Nov 12

University Student AND Web Ninja

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 02:48 — julie

We’ve previously seen the debate on whether or not you should attend university if you are interested in a web development career, especially when you can just as readily turn to a site like Nettuts+ and save yourself some time and money. Well…

…not so fast. Traditional universities lend themselves to a number of learning opportunities and experiences, in a relatively safe, student-friendly environment (not to mention resource-FULL) – if you have an ounce of creativity and know where to look. And if you’re not careful, you can leave stacked with development fundamentals, experience, AND a piece of paper showing potential clients that you have the life management, commitment, and discipline skills to back it all up. What better place to learn and grow than in a place designed for that very reason – an institution of higher learning?

Using my experiences, I’m going to show you how to USE your university to walk like a student (which makes mommy and daddy happy) but work your way to web ninja status (which makes you happy). Shall we begin?


My first foray into programming was with BASIC many, many years ago. Then I learned HTML when I was 12 and won my first computer in a web page contest later that year. I didn’t really stick with it too much after that and four years later found myself at the University of Delaware majoring in computer engineering. That is, a traditional university and *not* your cutting-edge school. So how did I end up developing web apps for various campus departments and receiving a $2000 custom PHP contract with another department on campus?

1. I got Involved

Outside of the normal freshman computer science/engineering regimen of C and C++ (the latter of which provides a good object-oriented development foundation), plus a math and a humanities thrown in for good measure, I chose a couple of student organizations in which I wanted to get involved. I’d always been active in causes I believed in throughout my high school career and I wanted to continue community involvement while in university. One was a technical society but the two others were not. Now, here’s where you need to take notes: most non-technical student organizations are not overflowing with budding web designers. So if you need somewhere to get started, here’s the perfect place. More often than not, there’s no one else to either create the organization’s website or update it, much less understand how to FTP files back-and-forth from the server. And the organization needs a space for interested students to be able to obtain information about the organization, including meeting times and events.

So, I became the one. I dusted off my HTML skills (thankfully the core of HTML has stayed the same, for the most part – it’s still html, head, title, end title, end head, body, end body, and end html, plus a few other tags) and taught myself a little Photoshop (through tutorials), CSS (w3schools), and PHP (for web forms). As a result, a student group I was involved in recorded a live CD and I was chosen to design the flyers, website, and CD packaging. Imagine that!

I am currently a university teacher and it seems the opportunities are abounding. I just finished speaking with the editor and adviser of our college newspaper practically begging for someone in IT to help them get a website up – which would be a really good opportunity for a student to cut their teeth on some Wordpress (or CodeIgniter) and graduate a total rockstar. Had WordPress been available back when I was in college (year 2000), I would have been unstoppable! ;-)

2. I got Connected

During an event for one of the student organizations I joined, I had an opportunity to meet and talk to the adviser. As it turns out, the adviser was a manager for the university’s MIS department – the very same department that developed all of the university’s web applications. When she found out I was a computer engineering major, she set up me up with an interview for the student Java programmer summer internship. I told her I didn’t know Java but she seemed to believe that they would teach me. Well, I received my first experience in a gang, I mean group, interview process. And I did not get the job. Because they did not teach Java. But, they said to go learn Java then come back. So I did. And a year later I was hired as a student programmer, developing web apps in JSP and J2EE, making twice as much as my minimum wage university computer lab “consultant” job. All because I got connected. by getting involved. And I must say, I made some very nice paper (translated: money) for those 6 months.

But it didn’t stop there. Another department on campus needed a website and was looking for a *student* to do it. Note: universities and the surrounding areas are *very* student-friendly. They are *looking* for students to give opportunities to. Apparently the director of this department was in this same advisor’s circle of influence and I found out later that she told them to contact me. This connection turned into a $2000 custom PHP contract job (Notice I said PHP, not JSP. Once you learn some solid principles of programming and cut your teeth on one language, it’s a skill that stays with you and makes it pretty easy to pick up others). Not bad for a university student.

The moral of the story is: a university campus is ripe with opportunity. One of my classmates started a business. Had I gotten to know him and engaged with him, I could have possibly created his website. You never know who you know so get to know who you know (even your classmates and professors)!

And with a little bit of my next point, you will be hangin’ with the best of them in no time.

3. I got Creative

After I was told to learn Java and come back, I started on my own but got busy with classes (an engineering curriculum is no joke). While preparing to register for the next semester’s classes, I noticed the school was offering a brand new class called Java for engineers. Not quite what I wanted, but close enough, AND it would fulfill some graduation requirements. Then I found out about a “real”Java class offered in the computer science department, but I couldn’t take both at the same time, and the latter was full. So I spoke with the professor and he allowed me to sit in and participate. And that’s where I learned the bulk of my Java programming skill. Where I learned to love the API. Note: when you have a goal and something seems to block your way, get creative. A university campus is one of the best places for you to stretch your educational boundaries. I was *known* for using independent study credits to make up my own courses that allowed me to pursue what I wanted.

The university then extended the program by offering a follow-up Java class, for the enterprise. And this is where I learned J2EE and how to build web apps w/ JSP, which set me up for my web applications programming job.

A few years later, I found myself almost done with my university career and in need of another job- but there were no jobs listed on the student job board. So I put those critical thinking skills to work, looked up a couple of departments on campus that I thought might want to hire me, and before long, I had a job as a web designer for the campus creative services department. Honestly, I never even thought I’d get anything as good as I did. They hadn’t advertised that they were looking for anyone but I just emailed my resume and asked if they would be interested in giving me an internship. And they did.

I’m famous for telling anybody: Don’t take no for an answer. If you can’t get in through the front door, try the back. If the back’s not open, try the side. If the side door’s locked, then *make* your own door! Try some of your professors. More than likely, you’ll have some that will be very willing to let you create a site for them and they just might have a family member who owns a business that also needs a website. The opportunities are out there, you just have to position yourself with a little creativity.


My experiences during university have carried me long after and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to not only learn the technical skills but also the skill of finding opportunities for myself in a relatively safe and student-friendly environment.

And did I mention I did all of this on the University’s Macs with their copies of Adobe and the (then) Macromedia design suites? That’s what I call resource-FULL.

USE your university and walk out with a piece of paper (for mommy and daddy to frame and hang on the wall) AND your ninja stripes (for you to take all the way to the bank account).

Disagree? Hit the comments!

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