Designer to Developer, Bridging the Great Divide – Developer Stories

I'll be honest, I still have a hard time referring to myself as a developer. When it comes to code, I still feel like a noob. My formal education had me knee-deep in design principles, color theory, identity design, visual stimuli and the psychology behind them... I could go on. The one degree I have to my name is a Bachelors of Fine Arts with emphasis in Graphic Design and yet I now find myself, of all things, writing code. I'm Scott Anderson, and this is my developer story.

Art and design has been in my bones for as long as I can remember. I'm a life-long chronic doodler. Anytime I'm still, I almost immediately begin looking for something to draw with and on. I drive my wife crazy critiquing the ridiculously ugly billboards we have to suffer through driving down the road. I get "the itch" to do house projects. I actually enjoyed (for the most part) finishing my basement. At my core, I love... LOVE creating things and I think this drive to create is what made the transition from design into development so natural for me.

The Beginning

In my second to last year of college, I had a professor who was a partner in Delorum, a design firm in the local area. At the end of the semester, this professor offered me and one other designer in my class internships. I was excited and honored, but was serving as the Creative Director for a student-run marketing / advertising / publication agency and had already committed to another semester. Luckily the offer still stood after I had fulfilled my commitment and I started with Delorum in May of 2008. After graduation, I was hired on as a salaried employee.

Delorum was an awesome company to work for. We were a small, close-knit team of seven and our bread and butter was building out unique and targeted brands for startups. We had a few bigger-named clients such as Adobe, Zumiez, Green Giant Fresh, Idahoan, Tommy Bahama, and others. At first, my sole focus was design. My wife and I are avid home-cooks and tend to have our finger on the pulse of the home-kitchen world, so naturally, I was given most of the food-related projects. Let's just say I have designed my fair share of potato packages.

If you've seen these packages, you've seen my work.

Potato packages I've designed

Building the Dev Team

Just before I came on at Delorum, they had started to build out their dev team to help fulfill the seemingly universal need for web development that came with each client. Tyler Flint (who you may know as the CEO of Nanobox), had started just two weeks before me and was the company's first full-time, fully-focused developer. We found ourselves contracted to build out some fairly large ecommerce implementations and quickly blew out the dev team to help with the projects. Steve Domino was next to come on when Mark Parson (who was then a partner in Delorum and is now Nanobox's Interactive Director / UX/UI designer/developer) was on paternity leave and needed a Flash (yes... Flash) project wrapped up.

The point I'm trying to emphasize with these details is that the seeds of Nanobox were planted early on at Delorum. Most of us have been working together since.

Our team continued to do large-scale implementations and found themselves doing the same tedious tasks over and over and over and over... Provisioning servers, configuring servers, architecting deployment strategies, building out scalable infrastructures... Yeah, it got old. So we built a tool to automate it all. This was the beginning of Pagoda Box (the forerunner to Nanobox), a platform as a service (PaaS) specifically built for PHP applications.

My First Hit of the Drug

Our dev team was really talented and had great ideas. With those ideas, Delorum turned into what I like to call a "startup launchpad." We would build out technical solutions, brand them, then send them on their way. Throughout this process, I was mainly focused on design and spent most of my time designing and building out the brands, but I did start to dabble with front-end code (HTML, CSS, JS, etc.). It's one thing to design something. It's something else entirely to build it out and actually see it working. It only took once... I was hooked.

Blue Sky

Something we did at Delorum was what we called, "blue sky." For a few hours each day, we would step away from client work and just explore. What we explored was up to us, just as long as it helped us grow. I found myself spending all my blue sky time experimenting with CSS, wrapping my head around javascript, tinkering with JQuery, etc. Very little of my blue sky was spent doing design-specific exploration (although you could argue front-end code is design-specific).

I soon found myself comfortable and confident in my front-end abilities and had come to know and love static site generators like Jekyll and Middleman. Sass was a revelation. HAML was my new best friend. I was a changed man...

Pagoda Box Support

Pretty soon, Pagoda Box was growing into a full-fledged company. The Delorum staff was split between servicing Delorum clients and running Pagoda Box. As with any startup, I found myself wearing multiple hats. A need that desperately needed filled was in the Pagoda Box support department (if you want to call it a "department" ? ). Changes in staff had left a gaping hole and, due to my "people skills" and my familiarity with code (which up to this point had only been front-end), I was asked to step in. Needless to say, I wasn't all that comfortable providing PHP support to PHP developers when I myself, had done very, VERY little PHP development. Updating a PHP template was about the extent of my experience.

I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up. Granted, the barrier to entry in PHP is pretty low, but the core concepts of server-side development made a lot of sense to me. My support role turned into pretty much a full-time gig, and soon I was tasked with writing and building out new documentation for Pagoda Box, a role which I've also filled here at Nanobox. Throughout this process, I had to comprehend very complex systems, then clearly and succinctly communicate them to others. Over time, I just got deeper, and deeper, and deeper...

Where I Am Today

Throughout this journey, I've worked for three different companies without ever having moved companies. Delorum created Pagoda Box then Pagoda Box was spun out into its own company. Nanobox was birthed from hard lessons-learned with Pagoda Box. Today, Nanobox is a standalone company, of which I'm really excited to be a part. I work with many of the same great people I started with so many years ago, but my role has shifted to involve more development.

I still feel more proficient with client-side development than I do with server-side, but I've learned enough to be dangerous and talk the talk. I've worked with PHP, Ruby, Node.js, a little bit of Golang, and am really enjoying getting to know Elixir. I'm having fun just learning the intricacies, methodologies, and quirks of different languages. Design is, and always will be, a major part of my life. It's simply a part of who I am. Luckily, I get to do both design and development here at Nanobox.

So that's my story. What's yours?

What's Your Story?

Tell us about your journey! We'd love to hear about it. Reach out at or in the comments below.

Posted in Developer Stories