We sat down with Zack Zirin, front end development wizard and recent addition to the Ledgestone team. We covered everything from his journey from accounting to UX development, to what gets him out of bed in the morning each day.
Okay, so first and foremost, I guess, like, tell me a little bit about how you got into the field you got into and kind of your journey up into this point.
Z: When I first went to college, I was dead set on accounting. I had always wanted a nice paying job. And you really can't get much safer than accounting, the world needs accountants, and it needs tons of them. So I started doing that, because I'm definitely a numbers guy. That's actually why I chose Indiana University because they had a really quality business school. But that business school is actually what made me end up not liking it. I was in this environment, where I didn’t enjoy accounting as much as I thought, and I needed to find something new.
I had always been a computer guy, I hadn’t really coded much but enjoyed using them, I enjoyed numbers, and I felt like there had to be something in programming for me. So I switched my major to computer science. I really had no idea what I was getting into with a degree with as many different facets as computer science so I started taking a lot of classes and realized pretty quickly that what I enjoyed in computer science was the ability to create. Specifically to create things that you could actually interact with, not necessarily physically, but that had a visual component to them. And that was when I started getting into application development.
So how did you go from web development to finding this focus on User Experience (UX) and find your way to Ledgestone?
Z: The first company that I started at after college was a software consulting firm in Bloomington, Indiana. And there was definitely front end focus, but I did a lot of full stack work. It was really cool to get to work on a lot of different types of projects and get experience with a lot of different coding as well as the different facets of application development.
And at that point I had already known that I like to work on the front end, but once I was actually working in a professional setting on a variety of projects, it really confirmed that the front end is what I enjoy doing the most and what I am the best at. And that really became my focus up to the point that Ledgestone reached out to me and we started talking about the role here. And what really piqued my interest was the opportunity for me to not only be able to focus more on the front end, but also get to have more of a role in the design aspect of it. And that was really attractive to me.
Obviously, measuring culture and leveraging that data is a big part of the Ledgestone mission. Was culture something on your radar prior to this role?
Z: So the role itself was definitely the thing that initially attracted me to it. But as I learned more about culture and our goals to drive that for clients I started to really think more about culture. And it made me think back to actually a class in college that was focused on breaking down what you want in your career. As a student my top criteria was money. But why? What else matters? Then when I got my first job at Future Wonder, they had a fantastic culture. And that made me very aware of just how important culture is to your employment. I was putting in a lot of work, but I didn't even notice or mind the grind because they had such a good culture.
And now what I really want is to be able to help bring that to other people. Because I've gotten so lucky with my jobs, having cultures that really treated me well, helped support me and gave me the opportunities that I needed and the challenges that I needed to grow. I just want everyone to be able to experience that.
That’s awesome. So you are joining us as a front end developer. How would you define that to someone who doesn’t know much about development?
Z: The way that I quickly explain a front end focused developer to people, is that I build the parts of apps and web applications that you actually interact with. Which kind of gives a little too much credit, because there's a lot going on behind the scenes on the back end. But I would say that the main thing is that a front end dev is really focused on the presentation of the information and the interaction of the user with that information and ensuring that they have a good experience.
Why is that experience important, and what's your philosophy for designing applications that people will have a good experience with?
Z: That's a good question.. My philosophy is definitely that you want to give the user what they're looking for. However, that is a lot easier said than done. A lot of times, the user doesn't even really know exactly what they're looking for. And identifying the use case is fundamental to building the experience. An example of this is one of the applications that I built before I came here. I really liked fantasy basketball and I had a lot of different sites that I would use to get information so that I could set my starting lineups and dominate the league. I wanted all of that information in one spot, so I built my own application that drew data from those pages and displayed it. The goal is to make everything very accessible. You want to be able to give the user of an application exactly what they need and have it look very clean, and crucially you want everything to work as the user expects it to. At this point the Internet has existed for a long time. There are certain standards when it comes to websites and web applications. A button will do this when you click on it, if you scroll this will happen, et cetera.
