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Learning to code in time of crisis

──── 5 mins

I wrote the first draft of this article in March 2020. Today, 2 years later we’re in another “unprecedented” economic crisis, again.

Whether you’ve been laid off, struggling to make ends meet with the crazy inflation or dissatisfied with your current situation, you may have wondered: Could I work in tech?

The good news is: You can, and it’s free or low cost. I can’t say that of many career paths.
The bad news is: It might take a while because the economy is upside town.

But it’s possible, and you’re not alone! As much as you think your case is unusual, plenty of people went from very random jobs to coding, like glassblowing, chicken frying or Broadway acting. In this article, I’ll answer common questions that people asked me on this topic.

Is it easy to find a job?

There’s good and bad, like everything else.

👍 A world of (remote) opportunities

Remote work is the default for developers now. You don’t need to move to a big city to get started. Most companies will allow you to work remotely if you ask. If not, it’s probably not worth applying.

Some of the “big tech” behemoths (google, apple) want their employees to work from shiny offices, mostly against their will. Mayors encourage them because their property taxes are tied to the value of offices. This is irrelevant for you, you’re unlikely to get your first job in “big tech.”

The recession(s) will affect us all. But if you can do your job from anywhere, for a company anywhere in your timezone or further, that’s an advantage on other jobs.

👍 A culture of skills, not credentials

Caveat: This varies by country.

If you want to make movies for a living, you can go to film school, learn and get a degree. Chances are you will come out with a student project. The other option is to learn on the Internet, and create your own film projects.

The tech industry works similarly. If you can prove that you can do the work, no one will ask you for a degree or certificate.

No ExperienceNo jobThe Vicious Circleof Hiring

We can create our own experience, which is rare, and we’re lucky.

👎 The competition

Now onto the bad news. I wrote this in the summer of 2022, and the combo of a crazy tech market in 2021, irresponsible startups and a sudden economic downturn lead to a ton of layoffs.

Many experienced coders are out of a job, so the market will be difficult for everyone, for a while.

Even in “normal times,” coding is a competitive industry. There are lots of young people with lots of time who are happy to code 24/7. You might think “How could I possibly stand a chance against that?” Your advantage is you’re more than a coding machine. You bring life experiences that alongside your coding skills make you interesting.

How soon can I find a job?

YouTube and Twitter are full of people telling stories of “Zero to engineer in 3 months — and so can you! Buy my course”
This is just like any Internet advice, e.g., “I lost 10 kgs in 2 months — and so can you! Buy my course.”

Whether or not you find a coding job (and when) is influenced by market conditions, which you cannot control. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a clear answer. I would focus on learning the basics, and creating a body of work. I know it’s boring but I don’t want to give you a false hope.

What is code?

Here’s an analogy that stuck with me:

Coding is like playing with Lego bricks in your mind.

With Lego, you can only use a restricted set of primitives (bricks) to build something (a boat). With code, that restricted set of primitives is called a programming language, and what you create is called programs, or software.

It looks like this:

let width = 400;
let height = 400;

function setup() {
  createCanvas(width, height, WEBGL);
}

function draw() {
  background(250);

  rotateZ(frameCount * 0.01);
  rotateX(0.6);
  rotateY(0.4);
  box(70);
}
The code produces a spinning cube.

Is Coding the same as IT?

No, IT and coding still get conflated, but they are different jobs. Here’s my explanation of the difference between IT and coding. 👇

IT uses software to help people create with their computers.
Coders use computers to create programs/software.

Let me say it again: Coders/Designers work with computers to create things like Netflix, WhatsApp and other apps, games, etc.

Do you need to be good at math to code?

Absolutely not! I had to learn 95% of math as an adult. I hated math as a teenager so the most basic stuff like sine and cosine never entered my brain. All you need is to be able to use numbers (e.g., calculate a 20% discount).

I know many people who do computer graphics professionally and couldn’t solve a quadratic equation to save their lives. And graphics is as math-heavy as coding gets, apart from Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning.

Ideally, each of us would be fluent in working with the mathematical techniques of asymptotic analysis. And ideally, each of us would be rich and good looking as well.
— The Algorithm Design Manual, 2nd Ed.

Where to start?

For me, the best place to write your first lines of code is Khan Academy’s course. That should give you a good idea of what coding is like.

Some tips

  1. You’ll have unlearn a lot, that’s OK! The industry moves fast.
  2. Don’t worry about what you want to do exactly yet. You’ll carve your own path after landing a job.
  3. If someone mentions “Learn React” to you as a beginner, run away. React is confusing, even to experienced engineers.

Good luck! The world is weird again and it’s disheartening, but I will be happy to have you as a colleague if you decide to embark on this journey.

Cheers


PS: If you think you might be too old, here’s a video of Masako Wakamiya. At 81, she couldn’t find a good mobile game for people her age. So she learned to code and made one.

Thank you so much to Josh for reading drafts of this.