Forever Employable Stories: Danny Thompson, software developer and community leader

I stumbled across Danny Thompson’s twitter account not too long ago. Immediately I noticed that this was no ordinary software developer. Not only was he humbly sharing his learning journey online with his followers, he was giving back to them by helping them get hired in the software industry. In the meantime he’d grown his twitter following to 45k people in less than 6 months.

I had to reach out and chat with Danny to hear his story. I wasn’t disappointed. Following an existential moment when he turned 30, he decided to take control of his life and build a career in software development. Improving himself and the life of his family wasn’t enough for Danny though. He started giving back to his community in person, locally and globally online. His selflessness has led others to follow in his path and his impact can already be felt across the industry. 

Danny and I chat in the video below about what sparked the big shift in his life, how that process progressed (hint: it wasn’t all sunshine and roses) and what he’s focused on today. Along the way he shares his insight about getting hired in tech, why meetups are so powerful, how social media can still be used as a source of inspiration, learning and camaraderie and why he’s laser-focused on staying forever employable. 

Check it out. 

Transcript

JEFF:    Welcome back to another Forever Employable Story. I’m really excited for this episode, as I get to speak with software developer and community leader, Danny Thompson, all the way from Memphis, Tennessee, which is a place I’ve never been but I’ve heard amazing things about it. I look for people who are building a platform around their core competency, their core discipline; like you’re a software developer. I discovered you on Twitter a few months ago and have been following and paying attention. As I’ve been doing that, I’ve noticed time and time again, in many ways, you embodying a lot of the ideas and the tactics that I talk about in Forever Employable creating this much more than just kind of a software development resume around yourself but like you said, a community around yourself as well. We’re going to get into the details of why and how you’re doing that. Give us the summary of how you got into software development in the first place.

DANNY:           I’m Danny Thompson. My background is I worked in gas stations for over 10 years. I was a professional chicken fryer. I could fry chicken with the best of them. That’s what I did and that’s pretty much where I thought I was going to live the rest of my days doing. I was at the age of 30 where I found myself at a fork in the road and I said, “If I go right, I’m going to work in this gas station until the day I die or I can go left and I will change whatever I’m doing but it has to be now.” Now is a very important time for me. My son was growing at that age. I realized I wouldn’t have the luxuries I have now to try and change something. It needs to be now; otherwise, it’s not going to happen. At that time, I was working like 80 hour weeks. My wife was extremely supportive of what we were doing but of course, it was tough. I was making just enough money to be broke. I was making just enough money to look at my paycheck and just be disappointed with what I was doing. I was working 80 hours a week and I still said, “Man, I need to pick up a second job or a third or fourth job.”

It was at this time where I saw an interview. A rapper was giving an interview. He invested several million dollars into a tech company and he was asked why. He said,
“I’m learning how to code.” This blew my mind because I never knew someone from my background, from my neighborhood could ever learn something like coding. My preconceived notion was tech was for the rocket scientists and the PhDs of the world. No average individual works in this field. Of course, he’s learning how to code and the reason he was profound, they said, “Well, you’re learning how to code. You’re not going to become a developer. Why are you learning how to code?” Why wouldn’t you want to know how the amazing machine that you touch, 90% out of your day, operates? Why is the limit of our understanding, opening up YouTube.com on Google Chrome or Internet Explorer and watching cat videos? Why don’t we know what’s happening in the background? Why don’t I understand why this laptop costs $2,200 or this smart phone costs $1,500? What is RAM? What is Snapdragon? It’s all buzzwords until you put something behind it. So, he starts learning how to code and so do I.

I get on the internet and I find freecodecamp.org and I start learning how to code and I get on there. After a little while, I find out about something called meetups. A meetup is a place where a bunch of developers get together. They talk tech, talk shop, and there are varying levels. You can get some level of help or maybe some questions answered but it’s really just a community of developers there. I find out about the first meetup that I ever go to and at the time, I just know like HTML, CSS, and I created a very simple application where you enter the URL of an image and it returns some coloring on top. It’s like a really bad filter. It’s pretty safe to say I could cure cancer with code. I’m that good. I walk in this meetup and I instantly realize, “Oh, I don’t know anything.” Then I quickly realize all these people are saying foreign languages to me. They’re talking about like Java and C# and SQL. It doesn’t make sense but now I’m hooked. I’ve just been introduced to this brand new breadth of knowledge that I didn’t know existed. I realized also, in that moment, that I am being excluded from the conversation basically because of a lack of knowledge. I didn’t know anything.  I said, “I will never be excluded again.”

