A not so typical path into tech

What are you going to do with your life? Those nine words were asked of me by teachers, parents, and coaches my whole life. As if a middle school, high school, or even college student knows the answer… I don’t know about you, but I had NO CLUE! At one point in college I thought I had finally made up my mind. I was so excited. Mom, Dad, “I am going to be a Doctor.” Saying the words felt good, it gave me a goal to aim for, and at the time I thought life was all figured out.

I was lucky enough to go to one of the greatest schools in the country, GO DAWGS! Here, I knew that I had access to some of the best teachers in the world. All I had to do now was execute. Keep my nose to the books and all the rest would fall into place, right? Unfortunately and fortunately in college, there are a lot more things to do than study. I joined a fraternity, I played at least one intermural sport every quarter, I had a lot of fun, and yes… I studied too. But college is about growing as a person as much as it is about being a good student. Looking back on my college career, I can honestly say that “I left it all on the field.” If someone asked me to join them for a group study session, I said yes. If someone asked me if I wanted to go to a party, I went. If someone needed an extra player because they couldn’t field an entire soccer team, I said absolutely, I’m in. Early on, my grades took a hit because I was spreading myself too thin. Luckily, I bounced back and hit the library an hour or two more each day, I reached out to professors and TAs for extra help (one of my best decisions), and things started looking up. Then my junior year rolled around, and I was excited to finally get into my major, Biology with an emphasis in Physiology. The only thing I wasn’t excited about anymore, was being a doctor.. I started worrying about what my parents would think and what I was going to do with my life? I talked to a counselor about my options. We bounced some ideas off each other, and in the end I landed on Physical Therapy (PT). I had done an athletic training class in high school, I loved sports, and already had some of the classes knocked out. Nice! I know what I want to do with my life again. So, I applied for an internship with the athletic department, changed my class choices a little, and eventually still graduated with a BS degree in Biology. It was definitely a high point in my life.

Towards the end of my senior year, I started working for a physical therapy clinic to knock out the required hours to apply to grad school. When fall rolled around, I had enough hours to apply, and what I thought were decent enough grades to get in. I applied to 10 schools across the country, spending what little money I had on applications and flights for interviews. After the long wait during the decision process, letters came trickling in slowly. I would get an anxious feeling opening each one, a little excitement mixed with a lot of terror. After a couple of rejection letters, I had a terrible feeling, “what if I don’t get in??” By the last letter, I knew it was a no without opening it. It was another short and wide one… those are the rejection letters FYI. They only spend money on the big envelopes for their future students. I felt a lot of things at that point, but mostly embarrassment. Embarrassed that I didn’t get in, embarrassed that I told all my friends that I was going to go to PT school but might not anymore. It was a tough time. I didn’t let that keep me down for too long. I told myself I would try one more time next year, and hopefully still make it into grad-school. I figured, a whole year’s worth of hours working at the clinic, and a couple of extra internships would help me sell myself to these schools and I would get in for sure. Well, long story short, I was wrong again… Another ten applications sent, another ten rejection letters back. I looked up the stats on how likely it was to get into one of these schools. In hind sight, probably something I should have done a little earlier. 4%… 4% chance to get into the University of Washington PT school that year. They received close to 1000 applications from well qualified recent and not so recent college graduates across the country, and only had 40 slots open for their incoming class. Now… I wasn’t really a numbers guy at that point, but that seemed pretty bad. So, back to square one, “What do I do now?”

I continued to work at the clinic for not much more than minimum wage while I figured out my life. After asking around to friends and family and scrolling endless job sites, I found nothing out there that sounded great to me. Based on finances, I didn’t think going back to get a different degree was an option, I wasn’t ready to commit to a random desk job, and I was still bummed about giving up on PT. Then, after a few more months of racking my brain about the jobs I could see myself doing, I landed on firefighting. I figured, they make good money, they work 10 days per month on average (yes, they are 24-hour shifts, but still! So much free time), and it seems like a good fit for me. I researched the requirements and was back in school the next quarter to get my EMT certificate. I loved the class. It was tough, but in three months I was a certified EMT. Unfortunately, during the process, there were a lot of red flags for me. I realized that I would be seeing people in their absolute worst moments, and sometimes in their last moments… I didn’t feel like I had it in me to see that day in and day out for the rest of my life. In turn, I gained a huge respect for the people who commit their lives to do it. Luckily, I didn’t feel like I wasted any of my time through this certificate program. Heck, if someone tried to drop dead in front of me right now and needed CPR, I could do it! Not today… not on my watch!

