Is Being “Self-Taught” Good Enough?

Grace Lam
I’m working in web development for a bit.

I wanted to see if I could do it because I taught myself all the web languages I know. People are surprised that I wanted to code all day, but it’s like a test:

Am I good enough?

Would I spend my days throwing my keyboard out the window? HR might eventually tell me, “Now, use Siri to recite your code.”

Does being a self-taught developer, musician, engineer–anything–work? Or are you always subpar to everyone who pursued a formal education in the subject?

I’ll spend the next few months discovering this.

There are like twenty guys for every girl in a software company. Last week in the kitchen, one guy tried to sell me protein powder—so I’ve probably met the resident drug dealer.

Not very much talking happens with my team and I’m not expected to attend many meetings at all.

I feel like I need to check in with someone before and after the workday, but I never know when I’d be disturbing people in their offices. I keep my office door closed because my neighbours probably don’t appreciate The Chainsmokers like I do.

It turns out that the ability to talk and collaborate on my work is something that I crave, and I want to know that my work is important enough to involve other people.

Many fulltime musicians tell me how easy it is to get unmotivated or lost when spending all their time with the same few people.

My first Friday, at 5:30pm, I wanted to ask my team whether they needed me to finish a task before leaving for the week; I’d already stayed past 5. I walked down the hallway and noticed the offices were empty.

My team was gone. They weren’t joking about work-life balance. 

Walking back to my office was a peculiar feeling and it wasn’t so much the work-life balance that bothered me; I’d never been left behind by my team.

Do I just leave? What if I didn’t deliver as much as I was expected to?

I’m used to staying late, meeting deadlines, doing whatever needs to be done.

When I practiced piano for the Performance exam, I played until 11pm. Work has always been life, because if it wasn’t worth my life, then was it worth working for at all?

So I’m trying to come to terms with work-life balance. How does a person put their ambition on hold for 12 hour breaks? (Netflix is an exception.)

I’m taking tasks off the board like the other developers working on the product.

The team says I work fast, and fast is good for now. I want someone to say that my code is clean or smart, but it’s hard to differentiate my work from another developer’s.

I’d need a hard problem to solve, and I haven’t gotten any hard problems in my second week.

This must be like anyone who’s tried to release a music album. Or start a music studio to teach. What differentiates them from the other musicians?

In one Freakonomics episode, economists explain that mattress stores tend to cluster together in one area within a city, because each product (the mattress) is very similar to the next, so customers aren’t loyal to one brand nor the other. When stores cluster together, they share customer bases and labour pools, which drive up profit.

I feel like one of these mattresses. I’ll be a better developer in the long run, but right now, I’m not feeling very important.

And that’s all we want from our work, right? To feel like we’re working on something important. Something substantial enough to dedicate two thirds of our days to it.

So maybe, it’s not about how good we are, but how important our tasks feel. How meaningful the work is.

This goes for music, too: whether we are practicing a piece of music or teaching others.

In the mean time, I’ll focus on working fast so the team will think I’m capable, and give me an interesting problem to solve, when it comes up.

Who else is self-taught?

10 Comments

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10 Comments

  • Reply carol January 31, 2017 at 11:22 am

    yea –I self-taught myself some guitar. but is got scolded from my piano instructor that I was putting calluses on my fingers and he told me to stop. but is was learning on a steel string guitar. he finally let me continue on the ukulele instead. I really god at it too. composed some pieces and my friends can sing along too.
    but nothing beats learning a new piano piece and to practice it ’til it almost sounds as good as the mp3 recording! still with in the music world. I also am a engineering CAD technician. so like you, I stare at a computer monitor for loooonggg periods of time. hmmm . . . should get my eyes checked too!!

    • Reply Grace Lam January 31, 2017 at 11:35 am

      I love how instruments like guitar and ukulele are so social! We sang happy birthday to my sister in, like, 7 languages at her birthday. It’s so easy to strum chords and have friends sing along, and much more common to be self-taught. Classical piano is so taboo to be self-taught.

      And, once you get glasses, it’s hard to go back–I’d put it off as long as possible!

  • Reply Savvy January 31, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    I took piano lessons for about 3 years and self-taught myself for 5. I totally agree with what you are saying, it is hard to feel up to par! I am usually questioning my skills as a piano teacher and wondering if I’m as good as others. Glad I’m not alone in this boat :-)

    • Reply Grace Lam February 3, 2017 at 4:36 pm

      Sounds amazing! Self-taught piano teachers are so inspiring. :)

  • Reply Mike January 31, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    This reminded me of a point where I spent a couple of years working on a specialty project…

    Every few months, I’d spend a month (or two) working at an office in Denver, writing programs for the machinery we were creating. We all had offices, but nobody used them; we all worked in a giant room full of emulators plugged into hand-wrapped circuit boards.

    The emulator room was completely silent for hour after hour, as everyone concentrated on his or her task…
    Well, actually, it wasn’t completely silent. If you stopped working and listened…
    1. After a little while, you heard (from off to the right) a frustrated (but quiet) “fuck”.
    2. A minute later, from off to the left it was an equally quiet “shit”.
    3. Then a few moments later, from even further left: “Oh. Fuck.”

    And so on… hour after hour. All day. Every day.
    So I was wondering: is web development easier than hardware engineering? Or has the language improved?
    ;)

    • Reply Grace Lam February 3, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      I bet “hand-wrapped” circuit boards added a flair to your workspace! In web dev we tend to ask questions instead:
      1. “Why.”
      2. “Fuck. Why.”
      Likely both, in agony, because the web is magic and things break whenever they want.
      Sometimes you spend 45 mins fixing a bug, and all you had to do was restart the server.
      So I’m not sure if web development is easier than hardware engineering, but it seems to be more vocal.

  • Reply Derek February 3, 2017 at 8:22 am

    I’ve self-taught myself programming for the past few years along with mathematics. Keyboard/Piano was another attempt at self-learning but that didn’t go so well. I must admit it’s been a while since I read any of your blog entries. How long have you been programming? Front-end or back-end? Good luck. Maybe you could write some more entries on programming topics?

    • Reply Grace Lam February 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      You study math for fun! That’s wild. I’d ask if it were discrete or calculus, but probably both, right?

      I’ve been programming on and off for a long time. I know front-end really well, so I’m trying to learn more back-end work now. And ok, if I come across anything interesting in programming I might write about it. :)

      • Reply Derek February 4, 2017 at 8:46 am

        Funny you should ask. It’s actually this book:
        https://www.amazon.com/Concrete-Mathematics-Foundation-Computer-Science/dp/0201558025
        It’s a combination of CONtinuous and disCRETE mathematics by the one and only Knuth and others. I’d highly recommend it. The writing is super engaging and humorous. That’s awesome. I hope you do.

        • Reply Grace Lam February 4, 2017 at 10:11 am

          Looks like a solid math textbook! I might pick it up next time I visit a bookstore. P.S. This blurb caught my eye: “We have tried to produce a perfect book, but we are imperfect authors. Therefore we solicit help in correcting any mistakes that we’ve made. A reward of $2.56 will gratefully be paid to the first finder if any error, whether it is mathematical, historical, or typographical.” :D

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