Mat Marquis on the privilege of working a desk job

Mat Marquis aka Wilto is one of 10 nominees for Developer of the Year in the 2014 net Awards (opens in new tab). He works at Filament Group in Boston, is Chair of the Responsive Images Community Group and is a technical editor at A List Apart. We quizzed him to find out more.

What are your main areas of expertise?

I am really, really good at Mega Man 2. Also, I make websites!

I sling a fair amount of JavaScript, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at fixing totally inscrutable bugs with equally inscrutable fixes, like my favorite Android bug of all time:

Give us a summary of your career so far.

I did carpentry for a handful of years, but then the family business kind of fell out from under me. I didn't have much of a plan, to tell you the truth, so I bounced around between jobs for a while—cashier, cook, bar bouncer (for all of a half shift), commissioned sales—before stagnating in retail. I ended up hawking mobile phones from a mall kiosk—y'know, the kind where people are shouting "'SCUSE ME WHAT PHONE DO YOU HAVE WE GOT FREE RAZOR PHONES" as you walk by—and it just… felt like I was living a dead-end. I had no degree, no plan, and I was living in a basement two-bedroom apartment with four other guys that were all pretty much in the same boat.

So I quit with nothing else lined up, threw on a backpack, and started walking south. I ended up building my first website after hitchhiking my way down to Florida, while I was crashing with a friend from high school.

When I finally made it back to Boston, nothing had really changed—I still didn't have a plan — but I had made a website. So I figured, hell, maybe I could make something out of that. I scraped by for a while, looking up "for exposure" jobs on Craig's List but never contacting the clients, building the site they'd describe, then throwing the final result away, just for practice. I started taking a few simple paid jobs that way, one of which asked me if I needed an internship for college credit afterwards. I lied and said "yes."

Brunello Creative ended up hiring me after the internship was up, and I spent about three years making websites there. I freelanced for a year or so after that, then Filament Group brought me on board—first as a contractor, now as a full-fledged employee.

All told, I've been at this for a little over seven years. February 14th, 2007 was the first day I sat down at something I could call "my desk"—the day I started that internship.

What have you been working on over the last year?

Client work, day-to-day. I’m the Chair of the Responsive Images Community Group (which just means that I’m the RICG’s chief noise-maker). I’m also a technical editor at A List Apart.

Outside of websites, I’ve been working on fixing up a 1978 Triumph Bonneville for the past year or so. It’s going… y’know, it runs now. It mostly runs. Okay, it starts.

What have been the particular high points of your career?

I gave a talk at An Event Apart a few weeks ago—that was pretty damned amazing, I have to say. Also, I don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s looking like I have a lot of writing to do in my immediate future.

What are you excited about at the moment?

Just a few days ago, the Chrome team officially announced that work on the picture element is underway. The guy leading the charge — Yoav Weiss — is an independent developer that has been with the Responsive Images Community Group for years now, and he’s doing some amazing work. Mozilla also announced that they were game for 'picture' a few weeks ago, thanks to the work of Marcos Caceres. Having two browsers taking up the picture element is a very, very big deal.

Tell us about an important lesson you've learned in your career.

Not to get all heavy on you guys, but I learned the most important lesson about my career right away — on day one, in fact: February 14th, 2007 — and I’ve done my best to carry it with me in the years since.

My old man worked until he couldn’t stand on his own anymore — and that’s not an exaggeration — so I’d have a chance at the kind of life I have now: a job with a desk, instead of walking a frozen roof. I curse at misplaced semicolons as much as the next developer, but when you get down to it, what we do for a living is a privilege. It took entire lifetimes of back-breaking work to earn me a chance at that privilege. I hope the hell I never forget that.

Name an 'unsung hero', someone you admire who deserves more recognition for their work.

Man, too many.

I might make a lot of the noise, but Marcos and Yoav have been the ones keeping the RICG afloat over the years. We wouldn’t have the 'picture' element if not for those two, and countless others—our designer Geri Coady, everyone that has pitched in on the spec, and all the members of the RICG that have contributed feedback and helped to push this thing forward.

On my best day, I’m just barely keeping up with the rest of Filament Group. Everybody on the team is a beast.

And, of course, I come from a long line of unsung heroes.

The public voting phase of is the net Awards is now closed. Judges voting will begin on 31 March 2014.

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