Career Path: The Scenic Route

In a recent job interview, someone asked me to explain how I got into web design. I guess he was a bit curious, given that I have a degree in Horticulture. As I recounted the long, winding path I took to get where I am today, I realized again – for the umpteenth time – how bizarre it must sound to others. Since I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to do so here, I thought I would go ahead and document the milestones along with a visual map to help tell the story.

Knowing the risks of sounding like a self-consumed Me-Monster, I’ll try to keep this as concise as possible </disclaimer>.

career-path.gif

Circa 1995 …

When I was in college I had delusions of graduating and getting a good job making lots of money. How that was supposed to happen with a degree in Horticulture, I had no idea. Ideally, I would find a job designing landscapes and working with customers to select plants and materials for the project, while the laborers that worked for me dug holes, got calluses and sweat a lot. That was the vision.

During my senior year I found out that if you wanted to be a Landscape Designer, you had to get your master’s degree in Landscape Architecture, which meant about 3 more years of school. At this point, I wanted no part in more school, so that option was out. I decided to just get my Bachelor’s degree and take my chances with that.

After graduation, I realized all those good jobs (you know, the ones where you don’t sweat and that pay more than minimum wage) I had envisioned were non-existent. I had to start earning money somehow so I took a job as a Landscape Foreman and figured I’d “work my way up”. On my first day I was dropped off at a Wal-mart parking lot with a Hispanic gentleman named Anselmo and was told, “Prune all the trees”. I quickly realized that things were not turning out as well as I had once imagined. After spending the first week out in the cold and rain and learning that being the “Foreman” really only meant that I got to drive the truck, I realized my career outlook was bleak.

Yes, I can write!

After a few months, I mastered the art of driving a truck and attached trailer and had become quite deft at handling a weed-eater and even learned quite a bit of Spanish from my friend Anselmo. But, after 8 months of digging holes, getting calluses and sweating a lot, I knew there had to be a better job out there. I stumbled across a listing in the newspaper classifieds (remember those?) for a Horticultural Writer. All they required was some knowledge about plants and the ability to write well. Well, it was a job hand-crafted for me!

I became a Horticultural Writer for Horticultural Printers writing copy to be printed on tags like these. I loved this job. It expanded my knowledge of plants and allowed me to learn about stuff like databases, spreadsheets and desktop publishing. However, after working there one year, I realized that I was already at the ceiling in terms of income potential. Money is not all that matters in life, but being a newlywed with plans of having children, I knew I would need to earn more, which at the time happened to be just above the poverty line.

About this time I had a friend that worked at a mortgage company in downtown Dallas. She said she could get me a job there. All that was required was a degree, it didn’t matter what type of degree as long as you had one. This mortgage company was hiring Loan Counselors at a starting annual salary of $27,000. At the time, I thought it was too good to be true – I couldn’t imagine earning THAT much money!

I really enjoyed that job. It was a great company with a great corporate culture, good benefits and really good people. I would spend the next 8 years there, enduring two major corporate reorganizations and an acquisition by a larger company. My computer skills (if you could have called them that at the time) positioned me for special projects. One of those special projects was the task of querying the database for end-of-month numbers and importing them into Excel for inclusion in the Monthly Management Report. This was my favorite part of the job and I soon realized I had a knack for formatting reports better than most and was called upon many times to “make this report look good”.

Promotion

After being a Loan Counselor and then Supervising Loan Counselor for a couple of years, I saw a posting on the internal job board for a new position: Communications Manager. The company had offices in 3 different cities, hiring was at all-time high and there were dozens of new projects and initiatives throughout the company. With all this going on, it was becoming harder and harder for everyone to know what was going on in other departments and very hard for management to consistently communicate with all the employees.

The Communications Manager would have 3 main responsibilities: handle all the monthly management reports, write a monthly newsletter and build and maintain a corporate intranet site. Even though I had no idea how to create an intranet site, I decided to apply for the job and was selected, much to my surprise and joy. The weekend before my first day as Communications Manager, I went to a used bookstore and purchased Microsoft Frontpage 98, which looked very intimidating, but also very interesting.

I spent the next two months building the new intranet site. Looking back on it, it really was a horribly designed and coded piece of junk, but it served its purpose well and everyone seemed to like having it.

It was around this time that I remember thinking, “This is what I want to be when I grow up!”. I was smitten. I couldn’t get enough of this new thing called “web design”. I purchased a couple more books, read as many articles I could find and even acquired my first copy of Fireworks, which is much better than MS Paint, as it turns out.

In November 2003, I was fortunate enough to attend a Web Design World conference. There was this guy there named Jeffrey Zeldman that was talking about Web Standards and Cascading Stylesheets. From that point on, design would never be the same for me and I spent even more time reading articles and blogs and teaching myself modern, standards-based web development.

