What is this Post and Why Did I Write it?
This is the story of how I went from never having coded in my life to employed as a full-stack developer in just over two years. This is not a self-help article about how to land your dream job at a Big-N company as quickly as possible. Nor is it another one of those ‘self-taught dev’ stories about an author who had been programming for fun since he was 10 years old, or whose uncle hired him as an intern at the company he owns. On the other side of the coin, I’m not going to tell you I was a full-time working father of four kids under the age of two. I’m not slighting those people - everyone has their own path - but I read way too many posts and articles of that nature during my journey, and all they did was discourage me and fill me with doubt.
The following is simply an account of where I started, why I started, and how I got to where I am. There were no tricks or short cuts. I’m not a genius and I’ve never been very good at math, and I will admit to a decent amount of luck that led to my break. Having said that, I’m a firm believer in ‘you make your own luck’. If it weren’t for my hard work and willingness to put myself out there, I would not have had the opportunities for good fortune. One of the many reasons I love the programming community is everyone’s desire to help each other and to give back to the tribe. Everyone is searching for other people like them, and the more content thats out there means a higher chance they will find something relatable. Writing this is the beginning of my attempts to give back, and if it helps just one person, then it will have been worth posting. So here is my story, take from what it what you will.
The Background (skip if you don’t care about this part)
I graduated with a liberal arts degree - telling people I either wanted to be a lawyer or a teacher - but by the time I graduated, I wanted neither of those careers. I have a debilitating fear of public speaking and hate being the center of attention. So I took a job as a physical therapy aide and made slightly more than peanuts while I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Fast forward two years (because that’s what it felt like), and I was still making peanuts and had no clue what to do about improving it. I’d been making minimum payments on an oppressive amount of student loan debt so I decided grad school was out of the question. That’s when I began researching careers that did not require a specialized degree. This is how I found reddit’s r/learnprogramming and r/cscareerquestions, two forums that helped me tremendously and which I still visit everyday.
It is worth mentioning here that once I was out of the party-atmosphere of college for about a year, I became way more interested in applying myself to self-improvement. I was (and still am) almost obsessed with learning new things, reading, personal finance, fitness, and nutrition. I believe my new attitude and self-motivation is, above everything else, what allowed me to become a software developer without any formal, technical education.
Here is how I decided to execute my education plan: I cut down my hours working at the PT clinic from ~40 to ~15-20. Three days a week, I would work 6:15am-12pm (and usually a few more hours some afternoons). On days I worked, I would come home to eat lunch, then head to the library with my computer from 1 to about 5:30. On the days I did not work, I got up around 8, worked from home from around 9-12, then hit the library as usual 1-5:30. Every single night after dinner and working out, I would study for at least another hour. Sometimes several. In my opinion, the merit of TOP is that there is no monotony to the lessons. Like being a real developer, everyday is cognitively stimulating, and every lesson challenges you to consistently push your limit past what it was the day before. Each chapter increases in complexity and consists of a few resources on a topic, followed by a project with simple instructions of what to build. There are very few tutorials and almost 0 hand-holding. It is up to you to figure out how to complete the project. This is the most important skill I learned from TOP. Knowing how to figure out what you don’t know, without someone walking you through it, has been invaluable early on in my career.
Of course, there were plenty of times when I needed extra help. One of the most important features on TOP is the ’Student Solutions’ section. I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t peak at this section on basically every project. However, it was never a matter of copying someone else’s work. It was more like I exhausted my ideas and got stuck on a certain point, and needed to see if anyone else had a similar feature that I could implement in my project. Not to mention there is always an active chat with plenty of other students willing to lend a helping-hand.
Furthermore, there were a few times I thought about giving up on my ultimate goal. Potential job opportunities outside the field of programming were offered, and I needed to think hard about my options. But I was simply enjoying myself too much to ever seriously consider doing anything else long-term. The feeling of satisfaction I’d get from building things from scratch was, and is, something that I’d never experienced before. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it is almost euphoric. On top of the fact that I had more than a fair share of doubters to motivate me, I was determined to reach my destination. I told myself everyday “it’s not over until you give up”.
Applying and the First Break
After about 9 months of grinding through TOP’s curriculum, I decided to put some applications out and see what I got in response. I mostly used AngelList to apply to startups in my area, and to my surprise, actually got a few phone screens right away. But this initial round of applying made me realize I was not yet ready for taking on an entry-level position. I needed to beef up my portfolio, adjust my resume, and learn how to sell myself. So that is what I did. I worked on completing more of TOP (including a clone of Facebook using Ruby on Rails), contributed to an open-source project*, and made a personal website to show off my projects. But it still took another four months before I received what I consider to be the first lucky break of my journey.
