The first time I performed onstage was in front of two thousand people.
I was fourteen years old.
At a year-end assembly in eighth grade my Montana middle school put on a talent show with the entire student body and faculty in attendance, and I took the stage with my plastic first guitar and a whole bundle of nerves to play a cover song.
When it was over, I was hooked. The fear mixed with excitement, and the release of singing and playing in front of people were foreign but cathartic feelings for a bookish introvert like me. After that, it was all I wanted to do.
Over the next few years, I started a band with a few other kids who wanted that same release, and everything we did was centered around making music. Day jobs were a means to an end only—we weren’t concerned with career trajectories because we knew that music was the only real motivator propelling us forward.
Once we all were old enough to move out, we packed our gear and headed to Portland, Oregon, which might as well have been New York for the small towns and vast stretches of wilderness we were used to in Montana.
We recorded albums, played shows, and followed the passion to play that brought us all together in the first place, and somehow we would continue to do so for nearly twenty years. We never got enough momentum to go to “the next level” of having music pay our bills, but we didn’t care. Music was never about getting famous or making money for us. We made music because we had to, because we were compelled to, and in the process we created an inseparable family that’s still going strong to this day (we’re currently working on our next album as we speak).
But art doesn’t often count as a respectable or reliable living unless you’re one of a lucky few. As we got older, day jobs continued to keep us alive, but only just, and eventually we had to reckon with trying to make a real living while still putting all the adequate time, energy, and funding into a band. I washed dishes, cleaned hotel rooms, bussed tables, and worked in convenience stores, but I’d gravitated towards retail, primarily with dying media formats, as it was the most tolerable work.
Book, music, and video stores were my forte, the compromise being that if I had to work in the system, I at least wanted to still be close to works of art as much as possible—even if they were now commodities to be promoted and pushed. But after a failed marriage, a series of economic depressions, and a child to provide for, something needed to change. I wanted to be passionate about what I got paid for, not just able to tolerate it.
The band had refined our scope by then. We were tired of the grind of trying to find gigs, of dealing with venue owners and predatory marketing groups, of proverbially jumping up and down to try and get noticed. So we stopped playing live. This, for any good live band, is typically something of a death knell, but for us it redirected our focus on making music for ourselves first, and giving away the end product. It made us better than ever. But this also meant now instead of a little money coming in from music, there was none at all.
Somewhere in all of this, I started becoming really interested in computers. I’d always been fascinated with them, from the moment my family got out first PC in the mid 90s. But aside from my own unguided explorations, I never had a digital shepherd to show me how things worked behind the scenes. So when I got serious about it as an adult, it was a bumbling, roundabout process that really started with installing Debian-flavored Linux on an old laptop, and tinkering with (breaking) every aspect of the operating system I could. I stumbled into bash, trying to write command line scripts to do...anything, really, before finding my way to Python.
By this point I’d learned enough to become the de facto computer repair guy for friends and family, as well as the point-person in my job at a bookstore when things in my department went wrong (though if it was a really complicated issue, I still called Tech Support, whom I’d befriended by then with my endless curiosity). The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
My son, who was six at the time, had an aptitude for math, and the kinds of problems he was assigned in kindergarten weren’t cutting it for him. So I built him a math quiz game in Python. The project taught me a lot, and for once I was able to solve an actual real world problem with the skills I was developing. I was completely hooked.
In March of this year, along with 40 million or so other people, I was laid off due to the COVID epidemic. It became painfully obvious then that all the many skills I’d developed at work—this latest position being in the largest bookstore in the world, overseeing dozens of people, and responsible for literally millions of pieces of product—were completely irrelevant after the job ended. All the tricks and tips I had with the in-house software wouldn’t help me anywhere else, and with quarantine and a bleak outlook for the future, I threw myself headfirst into learning everything I could.
This isn’t a rags-to-riches post about landing a dream developer job—not yet, anyway. I’m still powering along trying to learn new skill sets, making music on the weekend, teaching my son everything I can, but for the first time in my life I’m confident about being able to use the skills I have learned to build a career—and to love the work along the way. There are plenty of hurdles to deal with (I didn’t even touch on the chronic migraines or sciatic nerve pain), but none big enough to make me quit or slow down—not after discovering how passionate I am about code. And hopefully soon enough, I’ll get to put that passion into practice and pay the bills with it. Guitars aren’t cheap, after all.