How to Code: Web Development

A podcast for aspiring web developers


2: How I taught myself how to code


Robert: [00:00:00] Hey everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the, how to code podcast, I am your host, Robert Gus. In this episode, I'm gonna be sharing my story about how I taught myself, how to code and my journey of getting a. Just wanted to start off by sharing. I really don't enjoy talking about myself.

It's probably the most uncomfortable thing for me to do. It makes me cringe, frankly, and it's not something that I enjoy doing. But I feel like it's an important thing for me to do in this case, so that you get a better understanding of who I am. Where I'm coming from and how I've gotten to where I've gotten.

I think it's also important for building trust with you. That's really important. Like I talked about in the first episode. So you can evaluate whether or not I'm worth your time. Speaking of time, I think it's really important just to note that I don't take it for [00:01:00] granted for anyone who.

Takes the time to listen to this podcast. I think time is a very precious thing. It's more valuable than money for sure. And so I wanna make it worthwhile your time and hopefully you get a lot of value out of this. So before we get into it again, just wanna say, I'm not, my intention is not to brag or to boast in any way.

Like I mentioned before, I'm a, in the first episode I am a Christian. And so bragging and boasting is not something that I aspire or even desire to do, but I think it's important just to be upfront and honest with you. And my hopes is that my story will encourage you and inspire you depending upon where you're at.

And hopefully it does do that. I wrote a blog post about my story sometime ago on my site. How to code.io. I will link to that in the show notes. It'll go in give you some more details and share certain things like some of the offer letters and sign of kind of some of the [00:02:00] proof of some of the.

The numbers and the things I'm gonna be sharing with you throughout this episode. So be sure to check that out, if you're curious or you wanna learn more and just kind of verify some things, I'll have a link for it again, in the show notes. But without going into too much detail from my background, I'm, I'm more or less just gonna start during my college days, cuz anything before that, frankly, isn't really all that relevant to this podcast, to what I'm trying to do here, but.

Spent my years in college studying music. I went to a small school in Boston called Berkeley college in music where I learned composition. So I got a degree basically studying how to write classical music. So I was learning counterpoint and tonal, harmony, and conducting and writing pieces for orchestra and sonatas.

Various things like that. Absolutely loved. It was some of the greatest four years of my entire life. Cost me a fortune, [00:03:00] which I'll get into in a second. Don't regret it though in any way. I, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. It's a very well known school. I was completely shocked and surprised that even got in and each day that I was there, I can honestly say it was a gift.

And I tried to make the most of it and get as much out of it as I possibly could. And but speaking about money, I, so I started college in 2004 2009. I'm sorry. I was 24 years old. Not like most kids when they go to school. When they're 18, I was playing in a band at the time and working in real estate from the age of 18 to 24.

And then in, when I was 24, that's when the 2000. Recession hit and I was working in real estate in Florida at the time. And as you can imagine, we got hit pretty hard. And so my career in real estate just completely vanished in about six months. So I figured the best thing for me to do was to go to college and write out the terrible economy for the next four [00:04:00] years and try to get a better career.

So I did what any smart person would do. And I enrolled in, in music school, which is A very lucrative career cuz it's very easy, especially as a composer. You're, you know, you're only competing against people like Beethoven and Maller and Chopan in some of the greatest minds Bach and yeah, certainly my music can be just as good as theirs.

Not quite the sarcasm there, if you didn't pick that up. So. After college I graduated with around about $115,000 in debt. Like most kids in college wasn't exactly paying attention to how much money I was borrowing. I was just super excited to be there and thankful for the opportunity. And I figured I'd figure out the rest.

Once I graduated. And so I had a very alarming and shocking thing [00:05:00] happen when that first loan payment bill came. I don't remember the amount exactly, but it was basically a mortgage payment. And at the time I was making less than $35,000 a year. And I was my, I mean, my loan payment was probably. 1200 to $1,500 somewhere in that range.

So it was a good mortgage payment. And at the time I was working in various production jobs moving equipment around doing stage work and things like that, setting up stage gear and tearing stuff down and working for a bunch of companies. And the hours at that, those jobs were incredibly long.