I went home and started learning about JavaScript and ESX functions and I go to that next meetup saying, “Well, do you know about ESX functions? Do you know how to do arrow function?” Then I go home and start learning more and more. I started learning about SQL. I go to the next meetup and I’m like, “Do you know how to do a SQL query?” Then I start going home more and more and I started learning about Java and I go to the next meetup and “Do you know about Spring framework?” And now, I’m included in this phenomenal community of developers that are just there to talk about tech and help each other grow. Now I’m included. I brought myself to the team. It was the best thing that ever happened because it totally changed my trajectory as where I was going. It showed me what was possible and what wasn’t. Then I did the one thing that every beginner does when they go to a meetup and they ask, “How do I get that first job in tech? How do I get that first opportunity?” I heard the exact same answer over and over like a broken record. It’s almost like they recorded it and just pushed play whenever somebody asked this question. They were like, “Oh man, that first job, that’s the hardest one. But if you get the first one, everything after that will become easy to get later on.” To someone like me, that was the worst thing you could every say to me because not only did you demotivate and demoralize me, you’ve given me zero action items to work on. You haven’t even told me something practical that I can do to increase my odds. I quickly realized in that same moment that everyone else was asking this exact same question and getting this exact same answer back.

I needed to figure out how to address this. I immediately started a LinkedIn profile. Mind you, I’m still working at gas stations. They used to call me Popeyes because I’d walk in a meetup and everybody would start craving chicken because I smelled like it. I start this LinkedIn profile and I just start cold calling and cold messaging hiring managers and business decision makers and recruiters and managers. In the beginning, they’re like, “Who is this guy? Why is he messaging me?” Now they’re like, “Oh, I knew Danny from the beginning.” It was just the getting out there. I created an entire hiring network and we went from I helped the first person get their first job in tech. I realized if I can show someone that is trying to learn tech in a different light, that they’re going out of their way, they’re a part of a community, they’re helping others, that a hiring manager may be more inclined to return their phone call and ask to meet with them. I’m not a big application guy. I don’t like filling out tons and tons of applications. I’d rather leverage my network. By doing this, I’ve now helped them get to interview number one without filling out an application. We create this profile for them that is so robust that it just draws attention and interest. I helped that first person get that job in tech. They were crying, they were so happy. I realized, in that moment, nothing mattered to him more than getting that job in tech but also making their dream come to life, making exactly what they’ve been striving for, for a year, two years actually come to life in their hands. It’s tangible. Nothing in life mattered more to him than getting that opportunity. Nothing mattered more to me than sharing that moment with him. Sharing that joy. Sharing that happiness. I went from helping one person to helping 10 people; from 10 to 20, from 20 to 40, and now we’re at almost 70 people that I’ve helped land their first jobs in tech. I don’t monetize this. I’m not making money from it. I just really enjoy it. Something kind of clicked in me, not too long ago. I was obsessed with the idea of I need to make more money, I need to be more successful, I need to reach new levels. Then I realized I’m no longer concerned with trying to become a rich man on my death bed. What I am concerned with is the impact that I’m going to try and create within that time period and make sure I hit the things that I’m aiming for.

JEFF:    From freecodecamp.org until your first tech gig, how long did that take?

DANNY:           I hate answering this question and I’ll tell you why. Especially for beginners, when they hear people’s timetable, they’re like, “Oh man, it took him six months and I’m on month seven, so I’m just a complete failure or it took him 1 ½ years and I’m at a year and eight months. I might as well just quit.” I always say it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to reach your destination as long as you get there and keep going for what you want. A great example I’ll give of that is I work with a  phenomenal developer. It took him six years to actually land his first job in tech. It took me eight months, to answer your question. Both of our titles are developers. His title isn’t “Took six years to become a developer.” It’s software developer. Our pay is the same. Our perks are the same. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to reach your destination as long as you keep striving for that goal. I don’t care if it takes you forever. I don’t care if it takes you a day. Just reach that point.

