How I Got Into the Web Development Industry

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from students recently about how I landed my sweet gig at Lab Zero, or, more generally, how I got into the industry in the first place. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary, but I thought I’d write it up here so I can cut down on repetition. (DRY is an important practice!)

The main reason people ask me about my own path is because they’re often so torn nowadays between going the bootcamp route, or just soaking up as much free knowledge as possible and then dipping their toes into a small-time position. I can’t say whether one’s better than the other. Bootcamps have the benefit of teaching you a massive amount in a short time, while also taking a lot of your money and giving you unrealistic expectations about how many hours per week you should be working. The DIY route allows you to learn at your own pace and climb the career ladder, but it takes much longer until you’re making a six-figure salary, or whatever.

I chose the latter, mostly because the bootcamp option didn’t exist when I was starting off as a full-time professional in 2008 – but also because I had been making websites since I was 9 years old, in 1994. This, of course, gave me almost a decade and a half of experience before I entered the professional world in earnest. And I cannot stress how important years of experience are. No matter how much a bootcamp attempts to cram into your skull, there is no way in three-ish months that you will be able to come up with an exhaustive set of creative solutions to the myriad problems you will encounter in the real world.

It’s a bit disingenuous for me to say my career started in 2008. Even though I wasn’t getting paid for it, starting off and making my own websites was a very important step. As a kid, I found it very freeing to be able to create anything I wanted to express and put it on the web. Some comics on my site date back to 1996. This very blog started out in 2001 as a place to experiment with designs and new technology.

Here’s the results of what was probably my first paid gig, probably from around 2001. I got this job because my step-brother lives at this home and they heard that I was at “whiz kid,” so they asked me what I could do.

When I was in college, I took two summer internships at Sun Microsystems in 2005 and Autodesk in 2006, found through my dad and I think through craigslist, respectively. They were paid internships, and generally focused on me picking up the slack with the group I was in – doing some testing of features, writing simple forms (my first brush with PHP), and generally learning how to function in an office setting.

Speaking of college – I chose to be a Linguistics major, after an attempt at Computer Science didn’t work out (mostly thanks to my ridiculous fear of math). Some might argue that Linguistics has a lot to do with programming, and to that I say: that’s a pretty big stretch. Syntax trees and morphology are pretty interesting to the analytical mind, but they’re not programming. I even started off on a grad program at UW Seattle in Computational Linguistics in an attempt to rope computers into my study.

The summer before I started grad school, I found a craigslist posting from a business owner looking for help with his site. I ended up working with a designer to overhaul some HTML and add a few extra pages to the site. I ended up continuing to work on the project from time to time throughout the school year.

By 2008, family matters made me decide to move back to the Bay Area. Back to living at my dad’s house, I decided I’d get a job while I was deliberating about whether to continue my grad program. I searched craigslist again, and found a posting for a web developer position at Diabetes Health, a small magazine in Marin. This became my first full-time job. I even bought a car for my commute (which turned out to be a poor decision as I used it for less than a year). I was basically thrown onto an existing PHP stack and had to basically learn the language on my own, fixing up the previous developer’s work and starting to add features of my own. Despite being the “smartest person in the room” (that is, the only developer in the company), I learned a significant amount about full-stack web development out of necessity.

While living in Marin, I started to cultivate a group of friends mostly based in San Francisco. It became apparent after a year that 1) I didn’t want to continue my grad program, and 2) I shouldn’t stay at my dad’s house forever, so it was about time to find a job in the city.

I scoured craigslist for a position – yet again – and found a nice challenging one at Linden Lab, working on their marketing sites and a few behind-the-scenes tools. At this point I was pretty much ready to say my career had begun.

Although I was fired for weird reasons after a year, a former coworker referred me to Lab Zero, which I joined in May 2010, and I remain to this day, doing all sorts of things for all sorts of companies.

I have to say, referrals are really the way to go. But of course, you have to get your foot in the door first, and make some good connections (read: be nice to your co-workers). If you don’t yet have the connections, craigslist was pretty much the place for me, and I’d assume it continues to be a good source to this day.

It’s also worth noting that I’m happy where I work, and barring anything terrible, am not looking to “climb” the job ladder into a bigger or cushier position. Pay’s good, responsibilities are good, and I personally don’t want to end up in a situation where I’m delegating all the actual work to other people. But that sort of thinking isn’t for everyone. People at LZ have come and gone, looking to become managers or executives or what have you. And if hopping from place to place is for you, tech is currently the right kind of industry for that.

So that’s it! I hope this has been helpful and given you an idea of how one developer got to where he is today. I benefitted from growing up in a household that encouraged computer use, turning web development into a very long-running hobby for me. But if you’re on the job hunt, this predisposition is certainly not expected of you. Unless you’ve decided on the bootcamp route, start small and you’ll get somewhere sooner than you know it.

