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How I Got Here: Software developer Mike Lamb went from ‘getting well under the El’ to pitching corporate execs

"I'm sharing my story because I want to challenge the notion that people with certain backgrounds should keep it quiet."

Mike Lamb. (Courtesy photo)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

This is a guest post by Mike Lamb, a software developer and technical writer living in Audubon, NJ.
Seven years ago, I was 27 years old and homeless for the second time in a year.

It was the unsurprising result of a 13-year struggle with addiction that had thwarted my every attempt to get my life off the ground. I had taken five years to amass 61 college credits before my will to show up for class was completely broken. I had worked at hardware stores and liquor stores, washed dishes, shoveled asphalt and waited tables, before becoming totally unemployable.

I remember knowing in my bones that the rest of my life would be a revolving door between the streets, prisons and hospitals. I remember feeling like a ghost outside Wawa as morning commuters scurried past me from all sides. Their lives were unfathomable to me.

When I landed on the steps of the Last Stop in Kensington — “getting well under the El” — I was looking for a way to get off the street for a night. What I found instead was a community of people who were like me, but learning to live a different way of life.

Mike Lamb in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

I stayed there for a year, and I slowly began learning how to live through being in an environment that fostered a constant focus on service. After about six months, I got a job as a server at Fishtown Diner (at the time it was Mugshot Diner). I worked there for 15 months. In my free time I did work for various volunteer efforts in Camden and Kensington.

In spring of 2016, I got my resume in front of someone who was looking for a body to fill a seat on a contract.

The work was repetitive, with lots of copying and pasting. It also required in-depth research across a bunch of different systems with poor UIs. I was good at doing the repetitive parts with speed. My tolerance for mundane details was like a superpower. I had a knack for identifying patterns to expedite the research process. I became a team lead and trained others on the team with what I learned.

I stayed in that role for 21 months, but I realized that I wasn’t building marketable skills for the future. I considered going back to college to finish my degree. I was approaching 30 years old with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt still owed from the first time. I was averse to incurring new debt and the opportunity cost of spending so much time just to earn a baseline credential.

Luckily, I had also developed an interest in code from working so much with Excel. After about six months researching bootcamps, I decided to take the risk, and enrolled in New York Code + Design Academy. I cashed out the few thousand dollars I had in a 401(k) at the time so I could have money to survive for a few months out of work.

Toward the end of my three-month bootcamp, I brought an idea to Code for Philly’s 2018 monthlong Launchpad Hackathon. It was a web app to enable charities serving the homeless to notify the community of what items they need. The concept would also enable donors to make informed giving decisions to better meet their community’s needs. Volunteer organizations often have too much of a few commonly donated things (think shirts and pants), while suffering from shortages of other important items like socks and underwear. I delivered the presentation of my team’s project at the end of the month, and our work won the competition by audience vote.

An audience watching a presentation.

At the demo night for Code for Philly’s Civic Engagement Launchpad projects in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Code for Philly)

After the bootcamp, my former boss made me a great offer to return to my old company. My cash would run out within two months, and if I didn’t have work by then I would need to go back to waiting tables. I decided it would be better to earn more in the near-term and buy more time to round out my web dev skill set, so I took the job.

It turned out to be a great opportunity to create a developer role for myself by automating the team’s most repetitive and time-consuming work. Over the next two years, I got the valuable experience of taking a program from design, through development, and to deployment.

Being in management consulting, I was also deeply involved in the sales process. I developed demos and delivered presentations for stakeholders all the way up to the executive level — both for our client and within my own company. I participated in strategy sessions and helped write proposals.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop such an interdisciplinary skillset, but I feel that my talents should be put to use in a way that’s more aligned with my values. I’m going out on my own as a consultant to bring the benefits of modern tech stacks to small businesses and individual creators.

I’m sharing my story because I want to challenge the notion that people with certain backgrounds should keep it quiet. My story is obviously not for everyone, and not for every setting, but it shaped who I am at a fundamental level.

My favorite thing about tech is the way it unbundles power from institutions and old norms. I feel drawn to dedicate my energy to spreading that opportunity around.

Series: How I Got Here

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