From Historian to Drupal Developer - How Debug Academy Launched My New Career

March 10, 2020
Jack Garratt

A Little Bit of Background

In 2017, I graduated with a PhD in history from The George Washington University, where I studied German colonialism in Africa. After graduation, I ended up teaching at a private secondary school part-time to get my foot in the door. Some days were enjoyable, some days were painful, and I never fully adjusted to life in the classroom at that level. With no opportunity to transition to full-time in my near future, and the little joy I was getting out of the hard work I was putting into my lessons, I realized that I needed to make a change. I weighed my options, and ultimately landed on the most off the wall route in comparison to where I was starting from, and that was to pursue a web development career.

What Led Me To Web Development

The web development world is bewildering. Like most fields, it has its jargon, communities, and prejudices. However, web development is rife with opportunities. Opportunities for a developer position without a degree in computer science if you can build a portfolio. Before you can do that, however, learning what to study was a challenge. Phrases such as front-end or back-end stacks, or the myriad of oddly specific and generic proper nouns were downright confusing: SASS, JavaScript, Gulp, Node, CSS, Angular, React, and MongoDB to name a few. What were these words and what did they represent? If I simply wanted to make a website, what did I need to study first? 

After a lot of research, I decided to self-study, which eventually led me to enroll in Debug Academy’s Drupal Developer course.

There are a nearly infinite number of articles that discuss how they went from no experience to coder in three, six, nine, or twelve months. Some are more helpful than others. Some recommend coding every day for 8 hours, learn a number of new web technologies, and essentially lose yourself while learning the material. I found that there was a certain coding sub-culture that dovetailed with a “work hard, play hard” mentality. This approach is what I call Burnout 101. It was certainly not for me.

The second approach is more sustainable. After a considerable amount of research, I decided to learn HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and JavaScript (JS) through a free online service. It was one of the best decisions to learn how to start web development. While I had a background in HTML—I learned the basic syntax in high school—it slowly walked you through the material and ended with some basic projects before launching into advanced material. However, what it gave me was consistency and daily practice. 

Most of my time studying occurred after coming home from teaching with the occasional weekend workout when I was feeling extra ambitious. Some days I felt like I was making great progress; other days I felt like this career transition was rather silly. What I was firm on was that I wasn’t going to code every day and that I would be able to go at my own pace. 

My goal was to learn material sustainably and practice it before I moved onto the next chunk of material, and it worked for me. Over the course of 4 months, I had learned the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and was ready to pursue the next step. Figuring that out, again, was a challenge that had me spinning in circles. I attended Meetups, free training, Drupal in DC, Code and Coffee...you name it, I tried it out. Then, by a chance comment mentioned in a group, I saw a free intro course by Debug Academy and the rest is history. (Pun very much intended)

My Debug Academy Journey

When Saturday arrived, I metro’ed to the location in Tyson’s Corner and located a few other people waiting for class to begin. After chatting, I learned that some were advanced learners in other languages, such as Python or Ruby, and others were new to web development, learning HTML for the first time. What I found most interesting was that a handful of these people did the Meetup circuit. They had a list of free trainings, talks, and code alongs in the DMV. I was heartened to see that I felt comfortable with the amount of material that I had learned from February.

The teacher introduced himself as Ashraf Abed. He pitched a three-month course on Drupal, which would be starting in a week. Alumni, many of whom were at established companies in the area, effused about Ashraf’s course. You would code a website for a non-profit and learn the necessary skills for a web developer position. The best part for me was the last three weeks he would help place you at a company. Debug Academy’s course ticked off many of the boxes about filling out my portfolio as a developer. It would seem obtuse to not pursue this opportunity. 

I came home, excited. I enrolled the next day, looking forward to being a student again for the next three months. On the first day of class, I noticed an array of people from different backgrounds, vocations, and ages. I was nearly the youngest person present at 32. Students included web designers, coders from outside the web development world, a few experienced Drupalers who wanted a more formal training, and then, me, the humanities outcast. 

The class went swimmingly. While I had worked on the initial skills, Drupal and Debug Academy’s course brought them together in a package in which I could build complete, sophisticated websites. I learned about those oddly specific, generic proper nouns and acronyms like Twig, SASS, PHP. I became familiar with others, such as Gulp (really?), Less (who comes up with these names?) or Bourbon (why bring my favorite spirit into this?). 

Yes, my head did spin after a few class sessions, and, yes, I was frustrated with some of the advanced material such as custom module development or object-oriented programming. However, I could see the picture of my career developing. By learning these skills, not mastering them, I was seeing a direct path to a position as a Drupal developer. Seeing this path was encouraging; looking at job postings online was downright awe-inspiring, and landing that job within two weeks of my job hunt was euphoric. 

The Abbreviated Job Search

Early September arrived and the class was finishing up. To be honest, I was a bit sad. I enjoyed being a student again. Not having the worries of lesson planning, having everything organized for you, being entertained for 6 hours a week with lectures and code alongs, but the class had to come to an end so my next chapter could begin. The job search, once again, reared its ugly head.
    
I was rather surprised when I searched a number of job listing websites for Drupal in the DMV and found a considerable number of them. What a refreshing change! In the end, I applied only to 6 positions, had 2 requests for interviews, and accepted a position at Debug Academy itself. What I found was that I could leverage my previous skills learned at my doctoral program (teaching, synthesizing complex material, and knowing how to learn quickly) would all be useful attributes in the web development world. 

Since I have joined Debug Academy 18 months ago, I have built upon my skills by working on real client projects. I was one of the principal front-end developers for the Drupal 8 redesign of a federal agency, consulted on a variety of Drupal projects, and worked to revamp the current debugacademy.com. I have also acquired two Acquia certifications: developer and front-end specialist. It all started with a free Git seminar offered by Debug Academy!

It Was Scary, But I Wouldn’t Change A Thing

Looking back on this career change, I realize how scary it all initially seemed. How could I do this? Was I turning my back on all my previous studies? I would like to think we always bring our previous employments and skills to our current position, so there had to be some value to all that hard work I had done prior to my switch. In the end, what was most important was I found a better work-life balance being a Drupal developer, and it has made many other aspects of my life easier to enjoy.

There is much more to the story that is left untold, so if you have any questions send me an email. As always, if you have any questions about transitioning into a career in Drupal or enhancing your current Drupal capabilities, and how Debug Academy can help, reach out to Ashraf to learn about upcoming classes.

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