The Rocky Road to My First Real Programming Job

I started trying to get my first real programming job in 2002. In 2005 it finally happened. Here’s how.

How I Got Started with Computers

With regard to my programming career I was lucky to have a programmer for a dad. We’ve had computers in the house for as long as I can remember. We got internet very early. I put my first website online around 1996.

My dad also had his own software company for a while, which was also lucky for me. It was a very small-time operation, never more than him and two employees as far as I was aware. From the years of about 2000 to 2002 I worked part-time for my dad writing Windows desktop software in Delphi. My dad’s business didn’t last particularly long. I believe it went out of business around 2002, roughly coinciding with the time I moved out of my parents’ house in Fremont, Michigan to go to college at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

I had hoped to find another programming job in Kalamazoo but my hopes were soon dashed. There seemed to be three problems. First, when I checked the newspaper for job ads (because apparently using the newspaper is how you looked for jobs in 2002), I found very few help wanted ads for programmers. Second, it seemed to me that every job I found required substantially more experience than I had. Third and perhaps most crucially, my job search skills sucked.

Jason Gets a Job at a Grocery Store

For my first school year I didn’t have a job at all. Then, in the summer of 2003, my dad basically told me I needed to get a job. So I drove around and collected job applications from various places, filled them out at home, then drove around and turned them back in. I don’t even remember what kind of places I applied to but I remember having applied to over 50 places before I finally got a job. The place that finally hired me was a grocery store: Harding’s Marketplace in Portage, Michigan, just south of Kalamazoo. A few months later I got transferred to a Harding’s location right in Kalamazoo, substantially shortening my commute.

The job wasn’t terrible but I was never satisfied with it. The starting pay was $7.25/hr, which I found perfectly acceptable at the time, but I imagined I could probably earn more somewhere else. It also sucked to deal with the general public. (There are a lot of weirdos/assholes out there who you never deal with in office work.)

I made it a point to continuously apply to other jobs while I was working at Harding’s. I wasn’t very methodical about it although I wish I had been. I think WMU had a couple job boards where they would list decent-sounding jobs and I think I loosely kept an eye on these job boards. One job I came across, for example, had something to do with helping run the computer lab. That would have been a step up from ringing up groceries.

One day I finally hit the jackpot. But before that I have to tell you about how I abruptly quit Harding’s, then got re-hired.

I Forgot My Work Shirt, So I Quit

During a certain stretch of my Harding’s employment I didn’t have a car. I lived about a 15-minute walk from the store.

One particular week I was late two days in a row. I remember very clearly that the next day I was scheduled to come in at 9am. I had gotten really drunk the night before and only managed to wake up at 9am. So I was going to be at least 15 minutes late.

Compounding the issue, I couldn’t find my work shirt. So I was going to show up 15 minutes late again and this time without my work shirt, like a fucking dumbass. That prospect sounded pretty bad to me. So instead I called and quit. I remember it like it was yesterday. The person who answered the phone was one of my supervisors, Jackie, a very nice lady. When she answered I simply said, “Hey, it’s Jason. I quit.” On the other end Jackie said, “What? Why?!” I didn’t respond. I just hung up.

Obviously, my abrupt resignation was a rash and wildly irresponsible move. At this point I was paying my own rent. I had no idea how I would replace my income. All because I lost my damn shirt.

I remember that there was a website called “Bronco Jobs” run by WMU. (“Bronco Jobs” because of the WMU Broncos.”) Bronco Jobs had a bunch of little one-off gigs. I remember doing a number of odd jobs including raking leaves for a very old man, teaching guitar lessons to some 10 year-old kid, and helping an old an astonishingly computer-illiterate professor push some sentences around in Microsoft Word. These gigs were interesting and sometimes relatively lucrative (the professor paid me $10/hr cash) but not consistent enough to pay the bills.

I eventually went crawling back to Harding’s. They hired me back, probably not without some reluctance.

Hitting the Jackpot (Or So I Thought)

Chronologically this puts us around spring of 2005. This whole time I had continued to apply to what few programming jobs I could find in the area. (It had never occurred to me to try to find a remote job. I don’t think that that’s something people really did back then.) There’s one certain company that I’ll assign a fictional name because I’m about to say some mildly negative things about them. Let’s call them “Not Very Cool Company”.

One day I interviewed with Not Very Cool Company’s owner who I’ll refer to henceforth as “Frampalamp Zippydoodle”. The details are foggy to me at this point but I remember two specific things about the interview: Frampalamp repeatedly said, “I’m definitely going to hire you,” and the pay rate we agreed on was $15/hr. To me at the time, $15/hr might as well have been a million fucking dollars a year. I couldn’t believe someone might pay me so much money.

I recall gleefully putting in my two weeks’ notice at Hardings and bragging to my co-workers about my sweet new job. I frolicked around in the springtime warmth, basking in my conquest and savoring the glorious career path I was now clearly on.

Goodbye, Harding’s

I was so high on my new success that on my very last scheduled day of work at Harding’s, I didn’t even bother to go. It was a Sunday. Some friends of mine were having a party. I could either a) enjoy this beautiful sunny spring day laughing and drinking with my friends or b) drag myself into work so THE MAN can make a few extra dollars of profit, all for a job that I wouldn’t even have by the next day anyway. To me the decision was super easy.

