Level Up Your Programming Skills And Connections Through Volunteering

Do you feel stuck in your current job?

Maybe you are working on Line of Business desktop apps but you really want to be doing native iOS or Android work? Perhaps you are working for a large corporation–and have been for years–attending a lot more meetings than you used to, and you keep hearing about the good life at small startups.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret I accidently discovered just a few years into my career. I’ve pivoted multiple times, by choice, and last year landed my dream job as the technical co-founder of a local startup in downtown Austin. So what’s the secret?


That’s it!

Now, don’t click away just yet. Thar be some powerful concepts at work behind the gift I just handed you, matey! Stick with me so we can unpack this box.

First Volunteer Work: Sys Admin

First, let me explain how I figured this out.

Active Directory Users and Computers
About 15 years ago I setup a 25 PC, Windows 2000 network for a women’s crisis center for free. It’s a long story but the point is that at the time I didn’t really understand the value of what I did. I just needed
the experience because I thought my dream job was to be a Windows NT systems admin and I was studying for my MCSE at the time. (I aced the tests btw). I completed that project and landed a paying NT Admin job later that year while feeling good about helping a good cause.

Since that experience I’ve successfully voluteered my time to nonprofits, startups, and friends with small businesses. The project size and scope is really up to you to define just as long as it’s valuable to everyone involved.

Forget About Money (For Now)

First off, too many people I know won’t take this advice because they are stuck and failing at earning “market rates” for their work. Your compensation is going to be real world experience that deserves a prominent spot on your resume.

io1Or maybe they don’t have the time. Heck, it’s midnight, and I didn’t start writing this until after I put the kids to bed. I wanted to help a friend by guest posting and sharing some of my best ideas though. I happen to like writing and sharing knowledge with others. (Side note, guest posting is a great way to volunteer your time.) Look for projects which have a very defined scope that you think you can pull of in the time you used to spend power watching random two-star sitcoms on Netflix.

Trust in the fact that it will pay off in the long run. Good deeds don’t go unnoticed.

Problem Solving IRL

In addition to experience, there is something about listening to a client explain their problem forcing you to come up with the solution. That’s the type of knowledge that won’t appear in a textbook and that’s exactly the type of real world problem-solving ability that future employers are looking for.

Volunteering sends a message about the type of person you are. Explaining the project work you did for a nonprofit is interesting. Knowing that you did it to level up your game says a lot.

References Matter

You are also going to walk away with a solid reference if you are successful. Go check my LinkedIn recommendations that others have written.

I received a glowing comment by Kent Odland for volunteering my time to his young startup last summer after having coffee with him once. It was an interesting startup concept and I wanted to learn a specific skill he needed. He didn’t believe me at first. I think he thought I was trying to steal his IP or email list because he asked me to sign about 5 pages of legal documents saying I would be liable for missing deadlines, etc. I didn’t end up signing anything other than an NDA. I simply had the time and wanted to help him.

Do you think Kent would bend over backwards to get me an interview at his employer if I asked him to? I’m pretty sure he would!

Be Of Service To Others

As engineers we typically think of learning as a solo activity. We go buy a book, read through every search result on google and stack overflow, then maybe we create yet another Todo list project on Github, etc. Trust me, I’ve been there too and I still have to resist the urge to rely solely on this method of learning.

Thread Co-Founders
The Thread founding team

What’s interesting is the mental shift that happens when you are working for someone rather than simply working on something. The former requires accountability and relationship building, while the latter often lacks direction and purpose. I’m willing to bet you will learn more at a faster pace by working for someone or some cause than if you go it alone.

When I say “working for someone” I’m talking in the noblest sense that you are being of service to another person. Which is a very humanizing thing. People inherently care about people they know. Working side-by-side in the trenches is such a powerful mechanism. You simply cannot get to know a person by meeting for coffees alone. Work for them, work with them, in order to get to know them.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Engineering work can be isolating, while career building is a team sport.

Don’t Overthink It

Don’t be tempted to try to identify projects only for people or companies where you believe they could directly help you in some way. If you read about my journey to becoming the technical co-founder of Thread, you might think I had some master plan at work.

The truth is that I didn’t have a plan other than trusting in the process. In hindsight it’s easy to line up all the events that took place and draw a straight line between points A and B. However, that’s not the whole story. I volunteered to help four different organizations last year and three of them didn’t directly lead to my current opportunity. But I do have a stronger network filled with people who would love to help me if I called on them.

