Today I celebrate my 29th birthday. “Celebrate” may be a bit of a stretch, though, because I now feel like my 30s are barreling down on me with the momentum of a freight train. Most of my friends have steady long-term jobs where they are successful. Many are married. Several have children. And I have spent much of the last decade struggling to get my life together. There is hope, however. I start my first programming gig at a company called InvestCloud on Wednesday, and I owe that to a coding school in St. Petersburg called The Iron Yard.
I didn’t decide to become a professional academic all at once, but the first domino fell when I became a history major in my second year at the University of North Florida. I majored in history because the Registrar’s office required an official major and those were the classes I most enjoyed. When I specialized in East Asia, it was because the department required an area studies specialization and I was sick of dealing with the U.S. and Europe. I understood that a History degree would not lead me directly to gainful employment, so I double majored, eventually securing a B.A. in Economics. I thought I was being practical. Despite the fact that I had only had one year of Chinese Language before the program was closed down due to lack of interest, I applied for PhD programs in the Fall of my senior year because I was the best student in the UNF History department, and I thought that had to mean something. Even though I was rejected from all the PhD programs to which I had applied, when Columbia University instead accepted me into their Master’s program, it felt like an accomplishment.
I continued to learn Chinese throughout my time at Columbia, and thought in passing that if my academic career didn’t pan out, knowing Chinese was a valuable job skill that could provide me with potential employment in the future. I took my first trip to China in the summer of 2010, and by the time I returned to the U.S. I was brushing up against fluency. Still, I knew that my language skills were a weak point in my academic resume. All of my friends in the East Asian department either were Chinese or had taken years of Chinese instruction at expensive private high schools and colleges, spending substantial time in China on vacation or studying abroad, before they even started at Columbia. That you knew one foreign language when you started at the M.A. level was more or less expected. Really, you were supposed to be starting on your second. When my second round of PhD applications were all rejected in my second year of grad school, I was unsurprised when my advisor told me that Columbia had rejected me because of my lack of Chinese language skills.
I did not let this verdict deter me. Lack of language skills had a remedy. I applied for and received a substantial scholarship from the Taiwan Ministry of Education, and spent the next year at National Taiwan University in Taipei in the International Chinese Language Program, one of two top such programs in the world, and the only one that did not to require me to return to the smog of Beijing. That year in Taiwan was the best of my life, so of all the regrets I have regarding choices I made trying to become a professional academic, I can’t say that enrolling in ICLP was one of them. I returned to the US in September of 2012 a different person. I moved into my grandfather’s old house in Tampa because I had nowhere else to go.
On this round of PhD applications I did everything that you are supposed to do. I flew to California on the pretext of seeing friends to meet with professors at Stanford and UC Berkley. I spent hours crafting each of my applications. I used writing samples from my painstakingly researched Master’s thesis. When the round of rejections came this time, I knew that it was time to give it up. My career as I had imagined it was not going to happen. Some of my problem was timing. Stanford, for example, didn’t take any China people that year for budget reasons. But ultimately, I now believe that no one was going to consider seriously the application of somebody who had gone to college at a state school in Florida. My effort had been doomed from the start, and Columbia had accepted me into their Master’s program not because they saw a potential scholar in me, but because M.A. student tuition were a substantial source of the department’s funding.
Getting out of academia was the right decision. Even my friends who made it into PhD programs are struggling in this job market, or to get tenure. Yet at the time, the decision broke me, and I spent a long time afterwards lost.
In the latter part of 2013 and through most of 2014 I applied for every position I could think of that might match my skills. To the State Department first as a Mandarin Language Consular Adjudicator then as a full Foreign Service Officer. (I actually made it a couple of steps into that process, and to this day have no idea what was inadequate about my Personal Narrative essays). I applied to every community college in the area. I applied for translation and interpreter jobs, but there were thousands of Asian-American applicants that spoke better Chinese than I did, and besides those jobs didn’t pay substantially better than minimum wage. I applied for minimum wage positions, too. I was sending out more than a dozen applications a week and receiving the slightest response perhaps every other month. I was having conversations at parties were someone would ask me something like “You have a graduate degree, right? Why don’t you apply to teach community college?” and I would respond, “I’ve applied to open positions at HCC, PHCC, SPC, and St. Leo, and never heard back even an acknowledgement. Where else would you suggest?”
I settled on going into public education as a last resort. Both of my parents had been high school teachers, and while I thought I wouldn’t be suited for it, I knew it was something I could probably do adequately. There were tremendous barriers there too. No school would accept the application of somebody without teaching experience, no matter their education. Eventually I took a position in the substitute pool in Hillsborough County in the fall of 2014.
The less said about my time as a substitute, the better. The first position I took was for a long term absence, and despite all the encouragement I received about what a good job I was doing and how a permanent position might be in it for me if I kept it up, when I even broached the subject of getting my teaching certificate, I encountered brutal institutional resistance to the idea of anybody not a graduate of a local College of Education getting a teaching position. By the time that long term ended, I knew I needed to find something else, even if I didn’t know yet what it might be.
