I learned to build websites when I was primary school age. Like many of a child’s hobbies, my interest in web design peaked about five minutes after my first victory and hit a low about five seconds after my first failure. My hobby graveyard was full of such corpses: calligraphy, pogs, BMX biking, poetry, Abraham Lincoln, etc. Web design was on the verge of joining that cast. Then Mom stepped in.
Even though she didn’t have a technical background, she could see that knowing how to build websites was more than a hobby. It could be a viable career skill. She also didn’t need to be a technologist to know that whatever I had taught myself so far barely scratched the surface. That meant there was lots of additional value to be gained from the hobby, but it also meant that there would be many more little victories to keep me motivated. Her challenge was to keep me active in the hobby so I could encounter enough victories to develop a genuine passion for it.
People are motivated by different things at different times in their life. As a kid, I knew only enough about money to know that it was glorious for some reason. Mom told me that I could earn $1,000 over the summer if I wanted to. That got my attention. A thousand glories sounded great.
It was a slow process. She handed me the Better Business Bureau catalog and told me to start cold-calling local businesses. My opening line was, “Hello. I’m a young web designer, and I’d like to build a website for your business for free.” Eventually someone took me up on the offer. I made a basic company website with FrontPage and uploaded it to Tripod’s free hosting service. I think I did one or two more free sites that summer.
I wasn’t thinking, “Where’s my money?”. I was having fun playing with new tools. Sometimes I’d accidentally screw up a setting on the computer, and I’d call Dell Customer Support to get help fixing it. I owe Dell’s phone staff a huge thanks for their patience. Dell technicians were the first people to teach me about FTP, defragging, ‘ipconfig’, GIMP, and so much more that went beyond the scope of customer support1.
I was working my way through the “G”s in the BBB catalogue when a local business called actually called me. The owner of Miramar Flooring was friends with the owner of one of the businesses for which I’d built a free website. He asked if I would build him a website. It sounded more complicated than the other websites, so Mom talked to him to learn the details.
We visited his store and took pictures of the carpet and flooring samples, and he sent me some content for pages. I struggled a lot with the project. The design (which was a template from Macromedia Fireworks) was more ambitious than the previous designs, and it was my first encounter with fancy effects like link rollovers. I finished the website eventually, and the client was happy. He paid me $800 for the website (Mom negotiated the terms).
Fast-forward to today: I’ve built a solid career around making websites. My job lets me do all the fun things I want, and often my job is the fun thing I want to do. I’m so grateful that I had someone to push me harder than I was willing to push myself. Mom’s support was precisely executed, and it came at such timely moments.
You do not have to be a parent to support someone. More boldly, you do not have to be a parent to push someone beyond their comfort zone. Whom do you support? Whom do you push harder than they push themselves? Who fills that role for you? We need to inject ourselves into the lives of those around us. Too often we build fences with no doors around ourselves and others, so we end up interacting from a distance.
Technical support at large companies today is run differently than it was when I was a kid. I wonder if they would be as generously helpful to a child today. It’d be cool to build a general technical support staff that only accepts calls from kids. I know some parents who might pay for something like that. ↩