Takeaway: Volunteer To Learn Specific Skills

The final lesson I want to leave you with is that my only “plan” was to be of service to others while developing some very specific skills.

In this case, my thesis was that iOS development was in high demand and my enterprise mobile background was already a good foundation for this pivot. I made a ton of connections along the way and many of those relationships will just continue to grow. I never knew where it was going to lead me but I was always confident that I would find something interesting if I kept going.

I hope you consider volunteering time as a valuable career building strategy and a great way to help those around you.

Be hungry and trust in the process my friend.

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Writing Resumes That Work

Writing a resume is not an easy thing. Putting one together can be nerve-racking and cause us to question ourselves at every step. Should I include all of my work history? Should I include a section on skill set? What shouldn’t I include? How long is too long. All of these question are valid and can be difficult to answer.

When I first put together my resume, a really long time ago, I really didn’t put too much effort into it. I simply spewed out all of my work experience on paper. I was fortunate that this was during the dot com boom and employers were hiring up just about anyone that was available.

In fact, a lot of times, the interviewers didn’t even get my resume until I gave it to them…DURING THE INTERVIEW. This meant that I had the opportunity to speak to them in person about my qualifications and overcome the obvious holes and lack of focus in my resume.

– Miguel

In my nearly 20 years as a professional, I’ve interviewed for dozens of jobs. I’ve also interviewed somewhere close to 150 people. That means that I’ve reading through several hundred resumes. As you might imagine, I’ve come across some doozies, but I have seen some really good ones as well.

My experience writing and reading through resumes has helped me come up with a few pointers for creating a resume that is engaging, informative and get results. Unlike others, I’m not going to throw statistics or cite scientific research on the subject. These guidelines are based on my experience and the observations I’ve made when interviewing myself and interviewing others.

Consider Your Objective

First of all, you should consider what the purpose of writing a resume is. This isn’t always the same. There are a lot of different reasons for putting together a resume and each one of them can affect how you write it and what you include.

A resume’s sole purpose is for selling myself to a potential employer, right? Well, sometimes…OK, most of the time.

You might be thinking that I am a little off my rocker right now. A resume’s sole purpose is for selling myself to a potential employer, right? Well, sometimes…OK, most of the time. There are a few other use cases though. Are you selling yourself to a particular employer? Are you targeting a industry? Maybe you’re focused on a particular role. Are you writing a general purpose resume that you will be submitting to multiple, different, positions? Or are you writing a resume to serve as proof that you’ve been there, done that?

All of these reasons for writing a resume can, and should, affect how you write it and what you decide to include in it. So before you begin, take a few minutes to consider what the intent for putting the resume together. This will be valuable information that will guide you as you flesh out the details

Tailor It To the Audience

In addition to knowing the purpose of the resume, you should also be cognizant of the resume’s audience. This should have some impact on how you write your resume, what you include in it and what you highlight (more on this later).

research-researchIn most cases, you’ll want to target the resume to the particular job that you are applying for. Whenever possible, you should include information about other places that you have worked where you had the same role, were in the same industry, developed a similar product or worked with the same type or size of data. All of these things will help create a connection with the reader and can potentially make you stand out from the rest of the candidates.

I know there have been several cases where I read someone’s resume and it made an immediate impact because that person had either worked on a similar product, with the same technologies, or in the same industry. Every time, it had a positive impact on whether I would consider this person further. This is exactly what you want. You want to make a connection with the reader and provided them with reasons to continue considering you as they whittle down the group of people that they are looking at for the job.

…research will help you target your resume to the employer and help it seem more relevant to the reader, the company and the position.

In a previous post, I wrote about how researching the potential employer is one of the keys to a good interview. Well, that also applies writing a resume. All of that research will help you target your resume to the employer and help it seem more relevant to the reader, the company and the position. With a little effort, you can make a HUGE impact on the effectiveness of your resume and help increase your chances of getting the job.

Include “Enough” Information

resume-bookThere is a lot of debate about how much information you should include in a resume. There are some people that will tell you to keep it short and others that will urge to write a book. I tend to lean towards the longer resume myself, with one caveat:

Make sure to highlight things that are important in a way that can be easily interpreted by the reader.

My current resume is around 8 pages long. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty long. I’m OK with that though. I would rather include more information than less. That being said, I try to highlight important things at the top of my resume and throughout my work history. I start off with a clear objective and follow it with a list of the programming languages, tools, and process that I have worked with. Then, for every position, I include a list of the programming languages, tools, and process that I used while I was there. This is at the top of each entry in my employment history and is highlighted so that I stands out visually.

