From Streets to Code.
High School dropout to Full Stack Developer
“More than 1.3 million students drop out of high school every year in the US, making them ineligible for 90% of jobs in America”(DoSomething.org)…Or so they think
If someone had told me 15-20 years ago that I would end up being a software developer, I probably would have laughed at them. You hear of stories where people in rural towns have fewer chances of getting out of their town and into a big city job. This is my story of over coming addiction and crime in my old neighborhood through hard grind and perseverance to get where I am today.
I grew up in Yonkers, NY (Home of the Brave!). I am not going to lie, my childhood was rough. My brother and I were raised by our single mother. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was a minority (I’m white). My neighborhood was predominantly African American and Spanish. I went to a school in a time where computers and especially computers in school weren’t really a thing. I was lead to believe that the only way you can be successful, was to be either a doctor or a lawyer.
The Early Years
As a kid, I grew up poor. My Mother was on welfare and struggled to make ends meet. Suffice it to say I didn’t have a lot of technology products around to play with. In the 80s and early 90s, I spent most of my time outside getting into trouble. There was so much crime going on around me, even from a small age, I thought it was ‘normal’ so when I tell people of my past, I’d just brush it off as that’s how it was. It’s not until I see the whites of their eyes I realize that it wasn’t normal, it was bad.
Picture me hanging out on the streets, with no father and my mother trying the best she can, I was raised by drug addicts, gang members, murderers and felons. On the roof of the building across the street from me, they used to sell guns. I used to hear the guns go off almost on a nightly basis. It was here where I was instilled with the thought that I would never amount to anything, that to get anywhere, you needed to be in a good school and since we were not in a good school well, good luck with that.
I remember being in the 3rd or 4th grade when a teacher explained to my mother that “he just can’t read very well.” As I got older, I found out I was actually dyslexic. However, this only served to make me more determined than ever. I had this huge drive to succeed. I needed to study harder and read something over and over before I could absorb and recall it.
With this in mind, I went to high school thinking I would like to become a doctor. I loved health and thought it was fascinating. Now even though I had a reading disability, I still loved to read. If it took me reading a book three times to get it, I would read it three times. But, high school didn’t go well with me. Teachers tended to fail me every chance they got it seemed. When I asked them to challenge me, instead I got sent to an easier class. I started ditching school and hanging out in parks getting drunk and high.
I recall being in English class when I was asked to write out a list of books I had read from over the summer until present (it was December at the time). As I said before, I love reading. So, I listed 75–100 books, most of which were dog books that I read with my brother. The rest of those books where computer related such as HTML For Dummies, just so I could learn how to write funky text in chatrooms. My teacher was surprised by how many books I “claimed” to have read. So, she ridiculed me, saying that I couldn’t have possibly read all of those books. I suggested that I could write a book report on any of them if she needed proof. She then told me that I would “just get it off of my stupid computer.” Which may or may not have lead me to throw my copy of Romeo & Juliet at her! This incident lead me to eventually drop out of High School and seek my GED.
Even if you get a job, without graduating high school, it is a fact of the market that your earning potential, on average, will be severely limited both immediately and long-term. — theamericanacademy.com
College Part 1
After I got my GED, I went to Allentown Business School in Pennsylvania with a friend to study computers. I really just went because it seemed like a cool idea to leave home and do the “college thing”. I became depressed there, I was far away from home and I had few friends. The friend I went there with was never around and we grew apart. I started writing my thoughts down into songs and poetry. A teacher found some of my writings and became concerned. This was the in “age of Columbine” so they took my depression seriously and decided to expel me because they decided that I was too much of a potential risk.
This was a huge blow to me. I grew up being abused by my brother while my mother looked away. My brother never liked anything I did unless it was what he did. If he sold drugs, I sold drugs. Whatever he did, I was right by his side. My brother never went to high school. So me going to college, even just getting my GED, was a great achievement for me. Being the first person in my family to go to college was a huge deal — And now I was being kicked out?
College Part 2: The Developer Strikes Back?
After a year of being a bum on my girlfriend at the time’s couch and then my moms, my mother arranged a meeting for me with a recruiter at a local college. I told him my story of my previous college and how I wanted to try my hand at programming.