There were days where I worked 20 hours straight. It, the pay was not super great and it was very physically demanding and it wasn't something that was really, really sustainable nor something I enjoyed doing or saw myself doing for a long [00:06:00] time. A lot of guys that I knew who were much older than me, who would be doing it for a long time, were divorced and had drinking issues.

And I just realized this isn't a very. Ha, this isn't a place where I want to end up later on in life. So I had a a bit of a reckoning and a bit of a wake up call and a reality check. I knew something had to change and something had to give really quickly and I needed to make a lot of money very, very fast.

Now, prior to this, I had been playing around with computers, my whole life, never programmed though. Just. Just installing software, playing around doing a lot of like it kind of work, setting up networks and printers and stuff like that. Just for money on the side. And I was also a really big gamer, so I was very good with computers.

I was fairly technical in that regard, but no actual coding and programming experience. I assumed that [00:07:00] you needed to be a complete math whi to write programs and, you know, have a PhD from MIT and computer science or something like that. But the interesting thing, the thing that kind of intrigued me and got me interested.

Writing code in the first place was actually this video game that I was really, really into at the time it was called Daisy and I was so into it. I actually, it was a multiplayer game online. And I rented my own server and had my own server where I could play with, you know, various people online. And one of the things that intrigued me about having my own server, which I knew nothing about how to even set those up, I was relying upon blog posts and things like that to figure out how to do it and copying pasting stuff that I found online.

And one of the things that was interesting was that when you had your own server, you weren't able to modify the. and so I could tweak things and add features or remove [00:08:00] features, which I didn't like, or I felt like took away from the game and. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was basically reading these various blog posts and they would paste and share these like code snippets.

And then they'd write these detailed instructions of, okay, you copy this code and then you up, you open this specific file. Then around this line, you paste it in here. And then you, you know, these are back in the data like FTP, you would FTP it up to the server, restart the server. And then, you know, I would launch the game.

After I restarted and then that new feature would be added and, and like, it completely changed the gameplay and everything. And that was like the first kind of light bulb moment that went off into my head and was like, wow, this is really powerful. But I had no idea what I was doing or what that code.

I don't even know what language it was written and how it even worked, but I just thought it was so powerful and cool that I could copy and paste this little snippet of code. And it fundamentally completely changed everything in this game that I really enjoy. [00:09:00] So that got me thinking, well, I wonder I wonder about like game programming or like software or so I started looking into these things.

For the first time, I mean, I had played a little bit, like with, during the days of like geo cities and angel fire making like crappy little websites for my little bands and garage bands I played in when I was high school and stuff like that, but nothing serious. And around this time, this is around 2014, the end of 2014.

This is when if you're familiar with this concept of boot camps were very, very popular. And so I heard about these things and they, I found them very intriguing. And essentially what these schools promise is basically within three months, they're gonna teach you everything you need to know to get a job as a web developer software engineer.

And at the time I was living just outside of Boston and they were saying that, you know, their junior developers on average get salaries between [00:10:00] 60 to $80,000. Which to me was ridiculous. And the idea that you could make that kind of money with only three months, work of worth of work to get a job like that was incredibly appealing because like I said, I had a student loans that were due.

I had a mortgage payment and I was making less than like $35,000 a year. So I applied to the, the bootcamp, I believe it was called launch academy. And I don't even know if it still exists in Boston or not. And I was accepted, which was great. I put down my deposit and everything, but the problem was that the school cost $12,000.

And you're only in the school for three months now, I just borrowed $115,000. I was not about to borrow a dime more. And so I tried to work with the school to see if I could get on a, you can get on a payment plan, but your payment is broken up over those three months. So you do the math. You're basically paying $4,000 a month, which I also didn't have.[00:11:00]

I tried to work with them, figure out payment plans and things like that. And we just couldn't come to an agreement. So. I was stuck again. I thought, well, here's this opportunity to make a bunch of money in a relatively short period of time, but I don't have the money to pay for this school. So now what do I do?

And so instead of like throwing in the towel and getting defeated, I I looked at their CU. And I saw the books that they recommended and I saw the things that they were teaching at this time. They were teaching full stack Ruby on rails. So front end, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and then Ruby and rails on the back end.

