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Ask HN: A place to sleep, a laptop, no résumé and a hungry man.
61 points by inDesperateZone on Apr 4, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments
I've found myself in this situation more often than not. Due to my own fault of course. But I always ended up relying on others until I caved in, doing jobs that provided me with more money than I need but with no enjoyment and the feeling of unfulfillment, dropping them like I had a choice even if I didn't.

I can program, it's what I can do best, it's what's keeping me happy. But without a college degree, experience or a stack of projects in my pocket no one is going to believe me.

With all the app hype one could lose himself dreaming about all the money that's in the business.

But what real chances are there? What small jobs can one do with the ability to write code but the inability to prove oneself just to keep from starving?

Guitarists can busk, drifters could mow the lawn, artists can do caricartures. What can a lone man with a laptop under his arm do?

Like you, I was once in the same position. Extremely poor, I literally hand drew business cards and cut them out of cardboard and walked around the city to hand-deliver them. This helped as someone eventually gave me a chance, but I'm sure it's because he felt sorry for me. I had no experience and learnt how to code from making free photo copies of the pages in the visual basic 6 book at the local public library.

Where I'm from (South Africa), internet was expensive and not accessible to all at the time.

Some advice for your situation:

- You are at the bottom, your only way from there is up - this is something to be excited about.

- Fake it until you make it. When meeting potential clients, talk the talk and do the walk later.

- You'd be surprised at how many SME's need IT services and don't know it yet :) You can simply walk in the door and have a chat to them.

- Put your ego away and always be aware that in order to eat, you need to sell. Selling is actually pretty simple if have a bit of confidence.

- Look after your laptop with your life, it's your key to getting out of your situation.

- If you can write code, it most likely means that you can solve problems logically - this doesn't only apply to coding, figure out where you can use that and make a bit of money.

- Don't be afraid of charging for your time. Poverty is also a mindset, as soon as you realize that, you are one step closer to getting past it.

- Just ask for help. You are not alone and most people will be sympathetic when they are asked.

- You don't need to prove yourself to anyone in order to survive, simply do what you do best and the rest will follow.

Goodluck! S

> What can a lone man with a laptop under his arm do?

Create an online presence.

Contribute under that name.

Never ever flame or troll under that name. Appear calm and sensible and rational and kind and polite and exciting and dynamic.

There's a bunch of things you could do: Many open source projects need help. (Especially with documentation.)

Many people want some small app to help them do something, but they have no idea how much that would cost, and they have no programming skill. (I have a million ideas. "X-Face for HN profiles" is just one.)

In theory, you do jobs you don't enjoy to give you money to do things that you do enjoy; or you do a job you love which leaves you poor. (If you're really lucky you get great money and a great job.) Doing a lousy job shouldn't stop you from being able to code in your spare time.

> With all the app hype one could lose himself dreaming about all the money that's in the business.

This is, I'm sure you know, a distraction. You're not doing it for the huge 1-in-a-million chance of getting rich. You're doing it to solve a problem, or to create something awesome.

Good Luck!

You know what I'd like to do? Offer free work experience more. I took another young guy on today, to mentor him through a project that we need done but not so badly it was worth us prioritizing it in our schedule. We're not paying him, but he's getting our time for free, and a good resume piece and reference from us if he steps up to the challenge that I think he can meet. Maybe more of us need to be doing this in our own businesses, bring back apprenticeships. If this guy does well, we'll either hire him if we can, or recommend him. I'll have a friend for life I can call on for advice in whatever speciality he chooses to go on with from here (he looks set to be a sysadmin whiz if he keeps at it). If he fails, I wasted nothing. I've done this before and I'll keep doing it as time permits.

He got in touch with us directly, somehow he'd found dev labs near him and we agreed to his request for experience. No degree or experience but a resume full of the right things you want to see from a self-learner (online Stanford classes etc) and he backed it up when we interviewed him.

Maybe try that, or ask here on HN for someone to mentor you through developing a real-world project that they need, and don't have the budget or time for. All you can lose is your time, and if things work out maybe some great new friends and a chance at a real opportunity.

