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I'm a software developer in my mid-twenties. I attended a fairly prestigious college for math and computer science, but never graduated.

After I dropped out of college, I got a development job at a prestigious software company, but was laid off after 10 months. Since then, I've been having trouble getting back on my feet. Six months later, I got hired at a startup as a sole developer, but was fired shortly afterwards because I couldn't handle the workload. Another 6 months later, I took on 3 jobs with early-stage startups. All three of these are equity-only, unpaid positions. So, right now, I'm juggling 3 unpaid jobs and I hate it.

I've been looking for jobs throughout this ordeal. I find the hiring process in software development to be painfully difficult. I typically do poorly on technical interviews. I do study for them, but I just get so many hard puzzles and esoteric trivia questions thrown at me. I also don't have a very strong grasp on data structures and algorithms. Since I don't have a degree, I typically rule out applying for jobs that mention college anywhere in the ad, which usually translates into having to pass a hard technical interview.

I'm tired of being chronically broke and unemployed or underemployed. I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with me or if I'm even in the right career. My personality is a good fit for programming. I'm nerdy, introverted, inquisitive, and unafraid to teach myself new things. I can't imagine myself in a profession where I had to rely on soft skills instead of hard skills. I don't want to go back to school, take a pay cut, or start all over again in a different field. I already have work experience, solid references, a strong online presence, and a good portfolio.

Everywhere I've been, the developers had zero work-life balance. We all did nothing but eat, sleep, and code and after a while, I become burned out and miserable. In all honesty, if money wasn't an issue, I wouldn't code. My real passion is music, but I doubt I could pay the bills with it.

I'm just so lost and unhappy in my current situation. Does anyone have any ideas as to how to improve my current situation?

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    How does getting fired for poor performance translate to 'solid references' 'experience' etc,.? – Kilisi Dec 9 '17 at 11:21
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    This is a better topic for The Workplace Chat, the kind of personal advice you're looking for doesn't make for great Q&A. But I'd start with some self-reflection because you've contradicted yourself a few times in this post. And let's please not perpetuate the stereotype that you need to be nerdy or introverted to be a good "fit" for programming. – Lilienthal Dec 9 '17 at 11:25
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    @Lilienthal OP doesn't have enough reputation to access chat. – Dukeling Dec 9 '17 at 13:01
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    @Kilisi The OP could have good references from the unpaid jobs. I am more troubled by the disconnect between the OP claiming to be "inquisitive, and unafraid to teach myself new things", and yet not having fixed the lack of a strong grasp on data structures and algorithms. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 9 '17 at 16:54
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    What are you doing to improve your skills? Algorithms and data structures are core areas of programming, so you better start learning them. – user8365 Dec 13 '17 at 0:04
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I don't want to go back to school, take a pay cut, or start all over again in a different field.

I'd suggest you decide to relax one or more of your "wants". It's probably not reasonable to expect your outcome to be different without changing any of your inputs.

What you are currently doing isn't making you happy and it isn't making you any money. Something needs to change.

I'm tired of being chronically broke and unemployed or underemployed. I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with me or if I'm even in the right career.

My real passion is music, but I doubt I could pay the bills with it.

I'm just so lost and unhappy in my current situation. Does anyone have any ideas as to how to improve my current situation?

If you were part of my family, I'd strongly urge you to get yourself back to college and complete a degree.

At the same time I'd suggest you figure out what will make you happier long term. Clearly software development isn't that. If you feel strongly that music is your passion, then you should be looking for jobs in that domain. Perhaps drop one of your unpaid jobs and try a music job for now.

I know someone who is a part-time street musician and part-time software consultant. He is very happy. He claims it "feeds both sides of my brain".

I know another person who was a classically-trained pianist and a software developer. He dropped development and now plays music full time.

I know a software executive who went on to become a CEO for a guitar manufacturer.

And I know someone who dropped out of college, eventually realized that he needed a degree to get anywhere. He completed his undergraduate degree nights and weekends while working full time, then decided to continue to get a Master's degree. He eventually found a domain where he could combine two things he really enjoyed - technical hands-on work and leadership. He found that combination in Quality Assurance management positions. He loved his profession and was excited about going to work pretty much every day until he retired a few years ago. (That was me)

Finding a career that works for you is worth some time and effort. If you aren't willing to put in that effort at your young age, you may regret it for the rest of your life.

  • It's interesting that you mention that. I've spent the past several months trying to transition into a disc jockey career. I've dropped some serious cash on DJ gear and have played a handful of major gigs (i.e. music festivals, fortune 500 corporate banquets), but I don't feel confident that it'll pay my bills over the long term. – raidersfan Dec 9 '17 at 18:05
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I'm a software developer in my mid-twenties. I attended a fairly prestigious college for math and computer science, but never graduated.

I hope you will accept advice from someone who is also in my mid-twenties. But certainly there will be those with decades once 'normal' (read: not 02:38hrs) hours roll around.

After I dropped out of college, I got a development job at a prestigious software company, but was laid off after 10 months. Since then, I've been having trouble getting back on my feet. Six months later, I got hired at a startup as a sole developer, but was fired shortly afterwards because I couldn't handle the workload. Another 6 months later, I took on 3 jobs with early-stage startups. All three of these are equity-only, unpaid positions. So, right now, I'm juggling 3 unpaid jobs and I hate it.

So quit doing things that you hate. I once asked a friend of mine what was the price of her happiness. I now ask you, what is your value of your happiness? If these jobs don't pay, and you do need money to pay the bills, buy food and shelter, why work yourself to death at three startups that doesn't give you a solid footing? It sounds like they are exploiting your situation out of greed rather than genuine desire to help.

