Creative Lives — What doesn’t kill your website makes you stronger: Web developer and leather-maker, Alex Borton

Posted 12 October 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

For web developer Alex Borton, the physical and digital have always gone hand in hand. Today, he finds that balancing his work at digital creative agency, Superrb with the physical pursuit of leather making, helps him to unwind and also inspires new ideas. With an interest in both technology and creativity, Alex grew up experimenting with everything from Lego to arifix models before eventually landing his first job as a developer working for his Dad (himself a programmer). From ingenuity, and perseverance, he tells us about the skills needed to tackle the role, and what makes for a web developer’s worst nightmare. 

Alex Borton

Job Title

Web Developer, Superrb (2012–present)

Based

Hayling Island 

Previous Employment

Developer, Infocentre (2012)

Education

BTEC National Diploma in Media: Moving Image, Havant & South Downs College

Website

Alex at work

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
I am a web developer, specialising in front end web development. That’s the technical term, but in reality I take finished, flat visuals and turn them into a fully functioning website with all the bells and whistles. I’m involved all the way through the build and spec’ing process of every website we create, working closely with designers and project managers from initial concept stages to the finished product that fits the client’s needs and requirements. 

What does a typical working day look like?
Tasks vary from day-to-day, depending on the project I’m working on. But some things never change: I arrive at eight and get my machine booted up while I fill a bowl with some fresh fruit and yoghurt and chat to whoever is in the office. (If I’m not feeling too lazy, I cycle into work; it’s just 25 minutes each way with a short 5 minute ferry crossing.)

We use an in-house task and job management system called Compass which does just about everything here at Superrb - from managing jobs and creating invoices for clients, to logging hours and holidays. Once logged in, I can see a list of my open jobs and deadlines and get cracking accordingly. The office is open plan which encourages constant communication. This is great, but sometimes the buzz in the office can distract from a difficult task. That’s when the headphones go on, which generally puts up an invisible “do not disturb” sign. 

We try to get out at lunchtime; the beach is just a few minutes walk away so the summer months are perfect for a stroll. In the winter, and when the stars align, we might be able to score some waves during our lunch break. We work on flexi-time, so as long as we fill our hours for the day (or week), we can come to the office as and when we please. That means when there is a decent swell approaching and no deadlines looming, we can get in the water before, after or even during working hours. Lunchtime surfs are my favourite meal of the day. After lunch, it’s back to the grind, with the occasional break for dog hugs and caffeine top-ups until 5pm when I try to beat the traffic back to Portsmouth. 

“If you are someone that gives up easily or wants the easy way out, then this role wouldn’t be suited.”

Inside the studio

How did you land your current job?
I had been working for my Dad, cutting my teeth in the web development world when I was told that I should start looking for another job as he was winding things down. I heard that some of the guys from Hayling (my hometown) were starting up an agency and dropped Matt (the MD) an email to see if they were looking for a web developer. 

Hayling is a small Island on the South coast. With just 20K people or so, most people of a similar age know each other. I had known Matt and Rory from my skate-rat days, and I guess knowing the guys beforehand was a little plus for me and them. They got back to my email and the rest is history. That was over five years ago. They definitely took a punt with me being such a rookie, but it allowed them to mould me into the developer they wanted and gave me a lot of room to grow.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
All my work takes place in our light and airy office. The project managers act as a sort of buffer between the client and ourselves, which means I very rarely have to meet directly with clients. 

How collaborative is your role?
My role is one big collaboration! I have to work closely with designers, project managers and other developers. We are constantly trying to position ourselves on the cutting edge with our work. This means that the question of feasibility comes up a lot. Sometimes the requirements or questions or functionality are easy to answer. At other times we have to put in significant research time to see if and how we might do something. The most exciting collaborations come when working with the designers who often have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. It becomes my job to tell them exactly how we might do that. Working with them and coming up with ideas is really rewarding when it comes off at the end. 