Over the next couple of years, I went from a single contributor to managing a small communications team. Those were fun years. I learned a lot about managing people and was able to start teaching others what I had learned about design and development. But as the team grew larger, I realized I was spending less time doing what I really loved and more time managing people, writing communications pieces for management and making reports and presentations about team goals and objectives. To me, that was all boring business stuff that took away time that I would rather have spent messing with CSS files or creating new graphics for the newsletter.

Moving Out (and up?)

I realized that if I ever wanted to be a “real” web designer and work on web projects all day long, that probably meant another career move. As much as I loved working at Homecomings, a position as a real web designer at EDS lured me away.

For some reason, the design aspect – creating graphics, visual layout, color theory, etc – has always come easy for me, but at it was at EDS where I really learned how to master CSS and how to build large-scale websites. I’m thankful for everything I learned there and was able to take an expanded skillset and knowledge base with me to two other companies.

That leads me to where I am today. Now, I have a bit fancier job title – Interaction Designer, which means I get to solve problems with my design (graphics) and code (xhtml, css) skills. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop and thank God for leading me this way and for how fortunate I am to be one of those few people in the world that gets to do something they absolutely LOVE doing and gets paid to do it!

If you’re looking to get into the exciting field of web design and user experience, I definitely would not recommend this particular career path. Although it has been very fun and rewarding for me, they offer degrees for this type of work nowadays. And just about any other path you choose to get here would probably be easier.

And lastly, as an added twist to my already winding road, I will be leaving Sabre after 5 short, but very educational months. On February 19th, I will be returning to work at Rosetta Stone, in a new role as Interaction Designer on the Web Strategy team.

So, if you’ve read this far, thank you! I hope you’ve enjoyed this crazy-but-true tale of career path acrobatics.

No Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    Chuck, I don’t think there are too many of us working on the Web today who started out with that intention (at least among those of us with some significant mileage on the odometer.) My degree is in journalism, public relations to be exact. Let’s just say that I too am grateful for the opportunities the online world has afforded me.

  2. Jared says:

    That’s really interesting, Chuck. I wish everyone would tell their story like this!

  3. Adam says:

    I love it and I can relate! I have a chemical engineering BS and found my way to a position that required me to be the “technical expert” on all things computer related, just becaue I was the youngest person there. After a few short years I am now programming control logic for a multi-million dollar process control system, automating spreadsheets with VBA, creating Access database applications, and now “playing” with .Net. It is great and I couldn’t be happier going to work. I can’t believe I get paid to do something that I absolutely love! Sure a degree in computer science could have taught me all of that, but my path was so much more fun and challenging. Congrats on finding a career that you love!

    BTW – Love the website you put together for Johnnie and Karen!

  4. David Cnoops says:

    Very interesting and useful story. It really shows that motivation can get you far.

    I myself am now at the point where I need to choose between getting a master degree in web & graphic design, or doing something else. I really love everything related to web design and development, but I have the impression that the ‘web design market’ is getting overpopulated, with new companies popping up every day.

    So my question is: Is there still future (and money) in web design? And should a web designer have programming skills in PHP, MySQL, Javascript, … to survive and stand out from the masses?

    On another note: I love the simplicity and beauty of your website. Clean, simple and smart.

  5. chuck says:

    David,

    I would say that the “web design market” is about as overpopulated as any other profession. In all professions, there are droves of people, some more qualified that others, all vying for the same dollars. And, as in all professions, if you’re good, you’ll stand out among the rest.

    As far as programming skills, I wouldn’t think you should feel compelled to learn these skills for the sake of putting them on your resume. I know some designers who are also really good programmers. I also know a few guys that don’t even know HTML very well, but are top-of-the-line designers and solve problems with their design thinking skills. I guess there’s no right answer to that questions. You just have to find your niche and do it excellently.

  6. Rachelle says:

    Chuck I really enjoyed your words. Not being around to see you grow into a man. You have never ceased to amaze me. I feel blessed to have you as a nephew. Keep up your journey for God has blessed you and your family!

  7. suadref says:

    I must say, this is really inspiring… especially for someone who’s starting out like me… What you pursue academically may not be the same as your interests… But it doesn’t mean that you have to abandon them.

  8. Shorter says:

    Hi Chuck – This is actually the first time I’ve been on your site, but I’ll surely be back.

    As someone who has been more on the strategy and project management side of things, I’ve got in touch with my “inner geek” by getting to work with great developers. I’d love to learn more about design and am working on trying to build a small site now. It seems though that most things I read are assuming some knowledge, or they’re written to be so tediously simplistic that you want to claw your eyes out, but never really get to learn how to practically apply how to use the codes they tell you to use.

    I was wondering if you had any recommendations for reading materials to start with. The scenic route of not getting a degree in web-design is my path as well.