An Open Reply To Questions About My Background And Experience

I recently received an e-mail from a fellow named Edward T. Boot, asking about my experience and credentials. As the sorts of questions asked there aren’t new — people occasionally ask for my CV / justification of my credentials — and since posting such questions on Yahoo! Answers would probably qualify as chatting (in violation of the Community Guidelines), I decided I would answer the question here.

Hi,
I do not really have a work related question for you, but more so a question about your experience. What really qualifies you as being someone who knows everything about programming? On your website, you state you got a major in broadcast journalism and that you wrote for several different places, then you started your own computer/internet consulting business and you do freelance programming I just read.

That’s correct. As the About Me page and a previous blog entry on this site note, I started making Web sites as a sideline somewhere around 1996. It eventually expanded into programming, then consulting, and blossomed into my full-time career. At the time I started that business, I was also editorial page editor for the Central Maine Newspapers; my professional career and educational background prior to that had mostly been in newspaper reporting, but also in television production and electronics repair.

What really qualifies you to be a computer or internet expert in the field of programming?

A favorite quote of mine, from Dad: “The only difference between you and an expert is, the expert has screwed up in ways you can’t even imagine.” In other words, I’m an expert because I not only know how to do things, I know how not to do them, and I know how not to do them because I’ve tried to do things the wrong way before and it’s come back to bite me.

In fact, I can read code on this blog that I wrote two years ago, and realize that’s not the way I should have gone about solving that problem.

Practice makes perfect. I have lots and lots of practice. And I am a genius (I have an IQ of 135). That generally makes learning things, and retaining what I have learned, easier for me than it is for most people.

Do you have people who work for you that tell you this stuff, or are you a self taught programmer?

As the previous blog entry noted, I am self-taught. I took one introductory C++ programming class in college, but all the practical programming knowledge I have comes from reading books / Web sites, watching videos and attending seminars.

I have had subcontractors in the past who worked under me on a project basis; these were graphic designers, as I’m no artist. (Interestingly, when I started, I was the graphics / layout guy and others were the programmers. That quickly changed, as most of my early work centered on working for ad agencies, converting their designs into Web sites.) I haven’t had a subcontractor since 2000.

I’m a fan of answers myself and I like to help people out a lot in the programming and design boards, and I see you are the top contributor. I’m not trying to offend you in any way but it seems like there is a missing link somewhere and you didn’t really give any details about your experience in computers on your “contact/about me” page, so how do you answer all of these programming related questions being of your status?

I’ll let my work — here, on Answers, and elsewhere — defend itself. I’m certainly not going hungry, so I must be doing something right.

I’m just interested in your history beings your racked up so many thousands of points on Yahoo.

As I have noted here before, getting points on Yahoo! Answers has everything to do with being selective about the questions I answer, voting my own answers as best, and the low levels of participation / low quality of other answers.

I self taught myself a lot of programming concepts and got jobs out of it, but now I actually got to college to have a legitimate background in my experience.

When you discover that your college education makes you no more prepared for the job market than had you devoted the same period to learning how to work in specific platforms and technologies, you’ll regret that decision. You’ll also recognize it as sophomoric.

In many career paths, a college degree, especially a graduate degree, matters; this is especially true of business management and certain licensed professions, such as the medical, scientific and legal fields.

If you examine the jobs for non-managerial computer science positions, however, you’ll note that most state “4-year degree or equivalent experience”, and all the ones that pay well require 10+ years’ experience. That’s what you should be applying yourself toward if you want to write code: Experience, not education.

How much could you possibly know, though, to charge people $70.00 an hour for being their consultant, and a whopping $1000.00 for actual programming when you have no real qualifications besides experience for programming? I thought I was a know-it-all before going to college for programming and there was a lot I really didn’t know, so I would love to hear your story.

Others might find this passage offensive, but it’s actually ignorant. However, this is the way most people who are used to working for a wage think, especially people who are used to working for a wage and have no management experience. It’s the way I used to think.

I am worth $70 per hour because my clients agree I am worth $70 per hour. I can ask for, and get, a $1,000 retainer because if I don’t get it, I won’t work for you.

