My experience getting a tech job with no degree or relevant work experience
Sometimes you see a headline or a Youtube video “How I got into tech without a C.S. Degree” and it seems reasonable until you find out that they actually had a M.S. in Math from Stanford or similar. This is obviously a big advantage and does not at all resemble the average person considering making a switch into the industry.
They’re probably mid 20–30’s, they were a teacher or an accountant or in some trade. Maybe they had various service jobs and haven’t found anything that sticks. Often they will have no related technical experience. They might not have a college degree.
This is how I did it as a college dropout (psych major at a state school). Your mileage may vary.
My “Relevant” Experience
I’d worked about 15 jobs in various roles before switching. I was a jazz pianist in a restaurant in my teens. I worked on seasonal tour boats in Alaska. I waited tables and managed a pizza restaurant. I was a lifty (ski bum) in Colorado.
None of this really mattered except it taught me how to be a good worker in general; how to get along with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. This comes in handy.
I had a few things going for me though. For one, I was a bit of a nerd as a kid. I would torrent movies and try to teach myself HTML. Never got very far but I did feel comfortable messing around with computers and trying to learn things myself. Important point here: Learning things by yourself is actually much of the job.
For two, I dated a coder for a bit who pointed me to some resources and encouraged me to learn. Maybe in total she spent 5 hours helping me in this regard, which isn’t much but the first bit of getting into coding can be quite frustrating and overwhelming.
Full disclosure: my parents ran a small website business out of the house when I was growing up, but I didn’t participate and actively wanted nothing to do with it at the time.
After 9 months of back breaking work on a cement tugboat on the Great Lakes, I knew I needed a change. I saved up the 7500 for tuition (I think they cost more now) + money to live for a few months and enrolled in a backend Java Coding ‘Bootcamp’. Seems like a silly name for what is in effect sitting in a chair staring at a screen, but I digress.
My expectation was that I would be competing with the folks from Youtube mentioned above. People who were already technical looking to sharpen a specific skillset. This was 90% not the case. My cohort was mostly people from completely unrelated fields who had barely any experience even tinkering with computers.
I knew it was going to be tough going and I wanted to stand out. If the people who ran the bootcamp were going to recommend one person to local employers I wanted it to be me. As such I self-studied maybe 75–100 hours in the months leading up to the bootcamp, in my spare time. I did basic things like Codeacademy and attempted harder classes like Intro to Web Dev on Udacity or Harvards CS50. I didn’t finish most of these classes or really understand what was going on a lot of the time but it did give me some foundation to build on. This was enough. I arrived way ahead of most of the class and continued to work my ass off.
To be honest there was nothing in the bootcamp (which culminated in a very basic web app) that you can’t learn online for free. But I found having a set curriculum, mentors to bounce questions off of, and working in a group setting very motivating and beneficial.
But the main advantage of the bootcamp to me was not technical, it was the network. Apart from providing a friend group which will likely end up in referrals down the road, the best bootcamps will introduce you to companies and have relationships with them. For sure you should look up what placement services a bootcamp will provide and also what their placement rate is when deciding which one to attend.
My bootcamp brought in a few local employers to speak about what jobs were like in the area. At the end of their presentation they said, “by the way we have an open position for a Java developer”. I walked up to them and said, “Hello, I am a Java developer”. Two good interviews later and I had an offer for 50 thousand US dollars on week 9 out of 10 of the bootcamp. I mentioned that I was Probably About To Get Another Offer For 55K and negotiated it up to 52K + a 3k signing bonus. I think junior roles in more prominent tech cities will likely pay more than this, up to even 6 figures starting, but I would have accepted anything to get my foot in the door.
First jobs’ the hardest — once you’re in, you’re in. A mere 4~ years and 4 jobs later I now make 175,000 dollars as a senior software engineer.
Obviously I got lucky getting hired so quick, but only after a few hundred hours of grinding. You may have to spend a lot more time interviewing and learning solo even after the bootcamp ends. Still, much of my cohort (25~ people) did get hired by a few local companies hiring en masse for similar starting pay within the first few months or so, a few people failed out or still didn’t have jobs after 3 months.
One thing to note: bootcamps’ reputations have started to become more tarnished recently, in many cases for valid reasons. Some are outright scams. You really can’t learn to be a great coder in a couple months. But if you’re dedicated and hard working it’s still very possible to break into the industry within say half a year. Good luck out there.
The Hardest Part of Coding:
I feel compelled to mention this after witnessing it with a few friends and people in my cohort:
The hardest part of coding is not technical or even getting the job, it’s liking the job. If you do not enjoy the often stressful and thankless role of staring at the computer and doing frustrating logic puzzles, usually alone, eventually you will burn out and wonder why you ever got into the industry.
If you already hate your job maybe hating this one for more money and better working conditions will be a worthwhile step up for you, I don’t know. But I’ve seen it happen: people a few years in finally realize it’s simply not worth it for them. You should spend some time before deciding to change your entire career trying to teach yourself and really think hard about whether you want to do this 40+ hours a week for a decade or more.
I like it for the most part and still oft day dream of being back on a boat in Alaska. Grass is always greener.