So I enrolled, however this college turned out to be very similar to my last college. It was labeled as a “business” school. Their claim was to learn your trade within 18 months and guaranteed to “get you a job!”. When it came to computer programming, their idea was to teach you the basics and you could potentially get picked up by a bank doing back-end work. The problem was that they taught only very basic programming and really nothing more than that. I was also told that they would guarantee me a job afterward. Towards the end of my schooling, I wasn’t able to afford the school fees anymore. Since I wasn’t able to continue schooling, I wasn’t able to get my diploma. I graduated, just no official diploma. Since I didn’t have a diploma they weren’t willing to work with me to find a job placement.
Nextel to Genius
When I was in school I worked at A&P as a cashier. After school, I landed a job fixing Nextel phones in the Bronx. Since I had a computer background I became the unofficial IT guy. Complacency crept in when I would travel to bigger businesses and help their IT department set up Blackberries for their staff. In my mind, I started to replay the times I was told that I would never amount to anything. Since I had no official degree and my schooling sucked I learned that to get any decent job I would need to go back to college — Or at least a decent college. Then, my college dropped another bomb on me: 90% of my credits would not be transferable to other learning institutions. So there I was, stuck in a dead end job, unable to afford more schooling and on top of all that, my mother and I were battling eviction too.
Apple breathed new life into me. This was still computer repair work but it did teach me a lot of people skills and not to freak out when chaos is happening. I worked at Apple for 5 years and within those 5 years, I’ve saw a lot of change. The chances of you getting a job at “corporate” was slim but considered doable and seemed worth working towards. Eventually it became apparent that there’s very little chance of being promoted into corporate.
It was in the later portion of being at Apple when I started to get more web development experience by helping a co-worker make a website to track broken items in the store. At Apple, you have to sign a contract that states that any software developed there is owned by Apple. Which was great, because I didn’t know much about programming for desktops and iOS and here was a chance to get experience while getting paid. I picked up a book on PHP and began learning it and within a week I had a good grasp of it. I began helping my friend from work with his website. The Genius Bar had a script that was given to them from another store to help image hard drives so we had a hard drive with multiple OS’s on them for testing. Since I now had some solid programming knowledge, I was tasked with updating that script.
Towards the last two years of my time at Apple, I met my wife, and we had our first child. At Apple, I was constantly being told that my opportunity is coming I just needed to wait a little longer. I was married and I just had a kid. I needed to act on something and I didn’t feel like Retail was doing it for me. I drafted up a resume and started looking for a job in web development. I sought the help of an employment recruiter to help. An opportunity presented itself when my recruiter told me a company was looking for a Ruby on Rails developer, a language I barely knew about at that time. I bought a book and wrote a program over the weekend to send in as a coding assignment. I got the job a few weeks later!
The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. — Bruce Feirstein
I have since moved on from being a Junior Backend Developer to being a Full Stack Developer and I am now starting to lead a separate web development firm within my current company. Where I grew up, and from my high school, only a handful of people have made something of their lives. A good number of them have died from gang violence and drug abuse. I was always told that I would never amount to anything and a few times I came close to believing it. To this day my wife constantly reminds me of how far I have come.
I’m married with two beautiful children, Logan and Harley. My son goes to a great school and we live in a nice community(something I am not familiar with). I am able to afford a house where I am able to maintain a decent living and support my mother. She lives with me and helps watched my kids.
I am a high school dropout with a bootleg college degree. The streets told me I would never amount to anything, my family said the same, but through hard work, determination and perseverance I have escaped that life and shown that it is possible to succeed against the odds if you really put your mind to it. This is why I would like to share my story.
If you want to become a programmer like myself, these are some resources that helped me out learning to code. Kevin Skoglund was the person who taught me PHP and later Ruby and Ruby on Rails. Between Books and these online videos, It has cleared a way for me to become a better programer. Both Travis Neilson(DevTips) and Mackenzie Child have helped me become a better front-end developer.
Newly updated for Rails 5, the Ruby on Rails Tutorial book and screencast series teach you how to develop and deploy…www.railstutorial.org