Graduate story: Birgitte Johnsen from Illustration to Web Development

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Tech savvy Illustration graduate Birgitte shares her career journey into web development


What did you study and what is your job now?

I first attended the University of Sunderland as a study abroad student in 2008-2009, but I returned to the University and graduated in 2011 with a Masters of Arts with distinction in Illustration and Design. Though, while I may not draw or illustrate as my day-job, I Freelance as an artist, illustrator, artworker and designer, and I still find time to draw every single day.

Since leaving university, I started working in the tech industry, not as a designer, but as a web developer. While I have studied arts and design, I have also had an interest for web development. The refreshing part about development, if you come from an artistic field, is that there is less room for subjectivity; either it works or it doesn’t. Though, at the same time, the field is constantly evolving, and you’re often expected to pick up new languages and technology depending on the demand as well.

What does your job as Interface Engineer involve? What do you like about it what are the challenges? 

These days I work as an interface engineer for a tech startup company called Moltin which has an amazing commerce API (Application Programme Interface), which makes it a lot easier to build commerce apps, sites and experiences. Most of my work days are spent staring at a screen (three actually), and translating designs into working websites with all the bells and whistles, following the designs as closely as possible. Though it also entails testing my work in several browsers and devices, and making sure that our site is accessible to as many people as possible.

What did you do after graduating that lead to your current job?

When I was right out of university I was looking for both design and development jobs, in two different countries nonetheless. I used an array of websites, but also contacted recruitment agencies. One agency contacted me and had me do a skills test for a company based in Houghton-le-Spring, which included a language I had never seen before, though I decided to give it a go regardless. While the job seemed above my current skillset I passed the test and got the  job. During that job I learnt a lot, worked with a renowned airline, and ended up leading a small team.

I believe studying art, design and illustration has given me quite a critical eye to things, which helps when translating designs into code. It has also helped me communicate better with designers and offer input and solutions when something is missing or requires a change due to accessibility concerns. Having group feedback during modules has helped me a lot, because when you get feedback on your work, be it design or code, it isn’t personal, it’s someone trying to push you to be better and do things correctly.

Birgitte at the Drum Awards for the Digital Industries (DADI)

My five tips for current students


  1. The most important thing is to find a job within something which interests you, or something you love. Don’t be afraid if that’s not what you’ve actually studied, if you are skilled within that area you are likely to be able to get into it, but it will take more work as well.


  1. Ask questions. You are not expected to know everything, and some fields, like development, things change all the time. What used to work fine might not function as well these days. Sometimes this means asking technical questions on public forums like StackOverflow, in GitHub repos or even chat rooms set up for your favourite (or most hated) framework. Though before you ask, beware that people expect you to have at least done a Google search first, as chances are, someone might have asked the same question previously.

It’s also important to know that it’s okay to not know everything, and to say “I don’t know”. At times a clear answer requires a bit of research, if that is the case, make sure you get the chance to do the research.


  1. If you want to work in front-end development I would suggest looking into Web Accessibility (a11y). Ensuring the web and its information is accessible for all is possibly something which doesn’t come up in different modules or job requirements, but it is an important part of sites, apps and programs. While there seems to be a focus on it in the development community, be aware that it’s not the sole responsibility of the developers, it often needs to be considered in the designs or even higher up the chain of decisions.


  1. When searching for available positions don’t be intimidated by language requirements. Some language and framework skills are transferable, and in some cases they require knowledge of  an array of frameworks. It’s often more important to know the core languages well, than knowing bits and pieces of all languages. Also be aware that recruitment agencies don’t seem to know the difference between Java and JavaScript, and believe the two language logos are interchangeable.


  1. A friend of mine would tell me the following about going into new tech jobs: Get comfortable with being the one who knows the least in the office. Every workplace has their own routines, software they’d want you to use as well as different coding, testing and security standards. Therefore, be prepared to keep learning, work within new guidelines and standards, but also keep up with current/future technologies.



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