I apologize ahead of time for the anecdotal nature of this post but I just want to share it and possibly motivate others on the outskirts of doing what they really want to do. In short, this a review of how I got started in web development and startup culture in Miami, Florida.
TL;DR: Think you want to get into a particular industry? Reach out to the people in it on a personal level to find out more and get connected. Think it through with your family, friends and those wiser than yourself. It helps.
I didn’t have the cleanest final college separation. Through my own deficiency I was stuck on campus for an extra couple of weeks into the summer following my final semester to finish my senior thesis – the only requirement remaining from my 4-year pitstop in college. Knowing that I was behind, finishing my thesis had been my focus for the entirety of that final Spring semester and of course for those few summer weeks. I had no job prospects lined up after the summer and I could not handle applying and interviewing for them either. I had no prior career-related internships. What employer would want a fresh Computer Science and Philosophy Double Major almost graduate in a software development position without experience? The chances seemed somewhat slim, in my opinion at the time, for actual graduates much less anyone with lesser credentials.
Fast forward to the end of my summer term in July 2011. My thesis was passed and I made my way to Miami, Florida to the loving home of my uncle and aunt who were kind enough to house (and feed) me until I was able to sustain myself financially. Job hunting was rough. I knew I wanted to write code professionally but I felt inadequate for the listings I applied for and definitely underprepared for some of the interviews I got from those applications. Let me tell you: learning how to shine in an interview is a skill to be honed in itself. Little did I know that you could even research bigger companies’ interview techniques online to know what to expect. That was definitely a rookie mistake. Maybe, just maybe that would’ve saved me from having an Amazon interview fall flat once a regular expression problem came up. That was somewhat embarrassing but you move on, learning what you can from each experience.
My First Job
I accepted my first and only job offer during this summer stretch in September as an Audio/Visual Technician role at The University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine at a rate of $13.50/hr. The job fell under the supervision of the med school’s IT department and I during my interview for the job, I was given the notion that I could possibly move into one of the department’s programming roles. The pay wasn’t anything stunning – I couldn’t afford Miami housing on it – but I figured it would be a great start to something more as I had my eyes set on moving up beyond sitting in a dark room recording classroom lectures. Regardless, I was and still am very grateful for that opportunity.
Working at that UM campus enlightened me a lot. For one, I learnt that working an hourly wage and having to “clock in/out” at rigid hours unequivocally sucks. It also taught me what it meant to be underemployed. I was a college graduate in a position that had a high school level education as its minimum qualification and I could see why. My days consisted of raising/lowering projectors, tweaking light settings, recording/publishing lectures and idly sitting for hours waiting to repeat those routines in another class. Despite this, I didn’t grudge my boss or coworkers. Sure, I didn’t like it but I did the job as best as I could since at the end of the day my role affected actual students. Having left school earlier that year I could still sympathize with students when university-provided resources didn’t work or just flat out sucked. I didn’t want that to happen. At the end of the day I chose to be there and in I wanted to move into one of the department’s programming roles…until I realized that I might have been the only one with that plan.
My role saw me overseeing the A/V needs for one freshman class in a new degree program. At some point I learnt that the department intended to keep me assigned to that group as they entered their second year and also the new batch of freshmen for that upcoming academic year. At that point it occurred to me was going nowhere and I knew it. I was far from being mentored or being involved in any software development. The only classes and methods I was exposed to involved tying tourniquets, drawing blood and listening for heart palpitations; nothing remotely relevant to my education or intended career.
Engage Your Industry
I took advantage of my (abundance of) downtime while on the clock and decided to research jobs to apply to. I credit my college buddy, Daniel, for introducing me to the infamous (in the startup / venture capital / Silicon Valley world, at least) Hacker News. It was (and still is) a refreshing collection of posts and discussions relevant to my ideal interests – cool projects and companies that people worked on. As a bonus it included a monthly “Who’s Hiring” post with listings of said cool companies’ openings. It gave me hope. It was interesting. It was also a concentrated list of enticing job opportunities compared to navigating the depths of, say, a Monster.com. There was still, however, one problem. My background didn’t have any interesting highlights to it to truly convince someone from one of these distant companies (mostly in the San Francisco area) to hire me, a prospective import. At this point, I was a recent college graduate with a few months of A/V Tech experience under my belt. Not exactly someone of the “rockstar coder” calibre that was in vogue. I knew I should have been working on my skills through some mildly interesting side project but I found it difficult to find the energy, time and motivation to devote to it. Working 7:30 am – 4:30 pm with at least an hour commute each took a lot out of me daily. Combined with the consciousness of being in a dead end job, mentally I was checked out at the end of each day because there were only so many hours to take advantage of before it was time to recharge in preparation for another work day which started shortly after 6 am. When February rolled around I decided to forego looking to Silicon Valley for job prospects and turned to researching Miami’s scene a little more. I knew nothing about it beyond some of the bigger companies in the region: UM, FIU and Baptist Hospitals.
