Bullish: Should I Learn to Code at Age 27?

I’ll get to the point. I was raised to be a wife and mom ONLY and had zero clue about how careers work. I was foolish enough to get a home health aide job right out of high school, lured in by the eleven dollar an hour paycheck.

It turned out to be the black hole of all jobs. I was trapped by my bills and tuition, and I left after seven years with no marketable skills or relevant experience.

I have a General Studies A.A and have spent the last six years trying to complete my bachelors in Communication via distance education

I’ve paid cash for everything, every class, my car, my books, rent, etc because student loans seemed risky. I didn’t think I was smart when I graduated from high school but I’ve discovered an interest an aptitude for programming after taking some free classes from EdX and Coursera.

This is my dilemma: I still have about ten classes left in my degree. I only make $1800/mo (hourly,full time, 12/hr, no benefits) coaching a gymnastics team full time. I filled out my FAFSA and found out I am eligible for a $5,500 Pell grant and a $12,500 Direct Stafford Loan.

I’m torn between three options:

Option 1: Quit the coaching job, take the Pell and the loan, quickly finish school in about six months, and then look for jobs (or at least internships) that require a bachelor’s degree. Pros: graduate quickly. Cons: debt, general degree with very soft skills.

Option 2: Take the Pell, Keep the job, take another 1.5 years to finish school, and then look for jobs. Pros: no debt, small emergency fund. Cons: another year and a half of $1800/mo, full time school, and difficulty paying for even basic necessities.

Option 3: Put the degree on hold (program allows a one year hold if desired), work a bit longer at gym, apply to tech boot-camps with job placement and intense coursework. Pros: learning an intensely marketable skill, and job placement help, a much better salary in as soon as nine months or so. Cons: Debt. No degree. These camps cost as much as $17,000.

Something must change. I’m 27 with a mere $4700 in retirement accounts, making less than $15,000 a year for the last ten years.

Do you have any advice? I feel like maybe this is time for some risk taking and “ballsy moves” but I’m not sure. Help!

Sincerely,
I don’t know how I’ve survived.

Dear IDKHIS,

OH MY GOD. Okay, we need to work this out.

Do you live in a city, suburbs, small town? You wrote “lured by $11/hour,” which is … not a lot. I know you were just out of high school, and high school kids don’t know what things (like life itself!) cost. And this was nearly ten years ago. Anyway, more to the point: Do you want to stay where you are? Are there good jobs where you are? Should you think about moving?

Obviously, you’re not in great financial shape to move, and there’s a coding program where you are — I’m just trying to get the whole picture here. Also, I find that a lot of women in real life make decisions based on men/boyfriends/husbands/potential husbands, but when talking about their career and life decisions, they sort of feel embarrassed about following or sticking around for a man, so they don’t mention it at all. So, hey, there’s another moving part.

Moving is often a necessary part of a ballsy life change. Mobility is highly correlated with salary increases throughout a career.

Next question: Does your college offer you any valuable resources? The bigger and richer the college, the more likely there are a robust alumni network, a reasonably helpful career counseling department, computing resources that an aspiring entrepreneur might enjoy, and tenured professors who actually have the time and inclination to help young people (as opposed to underpaid adjuncts who teach eight classes at five different colleges just to get by, and do not have time to answer emails from students they probably don’t remember anyway). You’re a distance education student, so I imagine you’re not getting these fringe benefits, right? I wrote more about this topic here.

Another question: You are apparently a gymnastics expert. But you don’t make much coaching this team. I assume gymnastics is a better way to pay the bills right now than being a home health aide. So, could you give private lessons? Do you coach at a gymnastics school? If so, could you pitch other classes to the school? (For instance, boys-only gymnastics, for kids who want to do flips and jump on trampolines but whose vaguely homophobic parents feel weird about signing their son up for regular gymnastics classes? A gymnastics-based workout for weight loss, or for brides who want to get in shape or something?) You would develop the curriculum and the message, and negotiate to receive a percentage of each sale (a profit-sharing arrangement) in addition to your pay for teaching. You could even brand the program and make sure you retain ownership. As a model, take a look at the classes at a big gym chain — a lot of them, like BOSU®, have trademark symbols after them. Somebody gets paid every time that class takes place in every gym across the country. Or, I might be getting ahead of myself here, but do gymnasts (or gymnastics professionals) need some kind of … gymnastics app? I love it when all the random shit in life comes together.

