by Alvaro Videla
How I went from selling food in the street to working for top firms in tech
In this series of articles I want to share with you how I got into the world of programming. I never went to university to study IT, but I found a way around it. If you like the series and want to see a book out of this, please leave a comment below.
At the end of 2006, I arrived at a crossroads in my life. My hopes of becoming a secondary school linguistics teacher had vanished in an instant, as several factors had come together and made it impossible for me to continue with my studies.
Back in my hometown of Durazno, Uruguay, my wife was working long hours for a meager $160 (USD) a month. Yes, that’s $1,920 a year. We had sacrificed our time together so I could become a teacher and get a better job because we were dreaming of a better future.
The problem with dreams is they tend to vanish when you wake up, and life’s alarm clock had just gone off.
Because my career trajectory had suddenly strayed off course, I moved back to my hometown to figure out my next steps. Needless to say, I was depressed at the way things were, and our living situation only made things worse. It was good to be back with my wife, but the reasons for it were stressful.
Additionally, we were sharing a house with my wife’s aunt, so our privacy was restricted to our bedroom, and we always felt like we were overstaying our welcome.
As a way to bring in extra income, we tried to sell homemade pasta on the streets. I would go door-to-door collecting orders for the weekend. “Hello, do you want to order ravioli to eat this Sunday?” I’d ask person after person. “Yes, they’re homemade. Just give us a time and we’ll deliver them.”
Then, after people ordered them, we spent our entire weekends making 2,000 ravioli only to end up with 500 pesos in our pockets, which comes about $20, not counting expenses.
The whole situation was disheartening, and it made us feel hopeless. My wife would work hard all week, then come home only to spend her weekends helping me prepare the ravioli. She couldn’t even have one day of the weekend for herself. She begged me to stop selling ravioli, even if that meant we would end up with less money to pay our bills. Eventually I agreed, but it meant I had to try to find a job — and finding a job wasn’t so easy in our rural hometown. Anxiety and desperation were starting to set in.
One night, I was talking with a friend who was studying computer engineering at the university in Montevideo. He told me about the various job opportunities one could find in the capital city, with salaries that were the stuff of dreams for someone living in the countryside. “There’s this big company in Montevideo, Live Interactive,” he told me. “They’re always looking for programmers; maybe you could try to get a job there. They pay really well.”
The salary he mentioned was around three times what we were making at the time, and I couldn’t help but imagine all the things we could do with that much money. We wouldn’t need to worry anymore about putting food on the table. We could finally pay for our own internet connection, get proper clothes and shoes, and even have our own washing machine!
Not only that, but I already had experience with computers. I always liked working with them, mostly because they appealed to my knack for problem solving. Programming reminded me of having to crack a code or find the solution to a difficult puzzle — but in addition to being challenging, it was fun. What’s more is that I saw programming as a career with a lot of potential for growth.
But there was one small problem: to work as a computer programmer, one usually needs to know how to program computers. Me? I could install Linux on my own, but that was probably the extent of it.
How do you land a job as a computer programmer when you have almost no programming experience and you lack a university degree to prove your knowledge? How do you learn to program without internet access at home, without mentors to connect with, and without access to programming books? That was my problem back in 2006, and this is the story of how I tackled it.
The Early Days
I’ve been dabbling with computers since I was a teenager — most of the time when visiting a friend who had a PC. While we often used the computer to play games, I wasn’t interested in playing that much. Why? Back when I started secondary school, a friend’s father let us use his ZX Spectrum computer. He had good stack of cassettes with plenty of games for it, and of course, we could play all we wanted, but one day he showed me something that blew my mind: people could make their own games by programming the computer!
He showed me some tricks in BASIC, like how you could generate random numbers using the RAND function. I was amazed. At that point, I realized computers were more than a glorified Nintendo with a keyboard: you could actually tell them to do things for you — cool things, like drawing lines using trigonometric functions and then painting them by applying random colors! You could even make music with them by passing different frequencies to BEEP. In fact, once I brought the Spectrum to my house and spent an entire afternoon playing different kinds of beep sounds on my TV — I’m sure my mom loved it.
How do you land a job as a computer programmer when you have almost no programming experience and you lack a university degree to prove your knowledge?
Later on, during my teenage years, I continued spending time with friends who had their own computers, and naturally we played games on them. Meanwhile, with my more tech-savvy friends, I learned a few operating system tricks — mostly MS-DOS.
Every once in awhile, we would try some BASIC programming by copying, character by character, the code snippets that appeared in old computer magazines. To us, they seemed like magic spells or technological incantations. One thing we really liked was trying to edit the text messages a game would show for different situations. We thought we were such hackers!