I do all of these things to make my resumes easy to skim through while still providing some detail for every company that I have worked for. This way, the reader can easily get a feel for the diversity of my experience, the things that I have worked on recently and can still dig a little deeper into each of them if they want to get some more details.

Highlight Your Strengths

Your resume is your first opportunity to wow a potential employer. You have a small window of opportunity to make an impact and stand out from the rest of the pack. Remember, the person reading your resume will probably be reading a ton of resumes all at once. You need to make sure that yours makes some sort of connection.

One way to do this is to really highlight your strengths. If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ve probably identified what it is you are really good at. Your previous companies, managers, and peers have recognized you for being good at a handful of things. Showcase these things you’re awesome at in your resume. Make sure to sprinkle it thoughtout your work history, skill sets, and other sections of your resume.

If you’re awesome at something and everywhere you’ve been everyone has told you that you are, then let your potential employer in on the secret.

For example, if you’ve been told that you are great at leading teams of developers, you should include examples of how you’ve done that at your previous positions. If you’ve been told that you’re technically awesome, then make sure to highlight all of the languages, tools and processes that you’ve worked with.

If you’re awesome at something and everywhere you’ve been everyone has told you that you are, then let your potential employer in on the secret. Just be careful not to come across as arrogant or cocky. Always employ the right amount of humility when bragging about your awesome-sauce. That being said, I’ve always argued that a resume is one of the only cases where you should try to sell yourself…and maybe even brag a little. Just tread lightly.

Always Be Truthful

resume-liarThis last pointer is super freaking easy to do and extremely important…never, ever, ever, ever lie or embellish in your resume. You should only ever include things that you are 100% sure of. A quick rule of thumb for writing your resume is…If there is any doubt, leave it out. You want to make sure that you can speak intelligently, and without hesitation, to anything that is in your resume.

A quick rule of thumb for writing your resume is…If there is any doubt, leave it out.

You should also not to take credit for other people’s work. It really isn’t worth it. Our community is a small and tightly connected one. The odds that someone at the potential employer will know someone else that you have worked with in the past are really high. Being called out for something that you’ve claimed to have done but didn’t really do can be a deal breaker for an employer. Don’t be that guy. Don’t take that chance. Don’t do it.

You should also be careful about calling yourself an expert on anything. I’ve always been super sensitive to this issue. I never call myself an expert on anything…ever. You should leave that for others to judge. I know that the times I’ve come across resumes where the candidate calls themselves an expert on something I’ve always gone away questioning there sincerity and/or cockiness. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth so I avoid it and I would suggest that you do as well.

The key takeaway from all of this is that you should really pay close attention to how you write your resume and what you include in it. I know it can be a little stressful, but if you follow the four guidelines that I’ve described here you’ll be off to a great start. Remember, a resume is a living document. You should expect to tweak it as you go. In addition to adding new skills and work experience, you’ll find things that work well and other that don’t and want to adjust your resume accordingly. Treat it as your personal billboard. You have a short amount of time and will be one of many so make it count, make it relevant and make an impact.

Need Professional Advice?

Still unsure about how to make your resume put your best foot forward?

For $300, the Developer Springboard team will review your resume, ask you questions, and suggest or make edits to ensure your resume is presenting you and your skills in the most compelling possible light.

Your resume can mean the difference between getting the first interview versus getting passed over. It can mean the difference between finding a job at an amazing company where you level up quickly versus stagnating at a company with poor culture and even poorer pay.

We programmers have a way of down-playing our strengths and not wanting to sound like we’re bragging. We will help you accurately communicate your accomplishments and skills without coming off arrogantly.

Let Andrew, Miguel, and Devin make your resume stand out from the crowd and make you look as good as you really are.

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The Programmer’s Guide to Dealing With Back Pain

I’ve been a programmer for fifteen years and have dealt with neck and lower back pain for most of that time.

This is the chronicle of what I’ve experienced and what books, products, changes, medicines, and doctors have helped (and not helped). I’ll begin by describing my hand, arm, and neck pain. Then I’ll discuss my lower back pain and what has helped it.

Numbness And Tingling in the Hands

My pain started less than a year after I began full-time software development out of college.