And I thought to myself, okay, well, let's, let's think about this for a second. These people are saying that if I enroll in their program within three months, I'll learn enough to get my first job as a develop. so I can't afford to go to the school, but I know what they're teaching. [00:12:00] So why can't I just teach myself all these things?

So that's what I did at the time, I didn't realize how ambitious that was or how much work and effort and how extremely difficult this undertaking was going to be. But I really didn't have any other choice. And so I was kind of forced in this situation where I had a bunch of debt and, you know, people asking me for money and it was gonna affect my credit if I didn't pay at time.

And my dad co-signed my loans, it was gonna affect his credit. So I had all this money and financial pressure. I didn't have a whole lot of time. And so I was kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. And like, this is my only option now. The one benefit that I had was that I had self taught myself music as well.

So I've always been really good at teaching myself things and like being born in like 85. I was, you know, I got the internet in the mid eighties and, [00:13:00] or mid nineties, and I basically was a child of the internet. I grew up on it and I took full advantage of it. So I thought if I can teach myself music and get myself into this.

Pretty good music school. Why can't I just teach myself to program and get this job on my own? So that's what I did. Now my situation is pretty extreme. I don't recommend this by any means, but this is just the situation that I was in. But at the time working those production jobs, this was around December of 2014.

and in the winter months in those jobs, they're notoriously slow. So the, the end of the year and the beginning of the next year are very, very slow. So I basically had like three or four months where I was hardly working at all, which was on the one hand, not great, cuz I wasn't making money, but on the other hand, great, because I had all this free time to dedicate, to studying and programming.

My goal was to [00:14:00] teach myself how to code within three months and put myself through my own boot camp. And so that's exactly what I did. I basically locked myself in my room for six to eight hours every single day, seven days a week for three months. I read a bunch of books. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos.

I bought a bunch of T me courses, no idea what I was doing. No idea which books were good, which courses were good. I was just taking whichever one seemed popular and had good reviews and spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall, feeling like I was stupid. Didn't really. I feel like I was adequate or smart enough to do this because this stuff was really complicated, especially because I didn't have any mentors or friends that I could ask for help.

Especially when you get like random, weird errors and compile errors. And you don't understand, like, if this is a Ruby problem, if it's a problem with my Mac, if it's a problem with this gem that can install, like you don't know [00:15:00] anything about this stuff. So I would waste hours and hours and hours trying to figure out and get past this bug or this weird error because my application wouldn't boot.

And it was tough. It was really, really tough. But somehow I got through it and after those three months, I felt like the next thing for me to do was I needed to get experience, cuz I didn't feel like, you know, if I had put it on my resume that I went to this bootcamp that would carry some weight, but because I was self taught.

I felt like that wasn't gonna be very helpful when I tried to apply for jobs, if I didn't have any experience whatsoever. So I immediately started freelancing. And at the time there was this website called Elan, and I think it's called Upwork now. And I just did a bunch of work for a bunch of random people online for next to nothing.

I was not trying to make any money whatsoever. I did a lot of work for free because. What I all know. Only thing I cared about was projects and experience. All I [00:16:00] wanted was things that I could put on a resume. So I did all kinds of random stuff. It was a really, really good opportunity. I learned a ton and my attitude was basically, even if I did a really terrible job.

You basically get what you pay for. And these people were paying me nothing or like $50 to like build something for them or fix something. So even if I felt like I didn't really do a great job or wasn't able to complete the thing completely I felt like they got enough value because I was charging them next to nothing anyways.

So it was kind of a win-win. So basically about five months have gone by, at this point where I had. I taught myself to code in about three months. And to be clear by what I'm saying, I taught myself to code in three months. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing at the end of those three months.

It's not like in three months. And I was a w and I understood everything. I was completely clueless. I had it took years to really figure out what was going on. But I had done some freelance work. I knew a little bit of a, some [00:17:00] things. You know, now I felt like was the time like, okay, now I need to start applying for jobs.

And my attitude with applying for jobs was even if I don't get the job, I feel like if I started applying for jobs, I could at least practice interviewing and. I could realize what companies were looking for. So by interviewing with a bunch of companies, I could figure out, okay. They, they told me that they're looking for people with this kind of experience.