JEFF:    The reason I ask is because in my experience, achieving these sort of career transformations, it takes time, consistency, and perseverance. People usually err on the other side and they’ll say, “I should be able to take a bootcamp in 12 weeks and get a job.” Its like, no, that’s not what you should expect. You should expect 6, 8, 12, 18, 24 months of hard work to make the transition to whatever is the next thing for you. If you can get it done in eight months, congratulations. Well done. But it might take you 4, 5, 6 years to get there as well and it’s that perseverance that gets there.

You’re still working at the gas station 80 hours a week. You’ve got a child. You’re married. When are you doing this?

DANNY:           I want to make one point because you said something that I find amazing. Software bootcamps always advertise things like “Become a developer in 90 days.” I think that’s insane. Here’s a great example. You know that show 90 Day Fiancé? They can’t find the fiancé in 90 days, how are they going to find a brand new career that pays them all this in 90 days? It’s impractical. That’s just a way to get people in the door. I’m not going to say it’s impossible. I’m sure there are some people that have done it. Don’t be shocked if it takes you a little bit longer.


As far as finding the time to learn, it was tough. What I started doing was I would study as soon as I got home from work. I’d be exhausted. What I realized, my brain wasn’t really retaining. It was exhausted from the day. I’d done all this manual labor. Like my brain is done. I was doing the same thing over and over and still wasn’t retaining it. It was taking forever. Finally, one day, I said, “I’m going to try something,” and I started walking up at 2:30 in the morning every day  and started learning. What I realized is my brain is rested. It’s fresh.

JEFF:    You’re fresh at 2:30 in the morning?

DANNY:           Compared to going through a 14-15 hour day. I had no other option. I didn’t wake up at 2:30 because I thought this was cool. I literally didn’t have any other choice. It’s not like I could be like, “Okay 3:00 in the afternoon, I’m going to study.” I was working. There was no option at that time. I’d study until I had to go to work. Throughout the whole day, I’d be revising, in my head, everything that I learned. What I started doing to really test myself is when I’d be on break, I’d literally write code on my phone just in a notepad, no editor or anything like that. I’d go try it just to see if it’s going to work or fail. Just to see if I knew my concepts. It went from the most basic things till it starts elevating slightly, slightly, slightly. I don’t care what craft it is that you do; once you start putting an obscene amount of hours into it, you’re going to get better at it. You may not become a concert pianist but you can definitely become a piano players if you put enough hours in there. You could do a couple songs. Same thing with development. You can start writing some code and eventually you’re going to get better. You may not work at Google but you could definitely work at Harry’s Insurance Company down the street. You’ll get those basics and you keep growing after that. That’s exactly what I started doing. I started doing that with JavaScript and from there, I started doing a little Python. I spent a lot of time learning Python and I realized, “Oh, there’s no Python jobs in Memphis.” I dropped Python and started picking up Java. That’s where the opportunities started coming. It was fantastic for me. I’m a developer because of that. I’m very happy with where I am.

JEFF:    Finding the time for this stuff is one of the main ways that you begin to build up the momentum for a transition into the next thing. It’s what I did as well as I was transitioning out of full-time employment into consulting; ultimately, in doing some writing, everything was happening in the cracks. I was writing when I was commuting to New York City on the bus to a firm 45 minutes there, 45 minutes back. You fit it in and then you get it done.

DANNY:           This goes to a point that I talk about a lot. If you make something a priority, you will find a way to achieve that thing. When you have something that you’re thinking about all the time… That’s why I don’t really believe in procrastination; it’s just not important to you. If something is important, if something is a priority, you will achieve it no matter what. There are days when I’m like, man, I really don’t want to be at work right now. I don’t want to work today. I’m still here because it’s a priority. I have to do this thing. Once I realized that there was a way for me in tech, nothing in the universe could have stopped me. This was happening whether anyone believed it or not. I remember when I would tell people, “Hey man, I’m thinking about going into tech.” They’d be like, “This isn’t for people like us.” I’d tell my coworkers this at the gas station. “That’s not for people like us. That’s for smart people.” “You’re right. It isn’t for us but this is for me. This is going to happen whether you believe it or not. This is my priority.” Once I made tech a priority, nothing could stop it at that point. I’m getting up at 2:30 whether I want to or not because I have to make this happen. I’m going to learn this concept because I have to make this happen. I need to learn this because I’m going to give myself a better life whether someone wants to give it to me or not. There are 7 billion people on this planet. I’m going to make one of them fall in love with me and give me a job. Simple as that. If it’s a priority, I’ll make it happen.

