Change is inevitable. You can't keep doing the same thing forever. Your comfort zone is not a place of growth.
These flickers of awareness became a constant anxiety as I inched closer and closer to my thirties. I knew my current trajectory wasn't going to give me the life I wanted and I was unwilling to accept this.
I knew things had to change. Drastically.
Before we get started, let me preface this by saying this isn't a "how I became a developer in X months" type of post. My journey was years in the making. There are even parts of that adventure that had to happen almost a decade before I started for things to play out the way they did. I know of a few developers who were able to make the transition in months, and I applaud them for it -- but that's not my story.
I spent 7-ish years as a tattoo artist before becoming a developer. I enjoyed many aspects of tattooing -- but when it came down to it, it wasn't providing what I needed to give myself, my partner, and our future kids the quality of life I wanted to provide. My last year as a tattoo artist brought in a measly $12,000. That's a low number for a professional with seven years of experience who put in hundreds of hours to improve their craft.
On a whim, I bought a "vintage" Macbook from a co-worker for more than I could technically afford to start pursuing graphic design. Hours and hours of YouTubing and enrollment for a Web & Graphic Design Associate's degree later, I found myself interning at a local marketing agency.
It was destiny: An account rep walked in and placed her business card on the desk I just happened to be manning that day. I mentioned I was studying graphic design, and she said the business's designer had just left. I interviewed with them the next week.
Their original offer was for me to work Mondays from 1-5 at $15/hr. I countered and said I would volunteer Thursdays and Fridays if they'd pay me for Monday thru Wednesday. I got an email saying they'd accepted my offer on Friday.
I knew this was my chance to change my course and I had to make this work. I refused to turn back. I sold my tattoo equipment the next day.
I had to pay off some small student loans from undergrad before I could begin design school. From a design perspective, I can't say that I learned any more than what I had already taught myself from YouTube. However, I did get my first real experience with HTML & CSS. It planted the first seed.
During one of my school projects, I remembered a friend and tattoo client of mine, Sean, who was working with code during one of the breaks we took while I was tattooing him (this was 2013). I caught a glimpse of his screen, asked him what he was working on, and my curiosity was piqued -- but then we got back to tattooing, and I never gave it another thought. Fast-forward to 2015, and here I am messaging him for code help.
I graduated in 2016 on the Dean's list. That degree is still in the sealed envelope it came in, tucked in a box at the back of the closet. But yay debt, right?!
The internship took place alongside design school. It was mostly for graphic design and some video editing work, but I learned a lot about business ethics and office etiquette that I never needed to know before.
I befriended the in-house dev early on. He was a bit older than I, but we had similar music tastes and both fancied ourselves guitarists 😂. My mini-breaks from my desk always consisted of asking him questions about the process of building a website, how the company's CMS works, etc. -- just constant noob nagging really. He never flinched though!
Sometime after learning some HTML & CSS basics in school, I found myself using the internet to find more resources. I pretty much lived on YouTube. Devtips and Quentin Watts Tutorials were my go-to channels, as I had settled using Bootstrap as my tool of choice.
One thing I remember about this time is that I was terrified of Yarn and NPM! I thought that any name, acronym, abbreviation, etc. was an entirely different language that had to be learned. I stayed as far away from it as I could. If a tutorial started with "and just npm..." -- nope, I'll find another.
That may have stalled how soon I would get to a 'hirable' skill-level, but one thing it did was force me to get a solid understanding of the foundations of those three languages. Do I recall every bit of it now? No, but it did make it easier for me to understand what was happening when I did move into larger frameworks.
Oh yeah, I started a podcast too! We lasted a whopping nine episodes before going off-air. My daughter was born, so I took some time off, and our schedules never seemed to line back up to keep it going. I learned plenty in the conversations we had, though.
The show was called CodeView, and the premise was me, a junior developer, asking questions about obstacles, and two senior devs giving answers while reflecting on their early days of code. Remember Sean? The tattoo friend from earlier? He was one of the co-hosts!
The internship turned into a full-time position. I worked mostly as a designer and assisted on the film crew. By 2018, the web development workload at the marketing agency increased-- larger clients and larger contracts -- and they struggled to keep up. The creative director mentioned in passing that they were looking for another developer to join the team and asked if I knew of anyone that would be interested. Of course, my hand shot straight up!
It took some convincing, and a pay cut (ouchie), but they ultimately decided to let me give it a shot. Worst case scenario, they would move me back to design and hire someone else.
One of the hurdles for this particular role was that it involved Coldfusion, and I had no experience in this language. They were willing to invest some time into my training, and I did some extracurricular reading because I wasn't going to let this pass me by.
It was rough at first. To be completely honest, the senior dev's teaching method did not match my learning style. There were moments of friction. I took every possible moment to learn seriously. I taught myself to recognize when my frustration was coming from his teaching style and shift my thinking to account for it.
Cut to July of 2019. By this point, I'd become a constant in Sean's inbox with questions about code left and right. I'd been tinkering with Vue and React at random, and we'd kept an on-going dialogue about projects we were working on as well as our goals and aspirations for our careers.
