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Newbie Coders: Develop your Voice

I took a grant writing class as an elective in grad school. While I found the class to be surprisingly helpful, my professor did say one random unrelated thing in class that really stuck with me above everything else.

He was talking about the pet peeves he has that really irritate him when reviewing grants. One of these is when people use the word “utilize”. He issued the class a semester challenge – give him one sentence where “utilize” makes more sense than simply “use”. At the end of the semester, no one had found a case where use wouldn’t do.

This was a pretty profound moment for me because when I first got involved in the web industry, I was a bit of a magpie and wanted to include every shiny new trick I learned in my projects. Hey, learning to code is crazy exciting, what can I say! This advice – don’t use utilize when use will do – was my web Occam’s Razor, pushing me to simplify, edit, and focus. It helped me create better websites and be a better problem solver.

When I recounted this new approach to a seasoned designer friend of mine, she congratulated me. She said the web industry is full of stories and advice like this that have helped her refine her skills and find her voice. One of her daily rituals is to try to discover content that makes her think and challenge her preconceived notions of what design is and what it can do. This , according to her, was an important part of growth in the web industry.

“There’s no ego. You have to get comfy with putting your words out there for others to respond to and possibly connect with. The web changes fast. If you want to be a part of it you have to be comfortable with changing too.”

I realized then that it’s not just about coding and building things that make money. So much of why this industry is great is because it’s full of people who continually review their approaches, scrutinize their decisions and share their struggles and insights with eachother. It’s part of the DNA of the web industry to continually develop, hone and grow. Much of this happens publically – seasoned web pros are big on writing, presenting, working on side projects that try new things, question current practices and strive to find the best way to do something. It’s an incredibly diverse conversation – with people across roles, levels of experience and expertise all discussing the same things and coming up with ideas and solutions together. You don’t have to have 800 years of experience to have something incredibly valuable to contribute (and remember, the web industry, like you, is a newbie too!).

I want you to be a part of the conversation that is the web. How can you do that? By flexing your critical thinking muscles and engaging in the discourse that makes this industry great. Here are 4 tips to help you find your voice:

1. Follow people you admire

I’ve talked about my love of (the arguably retro) feedreader, but it helps me follow many different sources easily in one place. I use feedly to keep track of all the websites I love and read them regularly. I follow a variety of voices and viewpoints so that I can consider many approaches before landing on my own opinion about something.

I follow people like Chris Coyier, Jessica Hische, Pam Selle, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jared Spool, Katie Kovalcin and Kristina Halvorson – just to name a few – to get a wide variety of disciplines and schools of thought under my belt. I follow websites like The Pastry Box Project and read Net Mag and The Magazine.

2. Read all the things

I read everything I can get my hands on, from A List Apart / A Book Apart, 5 Simple Steps, Smashing Mag, Jon Duckett ‘s 2 recent incredible titles, and others. They’re organized as collections in my Kindle, and I try to make sure I’m covering every angle – from design to development to content strategy to research to UX. 15 minutes with my morning coffee and 15 minutes before bed really adds up!

3. Get over your Twitter fear

Twitter, like all social media, isn’t inherently useful or useless. It’s all about how you use it. Create organized lists for people (I have lists for designers, developers, social media & content, for example) and add people in those industries to the list. Talk to them! You’d be surprised by the depth of conversations you can have and the enthusiasm with which these experts will share resources. You may be shy at first, but that’s okay! There’s no shame in following conversations for a while, getting comfy, and then participating.

4. Present

Whether it’s at a conference or to a crowd of 20 people…present! My sister recently wrote a great piece on overcoming your public speaking fears. There’s a great piece by Marie Forleo on the subject too. With speaking, just dive in. Consider submitting panel proposals for SXSW (where newbies and emerging ideas are welcome!) or volunteering to speak at a local middle or high school. Or how about starting a local coding or design meet-up and speaking for 5-10 minutes at each month’s meeting while leading the group? It may just be an audience of 7 or 8 of you but speaking publicly at all is a big, big win!

5. Write

Sometimes I feel really bad for people who have to read my work. But you know who I feel worse for? People who had to read my work last year. It’s basically impossible for you not to get better at something if you keep doing it. So, I encourage you to write. You may hate it. You may wake up the next morning, read what you wrote, have a mini meltdown and hit the delete button so hard it pops right off your keyboard. Don’t delete anything! Put up work you aren’t proud of and let it inspire you to do better work next week, or keep editing it after it’s live if that’s a possibility – I go back and refresh old blog posts all the time. And you know what’s a great conversation starter? Your writing! Use Twitter to be all like “Hey so and so, I think you’re faboo – I’d love your thoughts on my post on this awesome new thing I just learned about/did.” This is not just a great way to network but also a great space for you to practice getting and implementing feedback on and in your work – something you’ll be doing every single day when you get your first, second, third and 10th jobs in the web industry.

I promise you two things: You’re not as bad as you think you are. And your work will inspire at least one person. Writing is a great way for you to refine your professional voice and organize your ideas. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter and the easiest, quickest way for you to start participating in a conversation that needs your unique perspective. Check out medium for inspiration and create a goal to get your first piece up by September.


Deepina Kapila

Dee is a fun-loving instructor with diverse tech experience across Fortune 500 companies, early-stage start-ups, government agencies & non-profits. Dee works at mobile product design studio Funsize, in Austin Texas where she lives with her husband, 2 border collie mixes, & 2 cats.

In her spare time she enjoys playing video games, reading on her Kindle & scuba diving in her hometown (Curaçao - an island in the Caribbean!).