Robin Smith-Stephens, 27, is a bilingual programmer who has recently launched an exciting career at a mobile app development company. After spending a few years studying science in university, Robin got into the web development world and has greatly enjoyed learning on the job. I met up with him to talk about it.
RK: Tell me about your educational background.
RS: I went to a small, French High school but found that I was mostly really good at sciences. My highest marks were always in science so it seemed to make sense that I continue to study science in university. However when I got to university I found a lot of the required math courses were just too hard. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around calculus for example. My mom suggested that I switch to psychology. So in my second year I took a psychology course and actually really liked it, but I struggled with every other subject. I didn’t really have the work ethic for university. I ended up leaving the university after that and came back home to Toronto.
I spent a couple of years trying to work in the restaurant industry, which I did learn a lot from, but it’s not for me. Ultimately I just got tired of it and quit my job without a back up. Shortly after that I got a call from a friend who had a connection for a programming job through his dad. So I began working for my friend’s dad who became a sort of mentor for me. He also eventually convinced me to go back to school in Toronto where I went for two years to study psychology. But when the funding I had from my RESP ran out, I chose to put my studies on hold rather than go into debt. A lot of my friends had thousands of dollars of debt hanging over them and I saw how crippling it could be. I’m about a year shy of my degree. One day I will go back when I can afford it.
RK: How did you learn about programming if you didn’t study it in school?
RS: There was definitely a major learning curve. I’ve always had a knack for language, so I picked up coding fairly quickly. I grew up learning French fluently at school and how to read music. My parents are both writers so I’ve had language around me my whole life. In highschool we’d had basic programming taught to us which I really enjoyed. That first employer, my friend’s dad, was probably the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. He taught me a lot. I’ve also learned a lot of my programming skills by having a problem in front of me, and doing very diligent research to solve that problem. The web development community is happy to share solutions online.
RK: What happened next?
RS: I left that job to go back to school, then over the summer I applied for a job at a small web development company. I got the job because they were looking for a bilingual programmer and after working for my friend’s dad I had the skills they needed. I speak French and had light programming experience so it lined up with what they were looking for. I continued to work for that company for about three years. Overall it was a great place to learn a lot of new programming techniques and approaches. I was exposed to new ways of thinking about programs and got to see new structural templates. It was a great place to stretch my arms out and see what I could do.
One of my favourite projects with that company was also the most stressful. We were given about 2 months to develop an app for both IOS and Android. I was in charge of making the app for Android. I had to learn a whole new language for it and put in a lot of overtime. It was so sweet to be under the gun and it was incredibly satisfying to have vanquished the problem in the end.
In my last nine months or so there, the job started to get dull and repetitive. My tenure there ended when the company lost a big ongoing contract and couldn’t afford to keep me. They sent me out with a nice severance package and were very kind about it. After that I freelanced for about 5 months. It sucked. I didn’t like freelancing because I didn’t have the barrier of someone between me and the client. I’m not very good at coaxing meaning out of people, and I have a hard time selling myself.
RK: How did you find freelance clients?
RS: It was all friends and acquaintances, word of mouth, people I already knew. I definitely had some good clients who were savvy and knew exactly what they wanted. That was a real joy because I could move quickly. Most of my freelance work was web development for consumer sites. Overall though I didn’t like working from home, I like going somewhere to work for the day. A few months into freelancing I decided to start applying for jobs again.
RK: How long did it take you to find work?
RS: It took about a month after I started applying. Now I’m working at at a larger mobile app development company in which I develop native apps for devices, which I’m loving. The company definitely took a chance on me because I don’t have a lot of experience in mobile apps other than the one Android app I worked on. I’ve had to learn a lot, but so far I’m keeping up. I initially applied for two jobs with the company that I was qualified for, but they actually didn’t end up giving me either of those jobs. After I interviewed there they decided to hire me for something else entirely. I absolutely adore it.
RK: Any advice for emerging programmers?
RS: There’s a huge market for us. If you want to get into programming, get baseline skills. Pick a server language, pick a front-end language. Know HTML and CSS like the back of your hand. Hone your design skills. You need to know how to reproduce somebody’s design flawlessly. Once you’ve got that down, pick a specialty. Whether it’s front-end programming, back-end programming, app development, server-side code, client-side code, database services, something that you know how to do really well. And make sure you know how to put together a dynamic web page. Everyone should know that. Then it will be easier to search for and apply for jobs that you have the skills for.
It’s really important to know what you’re good at, and know what you’re not good at. That will help you target what you want more effectively. In every job that you have, you have the chance to learn what you’re good at. Keep track of that. Be sure to reflect on your experience somewhere and think about what you excelled at and what you struggled with. I’ve done a fair share of failing, but there’s a lot to be learned from that.
If you haven’t finished school and you’re not sure what you want to do next. Fear not. We live in an era where you can develop skills and make connections without going to school. Like Robin, you can think creatively about what you’re good at, what you need to work on, and develop your skills in anyway you can. Not everyone needs a university degree to land a job they love.