How I Became a Software Engineer in Only 8 Years
My thoughts on doing it the long and expensive way
Over and over I see on the same two headlines (or a combination thereof) on Medium, with the same predictable variables:
- How I became a <Developer/Software Engineer/l33t h4x0r> in <# between 1–12 here> months!
- How I got a job at <FAANG company here> after completing <Bootcamp Brand> Camp!
And you know what, kudos to those authors (at least, the truthful ones). I’m actually excited that there are so many people taking the plunge into the world of software and discovering that it’s an accessible, creative, interesting, and fun profession. Having worked with (and even hired) folks who have taken these routes, not only are they some of the most amazing people I’ve met but the amount of time and dedication they’ve put in screams passion. They’ve more than earned the title of Developer.
These articles also give me hope that one day coding will truly be just another subject, one that everyone will have exposure to in school, like math or history. And I don’t mean just high school (as I sort of started), but as early as elementary school. The industry has been sensitive to this (Apple practically provides an entire curriculum). As a recent new father, it’s exciting to believe my son will grow up in a world where coding is the norm, not reserved for the ‘nerdy minority’.
There is a serious under-representation, however, of those who took a long journey into a career in software. Not only does it bury that portion of the community, but it also gives the impression that a longer path is not as valuable, desirable, or logical.
We need a diversity of people’s journeys into software because the reality is that diversity makes its way into software in the best ways. The thought of misrepresenting or even losing them, to me, is concerning for the future of software.
I do appreciate having taken the more “traditional” and longer route. Of course, I’m biased (read the title). But no more biased than the author of one of the articles I’ve mentioned. The difference is it’s MY story of how I got into MY career. Those 8 years make up just over a quarter of my life (you do the math).
In good faith, I can admit that I’ve looked back and said “if all I learned had only been more neatly and compactly presented, this wouldn’t have taken so long”. This may come as a surprise, but as I summarize that journey and share how I believe it differs from the more trendy ones, I won’t shy away from sharing both the good and the bad — the things I would change as well as the things I wouldn’t change for anything in the world.
And so we begin…
In the Beginning
It was May 2004 and I’m a freshman in a very college-driven high school. I’m beginning to realize something about my personality: I’m a planner. Don’t get me wrong, spontaneity is great, but only as long as I can still see the road in front of me. And I had just hit a moment where I realized I really did not know where I was headed.
That’s not to say I didn’t know the destination. I distinctly remember that when I got accepted into my high school, my best friend and I drew a roadmap of how we’d graduate from high school, go to MIT, and then go on to make awesome video games. That was the constant back then, our love for video games. But now my freshmen year was ending, and I realized a whole year went by and I’m no closer to actually knowing how to make a video game. Heck, I heard the term coding, but I didn’t know what it meant. For all I knew I thought causing my Windows ME PC (on dial-up) to crash without a BSOD was Elite Level Hacker Status. What would MIT think of my lack of progress on creating the next TimeSplitters?
That’s when my Dad came home with the mail, along with my go-to escape besides video games: GameInformer magazine (a magazine about video games). But this was no ordinary issue. This was the May 2004 edition with “World-exclusive Halo 2” content. And also, a feature story teased right on the cover: “The Secret to Making Your Own Game Uncovered”. This was it! The roadmap to my future had finally shown itself. On page 60 of my beloved magazine (about video games) the story of my life would be revealed to me at last!
That summer, I founded a Video Game Development Club with the GameInformer article as my guide (the house I grew up in didn’t have a garage so it’s not one of THOSE stories). I became an official member of IGDA and started gaining recognition as the high school kid trying to make a game.
With the exception of only 1 course my junior year, everything we learned was self-taught (Youtube was not founded until Feb 2005, so we actually purchased books and tutorials). The Club, oddly enough, was overtaken by politics and shut down by my senior year. But we accomplished tiny remakes of classic games, custom mods to Half-Life 2, and boosting our college resumes significantly. During that time, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, and Cliff Blazeski were my heroes, and all three started as programmers, so Computer Science would have to be my major.
As I mentioned, we made remakes of classics and our own mods. But I also had fun making console applications for little things, like automating some of my homework assignments or delving into core parts of the OS. I was just having fun exploring and not really looking to release anything.
Stevens Institute of Technology would be my home for the next five years as a Computer Science Co-op Student. That meant that I still took the traditional eight semesters like a four-year student, but every other semester I had a full-time internship. And that saved my career in profound ways.
College was a trip. I was a brand new adult with new freedoms and (whether I fully comprehended or not) great responsibilities. I learned a great many realities during those years. For starters, I finally started going to meetups with Game Developers. That’s when I learned I did not want to be a Game Developer anymore. They exposed me to the (then) horrors of the industry, and while they were passionate enough to look past them, it scared the daylights out of me.
Fortunately, my interest in technology, coding, and engineering overtook my drive to be a game developer. Everything I was being exposed to was fascinating and there seemed to be an endless amount of stuff to learn and absorb. With each internship, while it did sharpen the kind of places I did and did not want to work at, I realized software could be my entry really into anything.
