Posted on 08 May 2013 by Scott James
"Nobody will give you permission to write Ruby for a living if you ask. Never ask for permission and never play by the rules."
-- Zach Briggs
Today we hear from Zach Briggs, a software engineer at Test Double, where he is working with a non-profit in the journalism space.
Briggs worked in direct mail for 10 years before deciding to Google "Rails" when he "got lucky enough to have way too much work on my plate and a linux server at my disposal." Just over a year later, he's working as a full time developer. He pulls no punches in this interview, talking straight about why we shouldn't play by the rules, why he thinks it's not ok to not have things memorized, and the need for a better Rails "onramp" for beginners.
Who are you? Tell us about yourself.
Now I work with Test Double, a high end consultancy that focuses on maintainable and well crafted front end code. A year ago I was doing Direct Mail analytics and had exactly zero IT experience. Here is my timeline:
- Googled Rails: May 02, 2012
- Junior Dev: August 22, 2012
- Developer: October 17, 2012
- Test Double: April 22, 2013
- RaisConf: April 29, 2013
What kinds of projects are you working on now?
For Test Double I'm working on a project to help a non-profit in the journalism space. Pretty amazing for my first project as a consultant, right? In my free time I'm trying to figure out exactly why I was able to go from not being in IT to working with an elite consultancy and speaking at RailsConf in less than a year.
Ideally I would like to bottle this lightning and make it freely available for anybody who would be interested in a similar path.
What were you doing before learning to code? Why did you decide to learn? How do you think your background in cognitive science benefits you as a programmer?
I graduated in 2002 with an Information Science degree and was only able to get a job sorting mail 3rd shift. I actually stayed in the Direct Mail industry for 10 years until I got lucky enough to have way too much work on my plate and a linux server at my disposal. This motivated me to build that first Rails app for automation, a step I did not ask permission to take.
How did you learn? What were the resources that were most valuable?
I used Hartle's Ruby on Rails Tutorial as my initial text book, but it was really throwing way too much at me as a beginner. To be fair, he tells us this right at the beginning. Luckily I was able to use it at a reference point to ship that first app, but for a rank beginner I really do not see an ideal first Rails tutorial. We do not offer a good onramp and it shows both in our lack of diversity and by the number of open programmer positions that remain open in an otherwise down job market. If there were good beginner tutorials then we would have a plentiful supply of good Rails developers.
Did you have any big lessons learned from mistakes you made or challenges you faced while learning?
It is not OK to not know things by heart. If you do a web search for an answer and the link is purple, meaning you've needed this answer before, then take a note and memorize later. This one trick will emulate 3 extra years of experience for a new person.
Has learning to code changed your worldview at all?
Yes. It is not acceptable to hate your job. We are powerful people who can provide a valuable service. This should be leveraged to bring joy to yourself and those around you every day.
What’s next for you?
I've got another talk in me that needs to get out. I want to provide that onramp for anybody who would like to write Ruby for a living.
Any closing thoughts for those thinking about learning to program?
Nobody will give you permission to write Ruby for a living if you ask. Never ask for permission and never play by the rules.
Through this Pathways to Programming interview series, we talk to formerly non-technical people about how they learned to program in a non-traditional way and what they’re doing now. If you’ve taken your own unconventional path to becoming a programmer, we’d love to hear about it. Send a short email to email@example.com and let’s talk.
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