And then I could go back and learn those things. Or depending upon the interview questions and the technical interviews and things like that, I could then, you know, brush up on the stuff and the gaps in my knowledge. So I interviewed around, got some practice. Kind of got used to a little bit, got, got, not got used to, but got a feel for what the technical interviews and things like that were like.

And then this opportunity came up to work at a, a music company in [00:18:00] Rhode Island. And I thought this would be a perfect fit. I have a music degree from a well respected school and they're looking for a junior web developer and this looks like a good. And so I applied and I'm convinced still to this day that the only reason why I was accepted and offered a job at this place was because of my degree in music.

And I think that's something that you should. Try yourself and that a lot of people trying to break into the industry, you don't have any experience at first, but if you're like me, like late in life, when I was 29, learning these things, I had tons of job experience in other fields and other jobs. And I think it's can be really helpful that if you try to apply for your first coding job in a field or a discipline where you've already, where you do have experience.

So I had experience in. I had degree in music. And so applying to a music job was just a logical thing to do. [00:19:00] And, you know, if you have a lot of experience in retail, you know, you should probably try and ex get a junior developer job working for, a. A retail store or a chain or an e-commerce store, things like that.

Or maybe you have restaurant experience, you waited tables a lot. You've done front of house stuff, or you've been a line cook, whatever, you know, how the restaurant industry works and the food industry works well, then get a job working for a food company because everyone needs software these days. So that's what I.

I applied and by the grace of God, I got that job and they started me at $55,000. So I was making less than $35,000 and five months later, I almost doubled my salary or at least I increased it by 20 grand, which was massive. That allowed me to move out from living at home and pay my loan bills. And, you know, start being an adult basically.

And so I worked at that job at that music company for, [00:20:00] I don't know, two years a year and a half, something like that. After my, you know, my goal to this is I think relevant and important for you. My sole goal at that company was basically to get the word junior out of my. that's all I cared about. I knew that developers bounced around.

I knew that the way to make more money was to bounce around and go from company to company. But the most important thing for me to do there was to get that junior developer out of my title. And so I worked in insanely hard there. I put, I put a lot of effort there and after my first year there, I got promoted to front end developer, which was huge because now.

A company recognized that I was no longer a junior anymore. That gave me the boost of confidence that I needed so that when I wasn't happy there anymore. And I went to apply it to my second job. You know, I didn't have to apply with the, the junior developer in my role. I could just apply as [00:21:00] a front end developer.

So my second job, I was working for a basically a agency that built websites and maintained websites for non-profit organizations. And they started me. I believe it's $72,000. I think I asked them for 80. So at my current job, I got a raise after my first year to, for 5,000. So I was making $60,000.

And then my second job what I asked them for was $80,000. And what they offered back to me was $72,000 the first year. And then my second year there, they would bump me up to 80. So I, I immediately said, yes, it was also my first remote job. And then I put in my notice and quit my first job. I worked that job for a little while.

I don't remember the exact dates. You could check my LinkedIn profile. But that was my first remote job, which was pretty great. I really enjoyed remote working. I still do. I think it's the way to work. It [00:22:00] fits my personality. And then when I was fed up with that place, not really happy there anymore.

I applied to a local insurance company in Rhode Island called I ensure my trip and from there. So I was making $80,000 at my second job. And then I think I asked for. like 90, something like that. I think I started at 90 at that place at my third job. So I got a job there back that was not remote though.

That was in an office, but it was like 10 minutes away. Started working there. So as you can tell each place that I, I moved, I bumped up thou tens of thousands of dollars every time, because that's frankly, like that's just the way that it works in this industry and the companies know that, but you know, I'm surprised that a lot of companies, when they comes time for your, your, your annual review, they give you like, You know, a few percent of a raise, which doesn't even cover inflation.

And meanwhile, you can jump to another company and make like 20, $30,000 more. [00:23:00] So I don't know why companies aren't more concerned with retaining their people. So that's why developers bounce around, which is what I was doing. So then I started my third job and I was making about. 90,000. And then by the time I left that job, I was making just over a hundred thousand dollars.