I ask for those things because otherwise, it’s not worth my time and effort to help you. I’d rather do nothing than work for $10 an hour. I have the luxury of being able to make that call. My clients pay the $70 per hour because they have learned that if I tell them something, I am usually right. But more specifically, if they have a problem, I will fix it, whatever that problem may be.

That I don’t hold some academic credential might disqualify me in some hiring manager’s eyes, and that’s fine by me. Again, I point to the work I have done here and elsewhere as all the proof one needs of my qualifications. For scores of clients, the fact that whatever problem they had is now gone more than justifies my rates.

People are paid what they are worth and vice-versa. That is a very difficult concept for non-entrepreneurs to understand, but it is literally that simple.

Heck, $70 an hour isn’t a lot when compared to any other contract labor — be it a car mechanic, plumber, HVAC technician, dentist or doctor visit.

You can reply to this email, I don’t have any other secretive email addresses or anything. Again, sorry if I sound offensive, I would just like to know your qualifications for programming to charge such high prices.

My price isn’t high. I could actually charge more, but in my area of the country, it would probably force some of my smaller clients to use someone else, and it’s the littler guys I like to help.

I would recommend reviewing my blog entry titled “The Three Keys To Successful Self-Employment In Programming And Consulting: Introduction.”

By the way, I only do server side programming myself right now, and I usually get one flat rate, no hourly rates, and I do not charge consulting fees yet … I’m still new to the job field to do any of that yet.

Edward T. Boot
PHP & MySQL Web Development and Design

As you spend more time in business for yourself, you will understand how naive the preceding statement proves.

You can charge consulting fees now; you can charge by the hour or by the job (provided your pricing is not discriminatory; the federal government requires you to charge all your customers on the same basis, whatever that basis might be). How successful you are in business is not primarily dependent on your skills, so much as it is on your ability to recruit and retain customers, and the opinion those customers have of you at any given moment.

Yes, you need to be able to do the work. But that’s not as important as being able to properly interface with your customers.

I would recommend two classic books to help you understand what I am talking about. The first is “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie; it will explain the basic idea of how you should be speaking to potential customers (and everyone is a potential customer).

Another is any of the scores of books out there that discuss competing against Wal-Mart, especially the most recognized one, “Up Against the Wal-Marts: How Your Business Can Prosper in the Shadow of the Retail Giants.”

While it’s really aimed at helping Mom and Pop stores on Main Street, this book really discusses customer service approach — not the old cliche of “the customer is always right,” but the more likely “you’re doing it wrong” that most businesses fall into.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the response on your blog, it shows you are serious about what you do.

    I’ve been a skeptic because I am only now turning 19 and I’ve always been told you need a college education for everything. You cannot get jobs, you cannot charge the right prices, and you cannot be hired by anyone in the programming field without some sort of education, and I’ve only had negative experiences trying to get clients to prove that. Anytime I commit to freelance jobs, the clients take their work to outsource workers in India. Among that, you already have a major in Journalism which says something, and I don’t have anything yet.
    About your rate of $70.00 an hour, I think it’s a good price, it’s just hard for me to believe people actually pa it because I have trouble hiring people for a low $20-30 an hour. I’ve only had so many programming jobs so far being 18, but one time I did try charging someone $50.00 an hour and they were furious, although the work I was doing was very long and tedious and was worth at least that much. And I have only been programming four years, but I also have a magnet of a brain for programming concepts. Whenever I read things or see examples, I remember them.

    I’m still very new to the world of programming but continue to focus on being successful. From all the negative experiences I’ve had so far, I find it hard to believe anyone can make their own home business like yours and make a living off of it when most of the online jobs get outsourced these days. Thats why I chose to email you and ask about your experience.
    Thanks for your response the links to the books. Most people think that starting an actual web design business is a good plan, however, it’s not. I’ve never honestly seen someone start their own online consulting business and it seems like a great idea, as consulting businesses are something to me that seems easier to run and manage compared to a generic web design business. I only like to question things these days to see how people are truly successful and I did not mean if any of my text offended you in any way, which I’m pretty sure it didn’t and you took it seriously. Thanks again.