By the early 2000s, I managed to convince my grandfather to buy me a computer: a Pentium MMX with 32MB of RAM! What a machine! I installed Linux on it for the first time, using a SUSE CD that came for free with an Argentinean computer magazine. I spent quite a lot of time on that computer: trying different Linux distributions, getting familiarized with the command line, and so on, but never really doing any programming.
When I look back to those days, I can’t understand why I wasn’t learning C programming — or any kind of programming for that matter. A friend even offered me the bible of C programming by Kernighan and Ritchie, so not having access to a manual wasn’t an excuse. But for some reason, after reading a few examples, it didn’t spark any interest in me, as I didn’t understand how what it covered would be useful for me. In any case, playing with Linux was the only thing I was doing with computers back then.
From that point on, I had several minor jobs, played in a rock ’n’ roll band, and tried to become a linguistics teacher, all while getting married and moving all over the country together with my wife.
Fast forward to November 2006 and I found myself in need of somehow becoming hirable by a software company. I had to become a credible computer programmer.
Time for Some Goals
If I wanted to get hired, the first thing to do was evaluate my skillset as a programmer. I had to be honest with myself so I could know where to focus my efforts.
At the time, I knew a bit of ActionScript for Flash MX and the very basics of PHP programming. Earlier that year, I had started learning those technologies as a hobby. I’d also started a pet project to learn programming, thinking maybe it could become a secondary source of income.
I came up with the idea of making a digital map of my hometown where you could drop pins that would point the user to the location of businesses, shops, and interesting locations. I would then charge those businesses money in exchange for appearing in my online map application.
Of course I know what you’re thinking. “That’s just Google Maps,” you say. Yes, but back in 2006, the only thing Google Maps knew about my hometown was that it was crossed by a big national highway. Given that, my map seemed like a good idea. Also, I figured this project would be the perfect way to showcase my skills to a prospective employer. I had a clear goal of what I wanted to build; I just had to get down to work and make it happen.
So at the end of 2006, I set myself a deadline: come February 2007, I had to have a working concept of the map application. This had to include a Flash frontend, served by a PHP backend, using MySQL for data persistence. The technologies I’ve just mentioned might not seem too relevant today, but the point here is that I had to nail down every detail of my plan so I would know which problems to tackle first, since time was ticking: every day that went by was another day where my wife was overloaded, working overtime to get food on our table.
Additionally, to even have a shot at getting a programming job, I had to show potential employers that I could program in those particular technologies, because that was part of the job description. Naturally, I had nothing related to these skills on my resume, so I had to build up my knowledge from scratch, and my app would serve as the showcase of my programming expertise.
The plan was to land an interview at the company my friend had mentioned before, and hopefully, with the combination of my skills and my app, I would end up getting a job there. Even then, I knew the importance of setting clear goals for yourself in order to achieve what you want.
Learning project: a Map Application
The map application I created was called Aleph Maps — a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ 1949 story, “El Aleph,” about a place in the universe where everything — past, present, and future — is contained. Not ambitious at all, right? And to bring the idea into existence, I would have to learn how to program web apps.
Having no internet at home is a real challenge for a future web developer. When I started, ADSL broadband adoption was almost nonexistent, limited only to businesses and maybe wealthy households. For the average family, connecting to the internet meant dialing in on a modem connection and paying high prices for a slow internet experience. I couldn’t afford that, which meant I had to go and bother friends every time I needed to access some online tutorial that explained how to program in PHP.
So even though I had a computer and the will to learn, I still didn’t have easy or regular access to the information on how to do it. But I was determined to get that job, and I knew that even these setbacks wouldn’t deter me from learning PHP. When you don’t have time to waste, you don’t have time to feel desperate; instead, you have to focus on finding solutions.
Meanwhile, due to the lack of internet access around town, cyber cafes started popping up in the city, charging around half a dollar for one hour of surfing. This struck me as a better solution than constantly bothering my friends. But this also meant finding an extra 50 cents and a couple of floppy disks in order to get to a cyber cafe, find the information I wanted, copy it onto one of those diskettes, and get it home onto my computer. More often than not, data got corrupted in the process of extracting it from the floppy disks.
Imagine how angry and frustrated I was: I had made a trip to a cyber cafe and wasted 50 cents for nothing. Half a dollar! This might not sound like much, but at that time where we lived, you could buy a burger or a bottle of beer for a dollar. For us, it was a lot of money: it meant our daily bottle of milk or a loaf of bread.
