How I became a developer by choosing self-study over a college degree
Jeffrey McKim worked 50-70 hour weeks in service jobs. He was exhausted and in need of a significant career change. Then he was introduced to coding bootcamps and the idea of a career in web development. However, the $10,000 cost of a bootcamp and the time it required wasn’t an option for Jeffrey. Although people told him he was crazy for choosing to learn to code online over a college degree, he was determined that it was the right career fit for him. Jeffrey began learning with the intention of learning the basics and then applying for a scholarship to attend a bootcamp. However, self-paced learning turned out to be all that he needed. There were challenges and frustrations along the way, moments where he wanted to quit, but Jeffrey was dedicated and disciplined. Soon he was building websites for friends and freelancing, which built him an impressive portfolio of projects. 18 months after he first began coding, Jeffrey landed a position as a full-time developer.
We asked Jeffrey to share his experience and advice with the community.
I first started learning how to code because I wanted to build a career for myself. I was living on my own working 50-70 hours a week doing dead end service jobs, barely staying afloat. I was exhausted and working hard with little reward or appreciation. I was miserable and wishing I made better choices when I was younger because I felt totally stuck in my situation.
I had never considered Web Development as an option or really knew what it was until I read an article about coding bootcamps. They were like technical schools that anyone could sign up for, and be ready for a rewarding career in the tech industry inside of three months. It was a very interesting idea to me. But I simply could not afford the $10,000+ dollars and the time off work I would need to take to enroll in one of those programs. I learned that qualified and talented students with a programming background could actually apply to take a bootcamp for free, and then have their wage garnished from the tech job that was guaranteed to them upon completion of the program. Now that was very interesting to me. The only problem was, I had absolutely no background in computer programming whatsoever. So I began a journey of self-study, which to my great surprise, landed me a job without ever having got to a boot camp at all.
I began a journey of self-study, which to my great surprise, landed me a job without ever having got to a boot camp at all.
I started learning with free resources like codeacademy, freecodecamp, and YouTube tutorials. I was learning a lot but I needed more structure. Then I found about Treehouse and that’s when things really started to take off for me. Treehouse was the perfect place for me to gain the frame of reference I needed to structure my learning. The videos demystified so much and made everything seem a lot less intimidating. Treehouse also made it easy to keep track of what I was doing with its workspaces and tracks system. This was perfect for me because my schedule was quite sporadic. I was moving and working a lot and would often take months off of learning at a time due to my busy schedule. But I could always come back and find out exactly where I left off, back track a little bit, and get right back on my way to learning new things. My lifestyle made learning more difficult, but Treehouse helped me stay organized and motivated by charting my progress and saving my code.
My lifestyle made learning more difficult, but Treehouse helped me stay organized and motivated by charting my progress and saving my code.
After a while of working full time and freelancing part-time, an opportunity came my way through a chance encounter with a stranger. He represented an Ad Agency that needed a web developer to build and maintain websites, specifically WordPress websites. The interview was a two-day process where they tested me on the job to build the front page of a WordPress website for one of their clients. And quite frankly, I had not spent very much time with WordPress before this point. But thanks to Treehouse’s wide selection of courses on the subject, I was able to quickly take many of the skills and concepts I had already learned and applied them to the interview. I was up front with my employers when I showed them my final product, and about how I used Treehouse videos on the job to learn how to build the web page they had asked for. They were so impressed with my ability to think on my feet, learn quickly, and apply what I had learned they hired me on the spot, and changed my life forever.
They were so impressed with my ability to think on my feet, learn quickly, and apply what I had learned they hired me on the spot, and changed my life forever.
The greatest challenge for me learning how to code was simply finding the time. We’re in hard times. Rent is high, wages are low, social mobility is stagnating. There are a million distractions and a million reasons to quit. I thought about quitting. I cried. I threw things and once even kicked a hole through my wall. I started at the same lines of code for hours before I realized I was missing a semi colon, or forgot to close a div. I can’t count how many times I did that.
I’m not a particularly quick learner, and I was a terrible student in school. I got poor grades and never finished high school. People told me that I was crazy for pursuing a career in computer programming. I was told that there was no way I would be able to get a good job without going to college. But there were many who believed in me. And somehow I found a way to believe in myself. I am not one of those “It took me 3 months to get a job” types of stories. For me, since I stopped so many times, it probably took me close to a year and a half before I became employed full time. But I know that if I never took time off could have done it half the time or less. The biggest challenge was having the discipline to sit down and grind for something that doesn’t have an immediate result. But I truly believe if one can find the resources and the mind set to sit down and code on a regular basis, that anyone can learn how to do this to some capacity. It may take some longer than others, but it can be done. I think I’m a great example of that.
People told me that I was crazy for pursuing a career in computer programming. I was told that there was no way I would be able to get a good job without going to college. But there were many who believed in me. And somehow I found a way to believe in myself.
For me, the greatest benefit of working in the tech industry is the opportunities I now have. We live in a capitalist society the rewards technical prowess, productive behavior, and the ability to make money for yourself and other people. Any person capable of writing quality code and a deep understanding of the web has the keys to the city. I could move to and work in almost anywhere in the US and live there comfortably. The skill cap is almost non-existent. The ability for growth is unprecedented. I can learn something new whenever I want and completely change the trajectory of my career. In the context of our society, I am valuable. When working at restaurants, movie theatres, etc, I was felt like a lackey. Now I am respected and appreciated for the skills I bring to the table in the work place.
The advice I would give to anyone learning to code is to take the training wheels off as soon as possible. Finished a course on how to build a website? Great. Now go build one by yourself. This was the scariest part to me. Treehouse provided me the best foundational information I could have asked for, but nothing would have happened for me if I just watched tutorial after tutorial. One has to go out and make their own projects, from the bottom up. This will help learners garner the confidence they need to take on projects in the real world. It can be intimidating ditching the friendly Treehouse environment for the first time and working on projects with your own code editor, but it has to be done. Also, teaching others how to code is a great way to teach oneself. It makes obvious to the one teaching what gaps exist in their own knowledge of the subject. I would have my little brother take the same courses I did and then have him let me know if he got stuck. A great learning experience for both of us.
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