Are You (Un)Hireable As A Coder?

By: John Elder

Everyone says that coding jobs are flowing like water right now. But I’m not sure that’s true for someone like me. I’ve recently thought about getting a job as a coder, but I suspect I might be un-hireable. What do you think?

A Short Background

I’ve been coding for about 16 years. Longer than that if you count from when I actually started when I was 8 years old and my dad brought home a brand new Commodore 64. I loved that thing, but you couldn’t really do anything with it unless you wrote your own Basic code.

That Christmas I asked for a book on the “Basic” programming language and got it. I still have it, it’s one of my most prized possessions. It was a Sams “book” called “Learn Basic Programming in 14 Days on Your Commodore 64″ By Gil M Schecter. I say “book” but it was really just a glossy comb-bound thing. It’s all tattered and dog-eared now but still in one piece!

Anyway, I said short background…

In 1996 when I was 18 years old, I started my first company; one of the first Banner Advertising Exchange websites on the Internet. I built it by myself with cobbled together code.

In it’s first few months it ran over a million ads across our whole network of member sites. I sold the company shortly after that to a publicly traded company at the height of the dot com bubble.

Then I built some search engine submission software (using visual basic) that’s been used by a few million people all over the world. Again, I just cobbled together some code over the course of a few days and put it out there.

After that I spent the next 15 years or so building this or that for my own companies, mostly web development stuff. I can hack around well on PHP, Mysql, Perl, a little Javascript, visual basic, HTML/CSS etc. (See Portfolio) And recently I’ve been playing around with a little Ruby and Python.

So What’s The Problem?

I have no idea what I’m doing! If you asked me to write an algorithm, or solve a logic problem, or explain something as simple as a nested array, I couldn’t do it. (ok I could probably describe a nested array, but only barely). I could use one, but I might not even know what it was when I was using it.


I can DO things, I can get things done; always…but I don’t really know what I’m doing.


I can build software that’s happily used by millions of people, but I couldn’t describe how I did it, and if I looked at the code later – I probably couldn’t make heads or tails out of it without really studying it for a while (comments? who has time to bother commenting code!).

I’ve created unique and intricate php heavy, mysql powered websites with ease, but I’d probably utterly fail any type of formal interview where they asked me to write or explain code on the spot.

Teams? I’ve never worked with a team in my life. I’ve never mentored younger programmers, or even collaborated on anything with anyone…ever. I’ve always just done it all myself.

But I get things done.

I figure out what needs to be done in order to get something to work reasonably well, and if I can’t do it myself I google it till I find snippets of code that mostly do what I need, then I modify them and hack around till I get something that works decently enough.

Then I move on.

So Am I Un-Hireable?

Not only have I never worked with a team, I’ve never had formal training of any kind. I graduated from Washu in St. Louis with a degree in economics (with honors) having never taken a single CS class.

I’ve been self employed for the last 16 years so I don’t even have references! Is it hopeless? I mean, I can point to a long list of websites I’ve built, pieces of software I’ve developed, etc. but that’s about all.

Just to get some sort of baseline feedback, I recently knocked out three courses (Ruby, Python, and Web Fundamentals) in a short afternoon each (Check My Profile) and found them to be almost ridiculously simple.

That’s the limit of my formal training though, well that and a small library’s worth of programming books that I’ve consumed over the years and still refer back to every once in a while when I need to jog my memory about something.

What Does It Matter?

I’ve come to realize that I like building things much more than I like running things…

As an entrepreneur you’re responsible for absolutely EVERYTHING from accounting, to marketing, to managing operations, to taxes, to dealing with affiliates and partners, putting out customer support fires, and on and on. I’ve been doing all that for 15 years and it’s time for a change.

And besides, the climate here in America has turned so decisively anti-small business that not only is it not fun anymore; it’s almost dangerous.

