October 04, 2022

How I seized the opportunity to go from construction worker to software engineer

A construction worker using a skill saw

Photo Credit: Greyson Joralemon

I've been coding professionally for about eight years and realized I've never really talked about my coding journey other than in my social circle. Over that process, I've had my ups and downs, but it's been a rewarding career that's opened many doors for me. What started as a struggle trying to find my place in the world eventually ended up on a trajectory into coding.

It was sometime in 2010, and I had just graduated with my Bachelor's Degree in Marketing out in beautiful Southern California, my home. I had earned a degree in Business, so that had to mean money, and I was only 22, so I was getting a head start, getting into the professional job market before most of my friends. After four years of working my ass off and not making much money, I would finally start having an excellent salary and saving up some cash. After succeeding in that part of my life, I felt so upbeat.

My optimism soon disappeared. It was true that I had graduated and done an excellent job, but it was also clear that the economy had crashed hard after the colossal recession. I quickly found out no one was looking for my services. I hired a specialist to help me write my resume, wrote unique cover letters for each company, and sent 100s of applications out into the universe. Even after all that, no one gave a fuck. I got about five interviews, and each had about 50 people competing for one job. Not only was I competing against fellow entry-level workers but also more senior workers whose positions had disappeared due to the crisis.

After several months of trying unsuccessfully, I decided to do an unpaid marketing internship because it felt like the only way to cut through was to get some experience on my resume. I started working with a company in Hollywood that did social media and other marketing services for some minor celebrities and businesses in LA. The plan was to work with them for a couple of months and then try again. They would recommend me and help sell me to any prospective company that was interested in me after I worked with them. I interned for a couple of months and then tried my luck again, generating just as little interest as before. No one was interested.

Once this was going on for a while, I had no money. I had a piece of paper saying I did well in school but no money. I felt rejected because I couldn't find my place in society. There weren't any small victories or lights at the end of the tunnel that made me feel optimistic. After about a year of trying with no luck, I did what I had to do, which was go into the family construction business. I felt depressed because it seemed like I went to school and studied hard, only to end up back in construction. However, due to the current landscape, I felt fortunate to have a job and was thankful to my dad for helping me get back on my feet.

I slowly built myself up in construction for the next couple of years. I started off doing general labor and slowly built up my skills. I wouldn't say I liked the daily grind, so I worked my way into a situation where I worked with a master electrician. I figured that if I had to do construction, I should at least do a higher-paying, more technical job with less labor. After working with him for a while, I became the leading electrician in the company and wired up several houses in the process. I was pretty good at what I was doing and enjoyed the technical work, but I never felt much satisfaction from it or something that I wanted to do long-term. I was doing side jobs and working on the weekends to make more money, but it felt like a grind. I had enough to pay my bills and nothing else. I was also hoping to get out of construction before I blew my hand off from electrical or fell off a ladder.

While working in construction, I was constantly looking for new opportunities. I was looking for my way out. I realized there was a good chance I wouldn't be working in Marketing or a traditional business-related profession. Not only was it hard to differentiate me from others without significant experience, but it was hard to have unique skills that others didn't have within this profession. It also seemed there were a minimal amount of jobs. I started looking into Amazon FBA and trying to start my own Business. At least I would give myself a chance.

For about a year, I grinded and did my best to make the Amazon business successful. I would research undervalued and underpriced products and sell them for double or triple on Amazon. Many of the products I tried did well, but getting a steady supply was tough. Others did not sell and got stuck in limbo for several months without moving. All I could do with those was slowly get my money back. I hit it big with one hot sauce product I could get for $7 and sell it for $40-$50 on Amazon. It was something I could get at a restaurant supply in LA and constantly refill. I made money off it for a couple of years, but a better product eventually showed up and killed my sales. I also had difficulties finding another product as remotely successful. It was nice to make some money but never enough to get me out of construction.

I became increasingly depressed as time passed, but I kept feeling the desire to make it in something. I wanted to travel, have fun, and enjoy life experiences. Instead, I barely had enough money to pay rent, and whenever my truck broke, I had $0 again. I kept searching through opportunities until I came across something unique I had never seen before. It was a place called App Academy in San Francisco where you could go to an immersive coding Bootcamp, quickly gain valuable skills, and then get a high-paying job after finishing. Even more incredible was that they wouldn't charge you upfront and would take the money from your paycheck when you got a job. I felt like I had just found the golden opportunity I had been chasing for years.

During my life, I have always loved computers and technology, and it seemed to be something that came easy to me compared to other things. Upon researching the program, I discovered the acceptance rate was about 5%. My competition had a significant advantage over me because many had coding experience. In contrast, I had practically none other than making Pokemon sites when I was 10. I felt discouraged but also felt like I was smart enough to learn to code.

