Attila Vago

Writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Loves craft beer!

A Programmer’s Journey — From Zero to Hero

My first software developer desk layout. I like cacti, and the scary dude is Attila the Hun!

Hi! My name is Attila and I am a life-o-holic. I have intended to write this article purely about my coding journey, as the title may suggest. But then I changed my mind. While I identify professionally as a programmer, programming has given me much more than a job and a title. Programming has given me something much more than money, the respect of my peers and free drinks vouchers at the company party. Programming has given me something far more valuable.

This — ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, aliens and superheroes — is the real story of reclaiming one’s life and it all starts with a dude, just off the boat — alone in Belfast with a suitcase and just enough money in his pocket to rent a room — yet full of hope and an almost naive conviction that few things are truly impossible.

16th of September 2012, Belfast. Truly alone. Not a single person in sight.

This December I am 32 and 5 years ago things looked a whole lot different. I have no college degree. My parents couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford it, and 15 years ago in Eastern Europe student loans were not a thing yet. They are now, though I am not sure how many take advantage of it. Or whether they should or not. Suffice to say, if I had the opportunity to do so, I probably would have, and this would be a very different story, or none at all. Who knows?

The only post-high-school education I received was a Cisco CCNA certification which I did in my home-town, Arad, for the most part of 2011 and 2012. It was the first time I actually studied something I was interested in. I generally didn’t care much about school before. I was a good enough student, never failed at anything, but it always felt like a chore. And this is the first detour in my story …

Education sucks. Bigtime!

Yup. I said it. Sue me for it. Never have I learned in school anything I wanted to. Schools back then and even today are often these institutions that force-feed useless shite to kids who either have no power to say no, or are too scared of saying no. Schools are an archaic data-pumping system into young minds that have no choice but to absorb it, and they do so not because they want to, or because they realise how useful it is, but because the human brain is instinctively absorbant and willing — craving to learn. And I wanted to learn.

I was always a curious kid. Not about what other people did. Nah, I never gave a flying fudge about what other people were up to. Not enough to be curios about it anyway. But I was and still am curious about everything else from why a bicycle doesn’t fall over to why we poop after coffee, from programming languages to typography, from electronics to building materials and 3D printing, everything. There’s very few things I am not curious about, and that curiosity is what my educators never tapped into.

“Your attitude towards maths is abominable… you’ll have to learn this stuff, or else you’ll fail!”

Were the words of my maths teacher. Well, first of all, I had no attitude. She just wasn’t very good at explaining maths, so my staring at the black-board like I’ve never seen one before had nothing to do with attitude, but rather an incompatibility between my interests and her teaching style. To this day, I am not good at maths, but I am 100% certain, I could be if I sat down on my own and went through it all again.

Secondly, fail at what? At maths? In high-school? And that’s going to have repercussions on the rest of my life how? Fail at life? Well, that’s rich coming from an underpaid maths teacher who today makes (Irish to Irish salary comparison) a little over just half of what I make a year. You could of course say — and I would agree — success is not measured in dollars or any other currency, but teachers never talk about that. Traditional education still correlates the amount you study with the amount of money you’re going to make, almost setting you up for failure because first of all, that’s a load of horse-manure, and secondly, once you realise how little you make, you’ll feel like a failure and humans are notoriously bad at dealing with failure in a constructive manner. And I can prove it, because I almost failed at life, and let me tell you how …

You’re an uneducated, penniless, ugly bastard.

That used to be my recurring mantra. The more often I thought of myself like that, the more I believed it. Jobs were scarce. I worked in a couple of factories after high-school, worked as a computer sales and repairs guy, worked in construction, publishing, as a teenager, did electrical wiring, cleaned butcher shops, packed frozen foods, did QA, worked as translator, children’s supervisor, editor, journalist, music critique, site and forum admin, you gotta admit, I’ve done a lot of things to keep myself afloat. I have never been unemployed, I always had the right attitude towards work and earning the money I wanted to spend. From the age of 12. Yet, I saw myself going nowhere, saving next to nothing because frankly none of these jobs paid well enough or provided a clear career-path back at home.

Now, there’s plenty of you out there who’d probably tell others not to call themselves “uneducated, penniless, ugly bastards” and in my humble opinion you’d be wrong to do so, because that’s exactly what got me thinking. My looks were not getting me anywhere and while Hungarian men — which I am — are famous as male porn actors, that’s definitely not a career I was planning to pursue, but realising that there’s very little going for me other than my own brain is an enlightening moment. With no money and arguably mediocre education, I realised if I am to change my future, it has to come from within. There is no one I can truly rely on, but myself, and well … as a Christian, on God, but the latter is neither Aladdin or some poor stranded magical gold-fish. It’s ultimately my decision to make something of what I have.

Become a life-long learner.

Traditional education is finite, or at least that’s how most people advertise or perceive it. When I discovered Harvard’s CS50 course freely available online, I quickly understood my potential to learn. I wasn’t yet sure where I was going, but it felt like the most amazing thing in the world to be able to learn something, retain that information and use it to create something that previously only existed in my imagination. I was writing C and PHP in NotePad. I made mistakes upon mistakes, and syntax that today seems so bloody obvious, back then looked only slightly more decipherable than Chinese.

But besides coding, I’ve also learned an important lesson. Learning is — at the end of the day — nothing more than satisfying one’s curiosity, therefore one should never really stop learning. Once I accepted the fact that I can be proud of my small successes, and feel competent about everything I already know, and focus on that instead of all the things I have yet to learn,

I understood that my value as a human being and professional is only really relative to myself, to my yesterday’s self, and everything I did not yet know, was not to be perceived as incompetence but a challenge that I must tackle by tomorrow’s lessons.

