My Journey as a Self-Taught Engineer

6th grade with loads of flannel and my Jansport backpack

First Website

As a senior in high school, a friend of mine helped me land a tech support job at a local ISP / web hosting company called VServers. As part of my training they encouraged everyone to build a website on their web hosting platform. I decided to build one for the local punk and hardcore music scene and called it

Super futuristic design by Finn of Punk Rock MBA fame

A Full-Time Job

I had done some part-time work on a couple of Drupal sites after my mission and figured I could try and get a job as a PHP programmer. I already knew how to program. I had been doing it for years on my personal sites, but somehow the thought of doing it for a full-time job felt like some great leap that I wasn’t prepared to take. Needs must and I went for it.

Enter JQuery

Learning jQuery allowed me to get a leg up on my co-workers. They were great at processing transactions in our SQL database and building efficient PHP classes, but the most important skill none of them particularly cared to do was building interactive UIs. This was becoming more important at the time with the rise of AJAX and I quickly became the go-to person for complex user interfaces.

Transitioning to Node.js

The agency had encouraged me to get on Twitter to keep track of current trends in technology. That’s where I found out about node.js and quickly fell in ❤. I remember enthusiastically telling a co-worker, “Imagine querying the DOM with jQuery, on the server!” The other thing that struck me was the ability to do things in real time across multiple devices and wrote a blog post about this in Nov. 2010.

In love with node.js

Startup Woes

With basically no experience beyond the aforementioned blog post I managed to land a full-time job building node-based APIs for a mobile TV guide app startup. Though I’d only been coding professionally for about 3 years I’d now doubled my starting salary in the field and was using tech that I truly enjoyed.

A Mentor

When a recruiter from oDesk reached out on LinkedIn about a remote-friendly job for their bay area freelance company I responded positively. I liked the mission of the company and was excited to get out of the tiny startup rat race. It was a much more established company and I’d have the chance to lead a team of remote engineers in building a UI framework for the entire company. The pseudo-management role seemed like the obvious next step for my career and was rewarded with a nice bump in salary.

Big Tech Life

PayPal had just begun the process of replacing their entire C++ and Java web stack with node.js. It was an exciting large scale process. The interview was purely JavaScript, HTML and CSS questions. No data structures or computer science. It was stuff I used every single day.

A Conclusion

If you are a self-taught engineer and thinking of pursuing a career in tech here are a few thoughts on how to get started and how to make the most of it.

  • Learn from Everyone After landing a tech job learn from absolutely everyone. Ask a million questions and read as much as you can.
  • Work Hard & Take Breaks Work as hard as you can without burning out. Don’t sacrifice your family or health, but stay focused and determined.
  • Become an Expert Find something your coworkers don’t like to do and get really good at it. This will help build your value, your confidence and potentially open up new job opportunities.
  • Share What You Learn Once you learn something new, share it! Your insights & experiences matter and learning to communicate those ideas well will help you throughout your life.
  • Find a Mentor If you have the opportunity to work for someone you respect that can help guide your career, take it!



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