I started having numbness and tingling in my hands, especially my pinky and ring fingers. I ignored it for a few weeks but it got so bad I went to a hand doctor.

photo credit: Working hard via photopin (license)
photo credit: Working hard via photopin (license)

The hand doctor gave me some stretches to do on my hands and forearms. But my pain got worse, and the entire surface of my hands began to hurt and be ultra-sensitive to touching anything. To this day I don’t know what this was, but it lasted for five months and was incredibly painful. I think it was some kind of myofascial pain caused by tightness in my neck.

After the doctor visit, I began to improve my workstation. I got a keyboard tray and elevated my monitors with old computer books, so that I could be working in a more ergonomic environment.

I bought a book on Repetitive Strain Injury which was good basic information, and then a second book about how RSI is not carpal tunnel syndrome that had good stretching tips and other ways to help improve this condition. From their suggestions, I bought an IMAK Smart Glove wrist brace as well, which helped to pad my hands from the keyboard so that nerves wouldn’t get irritated, and which stabilized my wrists.

These books helped me retrain the way I typed to not do ulnar deviations and other bad practices. But they had another affect as well.

The Pain Moves Up the Forearms Toward the Shoulders

Now my forearms were having to do more work, as I had stopped resting the bases of my hands against the keyboard and instead kept my hands elevated more often. My forearms began to burn when I worked for even an hour at the computer.

I started stretching my forearms and doing various exercises to help keep things loose. After a month, the pain moved into my shoulders and neck. This centralization of pain is something that the books and articles I read talked about. In a way it is a good thing as you are getting closer to the ultimate source of the problem.

I went to an occupational health doctor and started getting regular massages and physical therapy. The physical therapist was having me do many of the exercises and stretches I read about in the books. He also recommend I buy the McKenzie book on treating your own neck. I did that and found a few more stretches to do.

Worker’s Compensation

A brief digression here in case it helps you. After eight months of pain, I began to worry that I would not be able to work at my software job potentially. I inquired into filing a Worker’s Compensation claim and decided to do that.

photo credit: Attaching Fittings to a Cable via photopin (license)
photo credit: Attaching Fittings to a Cable via photopin (license)

I never actually used Worker’s Comp to take a significant time off from work. Mainly the benefit was that I could go to a certain doctor that was not on my company’s regular insurance plan.

That was good, but what I realized quickly was that 1) the doctor had no great solution for my pain, and 2) it was just a big paperwork fest where they eventually pushed me toward agreeing to “maximum medical improvement.”

I did agree to that after about a year, as I wasn’t going to get any better, and I had learned to manage the pain decently enough to keep working. Overall Worker’s Comp did not provide much benefit for me with this condition.

I also wonder if my company didn’t frown upon me taking it. Of course they can’t say that, but it’s something I would avoid doing unless you have a compelling reason to use it.

Chiropractor #1 And Spine Surgeon #1

At a friend’s advice, I went to a chiropractor he recommended. I had been skeptical of chiropractors my whole life but figured I’d give it a shot.

photo credit: BEST OF THE MARINE CORPS - May 2006 - Defense Visual Information Center via photopin (license)
photo credit: BEST OF THE MARINE CORPS – May 2006 – Defense Visual Information Center via photopin (license)

Dr. F did an X-ray and pointed out that I had “military neck.” My neck did not have the normal lordotic curvature in the cervical part of my spine, but instead was rigidly vertical. He was confident, however, that his adjustments would realign my neck and solve my problems.

I went to him twice per week for the next three months. I didn’t get any noticeable improvement from his adjustments.

So I went to a spine surgeon for the first time. He had me do an MRI of my neck, declared that I had no herniated discs and that he could do nothing for me. Disappointingly, he handed me a prescription for muscle relaxers and sent me on my way. No suggestions for what could be happening or how to improve it.

During this time, I continued doing lots of stretches, exercising, and refining of my ergonomic workstation set up. This didn’t necessarily fix my problems, but it helped keep them at a maintainable level.

How to Sleep to Reduce Pain

I noticed that some mornings I woke up and my neck would be in severe pain. One day this occurred, and I went to take a shower. I bent my head forward to put it under the water and my neck went into horrible pain. It hurt so badly that I thought I was going to have to vomit.

photo credit: nap time via photopin (license)
photo credit: nap time via photopin (license)

I took three ibuprofen, laid down face-first on a pillow, and put an ice pack on my neck. I couldn’t work that day and had to spend it stretching, resting, doing heat then cool packs, and taking ibuprofen.