App Academy was in San Francisco, and I lived in Los Angeles, so I decided to research if there was anything similar in my local area. I found one new school in LA that offered what I wanted. The school,General Assembly, was in the heart of Santa Monica, right by the pier. They had part-time courses and a software engineer immersion course, similar to what they offered at App Academy. Their promises of giving you enough skills to get your first job were also there. They had free info sessions so you could learn more about the course, so I scheduled one.

Sitting in the info session and being around that environment felt incredible and surreal. The atmosphere in this tech environment felt so far removed from what I was doing in construction. I felt so much excitement about the opportunity to learn about the course and see all the cutting-edge technologies. I've never felt so convinced that I needed to be a part of something than in this moment of my life. I was going to show my face and be as active in this community as possible to ensure I got to be a part of it. I started showing my face a lot and socializing with the people who worked there, making sure they knew me. After learning more about the program, I decided to apply for the total immersion and go all in on trying to become a coder. But first, I had to get past the application process.

The WDI (Web Development Immersive) selection process was somewhat complex but not as challenging as the App Academy's 5%. It felt like I had a shot at getting into this program. There were some tests and interviews that I had to do beforehand. Also, even if I was accepted, the payment structure was different; they took the money before getting a job, about $12k, $12k that I didn't have. It wasn't easy, but my focus was on doing this and only this. One day, I finally got the email I was hoping to receive. I got in! I was so thankful that after all the shit I had gone through, I finally got a chance, which was all I could ask. Knowing how strongly I desired to make this opportunity happen, my parents gave me a loan for the course. I'm forever grateful to them for that.

As the Bootcamp started, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I had stopped working, had no savings, and was going to pay for all my food and rent with my credit card. I was living in an apartment in a relationship with my girlfriend that was about to fail. If I fell short in this, I would be in a lot of debt and out of options. I was determined not to be a failure and finally find my place in the professional world. For the next three months, I would only give a fuck about coding and nothing else.

For the next three months, I went to school every morning, ready to absorb as much code as humanly possible. I was learning things I had never known about before, and my brain felt broken every night. We always had a project we were building. And we needed to have four projects in our portfolio by the end of 3 months. So I spent almost every night at the school working on a project. I want to say it was 100% code, but I spent a lot of nights drinking with the other students in my class after my brain had nothing left. We worked our asses off but had a lot of drinks and fun throughout the process. They are some of the best and most interesting people I've spent time around. It was great going to war with them. I still keep in touch with some of them today.

By the time the Bootcamp was over, I had managed to put together, while not perfect, four projects for my portfolio. Our learning had primarily been in HTML, CSS, Javascript, Angular, and Ruby on Rails. The first project, a Tic-Tac-Toe game, was made in Angular and customized with cats and other funny stuff. The second project was a full-blown Rails project and was an application where I used Twilio to send scheduled text message reminders for different things. The third project was an Airbnb clone for eating food at people's houses, built with Rails and using Google Maps. Finally, the last project was a Snapchat clone made with Node.js.

The school was good about giving us a showcase where they invited several employers and members of the startup community for us to network. We had our computers and monitors out with our apps and could show them off to each person. Some of my classmates were more talented and impressive, but I managed to hit it off well with a CTO from one of the startup companies. He liked all the effort I put into my apps and was impressed by the hustle. We also got along well and were laughing together like friends. I wasn't feeling any blatant optimism from the other companies, but I thought I had a good shot with that one.

About a month after finishing the Bootcamp, putting out applications, networking, and getting some interviews, I went into the interview with the startup CTO with whom I had a good rapport. Believe it or not, I got stuck in terrible LA traffic, was 30 minutes late, and did everything possible that could go wrong. When I finally arrived, I apologized and could tell he was annoyed. He commented, "30 minutes late to an interview". As we started talking, though, we got along great, and things felt perfect. After the interview, I finally got what I'd been searching four years long. I was now 26 and getting my first job opportunity. I still tried to negotiate for $80k, but we settled on $60k, which was an unbelievable amount of life-changing money for me. On top of that great experience, one of my classmates got hired at the same company, so it was a great day for us. We had finally made it.

I'm not going to lie; I felt my struggle and emotions again while writing this post. I followed the system of going to university so I could get an excellent job, only to get a rude awakening upon graduation. The school of life tested my resiliency several times as I felt rejection over and over again. People teased me for working in construction with my college degree, and I tried to create a business and failed. And I was trying to join a career I had absolutely no qualifications for and had never studied. But eventually, I got what I was looking for, and I'm still happily working in coding eight years later and have found my spot in the professional world. I know firsthand that starting a career can be humbling and painful, so I decided to put my experience out there to show that it's possible. Don't give up, and I'm here if you need me.