Dan MacDonald

If Only I Knew How To Code

I went from being afraid of computers to writing software full-time in 12 months. My journey started with a thought that most non-technical people have nowadays: “If only I knew how to code.”

It was March of 2013 and I had just read about a new app that was quickly climbing up the charts in the App Store. Everyone has a story about an app idea that he or she came up with first that went on to become a massive success, and now I did too.

I had never considered learning to code, maybe because I’d always been somewhat afraid of computers. Though I took a computer science class in university and always did well in math, I didn’t think of myself as a technical person. Coding wasn’t even on my radar. It just wasn’t me. I was, and had always been an artist. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a creator. The earliest manifestation of that desire was my goal of becoming a professional comic book illustrator. When I was 17, that dream came true: I was offered a job drawing comic books alongside my childhood idol, Marc Silvestri (of XMen fame), at his Top Cow studios in Los Angeles. While the experience really was a dream come true, I realized that the comic book industry was in decline. Everything was going digital. Traditional illustrators just didn’t make the money that they used to in the early to mid 90s, so I decided that I would go to university instead of pursuing a career in comics. I majored in business, inspired by Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity. Many of the illustrators that I looked up to as a kid were also entrepreneurs, founding their own publishing companies and licensing their creations to Hollywood. Business seemed like a good way to bring together my passion for art and my desire for financial freedom. Throughout my four years at the University of Victoria, I enjoyed some minor successes designing t-shirts for other companies, and then for myself.

But when I graduated in late 2010, I wasn’t ready to strike out on my own. I wanted to learn more about marketing, so I worked for a few ad agencies. But I wasn’t satisfied with the pay, so after a year, I left agency life behind and spent the following six months freelancing. I landed some cool gigs, the most notable of which was a contract job for my business hero, Richard Branson. Freelancing was hard though, and good illustration and design jobs were few and far between. Most of the opportunities I saw were web-related. If only I knew how to code.

In early 2013, one of my freelance jobs led to a job offer that I couldn’t refuse: heading up marketing for an up-and-coming underwear company. The job sounded like a lot of fun, and it would allow me to apply both my artistic skills and my marketing knowledge. Early into the job, I learned that we were missing a huge opportunity online due to our website’s confusing UI, so I began working on improving our conversion rate. Without an in-house designers or developers, I had to outsource development tasks to overseas contractors.

Since I knew so little about software development, I couldn’t effectively communicate with the developers. I had no idea what constituted a big task or a small task. I didn’t know how long anything should take. Small tweaks took forever, and weeks could pass without hearing from my developer. If only I knew how to code.


Dan MacDonald’s full essay on how he transitioned from careers as a marketer and illustrator to a career as a developer after attending an eight-week bootcamp can be found in our debut print issue.

Photography by Sam Chua

Site: samchuaphoto.com




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