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Who Codes: From Must-Love Dogs to Post-Military Success

who are coders
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Here at Skillcrush, a core component of our mission statement is the belief that tech is for everyone (we can’t stop talking about it), and for us—the proof is in the pudding. Who Codes? is our monthly column spotlighting two people with tech skills and showcasing the fact that you don’t have to go to school for tech—or even have an interest in it early on—to have a career in coding and web design or development.

For our November edition, we spoke to two coders in the second acts of their careers. One is a pet lover who works for nonprofits, and the other is a post-military career coder with a penchant for 80s music.

Jill Caren, 48, Marlboro, NJ

jill Caren coder

What you do and where you work?

I do website design/development and organic search engine optimization. I am the owner of a digital agency 2 Dogs Media LLC.

Did you start out your career as a coder?
My career path started in retail management, then turned into corporate event marketing. I am older, so computers were never a “career” option we were really aware of. I did not start coding until my early 30’s, but I fell in love with it pretty quickly. This is the career I will do until I cannot do it anymore!

How did you learn to code?
Self taught! I had a retail business 15 years ago that I hired someone to build a website for, and I spent a lot of money only to wind up disappointed. I spent the next two years learning everything I could about PHP, CSS, HTML, and more to be able to develop my own website. I finally did and realized this is what I was meant to be doing. I closed up my retail store in 2006, and have been doing this ever since.

Tell us about a favorite project you’ve worked on.
I am not sure I could name one! I love EVERY project because each is so unique and requires different things, which keeps us loving what we do. About 80 percent of our work is for nonprofits, so we have a special passion for those clients since we know our work is going to help those doing good.

One project we are particularly proud of is the Nobel Women’s Initiative. They are a great group of women doing some amazing work to help empower women all over the world. They had a small budget, but we managed to work within it to give them a dynamic presence! You can view our case study here.

Were you always interested in tech? What sparked your interest?
I cannot say I really had an “interest” in tech. When computers became available to consumers at affordable rates, I did run out to get one and of course loved it, but never felt an overwhelming passion to get involved. It was too early in the game.

My introduction to coding was by accident and need—but that is what brought me to where I am today, if not for a developer failing me I would not be here, doing what I love!

Do you have any advice for people who are considering learning to code and might have some apprehension?
Try it! There are a lot of online courses you can immerse yourself in to see if you love it or not. It is not for everyone—many coders work long hours, sit a long time, and work alone. These are some issues I have seen other coders struggle with. Apprehension can be a good thing: Use that to your advantage and take the leap!

What do you do outside of work?
I love photography and animals. I spend time doing volunteer work to help animal shelters/rescues raise funds or help photographing the animals that are looking for homes. I also love traveling!

How would you describe your work/life balance?
If you had asked me this a few years ago I would have said poor. As a business owner, especially during that growth phase, there was no balance. It was all work all the time. I finally realized how much my family was suffering and made some changes. Now I can happily say I have great balance! I still work a lot, but that is who I am, and my family understands that and they no longer sacrifice for that.

Seb Matthews, 45, London, UK

seb matthews coder

What you do and where you work?
I’m a consultant and own a couple of small tech businesses—one’s a start up, the other is more established. Despite having the grand title of “CEO,” in reality I’m a developer at heart. I still touch as much code as I can, several times a week. It’s in my DNA and I just can’t let it go.

Did you start out your career as a coder?
I spent eight years in the military (enjoying every second) and when I left for medical reasons, I kind of fell back into computers. I had picked up skills while serving and they translated well into a role I secured at Cisco in San Diego, CA. After a short while there, I was plucked into the then rapidly-growing machine of Microsoft where they were gearing up for a sea-change product: Windows 2000. My skills in understanding how to build TCP/IP stack at a machine level made me interesting to them and off I went. In my time at Microsoft I drifted away from day-to-day coding and one of the reasons I ultimately left and jumped on the freelancing bandwagon was that I wanted to be more hands-on. Since then, everything I have done has orbited around development in the Microsoft world.

How did you learn to code?
I’m self-taught. After a career in the Military, I wanted to do something different: something that interested me and would push me. I’d always had an interest in computers so I kind of fell into it. I got lucky. After a short period of time skilling up by consuming every technical resource I could get my hands on (in a time before YouTube), I landed that job at Cisco and the rest is history.

Tell us about a favorite project you’ve worked on.
There are a number of projects across my career that really make me smile when I think about them, but one always sticks out, for a myriad of reasons. About 10 years ago, I was freelancing and was approached by a small, not-for-profit foundation that wanted to get their people (who were spread across the world, many of them in quite remote locations) working together to share experiences and knowledge.

Off-the-shelf solutions from the usual vendors just didn’t cut it for this project. They assumed lots of network bandwidth, powerful computers and highly IT-literate users—none of which were part of the equation with this customer. I dreamt up a solution that essentially went right back to the roots of computing; text files, moved around in a meshed way so that as each “document” was uploaded to the system it was shared, when possible to all the end-points around the globe. Although conceptually simple, the discipline of building something that had a very restricted operational scope was a stupendous challenge that I took immense personal satisfaction from delivering. Added to that, the gratitude of the foundation really set this project up as a personal favorite of mine.

Were you always interested in tech? What sparked your interest?
I’ve always been interested in tech. As a kid growing up in the 80s, I dabbled with electronic music under the influence of bands like Depeche Mode, and at the time the price of home computing was coming down, and what you could achieve with imagination and a relatively small budget was mind-boggling. Things were awesome back then: and as a kid without a sense of purpose to loving computers, it was just liberating.

Do you have any advice for people who are considering learning to code and might have some apprehension?
First up—turn the doubt into a shout! The feeling you get from solving the unsolvable is awesome. I know I have a wry smile that plays on my face when a gnarly problem gets its ass kicked in my code. It’s fulfilling, and there is a pay check at the end of the day. The other facet of being a coder is the community you join. There is always (and I mean always) somebody who is willing to help you out. Whether you’re learning, problem solving or just star-struck, coders take care of their own and are the most willing bunch. Once you start on the path, you’re (in my view) effectively signing a ‘contract’ to pay-it-forward once you’re skilled.

What do you do outside of work?
I love what is possible now when the power of the computer comes together with the power of the creative. Music and film are two industries really pushing the tech envelope. Whether it’s how “realistic” something computer-generated can be in a movie (have you seen Disney’s Moana? OMG!) or how a DJ can use a few audio sources to make live music in front of 30,000 people, it fascinates me.

How would you describe your work/life balance?
I have an interesting home life as I have only recently started a family (my kids are five and two) so at 45, I’m the oldest Dad picking up from kindergarten. I work hard to maintain balance and hopefully I have it cracked. I have to travel a fair bit with my work, so maintaining the status quo can be difficult. I have a great wife, Gemma, who is a full-time Mom and keeps everything in the family running smoothly day-in-day-out and cheerfully picks up the pieces on those occasions when all heck has broken loose with a customer and my team and I are pulling all-nighters to bring things back to life. Is it cliché to pull out the “behind every great coder, is an even greater partner?” Possibly—but it’s true in my case!

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