So, there are maybe more than the three options you’ve listed.

That said, what about this degree you’re working on? You’re right that a communications degree doesn’t qualify you for any particular jobs. Also, you’ll be graduating later in life, so hitting the job market as a 29 year old with a fresh college degree isn’t quite the same as doing it at 22. And distance education degrees are still stigmatized by some people.

So, the college degree isn’t particularly a ticket to something in particular. What it is is more like a formality you need to get through to qualify for certain opportunities. As you surely know, many positions require a bachelors degree — any bachelors degree — just to apply, even though there is no correlation between what anybody learned in getting that degree and what they’re doing in those jobs. There are just so many applicants to most jobs, it’s an easy way to screen.

A brief anecdote: I dated a guy who was very, very smart (and so obviously witty and articulate that anyone could tell he was incredibly smart — um, hence the attraction) and who had never gone to college, in part due to generational poverty and in part due to creative aspirations. Since I have a long history in test prep, I suggested that he would be very, very good at acing the LSAT and teaching LSAT classes. Six months of self-study and he’d have an instant, high-paying side job. I wanted to recommend him for an audition at the company I worked for — but then I remembered that he didn’t have a college degree. So, that’s a door that was closed due to a lack of a degree (and it could’ve been any degree — it just needed to be some bachelor’s degree, from somewhere, GPA irrelevant).

However, is that so bad? If he had been interested in my suggestion (he wasn’t especially), he could have studied the LSAT, gotten a perfect score, and hired himself out as a private tutor making more than he would’ve made at that company anyway. And wouldn’t people be INCREDIBLY impressed by the guy who didn’t even go to college who now helps people get into law school? So, there’s always a way around.

If you make personal connections and impress people by taking initiative, doing your own thing, and creatively pitching yourself, people will make exceptions for you. They will make a job just for you. They will hire you to be awesome, because you’re clearly awesome, and the whole reason they usually check people’s resumes and degrees in the first place is to try to figure out if someone might be awesome.

You know who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree? Bullish general manager (and WORN magazine publisher) Haley. In 2012, I mentioned semi-seriously on Facebook that I was thinking of hiring an assistant. Haley, who had read many Bullish columns (and emailed me once before asking to get together for coffee while she was in NYC), emailed me a few hours later pitching herself for the job. She assumed many others would’ve done the same, but actually, she was the only one, and I hired her. She offered to send a resume, but I had just written an article about resumes kind of being bullshit, so I told her I didn’t need it. I mean, I already knew she could write and take initiative. Do I give a shit if she aced Psych 101 or wrote a paper about The Odyssey? I’d be much more interested in reading someone’s blog than finding out how they did in college (if they totally sucked at college, I’d like to hear that it was because they were doing some big real-world thing that distracted them — but I’m biased, because that’s what I did).

And, of course, I’m sure you’ve heard the trope about all the great entrepreneurs being college dropouts. I just googled “entrepreneurs who are college dropouts” and found a few things worth reading.

And, I wrote this.

Okay, so … here’s something to feel good about: It sucks to make less than a living wage for full-time work, but you do have no debts, and you’ve saved $4,700. The “no debt” part puts you, financially, in probably the top 25% of people in your age group! Plenty of people work crap jobs, unpaid internships, etc., and have $60,000 in debt hanging over their heads. Most people your age have a negative net worth. You do not! So that’s great!

That said, debt is not always bad.

