Not a One Trick Pony

Not a One Trick Pony

It’s easy to criticize hiring companies who base the value of candidates solely on the programming languages they are familiar with. But I’m more interested when we, as candidates, start to look at ourselves that way.

For example, about a week or so after graduating from The Iron Yard I was presented with this completely awesome opportunity. A super cool agency wanted me to fly in and work on one of their project teams for a week-long, interview-type scenario. This particular agency was, in my opinion, freaking awesome. They had worked on huge projects (like an app for Sesame Street… SESAME STREET!!!). Aaron Draplin, a personal hero of mine, had designed their logo. They held the view that design and development went hand in hand and should be collaborative. It. Was. Perfect.

In preparation for the project I had asked which technologies the team would be using so that I could start familiarizing myself. However, when I got there I found out that the technologies I had prepared for were NOT the technologies I would be using. I was quickly overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know and I felt like I was on the fast track to failure.

Fortunately, one of the teammates was gracious enough to do some pair programming with me and did a great job of teaching/encouraging me. By the following Friday I had my final interview and was able to share what I had worked on, my observations about the technologies I worked with and the challenges I encountered along the way. It was actually pretty enjoyable, and I received some positive feedback. I felt pretty good.

Within a week of returning home I found out that I didn’t get the job. And then my world (and self-confidence) came crashing down.

I doubted everything about this new path I had chosen. I didn’t think I was qualified for anything. I could feel the fear of failure closing in on me. I binged on chocolate and science fiction for a number of days. Eventually, though, I picked myself up, turned off Netflix, slugged more coffee and started beating the pavement again.

Looking back, I’m glad I had that experience. It’s good to fail because then you know you can survive it. It less scary when you know that it’s just temporary.

I do have one major regret, though. When I had gone on this week-long interview I had also been talking to another super cool agency about an opening they had. After being rejected, I contacted that other agency and basically told them I didn’t think I was qualified to continue in the interview process. Such a bad move. I don’t regret removing myself as a candidate as much as I regret how I had viewed my own value as a prospective employee. Somehow, I confused not being qualified for a particular position with my own sense of self-worth. I had become a  two-dimensional commodity in my own eyes. I was a one-trick pony with a very underwhelming trick.

Once You Start Learning Programming, You Never Stop

The point is, regardless of your level of proficiency in whichever coding languages you know, you are always going to have to push yourself. In this field things are always changing. You are constantly hearing about new frameworks, browser updates, new program versions, and technological advances that can have a significant effect on how you go about designing a website (responsive web design, anyone?). Not only that, but people (and organizations) change as well. What worked a year ago may not work today because the business goals have shifted. The solutions you learned a year ago may not work today. You have to stay on your toes and keep learning.

You Are More Valuable Than The Programming Languages You Are Familiar With

It wasn’t mature enlightenment that roused me from my wound licking and got me back to the daily task of applying for positions. It was desperation. I am the sole income provider for my wife and four kids. Failure wasn’t an option. But during the ‘pull myself up by my bootstraps’ process I came to realize this more holistic view of the skills I could bring to the positions I applied for. I had an eye for design. I work well with people. I had great experience with project management and I liked interacting with clients. All of these, I was convinced, were just as important for me to convey in my interviews as the programming I was capable of. Not only were they valuable to me, I felt sure that they would be valuable to the type of place I wanted to work at. Not every company looked at my skills in this holistic way, and that’s okay. I didn’t want to work at a place that was just looking to fill a desk and have photoshop files reproduced. I wanted to work somewhere that valued strategy and collaboration. So I presented my skills toward that type of position and used my interviewing, resume, etc. as a filter to weed out those places I wouldn’t be happy in.

I figured out my ‘voice’ and stuck to it, regardless of the responses from the companies I talked to or the emails I sent. And I’m really glad I did because I’m now at a place that is exactly what I was hoping for.

I’m not a one trick pony. And I’m going to do my best not to doubt that in the future. I hope you do as well.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Heath.

Hack School Grad: One Year Later

The Iron Yard, Greenville, SC

This week I took a tour down memory lane with a return visit to my hack school alma mater, The Iron Yard, located in the ever hospitable Greenville, SC. I attended an annual conference (or rather, unconference) called Grok – an awesome experience centered around getting cool people together from different disciplines to start random conversations that lead to better/deeper understanding. I attended Grok for the first time last year. I had just completed the front-end course and it was really a great way to end such an intense endeavor.

I was super curious to see the school again and how it’s changed. When I started at the Iron Yard, they were only based in South Carolina. As of today they are in 10 different states (and more to come, I’m sure). They have expanded the number of courses they offer and my instructor is now head (dean? emperor?) of all the other instructors around the country. It’s just crazy how much this place has grown.

When I walked through the doors I was impressed with all the upgrades in their new space. Nice tables, marble counters in the kitchen, upgraded couches (I love me a good chesterfield). It definitely felt more grown up, but I was glad to see they hadn’t lost their sense of whimsey (i.e. the Nordic warrior inspired chalk drawing and the mustached storm trooper head below – grandfathered in from the old location). Not to mention all the staff… there were (I’m guessing) about 50-60 Iron Yard staffers who were able to attend Grok. Back in my day (yeah, I said it) there were only 10-15 total employees.

Storm Trooper With a Moustache at the Iron Yard

With such an explosion in staff I wondered what it would feel like to come back to my Iron Yard ‘family’. Within minutes of walking through the door I was greeted with bear hugs from my former instructor and the former campus director (who has also been promoted to emperor status). They remembered my name. They remembered my story. It was a true family greeting. I was humbled/amazed/relieved.

In seeing the growth of the Iron Yard, it inspired me to reflect upon my own growth in the past year. When I left Grok in 2014, I had no prospects before me and I was not looking forward to the job search. The last time I had tried to find a job (pre-IronYard), I had submitted over 100 resumes and didn’t get a single interview. For the three prior years, my family and I had been living in a small community with not much of an economy. We had dwindled our savings down to next to nothing. It was a truly desperate situation. Not a great feeling.

Now I am a front-end developer with a great web agency in Dallas. I get to work from home if I choose, go in late if needed… so long as I keep on top of all my stuff. I get to work as part of a talented team solving UX problems collaboratively. We dialogue about solutions for awesome clients (like Heifer International). I’m being invested in daily and given challenges to complete. My family enjoys having me home again (and having a steady paycheck). We’re working on building up that savings and while we are still frugal, we’re able to talk about going out to eat or enrolling the kids in a summer camp… things that you just don’t talk about when you are under ongoing financial stress.

Of all the things that have happened to me in this past year (i.e. getting a new job, growing in my creative skill set, opportunities to travel, etc.) their impact is nothing in comparison to the shift in my own confidence. Where the old me would have said ‘half empty’ the new me is saying ‘half full’. Doors to my own imagination are now open wider than ever before. I’m considering what I want this next year to look like and I want to try things that I never would have tried before. Some are coding related, but some have nothing to do with programming. Now that I am convinced that I can do hard things and succeed, I’m seeing possibilities instead of just ‘pipe dreams’. I like the new me. I hate how long it’s taken me to get here and I hope I can live in such a way that helps other people get here faster.