You Don’t Have to Start as a Kid to Become a Professional Software Developer

Quite often professional software developers

( professional = those earning their living with a job where they write code)

say that they started at the age of 12 or earlier with programming. That’s great for them.

But what if you didn’t have the chance to start at that age? Can you still become a professional software developer?

Hell Yeah!!! It’s never too late! You can start at the age of 100 if you want! It’s never too late to become a professional software developer

The most important thing is mentioned by my friend Clint from Microsoft:

On your way you’ll come across fantastic persons that believe in you: Family, friends, other professionals. They’ll help you to stay on your path when it looks like a dead end. But there’s another important person that should believe in you: You yourself.

The next important point is that you’ll also come across people who don’t believe in you. People who smile at you, the classic naysayers. Look at this tweet from Ela, an amazing recruiter who started programming:

Ela brings it to the point. And with her tweet above she shows that she manages already the two most important things you need to become a dev:

  • She believes in herself
  • The naysayers can’t stop her on her path

The third important point is that you will fail doing what you want. You’ll fail often. I fail every day. But failing means that you learn. It’s an opportunity. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. And always remember: Every dev is cooking with water, there’s no magic, and we all fail every day!

But now back to the post title. What if you don’t have a computer yet? What if you have no clue about programming?

Let’s look at the story of a software developer who never had a computer as a kid. That’s my story. I want to share it with you to encourage you to start today if you would like to become a software developer.

Thomas as a kid

My mother told me recently that I said already at the age of 10 to her

When I have grown up, I want to become a rockstar or a computer expert.

But actually, I knew computers only from a section in an illustrated catalog we got twice per year. I knew that you can do calculations and play games with it. I dreamed to have a computer in my room. A friend of mine got one, but at my home, we never had a computer when I was a kid. The simple reason was that my parents didn’t need one and they thought it’s by far a too expensive toy. My mother stayed at home with my sister and me and my father worked for more than 40 years in a factory, shift work. In all those 40 years, he didn’t miss a single work day, but the money he got was not enough to just say: “Hey, let’s buy a computer”. And especially as my parents didn’t know anything about these devices, they didn’t make the huge investment. Also an electric guitar was nothing they bought (I bought one with my own money later, but that’s another story). So, not the best position to become a rockstar or a computer expert. But don’t get me wrong: I love my parents, I have a fantastic family and I had the best childhood I can imagine, with great friends, with a Skateboard, a BMX, a soccerclub, a music club (I played trumpet), and the most important thing you can give to your kids:

Love and time!

But I didn’t have a computer when I was a kid.

When luck hits you

When I was 19, I finished high school and I went to the mandatory military service for 10 months. I had to decide what to do after it. Originally I wanted to study mathematics or becoming a brick layer. I thought about these two different options. But to study mathematics at a university, I needed some startup money. And I didn’t have that money. I also didn’t know how to set up everything: Moving, university, paying the rent for the flat/room. And you know, I even didn’t have a computer.

But I had luck. Do you agree Scott?

I had the huge luck that a man living in the flat above my parents said that his company is looking for computer science students. And they had a system where you study 3 months at a university, and then you work 3 months in the company. And this for 3 years. The great thing: You earn some money and mathematics is also part of the studies.

This sounded like a great option for me. I applied and somehow I got the job. I had no clue about computers at all, as we never had one at home. But somehow the other person in my job interview has noticed that I’m interested in and passionate about the whole computer and programming story.

Starting at level zero

I started the first 3 months at the university in September 2001. The professor said

We really start from scratch, so no worries!

Then he started to talk about Outlook synchronization. I asked my seat neighbor

What is Outlook?

He said

An email client

I thought

Ok, I know about email, but what the heck does he mean with client?

You see, I really knew nothing at all. And the other problem was: I still didn’t have a PC at home

Giving up? No! :)

After nearly 2 months I said to my parents: “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof”. German for “I understand just train station”. A saying that means as much as “I understand nothing at all”. I told my mother that I’ll take the brick layer option and later, when I might have earned some money, I could still continue with an option to become a construction engineer. Of course learning how to ride a bicycle is hard without a bicycle. Same is true for IT without a computer. But I couldn’t afford one. I needed the money I earned to pay the car I bought that I needed to travel to the university. Our village had no train station and a bus connection it’s not worth to talk about. Then my dad said

I’ll get you a computer now, and then you continue.

I think he felt that I’m passionate about it. And my dad believed in me, my parents did, my sister did. It’s still amazing when I think about how much money this was for my parents to buy a computer just for me, something they don’t know anything about and they don’t have a use case for.

My first computer

While I was at the university, my dad bought a computer for me. Yes, my dad. It didn’t matter if he goes out to buy one or I, as he knew as much about computers as I did: Close to nothing. :) I read a few printed catalogues and I gave him a few specs.