Superrb’s work for Amy’s Kitchen

Superrb’s work for Amy’s Kitchen

Superrb’s work for Amy’s Kitchen

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What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable parts of the job can quickly shift to become the most rewarding. For example, it can be tedious and difficult to locate bugs, especially when they are created through cross-browser differences. This can sometimes be so painful; you have to take some time away from the task and revisit it with a fresh head. But when you do find the problem, fix the issue or create a workaround, it feels great. That also gets “banked” for the next time you might be facing a similar problem; what doesn’t kill you(r website), only makes you stronger.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
A stand out project has to Amy’s Kitchen. It was our biggest build to date and had a unique set of challenges. I led the bulk of the actual development and it was certainly a new experience for me. We are a relatively small, tight-knit agency that was working with a multi-national giant that employs thousands globally. We worked closely with their tech team and took a lot of our own in-house resources. The site launched last year but it’s still being developed today and will be for the foreseeable future. 

The design built around the Amy’s branding being organic and earth friendly. A clean-cut and crisp design would never have suited, so the site is full of “ratty” edges, textures and custom illustrations; all the ingredients for any developer's worst nightmare. So I had to work hard to come up with styling solutions and longer term ideas that would help when scaling the project to be multi-domain and multilingual. It was a long, and difficult challenge at times, but also highly rewarding. 

“I had an uncontrollable urge to know how things worked, how they were made and how I could use them.”

What skills are essential to your job?
The role of a developer can vary substantially from company to company and even from project to project. The kind of work we do as an agency means that you have to be able to adapt quickly to the project in hand. We work on relatively fast builds for many different clients and the styles of each of those builds can be very different, so you have to be able to pick up the project and run with it, even if it is the polar opposite of the last thing you worked on. 

Ingenuity is key. What sets Superrb aside from many other agencies is our ability to think outside the box when it comes to design and functionality. Sometimes, we take that box and smash it into tiny little pieces, so you have to be able to come up with creative ideas to address or accomplish unique challenges. 

Confidence is a major asset. Because our team is small and communication is constant between different departments, you need to have the confidence to stand up and put your ideas forward, and critique others with constructive and objective feedback.

Perseverance. You can’t always get it right first time, you can’t always get it right at all, but you have to keep on trying. This role wouldn’t suit someone that gives up easily or wants the easy way out. 

Perfection. Because there are often so many ways to achieve the same outcome, you have to be disciplined enough to try and achieve perfection. No developers like messy code – sometimes it’s necessary to rush something through, and the idea that ‘if it works, it works’ has some value – but you should always strive to revisit and perfect.

Inside the studio

Inside the studio

Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
At the moment, I don’t have any digital projects outside of my job. I have dabbled in a few things in the past. My biggest project outside of work is my leather making. I make all kinds of things from leather and sell them or gift them to friends and family. It is a real release for me. Working on a computer all day can get a little tedious and sometimes you just want to be able feel something you have created, not just look at it. It helps me detach and unwind, and it’s often when I have my best ideas to use when I return to work!

What tools do you use most for your work?
My iMac is my best friend at work. I was recently upgraded and the SSD’s make a huge difference to processing speed. It allows me to run several quite demanding programs simultaneously with no lag. On a normal day, I will have several browsing windows open on staging sites (Chrome is my browser of choice), constantly refreshing to view changes. InVision is on display for visual design references. Then I have my IDE [Integrated development environment] of choice, PHP storm, which is where I do most of the developing. Photoshop and Illustrator will sometimes have their uses when tweaking visuals. Slack will be ticking over with some workplace banter and occasionally something useful. Spotify is essential. Finally, Terminal to execute any command line instructions. A more specific online tool is Stack Overflow; I am always amazed at the amount of support there is out there for any developer of any level. It’s definitely my go-to resource when I have specific scenario questions. Never stop learning!

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I spent most of my school life and into college wanting to become a filmmaker. I always had (and still have) a keen interest in film and what goes into it behind the scenes. I was fascinated with the actual role of filming and editing to persuade an audience into a suspended disbelief. So much consideration goes into the smallest of details, most of which aren’t noticed by the viewer consciously. 

