Home Blog I Dropped Out of My Computer Science Degree to Learn Coding

I Dropped Out of My Computer Science Degree to Learn Coding

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Well hello there! My name is Elly Loel. I’m a developer, designer and writer, currently working as a junior developer at Portable!

Lulu our black cat sitting behind my laptop with code open poking her eyes over looking at the camera
Lulu trying her very best to distract me.

I run a newsletter and love sharing interesting things to help people become better coders! In my spare time, I love building mechanical keyboards, watching cartoons and anime, and hanging out with my partner Brodie and our cat Lulu. 🐈‍⬛

You might have heard me on the Scrimba podcast with Alex Booker or seen me in Portable’s How to land your first tech job event.

How I landed my first tech job

I always knew I wanted to work with computers for a career, but I never specifically knew how that would happen until I took a game development course in year 10. In this course, I built a game and made a website to advertise the game. After spending far too much time on my game’s website, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be a web developer. There was one issue, I was about to undertake the final two years of high school which would make or break my chances of getting the score I needed to get into university. But the most annoying part was that my school didn’t offer tech subjects. My ADHD brain didn’t give a shit about subjects I wasn’t interested in. Despite my scores, I managed to make it into university, and that is where my love of web development really blossomed.

Just as the pandemic spread around the world and the first Melbourne lockdown was enforced in March 2020, I started a degree in Computer Science at Swinburne University of Technology. During the first half of my course, I fell in love with web development but then realised that I wouldn’t be able to pursue it in this course. Unfortunately, I had completed all of the web development classes, leaving me with a difficult choice: stay and finish the degree or take a leap and learn web development on my own. Obviously, I left and took the self-taught route, mainly with the help of Scrimba. I eventually completed The Frontend Developer Career Path. This helped me learn most of what I needed to know to land a job as a web developer. I also focused a lot of effort into building my personal portfolio website to demonstrate my knowledge and skills.

A design frame in Figma with an early design of my portfolio website. The design has an alternating gradient and solid colour backgrounds, filled with placeholder content.
An early design of my portfolio website

When it came to the job hunt I really won the lottery, I only applied to two tech jobs before I landed my role at Portable. With hindsight, I realise how lucky I was to find a recruiter, on LinkedIn, who was looking for new people to help. The support that I got from the recruiter to find roles that were the right fit for me was invaluable. I would have never discovered Portable if it wasn’t for him. Finding that right fit job is the first step, then really going for it is the best way to secure a job. The ‘shotgun method’ of applying, where you send of as many applications as you can, means that you’re likely going to end up at some random company that you don’t know, doing work that you don’t care about, while you could be at an awesome company where you fit in, doing work that you love!

Your motivation to start coding

I’ve always loved computers, I grew up playing video games like Counter Strike and tinkering with my computer to customise it to my exact liking. The first real step I took towards starting coding was taking that game development course, during year 10. I thought that because I loved playing games I’d love making them too, but I was very wrong about that.

As I mentioned, we had to create a little website to showcase our game, this side task ended up being what I spent most of my time on throughout the course. We were only required to learn the basics of HTML and CSS but I delved into it and spent all my time trying to make my website look amazing.

The realisation that I could make a website about anything and share it online with my friends and family was completely mind blowing to me.

At the time, I was into graphic and motion design, which really flowed through into my love of CSS. Instead of just creating things for people to look at, I could now create experiences for people to interact with.

After the course finished I was left with the desire to code and create websites but I couldn’t due to high school, and as I mentioned, university didn’t really fulfil that desire either. So I had lots of motivation but no way to use it. Which is what led me to trying to find resources online so I could continue learning.

A photo of my desk and computer setup which is absolutely covered with prints, figurines, pins, zines, stickers, and much more.
My desk setup is the perfect showcase and explanation of my love of design and art.

How you picked a resource

Considering my ADHD I knew video tutorials were going to be more effective, so as I was trying to build things I would search for help on YouTube. Through that I found Kevin Powell’s CSS tutorials, which really helped me fall in love with, and gain a greater understanding of, the language.

