It’s never too late to change paths, and Jon Major is living proof of that. Before his current career as a web developer, Jon has studied biology and law, and has worked in many other fields. We spoke with him about his many career path shifts, and how he has aligned his interests, strengths, and values with his work in web development.
Briefly tell us about your current career and how you got there.
I’m currently working as a full-stack web developer for Pendo (http://pen.do), an online platform for landlords to manage their rental properties. I’ve been with Pendo for three months now, and it’s been an exciting time to be there as we’ve only just launched our all-new web application.
I’ve definitely taken the road less traveled on my way to my current career. While completing my undergraduate degree in biology, I happened to land a role with a startup internet retailer in Vancouver, and I was with that company from its early days until its eventual sale a few years later. My changing roles with that company were non-technical positions mostly involving project management, but I had the chance to work closely with our software contractors in the design and implementation of our website and management information systems. That was really my first exposure to the tech and startup world and sparked my interest for web development. After the sale, that company closed its Vancouver offices, and I took a few months to backpack around South America. This was in 2004, and I had with me my first digital camera – and I discovered that I really enjoyed photography as well, which led to an interest in digital design generally.
Over the next few years, I taught English overseas, and then came back to Vancouver to attend law school. My spare time though would always revolve around technology and design somehow – I’d set up a travel blog on WordPress, learn the ins and outs of Photoshop as I worked on my travel photos, or try to find the best note-taking app for lectures.
After getting called to the bar, I found myself without a job, and it was at that time that I really started reconsidering the direction I was heading. After playing around with a few online computer science and web development courses, I finally decided to take the plunge and attend a coding bootcamp, Lighthouse Labs in Vancouver – and nine weeks later, I was working as a web developer.
How does the work you do incorporate your strongest interests, values, and/or natural strengths?
Right from when I was really young, I’ve had a knack for fixing things, solving problems, and working with computers – so I’ve definitely got those aspects covered! I also really enjoy learning new things, and this field changes so quickly that there’s always some new technology to figure out. For me though, what especially sets this line of work apart from my prior legal career are the creative and visual aspects – I really enjoy trying to put myself into the mind of the user to figure out what elements of the interactive experience will and won’t resonate with the user, and then seeing the immediate visual results of the work that I do. While at the moment I’m mostly concentrating on improving my technical skills, our team is small enough that I’m constantly in close contact with those people providing the vision and design for our website and business, and I anticipate my career moving in that direction.
What is one major mistake you’ve made along your career path, and what did you learn from it?
That’s a really tough question. If you look at the starting point of my career path, and then at the point where I’m at now, you’d definitely be able to draw a shorter line between those two points than the one I traced. But at the same time, I don’t regret doing any of the things that I did. You never really know how one experience is going to affect you or nudge you in a different direction, and you’re always gaining knowledge along the way.
What I do regret, though, are those occasions where I’ve spent too long in a role or on a path that I wasn’t enjoying, or that wasn’t providing me with an opportunity to continually advance my experience or skills. This is especially dangerous when you’re in a spot where you’re earning a comfortable income – that can be a pretty tough rut to break out of. I’ve learned that no matter what I’m doing, I need to keep an eye turned inward to make sure that I’m still pushing myself forward on my path, and not growing complacent. A good part of that involves building connections and keeping yourself open to opportunities that force you outside of your comfort zone. Do something different, something crazy! You won’t regret it.
What advice would you give to high school students who are currently interested in web design and development, and want to break into the field?
Build something! That’s the best way to start. You don’t necessarily have to learn to code right away. If you’re interested in the graphic design aspect, maybe put together a poster using Photoshop or Illustrator, or even just start paying closer attention to what you like about the websites you visit, what you don’t, and why. If you know someone who wants their own site, help them pick out a theme and set it up on WordPress, then try a little customization. If you want to learn to code and to go beyond what your school offers, then check out some of the great online resources available like Treehouse or Codecademy. It also really helps to get to know some other people who are interested in the same things as you are, whether at your school or by getting involved with the local tech community through meetups or other events.
Finally, and most importantly, if you ever get to a spot where you’re frustrated because you think you can’t do it, or your designs aren’t any good, or the problem you’re trying to solve is too hard – that’s probably a good sign that you’re working on something that you really want to do. Learn to fight through this resistance, because it never leaves.
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