My Precarious Path to Programming in Prague
At 36 years old, I abandoned a lucrative career in the oil industry, sold almost everything I own, moved my wife and my 5-month-old son across the Atlantic Ocean and started as a Junior Developer in a brand new career. It’s been almost a year since I started this new career and I’m really enjoying it. This article is about the weird and winding path that has led me here.
I’m no stranger to technology. I remember when I was 12 years old and my brother came home from school and showed me what he had learned that day. In QBasic, he showed me that he had learned how to get the user to input their name and return an output back to the user. I was fascinated and programming and working with computers became a hobby of mine in my early teens. Ultimately music became a priority for me and I spent more time playing the guitar than building my development skills. For as long as I can remember, I have loved creating and improving things. Creativity and progress have been and always will be at the core of everything I do.
After high school, I had my first failed attempt at college. It was expensive and I didn’t have the discipline needed to keep my grades up. Seeking refuge from my small-town beginnings, I joined the Air Force. I chose Electronic Warfare as my specialty because I love technology and the recruiter told me that because the training was classified that it was impossible to have homework.
I excelled in learning the technology and systems and enjoyed training the new-comers, but I knew the Air Force wasn’t going to be a long-term career for me because the rigid, well-documented nature of the military is definitely not a place that fosters creative freedom. Also, I joined the Air Force as an opportunity to move away from home. However, while I was away from home for 10 months for training, I was sent right back home to the base where my dad and my brother both worked; 30 minutes from home. So much for exploring new territory. Being at home wasn’t all bad. It did allow me to continue playing music with my old friends. We had a band, but I remember my hands shaking so hard on stage that I had to face away from the audience or else I wasn’t able to play. I did end up doing a few small trips across the country and spending three months in Saudi Arabia launching jets during the infamous ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign at the start of the US/Iraq war in 2003. After 4 years in the Air Force, I left to go back to college.
There is more than just technology.
Again, I failed to perform well in school. At this point, it was even more expensive than it was just a few years earlier and I learned that I don’t like the classroom environment. I need a reason to learn something other than the promise of a good grade or praise from an instructor.
Due to my military electronics background, I got a job at a company installing and maintaining scoreboards and video systems; from the small scoreboards in school gyms to the massive display you have in major sports arenas. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the NBA team the Hornets needed a new home. They ended up moving to Oklahoma and I ended up impressing their CTO for some quick work in fixing some issues with the scoring and video systems and he hired me into their 4 person IT department.
Although I was in the IT department helping to rebuild systems that were all but destroyed by the hurricane and the emergency movement across the country that followed, this is where I was introduced to the science and discipline of business. My CTO was a hardcore technologist, but he was also highly skilled in applying technology to move the business forward. He introduced me to process management, project management, and financial analysis. I was always in love with technology for technology’s sake, but this was technology applied with a purpose. This opened my mind to a whole new world of creativity and developed a passion for reading and learning that still exists today.
I have as little interest in sports of any person you will probably ever meet in your life, but it was definitely interesting spending a year meeting people you only see on TV and being courtside for 40+ games. But after a year there, they were moving the team back to New Orleans and I had no desire to move there with this company. It was time to move on.
Climbing the Ladder
I began scrambling to find a new job. I had developed some serious IT skills in the last year so I had a few offers to work in IT, but a friend of mine offered me a chance to move to Chicago to try something completely different. Since the military hadn’t offered a chance to move away from home, I decided to take the job.
I moved to a new city with a group of friends where we would work as safety representatives for a company that worked in an oil refinery. I had no clue what I was doing, but we were hired by a small contractor that wanted younger people that were proficient in using computers and were agile enough to crawl in small and uncomfortable places within the refinery equipment.
Six months in, I get a call on the radio from the boss to meet him in his office. I walked in sweating, not knowing what was going on. I remember what he said to me exactly. “You’re good at math, right?” “Yeah”, I replied. He then says, “Good, go sit next to Rose. She’s quitting in two weeks.” With two weeks of review, I was now a “Cost Engineer.” I had little clue what I was doing and messed up a few things, but I bought and read every book on the subject I could and spent several nights a week in coffee shops reviewing our systems and processes for several years. This is where I got back into programming for a bit. They had this MS Access based cost accounting system that wasn’t scaling well with the growth of the company so I bought a bunch of books and rewrote half of it. At one point I was given a very mundane task of importing excel sheets into a program and manually moving and deleting data. Instead of doing my job for two weeks, I spent two weeks writing a VB script that did everything for me. Last I checked they’re still using that same script after 10 years.
It was also at this time I started tackling my stage fright. I was still playing music at home a lot and taking guitar and piano lessons. But playing at home wasn’t enough, I started going to jam sessions several nights a week and ended up in a few bands playing sometimes 3 nights per week. I’ve had the fortune to play with some amazing players that have stood next to some of the greats like Clapton, Marley, Sam Cooke, and many others. I also participated in a public speaking group called Toastmasters for almost two years. I still experience stage fright, but I know how to manage it.
Eventually, I learned how to schedule very large projects in a system from Oracle called Primavera, and was hired by BP directly to design and implement a maintenance scheduling process and system. For the next 8 years, I was in the oil industry learning the science of asset reliability, process management, large-scale budgeting, leadership, and bureaucratic politics. My career took off. I’ve always been an ambitious person and I was learning how to excel. I was getting promoted and earning great money, but something was wrong. I was spending more of my time navigating the politics of the organization in order to further my career than doing things that warranted actual merit.