JEFF:    You go through these Forever Employable stories that are on the blog or in the book. The impetus for that prioritization seemingly is always the same. I’ve got to take care of my family. I need a better life. I need to future proof my career. I need to prove something to myself around my capabilities and my skills. The specifics are different but the theme repeats itself over and over again. This was critical for you. You wanted to create a better life for yourself, so you prioritized it. It’s frustrating for me sometimes because there are folks that I’ve known for years who have asked me, “How did you get started writing books? How did you get started doing that?” I  prioritized it. It was important to me. I know those folks have the skill and expertise to do the same thing but they don’t prioritize it and so, they never do it.

DANNY:           I love that. You have to have your reason for being, your reason for why. If you haven’t figured out what your driving force is, you need to have a very honest conversation with yourself. Put away all electronics. Put away everything. Lock yourself in a room. Turn out the light. Don’t fall asleep. Sit up. I guarantee you, your mind is going to wander somewhere. Ask yourself the questions that you don’t want to answer. Why am I wanting to do this? Why am I even thinking about this? Everyone thinks this is crazy. Should I even be doing this? Ask yourself these questions. If you don’t have a strong reason for wanting to do something, it’s hard. “Oh, I want to become a developer because the paycheck is nice.” You can get a paycheck from anywhere. That’s not a reason. Is the reason I want to improve my living conditions? That’s a reason. I want to take care of my wife and my son. That’s a reason. I want to get a house for my mother and my father. That’s a reason. I want to change the circumstances to which my life revolves around. I want to stop riding the bus and get in a car. I want to own something. I want to dictate my terms. Now that is a reason that I can get behind and that will be a reason that gets you out of sleep. I always talk about this. You need to make your goals so big that you get excited by them. I’m a big believer in you can cap your success. If you cap your success, you will hit that cap. Meaning I’m a big believer in if you say, “I want to become a software developer,” you will absolutely become a junior software developer.” If your goal is to become an entry developer, you will absolutely hit that without a shadow of a doubt  but you won’t go past that. My goal was never to be an entry developer or junior developer. My goal was to be the best developer that I could be. I want to be the most valuable developer that I can be. In doing so, of course, junior and entry are going to become the natural stepping stones. I can’t be the best without getting the entry position. What happens is people hit the entry. They get that first taste of what they really want and then they quit. They’re satisfied. They’re no longer hungry. They lost the passion for what they’re looking for. What happens in six months when they’re fired? They can’t believe what happened.

I knew I was going to become an entry developer. I was promoted within less than three months of getting that position because I showed the value of what I bring to the table. I’m about to be promoted again because I know what I’m bringing to the table. If you bring value, they will bring a checkbook. It’s as simple as that. No company in the history of the world has turned down an opportunity to make money when you show them actual value. Stop capping your success. Make sure you have your driving force and you will achieve exactly what you want.

JEFF:    I love it. Pivot point in your life, 30 years old. You decide you’re going to change your life. Eight months later, you get your first gig. You’re doing great. But you don’t stop there. You start to build a platform around yourself. You start to share your knowledge. You start to tweet. You start to write. You start to make YouTube videos. You start to put together in-person groups, virtual groups. Why?

