Teaching Web Dev Wasn’t My First Career. But It’s Quite Possibly My Best One.

By Mark Carlson

I was about 9 years old, riding in my dad’s station wagon and listening to the radio, when I heard a voice identify the song that had just played. I remember asking my dad who that was.

“That’s the DJ,” he said. “He plays the music on the radio.”

“He gets paid to do that?”

“Yes, he does.”

That short conversation inspired me to pursue my first career: radio broadcasting. At age 16, as soon as I could drive, I got a weekend overnight job at my hometown AM radio station. Later in high school, I was a weekend and full-time fill-in personality on KUBE 93 in Seattle, and in college I worked as an airborne traffic reporter.

Eventually I ended up as a program director and assistant music director at K-101/San Francisco, a top-rated major-market radio station with a $250,000 annual research budget, which we used to identify the “hits” and the “stiffs.” With $80,000 of that budget, we hired a data-gathering company to make phone calls to listeners who met a specific gender and music preference profile. Every 2 weeks we would get 40 “completes,” which we would then add to the previous cycle’s respondents, for an 80-person sample rolling average.

My next opportunity was a chance to manage a cluster of stations in Anchorage, Alaska—a much smaller market without the research budgets I had grown accustomed to. That lack of data motivated me to buy books and teach myself the coding and database skills that I needed to build my own online music research system. It took several months, but eventually I had something I felt comfortable linking from my stations’ websites. Within a few months of launching these tools for listener feedback we had several hundred people in each database regularly engaging with us about our content—all for pennies compared to the big budget and small sample in the San Francisco Bay Area. The result? Dramatic ratings and sales gains for all my stations.

Ten months after I began work on this project, the founders of a newly formed radio research company got word of my success. They asked to buy the system from me and then offered me a job to manage it—an entrepreneurial dream come true!

The skills I gained as a full-stack web developer dramatically changed the trajectory of my career and my life. I’m currently a senior UI developer and consultant on the Profile UI team at Gap Inc. I have recruiters reaching out to me daily inquiring if I’m “ready for a change.” It’s reassuring to know that a multibillion-dollar industry is continually interested in recruiting me and others with similar coding skills for their web dev teams.

When the team reached out to me and inquired if I would be interested in a teaching role at a university extension coding boot camp, I don’t think I let them finish asking the question before I said “Yes!” I imagined it would be rewarding but I had no idea just how incredibly rewarding it would become.

It’s been said “If you really want to learn something, teach it.” The pressure of getting in front of a group of people to demo web development techniques and technologies has made me a much better developer in my day job. I have to be able to explain my code to managers and to new members on my team. Teaching three nights a week certainly helps me hone those skills, and it has enabled me to become a tech lead at Gap.

While I do hope my story inspires future students and instructors, my students are in fact a source of deep inspiration for me. In class, we instructors move fast and give our students a firm grasp of basic web development early on. It’s incredible to see the growth that happens in such a short period of time. One group, after only 7 weeks, built a cyptocurrency tracking platform with Alexa voice integration for their very first class project! They surprise themselves and delight me with what they are able to create together as a team.

It’s even more gratifying to hear when they land their first big job in tech after graduation. Applying for jobs without any substantial work experience in the field can be a real struggle. Eager new coders are often met with frequent rejection and demoralizing technical interviews. But those who persevere find success. Some of my students have shared the news of landing roles at Adobe, Autodesk, and other major tech companies. Others have gone on to build businesses around the projects they have created in class. One student messaged me recently to tell me that a company is flying him out to Nevada to interview for a senior-level front-end engineer position!

By the end of the class, I have spent 6 months getting to know a wonderful group of curious and creative individuals who are no longer my students. They are my colleagues, future coworkers, future employees, and quite possibly future employers. It’s exciting to at first guide these lifelong learners and then watch in admiration as they pursue careers of promise and impact.

Mark Carlson teaches for the Berkeley Coding Boot Camp.

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