Programmed for greatness

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Colin Gray enhances his education as a web developer for University Marketing.

To the unacquainted, the things on Colin Gray’s computer screen seem like a foreign language – a seemingly random assortment of digits, letters, and a variety of punctuation continue in sequence down the page. This is code, and Gray – as a programmer – is fluent in it. It is a love that began with his first programming class at Northern Arizona University, and has resulted in his accomplishments as one of the foremost designers of new features for the university website.

Gray spent two years at the University of Arizona before deciding to transfer to Northern Arizona University in 2009, explaining he did not know which route to take with his undergraduate path until he took his first programming course.

“I took a class on C programming, and that was that,” Gray says. “I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

With his new coursework piquing his interest, Gray wanted to find a job that would enable him to put his developing skills to the test.

“Just on a fluke, I was looking around on NAU Career Services, and I saw a web developer position,” Gray says. “Honestly, I feel like I got really lucky with this job. I could have gotten a position elsewhere and not have gotten any experience in my field.”

Marketing himself

The position was with University Marketing, the department responsible for creating promotions for the university and maintaining, updating, and expanding the institution’s website. Gray was hired on at a critical time: Northern Arizona University was beginning a significant overhaul of its web platform, which included moving to a new content management system. Gray says that despite the hectic schedule and tight deadlines, this job was one of the most beneficial experiences he has received at the university.

“I learned a lot about content management systems and how websites are built in the real world,” Gray says. “It’s been great working with real professionals, and they’ve been great to me and helped me develop as a programmer. It’s great to see how they work and how things are actually done.”

Pam Anning, the development team lead, explains that Colin is integral to what the department does, and has gone far beyond what is expected of a student in his position.

“Colin is very smart, detail-oriented, and exceptional with clients,” Anning says. “He has that ability to present himself in a professional way, and I think that takes a certain level of maturity. We wouldn’t normally expect a student worker to have many interactions with clients across campus, but Colin has done just that and has participated in technical discussions with a variety of clients including program directors. He has a presence about him that is very professional.”

Anning says Gray has a skill that young programmers often lack: the ability to always maintain awareness of the larger picture, and the way code impacts the way people interact with websites.

“Colin is always thinking about how things interrelate with the bigger system,” Anning says. “He’ll even propose alternate ways of approaching it that may make more sense. He doesn’t just do what he’s asked to do. He takes it another step.”

Developing an education

One of the tools developed and built by Gray was a business card ordering application for university employees. He explains that these opportunities to observe the role his code plays in the end product provided him a context for his work that he could not ascertain within his coursework.

“In class, when you turn in an assignment, that’s it – you’re done with it,” Gray says. “Here, in University Marketing, it’s going to stay around for years. Sometimes, I’m affected now by decisions I made two years ago. Whenever I’m doing something now, I think about how it’s going to affect me in the future. I try to build things that not only work, but I can build off of and use for other parts of the website.”

Gray graduates this May, and while he will be working with the university through the summer, he cites his experience at Northern Arizona University as instrumental in helping him feel prepared to enter the job market and confident in his choice of career. 

“Just coming in here and creating good code told me that this was something I could do for the rest of my life,” Gray says.