August 23, 2016
How things stand at my one-year anniversary of graduating coding bootcamp.
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[After vowing to get back into a weekly publishing schedule with this personal journal of mine this year, I have once again this summer lapsed into big periods of inactivity (although this time for the justifiable reason that my job search has recently ratcheted back up into high gear). Nonetheless, I'm going to be cranking out several ideas for journal entries in rapid succession for the rest of the summer, literally once every four or five days for at least the next four or five weeks, so I appreciate any of you who want to get back into the habit of regularly visiting, or saving yourself some time and just subscribing to the RSS feed or my Twitter account.]

So congratulate me -- a couple of weeks ago I celebrated the one-year anniversary of graduating DevBootcamp, the expensive and intensive alternative educational program designed to help me switch my career at middle-age into software development, and to finally acquire a decent-paying 9-to-5 job for literally the first time in my entire life. And have I gotten that job yet? No. No I haven't. The answer as to why is a complicated one, that partly involves the fact that I'm now looking for a completely different kind of job than the kind I was looking for a year ago; so I thought I'd finally take the time today to sit down and explain the entire saga.

So first, let's dispel any doubts you might have from my situation about the promises DBC makes to its prospective students -- namely, their fabled promise that 85 percent of their graduates get full-time jobs within three months of graduating, and that in Chicago the average starting salary at these jobs is $65,000 a year, the main reason I decided to attend DBC in the first place. Because the fact is that this is true; out of my particular "cohort" of 14 people, for example, 12 of them got jobs after graduating, some just a week or two later to tell the truth, with only me and one other guy who lives out in the suburbs being the only two to not. (Of course, it's worth acknowledging that my cohort started with 20 people, meaning that a third of them either dropped out or flunked out before it was over; but DBC is very upfront about this in their literature, that it's a difficult program that's not right for everyone, and DBC also nicely gives pro-rata refunds to anyone who leaves before graduating.)

The simple fact is that, even if a high number like 85 percent of graduates get jobs, somebody's still got to make up that 15 percent; and that 15 percent turned out to be me, for a variety of reasons that mostly have to do one way or another with age (I was 46 when I attended, and was literally the oldest person in the entire building, including students, teachers and staff). It's the only part of my DBC experience I can say I'm honestly disappointed by, that they weren't more upfront with their middle-aged students about the following facts I've only discovered since graduating...

--There is a clear age bias in the tech community; although I don't mean some shadowy deliberate conspiracy designed to keep older employees out of the industry altogether, but rather the wholly natural and understandable bias of being wary of any 46-year-old who's applying for a job usually held by 22-year-olds. Why are they doing that? Is there something wrong with them? Can they not get along with their fellow workers, which is why they're still languishing at the bottom of the corporate ladder 25 years after they started? Oh, he's changing careers in middle-age, is he? Why is he doing that? Did he wash out of his old industry and is therefore going to be a liability in his new one? Is he simply not a very good worker? Does he have a substance-abuse problem? Is there some weird drama going on his personal life? There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of a middle-ager applying for an entry-level job; and even if they're a perfectly normal person with a perfectly normal reason for doing so, it's often easier just to hire that eager 22-year-old who was the other finalist for the job, especially when that 22-year-old is a faster and better coder than the middle-ager. And speaking of which...

--22-year-olds will always be faster and better coders than middle-agers. This is a simple, inarguable biological fact about human bodies, so save me your pitying look as you pat my arm and coo, "Oh, Jason, don't be so hard on yourself!" Young people by their very genetics are very good at the simple physical and mental mechanics that make up the actual machine-like activities that fuel most industries, whether you're talking about sports, creativity or science, while older people by their genetics are very good at the mature, complex thought processes and organizational skills that go into holding those industries together and making them run smoothly; and that's why it's typically all young people who are our society's athletes, artists and coders, and middle-aged people serving as their coaches, publishers and product managers, a fact I didn't appreciate until actually getting out into the job market and seeing this with my own two eyes.

--Middle-aged people are cranky and judgmental about the corporate world, because they've already been in the corporate world. This is one of the big secrets about DBC's impressive 85-percent employment rate, that many of my fellow students went straight into jobs at companies that as a middle-ager I was kind of horrified by -- financial companies that make their money giving out predatory loans to high-risk candidates, media companies that make their money by convincing 13-year-old girls to be body-shaming, tarted-up whores. Or perhaps the company was fine, but the potential boss I interviewed with was setting off red flags in the back of my head the entire time, a series of seemingly innocuous clues that nonetheless I could tell would make them a fucking nightmare to work for exactly three months after I started there.

