From Janitor Cleaning Human Waste to $70k/yr Developer

So there I was, watching a man who appeared to be homeless defecate on the chain-link fence in broad daylight, and guess who got to clean that shit up?

That’s right - Yours Truly.

 

How did I end up here, a college graduate Janitor cleaning up human waste on the streets of San Francisco?

Wasn’t I supposed to be slotted into a sleek, high-paying tech job upon arrival?

Well, I can tell you, that's not what happened. But I did get there.

As of last month, I landed a full-time job as a Frontend Engineer. The path that got me here was wounded and bumped to say the least.

Let’s rewind a bit and trace this little journey back from my pre-poop-cleaning life to the present engineering occupation.

A 3,500 Mile Bike Ride and 1 Idea

I was fortunate enough to graduate UCSB debt-free (thanks to my dad’s knee injury while in the Navy and a few jobs I had during school.)

So what do you do when the quarter-life crisis is knocking at your door, you’re debt-free, and you keep hearing about the impending damming projects that might change southern Patagonia forever?

You get your dad’s 1980s mountain bike and fly down there to pedal around and check the area out before it’s too late!

gabe leoni biking in chile
 

So in December 2012 I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, sold the RV that I’d lived in for the last 8 months of college to save on rent, read up on bicycle touring, bought gear and flew down to Chile.

And six months and 3,500 miles of pedaling later, I was ready to take a crack at life in San Francisco thanks to a generous offer to move into a $650/mo dining room in the mellow, foggy beach community of the Outer Sunset.

Entry to "The Real World"

Here’s the thing - before the ride through South America I was terrified by the one thing that plagues most millennials: With effectively zero hard skills from college, what am I supposed to do with my life?

The trip through South America didn’t provide me with an answer, but it did leave me with an itch that I needed to scratch.

That itch came in the form of an outdated bicycle-touring enthusiast blogging platform called Crazyguyonabike.com.

Gabe Leoni biking through Chile
 

After using the website to document my trip, I walked away thinking there had to be a way to make a cleaner, more user-friendly version.

So, as any person living the hidden green, I decided, with no experience to go off and learn how to build one.

(This project, which has become a philanthropy-travel app, has come to be called Ventur and is still in the works.)

So I could just start coding it and be set, right?

I wish.

I needed to pay rent, let alone learn what the heck this internet thing was all about.

With only $800 to my name, I was desperate.

But as fate would have it, I landed my first big-boy job as a Janitor paying $12.50 per hour at TechShop, a DIY workshop that has tools and space for people to come invent things.

(This was where I was fortunate enough to clean up the feces of several humans — Pro Tip: cover poop with sawdust, sweep, and then hose it down!)

While working at TechShop I met someone who helped me get a side gig as a bicycle courier for an on-demand shipping startup, Shyp.

So I have my first little layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs down: food and shelter.

Now to learn how to code.

Developing into a Developer

After attending a dev meetup, I realized how oblivious I was. What the hell is an HTML and why does one JavaScript? Are bytes edible?

The developing environment. Stand up and look up!

The developing environment. Stand up and look up!

 

I was intimidated, yet intrigued. I started looking into ways to learn and narrowed it down to 2 options:

3-5 month development bootcamp immersive ($4-15k)
--- or ---
Self-taught (free)

As a broke individual, I realized that I was not in a position to commit $4,000 - $15,000 and 3 or more months to a bootcamp, plus I was unsure of if I would be capable of enjoying life or ‘succeeding’ as a developer.

So I signed up for a free trial on Treehouse Academy to see if there was any sane way to approach this space that I was thoroughly unprepared to explore.

That was a beautiful introduction, but I was not necessarily hooked.

Looking back I now realize I held a limiting belief which was "Because I was someone who had never taken a single engineering class, coding was impossible to learn."

I began to believe this untrue thought that I was simply not cut out to understand code, let alone work in tech.

I carried this limiting belief with me over the coming months and years while I took my company up on work trips to Nigeria, Washington D.C., New York and Miami.

 

My operations career was picking up, but time and time again, I kept renewing my membership to Treehouse Academy and wondering if coding was for me.

Within a few months of spending about 30 minutes per day, I had learned enough HTML and CSS basics (2 of the 3 pillars to front end development) to start to see my travel app idea come to life, as well as build my first website for my woodworking projects.

The push over the edge of the nest came in the form of urgency.


