From self-taught, to college student, to software engineer (during a pandemic)

Experiences from a software engineer who did it both ways

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WHEN IT ALL STARTED

I was close to thirteen years old when my huge passion for tech and software development started. I was reading online about Batch files which is a file type that describes actions that the computer will execute without the users input.

I found out that I could, with a simple script make the CD reader go in and out. I found that very interesting and very fun to do as a practical joke for my little brother every time he starts his computer. So I sneaked into his room when he wasn’t at home with a USB-stick and saved the file in his autostart folder.

This was kind of the start of my obsession for tech.

When I turned thirteen I started to learn simple web development. I have a good friend which is a few years older than me that acted like a mentor for my learning progress. I was still a kid and learned things like try to search on the web and read before asking.

At this age I wasn’t even that great in english and just to read an english thread on Stackoverflow could be a challenge. I started to watch YouTube videos, mixed in english and in my native language which is Swedish.

FIRST SIDE HUSTLE AS A TEENAGER

The months passed and me and my best friend really really liked the game Counter strike: Source. The next thing I got obsessed with was that it would’ve been very cool to have my own community server. So me and my best friend decided to create one — without knowing a single thing about it.

It turned out to be harder than we thought back then. We somehow at the age of thirteen, put up a Linux server that was 100% controlled by the terminal, this done by renting a virtual private server. This was very new to me at this point. I have earlier only made a few simple “about me”-websites in HTML and CSS and haven’t typed a single terminal command on a Linux machine.

We got very excited and started to put in so much time every day after school into this project. I built a simple landing page for our “community”. We managed to set up a few Counter strike servers with help from YouTube and invited all our friends.

At this point we’re fourteen years old and basically kings of our school. The servers turned out to be a very good virtual place for all our friends, and their friends, and their friends to hangout at. We did put in so much money (for two teens), time and effort for this community and it really paid off. We integrated a (today) very simple payment system in PHP with SMS payments where the players could send a text and get a code to activate VIP features like extra cash in-game or skins on our servers. For those who know Counter strike, virtual items, called skins are today a huge market and this was before Valve introduced this officially in the newer game called Counter strike: Global offensive.

This was for us, two teens, a very cool accomplishment. At peak time we earned around $200 / month after rental costs by just playing our favourite game. We also did the same thing in Minecraft when that game took off.

Back by then there was no such thing as Discord. We had Skype. And it was horrible. People really enjoyed coming online and hanging out in the game instead which also had voice chat. We also did. Even today am I very proud of what me and my friend achieved at this young age.

The counter strike servers were at peak time ranked #1 in Sweden and many danish players also connected. One server with a special popular map was also ranked #1 in the world a few times.

On a weekly basis there were 25 000 connections to our servers and our VIP system got developed to reserve slots because the servers got full every other evening.

“Believe in yourself and you’re halfway there”

-Anonymous

HIGH SCHOOL — NOW WE’RE TALKING!

I was in 9th grade and it was time to apply for a high school. In Sweden there’s a choice every student makes. There is not only a choice which school to go to, there is also a choice which program to study. There are programs like construction, nanny care, restaurant and food, healthcare, media, economics, society, nature and technology.

For me it was an obviously easy choice to make. I was sixteen years old and since fourteen I was very confident that I want to develop my tech skills. Mostly in software development.

So that choice was easy, I chose an IT/tech program where I didn’t know anyone at first, while many of my friends chose a program that someone they knew also chose. But I kept focus on my dreams, to be a successful developer or engineer and most likely an entrepreneur as well.

In second grade of high school there was another choice of which focus area you want for your studies. I chose a focus area with programming, physics and math and also took an extra course in web server programming. The other choice was to get a focus area with little more programming, hardware and telecom. But I chose the first one because I wanted the math required for a good college program. And I took the extra web server programming course from the other focus area because I thought I could handle it.

I got proven right, I managed it and got the highest grades in all programming courses but at the price of that I skipped my second course in physics. I skipped it halfway through because now I was VERY CONFIDENT of which college program I wanted to apply to. And there was no requirement at all for physics, and I had already passed the first course and it was a pain in the ass.

I skipped the second course of physics and once again focused on my dream. To be a successful developer, engineer or tech entrepreneur.

During high school I made a few websites for friends companies or businesses and for my fathers company. I finally earned some money from pure development. Another checkpoint done.

When I graduated from high school I had the ball rolling, I had applied to college. I was searching everywhere for an apartment. It got closer to the day when the results came with the mail.

I got accepted!!!! But I didn’t have an apartment in that city. And it was located across the country so it was no idea to commute. I stayed cool and applied for another program in my hometown. It was just a 1-year program for getting a high school engineering degree.

So that was it. I studied it, focused on web and app development. Also made a company with my friends in school. We won a prize for second best service of the year by students. We made a digital nature map with data such as sport centers, jogging tracks, beaches and so on.

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After that year I finally got an apartment and once again got accepted into my college of choice.

COLLEGE

I moved across the country and once again began studies in a school where I didn’t know anyone. I know it sounds scary, but I can very much recommend it to everyone. It was hard times to not have family around but I came out strong off it and grew as an individual and found a lot of new friends and contacts.

So, I started a 3 year program in software engineering with focus on web programming. I knew I already had some self-taught knowledge about programming, at this time I had done a few websites with HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL and Javascript. I also did some app development with Java and Android studio the previous year for the high school engineering degree.

But this was different, it was a college program that after 3 years hopefully would result in a bachelor of science degree with web programming as specialisation and a well paid job.

