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Freelance Web Developer Interview

i-studentglobal caught up with Sussex University graduate Sam, a web developer from Reading who is currently working freelance in Shanghai, China. Find out more about how he got into web development, his first job in London and what life is like working freelance in Shanghai.

1. When did you first know that you wanted to work in web development?

To be honest I never really knew what I wanted to do! I do wonder sometimes how I managed to end up in this industry, but I'm pretty happy I did. I started playing around with flash animation, and interactive flash pages and games before I'd even considered a career in web, and it went from there. And I've heard a similar story from many of my colleagues who started off playing with web technologies as a pastime, and since there always seems to be demand, has turned into careers.

2. Did you think when you were choosing your A Levels that you would be where you are today?

No I didn't, I really just picked the things I thought I'd do best at!

3. When choosing a university to study at, what were the most influential factors?

For me, I definitely picked based on the course. I wanted a course that offered a lot of variety, one that maybe, would help me decide what I wanted to do with my life, and would provide a lot of options when I finished. 

Actually, I didn't really consider the location at all so I feel incredibly lucky that I ended up at Sussex University in Brighton, a city which I love now, but didn't know at all when I started.

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Brighton beach

4. What were your favourite things about your course?

It was the variety of the course; it never got boring, it was very hands-on and practical.

5. Do you think living on campus for your first year is a good idea for new students?

Of course! It's hard moving somewhere where you don't really know anybody, so you've got to make the most of any opportunities to get to know people. And once you do living so close to all your best friends is a lot of fun.

6. Did you ever consider studying abroad during your degree?

I did, I remember looking into it, actually I was interested in China already, but in the end I decided I wanted to finish my degree first rather than extend it another year.

7. What did you work on for your dissertation on and how did you choose your topic?

My final project was a social network in which users could follow charities and their particular projects. I thought it was a good idea that someone could follow a particular project, donate to it and see exactly where their money is going, and could be a useful tool for small charities to promote themselves. I also wanted to learn more about the web technologies involved in something like this that weren't covered in our courses.

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Working with different languages as a web developer


8. How did you get your first job in web development after graduating?

I got lucky I guess. I went for a couple of interviews in London and was offered something fairly quickly. I started in a very small studio doing very simple stuff, basic html pages, some jquery interactive elements, and some design work, but basically learning on the job.

9. Did you find the transition from study to work difficult?

Not particularly, my first job was in London, which was new for me, so it was a lot of fun exploring and experiencing the city, and having some cash in my pocket was an entertaining change.

10. What was it like living and working in London? Was it as busy as people think it is?

London is a great city and a nice place to live and work. I remember complaining every so often about the pace of life, the pressure to perform or the unfriendliness of people. But looking back on it now, after moving to Shanghai, it seems almost a quiet and quaint sort of a place!

I think the working life depends entirely on your frame of reference and the company you work in. I remember in my first job we'd always turn up on time at 9:30, and leave on time at 6:00, but my second people might roll in around 10:30/11 in the morning but might end up working through the night to meet a deadline. I had a lot of good (and some bad) times in both companies, but after the second job I was glad to move on to somewhere that had a nicer balance of the two.

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St Paul's Cathedral in London

11. What projects have you worked on that you are particularly proud of?

The last agency I worked for in London was Stinkdigital, I'm particularly proud of some of the projects I worked on there (with the help of an insanely talented team by the way). My favourite was probably one we did for Strava (social network and exercise tracking for athletes) called Strava Insights, which was data visualisation of running and cycling data from cities around the world.

12. What are the main differences between working freelance and for an agency?

Freelance is good because of the flexibility, you can be in charge of your own time, choose your projects, and of course charge a little more than you'd get in a full-time role. For me it was great when I needed the flexibility after having a baby. But you also have to be on it all the time, promoting yourself, and making sure you perform on the job if you want to get another gig. If you're no good news will travel fast and it could be difficult to find decent contracts. As a full-time employee, the company will invest in you and help you to grow your skillset. 

13. You recently moved to China where you are working full-time for agency. How does it compare working in China to in the UK? Is the work culture very different?

Funnily enough, I was surprised by how similar a working environment it is! I guess it is a western company I work for, and quite an international office. People tend to work a bit later, which isn't great, but I enjoy going out for a proper meal at lunch-time rather than grabbing a sandwich from Pret and eating it at my desk.

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Shanghai Bund at night

14. How is your Chinese coming along? Do you find communication is difficult with the others who speak English as a second language?

Learning slowly but it's difficult to fit lessons in around the work! I think it'll be a few years before I'm conversational! There are occasional misunderstandings, but not very many. It's mostly humbling and inspiring that everyone else is able to speak English so well that I can come here and work and get by without knowing the language.

15. Finally, what type of projects are you working on at the moment and where do you hope to be professionally in the next 5 years?

Well I'm still working in advertising so mostly campaign work. I'll give China two or three years and see if I want to stay here longer. I've thought about starting my own production company and it would be great to be my own boss. If I decide to try that in China then I'll need to focus more on the language and learning some of the technologies that are a bit different over here. But as ever I don't really have much of a plan yet!

View Sam's portfolio online to see more about the projects that he has worked on.