The thing that drove and taught me the most, more than anything else during those formative years were not my classes, internships, or even the tech around me. It was the amazing friends around me.
They were (are) some of the biggest blessings in my life. Most of them were cyber-security majors who instead of just pranking each other with whoopee cushions or buckets of water would constantly be hacking each other, games or other unmentionable things around us. They were driven to automate things, build machines from scratch (like, literal scraps from garbage we found), and do things in the ridiculous dorms that we lived in. It was fun, it was competitive, it was collaborative, and it is what solidified my career path.
There are two parts to this. The more formal part was my internships in the Coop program. I worked for three companies over six semesters for a total of 2 years of full-time work experience. What was great about these internships was that I actually did real work. I specifically went after companies that had a reputation for being tough because they gave large assignments. By the time I was looking for my first post-college job to start my career, I was struggling to keep my resume to a single page.
One of the projects I was most proud of also showed me just how powerful and valuable software could be. Without going into too much detail, a group of analysts would each spend the first half of their day downloading (with a painfully slow and repetitive process) the day’s data that they would then manually enter into a local database before they could finally run their analysis on it (hopefully) by mid-afternoon.
That semester I reverse engineered the tool they had been using to pull the data manually. From this, I created a service that pulled all that data before they came into work — early in the morning when network traffic was at its lowest. It automatically collated and entered the data locally, making preliminary analysis reports that were ready for review as the analysts arrived. It reinvented the entire department so much that the mentor I had during the project actually made the switch from developer to an analyst on that team to get in on the action (and profits).
And would you believe, the company didn’t make me a full-time offer when Senior year rolled around?
But beyond that, I also did a lot of fun stuff in and out of class. To keep up with my cyber-security friends pranks, I created a silent key-logger that would e-mail me every x amount of keystrokes after it was planted on a friends machine. There was my “poor-man’s mobile web browser” where I’d text a URL to an email account, and it would trigger a service that would take a screenshot of that site and send it as a picture message since I had unlimited messaging. I even created what was essentially an on-campus Uber service (while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Uber had just come out before this, so no — they did not steal my idea nor vice-versa!).
Getting a Job
As I mentioned, being a Coop student saved my career. Since freshmen year killed my GPA, it took until my last semester to climb out of that hole. I remember getting shot down left and right by automated job applications once I’d submit my GPA.
The ace I had though was that my resume was bomb (I won the award for best resume by the Cooperative Education office for that year), my interviewing skills were on point (I had a bit of practice from over 35 interviews for internships), and I was good at first impressions (all me). All of these landed me my first job.
Towards the end of my Fall semester of Senior year, I had only received a single offer and I had turned it down for a number of reasons. The culture at my school was putting the pressure on me to accept an offer before Winter Break. So, I went to the last career fair of the semester. There, at a company I already knew I didn’t have the GPA for, I saw an old friend and fellow intern from one of my prior experiences. He knew how hard I had worked and that I did some amazing stuff at that time. Showing his boss my loaded resume, they both said that they’d be in touch. That was a Wednesday
The next day, I got a call from that company’s HR inviting me to a final round interviewing super day where the others in attendance were all Ivy Leaguers who made it to the end of a three month long hiring process. I would have five interviews instead of the two everyone else would have, plus I needed to prepare a 15-minute presentation. So I went and, interestingly, time flew by — probably because I had done so many interviews that semester already. By the time I finished the interviews and wrapped up my presentation, I asked if anyone had any questions. The response was “No, as a matter of fact, this is the first presentation where I actually learned something.” Boom-shaka-laka! The day concluded with them assuring me that I would receive an answer, one way or the other, by end of week next week.
Two days later (Sunday), I got severe food poisoning. To this day, I can’t stand the sight of crème brûlée.
Monday morning arrived and I went to a final exam, still recovering from the poisoning from the weekend. Upon returning from the final (A+), I got a call from the company. They had made their decision early and offered me the position. Checkmate.
And thus, my 8 year journey resulted in my first career job at a major corporation with a great starting salary and a roadmap for post-college life.
Reflections: The Positive
Looking back, there’s a number of things I truly appreciated about my journey. High school was the best time for me to experiment and chase after my current dream at the time. It helped refine where I wanted to head in college and even helped me to get in. College was so many things for me. I learned an incredible amount of stuff, and not just in CS. As a matter of fact, I graduated with a minor in History and, without realizing it (long story) half a Masters (which I’ll get back to). The Coop program really helped me understand and gain real world experience which not only helped me start my career, but helped refine where I did and didn’t want to end up.
But college did another thing for me too and that is give me the space to become an adult. I recognize that not everyone gets that space and are flung into adulthood right away, so I appreciate it as a blessing. It was an incubator of sorts, not just for my career, but for life itself. Plus, it shielded me from the financial crisis which peaked towards my early years. There were ups as well as downs in college, but every moment deeply impacted my life and who I am.
