Jason Charnes

Getting Your First Programming Job

In 2007 I was making part-time money at a local music store. I was fresh out of high school and felt like I had no direction.

My life changed when I got interested in the web.

Introduction to Programming

I asked the owner of the music store if I could make their website. Kindly, he gave me a shot even though I’d never built one before. I spent day and night learning front-end web development. When the website launched, it was an amazing feeling.

Hey, I created that!

That small web dev project was a turning point for me. 

My First Programming Job

Eventually, we implemented a content management system (CMS) with help from of one of my friends, James Cornett. The CMS was one he built from scratch. That was like magic to me; I would never be smart enough to do something like that. Over the next five years, I would grow as a front-end developer. I started to grasp HTML, CSS, and even a little jQuery. This job began to become my first programming job.

One day in 2009 we needed a complex form on our website. James helped me do this. He fired up Dreamweaver and started cranking out ASP Classic code. I had no idea what he was doing, but he explained what he was writing, and why, while he was writing this form.

That was my first real exposure to programming.

I heard about this thing called a database. I saw some “if this then that.” I thought, “Wow! Programming is neat. I’m not smart enough for that.”

Attempted Programming in College

Being a business major in college began to feel like the wrong fit. I swapped over to a Management Information Systems (MIS) track because I like computers; I also had some business credits and thought this could be a good fit. My first concentrated class was an introduction to the Visual Basic programming language. To my surprise, I did incredibly well in this class. I continued to Java 1 & Java 2, still doing well and starting to realize I could be a programmer.

Eventually, I took a leap of faith and transferred to the University of Memphis as a Computer Science major. There was one problem, though. I suck at math. I didn’t have the necessary math credits to start programming classes. My advisor, a professor in the Computer Science department, put me in an intro to programming class. Once I did well in there, he let me begin programming classes while I caught up on math.

I never caught up on math, but I worked my way up to 3000 level Computer Science classes.

Finding a Groove

During this time I started to focus on web development. I already knew front-end development, so maybe now I could start applying what I was learning in school to back-end web development. After some research, I started learning Ruby on Rails. For the first time in my life, I became addicted to learning.

Ruby re-enforced that I was smart enough to be a programmer.

I was working at a church as a media director when I realized that programming was something I wanted to do full-time. I tried to apply for some Ruby on Rails jobs, which was difficult because I had no experience. There were several interviews, mostly ending after the first round.

Making a Career

One day I decided to take a leap of faith and apply to a local marketing and design agency. I wouldn’t be working with Ruby on Rails, but I would have my foot in the door as a web developer. Luckily I had a friend who interned there and put in a good word for me. Within two days I was hired and making my way into web development as a career. This job was my first programming job that was full-time programming. During this time I also decided to take a break from school, I haven’t been back since.

Just nine months later I received my first opportunity as a Ruby on Rails developer at Lensrentals. It was hard because though I wasn’t doing Ruby on Rails professionally, I enjoyed where I was working. However, I wanted that professional Ruby on Rails experience, so I took the job at Lensrentals. I’ve been with Lensrentals for the last two and a half years.

Moving Forward

It’s been an incredible journey for someone who thought they weren’t smart enough to be a programmer.

You might be in a similar position.

  • Working a part-time job looking for something else
  • Feeling like you’re not that smart
  • Interested in programming
  • Wanting to get your first programming job

Here are some things about programming that might surprise you:

  • Not all programmers are great at math
  • Getting a baseline knowledge to get hired as a programmer doesn’t require a 4-year degree

Here are three ways to get started:

  1. Learn some HTML - See if you can figure how to make a web page, using HTML, for your resume
  2. Try Ruby - 15 minutes might be all you need to realize that you too can program. If not Ruby, maybe it’s PHP or Python.
  3. Get to know others in the same spot you are
  4. Ask your boss if they’re happy with their website. If not, maybe you just caught your first break.
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