  2. »I’ve been a skeptic because I am only now turning 19 and I’ve always been told you need a college education for everything. You cannot get jobs, you cannot charge the right prices, and you cannot be hired by anyone in the programming field without some sort of education, and I’ve only had negative experiences trying to get clients to prove that.

    When you are starting out, and your social network is too small to be able to recruit customers from within it, you don’t have a reliable track record, except academics. Therefore, a 4-year degree will often help you land a job working for someone, since he now has something he can gauge as a measure of your reliability: Programming State University certifies you know how to program.

    »Anytime I commit to freelance jobs, the clients take their work to outsource workers in India.

    You’re chasing the wrong kinds of clients, or rather, you’re selling the wrong thing. If your clients are that price sensitive, and you’re not willing / able to compete on price, you can’t get those clients. You need, instead, to play up your strengths: I am here. I speak English well. If something goes wrong, you know where to find me.

    For example, offer to coordinate and quality assure the offshore contract work for 10 percent of the contract price. You will make sure the work is performed as specified, you will fix anything that isn’t right, you will handle all the steps including deadlines. There’s a lucrative market in project management.

    »About your rate of $70.00 an hour, I think it’s a good price, it’s just hard for me to believe people actually pa it because I have trouble hiring people for a low $20-30 an hour.

    Try this experiment: 1. Flush a rag down your Mom’s toilet so it clogs, but don’t tell her about it. 2. Wait for the bathroom to flood with waste. 3. See how hard she works to find a plumber who can come out right now to fix it. 4. Look at the bill presented by that plumber.

    Do that, and you’ll understand how to charge for your labor.

    Or, let me use another favorite saying of one of my clients: “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.” In other words, good, cheap labor doesn’t work fast. Good, fast labor isn’t cheap. And fast, cheap labor isn’t good.

    » … from all the negative experiences I’ve had so far, I find it hard to believe anyone can make their own home business like yours and make a living off of it when most of the online jobs get outsourced these days.

    I am not selling the commodity of programming labor. If I were, I would be in the same pickle you face.

    I’m selling that whatever problem you have, I will make it go away. I am selling a relationship with the customer in which his problems are mine, and I treat them as such. I am selling confidence that I will make things better.

    I am selling that whatever task I am assigned, that is no longer something my customer need worry about. I am selling competence. I am selling feeling better about bad things. And there is virtually no limit to the amount of money people will pay to have problems disappear and to feel better about things.

    Of course, my social network, my drive / attitude and my skills are such that I can sell those things. You can sell them, too, but you need to learn how. Read the Dale Carnegie book and follow its lessons. It will serve you better than any college course you take. (As an added bonus, its techniques are especially effective with women.)

    I can’t sell my services to people who aren’t in my social network. So I am constantly working to maintain and build that network. For every hour I spend writing code, I spend 4-5 hours building and tending my network, with participating in Yahoo! Answers and blogging here being part of that time. (So sure, you might think I make $150,000 a year at my hourly rate. But I don’t make anything like that, because most of my time is not billable; most of my time is spent doing unpaid work that ensures I can find and keep paid work.)

    Again, what is most important in self-employment is having people respect and like you, especially people who are generally respected and liked by others. Doing that requires tremendous personal effort and a relentlessly positive attitude (and, in all honesty, my personality is such that I find remaining positive with people very taxing).

    Yes, you need to deliver what you promise. But that often means selling people things other than what they think they are buying. Yes, if you asked my clients what they were getting, they would respond “code” and “advice.” But I am actually selling them peace of mind, and I constantly focus on that fact and work very hard to do that.

  3. Hi Doug. I’m impressed with whoever can master programming. I’m so upset with the effort and iq that I have to master at least one of the language. To be frank, I can’t even write a simple program and I’m so ashamed of myself as a 3rd year Software Engineering student. Is there any advice or web site that you can give me on this? Thank you.

  4. I’ve noted before that the programming learning curve tends to have two bumps: A good-sized one at the start, and then a huge one later on. Sounds like you might be stuck at the foot of the second one.

