How I Became a Self-Taught Developer without a CS degree: Alex Kasongo’s Story

I’ve always been creative and resourceful. In 2008 while in high school, I joined a band. We got signed to a record label and almost became famous. On a broken Acer laptop that my father gave me, I produced our instrumentals. The laptop had issues, so I taught myself how to repair computers. In 2014, I was no longer part of the band. I started a fashion business alongside my father. We manufactured custom bomber jackets from bales of sample fabrics. The design and procurement of raw materials were one of my many roles. I built our online store using WordPress. This came with a host of tasks and challenges including but not limited to photographing, filming, editing content, and creating digital marketing campaigns. This became a great outlet and platform for owning my creative, business, and entrepreneurial skills. The business took off and became a decent source of income for my family. In 2017 I decided to pursue a degree in marketing. I did so while running my fashion business and working as a computer technician on weekends at a local computer store. At the end of 2017, It dawned on me, I was surviving but not thriving. I needed a new direction that would allow me to control my own career and future while still being able to express my creativity.

When I was first introduced to coding in 2017, I realized it would open up limitless new career opportunities, but best of all, it didn’t require a degree in computer science to excel. Instead, all I needed was to learn the necessary skills and have the determination to work hard and deliver.

What first encouraged you to learn to code and pursue a career in tech?

The pursuit for happiness, love for technology, and being broke! I wanted to have skills that would allow me to work anywhere my heart desired in the world. I wanted to earn that financial freedom kind of money. The kind of money that allows me to be a source of blessings to the ones I love and the world. The kind that allows me to invest in the things and ones I love.

The great thing about code is that companies don’t care about a degree. All they care about is the work you put in, your ability to code and deliver. For the first time, I felt like I had control over my life again.

How did you integrate learning to code into your everyday life?

I did not have the funds to pay for a coding Bootcamp or purchase coding courses as I was studying full time and working 12-hour shifts on weekends to pay for my tuition. Instead, I sneaked learning from YouTube into my weekday. I would make sure to attend only the classes I really needed to and leave campus as soon as I could, then proceed home to YouTube. I figured I could squeeze in 3–4 hours of coding, Monday to Friday after classes, and still operate the business.

If I wasn’t sneaking in code on campus, I would be reading about code on my phone and speaking to strangers about code on weekends at work. At times it was discouraging knowing how limited my situation was, but I knew that if I didn’t try now, when would I? It was either now or never. So, I chose now. With great power comes great responsibility and sacrifice. I had to sacrifice my social life and regrettably burn quite a few bridges. Thankfully time heals all wounds and I am actively mending broken relationships.

After only 3 months of learning, you landed a position as a developer. Tell us a little about the work you’re doing now and how your career has evolved since learning to code.

After 3 months of dedication, a customer walked into the computer store I worked at. He was looking at keyboards for coding. Something prompted me to ask him which coding language he recommends for beginners. His eyes lit up…he pulled me over to a laptop we had on display and went on to demonstrate the power of Javascript and why I should learn it. I was sold, and my curiosity enamored him. Basking in my contagious energy, he offered me a 6-month internship. It turns out he was the CTO of a global digital agency and an expert programmer. He took me under his tutelage.

After 6 months of interning, I was immediately given a permanent position as a Junior Frontend Developer and promoted to Mid Level Frontend Developer after only working there for about a year and a half. I was praised for my ability to learn fast, a keen eye for design, well-documented code, and attention to detail. Working for a small team as a junior meant that I had to not just know how to code but understand best practices and teamwork. For one of my first big projects, I was tasked to research, design, and build the company's internal information dashboard. After researching and designing it, my colleague built the backend using Laravel and I built the frontend using Vue.js. I then went on to build a cross-platform jobs portal application using Angular. “It’s amazing how it all came full circle. One of my goals for my fashion business was to provide jobs for textile workers. I accomplished this goal using code at a scale I could’ve never imagined”. I was then tasked to work full time on the Philip Morris Iqos Progressive Web Application. Phillip Morris is the biggest tobacco company in the world, at this point, I knew I was truly on the right path.

After having worked for over two years at the global digital agency, It was time for a new chapter in my life. So I handed in my resignation letter which my boss refused, fair enough. I was a great asset to the company. We made arrangements for me to continue working for the company.

It’s quite incredible to say, but yes, I did land a job as a developer in 3 months. I am a Front End Engineer. A jack of all trades but master of one: Javascript. I work on anything from regular static sites for smaller contracts to scalable Progressive Web Applications, Single Page Applications, and Cross-Platform Mobile Applications for bigger clients. I’ve worked with big clients from major law firms to global tobacco and Airline companies.

I’m really proud of having created ReseveMee, a Multi-tenant SaaS Scheduling, and Management Nuxt.js boilerplate.

What have you found to be the greatest challenge while learning to code?

I am a self-taught software engineer, so the biggest challenge is admitting that I don’t know something and asking for help. I pride myself in elegantly solving complex problems using languages and tools that most of the world dreads to imagine learning. When I began learning, It felt like I was dropped in the middle of the ocean with no life jacket and all I could do is keep swimming until I found a buoy. I just held on to it until I found my way home, with the home being the 6 months internship. Every day as a software engineer is a challenge but I keep at it because solving problems sparks joy.

How does working as a developer in the tech industry compare to your past careers?

The difference is huge. For once, I feel like I have complete control of my life. In all my previous jobs, I felt like I couldn’t go further. As a developer, you know you have a superpower and are valuable. You know you’re in a different league and are needed and you get the respect you deserve. I find management tends to be more flexible with us developers simply because of how hard we work and how essential we are to keeping the company alive.

What advice would you share with those who are just starting to learn to code?

Your initial hurdle is to train your mind to think more logically and analytically. Devote the bulk of your time to learning the fundamentals. Work on developing a holistic way of thinking about building Software. The challenge is being able to transfer your existing mental framework(s) to a completely new domain. The shift takes time and cannot be rushed, so be patient and stick through. Once this happens, you will be in a conducive mental state to devote more time and effort to speed up your progress in the later stages of your learning.

Hi, my name is Alex. I’m a front-end engineer, passionate for the web, responsive design, & typography.