I wouldn't go around bragging about breaking employment law. I don't understand how this person can be doing useful work that isn't worth $8/hour to you?



The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has developed the six factors below to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA: http://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/TEGL/TEGL12-09acc.pd...

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;

3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and

6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Yeah, in California that's definitely illegal.

Which is a shame, because I've seen some people benefit enormously from similar intership-ish things. They got in the door of cash-poor companies, were ambitious enough to take on hard things, and eventually got hired at a level way above what they could have achieved through the normal process.

Of course, I've also read about no-pay internships that were total scams, companies just using and abusing the naive so they could get out of paying minimum wage. So I'm glad this stuff is illegal, but I regret that the cheap assholes have ruined it for everyone.

If the unpaid trainee is working on open source projects under your supervision, that might be ethical.

On the other hand, a traditional apprenticeship entails a formal contract which places substantial obligations on the master...that's why most industries use employees today.

Wow, this thread sparked a lot of criticism, I should have clarified that it's work on open source, he gets to totally own the code. We're also not U.S. based.

Experience is not payment. You are breaking the law and exploiting the kid.

Not necessarily. The US Department of Labor posts guidelines on unpaid interns: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf

Of course item 4 will always be a grey area: "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern" - few employers would take action that provides no advantage, or impedes their business.

I think #1 gets ignored when talking about that list.

Tech Schools and University programs offer syllabuses which outline teaching a breadth of knowledge. If you assign an unpaid intern a project based on a need of your company then you likely haven't designed the project to be a teaching tool. (Which then runs into #4).

EDIT: "our" startup

We've always got room at the lodge: http://gdkr.ma/LodgingSociety

Seriously, we're always welcoming hackers to come hang with us in NY.

We put you up, give you plenty of your own time to work on what you want, and ask for a part time contribution to our startup.

Hit me up if that interests you,


Sadly I'm not American. I forgot to add my location, I didn't think it would be important as I doubt many of HN's readers are German, which I am.

If I had the money to fly to NY, gee, that sounds both awesome and frightening. I envy people who can just take the already filled suitcase out of their closet and end up in a distant place without fear or confusion about what to do next.

no worries, just let us know when you're ever state side. I used to live in Paris, France so I know how scary the idea of relocating to a new place is.

Good luck man, I really wish you all the best!

This really looks like fun -- I hope it works out for you.

thanks! we've gotten a few really good applicants and hosted some passerbys including some YC alums :)

Make a website offering a free service that a moderate amount of people would use/could be convinced to use. Monetise via ads, and bam passively fund yourself for a few months whilst the site rises and fades.

Amount of income depends on site design (probably quite good), type of subject site tackles (how much scope there is for a visitor checking the site to see related ads that they would then go on to click).

For instance a week or so ago one guy came along with a passive site that gave away simple, free gift certificate templates. He was getting a few hundred dollars every week. Not enough to live on, easily enough to just feed him, could be replicated for more income.

This is your busking. Dirty dirty ad revenue from sites that do stuff the common man would take hours doing themselves.

Pointers to good articles on generating _real_ ad revenue would be useful.

When I started I could just about make a website but hell, it was what I wanted to do.

I did 2 things. Firstly I went on the freelancer job boards and picked up some of the worst jobs going with the most hard to please clients. I think my average wage was like $3/hr for the first handful of projects. However.. soon enough I starting getting 10 star ratings which opened up better jobs. Also I started to get a portfolio from these jobs which gave me credibility. It was a miserable time but I wouldn't have to got to where I have any other way.

The second thing I did was found a framework which was semi-popular and just camped the forum. I learned everything I could about it. I read every thread. I only answered questions. If I had a question I would join IRC under an alias. I didn't want to look nooby.

I would take notes on frequent questions. I was soon known as someone who always had the right answer. I would then usually be the first to respond on the job board for the framework. I would link to my forum profile and reputation. Some of those jobs paid really well and there was very little competition to get them.

