Becoming an In-Demand Developer: The Bad Parts

I haven’t done nearly as many interviews as a lot of software developers, but I’ve done enough that my answer to the usual first question (“Tell me a little about yourself” or “How did you get started as a developer?”) rolls off my tongue pretty easily. It goes something like this:

“I went to a summer camp as a teen and learned Turbo Pascal. I didn’t really stick with it, but played enough with that and making basic web pages in the early days of the web that I knew I wanted to major in CS. I did that for a few semesters at Georgia Tech, but between my workload as a swimmer, the difficulty of the math requirements, and my need to keep a certain GPA to retain my scholarship, I switched majors.

Later, after college, I decided to try web development as a hobby. Early on, while messing around with PHP and mySQL, a friend of a friend recommended I try Ruby on Rails, and that clicked for me. Very soon after that, some friends approached me to help them automate some aspects of a workflow they were using to handicap college football games, and that turned into my first paid project.

I was still doing it as a hobby when the financial crash liberated me from my job at the time, and I decided to move to Utah and snowboard, but continued to learn programming and pick up side projects along the way until I moved to California for a girl, and later got my first full-time developer job.”

It’s a nice, neat story, don’t you think?

This past summer, I taught a class on web development in New York City, and tried to reassure the students along the way that becoming a developer is a marathon, not a sprint (despite a bootcamp being a very expensive sprint at the beginning), and that it will be hard at times, hard enough that you will question yourself and your decision to start this journey, and whether you should continue.

Despite that, especially for those who specifically are doing this to improve their earning prospects, it’s easy to forget those words of caution and focus onthe thought of “If I just get a couple years experience, I can make six figures.”

Last night I was clearing out my starred emails in Gmail, and it took me down memory lane and reminded me of some of the parts of that story that weren’t so neat, or fun. Here are just a few of the false starts, dead-ends, and failures along the way.

Thankfully, though, this was when my learning curve took off. I had a smart, helpful CTO that valued learning and mentorship and good coworkers to learn from. This was in 2011 – 10 years after starting my CS studies, 4 years after being exposed to Rails for the first time, and 2.5 years after starting to call myself a developer.

Today, I think many bootcamp grads can compress this timeline quite a lot, but I sympathize with their struggles in the current market, where everyone wants a senior dev and/or wants to hire you for free or for peanuts to work on a shitty project that you aren’t confident about and doesn’t align with your interests. Some will be fortunate and get that $70k job right off the bat, but if you’re not one of those, there is still light at the end of the tunnel if you are persistent and enjoy learning enough that you can stomach learning things that might not directly help you in the future.

The struggle will harden you, and you’ll absorb more knowledge along the way than you think.