~Sixteen months after I started learning, and ~five months after I started applying, I got a response from a startup on AngelList that said they wanted me to come in to meet the founders. My first in-person interview! As nervous as I was, I met the two guys - who were younger than I was - for a very informal conversation, and they offered me the position on the spot. While I was over-the-moon about this stroke of luck, it was only a part-time, unpaid internship. Without it though, I would not be where I am now. The company consisted of a recent college graduate who had developed a personal project being used by a few thousand high schoolers, and his co-founder (still in college) who wrote the content for the application. They wanted to hire a team of junior-level programmers to help them scale the product for growth. Without getting into the flaws of this plan, I will say that I worked harder in those first few weeks than ever before to learn the new technology (React/Redux), and this work ethic is the same I used at the next job, and which I will use in every position in my career.
*TOP was undergoing a site makeover, and asked for help contributing lessons to their new curriculum
The End of the Beginning: My Second Break
Once my grand delusions of getting in at the ground level of a billion-dollar company faded, it was time to start looking for a real, salaried job. Seven months had gone by, I knew the train was losing steam, and it was time to put myself back on the market. This time around, I was getting way more interest from my applications. Several phone screens with CTOs and hiring managers went so well I was sure I’d get a call back. My experience on an actual team, building production code made for more confident conversations and I felt like I belonged at the companies I was speaking to. Alas, it was not until closer to 10 months at this company that I was hit with another stroke of luck. A rapidly growing startup invited me in for an interview with their CTO after a decent phone conversation with a hiring manager. My second in-person interview! Here is how I won over the CTO, then the CEO and COO, and landed my first official dev job:
Interviewing and Where I am Now
At this point, I had done enough research and preparation for interviewing that I felt pretty confident with myself. This isn’t to say I wasn’t cripplingly nervous, as I am a nervous person by nature, and the impostor syndrome of being self-taught is nearly debilitating. But I sucked it up and walked into the office shakily asking for the CTO by name.
As soon as I got back into my office, I researched Redux conventions and sent him a StackOverflow post arguing for the necessity of action constant declarations. Within an hour, I received a ~500 word response, and an offer for a second interview later that week. To this day, he tells me that that email is the reason I got the job.
There is not much to say about the second interview. We started with a whiteboard question. Though nervous, the CTO was so on my side to begin with, that with his help, I was able to reason out a solution fairly seemlessly. From there, it was more-or-less him excitedly telling the CEO and COO about me, and them selling me on the company. The next day the CEO called me with a formal offer. From first phone interview to offer, the process took 11 days, and felt even shorter. About 25 months after I began my “self-education”, I started work as a full-time, full-stack software developer.
If you’re still reading this, I appreciate your patience and hope you found something to take away from it. I will conclude with my takeaways having lived the experience.
I’ve mentioned luck numerous times, and feel I should elaborate on what I mean. Call it impostor syndrome or lack of confidence, but I still don’t feel like I was prepared for either offer I received. The first I think the founders were just hiring whoever was willing to work for free, and it turned out to be a learning experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. The second was a CTO who specifically wanted a green, self-taught and self-motivated individual to mentor. He wasn’t interested in education or resumes, and our goals aligned perfectly. I told him the day we met and I still tell him weekly that I could not design a more perfect first full-time job in the industry.
Both of these situations seem like cases of “right place, right time”, but neither would have happened if I wasn’t willing, despite my uncertainty, to put myself out there and risk being rejected. To take it one step further, I wouldn’t have been in the position to put myself out there if I didn’t convince myself the sacrifice was worth it, and commit myself to the process. Once I figured out what I wanted, I lived, ate, and breathed code. My personal mantra through those months grinding in the library and taking home barely enough money to feed myself was “it isn’t over until you give up”. As long as you keep pushing everyday, or however often you can afford to, eventually you will make it to the end goal. Only when you decide to give up, will the dream be over. It’s easy to get discouraged reading about people who get offers for $100k+/year after 6 months, but everyone’s path is different, and you should only compare yourself to yourself the day/week/month before. It takes hard work and a little luck, and patience to get to your first break. But remember it’s not over until you give up.
Good luck and thanks for reading!