I currently make 36k a year from a job I picked up on the forum. The post for the job was titled 'Developer Required'. The message was 'Urgent, please PM name, portfolio and email address'. Turned out well.

Ultimately though to succeed you need to stick with what you are doing. You may find the job terrible but if it leads to a great portfolio piece at the end then you should be doing it. Its rarely about where you are now, its about where what you are currently doing will lead you.

You didn't say where you were located, but if you're in the Annapolis / Baltimore area, shoot me an email. My info is in my profile.

I assume you have some sort of internet since you're posting this. If hosting costs are an obstacle, shoot me an email and I can cut you off a piece of a Linode or something.

As for 'proving you can code', get a free Github repository and start filling it up. Find a project, any project, in any language, and build it. Projects don't have to be amazingly complicated or fit a broad needs. One of my first 'open source' projects was a library that would reliably fetch a favicon from a website.

No, it hasn't made me famous, and no, it hasn't made me rich, but it has helped a few people based on the messages I've gotten through Github. I have had offers from work based on it (not full time jobs, but implementation / freelance stuff), and if anybody questions whether or not I can write a line of code, I can point them at that.

After you write one library / module / program / app / whatever, write another one. The idea being that you'll establish a 'body of work'.

We recently tried to recruit another HNer to fill in on some project work recently and, when my project manager was asking how qualified he was, I just pointed him to his github profile. Not only has he released a lot of code, but he's worked on a lot of the libraries that we're using in our code as well.

Don't worry about whether or not the code you release is 'production ready', or if it's too small, or if you think it's only of limited utility. My favicon parser is under 100 lines of code. Backbone.js is only ~700 lines of code. Code doesn't need to be huge to make an impact. Hell, code doesn't even have to be GOOD to make an impact, but that's a different story.

But without a college degree, experience or a stack of projects in my pocket no one is going to believe me.

Step 1: figure out which of this is easiest to change. Hint: it's "stack of projects".

Step 2: change it.

Yay, github.

Yes, this.

As the person who makes hiring decision at a startup, all I care about whether you can actually make things. College degrees and resumes correlate with making things, but the stack of projects proves it.

Go now and put some functioning thing up on the web and get some people using it. Iterate in response to feedback, improving both the product and the code. You don't have to make something massive; a few hundred users and a few kloc of code is sufficient for me to be able to measure your skill.

You need to be building things to learn anyway, so github fits that perfectly. There's such a low barrier to entry with getting started and putting up a project or two, and then adding more as time goes on. The key is getting the first project up there, and realizing that it doesn't need to be 'perfect'. The other big advantage of having a github is that it shows you're familiar with version control.

Having a github account with several projects on it is a big positive signal. There will be companies who feel that you need a degree, but that's a small portion of the job market. Committing to build and grow a github is probably the single best thing a developer without a degree can do.

The other big advantage of having a github is that it shows you're familiar with version control.

Also, put in a readme, that makes it easier for me to evaluate the project. And put in tests, so I know you are familiar with those. In short, show me you know what you are doing by actually doing it.

Committing to build and grow a github is probably the single best thing a developer without a degree can do.

Or even a dev with a degree.

I've gotten a number of interviews based on my github and projects, without even sending a resume. For all the interviewer knows, I never went to school. And when I hire, I look at github first, maybe a resume if there isn't a github. Or, equally likely, no github -> resume goes into the circular file.

Adding the readme also shows some ability to document a project, which is always helpful.

Test coverage is nice to have, but I don't know that it's a requirement up front. I can't think of any circumstances where having test coverage will hurt, so I'd agree that it should probably be there, even if you're not a TDD/BDD zealot. It at least shows that you're familiar with testing and can do it.

I fear that I neglected that for too long. I don't know what is complex enough to impress anyone, but I doubt I can hack something together in under a month that will reach that level.

