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Maria Yanchauskayte
Maria Yanchauskayte

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How to Grow as a Developer if You Live in a Small Town

by Sergey Zhuk, back-end developer at Skyeng.

Hi! My name is Sergey. I live in Bryansk, Russia. It’s far from Palo Alto — both literally and figuratively. It’s a small town 400 km (249 mi) from Moscow. It held its first IT conference this summer, and there’s not a single business here whose name you would recognize. But it didn’t stop me from publishing several books on programming (which are selling) and speaking at conferences and international podcasts.

I’m not just bragging. A couple of years ago, I had no clue what SOLID stood for. For many years, I had been going with the flow until I found myself stuck in a rut. But then I came around — and now I’m going forward faster than ever.

I hope you can learn from my experience — my solutions are easy and simple and don’t require much investment. And if you too became a successful developer without leaving your hometown, share your story in the comments.

How I found myself on the slippery slide but didn’t give in

My story is like many others — I got into computers at school, bought my first book on programming, went to university to study IT. With one exception — I knew English ever since I was a kid.

My family was not especially well-off, but my parents always took my education very seriously. They sent me to a school with a focus on English language. I also studied with a tutor. By the time I finished school, I could read and write pretty decently.

In the next 10 years, I put those skills to almost no use.

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Four of my friends and I worked from an office in Bryansk for a Moscow business.

The same goes for everything I learned at uni. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super grateful to my professors. But the curriculum was rather hectic and outdated. I had some scattered knowledge of C, C++, PHP, .NET, algorithms, and even neural networks. But I didn’t know what to do with it. I had a couple of job interviews. I got to read their documentation — it was all Greek to me. My future looked rather bleak, but then I was invited to work as an outsourcer.

The money was good — I had no reason to quit. I had no motivation to learn something new either.

One day the firm just shut down. For the first time in five years, I was looking for a job. I quickly realized I wasn’t up for the competition. Recruiters asked about some features — but I’d never heard of them.

I had to face the sad truth — I degraded. I needed a new strategy. I stopped sending out résumés and decided to find a strong team to grow up to (and I did). I wrote down everything I needed to learn and dove right in.

How to write a technical blog and don’t give up while you have no readers

At every interview, I wrote down everything I had to know — but didn’t. I found a this-time-definitely-a-temporary job for $600 a month and started to catch up with the world of programming. I was surprised how much English I still remembered (good thing I had studied it for 10 years as a kid). I found information mostly in English — it was more up-to-date and there was just more of it.

I wanted to organize all my notes in a convenient and searchable way. I thought of an electronic text posted online. A blog looked like a perfect solution. I was writing in English because I was reading mostly in English. And the language itself is just more fit for writing about programming. I needed no inspiration — I mostly wrote about things I’d just learned myself. I would jot down a couple of pages every evening. I had no readers — but wasn’t bothered as I did it for myself.
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There’s no chance you don’t know something once you wrote a blog post about it. Recently I had my milestone — 100 posts

One year later, I found a new great job. But I didn’t feel like giving up my blog — on the contrary, I wanted to share my knowledge. Asynchronous PHP was becoming a thing, and I tried ReactPHP for one of my tasks. I could not find any information about it even in English, so I wrote my own article based on my experience. I posted a link on Twitter tagging the developers behind ReactPHP — and they reposted it. My blog got good traffic. After that, I started to post links to my blog on PHPtoday, Reddit, HackerNews, AwesomePHP, and other big resources. I rarely respond to comments — good or bad — not to waste time. I just post links to promote my blog.
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I was featured in PHP Weekly digest a couple of times — that’s about 14k subscribers. I got noticed by Roman Pronsky; now he features my articles in PHP Annotated Monthly in Jetbrains blog and PHP Digest on Harbr (by the way, they have an amazing Telegram channel).

I still have plenty of topics to write about. For instance, how I wrote a tool for developing long-running applications. Or how we improved the process of code review in our team. The blog is now two years old and has several thousands readers every month. It means people need it.

Besides my wish to help people and spread the knowledge, I also have a rather pragmatic interest. I learned my lesson from four years ago. If I ever need to look for a job again(knock on wood!), it shouldn’t be me who comes to employers. They should come to me and offer me a job. My blog helps to build a personal brand. The next step is videos!

How to make screencasts in English and why you should do it

As my audience grew bigger, I got into self-improvement — I was reading books and watching tutorials. And I paid for them. That’s how I got the idea — to show the screen while coding and commenting on it. That’s not rocket science, I could do that too.
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All the cuteness on my channel is brought to you by my cat Busya

Besides, some people prefer to read, and others prefer to watch videos. So I decided to turn some of my blog posts into screencasts. Again, I just did it for myself. I was subscribed to Jeffrey Way’s Laracasts at the time, and I really loved his approach. He tried to make his videos perfect to every little detail — no misprints in code or five-minute pauses for installation. I found his mini-course on making screencasts, studied his tips on the soft and the recording and editing process and started my channel.

I have 1.3k subscribers, my most popular video has more than 9k views

I’ve heard that in TV shows one minute of screen time equals one day of work. In screencasts, one minute of screen time equals about one hour of work. I choose a topic, write the code, make sure it works and then write the script for the video. Then I record the video — just the screen without comments. I record the voiceover separately and then edit everything together.

