Working While in School

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Zach Holman’s recent post got me thinking about my own situation and how I have still managed to maintain forward progress over the years no matter what the circumstances have been.

Defining a target is great. Knowing how to hit the target is even better. That’s the takeaway that I get from Zach. Here’s a bit about how I got a jump start on aiming for my target.

While in college, I spent roughly a year as an intern with Northrop Grumman. A friend got me the position and I gladly took it for the experience. When I began to think of leaving, I stopped by my friend’s desk and talked it over with him. Knowing that I had gotten all that I was going to be given from this internship, I was ready for more of a challenge. My friend encouraged me that I have what it takes and that I could make it as a junior developer with some small software shop where I would serve as a sort of jack-of-all. In hindsight, I feel that was a key thing for him to say because of how it set my expectations. You won’t find a job at a Google, a Facebook, or an Amazon without a degree or something highly valuable that you bring to the table – something that a junior in college isn’t likely to have.

I wanted to know if I could hack it as a real developer. So I left Northrop Grumman during my first semester as a Junior and found a position as a junior-level software engineer for the sake of completing a project. At this time, I decided that I should transition to all online classes which would allow me to work a 40-hour week and complete coursework at night – a decision that I don’t regret. Two months after starting this new job (Yes! I was afraid that I was in way over my head), I began a project on a team of 4 to rewrite the entire Jesus Film Project website – a project that moved far more quickly that I had anticipated and involved many nights and weekends for me to learn new technologies and tools. Nevertheless, the website was successfully launched with a bunch of fantastic front-end work that allowed me to prove to myself that I had what it took to be a developer.

After the website was deployed, the work had gone dry and it was time for me to move on to another job. Finding my place with Wycliffe Associates, I was placed in charge of a monumental undertaking for designing and delivering a system that would serve as a frictionless donation system unlike had ever been implemented by any non-profit to this point. Once again, a great success - and this time my work was far more intensive and involved through-out the entire stack and across a distributed system.

So why do I tell you all of this?

Two reasons.

The first is that you have what it takes and you, too, can find a job to help make ends meet while you are in school while also building a solid set of skills and experiences to tout long before your peers.
The second reason is the reason for this post. College consumes years of your life. Don’t let it. Instead of being stuck in school, unable to make forward progress for 4+ years, find an online degree program and work a job in the career field you want. You’ll be making progress and maximizing your efficiency. I don’t regret my decision to do it this way a single bit – I wouldn’t change a thing if I could go back.

I believe that this method would serve anyone well. Don’t waste your time working in the wrong career field while you’re in school and especially avoid the trap of focusing only on coursework. Your next potential employer won’t care how many chicken nuggets you served daily or how many times you had the best grade in the class. That goes without saying, there is no reason why you can’t be the best in your class even while working. It’s all about balance. All school and no work makes Johnny a lopsided smarty pants with a deflated bag of experience that does him no good.

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