Making a living as a programmer

Programming careers can be quite lucrative compared to most professions. There are countless angles on how to profit as a programmer. To help out some of you, I want to share my own observations from my 35 year career as a programmer.

Every avenue can be rewarding. I am just going to highlight a few of the challenges for each direction you might take.

But first, here’s the short version of my career.

I taught myself C programming back in the early 80’s. Got a Fortune 50 job (major Airline), and wrote C programs in MS-DOS, Windows, and various Unix platforms. I even wrote a couple device drivers for network cards and modems for Linux and MS-DOS platforms. That job was 17 years and very lucrative for me.

Then I started a web design and Internet marketing company. Not too many small businesses had websites so I saw an opportunity. That lasted until Covid when my company collapsed. At the high point, I had 50 developers in four countries doing work. As good as that sounds, it was never profitable. Many lessons learned.

Now I am back at the major Airline again in a different role, trying to get back into my programming or project management type of role. So far that’s not been easy. But that’s another story. :slight_smile:

What I’ve Learned

Independent Consultant Developer - There is very little demand for independent developers outside of corporate contracting. Small businesses don’t have the budget. If you want to go this route, you find a recruiter and look for contract work. That’s a great way to go as many corporations hire from their contractors. Or you can stay on contract and keep the higher salary.

Independent Web Design / Developer - Small companies have small budgets. Plus there is a ton of competition. To succeed here is nearly impossible because there’s always someone who will work cheaper. Larger companies hire dedicated staff. Small companies want the cheapest option. The few people with any success in this area usually focus on a specific industry such as medical, oil and gas, automotive sales, etc. Then they build reusable code and market it as a service, not as a one-off website. That gets them recurring income and a single shared code-base.

Corporate Programmer - These jobs are harder to get. They get thousands of resumes and it’s tough to get an interview. Then you jump through hoops and they end up hiring someone else. But once you do get hired, you make serious money and very quickly you become indispensable. One of the biggest challenges is the look for experience with tools and products you probably never heard of. Where I work, it’s all about BIG DATA solutions. Hard to learn that stuff on your own.

Independent Product Developer - If you have an idea for an app or a game and you build it yourself and support it yourself, you can actually do really well. This is really challenging, but imagine that you build a useful app that people pay a few dollars for and tens of thousands of people buy it. You’re off and running. It’s competitive though. You must build something of good quality and desirable. A buddy of mine and some of his friends (not me) build a database app that tracked airplane parts so you can find what you need wherever it is. 5 guys in six months built it and they sold it for around 10 million. Big win for him.

In Conclusion - You can make many in any of these ways. Each have their own challenges. None are easy. You have to do some soul-searching to see which avenue works best for you. Hint! Most people do not have what it takes to run their own company, so be careful with your ego and really evaluate your own strengths.

Final thoughts - Mark Cuban said, “Businesses succeed when they either deliver the lowest price products or the highest quality products. Companies in the middle ground are the one’s that fail. There’s too much competition in that space.” With that said, being lowest cost is really tough. You have low profits and lots of competition from people who will work cheaper than you. Then on the other end, having the best product means a huge investment in time and money and with that comes major risks.

A programming career is tough but rewarding. I started when everyone else programmed in COBOL and Fortran. These days there are thousands of educated and capable people to compete with.

In my opinion – if you want to get into programming, focus on learning the newest technologies that most schools are not teaching yet. Look into the bleeding edge products from Azure, AWS, AI, AR, etc. If you know things that companies want but most programmers do not know, that is your key to breaking in. Lead the pack, don’t follow it. Mosh’s courses are a great start on the basics, but look harder at bleeding edge technologies and find a way to learn those tools.

Jerry

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Jerry, thank you for sharing your valuable insights and experiences from your extensive 35-year career in programming. Your journey through various avenues in the field provides a comprehensive view of the challenges and rewards of each path.

I need your thoughts, Should I hire dedicated Web developers, to create my e-commerce Website for my candle business?

And need review about Vardaam Web solution.

Enzo,

There are a couple questions here - first is - Should you hire programmers to build your website.

