29 November 2016

Being a software developer without a University degree

I'm a software developer without a university degree. My family couldn't afford to keep me at the university past the second year and to my misfortune I was not ready to strike out at my own.

I returned to my home town and started working in my fathers small company. It was a three person team. I was working there since I was thirteen, on and off during every school break. Now it was permanent. Or so I thought.

I always wanted to become a software engineer. Since I was a little kid and my father smuggled a Commodore 64 from the Netherlands into Yugoslavia. My mother, who spoke a little German, helped me to learn BASIC programming at the age of nine from a Dutch manual. By the age of eleven I was writing a combination of assembly and BASIC and writing my own, albeit simple arcade games.

If I could not get a proper education I decided to get one by myself. Luckily for me I was working in an industry that is fully internet driven, and all the resources I needed to educate myself were available online.

I bought a book and taught myself PHP. I wrote a couple of in house projects for my family and after a year I got my first programming job. Well the rest is history. I ended up having a good career so far. It had its ups and downs but so far I managed to keep myself employed and my family provided for.

Not having a university degree in an IT related field is one of my biggest regrets in life.

When searching for new work some of the positions I applied to would not include me in the phone screen part of the interview process, some would never respond to my application.

Regardless of not having a university degree I managed to build a career in software engineering.

I'm proud of my achievements. I self educated myself. It was hard and I still work on it.

How did I do it?

  • Find out what are the core skills a software engineer needs to have and train your self in them
  • Spend time daily (ideally one hour or more) focusing your self on the core skills
  • Read, listen to IT related media.
  • Rinse and repeat
I think for the core elements of software engineering there is no better alternative then to buy and read books about the topic. Something which is considered core doesn't change that often and if it does skills learned can be easily be transferred to the new version. Alternatively reading documentation (for example PHP always had excellent online documentation), watching presentations and tutorials (InfoQ is my favorite source about anything software engineering). 

I think if you want to be an excellent software engineer you cannot get away from spending one or more hours a day improving your skills, be it programming, reading or listening. You have to do it. Your job will provide some but not all the skills you need to advance. 

Yes, you will be tired. So I am, in the evening, but not in the morning. So I getup earlier and spend time learning while I eat my breakfast. I listen to podcasts on my way to work, read books in the tram or when I'm waiting for something. 

Chances are you will always find gaps of time you can fill with some learning aspects.

Sitting in front of a computer and coding is critical. There is no alternative, the only advice I can give is sit down and do it regular. Plan for it and do it. Nothing worthwhile doesn't come easy. Being a good software engineer is sometimes a hard life, even if you love doing it as I do. 

I love listening to podcasts, .NET rocks and Software Engineering Radio are my favorite. Years ago when I was working in Croatia I was burning CDs with downloaded podcasts and listening to them on my way to and back to work. It was the best of times. 

Nowadays I use my Safari Online subscription and read books while I trudge in a tram. 

The most important thing

Be positive and keep striving. Life and the world will keep building walls around you, there is no need to build them yourself. You will hit obstacles and dead roads. But I firmly believe if you keep working and doing the hard things you will achieve what you need to achieve.