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How I became a computer programmer

Despite his lack of experience, Jim McKeeth leapt from tech support to software development relatively quickly. How? One word: perseverance.

How I became a computer programmer

For Jim McKeeth, 41, it was his perseverance that landed him his computer programmer gig.

For tech lover and problem-solving whiz Jim McKeeth, the challenge of fixing something that’s broken is what he enjoys most about his job.

“Fixing a computer bug is like surgery,” he says. “You spend a lot of time looking at and examining the patient, and then when you are ready you make the smallest incision possible and only fix what is broken. It is still extremely satisfying to see a feature implemented, an app deployed and a bug fixed.”

McKeeth, 41, is a lead developer evangelist at Embarcadero Technologies, based in Scotts Valley, California. Computer programmers like McKeeth, who write the code to create software programs, are part of a $260 billion industry, according to Business Software Alliance.

With an average annual salary ranging from $58,000 to $89,000, according to PayScale, and a field that is set to grow 8% by 2022, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s a good time to be a programmer.

We spoke with McKeeth to get an inside look at what being a programmer is really like.

How he got into the field

McKeeth knew he was interested in working with computers from an early age, but it was his work ethic and eagerness to learn that allowed him to leap from his first job in tech support to software development.

When McKeeth learned of an opening, he was told it required a bachelor’s degree in computer science and 10 years of experience. He didn’t have that, but what he did have was a passion for programming. 

He was determined and put together a technical presentation on public-key cryptography (the processes required to provide a secure infrastructure) for the hiring manager.

“It seemed impressive and was something I didn’t think anyone else would know anything about,” says McKeeth.

His ambition and unique thinking won the hiring manager over. And despite lacking the educational requirements, the manager almost gave him the job on the spot, McKeeth recalls.

What his typical day is like

Though his company is located in California, McKeeth works remotely from Idaho. In an average day, he responds to emails, reviews tasks for the day, checks in with his team, and then dives into more intricate tasks.

“A lot of time is spent working with issue tracking systems, source control, merging differences, reviewing code, writing change notes and reading and writing documentation,” he says. “It isn’t all writing code. It seems like the better I get, or more experienced at least, the less code I write.”

He typically works 40-hour weeks with teams ranging from a single developer to groups of up to a dozen.

What skills he says are important

He cites self-motivation as key for any software development job, having lists of features and bugs to work on and then leeway to prioritize the order in which he solves them. Next is coding and problem solving he says.

“It really comes down to being able to understand the scope of a feature or issue,” says McKeeth.

He maintains that communication is hugely important to the job too.

“Being able to communicate to others about the best way to solve an issue is important, both for collaboration and to communicate to management, analysts, and customers,” he says.

What he says is the biggest challenge

In programming, there are a vast number of technical libraries and frameworks, which McKeeth says are impossible to memorize. For this reason, staying on top of the latest tech developments and always learning about what’s new is the biggest challenge.

“This isn’t completely unique to our field,” McKeeth says, “but is perhaps more pronounced.”

His career advice

A sense of community is important perhaps for any job, but especially for one that is often done remotely or performed alone much of the time. McKeeth advises prospective programmers to join a few developer communities.

“Supporting others through open source contributions, blogging, and answering questions is a great way to improve your skills and show others what you know,” he says.

Wondering where to pursue educational tech opportunities? Don’t have a degree?

“Set aside time on your own or talk to your manager about getting work time to complete structured classes through sites like Udemy, CodeCademy, Udacity, Coursera, etc.,” says McKeeth. “Even classes on related topics like mathematics can be helpful.”

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