When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I didn’t know. I feel like it just came out of nowhere, at maybe 14 or 15, teachers and my parents started explaining to me that I had to start thinking about it. And I technically went to a college prep school so I think I had it better than a lot of people, to at least have people try to prepare me at that age. But I also feel like, a lot of people are pushed into stuff when they’re younger.
I spent a lot of time playing video games, so I said, “I guess I’ll do that.” They said, “Ok that’s computer science.” My high school class was very small, so I think there may have been one or two other people following a similar path. Everybody who was as smart as I was was a better student. I was a terrible student in a lot of my classes. I barely made it out of high school; any class that I wasn’t interested in, I just shut off. I couldn’t focus enough to do the work. I was used to more interesting medium, like games and movies, and a lot of educational stuff just isn’t very engaging.
How did you decide to attend California State University - Chico?
My parents and I just found some schools that I could get into that had computer science programs. I only looked at California because of in-state tuition. I had a borderline birthday in October, so my parents put me in early and I went to college at 17. I lived in my own dorm room and I had to manage all my own stuff, and I didn’t go to class very much. I think I went a lot for the first couple of months and then I was over it.
I remember we had programming classes where we used a chalkboard. It would be like having an MS Word class or a PowerPoint class on a chalkboard. Why are we not using our computers? If I had stuck around, maybe it would have been a great class, but I immediately shut off. I had an environmental science class, and I really enjoy learning about those things, but not in that kind of way where they lecture for two hours, and then you do a group project with a bunch of people you don’t like, and then you have an exam on a bunch of things you’re never going to think about again unless you become an environmental scientist.
I like to read a lot. I really like long-form articles about environmental science. But that’s something you can knock out in a couple hours. It’s not something you need to do a whole semester on. And there are a lot of great programming resources out there now, where if you’re trying to hit a certain mark, or learn a new skill set or language or framework, there’s a structured lesson and you knock it out in a few weeks, and then you apply it at work. You don’t sit in a room with 50 other people for several months and look at a chalkboard.
I was also super awkward at 17, and maybe if I’d been better at making friends, I would have been motivated by my fellow students to do better. But I did the opposite extreme. I just holed up in my room and watched TV and played video games. I also had a high school girlfriend who came up and lived with me for a while.
So I was basically flunking out halfway through freshman year, and I talked my way into another semester. I can behave like an intelligent person, even if I’m not acting like one. I think I just embellished some stuff about my life, about having a girlfriend around and being 17. I said I had everything set up and I’d be fine for the second half of the year. And then I did the same thing again.
I think it’s my personality, what’s the word, “autodidact”? I can learn the stuff, I just prefer to manage the structure on my own. If I know something and I want to skip ahead, or if I don’t know something and I want to stay on it for a while, I prefer to manage that myself. Now there are a lot more great learning sources, a lot more open source stuff. GitHub, which people use every day, is full of projects you can download and just poke around in and contribute to. It’s much easier today.
I’ve seen a lot of stuff I would have liked back then popping up now. Microdegrees, online courses; I did a lot of junior college classes, and there are more options for associate’s degrees and transfer programs. There are a lot more opportunities to sit in on classes, to get college credit while you’re in high school, alternative high schools. If I were going to do it again, I would find more opportunities to test the waters. I wouldn’t just lock myself into a 4-year university program. I would audit a class or try an online program or do an internship. It was either going to college, or going to vocational school to become a welder.
I think you’d make a great welder.
I do too.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
After my year at Chico, I went back home, got a job, lived with my parents. I took a lot of junior college classes. I worked in a grocery store for maybe two years. And at that point, I kind of understood what had gone on. I was a little older, I was starting to realize why it was hard for me to engage socially and academically in college, and I was starting to get a handle on it. At the grocery store, I was forced to engage with people all day, every day. I was getting a perspective on what it was like to not have a career path. Just to see what your alternative is, to have a baseline retail job, is important. I was starting to get that, and I was ready to try again.
