by Rick West
How I convinced an employer to take a chance on me and pay me to learn to code.
I was a 29-year-old plumber with a wife, kids, and a mortgage. I enjoyed plumbing, but I wanted more. I wanted a job of the future.
I’d been learning to code for about 6 months. I knew that I wanted to become a web developer. I just didn’t know how to make the transition.
I spent my evenings self-teaching and picking up coding skills using the usual websites. But I didn’t see a clear path forward beyond the basics.
The way I saw it, I only had a few options:
- Go back to college
- Try and pick up a few freelance jobs and take it from there.
- Go to a coding bootcamp
Let’s address these three options before I go into detail on option number 4.
Option #1: Go back to college/university
Had I been younger without these commitments, then going back to school would definitely have been an option for me.
But I needed to be in work. I needed to be earning money. There was no way we could manage with only my wife’s salary and me on a part time salary, at best. Not to mention that this would be for several years. I was also concerned about the relevance of the skills I would gain from a software engineering degree.
As I said, had I been younger I would have loved the experience and computer science knowledge, but I wanted to get into web development and we all know how quickly web technologies are evolving, so I didn’t feel spending years at college would be the best use of my time.
Option #2: Try and pick up a few freelance jobs and take it from there
I did think long and hard about starting a little freelance business. I had even toyed with the idea that, as a plumber, it would be perfect if I could specialize in building websites for the construction industry. However, this involves sales, marketing, bookkeeping, and customer service. All great skills to have but at the time, I just wanted to code!
I’d only just begun to scratch the surface with web development and I wanted to continue learning, developing my skills. I wanted to be mentored and to improve.
Some people make a great living, building websites for niche markets or local business’ and thats awesome, but it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t about money. It was just that churning out low value, static HTML or Wordpress websites wasn’t going to keep me interested and help me learn as quickly as possible.
I believe that while you can learn and progress on your own, the experience that you get being mentored and working on a team is invaluable. This is experience you can’t get from online courses, and anyway, I wasn’t ready to set up camp in my home office yet.
So that left me with…
Option #3: Attend a coding bootcamp
I seriously looked into this and thought that it might be my only viable option. Whilst online bootcamps are great, you have to be extremely patient and self motivated. One of the real benefits I saw from attending an in person bootcamp was that you fully immerse yourself in the task at hand, no distractions, and you also get to network and work with other like minded people. You work as part of a team, so yeah, this seemed like a good option.
An expensive option though, wow… bootcamps are expensive! But with a “guaranteed” job at the end, I settled on one and applied!
I had figured that I could pay for the course on my credit card, then work my butt off for 6 months in the lead up to it, save up enough money to live on and I’d be fine.
My wife wasn’t convinced, but she was supportive anyway. Her main concern was about the job “guarantee.” The bootcamp guaranteed that you would find a job within 3 months of graduating or your money back. That sounded great, but hang on a minute… that meant potentially I needed to cover living expenses for 6 months — not 3. Hm. Still, it would get my foot in the door and get me an opportunity which is essentially all I was looking for.
One thing that did put me off the bootcamp though was that the next cohort was 6 months away. I knew I could teach myself a lot in 6 months without it costing me thousands of dollars. I was also dubious as to how much I would actually learn. At the end of the day, it’s 3 months, not 3 years. It’s not Hogwarts for developers. Bootcamps aren’t some kind of magical school where you become a coding wizard overnight, are they?
In the end, none of this mattered anyway. A few weeks before my technical interview, disaster struck. The company that I was subcontracting to at the time told me work was starting to go quiet, and I might have a few weeks off between contracts.
Anyone who’s been in the construction industry — especially who’s also been self employed — will know all about this. It’s something I definitely don’t miss. And it was the nail in the coffin for the bootcamp option. No way I could have saved up for the bootcamp or risk put such a large amount on a credit card at that point. That was option #3 down the drain.
It was time for me to get my thinking cap on. I wanted the change and opportunity more than ever at this point, and if I was willing live like a pauper for 3 months, and pay £1,000’s for a bootcamp, then I knew that there must be another way another way.
Let’s pause a minute and do the math:
- the cost of the bootcamp itself: £6,000 (approximately $US7,500)
- the equivalent minimum wage needed to live during bootcamp: £3375 (approximately $4,300 US)
- Plus the possibility of another £3,375 if it took me 3 months to find a job.
I haven’t even included any of the other potential costs that might need to be considered. I was looking at a total cost of somewhere between £9,375 and £12,750. Now, to me and my family, that’s a LOT of money!
This got me thinking though. I had accounted for needing at a bare minimum £3,375 to live for 3 months. That meant, for the same price as the bootcamp, I could live for 9–12 months without a job. While I could have really developed my coding skills over that length time, such a leave of absence would hardly be practical. I’m just trying to give you some perspective on just how much bootcamps cost.
