My time as a Web Developer Intern at GAL Inc

part of the series What I do at work

The summer after my second year in college, I worked for two months at GAL Inc, a local web development shop near my hometown in New Jersey. I was desperate to get work experience and was happy that this job post on Craigslist worked out. GAL Inc specializes in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – getting websites to rank highly on search engines aka Google. Traditionally, SEO meant peppering your website with keywords and getting other websites to link to your website. These days, there are more advanced and unsavory ways to game search engine algorithms. Luckily, I was hired to work on clients’ websites and not SEO.

The clients were local businesses like car dealers, real estate agencies, and restaurants. They were primarily interested in simple, minimally-interactive landing pages to attract new customers. Since the work (and profit) per client was small, the business strategy was to attract many clients. During my two months there, I worked on seven client’s websites. Some of the things I did:

  • Basic maintenance: changed content wording, adjusted visual style via CSS
  • Added an RSS feed for a real estate company to show incoming news from various sources
  • Created an AJAX-driven product menu for a car company. At the time, most user actions required the entire page to be requested from the web server and then reloaded. AJAX was a way to update only part of a webpage without needing to refresh the entire page

These days, everything I worked on can be accomplished using self-service website builder tools, e.g. SquareSpace, so clients can DIY instead of hiring a web development shop. Nevertheless, the company seems to be doing well. The owner, Alice, is a businesswoman who started the company straight out of college and intends to run the business forever. It’s unclear how technical Alice was and how much coding she used to do, but during my time there, she was not interested in coding or best practices.

I coded in Notepad, tested locally on my computer, and then copied my changes to live websites via a server file mount. This workflow resulted in a few client outages – the worst being full-site format corruption when the designer made a mistake in DreamWeaver (a web development tool), but traffic was low and the client never noticed. For reference, a modern workflow would include better tools (text editor, IDE), code versioning to keep a history of changes, code review to ensure correctness and quality, code tests to prevent bugs from being introduced, a separate test environment that mirrors the real site, and automated deployments instead of manual file copies. To be fair, development tools and practices weren’t as advanced 14 years ago, I wasn’t aware of any of these tools or concepts 14 years ago, and even if I had been it might not have been the right choice for the company.

On most days, there were about five people in the office and I was the only developer. We also only worked six hours a day to save Alice payroll costs. The work environment was usually laid back and quiet, but sometimes Alice would micromanage or shout (like during the previously mentioned DreamWeaver incident). While I didn’t learn good coding practices, I did learn some lessons from my first office job and am thankful to Alice for taking me on:

  • I enjoy coding and probably want to pursue a career with lots of coding
  • Politics and drama inevitably happen at work, and by extension, to me
  • Office work, even if initially enjoyable, becomes dreary