How did I get into web development? It’s a question I get asked often and it’s a story I am really proud of. It’s my very own journey that I crafted, even if involuntarily, from my early teens. It is also quite unconventional for the very same reason: I did not go to university and I learned quite a lot of what I know on my own.
More and more though, this seems to be less unconventional, as many get into web development as self-taught. I just wanted to tell my story and encourage those who are wondering if getting into web development could be possible by studying on their own, but also highlight that, although it’s an amazing experience, it has been a bit of a double-edged sword for me.
Today I was reading an article on how the number of young Italians emigrating increases substantially every year. In Italian we call it “fuga di cervelli”. It translates into “brain drain” but literally means “runaway brains”, and that’s exactly what I did.
I saw Italian university as a playground for moody professors, a complete lottery mark-wise and I, an extremely excited technologist, found ridiculous how, 34 years after the invention of the internet, the main activity seemed to be memorising huge books on which exams would be based on, rather than working on practical projects.
So, looking for a better life, straight after high school, I moved to London. But after a few months here I realised my goal in life had been to move to London, but I had no plans for my future in this new city.
It took me pretty much a year and a half to understand the dynamics of the city, then around four more years to realise that what I wanted to do in my life had been my hobby all along!
I never thought that what I had learned because of boredom and curiosity could one day be my career, so I started to wonder how, with no qualifications whatsoever, could I become a Web Developer?
It all goes back to how I got to learn about HTML & CSSS: I am a single child and I was so bored during the Italian early afternoons, when kids are not allowed outside before 4pm, that I started to explore any possible feature of Windows XP and I started to tinker with any possible software available, including Poser and even created custom IRC themes (with custom sounds!)! I did a lot of PowerPoint presentations and Photoshop photomontages; fonts were my best friends, I used to have thousands installed! Somehow though, my interest did not grow towards the design aspect, but more towards how were web pages made.
I can’t remember which one was my first website, if it was the one I did for my favourite football player Nicola Ventola, or the TV show Dawson’s Creek (oh I wish I still had a copy on a floppy somewhere…). All I know is that they were static and that my design skills were very poor.
This was the first sign that I was picking and choosing what I was learning, rather than possibly learning everything there was there to know. That I was developing a selective learning habit, which could have seriously damaged my future (well not really, but kind of).
The course only gave me a basic introduction to PHP, so I started picking up books, but they did not go as far as I wanted them to. They all seemed to offer some sort of path to follow, including a project to develop, but somehow I always had bigger ideas for what I wanted to build. I probably own 6 PHP books, of which I have likely managed to read only the first 2 chapters. The ones that cover the basics that you feel quite confident about, before losing interest or getting to the more difficult stuff and giving up, or just moving to the next newer book.
I also find reading an article very difficult. I tend to either try to find and pick the answer I need, or only read what I think is “enough”. I wish I really valued reading a whole article to also absorb all the arguments or pros and cons around one or more solutions, to be able to then use these myself while trying to explain why I’ve applied a particular fix.
This habit has become my worst enemy, but together with my “selective learning” method, I’ve also developed a “learn by practice” habit. Because most of the time I can be so pressed for time (especially while I was freelancing), I would research the answer to my problem, find a potential solution, try it out without really making sure I have understood or memorised what the fix does; or out of let’s say six problems, my brain would select only one or two solutions for which I’d actually learn the fix, or it would only learn the very first introductory part of a fix but not the whole story.
So sometimes if somebody asks me why I applied a certain fix, I can’t explain myself.
And because of these many experiences, my self confidence has gone lower and lower: I do recognise I am not learning in a methodical way, almost in some sort of survival mode. Therefore I recognise that my knowledge is patchy and something might stick in my head only if I do it enough times for my brain to actually keep it in and understand it.
It’s very frustrating and I always feel less than other people, like the holes in my knowledge would definitely not be there if I had studied programming properly, at uni maybe, where I believe I would have experienced a more solid learning method, rather than my crazy patchy selective “Japanese survival game show” style method.
Although especially in our industry, self teaching is a really great way to make progress and even change career. I also think it takes a lot of consistency and sternness to actually succeed. I’ve seen lots of people really thriving as self-taught, so maybe it’s more a question of personality, how quickly we need to learn something, and how crucial it is that we acquire that knowledge.
I also think it would be great for a self-taught person to in turn teach what she is learning to somebody else, that way she will be able to solidify the knowledge just acquired.
All in all I am happy, though. I am very proud of how far I’ve come from the land of table-layout CSS, and I have to say, I think I have developed a versatile and quick learning attitude. Together with a hunger for learning more (and what I often think I lack knowledge in, like good logic and programming foundations), it pushes me in new directions every day.