Transition From VA to Web Designer: How I Did It

Oct 22, 2015 | Freelance

We all have to start somewhere.

The first few years of freelance for me was a free-for-all. I took on VA jobs in different fields such as education, real estate, sales, music, and so many more. Of course, some jobs were more well-paying than others and I did overbook myself once or twice. I look back on those years now with fond memories. I clocked so many hours on and off Odesk (now Upwork) that I considered myself a slave to my Skype.

After a few years though, I hit my glass ceiling.

Stuck With Nowhere To Go

I felt like I was stuck at jobs where my rate was so low. It didn’t matter that I was with them for two, three years – they didn’t think I was worth more than $5/hour for my skillset. And I didn’t blame them. I had an IT background and knew my way around WordPress but then, WordPress wasn’t as ubiquitious as it is now. These were the days when freelance in the Philippines was still fairly new and responsive design was still at it’s infancy. I was clocking around 60-80 hours a week for work and was making fairly decent wages for someone with my skills (certainly more than twice the minimum wage here in the Philippines) but I wanted something more.

I wanted a balance between work and play. I wanted to be able to enjoy my work and not resent it. I aimed for working less hours but with the same amount of pay. I yearned for a career that I could build my future around. I wanted a job I was so passionate about that it didn’t feel like a job.

Don’t get me wrong. Virtual assistance is a good job, it’s hard work, long hours and needs dedication and a capacity for learning new things quickly. But I just wanted something different for myself.

The Fork in The Road

So I left. I took off for 3 years and poured all of my energies into finally conquering the world of higher education.

After I came out of the rabbit hole, I applied to a few jobs in companies in my city where I could enhance my IT skills. I knew I wanted to get into web development, I’ve known that since I was in sixth grade and messing with Geocities, Homestead and Angelfire.

But I felt disheartened when I found out the going rate of compensation for fresh graduates in IT. So I turned my back on regular employment and went back to freelance.

This time, I applied to jobs where I could really see myself grow. I decided to bank on my IT background and wanted to VA for web development companies. I wanted a mentor – and such an awesome mentor I got.

Back To The Salt Mines

My first full time gig was with Drew Drew This, a web development LLC based in Brooklyn, New York. But aside from learning about web design and AngularJS, my boss also urged me to write content and help out with administrative tasks. And I thought that it was a great way to start my transition from VA to web designer.

I took on more and more VA/web design roles. I created covers for Pinterest boards, featured images, business cards, t-shirts, designed an ebook cover, created downloadables like calendars, checklists that bloggers love to give away for their opt-ins. I became good friends with Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.

I know you’re all thinking, “But where is the proof of all these awesome things you did?”. Yes, I understand. On the internet, it’s always ‘pics or not true‘. I am working on my portfolio page, it should be live by early 2016.

Anyway, as my confidence in my skills grew, so did my clients. Since narrowing my niche, I’ve only applied to Upwork jobs that I know I can totally do to the best of my ability. I was open to learning new things but at it’s core, my skillset should be solid for the jobs that I was applying to.

Upwork Top Rated and Job Success

Then Upwork implemented the Top Rated badge and the Job Success Score. When it was first implemented, I found out I got the Top Rated badge when Upwork emailed to notify me. I was ecstatic when I found out I got a 93% Job Success score.

Nicole Merced Upwork Top Rated

After a couple of months, I saw that my initial JS score grew. And I landed more and more contracts every time I applied. I was viewed, interviewed and hired more often than my peers. The Upwork JS score has been criticized in the Upwork community (especially in the forums) because they said it was an arbitrary and subjective algorithm that’s not transparent at all. That’s probably true and all but what I like about it is that it gives a quanitifiable metric to whether or not your clients are satisfied with your performance.


But like with everything else, you really need to up your game all the time. Upwork, after all, is a global marketplace. You’re not only competing with people from your country – you are in competition with talents all over the world. You need to keep up to date with the latest technologies and best practices in your chosen field.

In my case, I had to invest in a Macbook and Apple devices to be able to test responsive views and websites properly. I also had to enrol in a couple of online classes to learn AngularJS and CakePHP. I had to really immerse myself in web development, I read a ton of how-tos and guides for how to implement things. I refer to the WordPress Codex every time I need a custom function. And I will never stop learning, not if I want to remain relevant, not if I want to build a career on my skills.

The road is long and winding. I had to learn so many things in a small amount of time but I’m not daunted. I believe in hard work, I do not shy away from long hours and grumble at another hoop to jump through. When you have a mountain in your way, don’t let your first instinct be to scale it, rather to creatively flatten it.