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.