I did it. I finally did it. After three-and-a-half years of exhaustive, soul-crushing effort put forth into breaking into the tech industry, I finally made it. I am here. Dragon slain. Victory!!!
So, how did I get here, and what might it mean for you, a prospective newcomer to the tech industry yourself (or not, because, y’know, reading this is still fun and exciting even though the topic isn’t relevant to you!)?
A lot, possibly.
My path to get to this point was anything but typical. Along the way, I learned a lot about what breaking into this industry is actually all about. It turns out that what I needed to finally break through in the end wasn’t exactly what I expected I’d have to do. That could very well end up being the case for you, too. In fact, there’s a solid chance that it is, because this industry is absolutely brutal to break into.
Success IS possible though, even if it feels like the entire universe is working against you. That’s how I felt throughout my job search. Now that I’m coming out on the other side of it, I’ve come away with a realization of what it truly takes to break through this industry’s great wall.
There is this pervasive notion out there that breaking into tech is just a matter of hard work and networking with those in the industry. Just do these things and you’ll win! Pull up those bootstraps pardner and get to it! If I can do it, so can you!!
I got into tech, so what’s stopping YOU from breaking into the industry!?!? Huh!? HUH!?!?
Not so fast, “pardner”.
A lot of advice and “encouragement” out there on breaking into tech, unfortunately, suffers from something called survivorship bias. This is when people who succeeded or “survived” an experience regale you with how they did it, usually with an air of, “This is how you do it and no other ways of doing exist!” as a bit of extra “spice” (bitter spice if you ask me 🤮) on top. The truth, however, is not so clearly laid out by these so-called oracles of breaking-into-tech-ness.
We rarely ever hear from those who failed. Failure is painful, demoralizing, and unfortunately, heavily looked down upon by society. People don’t like to be reminded of or think about their failures. It may not even be due to anything we ourselves did to begin with! Our society has made failure into a thing to be ashamed of, so people usually don’t talk about it.
Shame on us for demonizing failure I say, but I digress.
The reality is that starting a career as a software developer is an immensely grueling task. It is not for the faint of heart. There is also no one right or correct way into the tech industry. Persistence is absolutely necessary to succeed unless you are profoundly lucky. I tend to not tempt the wrath of Lady Luck on important life decisions, myself. She can be downright ruthless sometimes. 2020, anyone? 🦠
Why is it like this, though? Fundamentally, it comes down to how the industry sources and hires candidates.
First off, it requires extensive knowledge of algorithms and data structures usually only taught in computer science programs to get through technical interviews.
Much of this technology is abstracted away in the modern tools most developers use, yet we grill prospective candidates this way anyway. This tends to leave out nontraditional candidates who learned to program via other means and have the capability to do the job, but not the knowledge necessary to pass our industry’s contrived interviewing process.
On top of that, breaking into the industry is a lot more challenging than it used to be. This is in part due to advances in the technologies developers use on a regular basis.
You’re required to know a lot more and in greater depth than those who got their start several years prior to now. It didn’t used to be quite so difficult. Just ask these grizzled industry vets about the good ol’ days:
People who have been in the tech industry for more than a few years: when we give career advice to new developers we need to realize that getting your first job has changed dramatically. It's much, much more difficult for them than it was for many of us.17:15 PM - 24 Nov 2020
Kyle ShevlinI always try to be clear about this. What I did to get a job and what you need to do are worlds apart!
I barely knew HTML, CSS, & jQuery when I started. Can't even claim I knew JS (and it was a couple years before I knew the difference).
The bar to entry gets higher every year. twitter.com/ASpittel/statu…17:21 PM - 24 Nov 2020
Steve PauloCo-signed. I started in tech over 16 years ago and basically fell ass-backwards into it with just a PoliSci degree and all self-taught/on-the-job skills. That path just doesn’t exist anymore. twitter.com/ASpittel/statu…19:43 PM - 24 Nov 2020
Nick DeJesus 🛒🎉 - Unpaid CTO @BTPipelineThere's a lot of wild stories from like 10 years ago where people got jobs with literally NO knowledge of anything coding and just happened to land in these opportunities.
Now you need to traverse B trees blind folded just to add border-radius to buttons all day twitter.com/ASpittel/statu…17:29 PM - 24 Nov 2020
Look at job postings these days for “entry-level” or “junior” developer positions and you’ll see just how different things are now compared to back then. It truly is rough out there, friends.
Worst of all, our industry (and frankly our whole society) has a problem with bias and prejudice. We tend to be preferential toward those most like us, particularly along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, and class.
Because people of certain backgrounds have less exposure to technology, in part due to these very biases themselves, they have a tougher time breaking through and thus are less represented than they otherwise should be. This in turn exacerbates the “tech establishment”’s bias against underprivileged people because they are more unfamiliar with those different from them, and, unfortunately, are oftentimes completely fine with keeping it that way.
It’s this bias and prejudice we have that we humans should be ashamed of and push back against, not failure! Nonetheless, it’s unfortunately the way things are for now.
Fortunately, there are efforts being made to address these inequities, and it is our duty to help out in these efforts wherever we’re able to. Technology is supposed to be about making life better for everyone, which means it's that much more important that everyone is included, regardless of background.
Even though the truth can be painful to acknowledge, it’s important when making big, life-altering decisions. It is with the truth that we can begin to truly fight these fires and win victories, both for ourselves and for others.
