Becoming a self-taught programmer is a lonely road. Most of your time is spent sitting in a room by yourself staring at a computer screen.
There is no one around to help you when you get stuck or to motivate you when you get down. There is no one around to celebrate with when you have a good day or to make small talk with when you need a break.
Sure, there are online tools like social media and community forums to help provide some human interaction but they are no substitute for being face to face with other people.
Luckily, most communities have a local tech scene that you can become a part of if you are willing to make the effort.
In Las Vegas, we have something called Demo Day.
Demo Day is basically show-and-tell for local developers. It is a monthly meet-up where developers show off what they have built.
Each presentation is followed by a question and answer period.
While everyone is encouraged to demo something, it is by no means required.
I attended my first ever Demo Day last week.
Face Your Fears
I don’t think there are a lot of people who enjoy the thought of walking into a room full of complete strangers.
It only makes it worse when the whole purpose of the gathering is to show off a set of skills that as a new self-taught programmer you are probably still pretty unsure of.
This can make it really tough to break out of your comfort zone and attend your first event.
I have known about Demo Day for several months, but I have put off going because I didn’t feel like I had a project worthy of showing.
In hindsight, I wish I would have gone sooner.
I have been to two programming events in person and they were both great.
Shortly after I started learning to program I attended WordCamp Las Vegas. This last week I attended Demo Day.
At both events, people were friendly and welcoming to both new attendees and new programmers. There were also plenty of other newbies.
The best part is that lurking is totally cool. If you don’t feel comfortable engaging with new people or talking about your programming skills you can just hang towards the back and blend into the crowd.
This may not be the best long-term plan but if sitting quietly in the back is what it takes to make you comfortable enough to start attending events then so be it.
Demo Day takes place on the second Saturday of the month from 12pm to 3pm.
The first half hour is set aside for networking, with the demos scheduled to begin at 1230pm.
Being a new person who hates networking, my plan was to arrive about 1215pm.
Although I don’t like networking, I recognize its importance. Especially for someone in my position. But I also know my limitations and I can’t network for 30 minutes at a time. Hence my plan to arrive halfway through the networking period.
I ended up running a bit behind schedule and I didn’t pull into the parking lot until 1220pm.
As I rushed into the building, I saw a few people standing outside talking so I didn’t feel as bad about running late.
The event was on the third floor of the Innevation Center, a super cool tech complex.
As I was waiting for the elevator, a woman walked up. After introductions and some small talk, I learned that it was her first Demo Day as well.
We made our way through the third-floor hallways and found the room where the meeting was being held.
Unfortunately, even though it wasn’t 1230pm there was already a presentation well underway.
So much for networking.
The room was packed. My new friend and I exchanged a sheepish look and then went our separate ways to try to find somewhere to sit.
There was quite a bit of empty space towards the back of the room so I headed there to get a better feel for what was going on.
There was a guy at the podium standing in front of a screen with cartoon cats and text that was way to small for me to read.
Based on the questions from the crowd and his responses, I gathered that his app had something to do with cryptocurrency, although even he seemed confused about how the cartoon cats tied in.
I spotted an open seat in the back row so I grabbed it, along with a couple of slices of pizza from the snack table I just happened to be standing by.
Each presenter was given 15 minutes to demo their project. Then they took questions from the crowd, which often included tips for how the project might be improved.
Project topics included a photography website that was someone’s final project from a boot camp, a music making app for DJs, a calendar app, and a way to access someone’s password protected Microsoft Office documents without the password. Actually, I am probably not supposed to talk about that last one…
One of the things that I found really interesting was the diversity of programming languages used. It seemed like every project was built using a different language, some of which I hadn’t even heard of before.
Since so many new programmers struggle to figure out what language they should learn first, it was nice to see that you can build interesting projects in all sorts of languages.
A Rookie Steals the Show
My favorite presentation involved a self-described rookie discussing a website he created for work.
I think he said he started working on the site about a year ago and he had never done any coding before that. A co-worker designed the layout but the rookie had to figure out how to build it.
He downplayed his coding skills but the site looked great and had good functionality. You can check it out here.
Everyone was impressed, especially considering that he didn’t really know anything about coding when he started.
The best part was when he started talking through how he made the site. He talked about using HTML and CSS for the front-end and then PHP for the backend.
At one point someone asked, “Wait, you didn’t use any type of framework?”
The rookie paused, a look of confusion on his face, and then said something like, “No. What is a framework?”
The audible gasp that came from the crowd was priceless. The idea that someone could build such a great site without using a framework blew their minds.
After someone explained frameworks and how they make things easier the rookie chuckled and said something along the lines of, “Hmm, I guess I’ll have to look into that.”
While I considered presenting my Twitch project, one of the big reasons I went to Demo Day was to meet some local developers.
They actually structure Demo Day to encourage networking. After two or three presentations they take a 20-minute break for networking.
They must have started the presentations at noon because it felt like the first networking break was right after I sat down.
I got up and wandered around a bit. I said hello and introduced myself to a few people but nothing that led to a prolonged conversation.
Much of the action centered around the back of the room where the food and the foosball table was located.
I was watching from afar when a third person walked up to the foosball table. The two players told him to find a fourth and they would play partners.
Unfortunately, someone else jumped in before I could get there but I knew I had found my future networking spot.
On the next break, the same two guys started playing foosball and I positioned myself nearby.
When the third guy walked up again and they mentioned finding a fourth I stepped forward and proudly proclaimed, “I will be your fourth player!”
It worked. After a quick round of introductions, I was placed on defense, which included playing goalie.
Now I can’t tell you the last time I played foosball. Being responsible for guarding the net while trying to make small talk with strangers was a lot of pressure.
These guys were serious about their foosball but I was serious about my networking.
“So, this is my first meet up. How about you guys?” Crap, 1-0. My bad!
“What languages do you guys work with?” Whoopsie! 2-0.
As if playing foosball and talking to three other people wasn’t enough mental stimulation, a guy who I used to work with at the Venetian recognized me and came over.
So now I was playing foosball, trying to connect with the other players, and catching up with this guy all at the same time.
Turns out that he also decided to learn to program a few months back. He has just finished an online boot camp and was attending his first Demo Day too.
I joke about the difficulty of playing foosball while carrying on a conversation but it was a nice, painless way to meet some new people.
While the conversation itself may not have been the most productive from a networking standpoint, I still made a connection with some new people.
Hopefully, I can build on that familiarity in the next meetup to spark up a more programming focused conversation away from the foosball table.
Get Out There!
Check meetup.com and look for programming meetups in your area.
If you use freeCodeCamp you should also check to see if there is a study group in your area. The fCC Las Vegas Facebook page is where I first heard about Demo Day.
You can also try finding like-minded programmers on the community forums for whatever online training site you prefer.
Regardless of how you find them, don’t be afraid to get out there and meet other developers in your area.
It is easy to make excuses, but the truth is, it is never too soon to start making connections.
Even if you are early in your programming journey and don’t feel like you have much to offer the conversation you can still learn from others and make valuable connections.
In hindsight, I wish I would have started going to Demo Day sooner rather than waiting until I felt like my programming was worthy of presenting.
Learn from my mistakes and get out there now!