DANNY:           I’m a big believer in if I walk in a room, I need to make an impact. Simple as that. I need to make sure that when I walk out, someone knows my name. It’s because you never know where one conversation can take you. I’m literally working on a deal right now with a local government that is an hour away from me. It is because I had one conversation with one stranger at one event in December and that conversation lived on for six months that in June they contacted me because of that conversation. You never know where one conversation will take you. For me, I was anti-social media for the longest. The only thing I had was a LinkedIn profile. Twitter only started in March. It’s only been five months. It’s definitely grown a lot. I talk a lot about how to grow on Twitter. I give a lot of advice on that. For me, I was only on LinkedIn because I said, “This is where the opportunities are to help people grow.” It wasn’t until someone showed me there’s all these tech professionals on Twitter discussing ideas and things like that. Then I realized I can be my true self on Twitter, talk about the things that I think about all the time. What I ended up doing with Twitter and I approached Twitter completely different than others. I don’t make tweets for people. I’ve created this fictitious being in my head that I’m having a one-way conversation with. My goal is to help them along their path and I’m really talking to myself, where I was in that learning journey where I was a beginner. I’m giving myself the advice that I was looking for that I didn’t know about and that I was hoping someone at a higher level would tell me. People gravitate towards that and I’m glad they enjoy it. Sometimes I get it wrong and that’s completely fine. I’m human. I make mistakes. When I get it wrong, that’s great. It wasn’t really meant for you either. I’m talking to this fictitious being. If you like it, I’m glad that you’re enjoying it and you’re along for the ride. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to necessarily show favoritism to that. I always say you’re the boss. You’re the CEO of your feed. You can hire and fire accordingly. If you don’t like something, get rid of it and keep that negativity away from you. Keep your mental health and your mind exactly where you want them.

If your goal is, “I want to become a writer on this XYZ subject,” surround your feed with writers of that subject and you’ll get ideas. You’ll get inspiration. You’ll figure out some things. I’m not saying plagiarize but get inspired and you can utilize the inspiration of whatever you’re doing. That’s what I do with Twitter. Twitter is great for random instances of great opportunities. LinkedIn is really where the money is and where companies are. I use LinkedIn for helping people get jobs but Twitter is fantastic for opportunities and that’s the reason my platform has grown so much as of now.

JEFF:    A lot of folks ask me, “What do I write about? What should I talk about?” My background is design and user experience design. I always fall back to that training. I say, “Who is your target audience?” Having a reader persona be your younger self is such a brilliant theme to thread through a social media presence. I absolutely love it. That’s so smart. What you’re saying is you’re giving your younger self advice about how to succeed and how to move forward. Inevitably, some of the people that follow you are in the same position as your younger self. They’re going to benefit from that. What is the benefit of building that platform?

DANNY:           The biggest benefit has been the ability to help people outside of Memphis. Before my limitations were this is Memphis. These are the people in my community. These are the only people that I could possibly help. Now I get messages daily where people are telling me, “I finally got that job because you gave me these great interview tips” or “I finally got that job because you helped me pinpoint the area that I needed to be in.” I released a LinkedIn course on YouTube. That course is completely free. That course alone, in one week, I’m getting screenshots from people saying, “My views have increased by 750%.” “In one week, I’ve been contacted by 18 employers.” What kills me about this is this literally proves to me what I know. These developers have the qualifications. They know exactly what they need to do the job but they can’t stop opportunity from literally walking right by them. Opportunity is in front of your nose, walking by, and you don’t have an ability to stop it. Now my goal is to put your hand right in front of it to stop it right in front of you and produce that situation where you can actually get that job that you’re qualified for. It’s working. I released the course 3-4 weeks ago and people have already gotten jobs out of it. That is a huge thing.

The other thing is, especially with Twitter, the reason why I’m on Twitter so much is I realize there are many people that start learning how to program every single day. I don’t care what you know, how beginner of a level that you think you are, someone starts learning HTML every single day of the week. You know something now that someone else doesn’t know. It’s a perfect opportunity for you to share whatever knowledge you have at this current time to help someone that is maybe struggling. Don’t you know people look for the most simplest things on the internet every single day? Why wouldn’t you want to share your gift with the world? You know something that can help literally one person anywhere. Now it’s gone from I’m helping people in Memphis, Tennessee to where I’m helping people in Lagos, Nigeria, in India, in Sydney, Australia, in Russia. Your reach goes global at that point and it doesn’t matter if one person reads it or 10,000 people read it. That impact is the same. You’re affecting one life positively. Why would you want to turn down that opportunity? It doesn’t matter if you become an influencer. What matters is you’re conveying a message that actually affects a life. You can do that positively or negatively. It’s up to you.

