Alina got a 5-fold pay increase after being a self-taught web developer. She gives an interview going over her career and her advice for newbies. Read on for tips on how you can become a self-taught web developer and advice for how to build a freelance business.
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
Hey, my name is Alina Sava and I currently live in Berlin. Since turning freelance in 2013 I've worked in a wide range of design, development, and consulting roles, so there's no one job name that would cover everything I do. On a per case basis I'm a designer, a frontend developer, a consultant, or a WordPress developer. Usually 2 in 1, sometimes all in one.
Why did you learn to code?
Curiosity I think. It was something appealing and intriguing.
In late 2006 the company I was working at as an automotive engineer hired a small studio to redesign their website. I ended up being the liaison between the company and the studio, mostly because I was the newcomer and nobody was interested in doing this.
It took me only a few days of talking with the web design team to realize I want to learn to do what they do. I started reading about html online, decided to give it a chance, and ended up quitting my engineer job 2 months later to follow my curiosity.
How did you learn coding?
After I quit my engineer job, I moved to another city and took a 36 hours "Web Design for Beginners" course. It was relatively low quality, a bit outdated, but it did introduce me to HTML, CSS, and Flash.
Then, I started building websites by myself to practise and continue learning, because I figured out that without a portfolio or experience, my chances of getting hired were almost null. My first works were a flash animated pizza cook, and a website about Scotland with a mighty — you guessed — flash animated tartan. They are crude, made with XHTML in strange prehistoric times when rounded corners, drop shadows, gradients and such were done with images, and the frontend developer term wasn’t around.
But they served as experience/portfolio and got me my first web designer job in 2007, working mostly PSD to HTML & CSS and learning Photoshop in the process. Flash was already past its peak glory, but was still quite extensively used, and I did work with it for about 2 years. The only thing I would do differently is learning to code earlier. But I got my first computer when I was 24, so I think I made the best of my circumstances.
How has your life changed since learning to code?
Nothing has been the same since — in the best way possible, so I haven't looked back on my decision. My first web designer job actually paid a smaller salary than the previous other jobs I had. But it made me feel for the first time that I love what I do, and that was priceless.
It also offered me a great environment to continue learning, and I started with Photoshop, jQuery by actually using them in projects. I also briefly worked with Smarty, MooTools and other things that are now mostly pages in web's history.
After 4 years, 2 job changes, and one location change, my salary increased 5x despite my almost nonexistent negotiation skills. Though it’s worth mentioning the first salary was really low.
What does a typical day as a web developer look like for you?
My daily routine changed a lot over the years. At first I had a full-time job, then later started occasionally freelancing in my free time, and in 2013 I went full self-employed. For the first five years of self-employment I had a very unhealthy routine of working 7 days/week crazy hours, no vacations. Of course, this had consequences, and by the end of 2018 I had sold all my startups and tried to introduce balance in my routine. Spent 2 years doing some volunteer work, and learned to better manage my time.
My most productive times were when I worked at night and slept in the morning from 5-7 until noon, but I’ve now returned to more typical hours for practical reasons.
Currently my mornings start with coffee and checking support tickets. Then I try (and frequently fail) to keep up with newsletters and podcasts I’m subscribed to. The afternoon work hours are divided between anything ranging from server maintenance, to pixel art, research, content writing, administrative tasks, and of course coding. At this time I’m working exclusively on my own projects.
I also reserve some time to do things just for fun and learning, for example re-creating the bitmap fonts from two of my favourite operating systems — Chicago from Apple’s System and MS Sans Serif from Windows 95, as modern scalable fonts.
Do you have any advice for getting your first clients as a freelance web developer?
My first freelance gigs were from a coworker backend developer that found them and needed a collaborator for design and frontend. I have no merit in finding the clients. To be honest, I don't know how I would have done it on my own.
There is no guaranteed recipe for successfully getting clients, but there are some details that make a huge difference:
Do your research about the potential client and the project beforehand, and adapt your pitch based on that research. The goal is to avoid making your pitch seem spammy or generic.
Be genuine, don't pretend you're a team, or somehow other than you really are.
Do you have tips for people who want to learn to code without doing a degree?
If you’re not sure where to start, consider taking a beginner course. Even if it’s not the best quality, it will save you the time of asking yourself what are the basics you should learn at first.
Reading information offers a great starting point, but putting that information in practice is key. So make things! Actually coding something, debugging, searching for solutions will be frustrating many times, but it will also get you in the zone and bring the most satisfaction. Learning to search for the information you need is essential.
Don't be afraid or ashamed to ask. Leverage the existing community of people that went at some point or are currently going through the same learning process as you. While everybody’s circumstances are different and experiences won’t be exactly the same, it will be helpful knowing you’re not doing this alone, and you might even gain friendships.
And don't be discouraged by thinking you need to have a certain mindset or personality trait to become a developer. Skills and mindset are built over time, it's not something we're born into or exclusively acquire by getting a CS degree. If you feel like coding is the right choice for you, just don't stop learning and you'll do great.
What are your career goals for the future?
It might seem a bit odd, but after 8+ years of self-employment I’m considering getting a job in a startup within the next year, while also investing. For a while now I’ve reached the maximum I can do as a solopreneur and hiring is not quite justifiable for the few new projects I currently have.
I am at a weird point where I stopped doing commissioned work, but consider working for others at a job :) We’ll see how it goes. I see this as a good disruption of my current routine, that I really want to try.
That being said, I won’t stop maintaining my current projects, and I also have some new ones in different stages of work in progress. I’ve sold all my startups in 2016-2018, so I only have 3 projects left right now, all three created 2018-2020: FontsArena.com, Visual Coffee, and BrutalistThemes.com. From a traffic point of view FontsArena.com is the biggest project, getting 90k-120k monthly pageviews (lowest number now during June-August vacations).