Michelle is a web developer from New Hampshire and currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After about a decade of working as a classical pianist and a teacher, including receiving a Master’s degree in performance, Michelle made a career change into development.
Now, Michelle is well-versed in several coding languages and development frameworks, though they’re always on the lookout for new and creative ways to build responsive and accessible websites. Outside of web development work, Michelle might be found playing piano, backpacking in the mountains, or drawing.
Q: What art made the most impact early in your life? And what art — any medium — moves you today?
A: I started taking piano lessons as a young child which grew into a lifelong love for music (I actually was a pianist professionally for about a decade before becoming a developer!) so that seems like the most obvious answer. I was an awkward, insecure kid and music was always a safe place when I was growing up. I studied primarily classical music, and one of my earliest favorites for both playing & listening was the music of Debussy. I remember hearing La Mer for the first time and being amazed at how music could be used to conjure up colors, water, wind. (Debussy is an impressionist composer, so if you’re unfamiliar the simplest explanation I can give is to imagine what a Monet painting would sound like?!)
Lately, I’ve been really into Brazilian music, particularly tropicália which is a movement from the 60s and is this fusion of Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian styles with rock & psychedelia from the US & UK. This came about under military dictatorship and a lot of the lyrics contain subtle references against the dictatorship (subtle in an effort to get music past censors). Many of the leading artists were eventually arrested or tortured, and/or forced into exile. It’s fascinating and complex and I could go on about it for a long time, but I will leave you with this article about one of the most famous songs from the movement.
Q: Would you say that you have always had a clear vision for your life?
A: Definitely not! (Anyone who says yes to this is clearly lying at least a little bit, right?) Web development is a second career for me. I have a bachelor’s & a master’s degree in piano performance, and spent about a decade working as a pianist and teaching lessons before changing careers.
I love music, and it’s still a huge part of my life, but I really struggled with the “hustle” of doing it for a living. It took me that entire decade to realize that when people said “do what you love,” the part they weren’t telling me was that when the thing you love becomes your means of surviving… it may not be so rewarding anymore! So eventually I decided to do something else, and started this process of learning development.
That’s the career/professional side of things, although I think in my personal life I also wouldn’t say I have always had a clear vision. I’m pretty happy about where I’ve landed at this point, but things are always evolving.
Q: How did you eventually make contact and find yourself in orbit with Orrbitt? And do you like puns?
A: I like puns okay, although I can never really come up with them myself! As a side note, after being with Orrbitt a couple years now, anytime I see the word “orbit” my initial reaction is to think that it’s misspelled.
I was interested in working at an agency, because I liked the idea of working on different projects all the time, rather than always the same codebase. And I was really intrigued by how Orrbitt’s clients all have biotech focuses that come out in different & creative ways on their websites.
Q: Working with burgeoning companies pioneering futuristic technologies, what personal satisfactions arise after the launch of a new biotech brand / website / presentation / scientific graphic?
A: I love the process of bringing a design to life. Taking something static and adding interactions, animations, making it fit into different sizes, etc. Working with biotech companies obviously there are a lot of pretty technical diagrams and graphics involved, and I think our design team does an amazing job at abstracting some of those scientific concepts. Often then we want to add some kind of motion into that in development, which is the fun part for me! And since we work with so many different clients, there’s always something new we are exploring. It doesn’t really get boring.
Q: How would you describe your job to a group of five-year-olds?
A: You know how sometimes you are using an ipad or a computer and the screen freezes, or something doesn’t work? When those things happen on websites, they tell someone like me to figure out how to fix it.
Other times, people draw a picture of what they want their website to look like, then I make the website and turn it on for them.
Q: Everyone gets “writer’s block” or “creative funk”. What’s your slump-buster method or approach?
A: I’ve had these 10 rules for artists by Sister Corita Kent taped to my piano stand for years and often read through them again when I feel stuck. There are so many helpful little nuggets of wisdom in there. One I always need reminding of is “The only rule is work.” In every type of art I do – drawing, music, even code – I can get stuck in thinking about how to do it and trying to perfect an idea in my mind. This reminds me to just get out of my head and do it. To be clear, I think “work” here is not as in working for a wage or whatever, but work as in, getting into the dirt and using your hands and just doing the thing even if you feel like you suck at it and even if it’s not perfect.
I also love hiking & backpacking, which is great for slowing down and clearing your mind. A few years ago I actually spent a month hiking the John Muir trail in California – the kind of thing I wish I could do more often! But even a day or two in the wilderness I find creativity flows more easily when I get home.
Q: In a state of creative output, what are you listening to?
A: Depending on what I’m working on, listening to anything can be distracting. But I do often listen to music while coding. One of my favorite things to listen to while working, and one of my favorite pieces of music in general, is Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” There is something about this piece to me that is just incredibly joyful. I’ve seen it live and it’s completely entrancing. So it’s good for finding that “flow” state.
Q: How do you fuel your creativity in other aspects of life?
A: I have several creative interests that I do outside of work! Obviously I still play piano, and have also recently started taking voice lessons. I also love drawing; although I’ve never been formally trained, and I’m not particularly good at it. I enjoy both sketching from real life and making more abstract zentangle-y type drawings.
Since I started coding I’ve also gotten interested in generative art, which is basically where you write a program to make some shapes & colors & patterns on the screen, then sprinkle in some controlled randomness to generate different images and movements.
Q: Aliens, yes or yes?
A: Probably, right?