The Path

This is a slightly-edited version of a talk I gave to the mobile cohort at Bitmaker Labs in May. It’s a bit of a long read, but it was well-received.

Hands Up

Who here is a mobile developer? Put your hand up.

Every hand should be raised right now. The second you walked through those doors, you became a developer. Not to mention, you’re still here. And that deserves respect. Give yourselves a fucking round of applause.

Welcome to the club.

My name is Brian Gilham and I am a mobile developer.

We share a profession, you and I. We have a passion for this thing we do. I know you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

We share a craft. And it is a craft. Like painting, sculpting, or automotive repair. I work at my craft each and every day. And now, so do you.

We walk the same path. And, while I’ve been walking that path a bit longer than you have, that only means I can help you avoid some of the quicksand. You will do the same for those who come after you, in time.

But I’m willing to bet, for many of you, that feels like a long way off. You’re short on a few things:

  • Time
  • Experience
  • Understanding

I’m here to tell you that you’re doing fine. You’re doing great.

You Are Going to Be Okay

Who here has heard of imposter syndrome? Here’s the official definition:

[…] a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. […] those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.

Sound familiar? I’m willing to bet at least a few of you feel this way. Hell, I’d bet most of you feel this way.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Every single person I work with feels the exact same way.

I feel it every damn day. The people you admire feel it too. There’s a saying:

Fake it until you make it.

That’s horseshit. Instead, think of this:

Make it until you make it.

Don’t fake anything. You are racking up accomplishments here every day. Don’t forget that. Be proud. Don’t just take it from me, though. Who has heard of Ira Glass?

A Step Forward

I wasn’t always a developer.

When I enrolled in college, almost 12 years ago, I chose to pursue my other passion: writing. I signed up for the print journalism program at Loyalist College. Back then, they still made the distinction. These days they just call it “journalism”, as they should.

I dedicated three years of my life to it. I loved it and I was good at it. But it wasn’t what I decided I wanted to do with my life. So I made a change.

It was scary. In some ways, it felt like a step backwards.

Had I just wasted three years of my life?

I suspect there isn’t a single person in this room who can’t relate, in one way or another.

And to some people in my life, it looked exactly like a step backward. They didn’t hesitate to tell me so. Perhaps you have someone in your life like that. But hear this:

Fuck. That. Shit.

Pay them no mind. Use it as motivation. Use it as the fuel that powers the fire in your belly. Every win is another blow struck against the haters in your life:

  • Finishing this program
  • Your first job or freelance gig
  • The first app you release
  • Your first promotion, raise, or really big cheque

You Don't Need a Degree

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you a computer science degree — or any degree is a requirement for success in this industry. I don’t have a degree. Also, I suck at math. Don’t believe that one either.

Seriously. I was a terrible math student. I failed math in the 10th grade. Just bombed it. They sent me to summer school to catch up and, when I was done, told me I’d have to redo the school year anyway.

I still count on my fingers, sometimes.

Despite those shortcomings, here I stand. I have created and contributed to projects that have been featured by Apple, garnered serious media attention, won awards, and been used by people all over the world.

I have been programming professionally for almost 10 years. In that time I’ve been lucky to work with the best Toronto has to offer — and the worst. I have done great work — and shitty work. I have had success. And I have had crippling failure.

And you will too.

You’re not that far from finishing your time here. And I’d bet all the money in my pocket, which ain’t much, that your minds have begun to drift to one thing and one thing only: getting a job.

I am here to help you.

I am a developer with a job. It’s not my first job, though I would happily make it my last. I interview developers and I help hire developers. And, despite what you may have been told, you are about to enter a field awash in opportunity.

I have some bad news for you, though:

There are a lot of you.

You need to stand out from the crowd.

If you will lend me your ear for just a bit longer, I’d like to share some tips with you for landing your first gig. And let me start by saying: I have fucked this stuff up numerous times.

Let’s go.

Finding Your First Job

1. Look Around

Your future coworkers are sitting here in this room.

With any luck, you’ve spent some time getting to know your fellow students. In the future, you may end up working with some of them. Hell, some of them might just be the ones hiring you someday. Toronto is a small place.

You are allies. Act accordingly.

My first “real” development job came to me because of a recommendation from someone I went to school with. Support each other.

2. Show Some Passion

Showing off your Bitmaker Labs projects isn’t enough. Almost every interviewer will ask you some version of one question:

So, doing anything on the side?

Don’t be fooled. What’s they’re really asking is:

How passionate are you?

Is this stuff in your bones? A part of your goddamn DNA?

The best developers can’t help but do this stuff on the side. They live and breathe it.

I hired one junior developer because he spent his free time making a Dungeons & Dragons map generator for his friends. The project itself is almost secondary. What I’m looking for is some indication that you love this stuff.

Writers keep private journals, illustrators sketch, and programmers build software all the damn time.

The most interesting companies in Toronto, and the world, only want to hire the most interesting programmers.

3. Share Your Work with the World

There’s a pervasive myth out there: Quality naturally rises to the top.

It’s bullshit. Good work doesn’t sell itself.

How many of you have some kind of website or online portfolio? I don’t care if you coded the entire thing yourself.

Show me what you’ve been working on. Talk about the challenges you faced and the lessons you learned.

Bonus points if you give me a link to a GitHub repo.

A resume doesn’t mean much, particularly if your last job was at a Home Depot. Show me that you’ve been working your ass off, however, and I’ll want to bring you in to hear more.

4. Hustle

I asked one of my coworkers, a fellow graduate of Bitmaker Labs, what the difference was between those who are working today and those who failed to get a job. His answer?

They didn’t go home.

The most successful students, he said, stuck around to chat with the instructor. They worked on problems together. They made sure they understood what they had just been taught.

Look, I get it.

Maybe you have to get off to your part-time job, or take care of a family member. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that, if you aren’t making it up in some other way, you’re at a disadvantage.

5. Outwork Your Competition

I am far from the best developer in Toronto. Or at TWG, for that matter.

But what I have going for me is that I outwork a lot of people. I wake up early. By the time other people are walking through the door, I’ve already been at it for a few hours.

Hard work can beat skill, much of the time.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but come in early. Stay late. Learn everything you can. Find ways to contribute that aren’t necessarily programming. Pay attention.

Then, take that experience and use it to become better.

6. Sometimes it’s Who You Know

Get out there. Go to as many events as you can.

Don’t “network”.

Go to events with the goal of meeting like-minded people. People who are doing the same thing you are. Hang out with them. Help them. Make some friends.

Play your cards right and those connections will serve you for the rest of your career. People hire people they know.

Part of what helped me get my job at TWG was that I’d spent time with them before I applied. By the time my name popped up on an application, I wasn’t just another name on the pile. I was Brian, they guy they’d drank with a few times.

They knew me.

We Need You

I love this thing we do. I wake up every day excited to practice my craft. And I’m more than a little jazzed that you’ve decided to join me.

Mobile development, practiced well, is powerful.

We make the software that runs on devices people carry around with them everywhere.

Sure, there are a million fart apps out there. But there are also apps that help you raise your kids, organize your time, or remind a loved one when it’s time to take their medication.

Your work can change someone’s life. And I can’t think of a better reason than that to do what we do.

And we need you. We need good people who care about software and the impact it has on the world.

So, let’s get to work.


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