JEFF:    One of the biggest obstacles for folks is what do I know? What am I an expert at? To your point, there’s always an audience for 101 level content. Somebody is starting today and you can help them out.

DANNY:           It doesn’t even matter if it’s 101 content. There are geniuses that follow geniuses. There are people that I know that work at Microsoft and Google that are following developers for inspiration that work at lower level companies. It doesn’t matter what you’re  bringing to the table. The only thing that really matters is you stay very true to your real self. Do not create this fictitious item that doesn’t exist. I’ll tell you why. A lot of people try to portray something that they’re not online and eventually it becomes not you but it becomes a task or it’s impossible to keep creating content on this idea that you aren’t. You’re trying to embody something that you are not. What happens with these people is they end up falling apart a couple months down the road and they lose everything. Be you. I know that you’re amazing. You know that you’re amazing. Now it is up to you to convey that through a tweet, through a post. You have to keep that consistency. Consistent action produces consistent results. Once you stop and break that, that’s when everything falls apart. You can’t go, “Hey, I’m a developer today but tomorrow I’m a painter.” You’ve got to keep things flowing the right way. If you do that, you’ll grow.

JEFF:    We’re living in strange times. The pandemic has radically changed the world. How has the pandemic impacted your work and your career positively, negatively, neutrally?

DANNY:           For my career, I’ve gotten a raise during this pandemic. My job growth is growing. It’s not hurting me. It’s definitely hurting the community somewhat because it’s harder for someone to get an entry level position now because 30 million Americans lost their jobs. You have senior developers that are desperate for work to the point to where they’re applying for lower level positions just to get a paycheck on the table. Just keeping that in mind, I’m not going to say it’s impossible to land something. Just two weeks ago, I helped one person land a job. I am going to say, it’s definitely not as easy as it was before. With it also being said, because of this pandemic, it’s almost been a blessing in disguise to certain areas because before this, I don’t know if you and I would be having this conversation the way we are right now. Last month, I spoke at 14 different events. I don’t know if I would have been able to pull that off unless it was for this. Before this, no one utilized Zoom the way we do now. That wasn’t a thing. Not only Zoom but any online event. I was doing events before and I did one event with the speaker from Brazil and we did a video conference call and that was so hard to actually pull off and people weren’t as interested in it because “Oh, it’s a foreign speaker. They’re not there. They can’t answer questions one-on-one.” We did a great job. This was in January or December. At that time table, it was hard to pull this off. Now I just had an event where we had 500 people from all over the world pop in while we had speakers from Google, etc. People from there were never coming to Memphis before. Now it’s opened up the playing field completely. I totally see this being different now in the future. I don’t foresee myself doing an in-person event before 2021. This makes it so much easier to plan things. I did the first tech conference that Memphis ever had and I approached like 20 people at the beginning of the pandemic. They were all like, “There’s no way. It’s going to fail. It’s not going to do good. It’s going to fall apart.” These are people that are experts in this area of organizing these events and they’re all telling me this isn’t going to happen. I was gutted. It was 2-3 weeks later, one person finally came back and was like, “If you really want to do this, I’ll go ahead and donate my time to this thing.” I said, “Oh, did you guys think I wasn’t going to do this? I’ve already got the speakers planned out, the software for it, the tickets already sold. This is done.” We ended up having over 3,000 people attend the conference. It was all virtual. The one thing I realized after I was gutted and hurt, I said, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting people here. I don’t have to worry about people having to travel to Memphis for this anymore. I’m going to put this entire thing online and we’ll just get people to come.” Even if someone is doubting what you can do or for example, the logistics of a pandemic make things a little more difficult, it is absolutely feasible and possible to make whatever you want to happen happen.

JEFF:    That’s your entrepreneurial spirit shining through there in that dedication. That’s amazing. Thank you, Danny, for sharing your amazing story.

One thought on “Forever Employable Stories: Danny Thompson, software developer and community leader

  1. It was amazing to read about Danny and it’s totally inspirational. The best part was talking to yourself about what you want why you want and how you will achieve.

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