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The Privilege Of Learning

yechielk profile image Yechiel Kalmenson Originally published at blog.yechiel.me on ・5 min read

I recently came across a question on Quora that got me nervous, mainly because of the underlying assumptions. I figured I would cross post it here in case anyone here can benefit from it:

Why don’t more poor people with internet access teach themselves to code, and earn a more comfortable living? What other barriers may be in play here?

I believe I am qualified to answer this question. Let me tell you a bit about myself, and you will see why.

About two years ago we were at a low point. Our landlord notified us that he would not be renewing the lease, and rent in our area was too high for us to afford.

My wife was out of a job, and one income was just not enough to make rent on even a smaller apartment. Without much choices, we ended up moving with our three children into my parents’ basement, where we stayed for about a year.

At around that time (actually it started a bit before we found out we’d be homeless soon), I started looking into upgrading my skill set. Programming was a field I always enjoyed, and everyone said I’d be good at.

The problem was that to learn enough to be career ready, in a short enough time to make it practical I’d have to look into some bootcamp-style program, and those are: A) expensive and B) involve taking three months+ off work which I just could not afford.

Thankfully, around that time, I came across Flatiron School’s online program. Now I had an option that was considerably cheaper, and, being online, meant I could do it part-time while keeping my job.

With the help of a local organization that provided a scholarship for part of the tuition and a friend of my father who loaned me the rest under very comfortable “pay-me-when-you-can” terms, I was able to enroll in the program.

That started a long hard year where I kept my full-time job during the day and stayed up coding all night (as late as 2–3am at least 3–4 nights a week) and on the weekends. During that year I also had to deal with the move into my parents’ basement as mentioned (and that includes supporting a wife who had to move into her mother-in-law’s basement).

It definitely wasn’t easy, but recently I finally graduated.

Things are looking better now, we recently moved into our own apartment, I was able to pay back the loan to my dad’s friend, my wife got a job, and I’m now interviewing for jobs where the starting salary is almost double what I’m currently making.

At first glance, my story seems to be a perfect illustration of what the OP was asking. A case of a “poor person” who was able to use the magic pill of teaching himself to code to get out of a tight situation, and give his family options.

A deeper look at the details will show why that is not the case.

For now, I will ignore the well-established debate regarding if everyone CAN learn to code (and enough to use it to make a living), and assume for argument’s sake that that’s an option for everyone.

I’ll be honest; I used to think like OP as well, I used to say “if I could do it, why can’t everyone?” But the more I’ve spoken to others in my situation, the more I realized that my situation was actually privileged (not counting the fact that I happen to live in a part of the world where internet access is common, OP hinted at that in the question). Let me highlight some of them:

Finance :

As much as I complained about my financial situation in the beginning of this answer, we were still fortunate to have an extensive safety net. Many people don’t have parents capable and willing to open up their home to their grown-up children and most people don’t have friends who would loan them thousands of dollars like my father’s friend did. If not for those two factors (and others) there is no way I would have been able to afford, even the cheaper online option.

Peace Of Mind:

I’m fortunate to work at a 9–5 office job that doesn’t follow me home. Many people have much harder day jobs, by the time they get home they are wiped. Staying up until three on a regular basis, doing the type of heavy thinking needed to learn to code is an impossible request for them. I mean, even under the same conditions as me, not everyone can simply function on 4–5 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Support:

Luckily I had the full support of my wife (who was going through hard times herself). Not everyone has that luxury. Some people cannot rely on the support of their family, and may actually need to support  them.

I’m sure there are others, and every once in a while I think of different ways in which I’ve been blessed. But the main thing I learned is that I can never judge another’s situation. Implying that someone is poor because of their laziness or lack of will to improve their situation means that you fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be poor.

My biggest hope is that I never forget these lessons and that when I’m in the situation where I can help those in my previous situation, I’ll grab that opportunity with both hands.

Until then, if there’s anyone who is thinking of, or who started out on the path to code, and who is looking for someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out to me, and I will try to help to the best of my abilities.


This article has been cross-posted from my blog Coding Hassid.
You can read more about my coding journey there, or by following me on Twitter @yechielk

Discussion (16)

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justicofjustin profile image
Anthony

THIS TIMES A MILLION. Many people look to coding as a way out of poverty, and upward mobility. I think you really captured a lot of peoples situations (including my own) and how difficult it is to learn any new skill set when life simply doesn't allow it. It was very fortunate that you were able to have those fall backs and safety nets to allow you to get an education.