Fired

I have a job now and the mandated 30-day silence period has ended, so here’s this post!

I was fired from Linden Lab last week. Basically, some goons were banned, other goons asked me why they were banned, I asked coworkers and attempted to discover in our internal issue tracking system why they were banned, and relayed my relative lack of findings. More simply, I broke NDA.

It’s a real shame that despite my contributions to Linden Lab, this was the anvil that broke the perfectly healthy camel’s back. It sort of came out of nowhere. I had been granted a bonus just two weeks prior. Coworkers across the board all appreciated my contributions. I was having a great time working there. But an attempt to share internal information with especially dubious customers is an obvious no-no, so I had to be let go.

I don’t agree with the result. I obviously misjudged and overstepped my boundaries, but I am very surprised that what I did led directly to termination. It was also said that what I did would create a lack of trust between me and my coworkers. I debate that – I am not the untrustworthy type, and I learned my lesson. I can’t take back what I did, I don’t think this damages my relationship with anyone irreversibly.

I am not boasting when I say that my absence at the Lab will hurt the company more than the result of anything I could have discussed with these users. I think my team believes it too, but rules are rules. I don’t think this extreme decision is wrongful termination, though. I did indeed break a rule that was in my employment contract. They have every right to let me go, but I didn’t expect that Linden Lab would be the kind of company that would be so strict about these sorts of things.

Many of my coworkers have contacted me since my departure, shocked and saddened by my abrupt leave. I signed an agreement not to incite anyone to leave for 30 days, so I’m trying to be careful about what I say to them, since I’m sure a lot of them might find this whole affair quite angering.

I’m not worried about my future prospects. This is a minor setback – given my array of skills I don’t expect to be unemployed for very long (and after properly explaining my reason for being fired to future interviewers, it shouldn’t affect any decisions too much). I’m just disappointed that such a good experience was taken away from me. It was fun work, fun people, and a fun workplace. I’m also concerned about what will become of the projects and teams I’ve worked on. Many were short-staffed (with me as the only developer on a specific project), and hopefully they’ll find a capable replacement. Of course, it’s no longer my problem.

Here’s to bigger and better things.

And then he got hit by a car

It's been half a year since I updated my journal, so I thought I'd give a recap to those who've either been in the dark, or following me on Twitter and have as bad an attention span as I do when it comes to keeping track of what is actually happening with people's lives.

In summary, my life has changed a lot and gotten much better since the beginning of the year. In fact, I'm almost in awe that so much good stuff has happened in the duration of half a year. Major changes include moving into an apartment in the city, getting a new job, and selling my car.

One day, my good friend Margot notified me of a friend of ours looking for a new roommate, in a room with amazing rent and in a neighborhood where I wanted to move. I jumped on it and confirmed the room by the end of the day. It's in the Tenderloin, which is known as the “worst neighborhood in SF”, but it's where I wanted to move because of its proximity to so much good stuff. Nob Hill, Chinatown, Union Square, Downtown, and the Civic Center are right next door. The homelessness and drug abuse on the streets concerns me, but it doesn't affect me. I feel safe. And my roommates are wonderful people. My room is huge. I couldn't ask for much more.

I quit Diabetes Health in May, and got a new job doing web development at Linden Lab. So I get to walk around Second Life as a robot and get lauded by residents just because my avatar's last name is “Linden.” The office is sweet, and it's a 10-minute bike ride from my house. Just this last week I got the nod that I'm going from contract to full-time. Some of the stuff I've put together at LL is already online. And I'm making much more than I spend, so I don't have to worry about money at all. (And buying drinks and stuff for friends without fretting about the cost is an added benefit, too.)

I sold my Prius within less than a year of buying it new, taking a substantial loss – but at the same time, glad that I bought a car and drove it around for almost a year instead of watching the money disappear even faster on the stock market. My primary method of transportation is my bike, and I'm loving biking through the city. My health insurance at DH just ran out at the beginning of this month, so it's a good thing I'm going full-time at LL, so I don't have to worry about cars becoming crashed into me.

Other bits of goodness include: making and maintaining friends through Something Awful, local bars and hangouts, work, and old friends from high school and college who are still in the area. Dating nice girls. Being within BART's reach, so the rest of the Bay Area's within reach (and so is my mom's place). Living in a city that I thought would be out of reach for at least a few more years. Using the Internet a whole lot less, and constantly being surrounded by friends without feeling overwhelmed. Oh and I also went to Europe earlier in the year for a week; I realized I never told LJ about that. So there we go.

