How I went from a Retail Assistant at 17 to Landing a Developer Role at 19
My journey to a developer is an alternative path to the norm. I'm going to share my journey so far with you in detail and offer my advice to new developers.
In this article, I will share my experience on how I went from being a student to becoming a respected developer at 19 years old. I will share my tips and advice, what I had to sacrifice, and what were my regrets and commitments. By the end of this article, I hope you will feel inspired to share your journey.
I want to first get this out of the way: My age does not matter! This article is for anyone of any age! Anyone can make the journey to a developer at any point in their life.
Lately, you have all been asking what my path was and how I got to where I am today as a developer, so I created this article to show you that anyone can become a developer.
My Dreams and Goals
- Be the best front-end developer I can be for myself
- Be the best developer I can be for a company OR start freelancing
- Inspire others to become a developer
- Encourage students to thoroughly weigh out the options between an apprenticeship and university
- Help others: there is a fantastic community where I see this everyday
I want to strive to be the best front-end developer I can be for myself, but I will never reach that goal. Why? This goal for me is always just out of reach, I will always trend towards it but will never get there; this is what motivates me to learn more, to do more and to help and inspire others. The fact that I never reach it doesn't mean I'm failing, it means I'm always reaching higher, I haven't capped my success, "Don't cap your success" (Danny Thompson). It's not an unrealistic goal; it's an inspirational goal, that any of us can have.
You will strive and excel in an area if your heart is in it! Don't force yourself into anything you don't enjoy. It won't get you far. Don't let anyone else force you into that, either.
My Journey (so far)
My journey is simple: I began as a student who found part-time jobs while studying, decided not to go to university, landed an apprenticeship straight after sixth form, became unemployed for 5 weeks, then landed a Junior Developer role and within 3 months earned a promotion to a Developer role. Nevertheless, I have written my journey in detail, in case you are interested.
For a good reference, please check out my LinkedIn profile.
I'm not saying this is the only journey. But it's my journey and it's entirely possible for it to be yours too.
Student and Pre Full-time Work
Before we dive into my education and part-time jobs, let's establish some definitions and what they mean to me living in England:
- GCSE: General Certificate of Secondary Education (level 2 qualification)
- A-Level: GCE (General Certification of Education) Advanced Level (level 3 qualification)
- Sixth Form: 2 years of post-GCSE academic education where students usually study their A-Levels
In England, it's the law to be in the education system until the age of 18. Usually, students will take one of three paths after their secondary education: Sixth form, college, or a lower apprenticeship. Each of these will offer some sort of level 3 qualification, or multiple level 3 qualifications. Each of these paths are usualy post-secondary school and pre-university. However, not all of us choose the university path...
As a child, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had some ideas and suggestions such as a Pilot, Ground Crew, Scientist or IT Technician, but I had no definitive career goal until half way through my final year of sixth form. Notice I didn't even consider Software Developer as an option. Strange, right?
I studied Python as my first programming language, and found it difficult. It was challenging and frustrating. I told myself, "You'll never be a developer. You can't even write a simple script" - I didn't even know what a script was. Early on, I had already felt that I was a failure. I kept pushing through Python and Computer Science theory with resilience and ambition, but was not picking it up easily. In my final year of sixth form, the concept of programming finally clicked for me and I understood why we need programming and why programming is the future!
I would like to give my kudos and special thanks to my Computer Science teachers who supported me throughout school and sixth form, provided me with the education needed, and guided me to where I am today - Mr Chris West and Mr Paul Stevens.
I began my secondary school (equivalent to high school in the U.S) education at The Redhill Academy in 2011, but began my GCSE education in 2013. I studied English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Business Studies, German and Computer Science. I found subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and German relatively easy, primarily because I enjoyed them, a lot. The other subjects I really really struggled with, I had to put a lot of time and effort into those subjects just to get a passing grade.
During GCSE, I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, so I had no real passion for any subject. All I knew is that it would be something related to Mathematics, Physics or Computer Science. I went to school, wrote some Python and came home, but I never resumed any programming at home. It just wasn't of any interest to me.