This was a very well thought out article - can't wait to read more like it.

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nipeshkc7 profile image
Arpan Kc

Wow! One of the best things I've read this month.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Wonderful story. There is a lot of survivorship bias in play when people talk about this issue. Sure it's easy to say you know what made you successful, but you are completely blind to what was on the other side if a few things didn't work out.

When I needed to learn to code for real I bought a $20 computer and pirated Lynda.com videos. I was in this category in a sense, but I was also in a delicately perfect time to take a few massive risks and was lucky enough to know a few people who were very encouraging at the time. I look back at that time and the outcome was extremely nebulous. I had almost everything going me for besides the money and it was still a massive crapshoot.

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takumab profile image
takumab

If I could highlight a paragraph it would be this one:
"Implying that someone is poor because of their laziness or lack of will to improve their situation means that you fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be poor."

So many of us really don't understand this and thanks for putting things into perspective. To be honest I often ask or think to myself why don't we all just learn to code and everything would be better, without realizing how complicated other people's lives can be.
Thank you for writing this.

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yechielk profile image
Yechiel Kalmenson Author

We all have this bias where we feel like our success is deserved mainly due to our own hard work. We don't necessarily realize how much of it is due to pure luck (I seem to recall a certain politician bragging that his success was due to his own hard work, plus a 'moderate' loan of a few million from his dad).

Of course hard work is necessary; without it you'd be nowhere. But many people work harder than you or I ever will, and are still stuck simply because they were not as lucky in the lottery of life.

This realization is necessary if we will be creating a word built on empathy for those less fortunate than us.

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kataras profile image
Gerasimos (Makis) Maropoulos • Edited

A very nice personal story which really touched me, we may have many things in common :) Nice job! I have met with many people that, sadly, are not awareness what poor means and I always try to "teach" them how they should be respectful without discriminations (as diplomatically as I can), as you pointed out: << Implying that someone is poor because of their laziness or lack of will to improve their situation means that you fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be poor >>. I couldn't express myself completely before that post, you gave me a good argument to explain the matter better, thank you very very much! Hope you the bests to your family and your career!

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Adam Friedl

Yechiel, this is an awesome post! I really admire your thoughtfulness and gratitude. You and I both went through the Flatiron online program while still working full-time and having a spouse and child(ren), and you do a great job of describing how much hard work it's been, but also how lucky we are to have the opportunity and support. Thank you!

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yechielk profile image
Yechiel Kalmenson Author

Thanks for that Adam.

While hard work can't be discounted (you and I know that first hand, and actually, anyone in tech), we must still be conscious of how much of it is plain old luck and the lottery of fate, and keep that in mind while dealing with those less fortunate than we are.

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Max Antonucci

I've been pondering similar questions to this myself, and this post does a great job of shedding light on the answers. Some of my own biases and priviledges in how I've come to be a programmer have definitely made me not see a lot of the difficulties that many would face when trying to break into this field.

It goes to show that just because someone has lots of online resources to learn in no way just makes it easy to learn. Maybe easier in a few ways, but not just plain "easy." That was one of the biggest parts I didn't understand myself.

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yechielk profile image
Yechiel Kalmenson Author

True, it's definitely easier today than the days when computers were not in every house, and the only resource you could find was a used FORTRAN copy in the public library. But as you said, easier != easy.

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Ronald Flores Sequeira

I Belive that every one who learned to code, for whatever reason has to feal privileged. No matter if ones learn by the being at "Best" University or Pirating what he/she wish to learn, just that you ended up learning, and being capable of making a living of it, is more than you need to give thanks to life.

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HawiCaesar

Implying that someone is poor because of their laziness or lack of will to improve their situation means that you fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be poor.

A lot of people miss this point. I think you have put it well!!

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Christian Vasquez

Fantastic post Yechiel! I would love to read more of what you have learned.

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yechielk profile image
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___some_dude___ profile image
Poor Dude

Instead of teaching poor people with jobs to code. Teach poor people's children to code so they can pull themselves out of poverty and help their parents too.

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yechielk profile image
Yechiel Kalmenson Author

That is true, we should make education more accessible to ALL children. But keep in mind that not all poor children have the circumstances that will allow them to benefit from such a program.

My dream is to one day have a fund that accomplishes just that.