Voices of Gatsby: Connecting Community, Code and Career to Create a New Life in Tech

Will Johnson
September 23rd, 2020

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When you’re 30-plus years old, married with kids, it may seem impossible to change careers into tech without getting a degree and probably taking on a bunch of debt. It’s easier to never even think about the possibility that life could be different. Better.

I know because that was my life. I was stuck working at factory jobs that treated me subhuman, and so were all my friends. Subhuman sounds extreme, but it was real: I remember a time I asked for a day off for my daughter’s birthday, and was literally laughed at by the supervisor. I wasn’t making a lot of money but I had to take care of my wife and 6 kids so I would work tons of overtime on 12 hours shifts. Sometimes I even worked two jobs. I was miserable.  

How I got started learning to code

One day I got tired enough to say to myself, “This can’t be life, I have to figure this money thing out.” I was willing to try anything that would help lift us out of being stuck this way. I started several things: a YouTube Channel, a cleaning service, selling t-shirts on Shopify. And I was constantly looking for the right skills to learn so I could dig myself out of this hole.

Then I stumbled across a forum post where everyone was talking about buying Colt Steele’s Web Development Course. I looked up what web development was, and what the pay could be, and knew that this was the door I had been looking for. That night I told my wife, “In a year to a year and a half, I’m going to get us out of this”.

My wife was super excited and supportive. She said she “just felt” this was the right move for our family. So after working 12 hour days in a factory job I would come home and code. My wife sacrificed her time so I could put in the work and I appreciate her for that. I know it wasn’t easy. But we both had our eyes on the prize.

Building a local community

I was motivated but also realistic. I didn’t have a college degree, I was “old”, and my job history was mostly manual labor and call center work. My resume wasn’t going to have people come beating down my door to hire me. I needed to figure out a different way to stand out. I decided to get to know as many people in tech as possible and get involved in as many ways as I could find.

So after about two months of learning on my own, I started to go to meet-ups…if they happened on my day off day. I also volunteered to teach kids to code with my local CoderDojo once a month, mentored at a workshop to teach women Angular, and attended the biggest developer conference in my city. I even spoke at a few meet-ups, even before I got a job.

At all of these events I would meet people and tell them what I was doing, ask them questions about what they were doing, and try to learn as much as possible. During this time I’m still learning to code before work and on weekends. I was super tired and exhausted and always felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

Building an online community

I wanted to have as many job prospects as far and wide as possible. So, in addition to being active in my local community, I started being super active on Twitter to connect with a bigger online community. 

I shared everything I was learning on Twitter. I shared everything I was doing offline on Twitter as well. I updated my progress and asked questions. I helped other people who were learning to code when they had questions or were stuck. I saw the value of all this was engaging with people, not gaining the most followers or going viral and becoming a Twitter Guru. It was about creating and strengthening relationships.

I built relationships with developers. I reached out to be on a podcast before I had a job. I was blogging things I was learning on Medium. I consistently showed up and I think I really proved that I was willing to work hard. 

When I was studying I stopped doing anything fun. No TV shows, no video games, no sports, and no Netflix. I think I saw two movies the whole time. My life was just work, code, read books, and try to find some time to spend with my family. I wouldn’t recommend this, but I felt like I had to go hard. Like I was making up for the lost time.

And Twitter was the place where I could do all this, stay connected and keep building relationships and moving forward while staying up late studying code, barely able to keep my eyes open at work. I used any spare minute I found to connect, to extend, to learn. And to build a wider community that could help me find a tech job.

The hard times

This process was stressful. I was getting forced to work overtime every week at my factory job, whether I wanted to or not. On top of that, getting a job in tech is hard! I was rejected from job after job, even the ones I got referrals to.

Most jobs wouldn’t even call me back. 

At one extreme low point I thought, Maybe a factory worker is just what I’m meant to be. Honestly, it hurt to think I couldn’t do more after trying so hard.

But I refused to give in to that thinking. Going to work to load powder into boxes 400 times a day felt like a waste of both my time and potential. I wanted to do more, and experience more.

I remember when I went to New York for the CodeLand Conf (I got a free ticket off Twitter), I took a flight there and back. I took exactly one day off of work, because I only had one day left to take. Any more and I would’ve been terminated — we could only miss 4 days in a year. Before I went I asked could I get an excused absence from work if my flight was delayed? My request was declined. So of course it decided to rain like crazy that day. Brooklyn was flooded and my flight got delayed. I WAS STRESSED. I ended up making it home at 3 AM and was back at work at 7 AM.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Twitter was also where I started interacting with the co-founder of egghead.io, Joel Hooks. We talked over Zoom a few times, and he invited me to do a few things like teach on egghead or review courses. I was too busy at the time because we had decided to sell our house and look for a new one. I worried that I was wasting an opportunity but the time just wasn’t right.

Over the course of the next few months, even in the middle of packing and moving, I kept posting on Twitter, I kept learning, I kept networking. My wife kept supporting me, even though she too was getting tired.

But eventually the time was right. A few more months of working, learning, networking, I got an offer: Come to egghead to foster the community and learn Ruby on Rails. It was the biggest sigh of relief I’ve ever had. 

All along I had visions of the day where I would walk out that factory and never come back. Through work, luck, and sacrifice I finally made it happen.

Now I spend plenty of time with my family because I work remotely. We found our dream home and life has been good for us. I even wrote an ebook, Break Into Tech with Twitter, about how social media can help you a way to land your first tech job…especially when you don’t have a “traditional” background. Once upon a time,  I would’ve never thought I would be here. 

Now I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Will Johnson
Written by
Will Johnson

Community engineer @egghead.io. Passionate about tech, continual learning, and connecting people with opportunities.

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