After finishing my GCSEs, still with no real idea for a career, I found a simple part-time job - my first paying job - working as an Office Assistant for a small accounting company in Nottingham. My role included shredding files, filing, cleaning and making tea and coffee. I was paid a whopping £3.72 per hour.
I stayed at this job for two months before beginning my A-Level education.
I began my A-Level education at The Redhill Academy Sixth Form in 2016. I studied Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science and Chemistry (I only did an AS-Level in Chemistry - half an A-Level). So, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do. I had narrowed down my 10+ broad GCSE subjects into 4 A-Level subjects, all relating to each other in one way or another. I really enjoyed these subjects. They overlapped, covered interesting topics and motivated me to shape my career. But, let's not ignore the fact that I really really struggled with my A-Levels. I found them extremely difficult and challenging because they cram so much content and advanced knowledge into two years. In my opinion, sixth form isn't education - it's preparation for university. I regret going to sixth form and wish I had gone to a college, but the past is in the past.
Sixth form was challenging in a number of ways: I struggled with the subject content and specification, they forced university onto us all, as if it was the only path and that we were worthless if we didn't attend and I was getting older (late teens) and had no income.
My path after sixth form was not that of the norm. I ignored being told that I have to go to university to be successful, because I am a firm believer that is not necessarily true! Only you can influence your success: if you have passion, dedication and don't cap your success, you will absolutely be successful! If university helps you along the way, that is fantastic too. You have to find what works for you, not what others think will work for you.
If we did not choose the university path, we skewed the sixth form's statistics - when they sell the sixth form to new potential students, they often state, "x% of students go on to university and achieve great things" - x was often a number greater than 85 - but they never ever told the success stories of those who did not choose the university path. I can conclude that their top priority was not students, but rather, statistics. However, I do thank those teachers who saw our side and arranged 'non-university' events, such as apprenticeship conventions, practise interviews and CV/resume workshops. 🙏
It wasn't until my final year of A-Level that I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in software development. We were assigned a Python coursework project to create anything. We were told to find a client and create a specification for a program they might need. You can see my A-Level coursework project on GitHub here - please note, this project has been left 'as is' from the time I submitted it.
As mentioned previously, I was getting into my late teens with no income. So, I decided to apply for part-time jobs, preferably working in retail. I applied for a dozen jobs, only to be faced with rejection or no response. It's hard for someone with little-to-no-experience to find a job these days. My girlfriend was also applying for jobs, and I was proud of her when she was accepted into Primark - I applied to Primark previously but failed their online test... Can you keep a secret? I asked her to redo the online test on my behalf. Sure enough, I found myself working 8-12 hours a week at Primark.
Despite the reputation Primark has (messy, rude, cheap), it was honestly a really fun job, and I loved it. "The customer is always right?" Completely false! "No ma'am, I can confirm those shoes are indeed not on sale, therefore I will only sell them to you at the price they say on the tag." I was called foolish for balancing a part-time job and my A-Levels, but I didn't care, I always looked forward to my Primark shifts. They were a nice break from everything else.
I was at Primark for exactly one year before I began looking for an apprenticeship in software development. Applying for a role in software development was the hardest role I've ever applied for. I was also getting too used to working at Primark...
This was a difficult role to apply for. There weren't many software apprenticeships out there. I hadn't received any replies. I had no previous experience in software whatsoever. I tried a new tactic: I signed up with an apprenticeship training provider. It was their job to find me interviews. An apprenticeship training provider will provide you with the training you need to complete your apprenticeship. However it is not free, and therefore they need to find a full-time employer so they can pay for your training, through what's called an Apprenticeship Levy. The idea is: You spend 20% of your time doing apprenticeship work, and 80% of your time doing work for your employer.
Every apprenticeship is different: There are different levels of apprenticeships, different completion periods, and different training providers. I received my first interview for an IT/Developer Apprentice role at an airline at East Midlands Airport called flybmi. I turned up 45 minutes early on a really hot day in a suit and tie, dripping in sweat and nervously shaking - my interviewers were wearing shorts and a t-shirt... I felt stupid and uncomfortable.
Before I drove home from the interview, I received a phone call congratulating me on getting the job! They loved my enthusiasm for software and IT. I was enrolled into a 13-month apprenticeship program at a level 3 (I should have ideally been on a level 4). I learned so much in my apprenticeship, and was drawn into front-end and web development. Special thanks to Tim Moore and George Smith for putting up with me and taking the time to train me!