After similar episodes occurred a few times, I noticed that they would usually happen after I had gotten really fatigued the day before, and my neck felt tight, or when I had tried to do some weights or moderately heavy labor (say, moving furniture). I started taking ibuprofen in the evening before bed on such days, which helped.

But I also realized that sleeping on my side would often make my neck feel horrible in the morning. No matter how many or few pillows I used, or how I tried to level it out, sleeping on my side would lead to pain.

I didn’t think it was possible for me to sleep on my back, but I began to try. I bought one of those wavy types of pillows that had a curve for the neck and used that for a year. But it was so uncomfortable I switched to a small couch pillow under my head.

Some nights I would turn over onto my side without even realizing it. Then I’d wake in serious pain. But as I kept at it, most nights I could sleep on my back for much of the night. Still my neck would hurt, as the small pillow did not have much support for my neck.

I eventually found the Arc4life Linear Gravity Neck Pillow and that has made sleeping on my back easier, more comfortable, and much better for my neck. It keeps your head cradled better and overall has a more comfortable neck support piece. They have another pillow with cervical traction that I may try at some point.

Why Not Herniate a Lumbar Disc While Were At It?

My wife and I caught the urban farming bug and after several years decided to move out to a farm in the country. I still worked remotely full-time doing computer programming though.

I thought, “Great, I’ll get strong by doing farm work, which will help me be in less pain from programming.”

What actually happened looked quite different: I was a weekend warrior farmer who had lots of chores to do on the weekend that built up during the week. I had bought eight cows and had a tractor, hay buggy, and chainsaw. One weekend I went out and was throwing sixty-pound stones over the side of my truck, then chainsawing trees and moving huge hay bales. I felt manly.

I woke up the next morning and started working, and my lower back began to hurt. I hadn’t had much lower back pain before, only in the neck, so I took two ibuprofen and thought it would go away. It didn’t. Because without realizing it, I had herniated the L5-S1 disc in my lumbar spine.

You can read about all our misadventures in farming in my short ebook Farm Flop. But this injury began a new saga of pain for me.

My lower back and gluteus muscles were in serious pain. I could not work. I couldn’t drive a car and could barely ride in a car. I didn’t know what I had done to myself.

Chiropractor #2 And Doctor #2

I was driven to the doctor, and she said she didn’t think I had herniated a disc. Just a muscle strain. She gave me some stretches to do and recommended physical therapy.

photo credit: MRI, July 1, 2010 via photopin (license)
photo credit: MRI, July 1, 2010 via photopin (license)

It turns out she was wrong, but I believed her misdiagnosis for the next year. One tip for you if you get such a diagnosis: if the pain improves some over the next several weeks but then returns sharply after doing even mild work, it is likely a herniation or something similarly bad.

My friend recommended a chiropractor he knew, so he drove me to see him. Dr. T was confident he could fix me up. (All chiropractors seems to have this confidence.) He began doing adjustments and my pain improved some, whether on its own accord or due to his work I don’t know.

But then it flared up again, and I couldn’t work a full day or drive for weeks. I could stand for a certain amount of time, or sit for a brief amount of time, but that was it.

I went to Dr. T for three times a week for three months before calling it quits.

One small thing that was helpful during this time was the McKenzie lumbar roll (firm). I used it whenever I was sitting down to help support my lower back. I also bought a Hon Ignition chair to replace the big Office Depot one I had bought a long time ago. The Hon one is a much better chair but is pricey.

Back to the City

I couldn’t do any farming work and was hitting a crisis point. What if I couldn’t provide for my family anymore?

So we sold our farm and moved back to the city. For my home, I bought an Ergotron Workfit sit-stand desk attachment that supported my dual monitors. I had been using one at work, and it helped to be able to stand for periods of time. Coupled with this I bought a Cumulus Imprint standing mat that is a necessity with any standing desk. My pain was such that these were necessities to be able to work, as I physically could not sit down for more than fifteen minutes without serious pain. These two items have been mainstays for me with my computer programming set up.

But even with them, I could barely work a full eight-hour day without hurting. And the lower back spasms and pain would cause other parts of my back to try to compensate, leading to tightness and pain in my mid-back and neck.

I had to quit my job because I could no longer drive all the way across town to where it was. But I found a new job that allowed me to work from home most of the time. At this point, I knew something had to be seriously wrong with my back.