It was in this situation that I first met Toni, the Iron Yard St. Petersburg campus director. I was still working as a substitute but had taken the day off to go to some entrepreneurial event. I had no idea what I was looking for there. There were some stands along one side of the presentation hall, and I couldn’t help but notice one that read, “Life’s too short for the wrong career. Learn to code. The Iron Yard.” It set my mind on fire with the possibilities. Here was something I could do. I proceeded cautiously. Surely, I thought, something that provided such a clear solution to my problems had to be some sort of scam. I had a cordial conversation with Toni about who the Iron Yard was and what they did. I was reluctant to put my name down on her contact list, but I took her card. I left the event before the first speaker finished. The event was not my scene. But I kept the card.
I have a lot of developer friends, and the first thing I did when I got back was to ask them if they had ever heard of The Iron Yard. Some of them had. I asked the important question: Was it legit? As I sorted out the responses and did some deep digging research of my own, it became clear that it was, or at least as legit as any code school. I went through the motions of research and skepticism for quite a while afterwards, but, really, I knew that I would enroll in the next cohort by the end of that week. I felt direction and purpose seeping back into my life, and it was great. When I resigned from my position as a substitute, by email, by phone and finally by certified letter I never received an acknowledgement. I’m still on their mailing list now.
I’m often introduced as someone who entered into The Iron Yard with no coding experience, but its not entirely true. When I was a kid in the early 90s my dad was a computer science teacher, and he brought home an ancient PC to teach me programming on, writing in BASIC on the old DOS Shell. My parents sent me to computer science and engineering summer camps as a middle schooler. I took advanced math and AP Computer Science classes in high school. It’s just that when I went to college I rejected all of that to go into the humanities because I liked them better.
Which is to say, when I started the Rails course at Iron Yard in May 2015 I felt parts of my mind that had developed and then atrophied from long disuse coming back to life. I’m not saying that the Rails course was easy for me. On the contrary I spent many long night alone at the St. Pete campus bashing my mind against a problem until the problem cracked or my mind did. I guess I learned quicker than others, but I knew by now that that didn’t mean anything in the long run. In the short run, it did mean that I was able to pick up a few more languages and skills than were in the curriculum, for all the good that’s done me. But what I am saying is that, even when I was running over and over against the hardest of brick walls, it never stopped feeling right. This was something I could do.
I was never worried about Demo Day. I had given so many speeches and presentations by this point that they were second nature, and our instructor, Jason, was talented enough that I had complete confidence that the app I was presenting would work fine. What I had been worried about, more or less since the beginning, was finding a job afterward. I knew how brutal searching for entry-level positions was, and though I felt I had gotten an excellent practical education in actually working with code, I was skeptical that tech companies would see it that way. I suspected that hiring managers would look at our lack of experience and the fact that our programming education had only lasted three months and dismiss us out of hand. And really, the entire coding school system only works by exploiting a glitch in the economy where there aren’t enough traditionally qualified applicants to fill open positions for coding, and that glitch would only exist in cities with a thriving tech community that was constantly generating new jobs. Not, in other words, in Tampa.
When I applied to InvestCloud, I was two interviews deep with another company that was looking for a Rails developer, and more or less dismissed them because were a Java/JVM shop and I didn’t know Java. I did it more out of obligation to Toni’s work of recommending me to them than because I thought I was likely to get the job. The other job fell through on the same day that I had my technical interview with InvestCloud, and it went shockingly well. That interview was the first time I had the experience of somebody asking me to solve a coding problem in front of them, which we had practiced in class, and thank God we had, because it was a harrowing experience. What I remember most about the process with InvestCloud was that I went through so many interviews; a prelim over Skype, a technical interview over Google hangouts (both with the LA office), an in-person interview in the Tampa office, and finally a phone conference with the head of the Tampa office, four a grand total of 4. I didn’t even know you could have that many interviews. Apparently I impressed the developers in that technical interview, and more importantly I realized that I liked them; that this was a company I wouldn’t mind working for. By the end of the 3rd interview I pretty much knew I had the job, of course, but the rug had been pulled out from under me so many times that I couldn’t let myself believe it. Even now I worry that I am going to walk in on Wednesday and they are going to tell me that there has been a mistake and I can go home.
Of the rest of my Rails cohort, only one other has a programming job. Everybody else is still struggling with the market. That said, my experience gives me hope for them. I am confident it is only a matter of time before their ship comes in, and maybe in an unexpected way. After all, I’ve had a greater return on investment from paying for The Iron Yard than on all that I sacrificed for my fancy Ivy League education.
I have a lot of conversations with my friends who have Computer Engineering or Computer Science degrees, and they think I should be called a technician rather than a developer because I don’t understand the tools I am using. I couldn’t, for example, write a relational database like the PostgreSQL I use so confidently in my Rails apps. I respond with something along the lines of “Why would a carpenter need to understand how a hammer is made, if he can be confident that it works?” After all, all but the very top students in those classes are going to be going after the same jobs I am, learning whatever system their company is using, without the opportunity to design it themselves. Still, in my heart of hearts, it bugs me that I don’t have the wherewithal to design a relational database. That my friends who started down this path initially will always be ahead of me because they have such a head start, that I will never be as good at programming as they will. It bugs me not to be the best at things. But I think of this job that I start on Wednesday that looks like it will be pretty fulfilling, and I think maybe mere adequacy is all right.
InvestCloud is flying me out to Los Angeles to spend two weeks learning their system with the developers in the home office. Because they knew this they kept asking me in interviews if I liked to travel. I thought back to my time in China and Taiwan and Japan and Hong Kong and California and Colorado, and said “Sure, I like to travel.”