How do I build a career in software from $0?
July 31, 2017 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I've applied to 125 web development jobs with almost no response, and have hit the end of the road. My wife and I will be flat broke and moving from NYC to the Midwest to regroup. Short question: how do I strategize and execute to bounce back? Details follow.

I'm a 46-year-old African-American in New York. I quit my job to study web development (Rails and Node) a couple years back (on top of a CS degree from undergrad in the 90s).

I've applied to 125 jobs (plus hundreds more on the Tinder-like AngelList interface). I have not found more than a few months work (teaching at bootcamps). We've burned through our savings. I have reason to believe that my age and race may be working against me in the industry.

While we'll be homeless soon, we will be able to live at my in-laws in Nowhere, Midwest. Oh also, I don't drive!

The advice I seek is:
  • What's the fastest path to bouncing back? I need to expedite this as we can't stay at the in-laws forever. A guess: freelance work to earn nickels and build portfolio, and work on projects for ad revenue and possible commercialization.
  • Is it reasonable to assume I won't find a job at a company at my age (although we could use the health insurance, as my wife has serious health issues)?
Any ideas you have would be welcome.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Lambda University might be the thing: 6-month CS course, for $0, and then 17% of your income for 2 years, only if you get a job paying 50k/year or more.
posted by Cobalt at 8:47 PM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

First of all, and this may shock you, 125 job applications is nothing. I've applied to over 400 with 19 interviews resulting, interrupted by a fish biting in an adjacent pond.

Second, if you don't have a portfolio now, you must build one, even if you have no commercial work to show as yet.
posted by tel3path at 8:48 PM on July 31, 2017 [10 favorites]

Have you had any interviews? What kind of job was it that you quit? Assuming you're good at what you do, have you called your previous employers/managers/coworkers for leads?
posted by halogen at 9:01 PM on July 31, 2017

If you haven't explored the various creative/tech-specific staffing agencies (Vitamin T, Yoh, etc), that may be worth a shot.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 9:21 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh! Also hook up with Jopwell if you haven't already.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 9:26 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

How are you looking for and applying for jobs? If you are applying through jobs search engines like and so on, I think that could at least partly explain your lack of success in applying for jobs. Rather than repeat myself, see my comment here. You'd really be best off networking and learning of job opening through word-of-mouth so you have an "in."

Do you have former co-workers, friends in your field, former professors, etc that you can reach out to and let them know you are looking? What might help even more is asking an acquaintance in your field to get coffee and asking them about how they were able to climb the ladder and what skills employers are looking for these days. I'd try to do a few of those to get the lay of the land, and also so hopefully they will keep you in mind if they hear of anything. I really think that casting a wide net with the people you know and reaching out to people one-on-one is your best bet.

I do think freelancing and consulting gigs would help you a lot, not just because you'll get a little bit of money here and there, but because you will be making valuable contacts in the industry. My situation is rather different than yours, but I used freelancing to build my way up to getting my dream job. I had a totally unrelated job while I freelanced on the side because I needed to make money somehow, but the combination of having a portfolio of ambitious work and expanding my network through freelancing helped me get a job I wanted when it happened to open up. On top of it, it's a great way to fill in the gap on your resume that might look like a red flag. The old adage is that it's easier to find a job when you have a job, and freelancing makes it look like you're working. So, I definitely would recommend doing any smaller side gigs that you can.

If you think maybe it could be your resume or a gap in your skills, I am sure your city/state has unemployment offices with resources to help. They should be able to review your resume and where you live might also offer free training courses, if you think it'd help. Universities and colleges might also have resources or free online courses.

It might be beneficial in your field to have a website or online portfolio, as well as a LinkedIn. You'd know better than me, and some people are concerned about racial bias if they include their photo on LinkedIn. But for me I do think it has helped. There are free landing page sites, like About Me and I'm sure a bunch of others, in addition to LinkedIn.

Wishing you the best!
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:29 PM on July 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

What have you completed that you can point to to show you can do the work? There is age and racial bias in the industry, but not having done anything other than self study for several years is a pretty big red flag.
posted by Candleman at 9:29 PM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh my god, please do not sign up to pay at least $17k for a six-month course that is probably redundant given your previous education and will have a marginal-at-best impact on your ability to get a job.

I agree that you need to keep applying, and you need to build a portfolio. Is there a major city anywhere near your Midwest destination? NYC is so overrun with tech folks that you may have an easier time finding something there, even if only as a way to get your foot in the door.