The following week I eagerly got to work on my first assignment from Not Very Cool Company. Frampalamp had given me an (unpaid) coding exercise because he wanted to “see where I was at”. Looking back, I should have questioned the fact that I was being asked to complete a programming test after I understood the job offer had already been extended to me. Now that I think of it, I don’t know that I ever saw a formal employment offer or anything like that. I was really dumb back then.

Things Get Weird

Unfortunately I found that the programming exercise I had been given didn’t make complete sense. I remember that it involved creating CRUD operations for some entity. Strangely, it asked that the web page show a list of items, and next to each item, both a “Delete” button and an “Add” button. There of course would only need to be one Add button on the page. I showed my work to Frampalamp and he said, in a distinctly untactful way, that what I had created didn’t make complete sense. Yeah, no shit it didn’t make complete sense.

I was confused. There were also some hairier technical issues. The exercise involved integrating with some existing code, and as far as I could figure, the existing code was broken. I remember emailing Frampalamp about it who said the code worked, I was just calling it wrong. Mystery.

At some point in the back-and-forth between myself and Frampalamp he stopped responding to my emails. So I called Not Very Cool Company and asked to talk with him. The secretary said he wasn’t there. Frampalamp never called me back. I tried calling several more times, never getting through or receiving a call back. I started showing up to the office. The secretary always claimed that Frampalamp wasn’t around.

It was of course obvious to me what was happening. That job I thought I had been offered had vanished into thin air. And instead of being a man about it and telling me to fuck off, Frampalamp just went dark on me. He must have even been actively avoiding me since out of my financial desperation I was pretty persistent with my communication attempts.

Frampalamp Gets an Earful

So I did what any stupid and reckless 20 year-old would do and I wrote him a “fuck you” email. Frampalamp responded to that email within about five minutes. His response was actually pretty long. I don’t remember much of what it said but I seem to vaguely recall that the email did not contain an invitation to come into the office and begin work. I do remember that the email contained an invitation to never talk to Frampalamp again.

I don’t remember if it was before or after the “fuck you” email but at some point, having formed a solid understanding that my fancy new job was not to be, I went back to Harding’s to see if they would like to hire me a third time. I remember Jackie saying, “Well Jason, we’d be more inclined to do that if you had worked your full two weeks after you gave us notice last time.” Shit.

Destitution

Broke and jobless, things got dire. I had to move out of the house I had been renting with my roommates because our lease was up. Unfortunately I didn’t have a new lease lined up and I wouldn’t have had a way to pay for it anyway. So some nice friends of mine let me sleep on their couch for a while. I subsisted on couch cushion change and bottle returns.

I spent a lot of time cursing Frumpalump and Not Very Cool Company for my bad situation. I viewed myself as a victim. I saw my situation as something someone had done to me. I even wrote a song about it. In reality, I was merely experiencing the consequences of my own bad choices and poor planning.

At this point I had no house, no car, no job, no phone and no money. My job search now consisted walking up and down the street, stopping into businesses and filling out applications. I put my friend Joe’s phone number on the applications since I no longer had a phone. (I don’t even remember what happened to my phone.)

One day someone called Joe asking for me. It was the 7-11 on the edge of WMU campus, right by Joe’s house. They wanted to interview me. I went in, interviewed and got the job.

The 7-11 job paid $8.00/hr, a significant (for me at the time) jump over the $7.XX I had been earning before. Unfortunately it was only about 5-10 hours a week and often from 8pm to 2am on weekends, completely wiping out prime party time. On the upside the job came with the perk of free taquitos. We also traded the taquitos with the Jimmy John’s employees next door for free subs. It wasn’t a bad deal at all food-wise.

Hitting the Jackpot Again (For Real This Time)

It was October 2005 when my career took a distinctive turn. I can’t for the life of me remember where but I saw a job ad for a programmer somewhere. It must have been in the goddamn newspaper. Anyway, the job looked like something I could conceivably handle so I applied. This was actually the second time I had applied to this particular job.

Let’s call this prospective employer “AuctionFuckers” since they dealt largely with land auctions. The first time I had applied to AuctionFuckers was maybe a couple months before I got hired at 7-11. They called me in for an interview. Their office was a glorious, breathtaking converted three-story mansion. It was just one or two people who interviewed me. I didn’t get the job.

But then I saw the same exact job ad again in October. I sent them another email. It said something like, “Look, you clearly still need someone because you put the same job ad out again. I can do the job. Let’s talk.” The second time I went in I got interviewed by a crowd of people which included the company owner who I’ll call Grumpalump.

I have zero recollection of the content of most of the interview. I just remember that it went well and we agreed on a rate of $14/hr. To me at the time this was an unbelievable amount of money. I felt like a fucking king.

From that moment on it was sink or swim. I didn’t realize it at the time but the scenario was classic. They had a creaky old PHP codebase whose original author was no longer present or in regular touch. Besides me they had exactly one developer on staff, a cranky (but ultimately likeable) man who wore waist-length hair and a pork pie hat. I soon figured out what the hell I was doing and managed not to get fired in my first two weeks, or even ever.

I quit 7-11 immediately and haven’t worked at 7-11 since.

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