I would not take a $12,500 loan to finish a communications degree. I WOULD take a $17,000 loan to complete a coding program that would almost certainly lead to a better job. A $60,000 college degree (or even a $12,500 one) is a crapshoot of an “investment.” A $17,000 job training program in a field that’s actually hiring? That is an investment you would probably make back IN THE FIRST YEAR. I am serious. You make $15,000 a year. $15,000 + $17,000 is $32,000. Tech jobs pretty much all pay more than that. Your ROI is likely to be through the fucking roof by year five. Hedge funds don’t get returns like that.

If you do this $17K program, you can squeeze even more value out of it. Network like hell. Your teachers? Someday you may work with them as peers. They can help get you into a job. They know the answers to things I can’t help you with. And your fellow students? Make them friends for life. I’m serious — you’ve been a home health aide. You don’t know a lot of the people you want to get to know. Make a spreadsheet of all your teachers and classmates, follow them online, ask them questions, find out what they want in their careers, and build relationships with them. This is something your online degree program is almost certainly not providing. You make ten good relationships during this program, and that network — with further effort and nurturing — will spiral outward until you’ve actually got a really great network. You need that.

Oh, and even though I think taking on loans for this is just fine, maybe there are some clever ways to fund some of this program. There’s the gymnastics thing I mentioned earlier. Or could you do some kind of crowdfunding? Linda Tirado wrote an article about being poor and raised $61,000 on gofundme to cover her dental surgery and her living expenses while she writes a book (google her — she wasn’t famous, didn’t have a following, and wrote ONE article). Tirado has since been called a “hoax” (and then defended by The Nation), but she gets to keep the cash, you know? Do you have enough of a sympathetic story to fundraise for yourself? Or could you blog your way through the coding program and ask for donations/tips on your site? Or, as long as you’re still enrolled in college, you are eligible to apply to Upstart — if you were accepted and funded through Upstart, you could then take a year off your degree program to do the coding school (and maybe you go back to the degree program, maybe you don’t).

One more thing — it may seem like you’ve wasted some years. Being a home health aide is not glamorous and provides no opportunities for advancement. But I think you can use that. Here’s something I remember from college: in a Native American studies class, I watched a documentary about culturally sensitive programs for alcoholism on reservations (turns out many principles of AA, for instance, conflict with cultural values in certain Native American communities). Someone who felt that he had lost 20 years to alcoholism got sober and felt grief that he had wasted so much of his life. And his counselor told him that those years would not be wasted if he used them to help others with the same problem. I don’t think the documentary followed up with him, but I like to think he’s out there, as some kind of elder statesman of culturally appropriate alcoholism treatment.

So, maybe you’ve read The Unexotic Underclass?

A lot of people involved in coding, and startups, and app development are privileged little snots making shit nobody needs. (Ooh, look, another hookup app for sexy urban people!) There could be some amazing future for you in using technology to make something that people with real needs really need. Maybe that population is broke college students, or broke people in general, or self-studiers (like you are right now on Coursera), or career switchers, or young people who lack the cultural background to prepare for careers, or people who need home health aides.

I don’t know what your mega-idea is going to be, but I’ll bet you could find one. Knowing how to code — and knowing lots of other people who also know how to code — would be a fucking fantastic way to get started with something big.

You need to make some kind of change. You need to motivate yourself to do this by casting the default — continuing to live as you’ve been living — as unacceptable. Think of being in the same position two years from now as a disaster, like cancer.

There are some ways out. Even more ways out than you anticipated when you wrote to me! Nothing is without risk. You need to take a risk. But understand that staying where you are is a very, very big risk. Learning to code is, in comparison, quite risk-averse.

I don’t know how you’ve survived either, but you have. If you end up founding a startup someday, believe it or not, your experience living on next to nothing will actually be very helpful in bootstrapping. Privileged people are, in my experience, really bad at figuring out how to do things in a scrappy way, how to solve problems without throwing money at them, and how to hustle in general.

Okay, go think and then make a decision!

Jen