I get asked a lot what it is that I do. My response is that I design and build websites, but that merely skims the surface. For those looking for a more detailed answer, continue reading this post.
I wear many hats
Running my own freelance web agency means I perform many varying tasks throughout the day. My projects call me to be a graphic designer, programmer, coder, project manager, and an IT consultant among other things. There are times when wearing so many different hats can be tiring, but mostly I thrive on the variety.
My background and personality have prepared me for my freelance career. I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with computers. During my elementary and middle school years, my older brothers did a great job introducing me to technology. One Christmas my brother, Reid, helped my parents pick out my first computer, a TI-99/4A. My main focus was playing games on it, but I also used it for dabbling in some BASIC programming.
In middle school, I graduated to an AMIGA 500. Made by Commodore Computers, the AMIGA had advanced graphics and sound capabilities. This made for even better gaming with titles like Earl Weaver Baseball and F/A 18 Interceptor. I also used my AMIGA for my first attempts at word processing (i.e. WordPerfect) and graphic design (i.e. Deluxe Paint). But the majority of my first experiences with computers were in gaming. However, as my first job would prove, this early experience and basic familiarity with computers would pay off.
The UTAD “Computer Guy”
During my sophomore year at the University of Tennessee (1994), I was hired by the Head Trainer, Mike Rollo, to service computers in the Athletic Department. Despite having no experience in IT support, Mike took me on based on his experiences working with my brother ten years before. “You’re a Wender,” he once told me. “Of course, you’ll be good with computers.” And, so began my on-the-job-training.
That first fall was a crash course in servicing computers around the Neyland Thompson Sports Complex. I remember being sent upstairs to work on an administrative assistant’s computer. After unsuccessfully fiddling with it for a half hour, Mike walked in. He leaned over my shoulder. “Let me see if this gets it,” he said while adjusting the brightness and contrast. Et voila, it was working again. That fall, I kept my pride in my back pocket while humbly soaking up all the knowledge and know-how I could.
Thanks to Mike’s gentle encouragement and training, I quickly progressed from padawan to junior IT support to resident expert. As far as GUI software was concerned (think Windows 95), Mike deferred to me. This meant I was sent throughout the vast athletics complex and beyond to perform all manner of tasks: software installs, computer tutoring, workplace setups, and occasionally I’d even drive athletes to their doctor’s appointments.
Working for Mr. Rollo gave me a foundation of working with computers and being comfortable with them. It was this comfort and familiarity that opened my mind to the vast potential for their use and application. This spilled over into my classwork at UT where I used my skills to make my papers look their best, publish my own personal website via the university’s free web hosting, and redesign a company’s website as a part of a paper in a tech writing class. I was awarded a scholarship for a paper I wrote about a local game development company who’d found success creating a game based on the Titanic. Of course the aggregate of all these things doesn’t equate to inventing Facebook or Google, but these were the seeds that led to what has been a successful career working on the web.
Post Graduation, Setting my Sights on Hollywood
During my time at UT, I majored in English with a concentration in creative writing and technical communication. The summer before my senior year at UT, I realized that I didn’t see myself being a professional novelist or tech writer. Then one day I was having a conversation with my brother about how much I’d love to work in animation or visual effects for film. He mentioned that there are schools for that kind of thing. That got me started on a search that eventually landed me at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.
In May of ’98, I graduated from UT with my BA in English. That fall I started in the Digital Media Program at Full Sail. My course of study had me on track to earn an associates degree in eighteen months.
At Full Sail, I was exposed to all facets of a career in the entertainment industry. I took classes focusing on design, digital media, art, 3d modeling, and more. In addition, Full Sail schedules classes around-the-clock. For example, one of my labs ran from 2am till 5am on Saturday morning. Part of the rational for this was to prepare us for meeting the tight deadlines that are a part of the industry.
The fast pace of my course work combined with the content made my time at Full Sail particularly fun and rewarding1. I got to train on state-of-the-art tools while also learning general theory and principles that are the basis of my skill-set to this day.
My goal was to graduate from Full Sail and head off to Southern California to get a job in the entertainment industry. However, by the time I was close to graduating, my brother was working on a project which would require the skills of a graphic artist/digital designer. This project would call me back to East Tennessee and lead to the eventual launch of my freelance career.
Nextwave Silicon, Beaming Digital Video to your Living Room
For Spring Break in 2000, my brother and his son visited me in Orlando. It was a trip that we still talk about. I was their expert guide to Walt Disney World. My knowledge of the parks gleaned from my experiences as a season pass holder allowed me to maximize our fun while minimizing any of the inconveniences one might typically expect during a visit to the happiest place on earth.
