Article  |  Development

A chat with Ken Stowell - local Javascript expert from Metal Toad

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I’ve been scouring the internet to find some folks in our fair city of Portland, OR who are willing to talk about their developer experience.

I was lucky enough to connect with Ken Stowell of Metal Toad Media. Metal Toad is an agency here in Portland with additional locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Ken lives here with us in Portland and was happy to answer my questions. I was hoping to learn a little more about Javascript developers and how developer interns like me could find our way into the industry.

Ken Stowell

Corinne@Planet Argon: Tell us a little about you, where you’re from, stuff you like to do in your free time, favorite color??

Hi! My name is Ken! I’m from all over but mainly NW Oregon. Outside of coding, I have been playing guitar since I was a youngster and have been involved in various music projects over the years. As fas as color goes I’m a huge fan of grays.

How did you find yourself as a developer? Did you have a formal education? What kind of things were you learning in the beginning?

I took a fairly common path towards being a developer. I was in school on a track to transfer to OSU’s CS program. Almost all of my curriculum was .NET, and needless to say it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. One term a PHP class became available so out of sheer curiosity I enrolled. It didn’t take me very long to realize I enjoyed the direction that the web was taking software engineering; I shortly after came to another realization that my school was not going to offer any additional web courses (apart from ASP.NET) so I cut short my formal education and enrolled at the University of Google.

After that in early 2006 I picked up a few HTML and PHP books that held my interest very well from following the text’s examples and seeing changes in my software upon just refreshing the browser.

It was early in my learning career, so everything was really simple. The beauty in that though is that the excitement it carried was extremely amplified. I remember creating my first script that captured form fields from a contact form and sent them off – I was elated.

Could you talk about your javascript expertise? What does your daily work life look like?

2006 was around the time that AJAX became sort of a buzzword in web development. After reading the Head First AJAX book I felt strongly that javascript was going to be used for much more than just DOM manipulation and I made a decision to latch on. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one with this speculation and before I knew it the industry was hiring for more and more JS devs.

Now that javascript can be considered a full-stack language, I haven’t really aimed to be an expert in a specific area and have wanted to be a master of it all :) I’d say if experience has given me an edge in anything it would be cloud integrations or algorithm design, which isn’t really a javascript specific thing.

My day-to-day in JS land is a lot of time with Angularjs, nodejs and Grunt. Which I couldn’t be happier with. It’s kind of my fanboi stack.

What steps did you take to refine your javascript knowledge to become someone who specializes in javascript?

Between 2002-2005 I had the awesome opportunity to live in Tokyo and a few other parts of Japan. Learning the language was difficult but there were a few things that were critical in learning early on:

  1. Memorization. Not everything made sense, in fact most everything didn’t make sense, but if I heard something I didn’t know, I wrote it down on a little note pad I carried with me and looked it up later.
  2. Repetition/Practice. Obviously it was easy to practice my Japanese while in Japan. That didn’t mean, however that there weren’t creative approaches to learning. My room mates and I implemented a system where 2 days out of every week we could only speak Japanese to each other, even though we were all American. If we broke we would always enforce some embarrassing punishment.

This translates to learning a code language as well. Not everything will make sense at first, but keep memorizing syntax, expressions and use-cases and it will all start to come together.

If you struggle with a specific principle, try actually coding it. If you succeed don’t assume that you’ve ‘learned’ it. Do it again, and again … and again!

The most important part of all though, is that when you start to feel comfortable it does not mean you have a pass to stop learning new things. This is what separates a good developer from an average one. Javascript is filled with nuances and learning them despite your accepted competency will set you apart.

I’d be lying if I said that some part of becoming a ‘javascript only’ developer wasn’t partly political. However, my disposition towards javascript was such that it made it an easy battle. Plus, after my superiors saw me develop in anything else, like Drupal, I think the argument sold itself ;)

I think from business types there’s a lot of skepticism towards someone claiming they only want to develop in a certain codebase or platform. You have to prove you’re worth it. No one wants to hire a javascript developer that has never heard of the Object prototype or has no experience with js scope resolution nuances.

My take away from this is: when you go home and just want to zone out on some PC/console game, ask yourself if there’s something you could be doing to bolster your javascript chops to further set yourself apart as the specialist in your team at work.

How did you find a job with Metal Toad Media? What sort of projects do you work on there?

My employment at Metal Toad is the perfect example of how important networking and good impressions are. While every developer should experience the job of finding a job, if you play your cards right, after you get that job you applied for, you should never have to do it again. Have such a good work ethic and passion for what you do so that when a coworker leaves to a better job they will want to take you with them. Behold, the recruitment circuit. Be a part of the community, make a name for your self and people will want to hire you!

My workload at Metal Toad is awesome! I’m involved with some excellent outside development teams and design partners that inspire excellence on a daily basis. The sad thing, until they’re finished, I can’t talk about any of them!

For those trying to find jobs as front end developers, what skills do you think are important for becoming valuable in today’s job market?

The great thing about javascript being full stack is that there is now another separation between front-end devs and javascript application developers! I don’t touch css too often and get to focus on the aspects of js dev that I love like Angular :)

For those wanting to get into traditional front-end work I say brace yourselves: a lot of tedious work in browser compatibility issues are coming. Especially when ‘easy-way-out’ tools are considered bad form and other tools like polyfills can bloat in usage really quickly and while they may extend support to IE6, they do not perform well.

Most importantly though, for those wanting to get in this industry, you have to be able to market yourself and then back up what you sell. Facade engineers get outed very, very quickly.

What resources have been valuable to you throughout your career? Any books or websites that have been especially helpful?

Resources for learning are pretty much endless, which is awesome, but the one resource that I hold in the highest esteem is the community. Particularly with javascript the community is strong and quite verbose. I can speak for Portland when I say that the community is strong and filled with many events on a nightly basis that feature great talks and demos accompanied by pizza and beer. is Portland’s tech schedule, and it’s an active one.

As far as books and other resources, you can find anything regarding learning tools and people you should pay attention to here:

Any parting advice for young developers?

Be a sponge. Some of the greatest learning opportunities are by watching senior devs work. See what they do and how they do it. Absorb everything you can.

Thanks Ken for giving such a thoughtful interview! To hear more from Ken, check him out on Twitter @ktstowell.

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