My personal story of the steps I took to discover what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and how I became a web developer without getting a degree in the field.
I’m Tania, and I made a career change into web development in 2015. Before that, I worked as a chef. I often get asked how I did it, and if I have any advice for new and aspiring developers. I’ll start by sharing my own story:
A little about myself
How I fell into the wrong career for me
How I decided on the right one
Steps I took to land my first job in the field
Throughout this story you will find the answers to some of the common questions I’ve received, such as “how did you land your first job?”, “what was the technical interview like?”, “what technologies did you know starting out?”, “how long did it take?” and “what was the hardest part?”.
I will follow this up with an article that focuses on you instead of me. I will share some guidance and resources I used and would recommend, a road map of the order I think it makes sense to learn, and my answers to common questions from aspiring developers.
I was born in ’89 and grew up a shy, eccentric girl in the suburbs of Chicago, where I spent most of my childhood playing Super Nintendo and drawing. I discovered the Internet in 1998 when my brother Nick took me to the public library, where they had computers running Netscape Navigator.
I still vividly remember the first day I ever used the ‘Net (that’s what we called it back then) – that very day I learned the meaning of “lol”, made my first E-Mail address, and discovered how easy it was to meet new people who share my interests. My brother taught me a few basic lines of HTML and I took it from there. Thanks to free hosting on GeoCities, I could make websites about anything I wanted – myself, Digimon, Animorphs, myself, clans and guilds for the silly games I played, obscure ’80s music, accordions, and more. I discovered I could even draw on MS Paint at home and transfer it to the Internet via floppy disk. And a new hobby was born.
So how did I learn to make those websites? I would just copy the source of other websites I liked, open up Notepad and randomly change things here and there until it started doing what I wanted. Complete trial and error. In the beginning, I couldn’t figure out how to copy and paste the source code, so I had to type everything out myself. I never once studied coding in any capacity in this time, and I couldn’t tell you a CSS class from an ID, what a variable is, or the definition of an HTML tag.
My life mostly continued along the same path until the end of high school.
Falling into the wrong career
At seventeen, right out of high school, I certainly didn’t have the slightest clue what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. Making websites as a career wasn’t even a shadow of a thought in my head. I always assumed I would go into some sort of artistic or graphic design career, but what I wanted to do much more than that was travel and see the world. Since there was no official job that pays you to explore other cultures, I wasn’t content with any career path, and I didn’t research any options for myself.
Yet whether we put a great deal of thought into our future or not, life moves forward, and decisions are made. Since I had no plans, I took the first offer that came along, which was a “free ride” to a university’s Culinary Arts program based on some test scores I had. I didn’t really know anything about the culinary industry, but I enjoyed cooking a lot, and maybe I could even use it to travel, so why not?
I did an accelerated Bachelor’s program, graduated and worked several jobs in the field from prep and line cook to banquet chef to culinary manager and chef. I won’t bother going into detail about working in the kitchen, but I will say it taught me an immense amount about hard work, managing stress, and being a leader.
After eight years wearing many hats in the industry, I knew it was time to move on. There is quote that roughly goes, “change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change”, and that’s the best way I can summarize my reasons for deciding to find a new career.
Deciding on the right career
Although I had never been unemployed, the situation for me at my final chef job in 2014 was bad enough that I put in my two weeks notice without having another job lined up. I knew I wanted to do something different with my life, but I had no idea what. I very quickly realized I didn’t want to any of the jobs that a culinary career would aid me in.
I bought the book What Color Is Your Parachute, a book about finding the right career for you through doing a lot of exercises and writing. I also found a book that had you take timed tests to find out your natural aptitudes (Discover What You’re Best At) and matches you to careers that fit well with those natural skills. I wanted to understand myself, and find a career I could be content with that would also sustain me.
Armed with those books and a ukulele, I drove to a campsite a few hours away and spent the next week in seclusion, hiking around all day and going through some of the exercises in the career books.
I will tell you right now – neither of those books told me what to do or gave me the magical answer. Soul searching is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of time, and it’s really difficult to focus and be honest with yourself about who you are, vs. who you want to be.
