Just getting started in tech? Listen up…

Me with the Feb 2018 Cohort at MUKTEK Academy

I had a great chat with the next graduating class at Muktek Academy this afternoon. These 8 young people came from different walks of life, and had an incredible diversity of backgrounds, from music composition, to social welfare activism, to mortgage processing. And they’ve all just spent 3 months learning the latest in web development with React.

The format is that they write out questions on slips of paper ahead of time, and put them in a jar for me to pick at random. It’s a great way to do this sort of thing (instead of a talk or presentation), because they stay engaged for all 90 minutes and I get to adlib my responses, including liberal amounts of personal anecdotes and hard-won wisdom.

Here are some key thoughts in brain dump format from today’s chat. I think that they apply to anyone else just getting started in tech

Don’t call yourself “Junior” (kills confidence and puts you at a disadvantage from day one). Look for work that integrates what you just learned over the last three months with skills that you’ve already mastered or that you have burning passions for. Would you eat at a street taco stand that advertised “Inferior Tacos — 5 pesos!!!” No, you wouldn’t. (If you live in Mexico City you would understand why that got a great round of laughter.)

Be prepared to sacrifice everything outside of work for a few years That includes personal relationships and social life. Your social life if any will be with similar minded people at work. Everyone else is a distraction. I got married at 21 and divorced at 25. During the time I was married I didn’t learn anything at work. Zero. I took it all for granted and generally walked around gloating about how much money I was making. What I realized is that it was all luck — the dot com boom was in full swing and even a monkey with a sharp suit and a fake resume could get a programming job. My career breakthrough arrived when I joined a super intense startup and my marriage fell apart. I started working 60–70+ hour weeks on a regular basis, and my circle of friends shrunk to the people I worked with. It was eXtreme programming, and it was also EXTREME programming. Also it wasn’t particularly healthy — there were definitely times when drugs were involved) — but during those 4 years I built an astounding amount of technical strength as a coder and rock-solid confidence that has underpinned my success ever after.

Seek employers that will push you to your limits. Don’t take the first job dangled in front of you. Take risks. Go for a tech-savvy consultancy or established startup. DO NOT GO CORPORATE! You need your growth to happen at work. Since you’re starting out, you can afford to be picky. You won’t learn as fast with side projects that you do at home. Too many distractions at home, and a lot of side projects are pointless. It’s human nature to put minimal effort into things that are pointless.

Do not freelance right off the bat. Based on the question, I think at least a couple of people in the room are hoping to make big money right away by doing hourly consulting work for non-Mexican clients. I pooped on their parade. It’s not going to happen. There’s too much you don’t know, and worse you will be competing with the rest of the global low-end contracting world and have to pick up a ton of shit work that won’t get you ahead, nor build your confidence. You don’t want to be doing WordPress sites and PHP at $9/hour. It’s a trap.

It’s okay to burn out. If you’re working as hard as you should be working, you will eventually burn out. And when you burn out you will probably quit or be fired, and that’ fine. That’s called acceptable failure in my book. Just make sure you have enough savings to be able to take a few months off. Do a little traveling or just veg on the couch for as long as you need. Take that time to relax and process everything you learned so far, and what you will do differently next time. And when you’re ready, start it all over again.

It’s a SPRINT not a MARATHON. The start of your career should be all about delivering as much value as fast as possible. You should be working as hard as your physical limits will allow. Don’t do pointless shit. Don’t get stuck in jobs that make you do pointless or boring shit. Quit liberally. Job hop when necessary. Be relentless in maximizing your opportunities for learning, and ruthless in latching on to mentors. The time for work/life balance, active social life, non-tech hobbies, and generally treating work as a marathon is after you’ve established yourself in the industry and built up confidence in yourself that you can tackle whatever challenges life will throw at you.

CTO for Hire, Author, and Software Engineer. Digital Nomad. Chief Consultant at MagmaLabs. Electronic Music Producer/DJ.