I did a project for this purpose that took 2.5 days to complete. It was one of the few reasons my resume didn't go into the trash, or so I'm told. (There were other contributing factors, certainly.) The benefit of showing that you can actually write code is more important than creating something you deem sufficiently complex. My project was mundane and straightforward, a cloning of one library's functionality into a more generalized sort of environment.

The point of this is to market yourself as an Actual Programmer, and it doesn't take much time or effort to reach that point. (Although, in my case, I was distinguishing myself from the plethora of generic comp sci students, and you might have a higher barrier.) After all, whoever hires you will _really_ judge based on how well you interview, which is just a few hours of your life.

I'm an artist and didn't know I could draw caricatures to make money. I've been getting by writing proprietary software for the Apple App store. People download my artwork off my website all the time and use it for commercial purposes even though it states "All Rights Reserved" on my website. I regularly send out DMCA notices. People want it, but they are unwilling to pay for it.

However in the App Store there is a distribution network that checks for purchase before download and signs ipa files with DRM technology. I wish there was something like that for artists (but their isn't and probably never will be).

My advice is to learn ObjC and get the money up front for freelancing gigs while registering as a sole-proprietorship with your local chamber of commerce. Then pay Apple a registration fee for the App Store. It takes about 10 days to get their approval. Or learn another language. Go to Starbucks or whatever coffee house is in the "nice and upscale" part of town and eavesdrop on the business deals that are going down. Learn what people want and figure out a full proof way to help them get what they want while getting paid for your effort. Now. Be greedy. They will be. Trust me.

That's my advice. You're welcome to it. If you can't make money as a software developer and you CAN ACTUALLY PROGRAM software, then I don't know what to say except learn some confidence. Life isn't hard unless you make it.

You're in a rough spot in your life. You have my sympathies. Your situation won't change overnight, but you can begin by finding a low-skill job that will pay for your basic needs (food and shelter) while you use free internet in libraries or from neighbors to put your code on github and other places.

If you enjoy coding, start creating projects. Then start completing projects. Consider one of the million "fart" apps: the app itself is far from glamorous, but the person who wrote it has gained experience in (1) writing an app, (2) completing an app, (3) getting the app into an app market.

If you keep doing that, and have 5-20 apps on a market, even if none of them are very popular, it looks a LOT like experience.

You can teach kids programming. If they learn to make small games their parents might pay you some money.

And material you create while teaching kids can later be converted into book form and published.

I wrote KTurtle[1] to basically learn 'real' programming :)

I had only toyed around before that.

Anyway, I think prtk is right: there is a lot to be picked up in education. And as always; make yourself cheap enough to build portfolio at first.

[1]: http://edu.kde.org/kturtle

Its hard for me to get a good feel for what your experience level is from your post, but I'm guessing you've worked mainly as a freelancer thus far. I'm someone who started off similarly to you, I don't have a degree, although I am close to finishing a BA degree thats not in CS as I just had a bunch of units from general ed courses. Basically, I just pushed my way in by starting off working at a really small company that couldn't afford to be picky. The pay was fairly lousy but after a few months I found a better opportunity to work with a startup. Then after that, I had enough experience working full-time to start working for a contracting company that did a full-time placement of me at a mid-sized company. Once you get experience working full-time, it gets easier to find the next job so you should really just focus on getting your foot in the door. I've found that companies are often wary of people who just want to freelance as they often want a longer commitment and someone who is going to be more invested in their product / company. Also, there's no reason not to work on your own project and put it on GitHub, its helped me get at least one job, just from being able to talk about it in the interview, as the interviewer found it interesting.

If you're in London, drop me a line - greg at memrise dot com.

And even if you're not, take heart - some of the best people I know have been in this situation at one time or another.

I don't think most startups and medium sized require that you have a CS degree. Find an environment that is appealing to you or create one. Some options:

Apply to a couple startups even just as an intern to see whether that floats your boat.

Find a good(!) co-founder and start a company. or If you feel that the problems are deeper than just not wanting to work in a traditional environment and you have a bad outlook on live seek advice of a therapist.

