This post was written this morning in response to a post on dev.to asking about how self-taught programmers got their first jobs. I have told versions of my career path so many times that I think I wrote all of this in about 20 minutes. But I was thinking just now that I’m not sure I’ve written it all out like this before, so I’ll reproduce it here just for posterity.
I’ve been working in tech for well over 25 years. My career path has been long and winding, so I’ll try and give just the highlights here.
I did take a class in Basic in Jr. High school, and an Intro to C in college, but it was while I was in college, as an English major, that I began to teach myself html. This would have been 1996 or so, and I was president of our juggling club. I just wanted to update the webpage for the club, and that’s when I started to learn.
Key take-away for getting a job as a self-taught programmer: When you’re learning, be sure to pick a project or projects that you’re passionate about! It will be so much easier to complete them, and when you inevitably talk about them, that passion will only work in your favor.
Really, I just had small changes I wanted to make to that site. I needed to add myself to the list of “club officers”, and change the meeting times periodically.
Take-away 2: It’s much easier to make small changes to an existing project than to dive in to a large project “from scratch”.
Eventually, I started working on websites for various projects in the English department. One was a grant-funded research thing, and did not have html anywhere in the requirements, but I decided to post our findings / research as a webpage. That led to a very part-time job for another English professor, and that in-turn led to working at the student-run newspaper, writing html for a new “microsite” for the A&E section every week. That was almost certainly my first real job in tech, though it was a student position, and only 10-16 hours per week.
Take-away 3: Never stop learning. Try new things when given the opportunity, and you might find you enjoy some things more than others. You can totally shape your own career!
Once I started looking, I had a couple of job offers, but I ended up taking a job with some of my previous co-workers, and the idea was for me to do 50/50 front-end/back-end work. But I never really did much front-end work after that.
Take-away 4: Almost every job I’ve ever gotten has been because I knew someone, or was just in the right place at the right time.
Around 2007 I decided I could teach myself flash, just long enough to make my first video game. (I followed a tutorial on how to make Tetris, then modified it to have very different rules.) Around that time I started attending meetings of our local Twin Cities chapter of the IGDA, which I found very inspiring. I did my first public speaking, talking about my Flash game, and it seemed pretty well received!
Take-away 5: If you can, working on side projects is almost always rewarding. It’s especially important to get them to the point you’re not afraid to show them off, and put them in your portfolio or resume. (I do think portfolios are more important for folks who are self-taught than for folks with comp/sci degrees.)
Toward the end of 2008 I decided my next game would be for the iPhone. I spent a lot of nights and weekends, and I think I really leveled-up my programming working in Xcode and Objective-C. (I fell in love with strongly typed languages.) About 3 months later I released my first iPhone app in the store.
Around 2011 I’d been attending lots of meetups related to App development, and I’d worked on several projects, both personal and for my employer. (But it was still mostly web-dev at my day job, even though my passion was clearly for mobile.) I gave several talks at a group called Mobile Twin Cities, and the founder of that group had a mobile consultancy, and he recruited me.
Take-away 6: Find user-groups in your area that are relevant to the work you want to do. Attend them and (ideally!) find a way to give a talk. (Or at least address the group for a few minutes. Most groups have time for announcements.) Putting yourself out there, especially in a way that shows off your skills/abilities, can be crucial to landing any job in tech.
I think I was only at that company for 6 months before another merger was announced, and a year later, I found myself no longer writing mobile apps, but doing macOS desktop application development instead. I lined up a contract gig, (fortunately a very flexible one), and gave my notice.
They convinced me to stay a whole month before leaving, but in 2012, I began working freelance/contract, and I’ve been my own small consultancy ever since. I’ve even managed to work on a bunch of games! (Though my passion is definitely still mobile, I’ve done some VR work, and I’m currently very excited to work on some projects in visionOS.)
I someone finds this helpful.