During those days, my routine consisted of trying to solve problem A to get to point B. Sometimes the tasks were rather easy and I felt like I was making quick progress. Other days, it felt like I was going nowhere. For example, say I had to implement a feature like “insert new data into the database.” This meant writing down all the obstacles I had to solve to achieve that — from how to write an SQL INSERT statement to how to execute it using PHP — and then integrating everything into the app.
Each of these tasks was an item on my daily “shopping list” for when I went to the internet cafe. I would take a couple of floppy disks with me, and then I would google for blog posts, tutorials, and guides that would help me solve the items on my list. Once that was complete, it was time to save them on my diskettes and head home, all the while hoping the data had successfully saved and would be easily accessed on my computer.
Because of the uncertainty involved, the bicycle trip back would be fueled by the worst anxiety ever. “What if the data isn’t there at all?” I wondered. “What if the bike shakes too much and the data gets corrupted? I really don’t have another dollar to spare until tomorrow, so this better work when I get home.”
I was determined to get that job, and I knew that even these setbacks wouldn’t deter me from learning PHP. When you don’t have time to waste, you don’t have time to feel desperate; instead, you have to focus on finding solutions.
Suffice to say, this wasn’t practical at all. Once I was back home, I’d use the information I’d brought back to help me accomplish the task in progress, but once it was complete, I lacked the knowledge to perform the next step. This means I was left sitting at home, thinking about a problem, and waiting until the next day, when I could squeeze another 50 cents out of our budget to go to the cafe and repeat this routine. Though at the time it seemed like my only option, eventually I had to admit to myself that it was time for a new strategy. I needed something that contained most of the information on how to write a web application with PHP and Flash MX, with guides explaining how to perform the most trivial of tasks, all in one single place. Not the internet, but books!
It seems like such a no-brainer, but for someone in my situation, the kinds of books I needed weren’t necessarily in reach. The problem is that when you’re part of a marginalized sector of society, accessing books isn’t so easy. The closest thing to a programming book you could find at the public library would be some outdated manual on how to repair a computer — maybe some dusty MS-DOS guide, or perhaps a BASIC or Delphi book if you got lucky — but not much more.
Well, at least one could buy books, right? Not really.
In most towns in Uruguay’s countryside, technical books are usually absent from the bookstore shelves, and my town was no exception. Add to the problem the fact that most of the tech books — particularly those talking about cutting-edge technology — are written in English, and you can just forget about the local bookstore. In the end, this left me with only one option: Amazon.
But it wasn’t that easy either. To buy books on Amazon, you need a little piece of plastic called a credit card, but to get access to a credit card, you need a good credit history — which for most people is not a problem. In my case, though, I was living in a completely different world: everything we bought was paid for in cash. We didn’t have the money or the economical certainty to enter into a credit plan.
For us, it worked like this: if we wanted to buy something more expensive than our monthly income, we either saved month after month until we got enough money to buy what we wanted, or we asked some family member to buy the product for us and worked to pay them back later.
And even if we’d had the option of buying books on Amazon, we hadn’t factored in the fact that shipping alone from the United States to Uruguay was nearly the cost of the book, not to mention it would take a month for it to arrive.
In my case, though, I was living in a completely different world: everything we bought was paid for in cash. We didn’t have the money or the economical certainty to enter into a credit plan
Sometimes the solution to these kinds of problems is closer to home than we think. Eventually, we ended up resorting to asking for help from family. My wife has an aunt who had been living in the US for quite a while, so we figured it was worth a shot to ask and see if she would buy me a couple of programming books. So on one of my internet excursions, I wrote an email to her explaining my situation, hit send, and basically crossed my fingers and prayed to every deity out there that she would help us. After a couple of days, I had a new email in my inbox. It was her answer, straight to the point: “Tell me which books you need and I’ll order them from Amazon.” After doing some research, I ended up asking for the Flash MX Bible and the PHP 5 and MySQL Bible.
Those two books proved incredibly helpful in the weeks to come. They were both so thorough that I was able to make steady progress without needing to constantly visit the internet cafe in search of missing information. I could finally make headway on understanding what I needed to know to build my maps application. And finally, with access to the information I needed, it was time to sit down in front of my computer and get to work.
I hope you liked this first part. On the next article I’ll discuss how I prepared myself for applying to the job position and tell you how the interview process went.
Credits: The illustration on top was made by my friend Sebastián Navas. If you want to see more of his art go to his Deviantart profile: https://polacostyle.deviantart.com or get in touch with him via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sebastian.navas.16