My career path

Recently, I was asked to answer a few questions by Tim Owens, who is a college senior, majoring in studio art / graphic design. As part of his studies, he had to write a paper on a professional in the field that most interests him. Of all the possible people out there, somehow he caught the notion that I do good web design. At the risk of dismally disappointing everyone, I thought I would share the secret to my success: dumb luck, and God's grace.


1. What type of education did you receive?

Oh boy, that is a can of worms. Like so many people out there, I did not know exactly what I should do with my life. I always excelled in art classes, but did not really enjoy them, because you can only draw so many bowls of fruit before it gets old. So, I had this misconception that art classes were boring and repetitive. Video games and comic books, on the other hand, were interesting to me because they defy the notions of proportions and physics, depicting "larger than life" characters and situations.

I started college at Minot State University, a small school in North Dakota, because that is where my dad was stationed for the Air Force. I eventually ended up transferring to Washington State University, and lost many credit hours in the process, having to re-take basic general education classes like the Humanities because the course numbers did not translate well for the between the two schools' curriculum. Suffice it to say, the prerequisite classes that were offered did not pique my interest.

Throughout college, I dabbled in many different areas. I took some architecture classes and some programming classes. I found a love for computer aided drafting, but was not really interested in whether the things I designed could actually be built. I liked the process more than the notion of having a final product. With programming, the first class I took was about Visual Basic. It annoyed me that much of the class consisted of "drag your button here" type instructions. I knew there had to be underlying code driving the button, but the class did not really focus on that. The next class I took was Cobol, which consisted almost entirely of number crunching. I remember having to build a program that tracked and compiled data on different types of fish, the whole time thinking: "Who cares?"

Even the web related classes were not very interesting. I remember asking a professor about this new notion of doing pure CSS layouts. I was given a reassuring pat on the back and was told: "Oh, don't worry. I'm not requiring that for this class!" It was not my grade I cared about, but actually learning a marketable skill. After spending several years meandering at a school with no graphic design major, I eventually finished in Social Sciences (the fluff degree), just to finally be done with it. At this point, I already knew I wanted to go to seminary, and for that you simply need a bachelors in anything.


2. Did you have a goal when you first started out?

Regarding my career goals, there were more waffles than a breakfast buffet. Meaning, I changed my mind quite a bit. I have always had my head in the clouds. As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, until I realized that light-sabers do not actually exist, and there are no other civilizations out there who want to fight with Earth. I was the type of kid who would be drawing X-Men comics in my notebook instead of paying attention in class. My parents had me tested for learning aptitude, and after the results of the test I was put in "gifted" classes. Looking back on it, I think it was more like the nerd protection program, separating the tragically uncool from the normal children.

I guess you could say that I did not really have a goal, simply an insatiable desire to create things. My mom worried about me because I preferred staying in at recess in order to get more drawing time in, rather than go out on the playground with the other kids. Likewise, my dad and I would play the old Atari 2600 when I was younger, but it puzzled him why I was so fascinated when Mario Paint was released for the Super Nintendo. It was basically a GIF quality graphics program, and was the first console game to make use of a mouse. He reasoned, "If it is not a game which can be beat, what's the big deal?" I remember feeling confined by its limited frames of animation, but still had fun making things and trying different color combinations. With that, I segue into answering your next question.


3. What was an early personally defining event or experience?

On my own time, I found a merger of visuals and code in video games. As a college student, I made fifteen multi-player levels for Jedi Knight, Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy, each one taking several months to build. The interface for the level editors was not unlike AutoCAD, which I had learned to use throughout high school and the beginnings of college. Also, from having grasped basic programming concepts, I was able to adapt to coding for the game engines. First was the Sith engine, developed by Lucasarts, then later the Quake 3 engine which was licensed from id Software and used by Raven in Outcast and Academy.

For several years, I helped with news udpates and answering questions at Massassi.net, a side dedicated to the Jedi Knight game series. Via that forum, I found other like-minded geeks online and we would put out level packs for download, many of which won awards. It was interesting, because these were guys who were going to schools like Full Sail for video game design, and I was the odd man out, self-taught simply because it was fun. Eventually our group disbanded, because members were snatched up by companies such as Raven, UbiSoft and Nintendo. Many game companies were looking for individuals who were "morally flexible" (think Grand Theft Auto), so I was not really top on anyone's list, being pretty forward about my faith, by embedding Christian themes in my maps.

