The Journey

February 6, 2015

When I started out designing websites, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. In fact, I didn’t even really like it that much. I was into music, and building websites was a way for me to make some extra cash while I worked on my projects. 12 or so years later, I’m still building websites and haven’t worked on a song for quite some time.

In this article I want to go through various projects I’ve worked on and elaborate on some things I’ve learned along the way. As a primer, I’ll let you know my nature and the most likely reason I ended up in this profession.

From a young age, I felt a need to take something apart, figure out how it worked, then move on to the next thing. My mom loves telling the story of me, as a young child of two or three, taking apart a vacuum cleaner. Apparently, I didn’t ask for tools or let anyone know what I was doing. She simply found me in the living room sitting down on the floor with a torn apart vacuum wielding a phillips screwdriver and a spirited look on my face implying, “What?” I had taken the entire thing apart, with no help, and it’s parts were strewn all over the carpet. Of course, I didn’t know how to put it back together, and that wasn’t my intention. I wanted to see what was inside this beast that made a freakish noise and scared the shit out of the cats.

Fast forward a few years, and you’ll see me with two or three RC cars torn apart on my bedroom desk and me feverishly tweaking them to go faster, float on water, or jump higher. It was my obsession. The funny thing is that I never painted any of them. They were kits that you were supposed to put together, paint the body, and call it a day. I didn’t care, and most of the time I operated them without the body shell on at all, exposing all the wires, batteries, and motors. To me, they were cooller that way and more functional. I didn’t have to take the body off to tweak the shocks, swap the motor or batteries, or put a new heat sink on. I was always figuring out a way to make it lighter, faster, and more efficient.

In my early twenties I didn’t really know what I was going to do for the rest of my life (as I elaborated in my previous article), and I found an opportunity to satisfy my creative needs as well as my problem solving needs. I started building websites, which at the time, I didn’t realize sat smack dab in the middle of the marketing category. It wasn’t until years later that I realized most websites are marketing tools and I was, in a sense, a marketer. I had been consulting my clients on the type of content they should present, how to present it, what types of images they should use, etc. All while thinking I was a solely a designer and programmer.

Once I realized my function as a marketer of sorts, I embraced it and started a company to help small businesses succeed on the web. I helped a number of companies get off the ground from inception to launch. Beyond that, I helped them with ongoing promotions, campaigns, and sometimes even day to day operations.

For example, I helped a friend who was starting a deli in Denver, CO. He had an idea to open a shop in the Curtis Park neighborhood, which is situated downtown and is considered the oldest neighborhood in Denver. I helped him and his partner come up with a name, consulted on getting his logo together, helped him figure out where to put his sign out front, what fonts to use, what his menu should look like, what small things he could do for customers that would return big results, helped him design and order t-shirts, made his business cards, and came up with a rewards program called Deli Addicts that included a punch card and a funny sign for when they ran out of sandwiches. I helped him decide that they should be a “run out of food” kind of place, where they order only a certain amount of bread every day and when they run out, that’s it! No more sandwiches. This created a sense of urgency, initiated conversion, and moved them forward. Some people hated it, some people loved it. It didn’t matter. They were talking about it, and as the saying goes, “Any PR is good PR.”

Oh yeah, and I built their website, which as you can see, they still use. I put of lot of love into it with the design, and even build some custom Wordpress plugins so they could better manage their content. It’s a simple site—a marketing site, and that’s what I was good at.

Curtis Park Deli's website by Levi Voelz I didn’t learn all of this stuff just by building websites. I read books on marketing, PR, entrepreneurship, and startups. I went to Meetups, I met experts, I asked my clients questions about their business. I was fully immersed in learning how to successfully market a small business and Curtis Park Deli was a shining example of it. I had taken apart the vacuum. There was no need for me to start my own small business or continue doing what I was doing. I had figured it out.

My current vacuum is building web applications. I am getting good at it, but still have a ways to go. The complexity of a web application vs a marketing website is tantamount to comparing a fighter jet to a Cessna. Or, better yet, the space station to an alarm clock. They are both machines with a purpose, however, one requires a lot more thought, skill, manpower, and attention to detail. I’m working at Walmart eCommerce, which has an extremely large and complex web application with multiple data centers, hundreds of engineers, and thousands upon thousands of man-hours involved to build and maintain it. The irony of it is that I’m mostly working on marketing pages and have nothing to do with the internal workings of the machine.

That being said, I am still learning a lot. I get to dig into the WM codebase, build the site on my local computer, poke around and see how it works. I’ve also built an internal web application for the imaging department that resizes, crops, and compresses batches of images. It’s pretty cool. I came up with the name, BigGulp, made the logo, designed the interface, worked with internal clients on their requirements, wrote 100% of the code (outside of dependencies), configured the production, staging, and development servers, and wrote documentation for others who want to contribute to the project. I also wrote a Mac application where users can drop a batch of images into a folder on their laptop and get an email later with a link to download all of their processed images.

Walmart image processing application by Levi Voelz

Of course, this didn’t all happen overnight. When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time partying and not attending classes. I threw parties, went to parties, crashed parties, and DJ’ed at parties. That was my life. I didn’t care about going to college. In fact, I didn’t even think I would live long enough to see college. When I finally got real about what was happening, it was too late. I was short enough credits to have to do another year and wasn’t going to graduate—and I didn’t. I don’t have a high school diploma, nor do I have a college degree. I figured it all out on my own by reading books, taking online courses, going to Meetups, networking, and working my ass off on bigger and more complex projects.

What’s next for me? I suppose I’ll finish taking apart this vacuum I’m working on. I think it will be a little while before I take out the last screw, so stay tuned.