So that's my life in a nutshell. All good stuff, no bad stuff. The only bad thing I can think of is that I haven't budgeted time to go to the gym, but that can be remedied. Sorry for neglecting you, LiveJournal, but at least for now, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are my venues. Goodbye for now!

Jeffrey come on!

What have you been doing besides posting dumb links to Internet things and looking at pictures of yourself!!!

Well as you can see from a few posts back, I now own a brand-new Toyota Prius. It just passed the 1k mile mark. I’m so proud. <:) I am totally tryin some of that hypermiling nonsense, but apparently failing, as my MPG is only 47, which is one MPH above EPA estimates.

I’m also hanging out with Margot from time to time, who lives in San Francisco and is totally an animator. Her cat Bucket is also cool because he’s a giant asshole. With their help I am actually starting to learn about the giant urban center that I grew up near my entire life but only entered a handful of times.

I’m laying the groundwork for a trip to Japan with Shiranne this October. We’ve bought plane tickets and have just started to make hotel reservations. (The credit from my cancelled Israel trip was not used because it would be ridiculous to fly to Japan through London, which is the downside of having British Airways credit.) Within the space of three weeks, we are planning to go to Tokyo, Takayama, Kawagoe, Kobe, Kyoto, Iga-Ueno, Hiroshima, and Tokyo, in that order. Suggestions on places or other things (like places to stay, specifically) are welcome.

Work is starting to slow down a bit, because all the stuff I’ve been developing is starting to go live! The biggest accomplishment is the release of Diabetes Health Forums, which runs on a forum backend I coded entirely by hand (minus the use of TinyMCE for rich text editing).

It’s got some cool features like being able to post one thread in multiple forums (with a cool JavaScript forum selector), but I think I might be rolling that back and just reducing the amount of forums we have. (We have over 100, it’s freaking crazy.) Only a few posts so far, but that will change once we announce it in the general email newsletter this week.

Also working on Diabetes Health Solutions, which isn’t live yet, but is basically a miniature wiki that I also programmed from scratch. It will only be available for healthcare professionals to edit, but that just makes my job easier because I don’t have to police it for especially dumb crap.

So that’s about it. Friends, vacations, work. Also sleep! Goodnight.

EMPLOYMENTS

I have just landed a sweet position as web developer at Diabetes Health! Now I don’t have diabetes, but it’s pretty awesome to be working for a local magazine and helping their transition to the web. I’ll be helping with the website and a bunch of other related topics. Full time until I leave for Israel. Pays great. And yes, it’s local! It’s in Woodacre, a 20 minute drive west from San Rafael. In fact, it’s just up the street from Sophie’s folks’ house.

Heck of psyched. Feeling really lucky, too. This could have been a position that didn’t fit, didn’t pay well, was part time, had rigid start/end times, was in the city or further, etc. etc. This one’s got a casual atmosphere and friendly folks.

That said, tomorrow’s a half work day, at most, because I’m going in for surgery to remove my pilonidal cyst (ewwww… NSFW. used to not have a picture…). It’s something that just doesn’t go away, and sometimes gets enflamed. So it’s good to get it out of there. Might not be able to walk for a while!! woooo

P.S. I now weigh less than 170 lbs, the first time I have weighed so little in… at least 5 years?

I need work

Man, so I thought I had a job offer but it turns out that if I do, it’s not starting until late May. I can’t wait another month for a job. I subscribe to the appropriate feeds on craigslist, but it’s pretty difficult because I have a schedule limitation. I’m still going to Israel. I still expect to get an internship there in a few months. So I can only look for freelance/contract/temporary work.

I’m not sure what else I should be doing. I’m part of a temp agency, I’m sending out resumes… what am I missing?

Bears in the Area

Hello again from me; I am back in America after my two school quarters in Seattle.

The road trip ended pleasantly with a viewing of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Ashland is a wonderful town and I totally want to return to it some time. It’s certainly got that indie vibe. Anyone under 20 in Ashland is a high school student visiting from another state along with the rest of their Drama class. It’s cute!

Today I dressed up all fancy and ferried into San Francisco for an interview at Aquent and then another one at the Jewish Community Federation (an organization that shares my initials). Both are for just month-long jobs – one in California starting ASAP, and one in Israel starting in a few months. Later, I went home and cooked a chicken dish consisting of forty garlic cloves and a half-cup of olive oil. My dad told me that I should try to start focusing on cooking things that won’t instantly give you a heart attack. Although my dish turned out splendidly, I think he is right!

Tomorrow, I file my taxes, unpack the rest of the boxes we drove down with, and pack back up for a few-days-long vacation down to a resort in San Diego with my dad and sister, where much beach-going and city-exploring will be had. A good Spring Break escape from the quite empty house that Betty once kept up.

