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Navigating front-end development: From passion to profession

Discover Thomas Hertog's evolution in tech: A journey from early coding interests to becoming a professional front-end developer, highlighting the importance of skill growth and adaptability.

The Frontend Mentor team


23 Nov 2023

Introducing Thomas Hertog, a passionate and skilled front-end developer whose journey in the tech world is as inspiring as impressive. Thomas's journey began with a deep interest in coding that quickly evolved into a career in front-end technologies. His exceptional skills and dedication were not unnoticed; he has been a central figure on our platform and Discord community.

Thomas's commitment extends beyond his own professional development. He has guided, mentored, and taught other developers, provided expert feedback, and created valuable learning opportunities. His consistent efforts in sharing knowledge and supporting peers have made him a valuable community member.

Thomas's story inspires us by demonstrating the impact of continual learning, skill advancement, and community involvement in the tech industry. His path from a coding enthusiast to a front-end developer shows the power of passion and perseverance in technology careers. Discover more about Thomas's journey below!

Background and introduction

I'm Thomas, a 34-year-old Belgian who juggles a love for creative pursuits like music and board games with a busy family life. My coding journey started back in high school with some fun VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) lessons. That's where I first caught the bug for problem-solving and programming. Music was my first love, but I wanted to keep it as a joy, not a job. So, I dove into the development world, enrolling in Applied Informatics in college.

Early beginnings: Discovering a passion for programming and problem-solving

My programming journey began in high school, where I first experienced the excitement of solving coding puzzles. The real journey kicked off in college around 2006. I started with basic C programming and quickly advanced to Java, HTML/CSS, and JavaScript. This was a time before the era of responsive design and iPhones, so we relied on techniques like floats and clearfix hacks. Building projects from the ground up during this period was exciting and a great learning experience for me.

College years: Tackling the basics of programming and front-end development

Starting college in 2006 was quite a challenge for me, having little prior experience in programming or advanced math. My first encounter was with basic C programming ((no, not C# nor C++, just basic C, pun not intended), which became more complex with structs and pointers. By the second semester, we ventured into Java. We also got a basic introduction to HTML/CSS and JavaScript during these initial years. Despite the limited aesthetics of tech at that time, and without modern tools like Flexbox or responsive design, creating and solving these early web development puzzles was both challenging and fulfilling. I enjoyed building projects from the ground up. Mind you; it was only 2006/2007, so everything was still done with floats and the notorious clearfix-hack because Flexbox wasn’t a thing yet. Even responsive design hadn’t been issued yet since iPhones weren’t available back then.

Choosing a path: Multimedia application development and UI design

Fast forward to my final year of college, I faced a decision between business studies and multimedia application development. I chose multimedia application development. This was an easy choice for me to make, mainly due to its creative aspects in technology and design. I was also interested to learn more about Silverlight and CSS3 and all of that stuff.

A particular course that influenced me was UI Development. In our first lesson, I remember the instructor saying

“If you’re like me and enjoy criticizing when a design isn’t looking pixel-perfect, you’re in the right spot.”

It was at that moment that I knew I made the right choice. I do have an incredible eye for detail and can whine for a long time when something doesn’t look “right.” The course was a great fit, focusing on the technicalities of UI design and the importance of aesthetics and user experience. It confirmed my interest in front-end development, a field where I could combine my technical skills with my appreciation for design.

First steps into the professional world: learning and adapting

When looking to get my first job in tech, I applied to a couple of companies (most of them had guest lecturers at my college, which also advertised the company they worked for). I was lucky enough to start at the consultancy company I chose beforehand. After graduating, I entered the professional world by joining a consultancy firm. This was a significant shift from the academic environment.

Little did I know that they mostly did B2B (business-to-business) work where design was of trivial importance. They offered a lot of opportunities for growth and learning. This included things like juniors doing a 3-month crash course to get them up to speed with everything they would need at a customer's assignment, as well as the opportunity to buy books/certifications on the company budget, etc.

After graduating from that 3-month crash course, it took a while to get started on my first assignment, so I got myself more acquainted with the mobile side of things (primarily mobile web, but I did some research on native Android as well). Luckily, my first assignment was, in fact, to create a mobile website to ensure people have a nice overview of transportation options for shuttling between home and the office (whether they would do that by car/public transport). While the back-end was being developed, I had to ensure the front-end was mobile-friendly. After about a month, the job was done, and everything was handed over to the customer for those last finishing touches.

Not very long after that, I started an assignment as a QA engineer. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it because I had very little interest in testing and feared it would diminish my programming skills. However, I learned much about team dynamics (the first assignment was just a duo) and other crucial soft skills (e.g., communication, analysis of a component/features before refactoring everything, etc.).

All of this was to be done while still keeping an eye out for everything regarding design (consistency and other general visual design things, as well as interaction design/usability).

I had a lot of fun doing this assignment, and the fear of being unable to program was soon nullified because the assignment also included implementing UI/Integration tests.

This period was crucial for me; it laid the groundwork for my professional growth and set the stage for more specialized roles in the future.

Growth and opportunities: Teaching and expanding skills in HTML/CSS

Two years into my professional career, I was given the opportunity to teach an HTML/CSS course to juniors in a 3-month crash course. This was a significant milestone for me, allowing me to share the front-end knowledge I had accumulated over the years. It was only a full-day course covering a repetition of the basics, but nonetheless, I was stoked that I could finally do something with all the front-end knowledge I built over the years.

Now, marking my tenth year as a teacher, I've found that preparing for these courses and delivering guest lectures at colleges and universities has greatly deepened my understanding of HTML/CSS.

Teaching has not only solidified my foundational knowledge but also helped me grasp more complex concepts. For instance, I gained a clearer understanding of selector specificity, including the reasons behind best practices like avoiding the overuse of IDs. Additionally, transitioning to modern layout techniques like flexbox and grid was challenging, especially from a float-based layouts background, but teaching these concepts helped me understand them.

Real-world projects: The journey in front-end development

Fast forward a few years into my career, I took on a project that was focused primarily on front-end development. I was tasked with building razor pages in a Blazor WASM project using plain HTML/CSS. Given that the project was for a client in the healthcare department, accessibility was a central requirement, not just an afterthought. Accessibility needed to be embedded into the project from the very beginning.

This assignment was my first hands-on front-end project in years, and it allowed me to apply the theoretical knowledge I had been teaching. While teaching, I knew many aspects of HTML/CSS to be theoretically correct. However, I realized that that isn't always the case when it comes to putting the theory into practice. Working on this project, I learned a lot, such as the effective use of custom properties in CSS.

Following this project, I secured a role in the European division of a multinational company. Here, I'm part of a team responsible for managing national websites across Europe. The scale of this project is huge, offering new learning opportunities, especially in areas like core web vitals and website performance.

Advice for aspiring developers: Practical experience and continuous learning

Looking back, I should have sought hands-on experience much earlier in my career. Doing side projects (even the smallest ones) can give you so much insight into how little tricks here and there might make a difference when you’re trying to tackle bigger problems. Being passionate about something goes a long way if you’re patient enough to wait for your time to shine, but don’t forget to prepare yourself for the time.

I've learned that while theoretical knowledge may help you land a job, practical skills are essential for success in the role. Without hands-on experience, you might find yourself struggling, impacting not only your employer's perception but also your own confidence and self-esteem. Balancing theoretical learning with practical application is key. This approach builds confidence in your abilities and convincingly demonstrates your skills to others. Working hard to get some practical experience next to improving your theoretical knowledge is, in my humble opinion, the key to feeling confident about your skills and convincing others about those skills as well.

So, experiment and have lots of fun while doing it!

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