative field):

A. Network as much as possible. Focus on quality and not quantity. Practice – the only way to get good at something is to do it, over and over again

Q. The best piece of advice you have been given by a mentor, employer, or friend is…

A. Do it right the first time.

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