I studied at Blekinge institute of technology (BTH) in southern Sweden. This may sound a little bit like a commercial but BTH were a great school, not too big and not too popular, don’t expect a Harvard. But a great school with good connections to the local industry. I learned more PHP, started to learn Python, Linux systems, telecom, design patterns, Javascript and SQL.. The list can be made longer.

Most of the courses I took were examined with real projects, no boring tests! I liked it very much. For an example, to pass a course in object oriented Python we did a digital card game with classes and objects with certain requirements. If you managed to meet all of them you got the highest grade. It could be different sorting algorithms or just making the game work properly without issues.

Now to the interesting and best part with studying on BTH. I highly encourage every software engineering student to take notes on this, if your school doesn’t provide you internships or projects with the industry, try apply for one by yourself!

On BTH we got three group project courses. The first project is maybe just a practice where you have a customer with a problem and you learn the whole process as an IT consultant. From idea to finished project. The other two projects are full scaled projects with a real customer in the industry. The companies provide leadership and mentorship which is really great for a student. You get a good view of how you’re gonna work in the future and you LEARN BY DOING.

I learned a lot about working methods like AGILE and SCRUM. This is a crucial skill for being a successful software engineer. Knowing your workflow and how to work efficiently in a team will be very valuable when you’re coming to a company applying for a role as developer or engineer. A lot of the companies do require it.

SUMMER INTERNSHIP

During summer break after second year of college I applied to a summer internship in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. The company I applied for was a successful Fintech startup company where my mentor and friend from the early teen-ages worked for. You see, to have mentors, friends and contacts often help!

You may be curious how the application was performed? I sent in a cover letter and a CV/resumé. A few days later a recruiter from that company contacted me and we had a phone interview since I lived about 8 hours away from Stockholm. He told me more about the company and what I possibly could be doing during the summer (much of it had I already researched) and we arranged a programming test for a summer internship as a frontend engineer.

I performed a test in Javascript where I should create a software that calculated the area of a parallelogram in real-time while it was resizable for the user by dragging in the corners of the parallelogram. It was quite challenging but I had no given deadline. Those who are interested in maths know that behind this software is pretty advanced linear algebra to keep the shape of the parallelogram when resized. I worked double digits hours on it and sent it in within a week. A few weeks went and finally the recruiter contacted me and excused himself for the wait and wanted to take this recruitment to the next step.

Later I got another call from the manager in the team I possibly should work in, we arranged a period of time I should work with them and discussed the salary. Actually, I just accepted the great given salary he presented. Since I didn’t live in Stockholm I commuted to Stockholm from my hometown. It was very much worth it because of two reasons. Companies in bigger cities pay better, but also, I had very low experience of working as a software engineer, maybe a few months in group projects in school, that’s it.

I worked there for 2 months during the summer break and after that went back to BTH and Karlskrona to finish my last year in college. Now I started my third and last year with fresh experience of working in a real team with experienced software engineers which gave very good feedback on my code and also taught me all about working in Agile and how to write reusable and maintainable code. Actually I also learned React.js and that some companies offer free beer on Fridays, yes that is true.

I didn’t have a clue about React.js before that internship and my whole project was in React.js and with some backend with Express.js. Guess what my first course after that summer was? Javascript frameworks, BOOM! Great experience, that’s another reason why I highly encourage you as a student to find an internship. You get a lead from your classmates but remember, you compete with yourself for getting better everyday but after school you compete with your old classmates to get that dream job.

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GRADUATION

Reality
Reality
Reality
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Expectations

Graduation during a global pandemic is.. special. During my last semester in college I performed both a bachelor’s thesis and a group project of 11 students on remote. That is an achievement not many achieve. Difficult but we did it, most of us at least. But a graduation party wasn’t possible.

When the graduation got closer and closer I started to think about my future, what do I want in life? And that is kind of the billion dollar question isn’t it? However I decided to move back home to my family and to some of my high school friends who are still living in the hometown. I started to apply for jobs during midsummer. I was at first glance thinking about doing my own project during summer, I haven’t had a single summer free since I turned 18 and this can maybe be my last summer to do what I want. I thought..

I couldn’t do much that summer because of the pandemic, but at least I did my own web project and also applied to social distancing(!). So.. there weren’t many job applications out there during one of the biggest world crises in decades. But finally in October I found out that a company I earlier worked extra for in my early ages searched for a systems developer.

GREAT! THAT’S ME! I was very excited because I have followed the company and their e-commerce for ages. In fact the CEO and founder went to the same high school as I did and also had the same teachers. Ironically, he also had a lecture about his success when I was in high school. Now I work there.

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FIRST REAL EMPLOYMENT

I got my first real full-time employment as a systems developer in November 2020, that’s at least 4 months after graduation, during a pandemic, in a middle sized city. In December I did my first day. I got the salary I requested, a Macbook to work with, flexible working hours and now during the pandemic I work from home when it is possible. Because I do systems for e-commerce it sometimes requires me to be on site to test systems for the warehouse etc.

Is it my dream job? Right now it is. I got good colleagues, I learn new things every day. I develop my own fullstack skills in software development and I pay my bills and have money left at the end of the month for investing in my future. Will it be my dream job for the rest of my life? Probably not but as long as I keep learning new stuff and develop it seems like the best place right now.

THE FUTURE

What’s my thoughts on the future? I invest a lot in my future, I want to keep learning everyday and investing every month. And I think that’s the way to success. Keep doing what you like, be good at it. Then be best at it. I will keep learning and one day I will be that guy standing in my high school talking about MY success.

So, conclusion. Is it best to be a self-taught developer or going straight to college? I have done both in one way and I say this,

If you want it enough you do both, but you’re probably fine with either.

23 years old software engineer from Sweden with a BSc in software engineering with web programming as specialisation.

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