After this website got top of Hacker News I received 30 emails in one day from self-taught developers. One from Patryk Pawlowski immediately caught my eye as he has earned enough from working as a programmer to buy a house with cash. Not bad for a self-taught developer! I talked to him about the modern day value of a degree, dropping out of a CS course and tips for newbie coders.
Hey, so can you give us a short introduction for people who want to know more about you?
Hi! I’m Patryk. I’m a full-stack developer, designer and remote work evangelist. In the past I have got involved in other initiatives, like organizing TEDx events in Poland.
Can you tell us what an average day looks like for you just now? What are you working on and what is your lifestyle like?
I work remotely, so each day is different. One day I work in a coworking space, the other day from a coffee shop or home. When it’s windy I set up a field office near the beach and go kitesurfing when I need a break from work.
Nowadays, I take short/medium-term projects (2-6 months) building MVPs for startups from USA. My current project involves developing the API for CashFlo App which is launching soon!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get their first programming job but they don’t have the time or money for a CS degree?
Start telling everyone that you’re learning/doing web development. There’s always someone who needs a website, seriously! I got few gigs thanks to meeting people at startup/tech events, being part of facebook groups, etc.
Another really important thing - don’t be scared of taking projects in which you don’t have experience. Being a programmer means constantly learning. And what can be better from someone paying you to learn a new thing?
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How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed about having enough freedom to travel as much as I want. Working as a remote freelancer, I’m able to do it. I choose when, from where, and how I work.
We live in a golden age for programmers. You can make 6 figures, but live outside of USA. Thanks to that, I’m one of those lucky people who don’t need to stress out about money. Years ago I promised myself I’ll never take a loan. I’m a minimalist - I don’t care about cars, brands. I even don’t have a TV set. Though, I managed to buy an apartment with cash.
How did you learn coding?
My path to becoming a software developer has been quite bumpy. I was 13 when I wrote my first line of code. I had programming classes at school, where we solved algorithmic problems. I loved the brain-teasing nature of those challenges, but they were too vague. They were just scripts without any UI. So I didn’t feel like I could build something. Rather, I was solving riddles.
Anyway, I started learning HTML and CSS and enjoyed that I could create something visible and interactive. I didn’t know anything about design back then so I would just try to recreate pages that I liked. One of my favorites was CSS Zen Garden. It’s a project showcasing the power of CSS. Having the exact same HTML file you can see how differently you can style it.
I spent a lot of time recreating those examples and whenever I didn’t know how to achieve something, I would look into the source code of the page and try to understand it. And eventually, I got really good at HTML and CSS. I perceived it as a bridge between design and programming.
I also bought a few books about programming, but never finished any of them. Nowadays I know that I learn best by either watching other people work or trying to figure things out on my own.
Did you have any specific people that inspired you to learn coding?
Not really. I would even say that most success stories were demotivating for me. I usually heard about "born programmers", who would get their first computer at the age of 3 and by the time they were 10 they had already hacked into Pentagon. 😂 When you hear such stories, you think you’ll never be good enough. Which is not true!
On the contrary, a big inspiration for me was Paweł Kadysz. He’s a self-taught designer from Poland. You may know him from his Darth Vader photo project, which went viral few years ago. When I was starting out my freelance career, I wrote to him on Facebook and he guided me into a good direction. Despite being a great designer and photographer, he’s also a very humble person.
How did you progress from a teenager playing with HTML and CSS to a professional developer?
When I was in high school I didn’t even know that front-end development is a real job, so I didn’t consider it as a career choice. I always thought that websites were built by hobbyists, while true programmers are sending spaceships to the Moon or building artificial intelligence.
I still enjoyed algorithmic challenges, so I actually started a CS degree. But it was damn boring! I’d always imagined that studies would be focused on programming. It turned out that it takes up maybe 10% of the curriculum. In the end it’s Computer Science, not Programming, so you learn a little bit about everything.
The programming courses were so basic, that I knew those things when I was a teenager. So I decided to drop out after 3 months. The next year I started a degree in Graphic Design. That was one of the best decisions in my life!
So, how did you get your first programming job/ freelance work?
Shortly after I dropped out, my friend asked me if I can design and develop a WordPress page. I probably didn’t even know what WordPress was but I said yes. In the end, how difficult can it be to learn it? I learned WordPress along the way and, most importantly, understood that front-end development can be a real job. Ironically, after abandoning my studies, I became a developer!
Has anyone ever asked about your coding qualifications when you have been talking to clients?
Never! People were always interested in my previous work and didn’t care about asking about a degree.
Do you think a CS degree is unnecessary now?
For my parent's generation it’s hard to imagine it, but I strongly believe that having a degree has been totally devalued. So many people have one nowadays, that it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is experience.
Of course, there are areas where having strong fundamentals of computer science can be beneficial (eg. artificial intelligence). But it’s not necessary for the lion’s share of the programming jobs out there.
I know you are a graphic designer as well as a full stack engineer. Would you recommend designers to learn to code and programmers to learn design?
For a long time I had a love-hate relationship with both design and programming. There were times when I wanted to be a designer, and times when I wanted to be a programmer. And I changed my mind at least a dozen times! (laughs)
But in the end, most clients are interested in getting a final product (eg. a website) and don’t want to waste their time finding and coordinating the work of a developer, designer, copywriter, etc. So I was kind of forced into doing both design and programming at the same time. Then I started hiring copywriters and translators so I could land bigger projects. More skills means bigger projects which means more money.
Another thing is collaboration between designers and developers. Designers are nowadays part of development teams, so communication between us and them is crucial. And if you understand the other party, you can communicate better and you can set proper expectations.
For example, if you as a developer have some UI/UX knowledge, you probably know that interactive elements (eg. inputs or buttons) should have multiple states (eg. disabled, focused, hovered). If you are a designer who has some programming knowledge, you understand that developing something with a non-standard design can eat up a lot of time. And finally, both jobs are fun!
What are your coding dreams for the future?
I dream about launching a successful digital product as a company-of-one. I’m slowly gathering courage to work on a game about a badger. It’ll be a very personal journey and I’d like to do everything on my own - from design, through music and storyline, to developing it!