Another brick in the wall
May 19, 2016 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Freelance writer considering education in front- and back-end coding. I've chosen an educational path, but I don't know how to make the best of my new-found skills as I move forward. More inside.

Inspired by some MeFi posts such as this, I've decided to give Free Code Camp a solid try. I like that it teaches a broad range of front- and back-end skills. Enough, apparently, to give me an idea of what I like best and enough to land me an entry-level programming job.

I work as a freelance writer and would prefer to continue that path. I like that I can set my own hours and control my own fate; I don't like the pay, which seems much too low considering my experience and dedication (the market churns out a lot of poor content for poor pay). I have learned enough markup with HTML and CSS to build my own website, and I've made it through the first chapter of K&R with success. Both of those endeavors begin to prove to me that I can make it through Code Camp and develop an understanding of the material beyond "cargo culting," as Mefite snap, crackle and pop said.

Although I am excited to learn a new set of skills, a recent discussion with a friend alerted me to the potential horror of becoming a "code monkey" -- another cog in the wheel that, although could find better pay, would put me back into my current situation where I don't feel valued for my abilities. I fear that my desire to remain a freelancer would put me in a hard spot as a newcomer on the scene. I don't want a job I'll hate.

How can I make the best of my time with this? Is becoming a valued freelancer after only a year of coding practice even possible? Is the development of a personal portfolio, such as on GitHub, essential to differentiate myself? What would you do in my position?

Thank you, in advance, for your help. Feel free to Memail for any extended discussion.
posted by mr_bovis to Education (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is becoming a valued freelancer after only a year of coding practice even possible?

It is theoretically possible but unlikely. Part of it depends on what you define as valued. The market tends to reward scarce and hard to acquire skills - one year of study just isn't enough time to impart truly valuable skills, especially when one is competing against foreign contractors with significantly lower cost of living and years of experience. The people that I know who are valued freelancers are the ones with a decade of experience or exceptionally rare skills.

I would be dubious about hiring someone from a coding camp for a full time position let alone contracting. The danger of the camps is that they can teach enough jargon to make it through some interview processes while still leaving the person woefully unprepared for professional work. Node is neat technology in some ways, but it's a bad match for many problems and also lets people shoot themselves in the foot in ways that aren't obvious with small tasks but can sink bigger projects.

A tremendous portion of learning anything complex in IT is working in a team with experienced people that provide mentoring. I'm pretty damn smart and good at teaching myself, but what I've learned from working with others is invaluable, even if it's just people that served as cautionary tales of what not to do.

What would you do in my position?

I would try to find a path to an office job that you can tolerate for a few years and then consider whether going back to freelancing is what's best for you.
posted by Candleman at 11:52 AM on May 19, 2016

Thanks for the advice, Candleman. I'll keep that all in mind.

There is much to be said for experience on the job. I've learned a lot in my current position both inside and outside office environments. My definition of "value" as an employee hinges on the relationships I have with others. I don't want to be pushed around and, like I mentioned about writing, I think it's important to see a give and take where my knowledge and practice (writing or coding) can speak for itself.

Certainly, I need to earn respect, which as you note, is difficult given that I'll be the new guy on the team no matter where I take a position.
posted by mr_bovis at 8:30 PM on May 19, 2016

Candleman's advice is spot on. I've interviewed and worked with people coming straight out of code school, and its clear that it gave no to very little preparation for the practicalities of coding in a professional setting vs the classroom, even if their coding chops were up to the job. I started, and, mentored, a paid internship in my last position specifically to tackle this.

On a related note it seems that coding schools often oversell what they can achieve and gave some people I interviewed some completely unrealistic views of their own skill and what kind of money they could ask for. This seemed to be worse the younger they were and the less time they had spent working in other industries. Conversely older candidates, who had spent time working in other fields, often had a much more realistic picture of themselves, were better equipped to learn because of this, and came equipped with skills learned elsewhere that would be useful in this work. For this reason you should start thinking about what transferable skills you can bring from elsewhere, even from jobs that bear no relation to IT, as this is one of the things that will persuade people to take a chance on you. (Personally speaking, I would consider writing a good background for coding, but you should also think about how much you are willing to make writing things other than code a part of the job). One of my interns was an ex-bartender and it was clear when I interviewed him that this meant he would have no difficulty working alongside others in the team, had a good read on people which would be a good skill in figuring out what a client wanted and wouldn't get too fazed by stressful situations.

I would recommend working on a personal portfolio with the proviso that should include substantial working code that does something useful (a decent personal site is a good start for this). Too often I've eagerly been given links to people's Github only to find nothing more than answers to coding exercises. Realistically that's the kind of thing you should expect to produce as an answer to an interview question, not something that's going to convince a potential employer.
posted by tallus at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2016

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