When I came home from university he showed me the surprise. It was a great desktop pc, a good screen, a keyboard, and a mouse. And Windows Millenium edition. Two weeks before Windows XP came out, they sold us a brand new PC with Windows ME without telling that Windows XP arrives in two weeks. And we didn’t know, Windows XP was not mentioned in the newspaper and neither on TV. :)

But anyway, even without Windows XP it was a great PC to start with. It was now October 2001, and I turned 21 years old.

Learning to program

In the upcoming months I started to learn Java and I also started to program ActionScript with Macromedia’s Flash, beside my studies. After a few months, I understood the basics and I was able to catch up with the other students at university. I also learned HTML, CSS and JavaScript. But instead of native web tech, I got more interested in programming flash apps and desktop apps, so I used Flash and Java AWT, and later Java Swing. I also started to answer questions in a German Flash forum, and it was amazing that I could already help others to get their stuff done.

Graduating

In 2004 I finished university after 3 years. Or in other words, 34 months after I got my first computer (I didn’t have one during the first 2 months). If my professor would have given me for my bachelor thesis a 1.0 grade (which is the best grade in Germany (1.0 best, 5.0 worst)) instead of a 1.1, I would have had the best university degree of all students from 2004. I don’t write this to brag. I write this to show you that it was possible given the fact that I started at university without a computer at all.

Btw. in the end I was super happy that I got the 1.1 instead of a 1.0. Because my professor was also grading the bachelor thesis of one of the smartest and nicest persons I met in my career. Today that person works for Microsoft. You can find Sibille Metzler on GitHub and Twitter. Sibille got the 1.0 and she made it to the best student of 2004. If someone deserved this, it’s Sibille.

So, I graduated and I started my professional career.

From Oracle Forms to .NET

In the company I worked at, 5 developers had built a production planning system with Oracle Forms 6. The company was producing circuit boards, mainly for mobile phones. The 5 developers built that system over more than a decade, and they did a great job. The system printed the plan for the production based on the input data they got from the customer. The printed plan had barcodes on it, so every machine in production had a barcode scanner and an application that shows the production queue. So it was very easy to see at which point a specific board is in production.

In 2005 we made our first tests with Oracle 10g, and we noticed that this over 400 screens big application didn’t work in a web environment (Which Oracle Forms 10 was). After some failing migration scenarios we decided to program everything again with a modern platform. We had to make a decision for the future: Java or .NET. I was the only developer voting for Java, the other 5 voted for .NET. This is how I started with .NET in 2005, with .NET Framework 2.0 beta.

After 5 years at that company (2001 during my studies till 2006) and after building the most interesting applications of the production planning system with Windows Forms I thought it’s time for me to look for new adventures. I didn’t want to spend the next 5 years to build all the simpler applications with Windows Forms. But that wouldn’t be too bad If I could spent all the time on programming. But that was not the case. I was programming only 1-2 days per week, as I had other tasks, like being a DBA for the Oracle Database, administrating a document management system, leading the migration from Lotus Notes to Exchange etc. But I wanted to build applications. So I decided to move on.

Consulting at Trivadis

I started in 2006 as a Consultant at Trivadis in Basel/Switzerland. After being in just one company for 5 years, I wanted to see how other companies are building things, and as a Consultant you have the chance to work on many different projects.

In Basel, it was the amazing Marcel Caviola who gave me a chance. I still remember my very first day in April 2006 as if it was yesterday. Marcel brought a “Thomas cake” and it was amazing to start. Over all the years at Trivadis, I made it from Consultant to Senior Consultant, from there to Principal Consultant and from there to Senior Principal Consultant. But I never focused on titles and career, I focused on things I like to do, as these are the only things you can get great at. I met amazing developers there, and people that helped me to grow.

A few months ago, Urban Lankes, one of the Trivadis founders, asked me why I joined Trivadis.

Hey Urban, I joined this company because of the amazing people and because I got what I wanted: A laptop, great projects and a team of helpful senior developers.

Talks, Books, and Microsoft MVP

In 2006 I started with WPF, in 2007 I started to give conference talks and I wrote articles about WPF and MVVM. In 2008 I wrote the leading WPF book in the German market which will come out this year in its 5th edition. Later I also wrote books about Silverlight, Windows Store Apps, and TypeScript. I also answered questions in online forums. For example, I was one of the top 25 answerers on the Silverlight forum. Many years later in 2013, Ken Casada from Microsoft Switzerland suggested me for the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award that I received in the upcoming years multiple times in the category Windows Development.

Video Courses for Pluralsight

In 2013 I met the amazing Aaron Holt from Pluralsight. A super nice person. I started to create video courses. I love to teach and it’s also a great opportunity for me to give something back. I think that creating videos also improved my presentation skills.

Summary

All this was possible without having a computer during my whole childhood. I turned 21 years old two weeks after I got my first computer.

My story means that you can start at any age. No matter what you do in your life, there will always be people who say it won’t be possible. But you’ll also meet people who say “Oh yes, go for it, you can do it”. People who believe in you, like Clint mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Yes, you can do it if you want!

I started a poll on twitter. Let’s see when other developers started.

Thanks for reading and happy coding,
Thomas

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