    For many people, just trying to get over the first hump, the basics of how to write programs — syntax, data types, control structures, etc. — is the hard part. You wouldn’t be where you are were it not for understanding at least the basics of how to write a program.

    That second hump — systemic awareness, if you will, or a kind of “programming Nirvana” where everything makes total sense and you have complete understanding of what you are doing — is very large. Some people never truly get over it but do manage to have successful programming careers.

    I was well into my programming career before I actually understood what I was doing. Today, I’ll learn something new that will give me even more insight into how and why programs work.

    Most people learn by trial and error, and for most people, the errors are far more instructive than the successes.

    Once again, you can see this in practice on Yahoo! Answers: Lots of answerers can copy and paste from Wikipedia, many can provide sample code blocks they’ve either lifted from the PHP documentation or some other Web site. But very few understand what error messages are actually saying, and fewer still know how to resolve such messages.

    Or, as I quoted Dad: What makes someone an expert isn’t so much knowing what to do, but knowing what not to do.

    Give it time and keep practicing. You’ll get there.

  5. Doug. Someone with your skills should use their own Blog/CMS, I’m sure that would mean something if a potiential client comes by, who actually knows what to look for.

    I can’t say i really find programming hard, not anymore. Just frustrating, to often i simply throw on a movie when i get bored, (which I’m also about to do now).

    The network is perhaps the most important for those of us who are more or less self-thought, today i couldn’t even imagne actually looking for work. I’ve seen to big a potiential in building a network, as well as getting some recognition through my website.

    The "bump" for me, will be to learn about taxes, and all the other stuff related to starting a company, i however look forward to that point.

    Don’t worry to much about not being certificated. It would often mean going through years of studying, often of totally irrelevant topics. If some of you find it hard in the beginning, try getting a ordinary job, and work on your projects in your free-time.

  6. » Doug. Someone with your skills should use their own Blog/CMS, I’m sure that would mean something if a potiential client comes by, who actually knows what to look for.

    WordPress is far better than anything I’ll ever make. I’d also like to think my clients appreciate that I’m not charging them to reinvent the wheel, but rather to ensure the wheel fits and turns properly.

    » I can’t say i really find programming hard, not anymore. Just frustrating, to often i simply throw on a movie when i get bored, (which I’m also about to do now).

    I’ll let my nerd flag fly: I’m done working for the night, so it’s time to check out Battlestar Galactica on the TiVo.

    » The network is perhaps the most important for those of us who are more or less self-thought, today i couldn’t even imagine actually looking for work. I’ve seen to big a potential in building a network, as well as getting some recognition through my website.

    I should clarify my previous comments about self-employment.

    A lot of people find working for others preferable to working for themselves. If you have a family or other long-term obligations, or want those things, you’ll probably find working for someone else more secure and manageable. Since I don’t have a wife, kids or any property of consequence, nor do I want those things, I enjoy the freedom that working for myself gives me. Of course, if I fuck it up, I’m the only person who gets hurt; there are no wives to leave me, kids to be taken away or property to be lost.

    I don’t begrudge people who work for others. It’s perfectly reasonable to work a job you might not like all that much, or that might not be fulfilling, to support other aspects of your life that mean more. I do feel badly that many people, who need the stability of working a job, must endure stultified work every day. I was close to that point with the newspapers when I left.

    » The “bump” for me, will be to learn about taxes, and all the other stuff related to starting a company, i however look forward to that point.

    If everyone had to pay quarterly estimated taxes, there wouldn’t be half as much government as there is today. The smartest thing FDR did was invent withholding: Most people never get to see the money they give to the government, so it’s not real to them, but the services and entitlements they get are very real. Those of us who pay quarterly taxes have a much more intimate view of the cost of government.

    » Don’t worry to much about not being certificated. It would often mean going through years of studying, often of totally irrelevant topics. If some of you find it hard in the beginning, try getting a ordinary job, and work on your projects in your free-time.

    I’m not at all worried. I can’t remember the last time anyone even asked for my academic credentials, and generally speaking, they’re more impressed by what I can do without having had formal training.

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