I am about to leave a well paying job to go live in my Campervan and travel around Europe and Morocco. The more work I can do on the side while away means the longer I can stay on the road.

I am quite interested in helping teach or working with voluntary organisations if I can make enough money for Diesel and food.

It is both exciting and scary at the same time.

This is exactly what I've started thinking about doing. I am working at a great place but I'm getting tired of doing boring work for boring clients. I really don't care about how much money I make at my current place because it is making my hobby, my biggest interest and my talent - into something different.. it is now in a new, ugly shape. It has gone from something I could not resist doing, to something I don't even want to think about.

For me, it's draining more energy than it gives. Programming should be fun. I hope your journey goes well. Hopefully I will be on the same track in a couple of months. First I have to save enough cash to feel secure. Happy hunting.

Yeh I am currently in cash saving mode. I also have to pay for my girlfriend who has no savings so it is quite hard. We are planning on leaving in July and will start a blog about it soon.

I am just trying to kickstart my company (I am a contractor) into doing more than just contract work and me and a friend are working on a few small projects/ideas.

Really want to hit the road soon, but its the fear of effectively being 'homeless' and not being able to find such well paid work when/if we return.

Good luck with your plans too, our situation sounds very similar.

I've been in your shoes and don't have any advice that hasn't already been said.

But, think of this as an exciting chapter of your life. You're at bottom, so you can go anywhere from here without constraints or obligations.

This chapter happened for me when I was younger, and at the time it seemed almost awful, but on reflection now, it was very freeing. I'm positive you'll see it the same, when you get older.

If you lack commitments (wife, kids, etc), it's kind of nice to periodically reboot (eg. destroy and rebuild) your life.

Do whatever you're passionate about. Seriously.

PS: Make your passion first, money second.

There is a lot of good advice in previous comments.

I'm just wondering, how is that you say you can code and you cant find a job / project to work on. I did my first project for money in PHP when I was 16 - no degree, no experience and not much code to show - just few HelloWorld playpen projects.

People rarely ask developers for a degree and even if they do, once you have impressive code to show is worth much more.

So my advice would be maybe harsh but simple - stop complaining and get working!

you can always use "drug dealer's" method - do the first project for free :)

> I did my first project for money in PHP when I was 16

Can I ask how you got those jobs and what you got paid?

Sadly, one busks out of need more than passion. But it seems to me that hunger is a metafore in your case. Otherwise you could exchange your laptop for a guitar and some lessons.

To document your experience the best you can do is to fix bugs into any popular open source project, like WordPress, Rails, ... If you know how to program, it will be easy for you to enter those dev groups and be taken into account.

I actually own a guitar. Playing for two years now. But its not worth much and I'm not good enough to keep anyone listening. I think learning to code at a reasonable level is much easier than learning to play guitar well enough to be able to busk.

Assuming you are capable(and willing) of spinning a wrench spend a couple of days somewhere with free wifi learn some CNC programming and find a machine shop in need. The smaller the shop the less qualifications matter and the more can you do the job matters. Smaller shops have a harder time hiring so they are often willing to train people who show promise.

Where are you located? What are your exact skills? I might be able to help you out (email is in the profile).

This video is a TED talk on how to work for free with impressive people then transition into paid work you love.


> But without a college degree, experience or a stack of projects in my pocket no one is going to believe me.

Even with those, people won't believe you. That's why interviews exist, so you can prove your knowledge.

>>I can program Ok, what can you program? Which languages or platforms do you know?

Irrespective of where you live I may be able to offload some paid work your way, that would then be part of your portfolio.

Open Source. Sure, you don't get paid for it directly, but it can get your name noticed, and show people that you can code.

Either contribute to an existing project, or start your own.

Think of it as code busking.

I'm in the same position... We should build something together, solve some problems, put them on github, learn from each other.

I'm also in this position. Although I have a degree in CS, our area have almost no jobs, where I can work and grow as a programmer, and with remote work, people tend to not trust anyone without experience, sadly.

make bluetooth candles and sell them. if you made your own pcb it would be so cheap.


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