How to Grow as a Developer if You Live in a Small Town [Story Behind the Coder]
Developer relations manager at Skyeng - EdTech company
By Sergey Zhuk
My name is Sergey Zhuk, I’m a back-end developer at Skyeng. I write a technical blog, write and publish books in English and give talks at conferences and podcasts — all with out leaving my town of Bryansk.
How I found myself at a slippery slope but didn’t give in
Bryansk is a small town in Russia, 400 km (249 mi) away from Moscow. I’ve been living here my whole life, for 31 years. There are almost no IT jobs here, so I had to push for being noticed before I got into Skyeng.
I was fascinated by computers and IT ever since school. Our family was far from being well-off so I could only dream of a computer. I finally got one when I was about 16 — and realized that I want to learn how to code. While at school, I was buying books and studying on my own.
Then I went to our local university, the department of software. Unsurprisingly, its curriculum was not very up-to-date. After graduation, I found an outsourced job. We worked from Bryansk for a firm in Moscow — nothing exciting.
With jobs like this, it always looks like you’re not there for long. But I’d worked for them for five years before the business collapsed.
I started looking for a new job and realized that all my knowledge was outdated. At interviews, I couldn’t answer some of the questions because I had no idea what they were about. So I bought more books and took some exams on PHP in Moscow — that’s how it all began. When I couldn’t find any job, it hit me — I should stop sending out my CVs and instead make employers come to me.
My first idea was a tech blog
. I decided to write in English to get a bigger audience. Such blogs are often shared in the community — people read them, like them and remember your name. As they say, if you want to master something, teach it.
I started to write about a totally new thing — asynchronous PHP. At the moment, there were no resources on it both in Russian and English. I had to figure everything out myself — but it made me a pro. I made a kind of a textbook for myself and then decided to share it with the community.
That was the beginning of my blog. I started to receive messages like, “Thank you, your articles helped a lot.” And they still keep coming, even after several years.
Not so long ago, I gave a talk at a meet-up, and after it, some guys showed what features they could realize thanks to my articles and screencasts. That’s always nice to hear.
Then I decided to collect my blog posts under one cover and turn them into a book. Now I have six books, which I sell on Amazon
— not for money, but for publicity. I make about $100 a month just to cover the production costs. But my name gets more and more known and I get invitations from international podcasts like, “Dude, you’re the only person in Google who can speak on the topic, can you come for an interview.”
How I got into Skyeng and what I do here
At Skyeng, I’m responsible for the back end of all the mobile apps — homework, schedule, vocabulary. We not only write the logic of apps (like a vocabulary) but also gather all the apps together with a user-friendly interface.
For me, getting this job was almost sheer luck. I applied for a front-end position although I wasn’t qualified for it. They had no back-end vacancies at the moment, so I just gave it a shot. But it turned out that if there’s no job ad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no vacancy. I got a job that wasn’t listed anywhere.
My team is small — just three more people. And they became my teachers — I wrote code, they commented on code review and I grew my skills. After a couple of weeks, I canceled all my subscriptions for programming courses — my onsite training was much more efficient.
For the first six months, I was getting from this job more than I could give back.
I work from home, but my day is not much different from the office schedule — I start at 9 am and finish by 6 pm. I use iMac 27" 2017 for everything — work, writing books, filming screencasts. I go into a separate room, put on noise-canceling headphones — and go. Sometimes I help my wife during the day, like give her a ride or go to the shops. Then I have to work in the evening. From 6:30 to 8:30 am is my time for podcasts and posts. I try not to work later than that and spend evenings with my family.
I love my lifestyle and my job. And I’m becoming more known in the community. I write all my posts and film all my videos in English because it helps share my expertise with more people.
How I learned English
I have to thank my parents for my English. I went to school with a focus on English and studied with a tutor. Then it became rusty as I didn’t use English much at the university and my outsource job.
But when I started looking for a new job, I quickly realized that there were no good books in Russian. I was searching for information in English step by step — first articles, then podcasts and courses. My English became fluent again.
When I was giving my first talk at an English podcast
, I was very nervous that people wouldn’t understand me. Or I wouldn’t understand them. It was a live, not a pre-recorded show — I had no opportunity to prepare. But the truth is, there’s no problem if you’re not a native English speaker. There was only one native among us.
It’s amazing how supportive and friendly native speakers are. At my YouTube channel, they always comment “Thank you” or ask questions. While Russians are often tease me for my accent. But I prefer to do things — not to wait when I can speak English perfectly.
What to do if you’re a programmer from nowhere
I don’t see any problem finding a good job no matter where you live. While you can go online, you can do whatever you want. If you live in the middle of nowhere, just make your name google-able. You’ll have better chances to get an offer from a big company.
If you have no special field of interest, just write about what you’ve learned today. Many people think no one’s gonna read that, but actually your post can be helpful to someone.
Then it can become something more. Just look for your topic and format. I enjoy making screencasts more than writing. And if I search for screencasts on my topic, there must be other people searching for them too. So I sit down, hit the Record button, write code and comment on it. It doesn’t even require any equipment except for a simple microphone. All you need is a couple of hours of time.
When I first started, I tracked Google Analytics for my blog. Now I don’t worry about traffic. I talk on a very niche topic that will never attract millions of fans. I have 1,200 subscribers on YouTube — and I’m fine with that.
I make my videos for interested professionals and have no plans of giving up. I have two video scripts ready and many planned. I’m also finishing a new book — so the process goes on.
In conclusion, I want to say that it’s OK to start with an entry-level position. Go to interviews, learn something new, write simple code and grow your skills. Become the best at your job and look for more challenging tasks. Taking small steps never hurts but a heavy crown on your head can.
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