by Corey Slaven

It’s time to get in over your head


Sweat dripped down my forehead as I sat in a long line of cars. What would I say? What would I ask? Would they scoff at my lack of knowledge? Was I in over my head? Surely I was in over my head.

Within the first few weeks of learning web development, I knew that I wanted to meet other developers. I reached out to my network of friends but didn’t find any promising people to approach.

About 10 months into my lonely journey toward becoming a self-taught web developer, I built up the courage to attend a casual coffee-and-code meetup. To me, it sounded like a meeting of the minds — a grand opportunity! It was at a cafe at 7:30 in the morning, a full hour’s drive from where I lived.

I arrived early and scoped out the cafe, searching for anyone who looked like a developer. Not one person even had a laptop open. There was no indication that any of the sleepy customers around me were developers of any kind.

I went to the owner of the store and asked if this was the location that the group frequented. He assured me that it was, and said that he was surprised no one had showed up yet. He told me that they’d probably be there soon, and offered me a free cup of coffee. So I sat down with my free coffee, whipped out my laptop, and started writing some code.

I started refactoring some of the solutions I had come up with on Free Code Camp’s algorithm challenges. Time ticked by. Ten minutes. Twenty Minutes. Half an hour. I was eager to meet with anyone who might know how to code.

Maybe I’d need to come back next week. Yes, it would have to be next week. This just wasn’t my day.

Then it happened. I sensed him immediately. The way he walked in, computer tucked under his arm, a purposeful stride. He walked towards where I sat. “Are you here for coffee-and-code?” he asked me. I nodded, then he sat down at my table and opened his laptop.

I continued typing away. Silence followed, interrupted with the sound of silverware clanking and my fingers hitting the keyboard.

“What are you working on today?” I looked around. Was he talking to me? It was still just me and him at the table. The fact that he had asked me this question sort of surprised me.

“I’m refactoring some of my solutions to Free Code Camp’s algorithm challenges,” I said.

He started typing himself, asking me questions about Free Code Camp and what it was. He asked me what I knew, and what languages I used. I asked him the same.

At some point it occurred to me: I was having a conversation with a real developer.

I’d been picturing this moment in my mind since the day I first thought about learning to code. And here I was, experiencing this moment in real life.

We talked about what had initially sparked our interest in coding, where it had taken us, and all the things we’d learned along the way. He told me about his job at a development consultancy, and about his day-to-day tasks.

Time flew by and before I knew it, it was time for him to leave. As he stood up and closed his laptop, he asked me to shoot him an email if I was interested in visiting his office.

I couldn’t believe it. He was inviting a total noob like me to visit a place where actual developers work together to build useful things.

Was he crazy?

I dunno. Maybe.

I emailed him the next day.

It was a couple of weeks before I got the chance to actually visit the office. It was an hour long drive to where he worked.

So there I was again. Sweat dripped down my forehead as I sat in a long line of cars. What would I say? What would I ask? Would they scoff at my lack of knowledge? Was I in over my head? Surely I was in over my head.

I found the right building and parked. In the lobby, I examined the directory and figured out which floor I was headed to. I hopped onto the elevator, then up I went.

I walked down a narrow hallway, passed a few doors, and then I arrived. I knocked three times. I could hear foot-steps walking towards me behind the door. The door opened.

I told them who I was there to meet, and they invited me in.

The entire experience felt like something out of a movie.

I was brought to a dimly-lit open area. The song “La Femme D’Argent” by the band “Air” was playing on the speakers.

There were developers squinting at code on huge monitors. Large windows overlooked the ocean. Across from me was a gigantic fish tank, abundant with exotic fish.

I was led to the center of the office, where the developer who invited me was working. I sat down across from him and he asked, “so — what do you want to work on today?”

I told him I just wanted to learn. I wanted to see how it all worked. I wanted to be immersed in the environment.

We turned to his text editor (it was Vim — I know because I asked him). He had tricked it out extensively, and he had so many tabs open at once.

The consultancy worked with Ruby on Rails, which I didn’t know the first thing about. So I asked him questions about Rails, and all about how they used it to create things. I also asked him about his work flow and how Test Driven Development (TDD) worked. Then we got down to business.

Together, we went in and started modifying a feature on their office’s website. He would ask me how I thought we should implement each bit, while simultaneously demonstrating how TDD worked. I was blown away.

The speed with which he worked displayed an impressive level of expertise. His fingers danced across the keyboard, and the sound they made was like a machine gun. It was daunting, and hard for me to follow at times. But I did my best to pay attention and understand, as I knew that it was the only way I would actually learn something.

We finished working, and it came time to commit the changes. When the version control system asked who had contributed, he allowed me to enter in my Github username so I could get credit.

I was awe-stricken. I had done it! I had pair programmed with a real developer, at a real dev shop, on a real issue! Could it be that I was becoming a real developer?!

Sort of…

I have a long way to go before I’ll be able to work at a place like that, but the experience gave me a newfound confidence. With this confidence came the realization that there was so much more that I needed to learn. My journey had only just begun.

As I left to go home for the day, I walked out of the office, gazing out the windows at the beach below, with a big smile on my face.

I had a long road ahead of me, and had best get to moving. It was back to the grindstone for me.

On the ride home, I thought about what it would have been like if I hadn’t reached out to meet others within the development community. I never would have even realized how much I’d been starving myself of these kinds of experiences.

So I’m here to say that if you haven’t started to hang out with other developers, you’re missing out. The initial anxiety you’ll feel is all a part of the fun. You can’t grow if you don’t exit your comfort zone. This is as true with coding as it is with anything.

Branch out! Be brave! You never know who you might meet, or what you might do. You might end up completely in over your head. And that’s OK.

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