And who knows what’s up with health insurance now. I don’t have the energy to dig into that cesspool to find out what my small business has to do to cover itself in that department. Think I’d rather just chuck the whole thing.

Besides, I’ve primarily worked alone all these years…it might be nice to go to work at an office with…you know…people and stuff.

It’s been a good run, I’ve made a lot of money, but I think it’d be great to just sit down and code for 10 hours a day without a care in the world.

But Maybe It’s A Pipe Dream…

Frankly I don’t even know where to start. I’m most proficient in PHP, but I can pick up anything really. I breezed through the Ruby and Python tutorials in an afternoon but I’ve never done anything in Ruby or Python.

I live in Chicago and don’t want to leave to find work. Is freelancing an alternative worth exploring? You read about people leaving their jobs to freelance, but might freelancing be an inroad to a job?

What do you think…Any suggestions?

About The Author: John Elder is an entrepreneur, web developer, and author living in Chicago, IL. His most recent book Adsense Empire Thick Site Guide is available in Kindle edition via

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34 thoughts on “Are You (Un)Hireable As A Coder?

  1. You obviously have talent – programming, managing, and writing too. You need to decide where _you_ want to apply it.

    If I were you, I’d start working on a micro-business that can fund your retirement. Read the Four Hour Workweek and Start Small, Stay Small. Seriously. They explain how to build a business that runs itself. No this doesn’t solve the short term health care problem, but (over time) it solves the long term job security problem. However, it requires PRIORITIZATION and FOCUS – the hardest thing to do for smart multi-potentiates like ourselves.

    But if you really want a JOB, sounds like you need to specialize in a skillset for this next period of your life. You’ve got basic competency across the whole stack, now become an expert in 1 thing. (NOT visual basic :) Freelancing sucks. It can pay the bills in the short term, but is not a long term strategy for security (especially with the rate at which tech is changing these days).

    Chicago is one of the best tech cities in America, you don’t need to leave. Start writing more, start specializing more. Maybe you could start blogging (and podcasting?) about older programmers staying relevant. That’s a hot topic and could make you stand out. Just a thought.

    my 2 cents. good luck!

  2. Read a couple books that describe design patterns and what not. Your skill set looks like it would only work in an environment where you are the only coder, or one of maybe two or three people and no one really knows what they are doing.

    If you are interviewing for a job with a larger team, then the ones in the team are the ones evaluating you, and they have the skills you have, and more. Typically no one will hire someone worse than them, they want to hire equal or better.

    Read a few books, then try again. Read things like pragmatic programmer ( and learn design patterns.

    After reading this, it sounds like you are a self-taught uneducated programmer. Every company I’ve ever worked for, and every company I have friends at that work, would never hire someone who didn’t know what a nested array is, because they don’t want to pay for the training.

  3. I’m pretty sure I would not hire you.

    Why not?

    Your attitude and style are much more geared for smaller companies and you know from experience you thrive well in such an environment. Though if you interview at our place, you’re interviewing at a bigger company, which you say you want. You’ll struggle with working in such environemnts, as you already seem to realize.

    I don’t care about which programming langauges you speak, but it’s important that you know what you’re doing. Even more important is that you can work in a team and work *together* on software that runs our business. Yes runs, not builds. Unless you’re in a software development company, software doesn’t build the business. It may run it, such as in our case. Your description of yourself makes it quite clear that this will be a struggle for you.

    Does this make you unhireable? No, I don’t think so.

    Your enterpreneurial attitude is a valuable asset in a developer, do not underestimate it. Too many developers have no sense what a business actually does and only (want to) care about their small part of it.

    So why not take smaller steps? I think you would do well in a startup that just grew out of the startup phase and is not likely to fail. You wil be able to contribute on a technical and business level. It gives you some of the security you want and (if the startup continues to be succesful) lots of opportunities to grow the skills you think you currently lack. Forget the pipe dream of 10 hours of straight coding though, that’s not achievable anywhere :)

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