And that's, you know, a lot of people get into tech for the money and that's fine. That's what motivated me in the beginning. But. If you're only in it for the money, you're not gonna last very long. You really have to really love this stuff and enjoy it. And frankly, I do. And the fact that it pays very, very well is kind of just a bonus because I would, I do this stuff on the weekends and as a hobby, I would be doing it even if I didn't get any money anyways.

So that's something to consider and you make sure you're, you're in it because you enjoy it and you want to keep. And you're passionate about it. You're not just in it for the, the paycheck. So that brings me to my current job. And I am [00:24:00] currently working for a company called Cypress as a DX engineer or a developer experience engineer.

And Cypress is an open source company and we make a piece of testing software, which you can download and use for end to end testing. So you, it automates your end to end test. So you, you basically write a bunch of code and Cypress will run and test your web application. For you? It's pretty great.

It's super powerful stuff. I sought out Cypress specifically because I was a huge fan of the tool and I had been using it and I wanted to be a part of an open source company and do open source full time. Now the interesting thing about what I'm doing now is I'm not doing like typical day to day developer work, where I'm picking up tickets and doing scrum and sprint planning and pointing retros and stuff like that.

Thank God. I got really tired of that. I'm primarily now my job [00:25:00] is to essentially make it as seamless and easy as possible for developers to adopt Cypress and to use it and integrate it into their, their stacks. And my team specifically is Chartered with education. So I create a lot of content right now in videos teaching people how to use Cyprus, how to use it with various CI providers and just how to test in general.

And it's great. It's this is by far the best job I've ever had. I really, really love it. I finally feel like I've. Got a job now where I'm not gonna be bouncing around. They pay me extremely well here. I'm not going to share those numbers because I'm currently working at this company, but it is far north of a hundred thousand dollars.

And I get to work on whatever I want every single day, you know, and I get to help people. And it's, it's pretty amazing being able to do open source work with a tool and a project that is used. I don't know, millions of [00:26:00] developers all around the world and being able to help them and give them the resources and the education and the knowledge they need to solve their problems and write better code and better applications is just incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

So in a nutshell, and I don't know how long I've been recording this thing for, but that's basically my story. And I just wanted to share that with you. I felt like that was very important for you to know where I'm coming from and where I've been and things like that going forward. You know, I don't share the numbers of my salary to Bo or to brag.

It's just to, to give you an example of what's possible. I'm really trying to be as open and upfront and transparent on this podcast as possible. And like talking about money and salaries is like pretty cringeworthy to me. It's like one of those taboo things in my mind, like you just don't talk about salary.

You don't really talk about yourself. This is the kind of [00:27:00] information that I think is super valuable and it would've been incredibly valuable to me when I was first learning how to code. I didn't know. Anything about this? I didn't have anyone. I didn't know what the real numbers were. I just knew what that bootcamp had promised.

And I had seen, you know, stuff on job postings, but I didn't really know like boots on the ground, but people were actually making in my area, things like that. And So I hope that by sharing that information, it can inspire you. It can encourage you, and it can just give you some raw and real data for you to work with as you're evaluating and struggling to teach yourself how to code and figure all this stuff out.

So I hope that was helpful. That pretty much wraps up this episode. Let's see, what am I gonna be talking about in the next episode? We're gonna be sharing a little bit. I'm trying to help you figure out why you're here. Basically. We're gonna be discussing why it's important for you to. Understand why you're teaching yourself how to code and figuring out your reasons, why [00:28:00] to do that, because it's gonna get really, really tough.

It's not easy. I think people sugarcoat things online that, you know, learning to code is easy. And like, you could pick this stuff up in a couple weeks or a couple months, and you're like, ready to go. That simply isn't true. I mean, even though I got my job after five months, I didn't really feel competent for like another few years or so.

That's totally normal. We all have imposter syndrome and feel like we're faking it until we make it. But that's for this episode, guys, I hope you got a lot of value at this one. I hope that what I shared was helpful and I will see you in the next episode. So until next time friends, cheers.


Host Robert Guss is a self-taught front-end developer currently working as a Developer Experience Engineer at Cypress.io. We discuss learning how to code, strategies for getting your first job, web technology news, interviews, testing, and more on this show.

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Robert Guss