Ryan has kindly shared his story about changing career from being a bored helpdesk employee to finding creative freedom and much better pay as a programmer. Ryan Warner, a Canadian programmer has been successful in web development despite not having a CS degree. Ryan gives lots of tips for self taught software developers including the fact that local networking and meeting other developers can help you find work.

Hey, so can you introduce yourself?

The majority of my time is spent on web development, working primarily with PHP, Javascript, and MySQL. I work for Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario where we serve over 600 websites on a custom Wordpress multi-tenant setup, to millions of visitors every year. The Web Services Department also supports the web based application software used at the university. Before I moved to Ottawa I lived in Kingston, Ontario and worked for Queen’s University, supporting the web presence of the Housing department.

How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?

Before I wrote code professionally I was very bored with my work. After working in a ISP helpdesk role for several years I was able to find work supporting network infrastructure, but I didn’t find much satisfaction in it. I love that programming is a creative discipline where my work has a direct impact on people. I have found programming to pay substantially more than the IT support work I was doing and the work to be much more plentiful.

Can you tell us what an average day looks like for you just now as a web developer working at a university?

Since the start of the pandemic we have been working remotely, but in terms of my day to day work that hasn’t changed much. I am a member of a team of five, and our work and skill sets are divided between a variety of projects. My skill set is quite broad, so my day’s work can vary quite a bit.

On any given day I might be working on the CSS for our design framework, a Wordpress theme or plugin, or a system that handles student interaction. Recently I’ve been working to containerize a new application the university will be using to manage exam accessibility accommodations. I am not an especially capable designer, so I am grateful to be able to rely on my teammates skills in those areas.

How did you get a job with no CS degree? Did you do any particular courses or coding bootcamps?

When I was a teenager I had a keen interest in computers and spent the vast majority of my time learning everything I could. I was extremely lucky to attend a highschool that offered a focus program that let me devote my entire day to the topic, and it eventually led to a co-op experience at a local IT services shop. My initial code learning was entirely from stackexchange and w3schools, and an unreasonable amount of trial and error while I worked on my side project; I set up a linux server in my bedroom and self hosted a blog from my closet.

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How did you get your first programming job?

After graduating high school the sister company of my co-op, a locally owned independent ISP, offered me a role in their helpdesk department. I helped people reconnect their modems and configure Outlook Express while I fruitlessly tried to learn at my local community college.

My first programming job was a web development contract from that ISP, they had a number of clients requesting small websites based on a common template, and wanted me to assemble them. I was happy to take the contract as it paid twice my hourly wage and I was able to work on it while doing my support duties as well. I am so grateful for the opportunity and kindness I was shown by that employer, and maintain contact with them to this day.

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What advice do you have for someone who wants to get their first programming job without a Computer Science degree?

Web development is a great place to start because there is a considerable range of customers on the market. It's also a fairly common programming discipline, and I found local developer meetups to be great resources to learn from peers who are eager to share what they know. These social events can quickly lead to contract work as many attendees have more clients than they have available time.

What are your coding ambitions for the future?

It’s still very much in the initial phases, but I am currently working on a game prototype in Unity 3D. It’s a 3D third person adventure game that is following the design principles used in the 90s Doom engine games. My goal is to produce a vertical slice demo this year and distribute it on itch.io to download for free. Here’s a screenshot of the work in progress!

screenshot of adventure game


Thanks a lot for the interview, Ryan! 😀

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