The a-ha moment: We asked 5 devs how they first got into coding — and why they stuck with it

by Andreas Rekdal
September 14, 2017

If your primary exposure to programming comes from popular culture, you’d be excused for believing that most devs get their start at an early age, pulling all-nighters in dark basements with junk food and energy drinks. In reality, many devs pick up programming later in life — often to solve concrete problems they’ve encountered. We spoke with five Chicago developers about how they got started, and about the most interesting projects they’re working on today.

 

Dan Bergren’s first foray into programming as a teenager involved building websites and configuring blogs, but his transition into full-time coding didn’t come until well into his first job out of college. Today, he builds software for K-12 educators as part of the Frontline Education team.

How did you first get into programming?

I started out learning how to make websites and configure blogs when I was a teenager — really simple stuff like HTML, CSS and occasional simple JavaScript snippets. Even though both my parents held computer science degrees and programmed right out of college, it didn't occur to me to enter the software industry until I was looking for my first post-college job with a degree in mathematics and informatics. This led me to my first job as a software designer for a Ruby on Rails shop, where I learned how to do everything in the software development process except code. I eventually transitioned to writing software, and that's where I've been ever since.

What kinds of projects most interest you now?

The most interesting projects are ones that demonstrate tangible benefits for the end user in a way they can understand and appreciate. If a project is too abstract, it is harder to understand what problem we're trying to solve. We also run the risk of coming up with a solution to an insignificant problem, or spending too much time on a project that is irrelevant by the time it gets released. The projects I end up on that usually fit this criteria are UX focused, and I try to bring that voice to the table so we can remember why we're making software in the first place.

What is your favorite thing about working for Frontline?

Our team culture is everything. My favorite project teams are ones where everyone is communicating and lending a hand. If someone is having an off day, it's always nice knowing that another teammate will pick up the slack. It helps us keep a healthy work-life balance and continue to produce great software day in and day out.

 

CityBase streamlines the services, delivery and lines of communication between local governments and their constituents. For Cliff McIntosh, who caught the programming bug while studying education, being part of CityBase’s dev team is an opportunity to do good and solve interesting problems at the same time.

How did you first get into programming?

I first got into programming when I was at at DePaul. I signed up for a Java programming class at its College of Computing and Digital Media. I really liked the challenge of solving problems with code. I enjoyed it so much that I finished a master’s degree in software engineering at CDM and transitioned from education to software development.

What kinds of projects most interest you now?

The projects that interest me are ones that have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. I enjoy being able to use my skills to make life better for people.

What is your favorite thing about working for CityBase?

My favorite thing about working at CityBase is our mission to make it easier for people to get things done with, and get what they need from, their local governments. Helping cities meet the needs of their citizens in an intelligent way is a great thing to be doing, and I’m excited to be part of transforming the relationship between people and their local governments. I also love working with really good people on the CityBase team.

 

Wellspring software engineer John Gramila got his start in programming as a way to remove tedious tasks from his everyday work. Fittingly, his current job at Wellspring is to create software that helps organizations find and implement better technological solutions to their challenges.

How did you first get into programming?

I started programming because my job was to write seven slightly different strings 26 times a day. I wrote a Rails app that automated most it, and discovered I really enjoyed shaking a set of rules and seeing a tool fall out.

What kinds of projects most interest you now?

Data-driven projects are using computers at their best, and hopefully we'll see great results from companies like Civis Analytics and Tempus. I love seeing tech companies that help people monitor and improve their behavior. The clearest examples are fitness and health apps, but there is great potential to make it convenient and fun to be kind.

What is your favorite thing about working for Wellspring?

Wellspring has a strong community and nurturing culture. It's great to work with the tightly interconnected teams, and it really heightens the sense that you can have an impact across the organization.

 

Jason Cloutier picked up programming to improve the ticketing system at his tech support job in college. As a systems architect for Codifyd, which helps manufacturers and retailers deliver better content to online shoppers, Cloutier is still working to bring the right information to the right place.

How did you first get into programming?

I began doing software development while in college. I picked up a job doing desktop support where I started enhancing their trouble ticket system. I later wrote software to help track system specs and monitor software versions across all of the computers in the company. I just fell in love with the concept of being able to write software that allowed me to be more efficient.

What kinds of projects most interest you now?

I have always enjoyed working on new projects and found that coding proofs of concept was even more enjoyable. These types of projects are blank canvases, and I get to try different architectural styles and new technologies. It’s just fun to create something new.

What's your favorite thing about working for Codifyd?

It’s really the people at Codifyd that makes the company such an enjoyable place to work. They are, as a whole, an intelligent and detail-oriented group from diverse backgrounds. For me personally, Codifyd gave me a chance to work with a group of friends that I had worked with years before. It also gave me my first serious NoSQL project.

 

As principal data scientist at Cars.com, Addhyan Pandey builds systems that personalize the experience for its users. Pandey wasn’t a fan of programming at first, until he saw the ways that it applies to areas in which he does have an interest.

How did you first get into programming?

I didn’t like programming right away because it was quite intimidating. Then, during my first year of school in a C programming class, I really started to like it. I was majoring in electronics, so it helped me write code for digital circuits, which combined two of my favorite undergrad subjects.

I learned Python and R at my first job as a research analyst at Global Analytics India, and was part of a team that built a modeling platform to implement predictive algorithms. When I left Global Analytics and started working at Groupon, we were working on innovative ideas and algorithms to solve data science problems. Groupon’s collaborative environment gave me the opportunity to learn from colleagues and create new packages in R for internal use.

What kinds of projects most interest you now?

Projects that focus on personalizing user experience. When you go to a website or open a map, you should feel like it was built with you in mind; and that’s what I’m working on at Cars.com. All projects have data science at their core, which makes the entire project interesting and challenging, and that’s what drives and motivates me.

What’s your favorite thing about working for Cars.com?

I have been passionate about cars ever since I was a kid, so to have an opportunity to use data science to create a user experience for buying and maintaining cars for millions of people across the U.S. is exciting. But the bigger reason is the people. I work with some of the brightest and most creative people in the business, who are focused on collaboration and engagement across the company.

Also, Cars is a data-driven organization and our data platform team is very advanced. The industry is going through a lot of change, and we are at the forefront of that change. You can present your ideas to executives directly, implement those ideas and learn from people every day. If you want to learn from smart people, you should be at Cars.com.

 

Images via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How does your team bond? Shoot us an email or follow us on Twitter @BuiltInChicago.

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