(While you have a little extra time, also please read the book Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom and every time she says "for-profit university" just replace it in your brain with "coding bootcamp.")
posted by zebra at 9:32 PM on July 31, 2017 [27 favorites]

Mid 40s' tech gal here - Are there reasons (beyond financial ones) that you are trying to get back into CS? If I saw CS degree in the 90s + the last year studying rails and a large unexplained period doing something else between the two, I would question how serious you are about CS. If it doesn't already, make sure your cover letter addresses that time. 2nd, despite their reputation for being innovative, etc, I have not found tech companies to be particularly receptive to alternative career paths for software developers. They want to see a history of having proved you can do the someone else's company or through a portfolio, etc. See the above comment about lots of self study with out projects to show for it possibly being a bit of a red flag. This is where ageism may start to creep in, they see your resume with a lot of history doing other things and it doesn't match the standard pattern for them. I think as a non traditional candidate you need to really work your network and not rely on anonymous job applications. Look for non splashy companies that need people but aren't making the startup lists, etc.

Are you applying to jobs other than as a developer? There may be a path here in something parallel, like support, qa or tech writing, biz development, sales. Where I work there are a lot of non eng jobs, but often the people doing them have a non CS background with a little bit of dev education, like a bootcamp. It's in these jobs that I often meet people with a variety of different backgrounds, and sometimes there are mobility routes over to eng.

I agree that contracting might be a great way to get started. You won't get the benefits you would from being salaried, but it would get you coding and build up your experience. Finally there was this article just yesterday in the NYTimes about US companies off shoring the midwest. Not all the tech jobs are on the coast. Good luck!
posted by littlerockgetaway at 9:34 PM on July 31, 2017 [11 favorites]

Make sure you are looking for jobs here:
posted by askmehow at 9:44 PM on July 31, 2017

Are you able to offer a link to any work on GitHub to potential employers? That is something that shows up frequently on the resumes of developers my company decides to interview because it's a great way for us to see what your code is like and how organized you are.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:52 PM on July 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

Also if you are willing to share your resume with us (personal information redacted of course), we may be able to help with framing and formatting :) I know this sucks, please hang in there.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:47 PM on July 31, 2017

Given your employment background, you need a portfolio on Github at the very least. Do you have one?
posted by pharm at 12:20 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Are you looking at contracting jobs also?
posted by gt2 at 2:04 AM on August 1, 2017

Also, try contacting the people at freecodecamp. You already have the education; they might be able to hook you up with nonprofits that need pro bono work.
posted by gt2 at 3:32 AM on August 1, 2017

Me mail me if you'd be willing to work in dc.
posted by empath at 5:31 AM on August 1, 2017

Hi, I'm a hiring manager for a software company in NYC.

memail me if you'd like to talk about any of the below:
* open positions
* general analysis of your resume/cover letter/skillset/approach
posted by mnemonica at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2017 [10 favorites]

Sorry that this is happening to you. There are challenges all around here, and my guess is that age, race and a period of reworking your career are affecting your results.

I would look at doing some work for free to build real sites for your portfolio, as opposed to work done specifically for the portfolio. My experience with being unemployed is that job searching only takes up part of the day. Find a local business, explain your situation, and offer to do (or redo) their website for free. Then you can put that work on your portfolio and resume. Whether or not you were paid for the work is immaterial.

Also, if you're outside NYC or DC, you're almost certainly going to have to drive.
posted by cnc at 9:54 AM on August 1, 2017

Speaking as a technical hiring manager (and part of an underrepresented group in the tech industry myself), don't bother with more coding bootcamp courses. The proof of ROI just isn't there. Likewise, applying via AngelList or other job boards isn't a bad idea (I found my current job through AngelList) but as a candidate with limited demonstrated experience as a developer and not in a traditional post-college or early-career situation, you're probably not even making it past the first-pass resume screen for most places.

Based on personal experience and observation, I recommend looking at W2 contracting work via technical staffing agencies like TEK Systems, Adecco, and the like. The jobs they offer will generally not be with big name firms or with firms that view software development as a primary line of business, but you can find opportunities that develop credible technical experience working in real projects as part of a team. IMO this has more marketability than work on a personal portfolio or side project, and also helps to build your professional network. Companies view hiring contractors as lower-risk than hiring full-time employees so they will sometimes have an expedited interview process and may be generally more receptive to people from non-traditional backgrounds. I've met several people over the years that began a second (or third) career in software development that way.

