From Minimum Wage to Senior Developer - Part 1

Today I am writing this article while riding in a warm, comfortable, wifi-enabled bus to my senior level position at one of the most desired employers on the planet. I hope that this does not come off like a brag. I'm constantly amazed at how fortunate I am to be where I am, and my imposter syndrome won't even allow me to feel superior to a junior developer. Yet here I am, doing the work that I love, and getting paid well for it. So I wanted to share a bit about my journey and write down some of the lessons I learned along the way. I'm going to share my salary information as well, not to "prove what a success I am," but to help others set expectations and demand equal pay for equivalent work.

2004 - $9/hour

After getting a degree in audio production and realizing the lack of actual jobs in that industry (outside of LA/NYC), I decided to return home to the Pacific Northwest, get my room and board at Casa de Parents, and try to start my career over again.

I was fortunate to find some work at a local Mac retailer for just a bit above minimum wage. I enjoyed the work. I got really familiar with Mac OS and hardware, used some Adobe applications to whip up flyers, and learned the basics of some of Apple's professional applications. I knew a bit about computers before going in, but coming out of there I could officially assume the title of "computer person."

Sometimes that's all it takes, as these skills eventually lead me to a job at a print shop.

Lessons Learned

  • Get interested in computers and technology. You'll never know when the title of "computer person" will open up opportunities.

2006 - $12/hour

Owning the title of "computer person" paid off when, in response to the recession of 2007, the print shop decided to start offering websites to customers, to whom we were already printing business cards and letterhead. I was asked to take on the technical part of this process and started reading blog posts, viewing source of my favorite websites, and eventually taking an evening course at the local university.

In the end, we made dozens of tiny little marketing sites, which was perfect for someone just learning. I got to create new site after new site, learning from each experience and trying to make the next one better. I started caring about keeping things "DRY" and not having to repeat myself with each new site. And best of all I decided to dive into a CMS called CMS Made Simple, which taught me about templating languages, content management, and basic programming logic.

Lessons Learned

  • Nobody really knows what they're doing when they create their first website. Step out and offer to make one for your band, for your photographer friend, for your World of Warcraft guild, for your employer. Many developers can trace their career back to a single website.
  • Take advantage of structured education, whether that's a bootcamp, an online course, or a 3 hour introduction at your local community college. Sometimes you learn best when you are challenged and accountable to learning.
  • Learn a platform. I haven't used CMS Made Simple in years, but learning that CMS inside and out taught me many things that I still use today, and was the primary reason I got my next job!

2011 - $40k/year

Having gotten more into Twitter in 2010, I ended up connecting with a local advertising agency over a series of CMS Made Simple tweets. This relationship turned into some freelancing work, which quickly turned into a job offer. This was a pretty amazing moment in my life. I'd only lucked into making websites at my previous job, so this was the first time that I was hired because of my ability to write code. This was also a great chance to learn about agency life: communication, project management, billable hours, and working in a team.

Over the next couple years I continued to spent time on Twitter, reading blogs, listening to podcasts, as well as attending local meetup groups. I also made the decision to learn Drupal (which we were using for some projects and had a great local meetup), and teach myself Git and Sass (which, unfortunately, we weren't using at the agency). I still felt like a brand new developer, but I was gaining confidence and skills pretty quickly, able to understand and absorb more information with every passing month.

I eventually got to the point where I felt I wasn't learning enough at work and started to look for something bigger. At first I felt completely under qualified, but eventually decided to put myself out there...in the most unusual way possible. And that, as they say, made all the difference.

Lessons Learned

  • Connect with other people around you, however you can. You never know what job opportunities you'll find through someone you met on twitter, or a meetup.
  • Don't stay anywhere that you aren't learning. Oftentimes in our industry you have to switch jobs to find more challenging work, and that's 100% okay.
  • Learn the guitar?..... More on that later.