All of this still holds today. Not everything I studied is used on a daily basis, but the disciplines, perspectives, and experiences I had remain the bedrock to all I’ve experienced since. I deeply credit my training at an Engineering school (even though I was a CS major) to my ability to develop innovative solutions, decision making, and critical thinking skills. My failures both in and out of my ‘incubator’ turned into areas of growth and opportunity so that I didn’t have to make the same mistakes in the real world. Lastly, I learned to learn fast. No matter what I’m jumping into, I go in with a confidence that I’ll figure it out, even if I need to learn it from the ground up and on the fly as fast as I can.
Reflections: What I Wish Was Different
What slapped me hard once I graduated was the reality that I had accumulated six-figure debt. That was an incredibly tough pill to swallow. The incubator I was blessed with came at a huge financial cost. In conjunction with my personality that needs to have a well-thought-out plan, it slightly crippled me. It had prevented me from taking risks that, looking back, I would have loved to have taken.
For example, when a friend of mine offered to work with him at the growing start-up he was at, I turned it down because my debt made me feel like I needed the security of a major corporation salary. That start-up ended up becoming a huge hit and that friend became the CEO (and a Forbes 30 Under 30 I might add. Super proud!). I also had ideas for apps and things but knew I had signed non-compete clauses that extended to almost anything that could make money. Because I had so much debt, I was insecure about quitting and venturing out on my own. My insecurity deemed it tremendously risky.
My debt felt so overbearing that, despite having half a Masters, I never finished it. It just didn’t make sense to spend more money (especially at a private school) for what may have resulted in only a slight pay increase. But whenever I mention it, it does make for interesting conversation so I guess I got that going.
All of this doesn’t excuse the opportunities I neglected to take during college. The smartphone app boom had happened and if I wasn’t such an Apple hater at the time (surprise! I wasn’t always a fanboy) I should have recognized that app developers were making bank left and right for even the simplest of ideas (In those days, using your camera flash as a flashlight required an app. My son will never know the struggle).
In essence, it’s because I choose a school that required accepting a large sum of debt, and I did so at a time in my life where I had no idea just how heavy debt would actually be. I truly believed that investing that much money and time into (really any) school would be a worthwhile investment in the long run. I can honestly say, I did get an ROI. It took time, but that was also expected. My career is still intact and I’ve evolved and grown in it, so it did set me on the path it sold me on. I also can’t honestly say that if I had the same experience but graduated debt-free that I would have jumped onto the missed opportunities I mentioned. Who knows what that would have looked like?
Making a Comparison
As I mentioned, I’ve worked with and even hired co-workers who got their start in bootcamps and such. The majority of them had gone to college prior, just for another major and career path, so they too had a college experience. For whatever reason, I have yet to work with someone who hasn’t, though I know you’re out there.
While I’ve joked that I could have learned everything I took in college on my own with textbooks, tutorials, and a hard drive (Dad joke) to learn it all on my own, I don’t actually believe that’s true. Reflecting on how far I’ve got and where I am today, I can’t claim that I would feel as confident in myself or my skills to do what I’m able to today or, and I feel strongly about this, to mentor and lead others in this field. That’s just being real with myself.
From time to time I ponder what it would be like if I were to try and switch career paths now (pure fantasy, I’m loving where I’m at right now). I think about how I would bring with me all the years of experience, successes, and failures behind me into that alternate future, even if it were an entirely different occupation. That helps me appreciate even more those of you who do make the change or even start out from an accelerated program. You get to bring over a new perspective and, perhaps, past experiences and skills into a career that I’ve solely focused on.
And, because you’re taking on the risk of making a career leap, it’s fuel for that drive I mentioned earlier, especially if it is out of necessity. And it’s still fresh, fun, slightly scary, and exciting by the time you enter your first job. You’re jumping in headfirst and getting your hands dirty!
Why did I write this? Well, firstly because I’m still new to this writing thing and I saw an opportunity to share a story that hadn’t been told. On a more topical note, it was not to say the path I took is better than anyone else’s. I’d be close-minded, narrow, prejudiced, out-of-line, and completely prideful if I did. But I did notice that the gusto and freshness of some of the other parts of the community inspires them to be more vocal about their experience than the more experienced and jaded ‘long roaders’ like me. As I mentioned towards the beginning of this article, my fear is that the perception of the developer community, as a whole, runs the risk of being mis-perceived again. Whereas being a programmer seemed exclusive to the select thick-frame glasses wearing few (though even that’s a trendy fashion statement these days), it could seem to be exclusive to those who took a months-long program moving forward.
The true answer to who belongs in the developer community is this: it belongs to anyone who is willing to invest something of themselves into it.
You can’t just claim to be a developer without putting in work. That’s exactly what those who have gone to college for it, who have made it through the camps and accelerated programs or have spent countless hours on their own tinkering and creating something of their own (I’m talking beyond ‘hello world’ people) have done. The amount you put into being a developer will determine how far you can go with that title.
I’m excited (albeit sometimes terrified) to see where people will go with software in the years to come. The hope is that I’ll get to read and hear more stories about the developers behind those pieces of software and the diverse mixture of backgrounds and journeys we all come from.