I forget what I actually googled but somehow I came across Brian Breslin’s Inifinimedia shop – a real, live web development company right in Miami. I shot Brian a cold email outlining my lack of experience and willingness to learn and pretty much learn anything. The timing of what ensued could not have been more perfect.
Miami Tech Week 2012
Thankfully Brian replied to my rigidly-written (and admittedly embarrassingly-phrased) email. He forwarded my resume along to a friend and also directed me to check out Miami Tech Week. Apparently Miami’s annual mecca of tech events was scheduled for the week following my email to Brian. He also put me in contact with Auston Bunsen who invited me out to SuperConf – a startup, tech and design focused conference that he organizes in Miami.
SuperConf followed the weekend after BarCamp and to be succinct: it was awesome. The presentations opened my eyes to the cool technologies and companies out there that I needed to better familiarize myself with and people I admired – programmers actively sifting through code in between and during talks. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and was more than grateful for the opportunity to be apart of it. As SuperConf ended, there was some airtime dedicated to the generous organizations that helped by sponsoring the event. Straat Investments was mentioned as a sponsor that was actively hiring. There was no formal pitch for the company or its open positions but hearing that they were hiring was enough for me to send an email to pitch myself and find out more. I was offered an interview a few days later.
One of the cooler things that struck me about Straat right away was their willingness to have my interview after my UM work hours. That made my arrangements much easier since I wouldn’t have to file stupid paperwork for time off or ditch work suspiciously early. I remember walking into the interview not feeling particularly nervous. I honestly had somewhat of a pessimistic mindset and nonchalant attitude towards my job search since I had been unsuccessful thus far in my search to get into software development. Admittedly, that was a terrible mindset to have but I will say that it probably gave me an overall sense of calm that being nervous wouldn’t have afforded.
The interview itself was far from intimidating. It was a really casual discussion that delved into my limited background, general interest in technology and desire to get real world programming experience. Looking back, I don’t think I had even pressed much about what I would be working on – not that it would have mattered. I wouldn’t have been a good judge of the conditions or kind of work anyway. Anything was better than play/pause work I did with the university’s recording software. Okay, maybe not anything but you get the idea. A few nights following the interview, at a noticeably odd 9 pm, I got a call informing me that I would be extended an offer to join one of the Straat companies, Federated Travel, as a Junior Developer. Awesome!
After going through minor details about the relaxed work environment including working hours, dress code, vacation and the usual items, I had a decision to make. Would I abandon working at UM for this group and company that I had never previously heard of? I’ll save you the barrage of rhetorical questions and get to the point – I absolutely would and did. It was a calculated risk. Sure, if the new job didn’t work out I would be without income but it was killing me to be nowhere near to exercising some of my potential. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take and the move was worth the risk. Turning in my resignation letter a few days/weeks later was awkward – especially since I had no interpersonal issues with my boss or coworkers – but it had to be done. One thing that was really cool about the timing of my last day at UM in April was that it was the day before my birthday. A truly fitting milestone marker of growth and maturity, in my opinion.
Now, over a year later, I sometimes wonder what they saw in me that was worthy of having me join the team but I am glad there seemed to have been something that has been mutually beneficial. Since originally joining Federated Travel I’ve changed roles a few times (with my most recent involving @thePOPguys)and I’ve learned and continue to learn a lot as is the case in this here business of the web. It’s awesome to do what you want and love professionally.
What should you take away from this?
It’s easy for me to reminisce and say that one should be persistent and things will work out for the better but I won’t do that. Instead, I rather encourage you to be serious and determined about what you want and what you want to do with your life. Serious to the point of making the moves necessary which should include talking to the right people who can help guide you to where you want to be or even better people to talk to. Surround yourself with those people – especially those wiser than yourself.
Be mindful and critical of the new opportunities that come your way. Be balanced in your evaluation of the risks involved with each potential move you make. For me the choice was simple but still worth putting it through the wringer with friends and family to get wisdom. Don’t fall victim to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side. Do your research. Draw your own conclusions.
May the odds ever be in your favor. Good luck!