I've been looking for jobs throughout this ordeal. I find the hiring process in software development to be painfully difficult. I typically do poorly on technical interviews. I do study for them, but I just get so many hard puzzles and esoteric trivia questions thrown at me. I also don't have a very strong grasp on data structures and algorithms. Since I don't have a degree, I typically rule out applying for jobs that mention college anywhere in the ad, which usually translates into having to pass a hard technical interview.

So you look for jobs outside of software development where you skills (as a software developer) can be useful, but not the primary metric to hire. Have you considered quality assurance? Look at Mr. Joe (our top contributor), he's made a career out of that field. How about game testing? My cousin first started out as a first-level supporter with an application gaming company. Just because one field demands more, doesn't mean your skills aren't in demand in another. Broaden your horizon and learn to adapt to changing conditions. Maybe your future is in X when you've kept you eyes on Z for too long.

I'm tired of being chronically broke and unemployed or underemployed. I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with me or if I'm even in the right career. My personality is a good fit for programming. I'm nerdy, introverted, inquisitive, and unafraid to teach myself new things. I can't imagine myself in a profession where I had to rely on soft skills instead of hard skills. I don't want to go back to school, take a pay cut, or start all over again in a different field. I already have work experience, solid references, a strong online presence, and a good portfolio.

Have you seriously (not in passing thought) but seriously thought about going back to school? If you qualify for financial aid, consider the short-term cost and burden of debt to earn that degree that will open doors for you. Debt is not the end of the world, it is an investment by (present) you to benefit (future) you. Reconsider that route and take a break from the hunt, take four years to refocus and earn that degree that will give you a different perspective of the world through conversation with experts and fellow enthusiasts.

Everywhere I've been, the developers had zero work-life balance. We all did nothing but eat, sleep, and code and after a while, I become burned out and miserable. In all honesty, if money wasn't an issue, I wouldn't code. My real passion is music, but I doubt I could pay the bills with it.

I bet you can, have you heard of Spotify, Pandora, Google music jobs (and refine with software development, the first hits are all teaching music), and you will find a field rich with potential and hungry for developers with a mind for code and an ear for music.

I'm just so lost and unhappy in my current situation. Does anyone have any ideas as to how to improve my current situation?

QED

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I'm a software developer in my mid-twenties. I attended a fairly prestigious college for math and computer science, but never graduated.

The Screening Process

Unfortunately the first couple of levels of employment screening typically operate along the lines of: 1. Does the candidate have a degree?; and 2. Does the candidate pass the technical screen? That is before you get to someone directly involved in the position.

There is also a tendency for employers to pay people who don't have a degree less than someone who does - not because the person who has the degree is any better, but because they can.

Vendor Certifications

Without a degree it is tough, but in software, not impossible. You may get some mileage with vendor certifications. The other aspect of vendor certifications is they tend to focus on the same silly minutae that technical screens focus on - so you almost hit two birds with one stone. The downside is that vendor certifications typically need to be renewed every few years, and the ones that everyone wants, can be quote costly to do and time consuming to study for. Some colleges may give you credit for them, so if you combine any certifications you do with the credits you already have from the college you did do, you may be able to scrape a degree.

Avoiding Burnout

There is nothing wrong with saying that you've worked your 9-5 and now you're going home, particularly if the company you are working for is not paying you a salary. Some more mature organisations have that kind of ethic, but the work can seem mundane. Startups may seem to have more exciting work, and promise the reward of career growth and compensation, but they have to follow through. If you really want to avoid burnout, public sector positions can be less demanding.

IT & Systems

You might also get some mileage in the realm of IT and systems administration. As a developer you know in quite a lot of detail about how a computer system works, so you have a better understanding to solve systems issues. There is no pre-requisite on getting Cisco or Microsoft certification, and once you have that on your resume it should open some doors and help you through the technical screens.

Use Your Passion

If you can find something that leverages your passion, e.g. working on music software for a recording studio etc. you might find work that you enjoy. It is no longer a chore if you enjoy it.

Own Projects

If you have the patience, you could also work on apps for iPhone and android though the market is now saturated, but if you find a niche that allows you to build on your music knowledge that could potentially provide another source of income. If you get enough traction, you might be able to hire someone else to do the actual coding, while you focus on the other aspects. The same could be said for developing web sites for businesses and other types of freelance work.

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You lack experience and training. You aren't going to get that if you join part-time startups OR any job in which you are the sole developer; at least not without making a lot of mistakes and wasting time.

What you really need is mentorship from a more experience developer. That does not necessarily mean that you have to get this from a job or from school -- there are plenty of resources out there including forums and the questions on stackoverflow. Web resources like these does not give you the structured training of a senior coworker or professor but it does expose you to new areas of study. And I have found that answering questions of people that have even less experience than you is a very valuable skill and allows you to solidify the fundamentals.

One place to start is a self evaluation: http://sijinjoseph.com/programmer-competency-matrix/

Working for 3 different companies as an unpaid position is not really going to benefit you unless the project can be completed and you have something to show other employers. It would be much better for you to focus on one and finish it, or drop all of them. Especially if they are 3 different projects for the same person, then they are simply using you to fulfill their half baked ideas (I have been in that position before).

Instead of working on someone else's equity project, start your own. Make an app using whatever technology, and use this to demonstrate your abilities (experience does not necessarily need to be a salaried position). Years ago I got a job as a server-side PHP developer, but what the interviewer was most impressed with was the iPhone apps that I created even they had nothing to do with the job.

Most likely what you need to do is accept the pay cut until you get the experience you need to counter the lack of a college degree. Often companies are willing to accept 3+ years of experience instead of a degree (assuming those 3 years were doing the same type of job you are applying for).

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