Still, you can only ever succeed if you keep at it, even though there is never a guarantee of success in life. As one saying goes: if you’re in hell, keep going. That’s a pretty great way to put it, or at least it was for me.
If you truly believe this is the right thing for you, whatever your reasons, then go forward and fight like hell for it! Although the path into tech is hard and unequal, it is still possible.
You might now be wondering: well then, how did you specifically manage to break into the industry, especially as someone on the autism spectrum?
The short of it is, I got to this point through a whole lot of hard work and a series of coincidences. Not too helpful, right?
Like a lot of nontraditional entrants into the tech industry, I began my journey by attending a coding bootcamp. After graduating from Coding Dojo in the summer of 2017, I was ready to begin building out my portfolio and start applying for jobs. What followed was, well… absolute hell.
I did all of the things I was advised by so-called industry pros to do to the best of my ability: studied and practiced algorithms and data structures, attended local networking events and job fairs, built out my portfolio, applied to every job I found where I matched at least 50% of the requirements, etc. I did everything I could that I was supposed to do.
I had even gotten into and participated in “career accelerator” programs like LaunchCode and Pathrise to help optimize my application strategy and interview preparation. I also applied to various apprenticeship programs like Microsoft’s LEAP, LinkedIn’s REACH, and even Twitter’s Engineering Apprenticeship Program, to name a few. I truly exhausted every possible option within my reach that I stumbled upon.
So, then. What was the end result, you ask? Ah, that...
In all fairness, the career accelerators I participated in still helped me a ton. In fact, the help I got from Pathrise played a big role in preparing me for my interviews for the job I will be starting soon at Microsoft.
Still, it seemed like no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get through. Networking felt like a complete waste of time, especially as someone on the autism spectrum. I applied to places relentlessly, scouring Indeed and LinkedIn job boards for openings. Very rarely would I get called to interview. When I did, I would usually get only as far as the technical screen. Only 3 times did I get any onsites during the first 3 years.
All of it ended in complete failure.
It was hard not to be devastated by depression and hopelessness as the job search dragged on. After awhile, I even started thinking of giving up entirely or even of things much worse than that. Nothing seemed to work no matter how hard I tried. What was I supposed to do? Everything seemed hopeless.
Of course, me being me, I had no choice but to keep going. I persevered.
What ultimately made the difference for me was twofold: I got lucky enough to gain some industry-relevant work experience, albeit unpaid, and I took advantage of diversity hiring initiatives targeting people with autism.
Of course, things such as continuing to practice my algorithms and data structures were also crucial to my success. Other than that and my hard work in other areas though, it was pure luck. Although networking never worked out for me in terms of getting a job, I was lucky enough to meet certain people that brought me onto their team and gain leverageable experience as a software developer.
My final breakthrough came after applying to and participating in Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program. I had applied before in the past, but never got past the 2-hour online technical assessment until my third attempt. By then, though, the pandemic was in full swing and before I could be invited to their onsite event, the event was canceled. I think we can all collectively agree that COVID-19 sucks, right? Several months later, I got news that the program was back and pandemic-proof this time, so I applied again, passed the 2-hour technical assessment and HR interview, and then finally attended their “virtual onsite” hiring event.
That time, finally, was the moment. I poured everything I had into my preparation for the 3 technical interviews on the final day of the hiring event. Less than a week later, I got the news I’d been waiting for years to receive: an offer for employment. Victory, finally, at long last!
If it weren’t for autism hiring initiatives like Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program, I would still be lost in the wilderness without any hope of ever making it in this industry. Unlike other opportunities I applied to, I had a much higher response and interview rate and got much further into the hiring process by applying to various companies’ autism hiring programs. It was as if I was finally being valued for who I am, and it made all the difference in the end.
Despite this long-awaited victory of mine, my experience has shown to me that hiring in the tech industry is beyond broken and that diversity hiring initiatives across the board need to be cranked up to eleven so that unrecognized talent can finally get the opportunities they deserve. Nobody should ever have to go through what I went through to get to this point. Nobody.
Although my tale is as unscripted as it gets, my hope is that the experiences I went through can at the very least shine a bit of light on the realities of obtaining that first job in the tech industry. It is not easy, but it is absolutely still possible.
Hard work alone isn’t enough. Networking alone isn’t enough. It is so easy to be discouraged when nothing seems to be working. It is so easy to doubt yourself when everything seems to fall apart right before your eyes. It is so easy to believe that it is impossible when you’re doing everything right and yet you still find yourself lost in the darkness. Even so, in spite of all of that, it is still possible.
I’m not here to tell you that if you just keep at it, things will surely work out for you eventually. There is never a guarantee that things will work out. Not to mention, systemic barriers for underrepresented minorities are very real and I have faced them myself as a person with disabilities. Nonetheless, nothing can ever change unless people take action to make change. This applies to addressing societal injustice as much as it does to establishing a career in the tech industry.
Whatever you might be feeling about your job prospects in this industry, know that you are absolutely worth it, totally capable, and absolutely, certainly belong in this field. Don’t let anyone, no matter who they are, an interviewer, some internet tech bro reply guy, or whoever else tell you otherwise. They are flat wrong. Period.
Now, go be awesome and slay that dragon, fellow internet stranger! 💙 🦄 🌈 🔥 ⚡️ 🐉 💯 💪