How this college dropout learned to code without a CS degree

How this college dropout learned to code without a CS degree

Solana Armstrong is a Lead Developer at Level Access and is a great example of how you don't need a CS degree to be successful. Read on to hear Solana's tips for beginners, dealing with imposter syndrome and how she got her first freelance gigs.

Hey, so can you introduce yourself?

I live in Canada. In my first semester at university, I had to drop out because of a severe health condition at that time, which has since been resolved. I was studying English Literature and had intended to switch to Computer Science.
I’m currently doing a short contract to make an app fully accessible and WCAG compliant.

Prior to that I was a Frontend Developer at Xapo, a Bitcoin wallet and payments transfer app. I mostly built new components and features. Including a carousel and a feature that saved recent payments and allowed the user to repeat a transaction.

Before that, I worked at Shopify as a Frontend UX Developer on their design system, Polaris. I worked on components, supported other developers on other teams, helped migrate a section from Rails to React, won a Hack Days event, and wrote a blog post for the Shopify Engineering blog.

My first developer job was at MoneyMover, another payments app for businesses. I was the Frontend Developer and UX Designer. I streamlined the onboarding process, built a new feature to allow users to make bulk payments, and revamped their form validation.

What does a typical day as a software developer look like for you?

I hop on the computer early because I’m a morning person. I’m on the west coast and I often sync with folks in EST time zone, so I am often online at 6:00 a.m..
I typically catch up on email and Slack messages. And then dive into PR reviews and solving issues. I also oversee the general developer flow. I make sure our Kanban board has stories in the right place, verify the CI pipeline and make sure our process is working.


If you don’t have a CS degree, how did you learn coding?

I don’t have a CS degree. In the 1990s, early on in the years of the world wide web, I used websites like HTML Goodies to teach myself HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Back then, I mostly used JavaScript for rollovers (don’t judge me).
Years later, I rented a cabin on an acreage that was owned by a Computer Science professor who mentored me. I spent about 14 hours a day teaching myself Drupal and teaching myself how to code. Whenever I got stuck, I walked over to the main house and asked him for help.

I ran a web development business for 9 years. I often searched Google and Stack Overflow when I needed to learn something. I then decided to level up on my programming skills. I researched coding Bootcamps and didn’t find one that offered remote learning that I liked. So, I looked at the syllabus and decided to teach myself each topic.

After being hired at my first developer job, I used Codementor whenever I didn’t know something and couldn’t find the answer. I made sure to change any proprietary code and asked general questions about the problem.
I then got hired at Shopify and learned on the job.

I studied online with Wes Bos, Frontend Masters, Egghead, MPJ, Kyle Simpson, Kent C. Dodds, and by reading documentation. I learned a lot by making mistakes and being corrected by more senior developers. I did a lot of pair programming and shadowing.

My favorite learning platform for frontend development, by far, is Frontend Masters. Their courses are relevant, regularly updated, cutting edge, and taught by some of the best in the industry. Most of the teachers are open to answering questions on Twitter, so occasionally I bug them with a question.


How did you get your first programming job/ freelance work?

I actually got my first developer job by cold calling. I had a portfolio website, as well as a PDF portfolio of my previous web design work. I chose a random vineyard, re-did their website with some subtle jQuery enhancements. I hosted it on my own domain, with a subdomain, to add to my portfolio.

I did a Google search for local agencies and wrote to each one. One person replied and said that his agency didn’t need anyone. But his side project was looking for a Frontend Developer.

He invited me for coffee and explained the history of the company and more about the role. Then asked me if I thought I would be a good fit. After I said yes, I had an interview with the Lead Developer (also the Backend Developer). They asked me my salary expectations and I gave a range. They offered me exactly the halfway point of that range and hired me.

I worked there for eight months, but, unfortunately they were still a startup and lost a big client. So they had to let me go when they could no longer afford to pay me.

How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?

I absolutely love coding, so I’m happier since becoming a professional programmer. I have more confidence, a lot more (healthy) pride, and a better sense of humor. It has increased my sense of curiosity and given me another outlet for my creativity. I have more of a sense of belonging to a community, albeit remote. I have a greater sense of security. Financially it has also given me more choices in life and gets me closer to my dream of owning land.

Has anyone ever asked about your coding qualifications?

When I see job descriptions that list a Computer Science degree as a requirement, I don’t bother applying. Honestly, I don’t want to work somewhere that doesn’t recognize self-taught coders. The qualifications that I feature on my resume and that end up mattering is my previous work experience: which languages, platforms, and tools I’ve used in a production environment.


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

Use all the free and inexpensive resources out there. Free Code Camp is an excellent place to start. Search Stack Overflow; everything has been answered on there.

  • Follow the #100DaysOfCode hashtag on Twitter
  • Follow other coders on Twitter.
  • Create CodePens to practice various small projects, like a calculator, a weather app etc.
  • Find mentoring help on Codementor.
  • Rebuild bad websites.
  • Work on a side project.
  • Sign up for something like Egghead or Frontend Masters. Compared to an expensive degree, $350 / year is not a lot.

Have you ever had imposter syndrome and if so, how have you dealt with it?

Very, very often. Early on, honestly, I dealt with it by hiding and having a good cry by myself. Then a self-pep-talk and I just kept going. It helps to read tweets by experienced developers who talk about their own imposter syndrome. In other words, it helps to know almost everyone feels it. I turn imposter syndrome into humility and a voracious drive to constantly improve. Discovering something called a Growth Mindset really shifted my perspective. I think of myself as a work in progress, rather than fixed at a specific level or talent.


What are your coding dreams for the future?

I would like to continue on my path to being a Senior Developer and would like to mentor and lead more. I adore teaching coding, so I’d like to do more of that. I intend to continue becoming more of a specialist in web accessibility.

Thanks for the interview!

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About the author
Pete Codes

Pete Codes

Hey, I'm Pete and the creator of this site. I am a self-taught web developer and I'm based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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