Jimmy Breck-McKye

A lazy programmer

Time for a Change

The story of my time as a User Experience designer, and why I turned my back on design in favour of development.

May 2013

The place was a mess. I sat at my desk, squeezing a notepad between unopened letters, unsorted laundry and unpaid council tax. Curled awkwardly to stop my pen smudging, I desperately drew and redrew various permutations and combinations of squares and lines for the wireframe of an upcoming project. After two weeks of working and reworking my first, only, tenuous concept, I couldn’t go any further. It was nearly 2.00AM on a Sunday night, and it was time to stop.

When I first discovered design, it felt as though everything was falling into place. This had been my vocation all along, it seemed – and having spent a year after graduation struggling to find my direction, I was nervous that I’d never be employable. Besides natural interest, UX offered a convenient answer to the demands I felt were made of me – a respectable (read: middle class), creative, well-renumerated job of exactly the sort it seemed all my uni friends had lined up since the day after finals. Something to impress people with. My natural inclination seemed obvious – reading UX books and blog posts was a breeze, and in my own experiences with digital products I’d had plenty of ideas of my own, after all. It seemed like the perfect match.

March 2012

But the reality was different. It turned out that having ‘ideas’ was not such a rare or precious thing, after all, and that I’d radically overestimated myself as a designer. It’s easy to sit back and critique an existing product. Being able to propose and take responsibility for something entirely new, with tough commercial and technical constraints, is an order of magnitude harder. I’d been arrogant and stupid enough to think that reading some Cooper and Norman before bed made me a digital soothsayer, but in the light of the day I felt like a mechanical fortune teller – all cheap plywood and glass. My colleagues and my company were supportive, and insisted they were broadly happy with my work, but I could never shake of the feeling that my work was never much more than average – treading water.

I wasn’t willing to let go, though. I kept hoping that with a little more experience, I’d find my groove, and the fact remained that I did broadly enjoy UX as a topic. I still got excited talking about affordance and cognitive load and digital conversations and Gestalt principles and human psychology and visual identity and typographic design and all that jazz. The feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I’d pull myself back to my blogs and books was just stress about the individual project. The empty panic I had when I had to start a concept from scratch was just typical dauntedness. I was working in an exciting company with brilliant people doing exactly the thing I said I wanted. Besides, what else could I do?

I don’t think it was until Christmas 2012 that I started seriously thinking about breaking up with UX. ‘Breaking up’ was no exaggeration. Design had occupied my life – during the working day, during the evening’s studies, and during the night’s worries. Saying goodbye felt like a break up, kicking away from something I’d invested not just time into, but identity too. My eyes stung when I eventually made my decision. But I just wasn’t able to carry on like this.

And then…

At the same time, something else walked into my life in design’s place. I’d always loved technology, but assumed that programming was just something I wasn’t wired to do effectively. Playing with personal projects and undertaking ‘proper’ development tasks taught me differently. Really, it now seems an obvious vocation, but only by experimenting and taking a chance did I really discover my real passions. I was lucky, too, to then have an employer who was able to transition me into the job I really wanted, to give me plenty of transitional exposure to help me make sure I was taking the right choice, and who made clear that I could slow down or reverse direction if I started to feel uncomfortable.

There was no slowing down, though. I’ve never felt happier than as a developer, and the improvements to my inner life have been manifest in my outer life, too. More excited and less overwhelmed, I broke my bad habits, started sleeping properly, keeping my flat tidy, generally got my shit together. This year is turning into one of the best I’ve had and I’m already ready for the next.

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