You have/had a mentor related to your field, right? Care to share anything valuable that you learned from your mentee experience? I think that’s an important value and topic for people to take away from this when others bring it up.
AB: I did. The first book I read on Web Dev & Design was written by Jeffrey Zeldman. At my wife’s behest, I took my shot and just sent him an email. I introduced myself, explained how I got into the field, and what I had made over the past couple of years. He replied not too [much] later, eager to help me get better and reach goals I didn’t even know I had for me.
Mostly he led by example and gave me a push when I doubted myself. He introduced me to people, companies, and communities that at the time I didn’t feel either good enough for – or not compatible with. Of course, it was on me to show and prove. It was clear at times, I’m in the room because of his name – whether or not I got to stay was based on what I did next.
That led me to blogging, speaking at conferences, taking leadership roles at work, and even venturing out on my own as a consultant. With time, my goals stopped aligning with his career and stature in the community. If it wasn’t for that insight and experience though, I’d still be on the hamster wheel chasing a career that as it turns out, I no longer long for.
SSD: If you no longer long for “that”, what do you hope to accomplish as you continue in your work?
AB: I’m up for anything. Though if nothing significant was to change and I remained in tech – I think I’d like to co/lead a team dedicated to component libraries and design systems. Alternatively, I would also love to see one of my own application ideas into a legitimate start-up.
SSD: Ok – cool segue — What type of web development and design work energizes you (what do you like the most?) vs. what drains you (what do you like the least?)? And what advice would you give for working through things that drain you?
AB: I’m a designers’ developer. Meaning I enjoy most of all the UI and UX layers of projects. Accomplishing slick designs in speedy, pixel-perfect fashion. Secondly, though perhaps more importantly, I’m energized by success metrics. When what makes an experience suitable is measurable rather than up to personal stakeholder preferences. What drains me is inconsistency and uncertainty (read: design systems).
SSD: How important is staying current on the newest things in your field? Or can someone just specialize and go deep into one thing and be pretty ok?
AB: When it comes to being a specialist or a generalist, I’d tell people to choose joy. Upskill in whatever brings you the most joy. I think it’s more challenging out there for specialists like myself. Employers can see an easier ROI on someone who can tackle a plethora of technology stacks. Or someone who can apply their CS learnings in ways that aren’t immediately obvious to me. But I find, as products mature, specialists become more necessary.
SSD: Is there a sweet spot in someone’s education that you think they should start learning these types of tech skills if they plan to do this type of work in the future? Like, should they start in middle school or would they be fine picking it up in their 20s? (Elaborate on your answer here if possible.)
AB: I came into tech, late and by accident. In a way, it’s helped me think about solutions in unique ways and always have a drive to try new things. But I’d advocate anyone interested in technology start early. In fact, there are many aspects of tech that should be taught to everyone.
If “This Then That” logic applies to those who write code as much as it does to anyone with a smartphone. At the elementary school ages, I think learning the why behind computing logic is more important than the how. Like, why might this be helpful? What might this make easier? Rather than how to write the code to accomplish it.
My son had a project in school where he had to make a prototype of an app of his choosing using Google slides. I first thought it was silly and not at all representative of what working tech is like. But then I remembered my days at a start-up. Sitting in a coffee shop, drawing wiring frames on napkins, and mocking up an entire onboarding flow.
SSD: What do you do if you don’t know how to do something that a client or employer wants?
AB: When it comes to code, how you find an answer is sometimes as important as the answers you already have. Google is your friend. Depending on the relationship, it may be best to say upfront, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” If that’s not acceptable, identify the minimum viable outcome, under-promise, and bust your ass to overdeliver.
SSD: Switching it up…
Do you think it would’ve mattered more to you as a younger man learning the ins and outs of your profession had you seen more people in your line of work who looked like you, or did your mom’s presence in the arena pretty much seal it for you?
AB: Being raised in DC in the 80s sort of gave me a warped view on that. I knew it was possible and that we could excel in a small space via government employment. Though as a young man, getting into tech – my city had changed.
