Interview: Benjamin Mikiten, Web Developer At McGarrah Jessee


Some days, like the ones that you end up going in whatever direction the day may take you, you can come across the best unplanned pivotal points in your twenty something year old life. You could say that my favorite kind of encounters are when you get to meet the best kind of strangers; the ones who teach you an unexpected thing or two. I had the pleasure of meeting Benjamin Mikiten a web developer at McGarrah Jessee at a friends wedding on a really hot Texas summer day last month, and recently on my near death experiences in summer school, I've come across the opportunity to interview an inspiring person who can spare some advice for a curious computer science major. Take a peek at what I learned from Benjamin, after the brief jump...

Age: 22

A little bit about yourself:
From San Antonio, currently living in San Marcos, working in Austin. Most often found on the I-35 corridor in-between. I play and collect bass guitars, drink huge amounts of coffee, own 8 different ways to make coffee, and I reddit like an addict.

Current occupation: Web Developer at McGarrah Jessee

What inspired you to want to go into web developing?
In Interactive I at Texas State, I realized I really enjoyed web development. It clicked in a certain way with my brain. I felt, coding, like I had when I’d played with legos as a kid. I’d taken a bunch of Computer Science classes in high school working with Java and C, but had abandoned my interest in computer science and physics after a particularly nasty Pre-Cal teacher had said in no uncertain terms “Ben, you’re hopeless at math.” I’d been fiddling with making basic websites (and by that I mean changing themes on my wordpress blog) for a few years, and decided to invest more time in design. I took a independent study class with a mentorship next year, and spent two years doing print work at an ad agency in San Antonio. By the time I was taking Com Des 1, I was bored with print, and subsequent classes felt like a waste of time as they were teaching me the basics of skills I had and had been using professionally for a couple years.

Fast forward back to the day in Interactive 1—I was familiar with HTML/CSS enough to do well (sit in the back and play World of Warcraft) in the class, but the more I applied my skills, the more I started to realize how much more to that field there was that I didn’t know about yet, like I was slowly cleaning fog off of a window. Whereas I felt I had pretty well cleaned the fog off of print and all that was left was personal skill-honing, I started to see a whole world of new skills and technologies behind the development window. Moreover, this was something I could use to build the environment I loved, the place I spent my time in and knew intimately—the internet.

I understood the sites I loved had something powering them more than the basic HTML and CSS I was learning, and I knew that the rote tasks I was performing writing basic sites in Interactive I were surely automated in the real world. Just two years of CS had taught me that—more than anything else, developers seem to hate typing. I did some research and pinned down three technologies that seemed to be the new hotness in web development: PHP, Python, and Ruby on Rails. I found some “which should I start learning” type articles, and Rails won out. I ordered a book on Amazon, found a giant cache of resources online, and set to teaching myself during Interactive I classes.

By the end of the last project, I had made a very basic Rails-powered website. The goal of this project was to create a socially-helpful website—things like charity websites, or community resources. I chose to satire the popularity of “awareness” sites that just ask for likes or retweets about an issue, and decided to make a one-stop-shop sort of site that invited you to like (even en masse if you’re a real hero) a large list of tragedies. The meat of the site was just an

    of the causes, but the important thing was that I only wrote one
  • . It stepped through a database, and substituted the appropriate values for each crisis. When the site showed up, it had 10 or 20 or 30
  • s, and all I had to do was write that once. That was sexy.

    How would you sum up life in college as a computer science major?I hope it doesn't mess up your project, but I wasn't a com sci major! I went in expecting to do print and logo work my whole life. I really enjoyed working with typography especially, but I lost interest in trying to do those cute and clever concepts for non-verbal ads, and hated trying to make logos work. Web was more concrete, and I felt like I could grasp the working parts better than the ephemeral aspects of what made a brand, or a good logo.

    Anyway, my college experience was easy and enjoyable. I came in knowing nearly everything I had to learn because of my time at the agency in San Antonio. I took a whole host of honors classes for my core classes, which exposed me to the disciplines and rigors of the majors to which those classes belonged (e.g. had to find a historical figure who as of yet had not been biographied, do all the primary research, and write a 35pg biography of them), and even spent some courting being a physics double major. Part of my disillusionment with print was probably due to the two semesters where I stacked up core classes and only took one or two major classes.

    To be totally honest, I think my college career was 20% work and 80% pursuing hobbies and extracurricular topics which mostly included web development topics that we weren't covering. I got my real work done quickly (and graduated with a 4.0, thank you very much) so that I could teach myself the material of the ideal program I wished they offered.

    How has life as a web developer been after graduating college?

    I picked up an internship half way through my last semester, and followed it on into a job. I've been to several conferences where I've gotten to rub elbows with Google engineers, the guys that did the Microsoft website, and the guy that runs CSS-tricks.com. I've picked up more skills, practically (that is, because I had to learn them  or the job wouldn't get done), in the months working in the real world than I did on my own. I've interviewed with a few other companies, and had headhunters come after me. This is a good field to be in right now. Developers are needed badly! It's challenging and rewarding work. I can sit down in the morning, have a feature to implement, google about how to do it, see there's not a real way, and spend the rest of the day hacking at it until I've got something that people said couldn't be done, or hadn't been done working in the browser in the evening.

    What is the best thing about being a web developer?I use the analogy a lot, but I feel like I'm playing with Legos. I'm using these modular parts to build a functioning object, which is just so totally rewarding. That and what I said above—figuring solutions to problems that don't exist. Sitting down in the morning to a website in a language you're unfamiliar with, and having it functional by the afternoon. Even when it's with a framework or a language I don't really like, just the reward of completing a job or getting something to work is what I like most.

    I've talked to other developers before about the little boost you get from seeing one little change work. It's like with Pavlov's dogs—you get that reward mechanism, the little dopamine squirt, every time you see that change in the CSS made something show up right, and you get to do that over and over and over again. It's kind of addicting, really.

    The best experience you've had in your career so far has been?

    The place I'm at now was my dream job in high school. I'd read about them, collected stuff they'd made, and knew everything about their clients. I wanted to design Shiner Beer packaging for McGarrah Jessee more than anything else. Now I'm here, but I'm making websites. It's still amazing to see the work that comes out of here, and I'm honored to get to translate the work of these incredibly talented men and women to the web. Other than that, whatever my greatest achievement is changes each week, because each week I face some challenge I didn't know how to overcome, and end the week a master of it.

    What advice if any would you give a computer science major currently in school right now?

    Computer science majors, I still content, are way smarter than me. I kind of understand C and Java and such, but things like application structures totally evade me—my software generally executes top to bottom. So I don't know how much applied advice I could give. Read Code Complete and the Practical Programmer. Read.

    My default advice for people wanting to go into web, though, is that you have to make this who you are. You have to do this 24/7, wake up in the middle of the night realizing how you can use an obscure -webkit flag to get your CSS to work. Read about it day in and day out, do it for fun. Get bored playing video games and build a website. Stay in Friday night refactoring your SASS. Make it something you care deeply about, not just what you do for a living.

*Make sure to stop by Benjamin's website and follow his ATX adventures on twitter. *

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