Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to become a Software Engineer (part 1)

It was the end of June 2014 when I accomplished the improbable. I'd become a Software Engineer at Microsoft. Me. The guy who had learned C# on the fly just slightly over 7 years earlier and VB.Net 6 months before that having never programmed on the Microsoft stack before. Today, after answering a question on Quora, I'm going to finally begin a short series of posts that Phil Hagerman requested of me when my career trajectory pitched moonward, starting with a brief history. I'll get more into the details of the hows and whats of what brought me this success in later posts.

The Early Years 

I started programming as a kid on Applesoft BASIC followed by Sinclair BASIC on a Timex/Sinclair 1000. That tiny, 4K beauty had neither a sound chip nor a traditional keyboard. So, it was the perfect, first, hacker platform. My dad and I did the easy thing, first, of upgrading to the massive 16K memory pack. We then cracked 'er open and soldered a ribbon cable between the motherboard and a real keyboard that we built from a kit. Finally, I pounded out and modified every BASIC program I could find, whether originally written for Apples or the TS1000. That culminated with the ultimate hackery that was playing the Star Spangled Banner on a device with no explicit support for sound by detuning the TV such that the video was distorted and, then, poking at video memory, causing said distortion to create consistent pitches. And, yet, I did NOT become a software developer at this point.

Programming? How mundane!

No, I figured I knew all I could about writing software at the ripe old age of 18 and decided that the more interesting subject was understanding the silicon that produced these marvelous things. I didn't get as far in my Electrical and Computer Engineering studies as I'd have liked when, due to financial pressures, I ended up dropping out of college. So, strike two on being a huge success in the software industry.

Gotta Pay the Bills 

I spent the next 20 years working in IT in various ways, from field tech fixing printers for lawyers offices to network admin work. When the company I was making my career with went under, I found myself relocating to central Florida where I discovered the headquarters for one of my favorite pieces of software. The software was Backup Exec and the company was Seagate Software.
Now, in the back of my mind I thought to myself that I could somehow get a job with them and change my career to software development. Mind you, I hadn't written much code in the intervening 15 years. It took me 3 years and a merger with Veritas Software before I could join the company. No programming during that time, either. Then it took another 6 years and completing my AA with a couple of programming courses (C++ and JAVA) under my belt before I tripped over an internal project, Phil Hagerman's brainchild, which I could contribute to. It's not that, before that, I couldn't have been contributing to some open source project (PRO TIP for building your resume) but my self-confidence was low. That internal project, though, was the tipping point I'd been looking for which proved to some folks that I should be doing software development. I was 39 and I was a software developer...barely.

I'm Finally a Developer!

I look back to that time and realize that one knack, that I could arrange my thoughts around a task that I needed the computer to do, allowed me to write really lousy code that got the work done. I had none of the discipline I have today. Like the meme says, "I rarely test[ed] my code, but when I [did], I test[ed] in Production." I had no idea about TDD, design patterns or SOLID principles, or the software development lifecycle (SDLC), or even C#, the language they used, but I was a software developer for a data analytics team in the Symantec tech support organization! (Symantec had acquired Veritas Software by then.) I am not one to go at something half-way, though, so I quickly learned about all those things. After 4 years working on that team, I was ready to stretch my wings and have a bigger impact. Not finding the right opportunity there, I started doing C# and SQL contract work and got a lot of exposure to various SDLCs, architectures, and problem spaces. What I discovered is that I could work on anything as long as I kept an open conversation with my peers and the stakeholders, things I learned well before I became a software developer.

Leaping Moonward

Then the improbable happened. I joined a successful startup that soon thereafter was acquired by Google. And, to my surprise, they kept me on! I was a Googler. Ok, I wasn't a Software Development Engineer but I was programming in Python, another language I'd never seen before, at Google. The interview process introduced me to more new concepts, algorithms and an explicit understanding of the data structures underlying all the work I'd done previously. To remain a Googler, as they were closing my office, I'd have to learn these things to be effective at interviewing so I spent the next year finding all the online courses I could take on the subjects.

Would You Like a Milkshake With That?

Getting Google on your resume brings all the recruiters to the yard. Looking at all the places where I could work for Google, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Mountain View were on the short list. I wanted to avoid the extreme cold and live somewhere cost effective. When Microsoft called for the 4th time, I decided I needed to practice interviewing and they invited me out to Redmond to interview for a role as a Software Engineer. Redmond in May is beautiful and, to my surprise, they gave me an offer a few days later and moved me, my family, and our menagerie of pets clear across the country a couple of months later. I was a Software Engineer at 46.
I have had successful interviews with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, NASA, and have had continuing offers for interviews at Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook, Starbucks, Wizards of the Coast (for my fellow geeks out there), and more start-ups than I can count. I am now officially a Software Engineer at 48 and I continue to learn something new every day. I also continue taking online courses to fill in the gaps in my knowledge a CS degree would have covered. I am enjoying this new career trajectory and see myself progressing in this industry for the next 20 years.

Shia LaBeouf Would Be Proud

So, you want to know how I became a Software Engineer? There's a part of me that wants to say it was luck. However, my wife reminds me that it was a lot of hard work, understanding which risks to take, and surrounding myself with supportive people to allow me to take those risks. I'll cover more on those topics in future posts. However, if you are a developer who has always wondered if you could ever work in the big leagues of software, not only do I know it's possible but you can grow well past that. Most extraordinarily as careers go, you can even do it with no formal education. There will be challenges along the way, some internal and some external. Isn't that always the case, though? Don't make excuses for yourself. Just do it!

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