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I took an operations support position at Shyp, and because I understood some basics of code I knew my position would be automated within a matter of months.

 

The clock was ticking for me to get my portfolio together and level up my coding chops, or I would have to take a Customer Support position with the company (no offense to the CS people out there, but this is one of my greatest fears!).

I kept working full-time with Shyp, but clocked in at least an hour of coding per day.

Around January of 2016 it was time for me to fake it till I make it!

Landing My First Paid Developer Gig

The catch-22 with this web-design/development space is that you need a portfolio of work in order to get work.

But how do you get your first gig to set this thing in motion?

I had a plan.

After stumbling across an abominable website for a cricket-protein farm in LA, I decided, without even asking the company, to pop open a free trial of Sketch app and mock up a redesigned version of their site.

After I finished, I then emailed all 4 members of the company with an introduction/proposal, a candid explanation of why I wanted to work with them, and of course the sleek new designs for their site that I’d already made unbeknownst to them (I also offered to do this job pro-bono since I still had my day job).  

And they agreed!

This project went pretty okay for a first-timer and it spun off into another, paid project.

Soon after that I was onto my third freelance design project with a separate client!

And then...

BAM!

My operations position got automated, and I got laid off from my day job.

gabe leoni big wave surfing
 

That left me logging about 20 hours per week at $20/hr to do freelance design — not sustainable when my rent had jumped up to $1,100 per month.

Luckily though, I had a $5,000 savings cushion that I could tap into while I pursued this dream.


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Around this time I applied to a recruiting agency called Creative Circle and got an interview.

They told me to come back after I completed a few more projects and signed me up for a series of online coding tests, which I studied like hell for (using my Javascript Book and reading basically everything on w3schools.com) and passed!

Months flew by.

I took a job at a farmers market. I kept coding. I kept reading. I kept polishing the portfolio. I took off to work remotely in Puerto Escondido Mexico.

And then... BAM!

My clientele went out of business, and I was completely out of work.

Near (Financial) Death in Mexico

Tropical Mexican beaches are serene, but they offer no consolation for my condition of joblessness and < $1,000 in savings.

I began cranking on the design of my philanthropy travel app prototype.

 

I landed an unpaid remote dev internship via angel.co, redesigned my portfolio, and shot out my resume in all directions, but to no avail.

Then I remembered Creative Circle, the recruiting company I had been in contact with months before.

Turns out that if you ask people to do something ridiculous, they’re not likely to do it.

But! They are more likely to agree to something less ridiculous than they would have been otherwise.

Case in point was my coffee-date invite to the Head of Recruiting at Creative Circle. (I seriously did this.) 

She declined the date, but was open to my backup invite to hop on the phone for a 5 minute call.

By the end of the call she seemed to like my work and said she’d keep me posted. Sure...

Landing the Full Time Gig

At this point, I was broke.

I signed up for a food delivery service and started driving around in my van to deliver people’s laundry with yet another on-demand startup.

Back to step 1 for the third time. But this time I didn't let my limiting belief hold me back.

I kept learning, building new projects and improving my portfolio like mad.

And then on a warm Friday morning in mid-October the recruiter called.

She lined up a interview for me on Monday.

And by Wednesday of the next week I was clocking in for my first ever ‘shift’ as a contract web developer!

The company is called Vida & Co. It’s a platform for artists to print their art on accessories/apparel, that also runs some pretty awesome women’s rights workshops and literacy programs for their factory workers in Pakistan.  

After 6 months of working like I meant it at the contract position, I was offer to come on full-time.

As the months have gone by, I’ve realized that the only thing holding me back from diving into this a little sooner was the limiting belief that coding could never be for me.

Turns out, JavaScript isn’t all that hard if you take the time to dig into it.

There is still such a long way to go and the day-to-day is by no means easy, but I reckon I can periodically sit back and smile when I remember the lower lows, and when I recognize that I decided to do what I truly wanted to do.

Ciao,

Gabe

I can be found on the social medias @gabeleoni or email me at hellogabeleoni@gmail.com

Resources I found helpful:

Career Development:
7 Tips for Landing your First Client as a Freelance Developer

Web Development:
Treehouse Academy
The Ruby on Rails Tutorial (I did this twice, front-to-back)
Javascript Book
W3schools.com (boring, but helpful)

Design:
Sketch app
Mackenzie Child's design/dev Youtube channel
DevTips Youtube Channel
Evan Simone’s Redesigning SoundCloud Article


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