Want to make big bucks as a coder? Just learn how to Google


Programmer Jessica Dennis at AltConf
Programmer Jessica Dennis at AltConf.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Coding is intimidating. It seems preposterously hard. So technical. You need degrees and training and a certain kind of brain.

But Jessica Dennis, a programmer working in upstate New York, says that’s not true.

To become a programmer, you just need to know how to Google.

In an empowering talk at AltConf, a technical conference running in parallel to Apple’s WWDC, Dennis explained how she went from English major to programmer by faking it.

Dennis said a lot of people have the notion that becoming a developer seems like a ridiculously huge task. But, it’s not really.

“No one is actually born good at tech,” she said. “We can all be developers if we want to. We just have to figure it out.”

Dennis described how she got her first technical job in tech support — by, you guessed it, Googling what she needed to know. She steadily rose through the ranks of her employer — which she didn’t name — by, again, searching for whatever she needed to know.

“At the time I knew almost nothing,” she said. “I figured it out as I went along.”

She was always nervous that her bosses and coworkers would realize she didn’t know what she was doing, but she was never called out. In fact, when she told her boss she needed a few days off to travel to San Jose to give a talk, he asked her what her talk was about.

“Imposter syndrome,” she replied. “The feeling like you don’t know what you are doing, but you do it anyway.”

“It’s not just me?” her boss relied, which surprised her. He seemed very technical and accomplished. But he, too, felt like a fraud.

The feeling is nearly universal, Dennis noted.

“Tech is awesome and you can totally do it,” she said. “I, an English major, am proof that you can do it.”

Dennis said that the only constant thing in tech is change: Technology changes all the time. And if you don’t “feel like a big dummy,” it means you have stagnated. You’re not learning any more.

“Google is the single most important tool in your life in tech,” she said. “We all Google Stack Exchange (a programmer’s website) all day long.”

“Don’t worry,” she concluded, “you will eventually figure it out.”

  • shannon_f

    Yea, who needs programmers to understand concepts like Big O notation, data structures, algorithm design, design patterns and all that other junk they teach you when going for a Computer Science degree?

    • cse421

      Did you miss the part about her steadily progressing? She had the talent to learn on her own and give a talk at altconf. I feel like we should applaud that.

      I know I’ll never hire anyone on my team that doesn’t understand that the most important thing you can learn while getting a CS degree is how to learn new things on your own.

      I’d take someone with 10 years of experience programming over a fresh CSE graduate any day.

      • shannon_f

        I understand the steadily progressing part. I also know fantastic programmers who don’t have CS degrees. But even they wouldn’t say all you need is Google. You could use that logic to say anyone can get any degree or job as long as they can Google. Does that mean that her coworkers should be happy they have to wait for her to go google something when they ask her a question about something any CS graduate would already know? You wouldn’t want your doctor to pull out a book or computer for every question you ask them, would you? To me, it’s an insult to people who spent the time and effort getting their CS degrees when she says anyone can do our job as long as they know how to google.

  • jdfwarrior

    Exactly.. anyone can make something. Without knowing the concepts and knowing what you’re doing though, you’re probably making inefficient garbage. Also, the first time you need that person to do something that can’t just be Googled, then what are they going to do? I hope that I never get anyone on my team like this.