The moment I would decide I have studied enough, not only would I be shooting myself in the foot career-wise, but also as a human being. It is ludicrous to think that one’s education can ever end. Downright depressive. If we’re not continuously curious — be that about our surroundings, professional interests or anything else that would make us a better human being — then what’s the point of it all really?

This is me. Take it or leave it.

In Belfast I worked almost two years as a Nissan Brand Ambassador for Hungary. That’s code for customer service, but it never bothered me. I was one of the 3 Hungarian agents and whenever a Hungarian Nissan owner picked up the phone, they had a very good change they’d be greeted by my lovely personality on the other end. And to me, that was something. That was someone.

Throughout my teenage life and early twenties I always found hard to identify with myself, so I’ve acted as someone I wanted to be, though without any real reasoning behind it. But by my mid-twenties I realised there’s one way and one way only to hack being good at life — to just be myself, and put that on the table, hence the “this is me, take it or leave it” philosophy. That can at times mean I am blunt, abrasive or inappropriately humorous, but I’ve always managed to find the people who either liked me the way I am, or managed to put up with it.

Writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. HackerNoon author. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.

That’s the description of myself on Quora, and I very much identify with it. One you manage to identify yourself the crowd, your life gets inevitably better, because you’ll just be happy with who that person is, or you’ll identify elements of your personality that might need improving. Not changing. Improving.

The immigrant’s tragedy.

My story started — more or less — in Belfast, Northern Ireland. From some people’s perspective I was a threat. I was there — apparently — to “take our jobs and women”. I guess we could say that trying my luck abroad was instrumental in my success so far, but whether you believe it or not, having a good job somewhere doesn’t make it home and my leaving home at 25 was not fuelled so much by money than the need of finding myself, my home.

Often the assumption is made that the place you were born in should feel like home, and it is your home by default, but I would like to challenge that assumption as I never felt at home back in Romania. I love Romania, I love Hungary, I am both a Romanian and Hungarian citizen but I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged there. The downside to this is that inevitably throughout the years you make friends and you form connections that you know eventually die out in one way or another once you leave and find your own home, and your own place in the world.

This is something that so many people who never live in another country find difficult to understand — that immigration for some people is an existential need. My ability to grow as a professional and as a person was enhanced by the fact that I ended feeling at home in Ireland, and whether the Emerald Isle was prepared to adopt me or not, I don’t care, I’m stayin’ (in Dublin)!

Have I lost anything along the way? Sure. All magic comes with a price. I lost a good portion of my friends, and some to this day refuse to understand my need to leave home. Distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, distance makes you look for company elsewhere, and while technology can help in sustaining friendships and relationships from afar, very few stand the test of time.

Don’t ever give up on your dreams.

While slowly loosing friends one by one from back home, and in between the pipe-bomb alerts and riots of Belfast, the dream to become a programmer — someone who creates things out of thin air — never faded. That attitude that I can achieve nearly anything if I really want to, stayed with me while I went through tons of CodeSchool, Treehouse, Udacity, Coursera and Codecademy courses.

While I looked like a complete antisocial from the outside and have not seen the insides of a pub for two years, or dated anyone for three, I kept truckin’ with my studies and I kept feeling happier and happier. It suddenly didn’t matter how much money I had, or how I looked, inside I kept getting more and more confident about myself and life, so in 2014 I landed my first official web developer job. Full-stack no less…

Looking back now, I was anything but full-stack except for the fact that I was interested and willing to stick my toes into anything web development related, be that on the front or back-end. I knew a little bit of everything, even languages like Chuck that to this day I’ve never had to use, but it was on the list and when you work for a startup, curious people tend to be appreciated.

Working at a startup is an interesting and invaluable experience. Shoutout to Andrew Gribben for giving me the opportunity. In an “anything goes” type of startup you learn a lot. You learn a lot more than you thought yourself capable of. From coding, coding practices, agile methodologies, project management, ownership to botanically brewed beverages and great coffee, everything!

In an environment like that you inevitably realise that dreams are not dreams. Dreams are dreams only as long as you never act upon them. Once you decide that your dream must become reality, there’s a very high chance it will become so. From Geiger.io (ex PurpleGuerrilla) to Synergy-Learning and now to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt it has been one heck of a journey. From the junior who got excited by jQuery’s on(‘click’) event to the senior engineer pioneering web accessibility, progressive web apps and working with frameworks such as Ionic and Angular, it has all been the most amazing time of my life and knowing myself, it can only get better!

Have I hacked life?

I’ve never really looked at it like this until I started writing this story, but I guess I did. Reading up on Myers Briggs personality types, finding that first free computer science course made available by Harvard and deciding that all my previous failed attempts at life are my fault and my fault only did open up the possibilities of attempting success from an entirely different angle.

I’m no Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. I lack the former’s photographic memory and the latter’s predilection towards LSD, but on my stage I am the hero telling my TED story, and it’s a story that keeps getting better. The funny bit is, none of this is a secret to anyone. I am sharing “the recipe” with everyone I can, every time I meet someone who doesn’t quite know how to get from A to B, yet I still see so few people who go ahead do exactly that — follow their dreams, and it’s sad because the world would be a much better place if people would trade survival for living, the mundane for the exciting. And it all starts with one thought…

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Attila Vago — writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.

HackerNoon and Quora author.

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