I was straying further away from creativity and I wasn’t happy. When you work inside of a large bureaucratic system you can’t really see how your efforts are contributing to the system as a whole. Without this feedback, I couldn’t tell if I was making an impact, growing personally, or even good at my job. I started looking elsewhere again. I started studying Mandarin obsessively and applying to oil-industry jobs in China, but nothing ever came of it.
Around this time I met a girl from Prague who lived just around the corner from me. At the same time, I was also offered an amazing opportunity to build a new department for a smaller company in North Dakota. I turned the job down after only knowing this girl for two weeks. We’ve been married for 4 years and have a 2-year-old son.
I even had an opportunity to work at SpaceX, but after two months of interviews and negotiations, I decided that moving my career and a new relationship to Los Angeles to work 80 hours a week for a company that could literally blow up at any minute wasn’t worth the risk. I don’t regret it, but I still wonder what it would be like working there now. This week’s landing of the three first-stage boosters from the second Falcon Heavy launch was amazing.
Eventually, I found an opportunity to move back to Oklahoma to run a department at a smaller refinery that allowed me to live in my favorite town near where I grew up; however, it required a 110-mile round trip commute every day. I learned a lot there too, but after only two years I had had enough. I was tired of the culture of a heavy, government protected, financially wasteful industry that was resistant to change. I needed to be creative again.
Also, my values by this point had changed dramatically. My ambition had always come from a place of insecurity. I needed to prove that the guy without a college degree could out-perform anyone with one. I needed to earn money to show I was worth something. Now I just wanted to enjoy what I did for a living and spend time with my family and play some music with friends now and then.
Over the Ocean
Since meeting my wife, we took a vacation to Prague every year in May. I love this city, but when you’re on vacation it is difficult to see if you truly like a place or if you just like being away from work. After the 4th visit, I suggested to my wife that we move to Prague. She was obviously in favor so we planned for 14 months. We had to sell a house and two cars and get rid of almost everything we owned. It was a ton of work. We actually didn’t even tell her parents. They thought we were just coming for another routine vacation but were surprised to find out we were staying.
After settling in Prague, I decided that I was going to try to do be self-employed. However, I quickly found that I have no desire to do the amount of lead generation and sales required to earn a living independently. I just want to do creative work, not constantly try to prove to prospective customers that I’m capable of doing so. I spent a year working with some small startups but found that my corporate skillset wasn’t fitting well. I know how to execute, but startups already have those people and they have no need for processes and procedures.
I needed some stability, but I refused to go back into the corporate industrial machine. I refused to commute my life away.
Re-enter programming. In the same way in the past that I have become obsessed with reading and practicing a skill that I needed, I got back into programming. I started in January of 2018 and put 12–15 hours per day for 6 straight months. I got the front-end certification for FreeCodeCamp.org in 28 days. I joined a Coding Bootcamp for 3 months, but I studied almost everything in the boot camp before it even started. My goal was to review material in the boot camp, not to be introduced to a subject there.
During the process of the boot camp, Socialbakers took a chance on me and hired me. I left the boot camp on a Friday and started my new job the following Monday.
That’s when the real work started. I was lost and I knew I was dragging the productivity of my team down. It’s been a year and I still leave work and make sure I still code for a bit almost every night. I read coding articles on the tram ride to and from work about higher-level concepts in design and architecture. I have always been and always will be obsessed with learning more in order to allow me to be more creative. My insecurities are still there, but I harness them instead of suffering from them.
The New Career
Socialbakers provides a great environment for developers. We have a feature-rich front-end application and a complex back-end for parsing, analyzing, and performing machine learning on all the data we provide to the users. The first six months here, I worked primarily in the front-end working on smaller features in our main application. This was great because having to work inside of a well-established codebase exposed me to design patterns and coding practices that you don’t really see when you are first learning. The code review culture is quite strong here. Having every single line of code you write reviewed by someone with more experience is the fastest way to improve your skills.
Recently, I moved to a back-end team responsible for collecting and parsing all of the social media data we need to make our product work. I love this because it lets me see a side of application development that you rarely see from the outside and has a different set of challenges to overcome than front-end development. Our products require us to download, transform, and store about a billion pieces of data per day. We’re completely redesigning and rebuilding the first stage that plans and executes the initial download and storage of all the data. My previous experience in process design, reliability, and cost performance are very helpful in contributing to the team and the more senior developers are, once again, providing feedback to help increase my coding skills.
When I got the opportunity to interview at SpaceX I sought the advice of my friend’s father. He is a brilliant engineer with a balanced life and a loving family. I have always looked up to him. In a series of conversations, he explained that in all of my ambition and pursuits all I ever wanted was a license to think; the independence to be creative in tackling a challenge. I have always kept this in mind ever since. As human beings, we want the freedom to own our decisions and implement our own ideas. It’s fine if they don’t work out as long as it was our decision.
Don’t be afraid to hit the reset button. You’re never really starting from nothing. All your previous skills and experiences will provide value for you in a new situation. In fact, bringing together diverse and seemingly unrelated perspectives make groups more successful, not less. Your so-called unrelated knowledge is never unrelatable. If you want to change careers, do it.
Always study. When I found myself technically educated, but not moving forward I started studying social psychology and behavioral economics. I will never be at a point where I can’t get better at something. Now I just try to a better human being in general; more empathetic, better at listening, and less of a hypocrite. I need to be what I want my son to be.
Fear never goes away, you just acquire the skills to manage it. I’ve played in front of thousands of people, but I still start to shake when playing in front of 20. After twenty years I know how to talk myself down and get on with the show.
I enjoy working at Socialbakers. I’m learning a ton, but my past experience allows me to contribute more than just code and naive newbie questions. It’s small enough that I can see how my effort directly contributes to the company’s bottom line, but large enough to provide structure and apply my skills from my previous experiences.