What do I get from that

People invite me to conduct webinars in English. Screencasts do a great job of promoting my manner of delivering information. And as there are very few experts on ReactPHP, my name is on the first page of Google search results on the topic.
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That’s something :-)

So one day I opened my email and found an invitation from NomadPHP(their community has about 3k people). Several months later, I sat down in my Bryansk apartment, checked my humble microphone and spoke for an international audience. The presenter, who was from Wisconsin, said I had a better accent than he did (I’m always amazed how good foreigners are at complimenting people). I proposed a topic for a second webinar on my own initiative — they loved it and organized it in no time.

People invite me to speak on podcasts. My first talk was in English. While speaking fairly good English, I didn’t have much experience of traveling or talking to natives. But I got invited to PHP Roundtable.

I had to talk to these three guys in English. I was super nervous. I had a newborn daughter and was very worried about her crying in the background. Good thing it was summer, and my wife could take her for a walk.

All the rest was pretty standard. We agreed on time and topics, checked the connection 30 minutes before going live and recorded the meet-up through a video chat with local voice backup.

I publish books on Amazon and Leanpub. When people hear that I’ve written several books, they are shocked. Well, my books are not printed — I just collected my blog posts in PDF-files and uploaded them to Amazon and other sites. I turned down all offers to print the books. With electronic copies, I get almost everything people pay for the book, but with hard copies, I’d get only about 5%.
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Perhaps my time as a senior developer costs more, but that’s still enough to buy treats for my daughter

The idea came to me when I already had a lot of information on certain topics. I thought some people would rather have one searchable file on their computer than go to my site to look for the information they need. Books will also bring me more traffic. I spent four months compiling articles into a book, uploaded it and then mentioned in my blog. The first purchase happened in an hour. Not a bad conversion rate! Now I repeat these steps whenever I have enough new material and inspiration.
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I found an illegal copy of my book once — but those people deleted it as soon as I asked. I don’t charge much, prices start from $6. People can pay more if they want

I meet new interesting people. Alexey Pylitsin, the Russian translator of PHP documentation, volunteered to translate my book. At every meet-up, someone comes up to me and says, “Thank you for your blog, that article was really helpful!” I’m always glad to hear that.

I speak at conferences and meet-ups. It’s a whole new experience for me. My town doesn’t have an IT community. I was about to reach out to the PHP community in Rostov-on-Don when my company hired people to promote IT meet-ups and send us to conferences.

In just a couple of months, I came all the way from my first conference talk to my first application for a big conference (they accepted me, with all travel expenses and accommodation provided). Now my family doesn’t see me a couple of weekends a month, but my wife knows it grows my worth. I’m not looking for a job, but I did get a pay raise ;-)

Almost all of this happened in the last 18 months. A couple of years ago I didn’t know what SOLID was. All I want to say is that if I could do it, you can do it too.

Never stop growing. And share your stories in the comments.

Top comments (11)

cescquintero profile image
Francisco Quintero 🇨🇴

Great article!

Living in a city that is small compared to the main two here in Colombia I can relate to many things Sergey describes.

Because of the limitations, I've also been trying to differentiate myself from the community. Not that I'm widely recognized in the local scene but I'm trying to stand out.

I have been writing in my own blog since 2011(though I only publish in Spanish), I have handbook(in progress) published in Leanpub, have given talks in local meetups. Guess I'm missing the part where I speak at a conferences 😆

The story of Sergey is really inspiring and now I want more to keep the effort. ✌🏽

seregazhuk88 profile image
Sergey Zhuk

Hi Francisco!

You're on your way. Blogging for 8 years - it is really great! I've checked your book and it was updated almost a year ago. Why you have stopped working on it?

Talking at local meetups is a good start. Yes, you are missing conferences)) and also, maybe you have some local podcasts. It turns out that many podcasters are very open to new not-well-known guests. Try to reach someone.

Don't stop blogging and finish the book ;)

cescquintero profile image
Francisco Quintero 🇨🇴

Thanks for the encouraging words, Sergey.

Why you have stopped working on it?

I changed jobs and forgot to dedicate time to it. But it's on the 2020 plans 😁✌🏽

tyu1996 profile image
Brian Ting

Amazing article! The hometown I live is very small (250k population) and the development here is only focused on heavy industries. Here don't have any IT environment nor positive vibe on it: the people here just don't see IT/CS as a good future. I was being doubted by surrounding people when I said I wanted to study CS, even some of them were trying to discourage me, yet I got through it ultimately.

I never regret I made the choice of taking CS program, and now I'm in last semester. I don't have any plan to develop my career in my hometown so far, instead I planned to travel to bigger city that have this kind of job opportunity soon after I graduate. Perhaps someday I got enough working experience and skills, I might come back to develop my career.

yanchauskayte2 profile image
Maria Yanchauskayte

Brian, thank you! And thanks for sharing your story! Good luck!

dmitryprogrammer profile image

Thank you Maria for stuff and Sergey for inspiration! You actually inspired me for couple last years! Wish you success!

seregazhuk88 profile image
Sergey Zhuk

Thank you, Dmitry!)

yanchauskayte2 profile image
Maria Yanchauskayte

Thank you, Dmitry!

benjamin707 profile image
Benjamin John

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codeuiandy profile image

Wow 😮 if you can make it as dev then what'stopping other dev out there

gabeguz profile image
Gabriel Guzman

Thanks for sharing!