Journey Of A New SWE


It's been a decade since I worked in a taco joint with a BS in comp sci because I was clueless about job hunting.

@shekkiesqueaks@computerfairi.es asks... what got you out of the taco place?

So... my DREAM had been to go to grad school. I had gotten the materials together in 2006 when I was finishing my BS. I didn't fill out the paperwork to send them in, because my (future gf/fiance/ex) had broken my heart and I walked around in a depressive fog for 6 weeks and blew out the deadlines and 2 letter grades of my courses that semester (last semester of school).

After graduation, I fart around for a month or two, spending first 2 weeks on WoW about 18 hours per day, then going and doing some random desultory looking for work. Can't get any bites. No industry contacts whatsoever. Career services was a redirect to monster.com (I hear it's better these days). I know a guy who works at the fast food taco joint, and they are hiring. Now, this ain't glamorous work, but The Rent Is Coming Due. It was a hard thing to mop up floors when a year ago you expected it'd be easy to get a decent job that, IDK, paid enough.

So come 2007 spring, I've not been able to get a job in the software industry (because I was TOTALLY IGNORANT because Reasons), and I'm getting desperate, and my money is running out. I was paid 700/mo, and my expenses were 800/mo. Or, you know, something about like that. It's been a decade.

I go to my old advisor and say, look, I'm happy to do scut work programming, whatever, I'd like to go do grad school someday. He's a professor, so he takes FOREVER to get back to me but... everything is super slow-mo and I'm running out of money. The (now fiance) is staying with me in the cheapest 1-room apt in town, has no job (I found out later she didn't bother looking for work, just wandered around to parks. WHATEVER.). I have $50 in the bank that June week and I'm just WAITING for this prof to get back to me. He does so, 1-2? weeks before I go talk to the landlord and ask for an extension so I don't become homeless. I was SERIOUSLY contemplating a tent in the woods. The next step cheaper of housing was a nasty semi-dorm situation.

I had very few solid friends at that time, and no local network - I hadn't plugged into any social organizations as a student. For reasons I'll get into later, I "had no time", which was both true and false.

So... I get this job as a University programmer being paid $19/hr, only allowed to work 19/hr/wk (so they didn't have to do benefits YAY BEING YOUNG AND HEALTHY). This got me out of the immediate hole. I applied for grad school Fall 07, got in probationally or w/e, and was fully admitted S08. I worked with the chair, great old guy, then in Spring 2009, I was able to snag an industry internship, which was about the time StackOverflow came to be. I studied hard, spent time reading it, and around that time I started seriously doing open source contributions and programming at home instead of WoW.

I'd always been a talented programmer and had done a slew of fun small projects over the years, but the three-way combination of graduate school, TA'ing classes, and getting an internship skilled me up fast and let me deliver results in ways that actually looked highly competent. That internship lead to my current nice job at a different company, everything hunkydory.

Summer 2009 my advisor died, which threw my graduate school into a tailspin, yeah, let's not talk about that. Let's talk about some lessons learned.

Dropping the gaming and seriously engaging with programming at home & doing open source skilled me up very fast; getting into the interview was done initially via a "weak link" connection - a friend of a friend (I had improved my social relationships in graduate school. THIS WAS A BIG DEAL) - and I was able to blow away the interview. Once I was in, I got the magic sparkles of "a desirable person", and I tried to sponge up as much information as I could, leading to a Comfortable Career.

SO LESSONS to ME, 15 years ago.

LESSON ONE Get out there and network. Meet people, the same people, on a regular basis. Figure out how to get coffee with people.

LESSON TWO. Video games are a TERRIBLE WAY TO DO LIFE. They provide illusions of success and tickle you into thinking things are well. THEY AREN'T WELL, DIMWIT. Go out and get on an Ultimate Frisbee team - you like it!

TWO, SUBPART ONE: You are putting 30+ hours a WEEK into WoW. Use that time to get on IRC and network in programming channels. Do open source to build a portfolio.

TWO, TO DEAR READER: games are quiet, cheap, and a good way to unwind. I wanted that, since I was BROKE. This helped lead to really bad places. I should have done pencil art. Unwinds, quiet, cheap, but not addictive like WoW (which is a FINELY TUNED MACHINE TO EAT YOUR LIFE).

LESSON THREE. Get internships, if at all possible. Meet people at companies. Take risks and visit San Francisco by greyhound. Go to Seattle and do the same thing. DO NOT GO TO YOUR PARENTS EVERY SINGLE BIG BREAK. GROW UP.

LESSON FOUR: Get a car ASAP. It'll help finding a job. Yeah, it's a pain. But there's that engineering company 7 miles away, and if you can commute there...

LESSON FIVE. Magically figure out how to present yourself as a successful white-collar person.

Dear reader. About HALF of these failures came about because I DID NOT KNOW how to network with white collar professionals, OR present myself as a successful member of the white collar professional tribe.

For all the whaaarghble about how programming accepts everyone, etc, it's a white collar job with expectations of college education. If you can pull that "look like a tribal member" off, you immediately increase your chances 10x or more of getting hired at a reputable firm ( I suspect looking white and male /also/ boosts your chances. But I'm only talking about class right now ).

I did not dress tribally. I did not talk tribally. I did not know how to compose emails tribally. I did not know how to network tribally. I didn't know how to make small talk and present myself in the proper tribal fashion.

This meant that when 2006 and graduation rolled around, I had no ability to confidently deliver a message of "hire me" to the right person (I didn't know who that even was, for one thing). So resume sending to HR, who blackholed me for some reason.

I don't have a clear solution to that for 20 year old me. You see, growing up poor blue collar means that you don't learn most of these things. If your dad is financially successful in your teen years, you don't get that polish - it starts when you're 4, 5, 6, 7, when you are learning how to engage the world with your parents as model. Your parents don't network. Job hunting was often literally walking up to the supervisor on the job and asking if he needed a worker. Reader, it doesn't work like that in most of the white collar world. (n.b, My dad's established now, he networks, he has a much more polished approach to business, he's self-employed and /not/ nearly as scraping by as when I was young - I'd have a far different story today if I was 15 years younger). Class shift...

So looking back: NUMBER ONE I should have sought an internship aggressively in my junior year, regardless of graduate school aspirations. Any internship. Anywhere. No fear of "the big city" allowed (that was a thing too...). This would have jumped polish and presentation levels, since interns are known to be a bit rough. Then, NUMBER TWO structured collegiate social groups to help improve your socialability. NUMBER THREE find a professional watering hole online. SOAK THAT STUFF UP. Interact with successful software engineers who can forward you to their managers. Learn how they talk.

These three things would have bigly helped my class mobility.

but hey, me in 2004? he was a clueless dude. he might have been a homeless dude in a park if things hadn't come together the right way. I caught the breaks just right and I'm ok now, but it was real close for a few years.