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Working to Work

Originally published January 18, 2014

Despite the fact that I build websites for a living, I do a significant amount of work in my notebooks.
Despite the fact that I build websites for a living, I do a significant amount of work in my notebooks.

Quick quiz: what does a web developer do for a living? If you said ‘make websites, duh,’ you’re technically correct (the best kind of correct). And you’re in good company; I’d wager 99% of the people I meet at bars and coffee shops have that in mind when I tell them I’m a web developer. But my answer to the question — and, by extension, the question “yeah, but what do you actually do,” — has very little to do with making websites. Making websites often seems like an afterthought in my field. This may seem surprising, so let me offer a quote from one of my heroes, Carl Sagan:

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

I’ll walk you through some of the work that goes into working, when it comes to being a web developer. And for time’s sake, we’ll skip a few steps after creating the universe.

Learning stuff

This one should be fairly obvious, so I won’t dwell on it. Web developers spend an awful lot of time learning. Many go to school for years and years to get a degree, many teach themselves on nights and weekends, but none can ever stop learning. The development world is changing every day, and in order to make a living, one has to stay sharp and keep up with the ever-quickening pace of web development. While it’s important to learn from each project, there’s tons of required education that happens outside of paying jobs. It can be exhausting.

Getting a job

Ok, this one’s obvious too. All the knowledge and skill in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t convince someone to hire you. For some developers, this means a full-time gig — interviews, resumés, call-backs, and the lot. But many (myself included) are freelancers; this means constantly meeting potential clients, following up, negotiating rates, marketing through social media, blogs, speaking gigs, and networks, among many other time-consuming activities. No actual development happens throughout all of this — just lots and lots of organizational effort. All that work, just to keep a steady paycheck!

Writing contracts

This is where things get hairy. Many developers, designers, and self-employed people of all walks put in a lot of time structuring complex contracts in order to confidently do their work. And, for the most part, these people have little to no experience with the theory or practice of law. It’s never a matter of pulling one over on your client — just making sure you’re protecting yourself and your work. It’s anxiety-inducing, and not a lot of fun, but absolutely necessary.

Organizing projects

Unfortunately, being creatively-minded often comes with an aversion to organization. There’s a quote I like:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

The internet attributes this to Albert Einstein, but I’m skeptical. Regardless, maintaining multiple simultaneous projects requires a lot of organizational effort. There’s all sorts of software that I’ve tried, many lauded ‘get things done’ techniques, and at the end of the day I often feel just as disorganized as when I started. There’s a reason agencies have full-time project managers: it’s a vital part of the creative profession, and one that requires a lot of time and concentration.

Building tools

I spend a lot of time building tools for myself. These are pieces of code, spreadsheets, applications, folder structures, and notes I use to make some of the tasks common to every project easier. It’s a time investment aimed at eliminating some of the mundane processes I find myself repeating over and over. On some projects, I’ve spent more time prepping my tools than actually doing the project itself. And these tools change over time, as new methodologies are discovered, and as the languages I use become more complex. Sometimes I’ll use a tool once, then immediately discover a more efficient solution. Sometimes, I’ll never use a tool I’ve built. But the benefits far outweigh the costs, so I have no plans to abandon this approach.

Hopefully this is an insightful glance into just how much I do outside of simply ‘making websites.’ There’s plenty more, but I think this is a sufficient vignette. The bottom line is this: There’s a vast amount of work that goes into every project I undertake that never sees the light of day. And while I happily let most of the iceberg go unseen, I want to encourage you to look a little harder at the websites you visit every day: maybe you’ll start to see some blood, sweat, and tears underneath.