It was while we were walking through the Orlando airport that my brother first mentioned what he’d been working on. As an electrical engineer, my brother, Reid, has been involved with a lot of cool projects throughout his career. In the 80’s, he co-oped at IBM. In the 90’s, while working for Phillips Magnavox, he lead a team working on one of the first set-top TV boxes. Now he was working on licensing video compression technology which would finally allow video on-demand via the Internet. In the days before Netflix, Hulu and the like, this was a big deal.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my brother was scouting me. I’d graduated from Full Sail the previous November, and since that time I’d been dabbling in a couple of freelance projects. But I’d by no means started my career. When my lease was up in May, I’d considered moving out to LA, but other than that I had no real plans. Thinking back on this time now sort of scares me considering how aimless I was, but at the time, I didn’t notice. I was very involved with my church and my friends in Orlando.
During their visit, my brother continued sharing about the project he was working on. An electrical engineer by training, he was employed by a fab-less2 semiconductor manufacturer in Oak Ridge, TN. He was working on a device which could stream Internet video to your television set.
Back in the late 90’s, one of the problems everyone faced with Internet video was the “last mile”. Networks had the capacity to stream high quality video pretty much everywhere except for the lines that brought the Internet to consumers’ homes. This was known as the “last mile”, and in the days before high-speed residential Internet access, this meant connection speeds from homes topped out below 1Mbit/s. Getting anything approaching television quality video to your home was a problem in need of creative solutions, and Reid and his team were looking to solve that by using a state-of-the-art video codec from Topeka, Kansas based QuVIS.
QuVIS is short for Quality Visual Image Systems. Founded by Kenbe Goertzen, QuVIS found early success by leading the way in the digitization of Hollywood films like Toy Story 2, Bounce, Shrek and The Perfect Storm3. Their wavelet based video compression codec offered superior quality over other compression schemes at the time.
Reid’s team was working with QuVIS to license their codec and incorporate it into an ASIC they wanted to use in a consumer device. As a part of this process, they were creating a spin-off company, NextWave Silicon, to directly market their idea and work with QuVIS. He didn’t mention it to me at the time, but it was becoming apparent to Reid that he needed to hire a graphic designer/web developer.
Their visit to Orlando came and went without me having any inclination of my brother’s interest in me. It wasn’t until he gave me a call several weeks later4 that I was presented with a crisis of indecision. Reid offered me a two-month contract to come and work for Nextwave Silicon. They needed a logo, website, and various other marketing assets. Taking the job felt like I was walking away from my dream of working in the film industry, but in the end, the pull of family and my ties to East Tennessee brought me back home. Besides, my two-month contract meant I didn’t have any longterm commitments.
My First Gig
The offices of Nextwave Silicon were located inside its parent company, ASIC International. Aside from some administrative staff who dabbled in Photoshop, I was the only creative amidst a sea of electrical engineers. During those two months, I crafted our image as an up-and-coming startup. At the same time, my brother and his colleague, James Miller, worked to convince QuVIS to help us make residential broadband video a reality. In the end, our efforts paid off. QuVIS decided to buy our company from ASIC International for fourteen-million.
The acquisition meant the following: 1) We were to become QuVIS Semiconductor, 2) Reid, James, and myself were now employees of QuVIS, and 3) our job was to develop ASICs incorporating QuVIS video compression technology. I was now the resident web designer and graphic artist for the entire company, and so began my first and only year as a corporately employed full-time employee.
I was immediately tasked with redesigning the QuVIS website. Back then my workflow included designing mockups in Photoshop, hand coding the HTML in Macromedia Dreamweaver, building animations in Macromedia Flash, and finally uploading a static website to our server. Once my redesign was coming along, I started working on a multimedia CDROM that would eventually be handed out at the next Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This led to me designing our booth. For our center-piece, I setup one of our QuBit servers streaming HD video I’d edited in Adobe After Effects.
After CES we anxiously awaited the first release of the video CODEC that would power the new line of video processing semiconductors we would develop. This CODEC was the software which would compress and decompress video streams such that they could work within the existing bandwidth connections provided by residential Internet services.
Unfortunately, the CODEC wasn’t able to deliver. I remember James’ comment that “1 mega-bit video looks like 1 mega-bit video.” In other words, despite having what was perhaps the highest quality video codec in the world, it still couldn’t deliver sufficient quality. We were up against a bandwidth limitation that software couldn’t overcome.
