How I became a web developer

In 1999, when I was 11 years old, I started learning HTML and CSS. It was the same year that a 56Kbps dial-up Internet connection was considered impressive and Pokemon had just reached the UK.

My first experience of building a website was through a site builder from an ISP called Freeserve/Wanadoo (now EE). As part of their Internet package, they had a tool called Sitebuilder, which was essentially made up of a combination of WYSIWYG editors and text inputs. They also offered free hosting of up to 15MB (!) of space and at the time I remember just accepting the fact that your ISP would host your website for you.

At some point, I found the switch in the editor that displayed the plain text version of what had been created in the WYSIWYG, and from then on I was forever intrigued by my formatting being magically turned into <tags>. It didn’t seem too difficult to start learning them, especially tags like <b>, <i>, and <u>, and I used fab sites like A List Apart to learn as much as I could. Shortly after, I started using Notepad to create HTML files. Once I’d got a handle on using Notepad, I realised that Sitebuilder was no longer flexible enough for me and that I needed something that gave me more freedom (and probably more than 15MB of space.)

This was when I discovered Angelfire and Tripod, two free hosting services owned by Lycos. This allowed me to build whatever I wanted in HTML and CSS, assuming I was happy with half my screen estate being taken up with ads and that was where I first started playing with JavaScript. My first proper site was (naturally) a Pokemon fansite called Aipom’s Apple Tree, which is actually still hanging around on (yeah I totally learned how to do alerts.)

I eventually outgrew Angelfire and moved on to FreeWebz, another free hosting service that offered slightly more disk space and no ads. This was amazing and was my first experience of writing code and being able to display the exact, intended output to the web without hundreds of ads. I remember the move to FreeWebz feeling like a true ‘upgrade’ in website potential, possibly just because of the lack of ads but I also remember them having a particularly nice admin panel. I made a couple of other mini-sites; some related to anime, one about my artwork, and one about Japanese rock music. During this time I made a lot of friends online that were either building similar sites or were interested in the content I was posting (obviously from a similar age group, I was still talking about Pokemon 95% of the time.) This was one of the best parts of building these sites, and amongst the fandom chat, we’d sometimes even talk about coding and web design.

In 2003, FreeWebz either stopped their free service or they introduced ads, and so this was the year I decided to buy my first domain name and private hosting. I remember it being a relative struggle when I figured out that buying a domain name was simply just that – there was no disk space involved; you had to buy this separately, it was called hosting and you had to manually connect it all up yourself. I got through it and somehow fumbled my way through uploading files via FTP.

By now I knew quite a bit about web hosting and maintenance and was becoming increasingly confident in my HTML, CSS, and JS skillz. I’ve always been part of some sort of fandom, especially Japanese pop culture, and the trendy thing at the time if you were a webmaster was being part of as many fanlistings as possible. A fanlisting is a website that lists fans of a certain subject, including TV shows, actors, bands, anime, food, pretty much anything you can be considered a fan of. Sometimes they were part of larger fansites, but what I really loved about them was that they were almost always well-designed. They would use large photos or artwork as header images or backgrounds and would lay the content out on top of the images in the most creative ways (using tables!) I had to learn how to do this.

In March 2004, I opened up my own fansite dedicated to a guitarist from one of my favourite Japanese bands. I took inspiration (and probably a little bit of copying and pasting) from the many fansites and fanlistings I admired and taught myself how to build table layouts with pretty pictures. (I recently re-made this website and I now track my changes on GitHub. Sometimes I wish I’d learned version control sooner, but maybe it’s a good thing I can’t look back on some of the code…)

After I’d got my head around table layouts, I then noticed a lot of the sites I admired used something called Enthusiast, which I found out was a script written in PHP. It seemed to make managing sites a lot easier than manually writing and organising individual files. I recognised PHP as being something my hosting provider offered, so I wanted to give it a go. But, I didn’t own a fanlisting and I didn’t need a script that helped me maintain a list of fans. However, I thought there must be something out there for non-fanlisting sites. It wasn’t long before I found WordPress, which seemed the perfect solution for my little fansite (and all my other sites.) This was something else for me to learn and didn’t only involve a new language in PHP, but also the need to set up databases in MySQL. I 100% did not understand any of this, but I could follow tutorials pretty well, and I managed to get my first self-hosted WP sites up and running around 2005. I eventually did start to understand how all the pieces fit together, and I now had all the tools I needed to make relatively solid websites.

Around the same time, I decided I wanted to go to university, and it seemed natural that I would choose a computer science degree. Instead, however, I decided that basing my future career around a hobby was risky business, and there was probably no money in web development anyway, so I studied Marketing. Ha!

I still continued to build sites in my spare time, including my personal sites and a couple of freelance projects. Towards the end of my degree, I was super lucky to land a web development job at a local startup, where I was able to combine my hobby and my recently acquired marketing knowledge. I quickly discovered that I knew way less than what I thought I knew about websites. However, I’m eternally grateful for this role, as it set me on my path to becoming a professional web developer and taught me that it is possible to get paid for doing something you truly enjoy.

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