After I return, I look forward to getting into the swing of the Bay Area again. I want to spend less time at home and more in a social environment. I want to casually swing by a friend’s place and spend the afternoon, just like Skeeter always did at Doug’s place, Sam at Clarissa’s, or Gerald at Arnold’s. I’m sure it happens in real life too, but I always found myself envying Nickelodeon characters.

I miss Shiranne and I wish summer could come sooner! She is going through turbulent work times and I wish I could have been more available in the past few days. Eventually I will be able to relax, and even after that I will be able to relax with Shiranne in the same country as me.

Should I do it.

Next quarter is academically weird. I’m only taking one three-credit class, and auditing another one. Overall, it’s 4 hours of instruction per week, and probably the same amount of outside-of-class work. That will leave me a LOT of time to do… something else, I guess. Hopefully get a job. But I’m having some second thoughts about whether I should be doing this at all…

First of all, I think I’m going to hate the classes I take next quarter. One is a seminar about Computational Linguistics. I can choose from two topics: “Lexical Acquisition for Precision Grammars”, or “Information Extraction from Heterogeneous Resources: Special Focus on Linguistic Data.” Both sound pretty dull. But then again, so does my entire grad program. The other class I’m auditing (not taking for credit) is a stats class; a prerequisite to a statistical CL class I’d be taking some time next school year. I don’t like stats one bit, and the fact that I’m not required to do any work doesn’t suggest that I’ll focus especially well on the material.

Second, I want to spend time with my dad. My stepmom’s death is hitting him extremely hard. I haven’t been as available as I’d like these days (being a few states away and all), and I don’t think being home for the funeral or for Spring Break is really good enough for my liking. I also miss my mom, sister, and my Bay Area friends; it would be quite awesome to be around for them.

Third, I’m doubting the necessity of getting my degree in the first place. It would obviously be good to have a computer-based degree under my belt, but I don’t think CL is a line of work I would especially enjoy. I would really rather land some type of general job dealing with web technologies – design, backend programming… stuff like that. Surely not as high-paying as a more specialized field, but I don’t give much of a damn.

If I don’t audit this stats class next quarter, I will probably not have another chance to do so. I heard it’s only offered once every Spring. I mean… I COULD take a year off and continue my grad program down the road… I don’t know.

There are some other factors that tie in to me wanting to spend time at home sooner than later, but I don’t want to discuss that just yet. It has to do with summer plans.

If I leave Seattle, I’m leaving a great living situation (I love my apartment and my roommates – not to mention leaving might make them scramble to find another fourth roommate), some slowly growing groups of friends, a prestigious university, and the education I’ve received in these last two quarters. But I regain my family and friends. I’m really, really torn.

Locked because employers are looking… (actually who cares – unlocked)

This weekend, despite voting and gaming with friends and going shopping with other friends and attending a friend’s recital and friendsfriendsfriends I’m still feeling pretty neglected and lonely right now. Also I feel pretty incompetent because I bombed a midterm today and I’ve just been thinking about my path as a grad student and just thinking I should quit and work retail, etc. etc. etc. Mostly feeling hopeless.

But given that I’m continuing to make friends and do things and work hard and get job offers, most of this whining is unfounded. All I can say is I’m glad my emotions are working again to make me feel pretty crappy while, in the big picture, everything’s pretty okay. I bet tomorrow or the day after I’ll feel awesome again. Ups and downs! This is the sort of stuff I’ve wanted for a long time.

My stepmom will die within the next few days, and interestingly enough, that’s the least of my worries. It’s not really a worry at all. Dying sucks, but death is when the healing can begin. What I really feel bad about is not Betty’s life ending – it’s really what she’s leaving behind. She has a son, estranged from our family due to his disability (Down’s syndrome), she’s leaving my dad a widower, and I can imagine he’ll feel lonely for an exhorbitant amount of time, her insurance business will disappear, et cetera. The amount of people her death affects is much more saddening than her actual death.

At least this is the explanation I’m giving to the lack of emotion I’m showing for the entire issue. Talking to my dad and sister certainly affects me, because I hate to see them this way. But I feel like it’s almost insulting how little caring I seem to be putting forth.

I’m considering living with my dad for the summer. The house is big, and as my dad put it, it’s like a Betty museum considering the amount of possessions and decorations of hers. It would certainly be more fulfilling than Seattle, where I still don’t know anyone well enough to regularly hang out with – and even if I did, they probably wouldn’t be around during the summer.

The future’s so uncertain, especially now when I’m feeling down in the dumps. What am I doing, why am I doing it, and what should I be doing? The thing is, I can answer all of those questions, so why am I still asking them?