I never completed my apprenticeship.
The airline collapsed after six months of my employment (I promise I had nothing directly to do with it) making myself and my colleagues redundant and unemployed. I was worried I would have to restart my apprenticeship at a new company, redo the last six months, and delay the completion. My training provider worked hard to find companies who were willing to take on an apprentice that was half-way through their apprenticeship, but it was difficult for them. There weren't many options out there. My former flybmi colleagues suggested I leave the apprenticeship and go for a junior role instead, because they believed I had the skills and passion necessary for a junior role.
I was secretly applying for Junior Developer roles in the East Midlands area, while at the same time allowing my apprenticeship provider to find apprenticeship interviews on my behalf. I applied for many roles before I received an interview opportunity at Mitrefinch. I attended the interview wearing clean trainers, black jeans and a polo shirt (no suit and tie). I told them the truth about my experience, knowledge, and skills. I didn't undersell myself, but I didn't oversell myself, either.
I was offered the role, and immediately accepted. This was a fantastic step forward for me. The hardest part about accepting the job was calling my apprenticeship provider to tell them, "Thank you for all your help, but I've landed myself a Junior Developer role".
I was given the task of researching CSS frameworks, and start transferring the designer's style guide into clean, reusable CSS (or SCSS because that's the CSS preprocessor we chose). This was really encouraging, because they put all their trust in me without constantly watching over my shoulder, but made themselves available if I needed help. This is exactly how you should treat a Junior Developer, or any other Developer, for that matter.
I was proud to be a Junior Developer.
Three months after landing my Junior Developer role, I had a meeting about my title. They felt like I shouldn't have 'Junior' in my title, so we discussed it, and I received what you could call, a 'mini payriseless promotion'. I accepted it, and I am now a Developer.
Don't get me wrong, I still don't know a lot about development, but that's ok, because not knowing something as a developer does not make you any less of a developer!
I am always learning to this day, as are all of my colleagues, and every developer across the world. This is a forever-changing industry, and as long as you keep up with the basics, you are doing alright! Keep it up! Remember, this is your journey, not anyone else's.
At the time of writing this article, I am still employed as a Developer at Mitrefinch.
What's Next for Me?
To carry on.
I'm going to keep learning, keep pushing. I'm going to make sure I take breaks, and plan trips/holidays/vacations that I can look forward to. I want to move out of my family home, and get a house with my girlfriend. Developing software is not the only thing on my mind.
I am going to keep being enthusiastic and passionate about front-end development and hopefully land myself a well-paying job, but I won't stop there. Why? Don't cap your success!
I really enjoy Twitter, CodePen, LinkedIn, DEV and GitHub. I am determined to keep up my activity on those platforms, posting useful, inspiring tweets and creating some cool pens on CodePen. I am determined to become a better writer and write a lot more articles.
However, my biggest goal in the online developer community is to help others become inspired. I want to prove that university is not the only way. There are multiple paths to becoming a developer, and we would all love you to share your story!
You can see my life had its perks and its downfalls, but I didn't let that stop me on the path I wanted to pursue. This isn't mentioned above, but the biggest setback I had in my life was losing my Mum at the age of 14, but I know she would be very proud of me.
My Advice to Developers of Any Ability
It's always beneficial to anyone to hear advice from someone else, so I've bullet-pointed a few tips of mine, as well as some resources:
- Find your passion. Mine is front-end development (What's yours?).
- Sign up for LinkedIn & Twitter and start following developer-related stuff
- There is an amazing Twitter community out there who will support you in your development.
- Don't cap your success. Keep reaching.
- Absolutely plan other life events. Your development career is not the only thing in your life.
- Read books. Read articles. Watch videos. Build a project.
- Take the time to like and comment other developer's work, they'll do the same for you - "The best developers give more than they take".
Thank you for reading!!
This article would not be possible without the extraordinary help from these amazing people and their help and involvement in writing this article!
This is so inspirational Jack Domleo! Thank you for sharing this. We live in the best ages when it comes to chance and opportunity.
P.S. Welcome to Hashnode! 😀