Sean was the CTO at a tech startup and had recently told me his only other developer was leaving. On a whim, again, I said something along the lines of "if there's any low-hanging fruit I can help with, just to lighten your load until you find someone else, let me know." He replied, "Let's talk about it."
I expected a conversation around the subject of "I appreciate the offer, but we need someone who can do more heavy lifting" yadda yadda. What I got was an offer to work part-time as a contractor! So now I had two dev jobs, neither of which I wanted to quit because I wanted the experience from both - and there was plenty of it to be had. I'd spend the day working with Coldfusion and jQuery and then go home and work until midnight or later with Nuxt and Tailwind.
I got an offer for a design-only position from an agency across the state in June of 2019. I wasn't keen on the idea of walking back from developing, but I told myself I could design during the day and still code with the part-time gig at night, and that that would keep me happy. Boy, was I wrong!
I knew a month in that I had made the wrong choice for my personal happiness. The company was full of awesome people, and many did what they could to make me feel welcome - but I realized that I wanted to code full-time.
It allowed my wife to stay home with our daughter, though. That's something she'd wanted since the day our daughter was born, and I was happy that I could give that to her.
I repeatedly begged my boss to let me join the tech team. That company had their ways of doing things, and it worked for them. I can't fault them for that. It didn't scratch my code itch, though.
It's March of 2020. We're two days into working from home due to Covid-19. I had just uprooted my family and moved across state for this job. I got a call from the CEO of the company informing me that my position was being permanently terminated, with no chance of being reinstated once the pandemic calmed down. It was a real punch in the gut. My wife was five months pregnant. There goes our health coverage. There goes our income. There goes our house?
No problem, I still have the part-time gig. I shoot Sean a message. "Hey, my schedule just became wide open. Any chance I can increase my hours?" Unfortunately, the decision made above his head was that the product we had been working on was going into maintenance mode, and paused all feature building indefinitely. In short, I don't have a part-time gig anymore.
My stomach sank. Of course, I understood. 2020 is kind to no one.
Suddenly, I had nothing but free time. I'd spent the last ten months working two jobs, so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. I sent out resume after resume during the day. Admittedly, I played way too many video games at night.
I wrote a lengthy tweet describing my situation: "father of one, expecting a second, just lost my job, wife is losing health coverage" - and it caught momentum. 100, 200, 300, 400 retweets! Last I checked I think it was 500+.
Some connections and opportunities were presented - but none of them seemed to pan out. I interviewed at Amazon and failed the code test. I interviewed somewhere else and was passed over for a more experienced dev, which made sense. Lead after lead going cold.
Then, I get an email... addressed to Richard. The placeholder content on my website, which was admittedly bad UI/UX on my part was full of references to Silicon Valley, so when they went to type my name in their message, they typed the one they were reading at that point in time. The email was an offer to interview with Layerframe! I interviewed with the team, did a one-on-one with their lead developer, and then did a take-home quiz. They offered me a position after all was said and done.
A few months after that, I got a notification on Twitter. I'd replied with my skills and link to my website on a friend's tweet looking for work a few weeks earlier. Someone had found it and asked me to email them if I was interested. We had a quick call and determined that they needed someone with a little more experience with Vue. I understood and thanked him for his time. Then I get an email that following week. Something changed on their end, and they need to fill a seat as soon as possible.
I'm not one to turn down an opportunity, if you haven't noticed. I'd worked with Vue before, so I felt comfortable jumping in and hoping for the best. The original agreement was to for two to three months while they found their senior dev, but I was presented with an offer after only a few weeks! As of August 17th, 2020, I'm an official member of the Foster Commerce dev team!
I have a job again. I'm not losing my house. I'm working from home full-time as a developer for the first time ever! 2020 is kind to no one, but I snuck this one past it.
That's my story. From tattoo artist to front-end developer in a handful of years and some change. Let me be the first to say that I'm only here because of other people extending a helping hand. From the first woman who pulled for me to get the internship, other developers I've met through connections or online helping debug code or sending kind thoughts and words, to the team at Layerframe taking a chance on a random guy they found in a tweet - it's actions like that that have allowed me to get here today. I do my best to pay that forward every chance I get, and I'll continue that throughout my career.
I noticed a trend while scrolling remote job board after remote job board when I was looking for work. The number of junior dev jobs available remotely were scarce, almost non-existent. If they were remote, then they weren't easy to find. I randomly checked an online thesaurus for synonyms to words around junior and apprentice and eventually landed on protege. I hopped over to my Netlify account to check if Protege.dev was available. Oops! It was, and I just bought it by accident!
I suppose that means I'm supposed to build something with it, right? Well, I had just the idea! A remote job board for junior developers. Not just a job board, though. A job board that champions the candidates it's trying to get hired. A job board that provides opportunities for juniors to contribute and get real-world experience under their belt to help them land that job.
Truth be told, we're still trying to figure out the shape of what some of that looks like - but that's our ambition and goal and we're working/talking/coding our way to it.