I found some schools I could get into again, and chose one. I moved to Arizona and went to a for-profit video game school, the University of Advancing Technology. It was a bad choice; I was still on the “college is important” mindset and so were my parents, but it was too expensive, and I shouldn’t have done it. But it was one of the few options for a game career at that point. It was similar to the last time where I was disengaging a lot; there were a few classes I loved and I aced them, but there were more classes that were a waste of time, where we would do coloring books and stuff like that for an hour.
I got out of there and there was sort of a tech gaming community in Arizona, so I got a job as a game tester out there. My mom is mostly in PR, and she was working for Kaiser. They were doing a health game project and whomever they contracted was in Arizona, and I got a job with them. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision to just go rather than stick around in California. I knew I just needed to try something, and I think that’s when it started working out for me.
I wish I had the tick marks for advanced computer science and stuff like that. I wish I had been able to stick it out. But once you’ve started your career, most recruiters are looking for experience. They’re not looking for your master’s of applied physics. Just keep moving forward, even if you’re in the slow lane.
It’s tough to be entry-level contract, but I kept that mindset of “stay on the path,” even if they were low-paying jobs without a lot of security. I just kept moving between jobs. As I knew one was ending, I would start looking for another one. After I’d done two or three jobs, each position was more involved and more technical, and I was learning new stuff. By the time I finished my last job, I had enough experience to make up for the fact that I didn’t have a computer science degree, and that was when I started applying to more selective positions.
I found a job out in Maryland at Autodesk, and I stayed at that one longer than any of the other jobs I had had before. They brought me on as a hybrid between a tester and a support person for their product. I would field all the questions that came in, and distribute anything I couldn’t figure out to the developers themselves. That was probably the hardest, most educational job I had had up to that point. It was trial by fire, but it was also the kind of thing I would have liked to be doing week two in college, rather than chalkboard stuff. I wish that somebody had sat me down at a computer with an actual functional project that was relevant to the type of job I might have had coming out of college.
I could tell Autodesk might be shutting down too. I decided to leave, and basically hopped online and I saw that my friend from way back in Texas was working near me now. I just emailed him and he immediately picked me up. Now, I’m back to being labeled as a test engineer. I took my comfort with being technical that I had learned from my previous couple of jobs, and transitioned that to being a full-time coder.
I think it’s taken me longer than I would have liked, but I feel like I’m a mostly competent engineer now. Nobody really chooses to be in quality assurance for games; it’s just something that you have to do as an entry-level. But I’ve done it for so long now that I’m good at it and I like it, so I’d like to continue being involved in QA in general. And there are a lot of opportunities to work in that field going forward, to fix stuff. Eventually I’d like to get back into games somehow. That might be something I do on the side. There’s been a big transition in that as well. It’s gone from being a really small, sort of super-nerdy industry to being much more accessible, so it’s easy to do that as a personal project.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think 17-year old me, when he got out of high school, was a little disappointed that the world didn’t revolve around him and that everything wasn’t engaging in the way it should be. But I think he would also be happy that I didn’t majorly drop the ball anywhere.
If I had to separate the way I’ve seen people get into careers, some people need to putz around a fair amount and try stuff and fail at stuff. But there are also people who know exactly what they want to do and they’re done with medical school by the time they’re 25. I wish I had had a clearer picture of which kind I was, which was definitely the putz around type. And I wish I had taken a little bit better advantage of the options out there for that personality type. I probably should have just started working, or started looking for a young person version of [We Roam], where I could have done some traveling. I wish there were just more resources out there for my type coming out of high school, so I could get that out of my system without that pressure of, ok, graduate high school, go to college, get a four-year degree, and become a computer scientist. I think it’s okay to spend some time figuring it out. And I’m okay with the fact that I’ve done that. I mean, I’m in Spain right now. So I feel great about it.