Caveats: as a W2 contractor paid hourly, you will be entitled to overtime pay but not to vacation or sick pay (unless your state's law requires it). You need to take that into account when deciding what hourly rate you will accept. Also, if the staffing firm offers a health plan or a 401(k) plan at all it will be bare-bones and crappy, and the firm's interest in your happiness and overall career path is likewise minimal.
posted by 4rtemis at 10:16 AM on August 1, 2017

Have you looked at the Hacker News: Whose Hiring Post? Here's the August 2017

As someone mentioned above, 125 applications is really not that much these days. I ground it out for a couple years trying to change jobs. I eventually found a new job on LinkedIn. Granted, it's easier to look while you have a job. Finally, it's not really hiring season. September is the next big push.

Good Luck
posted by teabag at 11:38 AM on August 1, 2017

Tip for writing your resume: Try and hide your age as much as possible. Don't include your education (other than the bootcamp), or any jobs beyond the most recent ones applicable to the job you're applying for.
posted by empath at 11:40 AM on August 1, 2017

Is there a way you could post your resume somewhere? how do you feel about seattle?
posted by evilmonk at 2:41 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you focused on IT jobs in your former industry? Having that insider knowledge can be invaluable. I work in public libraries and we specifically look to increase our diversity through hiring, so government/non-profits is another avenue.
posted by saucysault at 3:13 PM on August 1, 2017

Have you looked at jobs at hospitals and universities? They have a lot of IT needs, especially in large Midwest cities.
posted by SyraCarol at 3:32 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel for you. I'm over 40 myself. I come from an arts background with a Bachelor's, Master's, and most of a PHD (I could not afford to finish it- the irony is that my PHD program is now offering full scholarships to all its doctoral students and a stipend- just not to previous students like me, so I'll never finish that degree) I'm posting for moral support here, so you know you are not alone. I've been invited to teach at NYU, but was later told I could not due to not having completed a doctorate in my field. I've taught in tony private high schools in NYC, public colleges, private programs, and even started my own program for kids with savings I set aside for that purpose. The arts collapsed in NYC, so I went to one of those ridiculous coding bootcamps. (it was one of the most competitive, supposedly, and yet the work there was pretty surface level-- the program was perhaps the most tedious, low level education I've ever participated in). I didn't even bother applying to swe jobs, because my experience in the rigors of the arts told me I was not up to professional par for that job yet. I continue to work on my portfolio of coding projects. (who has the money to work on this stuff while unemployed?) I decided to go the opposite direction of the crowd at the bootcamps. I decided to attempt to leverage my experience as a lifelong educator/curriculum developer/writer/promoter/events planner/performer in the arts, and I focused on applying to marketing, sales, technical writing, school directing, program directing, and project managing roles. I must have applied to around 500 jobs within the past year. (I'm only speaking of the applications I carefully crafted with a fresh cover letter and résumé optimization plus Jobscan to get it past the applicant tracking systems; if we include AngelList and sites like that, I've applied to thousands of jobs at this point, with only a handful of interview invitations as a result.) In my past career, I achieved some pretty impressive milestones, although the arts often pays the most in prestige. Since you can't pay the rent with prestige your whole life, I made a career shift. I've found the tech world to be incredibly ageist. As an artist, this is really something to see, because we respect those who dedicate their lives to a given technique or skill so highly, it is just humorous to see people ignoring those with finely honed skills as "too old" or "not a culture fit" before they ever meet them in person. I do hope you find work. I'm still looking, and like you, I too will have to leave the city after 25 years of working as a freelance "artist" (I'd rather remain anonymous, just in case). As a perpetual audition taker, I know when I ace an interview. I aced all my interviews. In each case, the company hired an under-30 candidate with none of the skills they said they wanted in the job ads. Each time, I'm told I don't have some obscure skill (that the new hire also lacks even more than I do) not previously mentioned, and this after around six successful interviews until that point. The tech industry needs to deal with ageism, because they may discover that they too will age beyond 40. I'll follow your case, and I wish you well. Perhaps I'll learn something from this thread myself. Stay with it, and keep looking for that obscure channel! I'm with you in spirit.
posted by byebyebird at 7:33 PM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another path to explore is Salesforce administrator. These are roles that are responsible for setting up the Salesforce CRM platform and maintaining different workflows for a sales team.

This is a role that requires technical skill but is often overlooked by developers or others seeking technical paths. The technical ramp up is a bit easier, and requires a good balance of common sense business problem solving and communication skills (you're working closely with a sales team, of course). There's lots of contract roles, so may be easier to break in, and then work your way up from there. I know SFDC admins who combined some light python and JS skills to then work their way into technical business lead roles, building internal tools to support sales orgs.