Hm. So what if I worked for free at a web development company for 12 weeks? That would give me a similar experience to a bootcamp — if not better — and the best part is that it would only cost me £3,375. Now that seemed like a much better deal.
Option #4: Just go out and get a job
I’m like everyone else though — no one wants to work for free.
Then it then clicked. If I could find a company that would pay me minimum wage for 12 weeks, then that would be like having a bootcamp experience for free! If I could find a job, and it lasted longer than 12 weeks, well — that was it — the start of my new career.
I know what your thinking though. Getting a job is easier said than done!
Here’s what I did:
- I scoured indeed and the other job websites and made a list of all the companies that were recruiting developers. Especially junior developers.
- Then, instead of applying through the usual process, I emailed all these companies. I wasn’t applying for their advertised role. I had created my own role! I had no qualifications, no work experience, no real projects of note, no way I would even be considered for any of the advertised positions.
- I targeted these companies though as they were actively recruiting, so I knew that I had more chance of getting an opportunity there rather than just sending random emails.
This is the short little email I sent:
Whilst browsing job websites, I have come across your company web site and I thought it might be worth me sending over a quick email to introduce myself.
My names Richard, I’m 29 and i live in Worksop. I’m actually a Heating Engineer by trade, but for various reasons I am looking to transition into a job in the IT sector. In particular I have an interest in web development and about 9 months ago I began learning a bit more about PHP, HTML, and CSS. I have a basic understanding of these technologies and I have found that I have a particular enthusiasm for server side code. I have built a few basic projects with procedural PHP and MySQL, and I am currently learning object oriented PHP. I have also implemented several Wordpress sites and I am fairly familiar with using this CMS.
I am enthusiastic, eager to learn and extremely hard working (I also make a wicked cup of tea!). Although I am older than the typical office junior, I believe that my previous work and industry experience gives me a better understanding of the commercial needs of a business, and I have also developed excellent communication and relationship building skills that enable me to be confident dealing with customers and providing first class customer service.
I am looking for any entry level position that might be available, with the opportunity to learn and progress. I am able to work for minimum wage if necessary and I am just looking for someone to give me an opportunity! If you would like any more information or to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
You’d be surprised how many people got back to me. I know I was! Some asked a few more questions, some offered a phone call, some wanted to stay in contact for the future.
I didn’t expect people to reply but I think people either wanted to find out more or just appreciated the fact that I’d put myself out there. Overall, everyone was really positive.
One company that got back to me sounded really interested, and offered to meet up for a coffee and a chat later on in that week. I had emailed this company after seeing there advertisement for a junior / recent graduate PHP developer.
I didn’t have a degree, but my email was interesting enough for them to want to find out a little more. It turned out that they were a small company with a SaaS product, and some other interesting projects on the horizon.
We had a coffee and a casual chat. I explained my background, what I could do, and that ultimately I was just looking for a minimum wage opportunity and someone to mentor me and guide my learning.
Although they were recruiting for a college graduate PHP developer with symfony experience, they changed the job specification to “Entry Level Developer” in order to suit me. Our chat must have gone well anyway, because an hour later they phoned back and offered me a 3 month trial. I had created my own job! Perfect!
The thing was, they were a small company that needed an extra pair of hands. Instead of employing a more experienced developer, they saw an opportunity to utilize me, to do some of the low level menial tasks, and as a consequence, free up development time for their other developers.
The best thing about this job offer was that they even offered me a salary above the minimum wage that I asked for! They said that they didn’t expect any level developer to work for such a low salary, so they offered me slightly more, and with the promise of regular pay reviews as I improved.
Needless to say, I accepted the job offer. I’m now 7 months into the job, and I love going into work everyday!
I put myself out there, and my gamble had paid off. My knowledge and skills have steadily improved since I started, and I feel like I’m truly part of the team. I still can’t believe that I’m being paid to learn!
I recently asked my managers why they’d offered the job to me instead of the university graduate or junior developer they were originally advertising for. They told me that my email had grabbed their attention and stood out. They met me and liked my personality. I had shown that I was willing to work hard and make sacrifices to get an opportunity. From the knowledge I had gained self teaching, I had shown that I had a and ability to learn, and they felt that they could mentor me. They believed that they could teach me programming, whereas you can’t teach the hard work, sacrifice and motivation that I had shown by chasing my dream.
I was lucky. Maybe I just found the right company at the right time. You aren’t going to get a job offer from Facebook or Google by doing this. (I doubt they’ll even open your email!)
Put yourself out there, talk to some small companies, and see what they can offer you. If an agency is bogged down with content changes, copywriting, small bug fixes, then your email might just come at the right time.
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