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Andrew McKeever
Andrew McKeever

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Another self taught journey story.

When I first started learning web development in pursuit of making a career out of it, one of the most helpful posts were the success stories of other self taught developers. It was intimidating taking interviews without a formal education. It's also a lonely road learning on your own. For those of you who may have or our currently feeling alone and nervous about breaking into the industry, know that what you're feeling is normal.

Back log

In May 2011 I graduated from university with a degree in Psychology and what was essentially a mortgage in student loans. I had an internship in Human Resources that taught me enough to know I never wanted to work in HR. A friend was in a similar situation so we decided together to ship off to South Korea to teach English while traveling around Asia. It was a great gig and I highly recommend it to anyone interested. It was there that I met my now wife, whom having German family, wanted to teach in Hamburg for awhile.

After arriving in Hamburg, I spent my first three years as a preschool teacher. Over that period of time I realized that I lacked the passion required to become a great teacher like so many other teachers I've met. Being unhappy going into work everyday was what I wanted to avoid, so I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I liked to do. I didn't want to have to back to school, being swamped with student loans I could not afford to work part time.

Fixing my friends computers when they had a problem got me thinking about IT, after all I did enjoy it quite a bit (I also could waste a lot of time on Reddit). However, IT positions usually required some sort of technical degree and the possibility of on call evenings and weekends for depending on the position out me off. More digging around, eventually I found a forum about learning to program. Stories of other developers learning on their own and landing a job within a year sounded so exciting. I began with FreeCodeCamp and quickly programming wasn't just a way to make more money, but I had at last found my career passion.

The application process.

Evenings and weekends were mostly spent working through the FCC curriculum, reading medium articles and books, or popping by some meetups when there was one I was interested in. Through the meetups, I found a few programmers who were willing to answer all the questions I would have with my projects or programming in general; not enough thanks could be given programmers like these.

It took me around 8 months to build enough projects to get a rather basic, rough portfolio's built so I started to apply for that first professional developer role. In the beginning I only applied to junior positions, but this left me with only applying to maybe two positions a week, after a few rejections I started to apply to anything that sounded like interesting work.

Rejection was the hardest part about learning to code. As if algorithm challenges and coding road blocks weren't enough to make me feel like an imbecile, reading rejection letters or not evening getting a response was the cherry on top. Unfortunately rejection is apart of the process and if you're finding yourself applying with no success, keep hammering out those applications and try not to take the rejection personally. Also, there's some very good articles out there on cleaning up your resume to get past the automated buzzword rejection pile that so many companies use.

Landing that first developer role

After managing to receive a few on site interviews, I had the wonderful pleasure of being rejected in person. Most companies actually had a rather nice interview process, asking mostly technical questions and no algorithm challenges. However, my lack of experience gleamed through from my lack of technical terminology and rejection shot down a lot of my hopes of finding that first gig. A lot of thoughts raced through my head: Am I foolish for thinking I could do this without a degree? Were those other self taught developers actually geniuses in disguise? Is making a career of this new found passion a pipe dream?

One evening I had an in person interview with a small, six member startup. I sat down with the CEO who after glancing over my resume said to me, "To be honest, without a degree in CS no one will hire you". My heart sunk deep into my chest. It took a lot to not walk out the door then and there. He did offer to pay me a €450 a month while working 30 hours a week; I thanked him for his time and told him I'd sleep on the offer.

Immediately after that interview I thought about whether I should continue applying and give up over a few beers at the pub. Reading other's similar struggles, I heeded their advice to focus on learning and apply again when I was ready. Giving up would only guarantee I'd never become a full-time, paid developer.

Around a month later a position for a Front-end developer building emails landed in my inbox. The skills set was for the basic languages of the web, perfect for what I already knew. The interview process required an algorithm challenge along with a quick take home assignment, but nothing too difficult and I wasn't exactly I'm a position to turn away a potential offer just because the interviews weren't ideal. I eventually received and accepted that offer,a few weeks later. Two months after being told I'd never get hired without a degree, I was finally a professional developer. I've since moved on from emails to web development and soon an in-house application, but all of that was thanks to getting my feet wet with emails.

Lessons learned and advice

Keep grinding, it takes grit - There are only a handful of career fields out there that don't require a formal education. This is a wonderful thing for those of us who don't have the time or money for school, but you're competing against many who do have an education. They worked hard to get where they are, and you'll have to work harder to prove yourself. Don't let anyone bring you down, but know the road is tough and different for each individual.

The perfect job doesn't come right away - So many forums and sub-reddits out there are filled with amazing success stories of people who straight out of college, boot-camp or their first application received an offer for their dream job. Great on them, but I do feel that's not what the majority experience. When you're working to break into the industry, sometimes you need to just take what you can get in order to get the foot in the door. That's okay, with time the better jobs will come.

Be grateful to those who gave you a chance - Honestly, sometimes finding a job is sheer luck. My second job was with a wonderful agency with a great team. I would never of gotten the role without my supervisors and seniors taking a chance on a me. I'm thankful that they did, worked hard to prove them right and hope to one day pass on that same faith to another developer looking to break into the industry.

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