I was also learning more about the web development landscape from channels like Fireship and Brad Traversy. They helped me decide on what languages and frameworks to learn as I was getting more advanced. Which is what led me to discovering Bob Ziroll’s free React course (there is a newer version now) on the Free Code Camp YouTube channel. From there I looked into the Scrimba platform and discovered how much better it was for reinforcing your learning. With that in mind when I was looking at investing in a paid course to help get me job ready it was an obvious choice to go for the Frontend Developer Career Path.

Since finishing the career path and landing my first tech job I’ve been focusing on specialising in advanced CSS and design systems. I’ve been following Josh W. Comeau’s amazing articles and his course, CSS for JS devs. As well as, the CSS podcast by Adam Argyle and Una Kravets.

How you structured your learning

When it came to structuring my learning I kinda had the perfect storm:

So for roughly 2 to 3 months I worked nearly non-stop to achieve my goal, though as perfect or amazing as this may sound it also had its downsides. I worked so hard that I burnt myself out quite severely. Once I knew I got the job I had about a month before I started, in that time I completely crashed and barely did anything.

What I’m trying to say is that you probably shouldn’t do what I did, or what anyone else does for that matter. We’re each different in who we are and what our circumstances are, some of us might be able to focus just on learning to code while others might be working a job, still in school, being a primary or sole carer, or all manner of other things. So don’t be hard on yourself for not being able to follow a structure laid out by someone who isn’t you.

Take the time to think about what is going to work best for you in terms of time and energy. And also consider how you learn best, maybe to make things stick you need to go over the lessons twice or maybe you’re someone who loves taking notes, just make sure you do whatever works for you.

A chibi style drawing of me, a blonde woman in a white sweater hunched over sleeping on a desk drooling with Z’s floating above my head.
Commission by Nervous Ghost

What made coding concepts “stick” for you

If I’m honest, I don’t know if I’ve really had a whole lot of concepts stick for myself. I’m not someone who’s spent hours upon hours learning data structures and algorithms or how to invert a binary tree. Because honestly, I don’t think I could do that.

For me it was more of getting to a point where I felt like I had enough of an idea to be able to Google DuckDuckGo solutions to my problems and figure it out on the fly. Then through lots and lots of repetition I slowly started to remember things.
I think it’s less about making sure all the coding concepts stick and more about getting to the point where you’re able to start creating things. The more you create the more you’ll learn by doing.

Once you have a base of practical knowledge from building things then you might want to look into specific concepts. Having a practical understanding is extremely important to learning theoretical concepts and being able to translate them into what you’re building.

How you knew you felt “ready” to start applying

I didn’t, I really didn’t feel ready to start applying at all. I forced myself to get in contact with a recruiter to start applying. I remember one day I was on LinkedIn and I saw a post from a recruiter that said they had spaces open and they were looking for new people to help out. And even though I most definitely didn’t feel ready, I knew that an opportunity like this likely wasn’t going to come around again anytime soon. So I replied to the post saying that I’d love to work together.

I’m so glad I did it because I wouldn’t have my job if it wasn’t for the recruiter. I would still be stuck at university going through my course.

The recruiter’s LinkedIn post: “I heard a little rumour... that apparently... the Australian job market is HOT.
Every 2nd or 3rd post I'm seeing on here is for people looking to hire.
There's some absolutely brilliant opportunities out there at the moment - some of which just happen to be with my clients :)
If you're a Developer or Designer, let's have a chat. Maybe you're wanting a bigger/smaller company? A bit of a bump up in your salary? An opportunity to take on more responsibility? More flexibility with WFH or Remote options? Something else?
There's plenty of options :)
Cheers!”
My comment response: “Hi Andrew, I'd love to have a chat 😄”
The post that lead me to getting in contact with the recruiter

How you went about applying to new jobs

So as I mentioned I didn’t do the usual way of applying to jobs, I worked with a recruiter who was able to direct me to jobs. When I first got in contact with him we had a chat and he got to know me and what I was looking for so he could figure out what jobs would best fit me.

Having that help from someone who had lots of connections in the industry and was able to find the best fit for me was vital to me landing my job.

I would definitely recommend for anyone who is about to or is currently applying to jobs to reach out to a recruiter. Even if you don’t think you’re ready, get in contact with a recruiter and see if they can help you find some roles that would fit you in terms of who you are and what you’re looking for.

