Episode 26 – Kevin Mack on UI, UX, and mentoring new developers

The world of software developing is vast and ever-changing. When we envision what it might take to join the tech world, sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking that you must have high-level tech degrees, which can take some time to achieve. But, if you are new to the game or looking to change careers, you may not have the amount of time it would take to earn a new, formal degree in technology. So, should you give up? Or is there another way to get your foot in the door to a world of software developing possibilities? Just how necessary is the formal degree to gaining employment as a software developer? Or, is it necessary at all?

Meet Kevin Mack. Kevin was immersed in the world of art and computers as a child and when he chose his career destiny, he decided to blend the two together and become a developer as well as a designer. With his experience, Kevin will talk about how he got involved in his line of work, as well as consulting, and mentoring. Oh, and by the way, if you’re still wondering how much formal education you need to make this career choice happen, then you won’t want to miss episode 26. So, get ready, get set, and enjoy the show. Feel free to leave some comments at the end and let us know your thoughts.

Kevin’s Bio:

Kevin Mack is a developer, designer, and consultant. His area of focus is on creating user interfaces and experiences for large-scaling websites. Kevin is also a co-founder and co-organizer of The Columbus Web Group where he actively participates in growing and educating the community centered around design, development, best practices and standards for the web. You can find him on Twitter (@nicetransition), LinkedIn, YouTube, CodePen,  or GitHub.

Episode Highlights and Show Notes:

Arsalan: Today we have Kevin Mack on mentoring developers. I really wanted to have you on the podcast because your different perspective. You do a lot of mentoring and teaching, and you focus on a lot of different interfaces and user experiences. So, this should be a nice and unique interview for our listeners. But, before we get into that, I’d like to you to explain to us who you are. Who is Kevin Mack?

Kevin: have a pretty crazy background. I’ve been developing since 1995, but really grew up around art. My mom was an art director at the Washington Post and she always said that I could draw before I could talk. So I grew up around art and started development around twenty years ago and sort of married the two together. So my whole life has been involved with arts, computers, and bringing people together. I love community organizations and just meeting new people and getting involved in new organizations.

Arsalan: is it fair to say that you described yourself as a programmer or software engineer?

Kevin: I focus on building interfaces and I focus on building interfaces and what I do falls between a designer and a developer. I’ve learned a bunch of languages over the years, but primarily I focus on the front end code and the HTMLs, CSS, and JavaScript. On a day-to-day basis, 90% of the code that I’m writing is in CSS and HTML. So I do sometimes call myself a developer, but I’m a UI, UX.

Arsalan: Do you remember your first encounter with programming?

Kevin: Yes, for sure. It’s kind of a funny story. My buddy and I wanted to make websites. We wanted to record clips, post them and share them so that we could have some kind of reference to them later. So started building websites and doing these really silly recordings and posting them up there along with some early day blogs before they were called blogs. I remember watching how the page was rendering and taking some of those concepts in my head. In 1995, there wasn’t all that much to do. I remember all these tables stacking next to each other. Back then you used tables to set up the grids for the layouts of your pages and no one really knew what they were doing. I was just really fascinated.

Kevin: When it really evolved later on to CSS, I remember thinking how cool x values were. The day that I started learning HTML was the day that I got hooked. That’s when I decided that I really wanted to be a developer.

Arsalan: So you were focused on user interfaces and user experiences. You code in HTML and CSS, which are the technologies or programming languages that you need to know if you want to develop a website and hand code it. You also dabble in design. Do you spend a lot of time in Photoshop?

Kevin: Over the past years I have, but recently we’ve switched over to Sketch. It’s an awesome program. The way that you design in Sketch is more closely related to the output and the output being in line with the web browsers. It’s aligned better with today’s technologies and the web browsers, but I do spend a fair amount of time in Photoshop. We always design the content first and how the content is cascading throughout the pages and then from there getting some high-level sketches out there, and then creating an element collage by indexing all components that eventually make up the design that people are going to be interacting with. From there, we put out some high-level page concepts to help ensure that the development team and design team are on the same page. I do use Photoshop and Sketch, but there are a lot of other steps that have to happen first before I can get there.

Arsalan: That’s good. I didn’t know about Sketch. Thank you for informing me. Did you study any of this at school at any level?

Kevin: Not really. It was all myself and my buddies reaching out and trying to learn and taking on a bunch of contract work and making a lot of websites for my friend’s parents when I was in high school.

Arsalan: So, do you have trouble keeping your skills up to date? How you keep your skills up to date when things change?

Kevin:  On the design side there are some visual trends that happen and we’ve kind of stabilized, but experiences have really evolved. So, when a new technology comes out we have to know how we’re going to design and create the experience that is right for these new capabilities that our users are expecting when they’re coming to our sites and apps. It’s keeping up with the devices and the trends that are going on and ensuring that we’re aligning to the capabilities of the browser. Then, it kind of directly aligns with the front end side as well.

Kevin: I spend a fair amount of time each week reading about the latest CSS. Level four CSS is going to be coming out here soon. A lot of specs and drafts are out there. I’m subscribed to a lot of specs and drafts and we’ll contribute to them.  I’m constantly going out there are reading. I subscribe to a lot of blogs. One of my favorites is CSS Weekly, Javascript Weekly. I also get this monthly one called JSter.Net. My friends and I also run a Facebook group called RAD. It stands for Really Awesome Developers. It includes some of the best developers and smartest minds from a technology standpoint. It’s a closed group, but we admit anyone in it if they’re interested. I probably spend 10 to 20 hours a week keeping up on things.

Arsalan: So, someone listening to this might think, Oh my God. You just listed ten different things. If you just spend two hours each week on each one of them, that’s 20 hours a week. Unless you are spending some of the time on them as part of your job, someone might wonder how you can do that. Do you not sleep at all? Or, maybe that’s your entertainment?

Kevin: I’m a pretty social person and I think I have a social life. But, a lot of my friends are within the industry and even when we go out, we say we’re not going to talk about technology or work, but we end up doing it anyway. I think that to be really good at your job today, I think employers expect you to be up on the latest trends. I’m not going to speak to every single company out there, but a lot of the research and keeping up with things go hand in hand with my day to day work.

Kevin: I’m also a consultant. I work at a tech company that’s called Cardinal Solutions and I’m a consultant who does UI and UX. For us to really be considered a quality consultant, our clients are expecting us to know the history of the web, the latest trends, and what’s coming in the future. So, I can use some of my time on my job to do that because there’s a lot of overlap there. It is little pockets of time here and there. When I get home and am cooking dinner, I’m also reading something while I’m waiting for dinner to finish cooking. It is what I love so it also serves as part of my entertainment. I’d rather read up on the latest trends than watch a movie.

Arsalan:  I think this is really admirable to have this much dedication. I knew you had this much dedication, but I wanted people to hear you say it yourself because it’s hard for some people to imagine living like this, but you’ve got the bug, and you’re enjoying it and reaping the rewards. I really wanted to congratulate you because you are doing something that a lot of us are not able to do.

Arsalan: You’ve talked about a lot of your jobs. You have a job right now as a consultant for a consulting company. Before that, you worked for agencies and you probably had several jobs in your career. Do you remember how you got your first job as a designer or a software engineer?

Kevin: During my earlier days it was just people in my class who knew that I did computers and one parent would tell another parent and they would come and talk to me. That’s how I got my first job. It was doing independent work for people in my class.

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