I can't speak to what the opportunities are in your market in the midwest, but (search on indeed found 1611 jobs in Chicago, for example). Best of luck to you, and know that you are not alone in your process!
posted by hampanda at 8:37 PM on August 1, 2017

As to the Salesforce angle: I've applied to several jobs with that in mind. They just don't want to hire you unless you have worked with Salesforce before. Is this rational?
posted by byebyebird at 9:33 PM on August 1, 2017

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks to everyone who weighed in. I really appreciate it.
I've posted an anonymized résumé at .
To clarify:
  • I did attend a bootcamp already (and actually had an interesting conversation with the CEO about their inability to help me find work—more I cannot say).
  • And the 125 figure does not include about 300 other jobs I "applied" to quickly on LinkedIn or AngelList (AngelList has been relatively fruitful—people write me back, at least).
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 10:03 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

It is absolutely certain that age and race are working against you in this industry, in addition to the lack of experience. However, it is not reasonable to assume that you cannot get a job at a corp.

Unless the tech company is very different than other tech companies, a fact that you won't figure out without actually talking to a human being, you won't pass the first-pass resume filter, because you won't have a portfolio of projects and you're looking for a junior position. Reply rates for anonymous resumes are ~Pareto distributed: many folks I knew from school had something like a 50% callback rate, and many people I knew at the coding bootcamp that I shared a coworking space with (didn't go) had a 0.05% callback rate.

Reply rates for actually talking to human beings are still Pareto-distributed but with less pronounced inequality: it's something more like 50% and 5% respectively, in my experience.

I note that resumes which are more than one page should only exist in academia. The posted one seems to be three pages. I would kill the blog link, unless you have huge amounts of actual code or something on there.

Most 46-year-olds in tech get hired by word of mouth, ceteris paribus, whether they're looking to change careers or whether they've been in tech for decades so they know enough people to get hired to high-level jobs. There are bands of techs who do respect age and experience, especially in hardware, but experience much more than age.

SFDC work (and Oracle and SAP admin stuff, etc etc) is comparatively menial but much less difficult to get than general dev jobs. There is a danger of being pigeonholed: the same applies to QA positions and tech writing. Technical staffing agencies have less of this risk but the better ones will not be trivial to get into, and the worse ones are basically warm body shops.

The HN recommendation is bad, because most of the posted HN jobs are at small venture-backed companies, who are the biggest age discriminators (in practice, what happens is more like the Cravath system: there's plenty of middle-aged and older VC's and founders, but they're all decamillionaires or richer). The same applies for continuing on AngelList. The only anonymous job board I would consider is Stack Overflow's, and I wouldn't really consider it. I would consider instead showing up in-person to user groups, meetups, and such as much as possible, and being tenacious about quick and persistent followups.
posted by hleehowon at 12:34 AM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

As to the Salesforce angle: I've applied to several jobs with that in mind. They just don't want to hire you unless you have worked with Salesforce before. Is this rational?

Salesforce, technology-wise, is a giant stinking pile of shit, in that it even has to be dealt with.

People who use a real actual non-bullshit CRM don't have to deal with it and therefore pay the sizeable premium.

The nature of its shittiness is that they never say no to a feature request to make a sale, which means that it literally has a proprietary language and a runtime for that language, like 4 different separate UI's, like a fucking dozen kinds of user accounts, 40something breaking versions of the API (and countless nonbreaking of course), literal instances that are nonvirtualized so that a literal actual oracle box going down means the instance goes down, etc etc etc etc.

So, in the Oracle fashion, there has become a lot to learn, almost everything which is nearly useless outside of the walled garden, a fact upon which Salesforce grows fat on training and selling documentation and bullcrap like that. But that means that the people you introduce to your workflow and things have to drink the monstrous kool-aid.

So much of the developer apparatus is designed for people who were already well-educated in computer science who could be and usually are employed in Java jobs somewhere who want to cash the hell in for uninteresting work. Something analogous for the sysadmin apparatus there, because you aren't janitoring your own computers in any way.
posted by hleehowon at 12:52 AM on August 2, 2017

It was still better than every alternative from its founding till about 2009, in my estimation.
posted by hleehowon at 12:54 AM on August 2, 2017

I run an onboarding program for web developers at a large online retailer in Boston. I'd love to chat with you about a) what we're looking for in our candidates and how that overlaps with your skills, b) any thoughts I have coming out of that for possible avenues for you, and c) possibly having you apply here if you're interested. Memail me if you'd like to set up a phone call!
posted by spindrifter at 11:19 AM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

This came up recently on HN...
Remote Job resources
posted by bastionofsanity at 2:42 PM on August 3, 2017

« Older I want to build a website, but I'm an amateur.   |   What should I tell a friend about driving for Uber... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.