RebootSquad is a series of posts based on interviews with engineers, designers, and other digital professionals who have "rebooted" their careers, entering the technology field via nontraditional paths.
A Less Directed Path
As much as I like to tout the benefits of intentional living and goal deconstruction, not everyone makes their way into tech using such highly directed tools. Sometimes there are no grand designs. Sometimes there are no moonshot goals. Sometimes there's just gradual meandering in a vaguely themed direction.
And while that seems like a departure from the themes of Oddly Exceptional and RebootSquad, it still fits squarely into the area of lifestyle design.
Not everything needs to be a hillclimb. Not everyone needs or wants to conquer worlds through blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes contentment comes from simply having the time and financial means to pursue your various interests and hobbies. For some, technology is merely a high-leverage way to take care of one's basic needs.
Many hardcore technologists and tech workers will scoff at this type of technology professional. It can be hard to separate one's career from one's identity. Those that pair the two to assign higher meaning to the work—and understandably so. It becomes a matter of ego, for better or worse.
But the tech-job-as-a-means approach is hugely valuable. Understanding that this path exists can help shatter the myth of the ivory tower.
You don't need an advanced degree from a prestigious university. You don't need to slam brews with the startup bros. You don't need to slime your way through networking events.
You just need to learn enough to produce something, and then find someone who values it.
Meet Scott Button
I have a hard time describing Scott Button. He often wears a scowl, yet his humor is quick and powerful. His intelligence has a self-deprecating edge. If you listen to him speak, you might think him a pessimist, but witness his actions over time, and you see someone who is quietly, constantly reaching—not for anything grand, but for something slightly better, often for no other reason than his own curiosity. I've never met a kinder soul with a rougher exterior.
Combine all these things with a thousand other little bits I could never hope to adequately describe, and you begin to have an idea of who Scott Button is. A conversation with Scott is like a dance. It's performance. There's what is said... and then there's everything else. It's how it's said. It's an accompanying expression or sound. It's also what isn't said—the void left in the air, left for you to fill. Simple transcription of dialog leaves out 90% of the information.
But I figured I'd try. And Scott wasted no time in making my task difficult.
Oddly Exceptional: Not sure if you saw the last one of these. In a nutshell, I'm looking to tell folks' stories about their path into tech.
Scott Button: Okay. Nepotism.
SB: Nepotism. I don't think I've ever gotten a job without a personal recommendation.
Scott is almost entirely self-taught. Like me, he grew up in Montana. We attended the same high school, but didn't really know each other until college—the one we both dropped out of.
Over the years, he's has worked with various people in our circle of friends. One of my first paying gigs when I was starting out as a freelancer was with a company called YesJapan.com, where I enlisted Scott for help with design.
SB: I just started making web pages in middle school. Nothing that ever got put anywhere—I just wanted to mess with what the browser could do. I think at one point I thought I would be a web designer, but that just didn't happen. Probably when we did stuff for YesJapan was when I decided I was never doing design again. With design work, you can get feedback from people who don't know how to design, but if you do code, people who don't know how to code will rarely give you feedback unless it just doesn't work. Path of least resistance.
Around this time, Scott was working as a night-shift janitor and picking up skills in his spare time. With each project or job, he picked up a few more things, becoming more and more marketable.
SB: All my personal projects tend to get wiped out when I get a new computer. I have a problem with finishing things even if I'm just consuming them. If I'm working on a project for fun odds are good it'll never see the light of day. I just want to know how this thing works, or how to do this. I have a goal in mind, but I'll get bored with it, or it'll become a mess, and I'll think, "Whatever. I guess I can get paid to do this now. Good enough."
When he moved to Seattle, he joined our mutual friend Bill Wiens as a developer at Freelock Computing.
SB: It's all kind of hazy between then and when we moved to Seattle, but somehow I managed to acquire enough programming skills to get that job at Freelock. I feel like I knew some PHP before I started there, but that's where I learned more PHP, and learned that if I could avoid it, I didn't want to write it again.
OE: You learned enough to hate it.
Through friends, he was later introduced to and worked with Steve Haak, a partner at Solid State Pros. It was through an acquaintance of Steve's that Scott was introduced to his current company, where he writes community management and video streaming software for the adult entertainment industry.
SB: I dunno. Most of my career is luck, and knowing someone, and being on the edge of precarity for most of it. I don't know if there's a good lesson there.
SB: Yeah. But I'm not like some of my coworkers who are like, "I write my own 3D software to do VJ gigs."
OE: But where you're at now, you're happy, you're comfortable. The work is interesting....
SB: [Laughs] Yeah. It's not like, thrilling. But it's stable, it's a good place to work, and when there are new projects I get to change it up once in a while.
Spot the Gap
Scott is proof that there's a wide middle ground between the nontechnical and the most hardcore software engineers in the field. Television shows like Silicon Valley put these relative few under a magnifying lens, establishing that satirical-yet-somehow-oddly-accurate environment as commonplace, when in fact just a hundred thousand out of the 3.6 million U.S.-based software developers live in the San Francisco area.
The majority of software developers are mostly-normal folks with mostly-normal jobs—ones that just happen to pay much better due to the high-leverage nature of the work, and a shortage of people to do it.
OE: Any tips for anyone getting into this?
SB: I don't know. Just... do a thing?
OE: Don't not-do things?
SB: I don't know. I haven't done anything right, except somehow manage to survive. I have no idea what I'm doing. I am never prepared for anything. I don't plan anything, and yet I've managed to survive.
OE: There's something to that. When folks see people in this job, they think you have to know everything, that you have to have a plan.
SB: Everybody has blind spots. Everybody on my team is better than me, in general. But every once in a while there's a thing I do that they just don't do as well. The thing about programmers and engineers, in general, is that they might be smart, and also not know basic stuff. They'll have blind spots because engineers only care about things that they're interested in. Talk to the engineers you know and find out what they think is boring—like, as a group—and just dig into that, because they won't know anything about it.
Scott optimized his career for maximum return on minimal effort, leading to maximum personal comfort. When he wants to eat out, he does. When he wants a new video game, he buys it. He spends his spare time and attention learning about whatever interests him. Today, in the cafe where I met him, it was game development with WebGL. Tomorrow, who knows?
Whatever it is, he'll have the resources to pursue it.