I guess you could say that video games were my path to the web. I really liked the precision it required. For instance, when you see the sky in a 3D game, you are really inside a giant box, looking up at a ceiling and walls that have been "flagged" as "sky." This means the surfaces have a cloudy graphical texture that will absorb bullets, because it looks really weird to see an explosion / ricochet when shooting at a cloud. If for some reason the ceiling and the walls of your outermost box did line up on a perfect sub-pixel level, and the player happened to go near this area while playing, the game engine would have a "leak" into undefined space, and would freeze or crash back to the desktop. Since computers do not have a solid concept of infinity, they cannot deal too well with the realm beyond what has been preloaded into memory. In web design terms, you could think of it like an unclosed <body> tag. Except, most browsers are nice enough to finish rendering sloppy code.

In game design, you also have to worry about the user's video card, amount of RAM, hard drive performance, Internet connection speed, monitor resolution and color depth. Mappers were always trying to keep the on-screen polygon count to a minimum, while still making the level interesting. This was not a big deal for single player levels, but for notoriety and peer recognition most map makers would produce multi-player arenas. If these levels got too complex, the game would slow down considerably, creating lag for everyone involved. So, the levels had to be a good balance of weapon placement, aesthetics, and overall playability. The fact that these were Star Wars games also heavily skewed the physics / proportions of the level. You would have to take into the account the distance that a player could jump with both Force acceleration and jumping boost triggered at the same time. Failure to do so could result in the player killing himself by hitting the "sky" at too high of a velocity. It was good practice to have "padding-top" in every environment.

I liked knowing that the work I was releasing had to be top-notch, due to the unforgiving nature of video game engines (and players). Web design did not really interest me yet, because at the time any regular Joe could just whip up a table-based design with a WYSIWYG program. Nobody had yet drawn the line between professionals, and those who just point and click. It was not until Douglas Bowman redesigned Wired.com, and the buzz around Web Standards grew, that I really started to care. Sure, I had a website where people could go to download my maps, but the notion of there being an actual "correct way" to do it captivated my attention. Also, it finally dawned on me that the potential was far greater, because the barrier of entry is much lower, to reach people via the web than through games.


4. Who influenced you?

When I first got to Asbury Theological Seminary, the HR people saw that I had experience with various nerdy topics, so my job application for "any student worker position" was passed on to the IT department. It was not long before I found myself working with Jeremy Lucas, who at the time was Multimedia Coordinator. He gave me the push I needed to start learning about CSS layouts. We were both somewhat concerned about accessibility, being that we worked for a Christian institution. Plus, we both knew this is where web design was heading as an industry. So, I bought the O'Reilly book by Eric Meyer entitled Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide. I took it with me on a trip to Estonia to "meet the parents." While my girlfriend (now my wife) was busy with her family or friends, there was not much to do. I had only two English texts with me, the Bible and the CSS book. I came back to the states with a pretty thorough understanding of how it worked.

My current influences are the guys I work with on a day to day basis. I have the privilege of working alongside professionals who know a lot about graphic design and visual communication, as well as those who have a solid understanding of markup languages, scripting, and object oriented programming. I wake up each day and feel very fortunate to be in a work environment that is very conducive to learning and collaboration. To me, that is the most important thing, being around people who are committed to doing quality work. I think that if you are committed to consistently improving upon your own skill-set, then you won't have to worry so much about money, because you will always be marketable. Whereas, if you are only out to make a buck, you will fall prey to the temptation of cutting corners to churn out that one extra paying project. Knowledge in the technology field is like water. When it is flowing it stays fresh, but if it stagnates then it is unhealthy.


5. Did you have a mentor or someone who helped in your career?

I have had many terrific mentors throughout my life, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Rick Gray, one of my professors at seminary. He made the point that no matter what paycheck one might receive as a seminary graduate, many people in society automatically consider that person to be a member of the "upper class," by the nature of their training. Meaning, despite people's differing opinions on religion, they tend to at least hear what a preacher or minister has to say when offering input on various matters. Dr. Gray encouraged and challenged each of us to not simply buckle under the pressure to maintain the status quo, but to challenge things inherently wrong in our society such as racial prejudice and bigotry, or discrimination against the disabled. He shared his own personal testimony of how difficult it was to believe in Jesus, when the white people who were reaching out to him said he was under the Curse of Ham. If you are not familiar with that phrase, it was one of the old justifications used by slave owners during the colonial beginnings of America. They reasoned that because of the difference in skin tone, whites were somehow superior to other races. One of the reoccurring themes in Dr. Gray's classes was "For whose benefit will you use your power?" Being half Japanese, and having experienced some mild discrimination during my lifetime, this resonated greatly with me.


