How I Became a Programmer

written on Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I posted a very brief response to a post on HackerNews yesterday challenging the notion that 8 weeks of guided tutelage on Ruby on Rails is not going to produce someone who you might consider a "junior RoR developer." It did not garner many upvotes so I figured that like most conversation on the Internet it faded into the general ambient chatter. Imagine my surprise when I woke up to couple handfuls' worth of emails from around the world asking me what I did, how I did it, and how I got a job. I'm assuming, judging by the relatively small amount of mail I got from a random aside on HN*, that there must be a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to pursue a career in programming.

First, A Disclaimer or Two

Please note that this blog post is entitled, "How I Became a Programmer", not, "How You Can Become a Programmer." I'm not a self-help guru or wise or even a particularly good programmer. I did, however, decide at an inflection point in my life to pursue something vigorously and it paid off. Any insights gleaned from my experience are yours to make on your own; I doubt I'll have much insight for your personal situation.

Also, after consulting with my girlfriend, my total time of dedicated effort to becoming a paid programmer was actually about 12 weeks, not ~10 as I stated in the post I linked to above. So, there you go.

My Story: tl;dr

In brief: I left the Marine Corps after more than a decade in July 2010. I got a job at the state lottery as a PR flak in August of that year, and lost it in mid-February. In mid-May I got hired as a part-time "junior User Experience engineer" at DirectEmployers Association. By late August I was a full-time, regular old "User Experience engineer."

When I lost my job I decided that I was done doing PR; I wanted to be a programmer. I took my tax return and stretched it out on a ramen and water diet. My family (dad, mostly...) was nervous as hell. In that February to May span I spent basically every waking moment learning to program, learning about Linux, and learning about computer science. I taught myself Python, I taught myself Django, I learned some functional and imperative programming, and got semi-decent at the Linux command line.

Voila. Without further ado, I'm going to write about what I didn't do, then dive into the questions I got via email.

What I Didn't Do

One of the things that was asked in almost every email was, "How did you learn Django in 11 weeks?"

I want to make it clear that I didn't set out to learn Django per se. Django is just a very nice toolkit of abstractions that makes creating web applications easy using Python. As far as I'm concerned learning Django was incidental to learning to program. I did not -- and still don't -- want to be considered a "Django developer." I'm not even sure I want to refer to myself as "a Python programmer."

In other words, I do not feel that I would be as modestly competent as I am today if I had spent an inordinate time becoming an expert at the abstraction layer of Django, instead of learning the concepts that make Django work.

Questions From Email

Did you begin with web or book resources?

Yes I did. :) Django has excellent documentation, but StackOverflow is a much more comprehensive help source. On more general topics, I believe that MIT's OpenCourseware Introduction to Computer Science video lecture series was one of the first real computer science resources I consumed. I watched through lecture 13 or something.

What kind of hours were you putting in on a daily and weekly basis?

A lot. Sometimes 8, sometimes 12, sometimes 16. I was a willfully unemployed single parent, so I not only had a passion for programming, I was also hungry (figuratively speaking) and desperate. I put myself in a position where I had no room to be lazy or complacent. I think above all else that made me work 10x harder. I didn't play video games, I didn't watch TV, I didn't sleep all day. All I did all day every day was code, hack, program and develop.

Did you have a mentor of any kind?

I did indeed. A very smart guy was and is my mentor still, though I've learned enough that I don't rely on him as much for guidance as I used to. He mentored my metamorphosis into a programmer in nearly every way. Some specific ways he provided leadership: Practical programming knowledge (especially Python & Django); command-line expertise; got me up-and-running with emacs & vim; career advice. It helps that he is a very successful & well-respected guy who has a reputation for informed skepticism.

Was there anything from your previous background and experience that you feel was a particular asset in your self-guided studies?

Not really. I was a computer geek from way back, had a few BBSes in the late 80s (yes, I'm a child of the 80s & 90s), learned QBasic & VisualBasic back in the day, and tinkered with Python for a few years off and on... mostly off. Other than that, nope.

How did you come to choose Django to study?

The guy whose career I was trying to emulate had made a very successful career for himself with Django. Pretty straightforward from there.

Would you mind sharing your learning process?

I want to restate that I am not a self-help guru or particularly special in any way. I just worked hard because I was hungry and in a self-made corner where I had no choice but to succeed. I consumed everything I could that would get me to a place where I could make money doing something I love. That was my learning process. Seriously.

I would appreciate it if you can show me how you learned Django and give me any tips/tricks sites/books to look at to learn Django or even HTML/CSS, JavaScript (Front-end Engineering stuff)

I don't have any tips or tricks to learning except just doing it. I spent a lot of long (but enjoyable) hours learning stuff.

As I said above, I did not and do not consider it fruitful to "learn Django," "learn Ruby on Rails," or "learn Noir." I think a contributor to my success was learning the languages and the concepts behind them, then using a web framework to better learn that language. I learned the framework incidentally to my education in the language.

Go read the Django docs, join #django on and ask questions constantly. That's what I did and it worked ok for me. But honestly I didn't just sit down and read stuff most of the time. Usually I was making things in order to learn concepts better, then reading in support of my goals. I'm a hands-on learner. Some people aren't, but I am so it worked for me. Decide on your own if that's good for you.

As far as HTML & CSS there is just so much information out there, and they're such straightforward concepts. I learned as much HTML & CSS as I needed to do what I needed to do. I did not memorize much about how HTML & CSS work, i.e. syntax & semantics. I don't know right off the top of my head how to create a gradient, but I do know right off the top of my head how to find out. I think that's the important thing.

How did you show the company your skills? Did you show them the projects you've made?

Github, Github, Github. I can't emphasize it enough. Make stuff, put it on github, show people you're passionate and smart and curious.

Also, network. Attend meetups. Meet people. Tweet. Blog. Interact with the community around your language(s). Get to know people. Demonstrate to the world that you really love programming. The week before I saw the job posting for my first programming job I delivered a lightning talk on Fabric, Python's Capistrano analog. That got me on a few people's radar.


If I had to summarize the big overview of how I did what I did, I'd say:

  1. Ask questions, be curious, be passionate
  2. Learn a language, not a web framework for god's sake.
  3. Work hard
  4. Network, attend meetups, tweet, blog, be social and show people you'd be fun to work with, and a credit to team.
  5. (Optional) Put yourself in a position of desperation, so there is no choice but to succeed

My final point really is that I got lucky. I'm not an amazing developer. At the end of the day I'm a newb and I still have a lot to learn. My career is just beginning but I am proud of the effort I put into changing my life. I hope my experiences can help some other folks.

* I should note that I was already of a mind to blog about this since my cousin Jeff has also taken up programming after leaving the environmental consultancy business.

This entry was tagged career and programming