However, the books gave me some guidance and helped me ask the right questions and learn some things about myself. I started coming to the same conclusions over and over again. Exercises would ask what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, and what you can do for long periods of time without noticing it, and “making websites” was always among my answers. My greatest skill according to the timed tests is quickly scanning information, which made me realize I have a natural aptitude towards finding syntax errors in code, and fast problem solving.
All of that eventually helped me eventually land on “some sort of graphic design, web design, or coding, as long as I don’t have to go back to school”.
Steps I took to land my first web job
At this point, I was newly unemployed, without a plan, and with a resume full of culinary work experience and schooling. While I was still figuring out a basic idea of what I wanted to do, I started applying to all sorts of jobs – data entry, temp jobs, manufacturing, warehouse work – literally anything that wasn’t a kitchen job or retail that I might be able to do without a related degree. Despite filling out dozens of online job applications, I didn’t get a single response to anything. Although this was madly frustrating at the time, I can look back on it now and be happy I didn’t settle for just any job.
They always say you should never burn any bridges, always maintain a good relationship with your employers and leave on good terms, and I’m glad I always did. My money was running out, and I had no job prospects, but I called one of my old companies up and they gave me a chef job right away. Although this was a full time, 60-hour-a-week job, I was determined to change careers eventually.
I started going on Craigslist and looking for the cheapest logo design, graphic design, or web design work I could find. I had no portfolio and no experience, but I was persistent and eventually I found someone who would pay me to make some websites and do some odd jobs. I built a few one-page websites, for which I was paid $200/$300 dollars each. I also designed a logo, which made me $100, and did some little updates here and there for a small fee.
I was doing this after work, between the hours of 9pm and 4am, before the next day’s 10 hour shift. In order to make a living and do something new, I had to sacrifice a lot of sleep and social activity. When I began all this, I had a very limited amount of outdated knowledge on HTML and CSS, and had simple Photoshop skills. During down time at work, I would browse Quora questions and answers about web development, and without even knowing it I was learning all about the industry.
The tipping point for me was meeting someone who had their own small business, and was willing to take on an unpaid intern. Joe Martin, at the time a weekend bartender at the restaurant I worked at, offered me the internship. I did something that was extremely difficult for me, and left my stable chef position to intern in the morning at his company and work a night job cooking at NAMCO’s Pac-Man themed restaurant.
For my coding test, I had to make a responsive navigation from scratch. This was a huge challenge for me, because I was only vaguely aware of responsive design and had only ever used Bootstrap to create navigations. Instead of just creating one, I made three separate designs, going above and beyond what was expected of me and showing the company I was willing to learn quickly and put forth extra effort.
I had a bit of an edge over somebody starting from scratch with web development, because I made websites for fun as a child.
I went to college for a career that wasn’t right for me, but I learned a lot about myself and life, as well as having a great appreciation for what I do now.
The hardest part of all was doing the necessary soul searching to try to figure out what would be the right career for me, both in natural aptitude and enjoyability.
While still working my original career, I found odd jobs through Craigslist in the web development industry to begin building up my resume and learning, while still making money.
I did a three month unpaid internship while working a night job when I became really serious about my career change.
The biggest thing that helped me was making a blog to document everything I learned, and I would recommend the same to anyone who wants to learn.
I applied for jobs online while continuing to study, learn, and create, and eventually I was able to land a full-time junior web developer role.
The seed of an idea for a career change began in August, 2014, and I began my first job in June, 2015, making my career transition 10 months long.
I would not necessarily recommend the way I learned to anyone else, and I’m sure a lot of self-taught developers would say the same.
My dream is to summarize everything I’ve learned into an effective web development course from scratch for beginners, so they don’t have to search through as many poor and outdated tutorials as I did. However, problem solving and putting yourself out there to build things will always be an essential part of becoming a web developer as well.
Stay tuned for the follow up, which will focus on you instead of me.
I'm Tania, a designer, developer, writer, and former chef from Chicago. I currently work full-time as a web developer, and sometimes I write for DigitalOcean and SitePoint. I love to create things for the web.