Engineers and designers flooded social media and reinforced this image of a White middle-class, but hungry, community that, from my side of the screen – I didn’t fit into. So, I kept the platforms, the community, and [the] industry at arms distance. Cutting my teeth on projects and with clients that I felt I didn’t have to prove myself just walking in the door.
My mentor said, “F that,” and introduced me to a top firm in the area, leading to more opportunities. Without that introduction, though, I’d have likely let that feeling of being an outsider stifle my growth.
SSD: Do you think more Black People would take on STEM-related work if they saw more people like you who looked like them? Why or why not?
AB: The night of my first web development conference, there was a meet and greet at a bar. I was the lone brown face in a crowd until I spotted a tall Black guy with dreads. I approached and jokingly said “Hey man, you gotta go. They already have their quota met.” We laughed and cracked jokes about being the token, only, etc in the room. My career has been littered with these kinds of meet-cutes.
We can’t escape the reality that this can contribute to what roles people of color consider. No matter the profession, there are implicit biases we apply to them based on what we see.
SSD: Do you feel like developers and web designers are typically stereotyped, and if so – do you feel like you personally break that mold? Why or why not?
AB: Every profession has a stereotype and exceptions to the rule. I’m an exception in every way. Not just because I’m Black or self-taught, but because I don’t particularly like to talk about tech. I have many industry friends who will rant nonstop about the latest technology, the hot new start-up, or groan about some tech-bro doing dumb tech-bro-ey stuff.
I generally don’t care.
When I’m not actively working or trying to learn something for work – I don’t want to think about it. In fact, I want to be as far as possible from it. I’d rather hang musicians and rant over our favorite MCs. Or winding through some back roads, getting ready to camp for the weekend. Or at the range, getting gun powder under my fingernails. Or in the gym chasing a new personal record. Or telling corny jokes with my kids and meal prepping with my wife for the week ahead. I pretty much don’t want to interact whatsoever with the medium or tools of my trade outside of business hours.
SSD: So, that’s what you do with yourself when you’re not busy doing things for your day job? What’s the reasoning there? What motivates that?
AB: I sit, all day long. So I make sure to spend 60-90 min a day on the move. In the garage gym or running outdoors. When it’s warm enough, I hop on the motorcycle and dart around town. I’m a weekend warrior, at least until my kids have all graduated. I’m looking forward to spending a few weeks riding around the country on two wheels with nothing but a backpack.
SSD: Do you need total silence when you work, or do you work listening to music? If it’s the latter – what does an ideal work soundtrack for you have in it?
AB: Oh man, this reminds me of a project I used to do. A yearly wrap-up of music that powers my work. The last time I did it, though was in 2015. Music is an extension of my mood. It either mirrors where my head is at, or it’s a means to get my head where it needs to be.
80% of the time, it’s hip hop. Typically, energetic and fast-paced music I already know. So I don’t feel pressured to take in the lyrics. This though doesn’t work out so well if I have a lot of meetings. I can’t switch off that energy from DMX blasting through my headphones into talking about pull requests and code reviews.
The other 30% is a melange of genres. Soul, golden oldies, spoken word, lo-fi, and even a little jazz. Stuff that keeps the mood light and spirits high.
SSD: What are the key traits you think someone needs to have to be successful in your field?
AB: You’ve gotta be humble but daring. Accept you don’t know everything, and in fact, you know nothing. But find joy in constantly learning. This weird drive has to push you to keep going even when it doesn’t make that much sense.
When you know this solution you’re manifesting deep down, it won’t stand the test of time. But that’s ok because you’re learning through failure. You have to find the humor in cursing the ideas and code you wrote just a few weeks back. You’ll thrive through humility and hustle.
SSD: Lastly — Who are your heroes and why? They don’t have to be related to your profession or anything…
AB: I don’t have heroes. We’re all just people doing the best we can with what we have. Some are better than most, and a few were lucky enough to be better in a public space.