7. What is your guiding philosophy about your work?

I guess my guiding philosophy is that of Aaron from the Old Testament. In Exodus, Moses was the one whom God had picked to lead the people, but his brother Aaron was right there alongside him, helping to facilitate the Lord's message. At one point, there was a battle raging, which God had promised they would win, as long as Moses could hold up his arms in the air. The battle had lasted quite some time, and Moses was becoming weary. In Exodus 17:12, Aaron came alongside, and helped to support him. I see this as a good analogy how those who understand web standards can help the Church today. In September, I will be speaking at GospelCon, a web ministry conference in Chicago. My topic will be Do We Really Care: Accessibility and the Gospel. During that time, I hope to make it abundantly clear that if we really believe what we are saying is true, then we should be especially concerned about accessibility. To neglect such matters is to say that the gospel message is only for those who fit into the majority of web users, shunning those on the fringes. This was not the way that Jesus worked. He went out of his way to make sure that everyone knew they were included as God's children, so I am not sure how churches today feel justified using inaccessible methods on the web. My guess is they are not opposed to accessibility, just uninformed. I hope that in the next decade or so, I can play some small part in seeing the Church catch up to the rest of the world technologically. I say this not so we can be cool and high tech, but because it is necessary if we really believe what we claim. We really need to put our money (and time / effort) where our mouths are.


8. What was your first job or exhibition?

My first paying job was working at a grocery store when I was sixteen. I suppose it is poetic that my current job is working for a grocery story as a Web User Interface Designer. I am on the Design Services team, responsible for building internal applications with web standards in mind. Previous to my job at Albertson's, I was working hourly part-time as a seminary student, while doing freelance web design to help pay the bills. So, I guess you could say that this is my first "real" job, though the sum total of work experience has been built gradually throughout all of my previous jobs.


9. What was the turning point in your career?

I think the turning point in my career was when I decided not to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church. I think there are just too many problems plaguing it, and that is not a wagon to which I do not want to hitch my livelihood. As of now, I am a few classes shy of graduating with a Master of Divinity degree, required of most denominations to become a licensed pastor. I am still in the process of finishing my degree via online classes. While at seminary, I was involved in student government / leadership. As such, I got to see many "behind the scenes" aspects of how the school was being run, and how the role of politics plays into the governance of the Church as a whole. Students jokingly call it the "Emerald City," in reference to the movie The Wizard of OZ, because while everything is seemingly polished on the surface, there definitely is "the man" running the show behind the curtain.

This is not to say that my faith in God has been shattered. Rather, I was too naive when starting off in seminary, expecting it to be more like a tight-knit extended family, instead of a high school popularity contest. Don't get me wrong, I think that having gone to seminary was a very enriching and growing experience. I just think that there are enough people clamoring for top picks over pulpit positions that I am more than happy to play a support role.

This is why I think it is crucial for Christians who work with web technologies to help guide the decisions of pastors and other key Church leaders, to help get them up to speed, rather than allowing Christianity to be consistently "late to the party," so to speak. I would like to see the Church capitalize on this medium for communication, much in the same way that the printing press was utilized so many centuries ago. As of yet, we have barely scratched the surface. For example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association recently contact me about a possible web / graphics job, for which I had not applied. At first I was interested, but it seems that accessibility and web standards are not yet a priority for them. It was a tough decision, but I eventually turned it down because I did not want to take a five year step back, returning to table-based design, when W3C best practices have clearly left those methods behind. I can best further the gospel by keeping abreast of effective content delivery methods, rather than wasting time by maintaining the status quo.


10. How did you build your career?

I would hope that the answers to my previous questions have sufficiently outlined the process. I will simply say that when striving to advance your own career, it is important to hold your blessings with an open hand. God does not give us our talents so that we can hoard them. Rather, they are ours that we may learn to invest in the lives of others. We need to resist the temptation to grab at life greedily, and instead must force ourselves to share our expertise and knowledge. That is what the notion of Open Source is all about. I think that if Martin Luther were alive today, he would be all for it. In a time when the Catholic church was abusing its power, he refused to perpetuate it, and instead put the Bible into a vernacular that people could understand. Likewise, as you build your career in the web, do not forget to take time and be thankful for those who have so freely shared what they know. Do not neglect to teach the next generation, so they too can learn from that rich history. My college pastor said it best: "There is no success without a successor."