I knew all these things because I've already spent several decades out in the working world, and have a fine-tuned sense at this point of who I don't want to work for; but that's both the beauty and horror of being a twentysomething, that you don't know any of those things, and will happily traipse your way into a situation that will eventually be your first experience in, "You know, not everything in the tech industry is all happy polite little scrum standups and 'follow your passion!' Buddhists like DevBootcamp told me it was going to be." But meanwhile, that older and wiser twentysomething is $65,000 richer and I'm not, because I've already been through that situation half a dozen times and don't want to do it a seventh.

And then in my particular case, there was one more big thing that hampered my search for a full-stack coding job in the first six months after graduating DBC; it turns out that I just don't like full-stack coding very much. Oh, the pure language part of coding was really interesting, Ruby in the case of DBC, and is something I took to immediately and was actually pretty good at; but it turns out that only half of making a webapp is about the language itself, with the other half being the framework that lets that language interact with a web browser (typically Rails when it comes to Ruby, just like how Django is typically associated with Python, PHP is typically associated with Java, or Angular is often paired up with JavaScript), which is a tedious slog I hated every minute of, and found incredibly difficult to learn or even understand.

A programming language is an elegant and intuitive experience, much like learning a foreign language by reading great works of literature; but a framework is a clunky and non-intuitive experience, much like having someone hand you a piece of paper filled with random numbers and then saying, "Now don't get up from this chair until you've memorized every one of these numbers and what order they go in." And seriously, that's exactly what environment files felt like to me when I was trying to learn them at DBC, like literally someone had handed me a page full of random gobbltygook and said, "I know none of this makes any sense, but just fucking memorize it character-for-character if you want any chance of your app actually working;" and that means I don't have a chance of being a good full-stack developer no matter how good I might get at the language itself.

I could've eventually forced all this information into my brain if I had really wanted to, by continuing to slog through it for eight hours a day, every single day, constantly taking a series of refresher quizzes to make up for the information slowly leaking out of my ears the moment after I learned it in the first place; but the fact that it was going to take this much effort simply to be even a terrible full-stack coder was a big realization that full-stack coding simply wasn't fated to be part of my future. So over the holidays I regrouped, right at the same time that I was deciding to shut down my arts center for a year; and when I emerged after New Year's, I had decided to try my hand instead at front-end coding, which is specifically the part of building an app that determines how that app looks and feels, the way it works (otherwise known as the user interface, or UI), and what kind of experience the user has when interacting with it (otherwise known as the user experience, or UX).

For those who don't know, this is kind of where the job of web "designer" has headed in recent years; for in a world where every schmo and his grandmother can actually do the graphic design of a website, being just a static designer doesn't really hold much cache in the tech world anymore, a fact that I'm very familiar with because that was one of the various creative-class jobs I used to hold back in my twenties and thirties, whose eventual worthlessness (along with copywriting, guerrilla marketing, time management, and all those other silly-sounding '90s job titles) was the main motivator for me deciding to change careers last year in the first place. The simple fact is that modern websites are so complicated and sophisticated now, you pretty much have to know some coding just to get the website to look the way you want (think about all the animations that now go into a website, the way that information is updated on the page in real time now without refreshing, the fact that pages have to change their very shape and structure anytime someone goes from a laptop to a phone, or from a skinny browser to a wide one); and it's also a fact that things like UI and UX have become such a mature and complicated field that many companies have employees who do nothing but that and that alone, and barely do any actual sit-down coding whatsoever.

In all this, though, I have some advantages against the 22-year-olds that I never had in the full-stack world, which has made it a better choice as far as a job type to pursue. For one thing, I've already spent twenty years programming in HTML and CSS, the two main protocols that make up 66 percent of a front-end developer's job; in fact, I've been coding in these two languages all the way back since version 1 of both, way back in the dark ages of the Clinton administration, so have a kind of deep and intuitive understanding of them that I would likely never reach with something like Ruby on Rails in my entire lifetime. Also, I learned JavaScript as part of my experience at DBC, that third protocol that makes up the last 33 percent of a front-end coder's job; and when you learn something like JavaScript at the same time you're learning Ruby on Rails, JavaScript becomes the far easier one to really pick up.

My DBC experiences also help me profoundly when it comes to new protocols like SASS, which is essentially an attempt to slap a object-oriented language on top of CSS so that you can "program" it like you would a Ruby document (a protocol that nearly 100 percent of all startups now use, I've been learning); and also when it comes to the "front-end frameworks" that so many of these apps use, things like Angular and React and Ember that work pretty much like a smaller, simpler version of Rails. Plus, I just have a bigger natural interest in and excitement for front-end topics, which has made it a lot easier and painless to put in my hours each day of new learning and old practice, a crucial part of the process if I ever want to find myself a job. And then finally, despite all the coding, front-end development still relies more on someone having a natural sense of creativity, a "natural eye," than the mostly number-crunching of full-stack development; it's only a small advantage I have over others, my natural talent for visual design, but I'll take any small advantage I can get.