Once again though, back to the big question, “What now?” I was talking to a roommate just before receiving my certificate, letting him know that this probably wasn’t what I was going to pursue in life, and he told me that he had a unique opportunity for me if I was interested. His uncle was looking to hire on two “Green Horns,” AKA new deck hands to work on his 32-foot commercial fishing boat in Alaska for five weeks during the annual Sockeye Salmon run. I didn’t have anything else tying me down, no career in place, and could really use the money. So, two months later I was on a plane to King Salmon, Alaska to get to work, and man was it work! Those were five of the hardest weeks of my life. The solitude, effort, and lack of showers it takes to be a fisherman is wild. We caught 70,000lbs of Sockeye Salmon that year, and made some good money. The money was nice, but I learned that I do not want to be a commercial fisherman.

While I was in Alaska, I put out some feelers to people I knew for job opportunities, but there were limited options. Towards the end of the trip however, when I finally got into range of some WIFI, my dad told me that he knew someone who worked for a business intelligence company called “Tableau.” He told me they were potentially willing to look past my lack of relevant experience if I was willing to start at the bottom of the food chain in their customer service department. So, about a month after I got home from Alaska, I was in this tech “start-up” interviewing for a job I had no experience for. I had done a lot of research on the company, just so I didn’t sound completely ignorant in the interview, and it really paid off. They offered me a job and a week later I was at my new desk providing sales support to close deals and answering customer questions on a product I didn’t know yet. At first, just like with any new job, I was anxious going into work each day. What if someone asks me a question I don’t know? Am I doing okay compared to my peers? Nine months and a lot of hard work later, my questions were answered, in the form of a promotion to “Deal Desk.” It was a similar role to my previous one, but offered a bit more pay, and allowed me the opportunity to use the product itself. I obviously said yes and was back to the anxious phase where I didn’t know how to do the job my employer was paying me a decent sum to do. Again, I just kept working hard, knowing that this feeling would eventually subside. Then, fate had me in the right place at the right time, and just four months after starting my deal desk role, there was a spot open to start a new “Enterprise Licensing Framework,” and they needed one deal desk member to provide the leg work on those deals. I was just a year and some change into starting at this company and I was working with the largest deals that were coming in. My job was to be the liaison between sales, operations, and legal, to make sure a deal went through. Not just any deals either. My job was to work with any deal that came in over $1,000,000. Talk about some stress. But, as I feel you should do with any positive opportunity that comes your way in life, I said yes. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but the experience was beyond valuable. By the time I left Tableau, two years after joining, I was competent in using the tool itself, making me a qualified candidate for an analyst role, I had a foot in the tech world door, and was excited about what my future had to offer.

My reason for leaving was that I was tired of the end of month, end of quarter, and end of year grind that operations had to offer. I was worn out and finally had actual working knowledge to offer another employer in the tech field. Ironically however, I ended up in a world I had zero ability in once again. I am currently a Web Developer at a great startup called Agency Mania Solutions. Their product is a Software as a Service solution to the wacky world that is marketing. More specifically they assist with the relationship between marketers and their agencies that they utilize for their marketing campaigns through custom web-based applications.

Living in Seattle, it was hard to ignore the booming potential for developers. With companies like Amazon and Microsoft in our back yard, or rather right smack in the middle, learning to code just seemed like the most logical next step for me. Even if it was an enormous undertaking. So, AMS was willing to take me in as a developer (something I knew nothing about) in return for my promise to learn the role as quickly as I could and be a productive member of the team within a reasonable time. Talk about pressure for me, and a lot of faith on their side. I was able to offer them some work as an Excel and Tableau jockey on the side while I taught myself HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP (coding languages used in web development). Within six months I was producing full on web applications for some of the top 200 marketers in the world. I still can’t believe that was possible, but it was, and it is for anybody willing to put in the work. Now, 1 year and five months later, I couldn’t be happier to still be here. Out of this opportunity I am now in a structured coding class through UW that my company is paying for. They really do care about my career growth, and my interests.

The not so typical path I took into the tech world probably wouldn’t be suggested by your parents, teachers, or anyone for that matter, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The experiences I have had, set me apart from other candidates in the tech world, and have shaped me into the person I am today. Looking back, it was stressful, and it was hard work, but that’s what made it a fun ride. I think back to those first few months in each job I have had in my short time in the real world, and now think fondly of them. Make yourself uncomfortable, take chances, see what’s out there. You have the rest of your life to work in your dream job. Make sure not to be close minded as to what that job could be, and enjoy the journey getting there. What’s Next? Who knows… and that’s okay.

By Taylor Wolfe
Taylor Wolfe Developer