So fundamentally you want applications to function how a user expects. Is it sometimes challenging to get into the head of a user and identify what they actually need and expect from the application?
Z: Yeah, definitely. And at this point, you're kind of getting into designer territory a little bit. But one of the main things that my former company instilled in me was a design first approach. It is often true that you don't know exactly what the user needs. So now you have to find that out. You put in all the research, talk to people, develop a user story that describes the journey a user will take and then as a dev it is all about figuring out how to transform that story into the application.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about that process?
Z: There are many things about it that are tough, but I would say the most challenging thing is that everybody is accessing the web in different ways. There’s a million different browsers, you can use a million different screen sizes to access something. So the hardest part is just making sure that every user is getting a consistent experience and everyone is experiencing your website in the same way, no matter how they view it.
So when it comes to your role here, specifically, and kind of like what you've been focused on so far, what's been like something that you like, or been really excited about? And then the counterpoint of what's been something about the role that was maybe more challenging than you thought it would be?
Z: I can actually answer both of those questions with kind of the same answer. It was what attracted me initially to the role of being a front end developer, and also taking on a little bit more of the designer role in the process. I am really excited to have a lot more input. In my former position, we had a very clear separation between the designers and developers.
I would help them out with their process, but it was still their process, they own that side of it.
Now I really get more of an active role in that process, and I get to help out and put forward my own designs which is definitely a challenge because it's not as much my natural skill set or what I've been trained to do. But it was what I was most excited about. I consider myself a very creative person. I like to create things like music and art. So being able to apply that more to my job instead of just implementing someone else's creations was really exciting and is also challenging.
Exciting but stretching your comfort zone?
Z: Definitely a little out of my comfort zone. But I am really excited to do it and get more comfortable with it. I know that will come with time.
So when it comes to the INSITE platform and gathering and presenting data ion culture, what are you excited to bring from a front end design perspective?
Z: I always think of it as bringing the application to life. Right now we have our data collection and results presentations, but I am really working to let the user dive into the data via the Ledgestone portal. That’s my role. I am really bringing to life that interaction, and giving the user a one stop shop for their cultural transformation experience. Connecting them to us via their data and giving them access like they have never seen before.
What is something that you are thinking about doing in the future that really excites you. Maybe some kind of front end innovation or creative project?
Z: That's a good question. I don’t want to drop any spoilers so I will just say that I am excited to continue to add additional features to the Ledgestone portal and just create an experience for our clients that is seamless and gives them real functionality to start creating an amazing culture for their people. Everything that I will be working on will be aimed at that goal.
We talk a lot about bringing culture to clients. But has there been anything that stood out to you about the culture here at Ledgestone that influences you as you go bring that to INSITE?
Z: The big thing has been just how much of a family Ledgestone really is. A lot of companies will say, “Oh, we're family, bla, bla, bla.” It has become somewhat of a cliché. You never really know what to expect. But I started here, and really felt that sense of community through our town hall style meetings, the way everyone interacts with me, how everyone is casual and fun but also driven and professional. It has just been a really nice balance and I felt very welcomed and accepted here.
Glad to hear that! As we bring things full circle here, you mentioned that initially you were looking for a career centered around pay. Is that still what drives you? What is it that makes you excited to get up versus “I'm just going to go do this again, to get my paycheck”?
Z: There's a lot of different answers but for now I will speak to this role. I think this product that we are building is really awesome. And I'm really excited to be a part of it. Being part of a startup, and bringing the product to life from the ground up is really cool. I am thrilled to be a part of that process.
Also, I really want to help make people's jobs better. There are a lot of jobs out there that suck. It makes me sad that there are so many people who don't enjoy their job or are stuck in a job that they don't like. I want to be a part of changing that.
As for front end development and web development as a career well it is simply part of who I am. I was a part of one of the first generations that was raised on the internet. I've always been kind of an internet fiend. I was definitely one of those kids, like on Skype with their friends as a kid instead of going outside. Just being able to be a part of the internet and help with developing our corner of it, is just really aligned with who I am.
Well we are excited to have you on the journey with us, thanks for taking the time to chat!