When I got into coding and started making websites, I found that a lot of the same principles of filmmaking were carried over. You still take the user on a journey as they browse a website and use different techniques that subtly and subconsciously enhance this experience for them. A huge amount of work goes into a website, most of which is not upfront and noticeable if it’s done right. Do it wrong, though, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. (A bit like breaking the 180 degree rule when filming…still got it.)

What influence has your background had on your work?
I have always been involved and interested in technology, both physical and digital. I definitely have my Dad to thank for that. I had an uncontrollable urge to know how things worked, how they were made and how I could use them. Coupled with a creative streak, I was interested in loads of things as a child – from lego to custom remote-controlled kit cars and airfix models. My Dad would always have the next best thing to me; my interests were an excuse for him to one-up me. I would have an electric remote controlled car, he would have a nitro powered one. As a programmer himself, that started to rub off on me too and eventually he gave me my first job developing. 

“Filmmaking and developing share many crossovers. Everything from the planning stages through to the creative elements, and the guiding of the user’s journey from start to finish.”

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My formal education only got as far as college where I studied a BTEC National Diploma in Media: Moving Image. There were a lot of crossovers from filmmaking to developing. Everything from the planning and execution stages through to the creative elements, attention to detail and guiding of the user’s (or viewers) journey from start to finish.

What were your first jobs? 
Most of my first jobs were run of the mill stuff and had nothing to do with current work. The only plus side they offered was the time it gave me to think about my other interests and projects. That was until my Dad offered me a job “building websites” (something I had never done before) at his company, Infocentre. The company has now since folded (hopefully not my fault). That’s where I was given that opportunity with complete freedom and where I was completely reliant on my own self-motivation to learn this new skill of developing.

Superrb’s work for Anglepoise

Superrb’s work for Anglepoise

Superrb’s work for Anglepoise

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What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
My Dad gave me everything that I have today by offering me a job. It wasn’t the job that he gave me, it was the opportunity to teach myself what I needed to know about web development. For the two years that I worked for him, he allowed me to take the reins of my own career. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that this was the start of my career, but it put me on that path. It’s quite common to find that developers are self-taught and this is a reflection on the availability of information and supportive community, but also the speed at which the industry moves. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have had the leg up that I did, as most wouldn’t have that chance.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learnt so much along the way. Most notably would be the ability to adapt to new systems and technologies. The world of a developer moves so quickly that regulatory and standardising boards simply can’t keep up. Often you will be working with tech that is right on the cutting edge.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I think most people think that making a website is fairly straightforward and that one person can wear all the hats of project management, design and development. Obviously that’s not the case and I think that my own biggest misconception is that developers don’t have design input. My role can have a crucial hand in shaping the design of a website. It’s not about being a designer, but being able to guide the designers on what is possible and feasible, as well as coming up with significant ideas of your own. So I guess the crossing over of roles for a developer spreads the furthest. 

Superrb’s work for Tens Life Sunglasses

Superrb’s work for Tens Life Sunglasses

Superrb’s work for Tens Life Sunglasses

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I would like to further broaden my understanding of emerging technologies that have exploded onto the scene in recent years. A front end developer used to be quite a distinctive role - the opposite to back end development, however it seems those roles are becoming more combined and the lines between them blurred. Nowadays, you are simply a Developer, wearing all the hats.

Could you do this job forever?
I still really enjoy my job and I know a lot of people that either hate their job, or have started to dislike it in recent years. I think that’s a pretty good sign that I could be a developer for quite some time to come!

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Natural career progression for someone in my shoes is just learn; never stop learning! You have to in order to keep up with the curve, but if you want to progress and get a few steps ahead of that curve you have to put the effort in. Your career when you master more technologies and methods. Eventually you get to the point where you can start lending that knowledge to someone else and build up your own team. 

The beach at Hayling Island

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a developer?
Keep learning. Always assume that there is something you can learn from every one of your peers. Take the time to listen to them and take on board what they are saying. They might not have a direct answer or solution for you, but sometimes an outside perspective can trigger that lightbulb moment. 


This article is part of a studio feature on Superrb Studio.

Posted 12 October 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography: Superrb Studio
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Digital, Design
Mentions: Alex Borton, Superrb Studio
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