A co-worker replied to this tweet:
It's a great question, and when I went to respond I had way more than the allotted character count to say about it.
You see, present day me works for a company that I am very proud to work for doing work that I am very proud of doing. I am compensated well, and my boss is amazing.
But this wasn't always the case. And I spent way too long working terrible jobs while my career stagnated.
It is my sincerest hope that this post might help someone lift themselves up and demand better.
Here is my journey so far, including the turning point that doubled my salary and made me fall in love with web development again.
A dubious beginning
I was 19 years old working two jobs as a grocery store bagger and a busboy at a barbecue place, when I found out I was going to become a father.
Panic set in immediately. I could barely pay rent and feed myself let alone care for a tiny human.
After brainstorming/crying/hyperventilating alone in my room I remembered how much fun I had playing with my old Commodore-64 back in the day. Couple that with this new "World Wide Web" thing that kept showing up in the news (this was 1997) and a thought started to form.
How can a kid with no experience and no education gain meaningful employment?
💡 Get good at something nobody else is good at!
I was fortunate enough to recognize that this internet thing would have some opportunity so I bought myself an "HTML for Dummies" book and got to work building websites using notepad on my old beat up Windows machine.
Fast forward a couple years and I got my first real programming job working for a Y2K company that was trying to branch out. They literally asked for someone they could "pay nothing and treat like garbage".
And that dear readers basically defined the next 15 years of my "career".
Carrying a ton of baggage on the road to Struggle City
I spent about a year at that first job and found my way to hot ".com" that paid me really well considering I had no education and very little experience.
I loved it there, but the .com bubble burst shortly after 9/11 and I found myself unemployed for 9 months. I lost everything. I burned through my savings, cashed in my tiny 401k, got my car repossessed and sold everything I had of value. I ended up sleeping on the couch of a friend of a friend with some clothes in a trash bag as my only possessions.
I eventually got a pity job for half what I was making before and then lost that when Dell off-shored all of their contractors sending me back to square 0 again.
Welcome to Struggle City: Population Me
By this point I had a full blown case of impostor syndrome. Multiple layoffs and years struggling through one "Office Space" company after another left me feeling defeated and small. I was so broke and desperate that I never made a "career choice" but just took the first job that said yes to me.
Around this time I picked up a part-time contract gig that helped me limp along in-between jobs. At some point it became busy enough that they wanted to hire on a full time employee.
So they asked someone else. 😢
But he said no, so they settled for me. 😬
If that doesn't set you up for failure I don't know what will.
Regardless, I threw myself in determined to do a good job. And I did do a good job. I worked my tail off for seven years and never got a raise.
Read that again. Seven years. No raise.
And I still like felt like a worthless jerk for taking their money even though I did everything for that company. And when I say I did everything I mean I did everything.
I was fullstack before that was even a term. 😉
Here's a quick rundown of what I did there so that you can understand how deep impostor syndrome can run:
- I installed the OS onto bare metal servers and put them in the rack.
- I designed the database schema from scratch and installed the database server to run it.
- I built the APIs to interface with that database as well as data transformations to ingest and export customer data.
- I installed and configured the webservers.
- I set up all of the above in multiple environments for dev, staging, and prod.
- I then coded up all the websites that I also designed.
ALL. BY. MY. SELF.
And when we had to move off of Microsoft solutions to save money I migrated us off of our custom system to an open-source Linux based solution in less than two months.
That means I learned: Linux, PHP, and MySql good enough to stand up multiple production websites from bare metal in LESS THAN TWO MONTHS. And they ACTUALLY WORKED.
I look at this list now and see a rock star. But back then I only saw all the mistakes I made. I hadn't had a raise in seven years and I felt like I didn't deserve one.
A quick aside before anyone demonizes the company. I don't blame them. This was all on me. They were struggling to survive the whole time and didn't have the expertise to even know that I was doing a good job. So as far as they knew, I wasn't doing a good job.
It is my job to make sure that my successes and struggles are being communicated.
The turning point
I had built the websites off of Drupal and as luck would have it DrupalCon was coming to Austin. So I made a point to get a ticket and go learn what I could.
I had spent the last few years consuming resources from certain companies and authors. I had put all these people up on pedestals. I thought to myself "that's what a real developer looks like". And I never saw myself as a peer to these people, but as just some rando struggling to get by.
After all the talks I met up with a couple people I had met on Twitter and we went to dinner with some of the speakers.
That dinner changed my life. I got to have long conversations with people who were miles ahead of me in my mind and found out they were all *gasp* regular humans!
Sure all of them were better than me at something, but some of them had never even heard of some of the things I was very good at.
Talking database schemas with one speaker, and DTS packages with another, and load balancing ideas with a third. All of those people had no idea what I was talking about. All of them remarked the same thing to me: "Whoa, you know a lot about a lot".
And that was it. Just some simple recognition that I wasn't awful from some people I respected. That I had something to contribute after all. And my confidence spun around 180°.
I immediately started looking for other work and setting up my current company to survive without me. A few months later I landed a killer job at a brand new start up and doubled my salary.
I was now doing exciting meaningful work for people that respected me. And I was having a hell of a lot of fun. Ever since every step has been a strategic step forward. I've demanded a lot more of the companies I work for and my work life has been generally awesome.
If you are riddled with doubt, please stop and list out your accomplishments. If you don't think you've "accomplished" anything at least just write down what you do.
I promise it's more than you think. And if you think that list should be longer or more meaningful, then here's your homework.
Write down a list of your future accomplishments. Then go do them.
Is it a custom component library? Go build one. Nobody has to even use it, just build it.
Is it orchestrating some lambda functions to replace Shopify? Do. It. Then write it down and tell people about it.
Or maybe you want to build your own headless CMS 🧐 Get it done. Then tell me about it!
I can't wait to see what you've done.
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
Top comments (4)
Awesome article! I love the takeaway! We can be our own harshest critic, but when you start listing your accomplishments, things will start to pile up and you will see you are indeed a winner. And like you said, if the list seems low, no problem! Go start executing 💪 Thank you for the motivating words, Justin! Can't wait to read more articles from you 👏
Thank you for the kind words Samantha! 🙇♂️
I cant even begin to express on how much I can relate to this article at the personal level. My journey was very very similar to yours, spending 16 years in a single organization and being what I think of now as "their catch-all statement".
By the time I got out of that work, my self confidence was at its lowest. I switched career to be out of programming. I had to actually see the world to realize that I was not all that bad... Now I do programming as a hobby and am having real fun with it.
Thanks for this article Justin. All the best and have fun.
I was there - worked for three companies, was made redundant from all of them, set up my own company three months before 9/11 and went bust, worked office, worked in a small company that walked all over me... finally have got a career path going after moving on and making my own way. Still suffer from imposter syndrome, still have to repeat to myself what I've managed to achieve over the past 20 years (Dynamics CRM - everything! .NET from beta, including XAML transforming sites that were 'Responsive' before that was a term, DevOps engineer pushing a full MicroServices stack to AWS with a complete CI/CD pipeline with custom hosting for internal environments, and more) in order to believe in myself.
And more than the above... Father. Husband. Worthwhile person. Thanks for this article, it's something everyone needs to be said to them at times — and hopefully, will encourage people to look for rewarding, fulfilling work. It's out there, and when you get it, it's amazing!