It wasn’t long after that that I experienced the driest stretch of my professional creative career. I was the only creative at a company filled with engineers and sales people. Those managing me didn’t know what to do with me. I ended up being laid off in June of that year.
Walking out of QuVIS Semiconductor on my last day, I didn’t know what I’d do next. I’d gotten so burnt out with my job that I was tempted to walk away from anything having to do with digital media. Despite having standing offers for freelance work, being on my own I was worried I’d start a project only to find myself lacking the motivation to finish. My former pastor in Orlando got wind of my situation, and he called to offer me a job as a youth pastor at his new church5.
While I was considering my options, I worked on my personal website with an eye towards marketing myself as a freelance web developer. Then in late July I received my first client call from a small software development firm called Nexware. During our first meeting, they laid out their marketing needs, and I left their offices with a couple of sketches which would eventually become a trifold brochure.
After that meeting, all of my fears about being burnt out with a career in digital media were gone. I’d been brought in as the expert on graphic design, and my clients trusted me to make them look good. My business picked up steadily from there.
Freelancing: My First Five Years
During my first five years, I ran my business in a business incubator of sorts, my parent’s home. Perhaps that brings a smirk to your face, but the unique circumstances of my situation were key factors in the eventual thriving of my business.
First of all, without the pressures of rent or leasing office space, I was able grow slowly and steadily. I took on clients mainly by referral, and this tended to yield well qualified customers who knew what they needed.
Secondly, I love what I do, and I’m disciplined about my work. I kept a nine-to-five schedule Monday through Friday. This meant I was able to benefit from the advantages of working from home without experiencing the potential pitfalls.
Freelancing Fear: Stagnating Skill-set?
One of my greatest fears in working on my own was that my skill-set would stagnate. Coming from Full Sail, I was well aware of how easy it is to pick up new skills in a dynamic environment of talented professionals and fellow students. Now that I was on my own, would I fall behind my industry peers?
Looking back twelve years later, I know that’s certainly not the case. Given the proper drive and dedication to your craft, I can say that freelancing as an independent contractor is one of the best ways to push yourself to always stay current and continually expand your knowledge.
The key to this drive is being solutions focused. I encourage my clients to conceive of their project specifications without respect to limitations or constraints. It’s my job to take their ideas and craft them into deliverables that meet their needs, budget, and timeframe. Rather than asking if something can be done, I encourage my clients to think about what they need and desire, and I use my expertise to make that happen.
Through the years, this has required me to hone my skills in coding, design, IT support, project management and more. I’ve progressed from primarily working with PHP, HTML, Flash, and CSS to coding my own CMS to becoming an advanced WordPress designer/developer. In the past year, I’ve been growing in my ability to work with others. I’ve been learning Git for version control and easy collaboration. I’ve gotten more and more adept at working on the command line of my local machine and remote servers. So much is required of me in the many roles I fill that I must keep learning if I want to do my job.
Freelancing Flow: The Progression of My Business
My business has gradually moved from a period of taking on most new projects that came my way to my present state of being extremely selective. My byline for most of my social media profiles is: “I’m a freelance web developer specializing in WordPress and PHP.” To qualify as a perspective client, I generally require that you must be in the market for:
- a WordPress-powered website
- hosting on my WordPress-optimized server
- a setup that can be accommodated by a moderately quick development cycle
The above list doesn’t cover my entire skill-set, nor does it cover all the tasks I commonly cover for many of my longtime clients, but it does work to qualify clients that I can service quickly and who will be pleased with my work.
Now that we’re over 3,000 words into this post, I’m going to close this out. Pardon the abrupt ending, but I’ve been sitting on this post for over four months, and I wanted to go ahead and publish what I had. I look forward to sharing more sometime in the future.
- The idea that you can find a job you love and never “work” another day of your life is a part of the ethos at Full Sail. Note to self: I need to write a post someday dealing with my time at Full Sail, the highs and lows, the whole experience. ↩
- Fab-less here means a semiconductor company who designs ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) and then passes them off to a fabrication facility for manufacture. ↩
- Film-Tech.com ↩
- The day my brother called was Wednesday, March 8, 2000. It was Ash Wednesday. I can still recall how hard that day was for me, trying to decide between staying in Orlando with my friends or moving back to Knoxville to get my career started. ↩
- While I’d gone to school in Orlando, I’d found a spiritual home at Aloma United Methodist Church. There I’d discovered that as much as I was in Orlando for my education, I was also there for the tremendous growth in faith that I experienced while being a part of that congregation. My former pastor’s job offer wasn’t unexpected as I’d worked with the youth at Aloma for much of my time there. ↩