Candle Business
If your candle business is large enough to take on that expense, then perhaps so. But unless you are selling over a thousand dollars a month worth of candles, the costs are not going to align with the reward. I’ve built hundreds of websites for start-ups and none of them really help a business take off. If a candle business is going to succeed, it takes a lot more than a website.

If you need a low budget solution for a low revenue candle company, there are countless free solutions available. You can find solutions all over google by searding “free ecommerce solutions”.

Website Review
The second question is to review that website for the web design company.

That website is clean and professional - no doubt. But there are tell-tale signs it is a small organization and really just a group of web designers in India somewhere. Nothing wrong with that, I’ve hired hundreds of guys over the years just like them.

If that is your company, then I can give a harder review of details that should change on the website. The tiny little issues that convince me they are no different than any other company.

But there is no reason to suspect they are not great at what they do. Web designers are a commodity these days. It is not hard to find decent programmers. What is difficult is to find one that will build you a $10,000 website to fit your $1,000 budget.

Hiring Professionals
If you do decide to hire them, be sure to break the project in phases with budgetary steps. That way you can fire them if they fail to perform. For example:

  1. Design proposal - what platform / software / feature solutions they recommend. free
  2. Graphical mock-up - any logo design, layout, menus, color schemes, etc. paid
  3. Construction - implement the graphical design into the platform software. paid
  4. Deployment - load all inventory, product images, pricing data, whatever. paid
  5. SEO - any linking programs, social media announcements, etc. paid
  6. Maintenance - keeping inventory, pricing, customer data, backups, seo. paid recurring.

On a small project, these steps will still be done, just shorter timeframes and smaller budget. The purpose for the steps is to require an interactive development process more than anything.

Jerry

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Wow, these are great ideas. I am a noob, and this post helps me understand what the professional process is and what to aim for. Thank you.

Another great read. Thank you so much. Your knowledge is invaluable!

Hey Jerry
I would add another question that bothers me. Being so long in the programming field from your experience - what are the chances that better companies will take me seriously without a software engineering diploma?
Is a strong GitHub enough to get to the first round of company tests? How much does my portfolio represent me? Do I have a chance to grind my position in companies not educating myself in school? Shortly, can I find a good job with future perspectives choosing courses and studying later myself?
Appreciate your contribution, with regards Bart

When applying for jobs, keep in mind that many job postings are not real jobs. Companies post jobs to make it look like they are expanding, but they never hire into those positions. Then when a company does hire, they have HR sift your resume through keywords. Finally a tech team will interview you on your skills.

Your skills will be tested very strenuously by some teams, such as the major .com companies. But it might be a very minor test in other companies. One company that interviewed me asked me “What is data normalization?”. That’s a database concept. Very basic. It was the only question!

Why? Because the guy was leaving the company and just wanted someone to take the job. He wasn’t looking for a world leading expert. Just a warm body.

Me personally, when I have hired, I never gave a technical test. I can tell by talking to you how experienced you are. So I ask you about projects you worked on and what you did. If you try to bullshit me, I know it. I can spend an hour with you and know tons about what kind of person you are. If you don’t know a skill, I can teach you. If you are not a trustworthy person, I won’t waste my time on you. I’ve done very well this way and have several people who spent their entire career in positions I put them in. Never a technical test.

So you never know what you will encounter. But I will say your odds of getting hired depend MORE on who you know that can introduce you into a position. 90% of jobs are given to referred candidates. So do your networking.

Jerry

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Your post hits close to home as I’ve been in the coding game for a minute. Making a living as a programmer? Totally doable! It’s like riding a bike, once you get the hang of it, the opportunities roll in like waves at high tide.

Speaking of opportunities, let’s talk about Plenty of online CNC machinist programs prepare students. Plenty of online options out there, right? It’s like having a toolbox full of skills ready to tackle any project. Just like coding, mastering CNC machining opens up a world of possibilities.

Now, about making that bread as a programmer? It’s all about hustling, my friend. Putting in the hours, grinding through those tough bugs, and never backing down from a challenge. It’s not always smooth sailing, but the satisfaction of seeing your code come to life? Priceless.