Elly: “Yeah exactly, that's definitely what my first year showed me. The reason I wanted to have a chat was in relation to your post, as you can tell I'm pretty new to the job market, so I'm looking for some guidance towards finding my first web development job.” Recruiter: “Have you finished your degree? Or looking for part time work? Or can you study and full time work?” Elly: “Ideally I'm looking for part time work but I could do full-time if part-time isn't available.” Recruiter: “Ok cool. Big workload to take on. Good on you though!” Recruiter: “I dropped out of uni... twice... can’t imagine working full time AND studying. I couldn’t even do the study part 🤣” Elly: “hahah fair enough! I'm actually planning on dropping out if I can get a job.” Recruiter: “When it comes to web/software development... you don’t need a degree” “It’s not like a doctor or lawyer” Elly: “yeah exactly that's what I've figured out, which is why I'm trying to get into a job before the next semester of uni starts.”
Part of the conversation I had with the recruiter

The interview process and how it made you feel

The interview process for my current role was a very long one. I remember it was something like two months long, and there were about six different interviews. Don’t get me wrong though, it was really good, just very long.

I remember I was really anxious so I kept emailing them, double and triple checking what was happening and when the next interviews were. Also, seeing as all the people that I was meeting with were very busy, whenever I got calendar sharing links the closest open times were a week or more in the future. So I would just be hanging out waiting and working on the Frontend Developer Career Path, twiddling my thumbs and getting really anxious looking forward to these interviews.

Step by step the interview process was:

  1. Initial interview
    • Get to know me, what I’m about and why I’m applying to the company.
  2. Technical chat
    • No coding, just a chat to gauge my knowledge. I remember one of the questions the interviewer asked was about responsive design and what you might add on a smaller screen rather than take away? I answered saying that you might add a navigation menu button on a smaller screen but not on a bigger screen.
  3. Work sample solo coding
    • Spend one hour adding features to a partially functioning project.
  4. Work sample pair coding
    • Spend another hour with one of the developers adding another feature to the project.
  5. Psychometric assessment
    • A look at your preferred ways of working.
  6. Salary chat
    • Talk about salary expectations.
  7. Senior Leadership interview
    • I got to chat and ask lots of questions to the CEO and the head of the tech team.
  8. Reference check
    • They contacted and chatted to my reference.
  9. Offer 🎉

What you know now that you wished back then

I wish I knew that I didn’t need to go to university. That would have saved me about $10,000 in debt 🥲. I wish I knew that you didn’t need a degree to be a web developer, it’s not like we’re doctors or lawyers where you need to have the degree. I really wish I knew that being self taught was a completely acceptable way to get into this industry.

I also wish I knew how important building projects to showcase your abilities and knowledge is. I did build a few projects while completing the Frontend Developer Career Path but I wish I had built more personal projects, as people always say, build projects that fill your own needs.

The final thing I wish I had done was written more and shared more as I was going through the journey of learning web development and applying to jobs. As they always say, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is now. So I’m glad I’ve started doing it now, better late than never.

A website entitled “React Movie Search” displaying results for the search “Evangelion 3.0”. Each result has the movie poster, title, release date, rating, and description.
React Movie Search project from the Frontend Developer Career Path

Your greatest challenges and how you overcame them

I think one of the biggest challenges for me was the imposter syndrome around applying to jobs. If I’m honest I left it way too late, I should have forced myself to start applying much earlier, even though I didn’t feel as though I was ready.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re never going to feel ready, there will never be that perfect moment when you are finally like “Yes! I’ve learned everything, I’m ready!” You’re always learning, whether you’re a junior or the head developer, so you may as well start applying and if you manage to get something then that’s awesome!

The other huge challenge for me was taking the leap of faith to leave university and focus on learning web development and getting myself ready to apply for jobs. I had no idea whether it was going to work out or not. I was very concerned that it might not, as the census date was approaching fast while I was in the final stages of the interview process. I didn’t know if I was going to get the job and leave university or if I was going to not get it and have to go back to university and be weeks behind on my classes.

So that was a really huge challenge and a big leap of faith that I took, but I’m very grateful I did.

A drawing of me, a blonde woman in a white sweater with headphones on sitting at my desk in front of a keyboard and monitor coding.
Commission by Nervous Ghost