The joy of being a front end engineer

If this is not the first time you read me maybe you’ll be surprise to see this article written in english. Maybe I should apologize to me usual readers (if I have one at all apart from this guy) because this was one of my goals when getting back the habit of writing. The reason is basically to improve my skills and start making my professional online reputation reach a wider audience. We’ll see how it goes but anyway don’t expect me to write everything from now on in english. In everything not related to my job I’ll be back to spanish (probably).

Let’s go!

Since nearly a year now I’m a front end engineer (see this wikipedia article for in depth explanation). For short this means that I work in the IT sector, in a web development company and I’m one of the guys who stand between the «pure coders» and the design agency.

The business analyst department meets with the client and establish a guideline on how the project will be, what they need, how do they need it and when it will be developed and delivered. When both parts agree on what has to be done the design agency works on how it should look and, at some extent, behave. The creative process belongs mainly to the designers. They are able to shape ideas into designs, thanks to Photoshop, inDesing and other tools of that kind. Something that I really envy, creativity is not one of my strengths.

After the BA delivers the specifications and the agency the designs, we start working. The development of a website (an I state development instead of design) has two different sides: back-end part and front-end part. Back end is the part that gets executed in the server and front end in the client (browser). Both are necessary to deliver the final product but the skills and technologies of each one are very different.

In the case of Netcentric, my company, we work with Adobe Experience Manager, a big CMS with Analytics and Campaign modules (among others) included. These are the gears that make the website work. It comes with a default behaviour that the backend developers have to customize, improve and create anew to match the requirements of the project. It’s written in Java with its good and bad parts but being backed by Adobe makes it a great solution for big companies.

The front end is different. We are not really tied to a language but to three different technologies: html, css and javascript. We always compare the front end part of a website to a building:

  • html is the structure
  • css is the walls, partitions and decoration (mainly how it looks)
  • javascript is the engineering part (interaction, animation and moving parts)

We could change the backend gears and we would be doing nearly the same. Maybe the file structure, some scripts and mechanics would change but our workflow would be very similar.

I built my first website with Dreamweaver 4 on 2001 hosted, if I recall correctly, in Lycos. At that time there was no difference between front and backend sides as everything was a lot simpler back then. Web developers were called webmasters what nowadays would be called full stack web developer. I wouldn’t say I was a pioneer as Web itself started a long time before I joined but I was one of the first guys of my univesity that had a real contact with website development. My first job at Verio was related to website development for a hosting company, the maintenance of the spanish website. After that I joined a web project for developing a project knowledge management tool coded in php.

Now it’s hard for me to understand why I didn’t push harder in that direction. I din’t realize that after two years of getting my degree I was already an expert on the field with what nowadays we would say as one year on front end development and another one and a half in backend development. Maybe I didn’t believe that the sector was a truly and proper future option, how mistaken I was.

After some trial an error works and some disappointments I decided to go back to school and get a degree on architecture as it seemed a truly and proper future option citing myself, how mistaken I was citing myself again. After seven years of university I had more work experience in freelance website projects than in architecture or construction. I was very tired: it was a great investment in energy, money and hope and when I finished a deep crisis was set in the construction sector… but I give it a try anyway. I decided to invest in myself thinking that maybe I could be one of that entrepreneurs that are able to build their own emporium from scratch. But it was not the case. After two years of trying I was even more tired and disappointed, sad and frustrated than before, really hopeless and lost.

By then I was only sure of two things:

  • I still deeply believed in my talent and work skills but I needed to score on my next try to keep up
  • I was too tired to keep trying by myself so I needed someone to give me a hand, a chance to shine

On December 2013 I got the chance to go back to IT thanks to a close friend who cared and believed in me enough to ask his bosses for an opportunity for me, a guy who had spend the last 8 years of his life trying to build a future in the construction sector and with his IT skills slightly forgotten. After a not so good interview I got the opportunity and I knew I would make it count.

I joined for a minor project, a migration from the old system of the client to our Adobe platform. For the end of the first month I was already leading the team. It was not very demanding for the tech skills but it was demanding in wok ethics as it was very repetitive and boring at times. After the first two months I already knew all the tricks, options and I was able to teach the new guys who were joining the migration team.

On my quarterly review I was given the option to choose the department I would like to join when the migration project finished. After a weeks of talking and thinking the decision was made: front end. I got the chance to sit with one of the guys of the department and I was able to realize how much the tools and the technology had changed since I left. What I remembered of that was quite painful and now we have even embedded developer tools in the browser. When I started web development JS was used for form validation and for showing and hiding menus, now it was hard to believe how powerful it had become.

I was really willing to end the migration project. I was enjoying the time with my colleagues but I was really looking forward to start coding. I got a subscription on Treehouse to update my skills out of office hours and I really enjoyed it. The day finally came on late august with a new project, a new customer and a new version of the Adobe tool. A new team was formed for engaging it and I was the junior guy eager to show my skills and improve every day. I deeply needed to show everyone that I was good enough for that opportunity but overall everyone else, myself.

The beginning was really hard, no one had time to teach me, a lot of things had to be done and there was no time for mistakes. After two months of hard work and a lot of trial and error I went three weeks on my honeymoon and had the time to put everything in context and really enjoy my success until then. I was (and still am) really happy for my accomplishments but I wanted more. I knew I was a junior but my age and previous experience had to really show up eventually.

When I came back my  buddy, mate, colleague, teacher, tutor and friend had the time to teach me what I needed to really start being productive. He showed me the tricks, the ways, the best practices and then he let me do my own mistakes. After that and using his own words «I exploded like a rocket». I had the confidence, the skills, the experience, the expertise and the attitude to start growing in the project, the department, the company and the sector.

We finished the first major and public release of the project last week. The set live is scheduled for march so luckily we’ll be able to see our project online soon. It’s been a really hard last week but totally worth it. I couldn’t remember that feeling of accomplishment after almost 9 months of work, battling everyday against trivial, minor, major, critical and blocker bugs. In a few weeks the work of my last year and a half will be available for everyone to see. My talent with all the talent of the people I’m surrounded with will be displayed to the world. It’s true that the final product is the result of the work of a lot of people and mine is only a small part of it, but an essential part. All of us have been irreplaceable and without each one of us this wouldn’t have been possible. I wouldn’t change this feeling of team work and team success for anything else. Being an important part of a talented team is one of that things that makes me go to work really happy for the challenges we face everyday and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In short, this has not really been the article I expected to be. I’ll talk another day more in depth about my front end work as in the end it has result on an more introspective set of thoughts. But anyway it has been great to review this last year and a half. As I said before for some time I start doubting of my skills and capabilities as nothing was working for me. I know I have explained this story a lot of times to a lot of people but now it’s even written. I’m really happy and thankful:

  • Thanks Brian for believing in me and caring for me enough to step up for me
  • Thanks Michael to give me the chance to join the company although it was not clear for anyone how it would work out
  • Thanks Erik for paving the path, giving me the wings a letting me fly
  • Thanks Netcentric for getting me out of the bench and back into the game

Let’s do this team!

7 comentarios en “The joy of being a front end engineer”

  1. Bravo David! I never had doubts that you would explode like a rocket! You deserve all the success!

  2. There’s some front-end engineers that will not agree that backend are the only «pure coders» 😉

  3. Congratulations for everything!!! for your work, for your blog, for your English level… I’ve been late this time in reading the article and discovering your «English side» but I’ve enjoyed it a lot 😉

    And thanks for the advertising 😛

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