So that's all great, and I've been learning all kinds of stuff about front-end development in the last six months, with this personal website of mine being a sort of sandbox for trying all the new things out. (Depending on when you're visiting, for example, you should be seeing the latest in front-end tricks I've learned, a horizontal bar at the top of the page that slowly fills in with color as you read this entry, giving you a snapshot idea of how much you have left until you're done.) But, there's been another big development going on with me in just the last several months, which is where I'm truly excited concerning where I think my future in the tech industry may lie; namely, as I convince more and more working tech people to meet up with me for these "informational interview" coffees the job coaches call them (in which you simply hang out with someone you admire for 15 or 20 minutes at a coffeehouse one random afternoon, and ask them a bunch of questions about what goes into doing the job they do), I'm learning more and more that there's a whole class of jobs at these tech companies called "product managers," that's way more naturally up my alley than any coding job at all, no matter what its particular designation.

A product manager (as it was best explained to me by one of the product managers at Target.com) is basically the person sitting right in the middle of the process and they basically have four directions they're constantly turning in order to keep that process rolling smoothly; to their left are the coders and other developers, to their right are all the creatives (writers, designers, photographers, etc), in front of them are the customers who actually use that product, and behind them are the members of that industry whose lives are supposedly destined to become better and easier because of your product. A product manager's job is "simply" to be in constant communication with all four of these quadrants, and to essentially take what each group is saying and then "translate" it into the language the other groups understand. So for example, this translation is particularly important when it comes to getting creatives and your dev team working in sync; because these two areas of the tech world work in notoriously different ways, with creatives rarely understanding coding and the coders rarely understanding things like Photoshop layers or advanced color theory.

Granted, the job entails more than this -- it's also part of a product manager's job to determine the feasibility of any new potential product that company might initiate, and to take half a dozen ideas and to eventually tell the CEO, "Here's the one I think has the biggest chance of making the most money," using all kinds of data like market reports, Return On Investment estimates, your company's past sales figures, extrapolations of where your dev team sees your actual technology going over the next few years, etc etc. But anyone who knows me can easily see why I've been getting so excited about this job possibility lately; because this is exactly what I've been doing in an informal capacity for the last 25 years of my life, essentially having one foot in the tech world and one foot in the creative world, using decades of communication practice to keep these two worlds easily understanding each other. If there's anything that could be called my biggest corporate strength, it would be this, the ability to keep in touch with a wide variety of professionals within a whole bunch of different fields, and to be able to take that chaotic stream of information and synthesize it into something meaningful and clear. It's a no-brainer that I would be excellent at a job like this, so it's been in just the last few months that I've started doing the things that will get companies to take me more seriously for jobs like these (namely, taking a couple of product manager online classes, reading a bunch of books on the subject, familiarizing myself more with the terms and lingo that come with this job type, and meeting up with a bunch of working product managers and getting their advice on how to proceed).

Does this make the time and money I sunk into DevBootcamp a waste, now that it's looking more and more likely that I might not end up with a coding job at all? Well, not really; it was DBC that taught me about these kinds of jobs existing in the first place, DBC where I learned the actual dev skills that will make me a good overall product manager, DBC that taught me the new habits and new mindset that is allowing me to make this career transition in the first place. And perhaps most importantly, it's that piece of paper saying I graduated DBC that's been my entrance ticket into a lot of these opportunities in the first place; it's the thing that allows me to apply for these jobs without getting laughed out of the room, the thing that convinces working professionals to meet up with me for these informational coffees, the thing that inspired me to start doing volunteer work this year for the kids' coding organization CoderDojo, which is where I've met so many of the people who have been giving me the most advice and the best advice about all of this. So in all this, DBC has been a great boon to my life, even if I'm still without a job a year later and am now shifting my focus into things that DBC never directly taught me during my time there. It's the pivot into these new, exciting things in my life that is the important part, not the ticking clock of exactly how many days it's taking me to find that new job; and besides, the fact that I'm getting to do this very deliberately and always on my own terms makes that ticking clock worth it. Frankly, I would have it no other way.

Okay, that's enough for today, I think; but make sure to stop by again this Friday, where I'll be taking on the subject of "everyday security" when it comes to our online habits, and the new things I've been doing in my life (including teaching myself Linux, VPN and Tor this year) to make that security better. See you then!

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