In Episode 112 of The Big Web Show, Jeffrey Zeldman talks with Mat Marquis about, among other things, their first jobs. Mat did a lot of random jobs before he got started in web design, including carpentry. One of Jeffrey's jobs was removing asbestos from buildings.
Recently, I had a debate with Andy Budd about career paths. He argued that people going straight into the web industry without any former non-web work experience are missing out in some way. My argument was that so many young people are already excellent web designers or developers and well-rounded individuals before they're even old enough to get a first job, that they shouldn't have to stock shelves in a supermarket for a year just because us old-timers think it builds character.
But, like many debates I've had with Andy, after a lot of thinking I've reluctantly come round to his way of thinking.
Although I worked as a web developer straight out of school, it wasn't my first job. I got a monthly paycheque for singing in a choir 3 days a week before and after school from the age of 8 to 15. I had a paper round from 13, until I was 16 and old enough to get my first weekend job at a juice bar to save up for my computer (I was really well paid for a 16 year old: £5.50 an hour). I did that for 2 years. It wasn't scraping asbestos off of walls, but it was tough, and I'm glad I did it (and also very glad I don't do it any more). I learnt a lot about dealing with customers, managing people, and keeping calm when stuff got hectic.
First jobs are also something Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann discuss quite a bit on their podcast, Back to Work. They talk about catering jobs like it's a rite of passage, that it makes you a better human. I'm inclined to agree. When I see someone being rude to catering staff, I'm pretty sure they haven't had to do that job, because otherwise they'd show more empathy.
Some of the web designers and developers I look up to most also have unusual former careers. Richard Rutter was an engineer working on oil rigs, Cole Henley was an archeologist, Jeremy Keith sold bread and went busking around Europe. And of course, Andy Budd was a shark wrangler (for realsies). Although I don't imagine a former shark-wrangling job helps Andy when he's dealing with clients (or maybe it does), I'm sure these respective paths helped them better understand people who aren't web designers and developers. I also think it gives them a different perspective on the world that indirectly improves their work.
The web industry feels increasingly homogenous. We love beer, bacon and beards. Developers are hired straight out of college, and I'm worried companies are shunning prospective hires who are older, who have some of that worldly experience, but who haven't been coding since they were in primary school. I'm concerned that a lot of the things we build reflect that – does the world really need another coffee app?
This is one of the reasons I greatly respect Code for America. They're building things that can improve whole communities based on real needs, like an app for people on food stamps. I wonder if the people who work on these projects are former public servants, teachers, or maybe even on food stamps themselves. To make something that's really going to work, you need people who understand not just the technology, but the politics around it, and of course the users themselves.
I think we'll lose something if an entire generation of web designers and developers have come straight out of school or college having never worked in a different industry. I don't want to dissuade young people from diving straight into a career they enjoy, but one of the things I think makes the industry great (and interesting) is the diversity of different backgrounds and experiences. Maybe companies should consider that when they're sifting through job applications.