I had a buddy tell me about his inversion table. I read about them, and it seemed to be hit-or-miss with whether they helped, depending on the particular person and back condition. After some hemming and hawing I bought a Teeter Inversion Table, and after using it for the past six months can say it has helped when my back felt especially compressed. I get on it for three or four minutes on a regular basis and then do stretches, including the McKenzie ones, and it helps.

Chiropractor #3 And Spine Doctor #3

To get to the bottom of my lower back pain once and for all, I decided to go with the shotgun approach and see both a spine surgeon and another chiropractor.

The spine surgeon ordered an MRI. The results came in, and he pointed to my L5-S1 joint and said: “That disc is herniated and is causing your lower back problems.” I was relieved to know the cause, but also frustrated that the first doctor had jumped to a diagnosis too quickly and delayed me finding this out.

photo credit: Studio Desks: Eric Benoit via photopin (license)
photo credit: Studio Desks: Eric Benoit via photopin (license)

He gave me cortisol pills to take. They had zero effect. So he gave me a spinal injection of steroids. That gave me relief for four months.

Meanwhile, I went to Dr. C, who, like the other chiropractors, was confident he could fix me up. No doubt in his mind. I told him I gave him a 25% chance of being able to do what he said. But I’d be happy if he could prove me wrong.

Dr. C didn’t believe my disc was herniated. He seemed to mistrust spine surgeons. He took an X-ray and pointed out my military neck. He also X-rayed my hip area and found out that one of my legs was 20mm longer than the other. This leg-length discrepancy was significant and had led to me compensating in other parts of my spine and back.

I bought a heel lift and it was cut to be 9mm. Dr. C didn’t want to go more than 9mm to start, since a 20mm discrepancy is too much to try to overcome all at once, he said.

At his recommendation I also bought an Aspen back brace, which was a big help. The idea is this: if your back is too weak to be able to hold you up sitting or standing for your work, use a back brace when you need to (not all the time) so that your back doesn’t get into a bad posture or into tight knots. During this time I was also doing twenty minutes of stretching every morning along with basic ab exercises and lower back leg lifts to strengthen my core muscles.

To help with the pain, I bought BioFreeze (icy hot). It smelled better than the tiger balm I had been using, and it had less residue. It doesn’t solve anything, but it does reduce the feeling of pain. I also bought a Theracane to massage the knots in my back and neck myself, and it has helped. Being able to reduce the knots and tightness in my lower back and neck myself, without having to pay for expensive massages, is well worth it.

With the chiropractor, I did decompression therapy on a special table three times per week for four months. They strap a belt around your waist and then the table moves to apply force to stretch your back at the right location. The computer ramps up the force, then eases it down in alternating periods. Dr. C was sure that this would solve my problem, expanding the region between my vertebrae that would allow the disc to soak up more fluid like a sponge would. Unfortunately, that did not seem to happen.

I also did adjustments and lidocaine injections in my knotted neck muscles. We did some laser thing that was supposed to reduce scar tissue in my lower back, and a vibe plate that would vibrate your whole body. For my military neck, he had me use a cervical denneroll (similar product here), which I lie on for 15 minutes everyday to increase the lordotic curvature in my neck. So far I don’t know if it is working, but the theory seems sound so I am continuing to use it.

After finishing up my regimen of chiropractic therapy, my lower back pain was right back to where it was. Dr. C’s therapies did not work for me, though I view them as steps in the right direction, learning about my leg-length discrepancy, using a back brace when needed, and the neck roll.

One takeaway for me with this is that chiropractors may be able to help some people, but only for specific conditions (none of which were ones I suffer from apparently). They each seemed to have the attitude that other chiropractors don’t know what they know, and also that conventional doctors like spine surgeons don’t know what they are doing.

Second Spinal Injection And Surgery Looming

My pain was getting unbearable again, affecting every moment of my day. So I went back to the spine surgeon, who said that surgery would solve my problem but that my health insurance company would not approve a surgery until I had done at least one more injection.

photo credit: Hypodermic Needle Injection Hand IMG_7420 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hypodermic Needle Injection Hand IMG_7420 via photopin (license)

I got a second injection, and it lasted two months. Then the pain began to come back. I spoke with the spine surgeon again, and he said that fusion surgery is the next step. I asked why fusion and not just a discectomy, and he said because the pain is focused in my lower right back and gluteus, not down my leg, fusion surgery is what is best for that type of problem.

I am now waiting to see whether the pain gets so bad again that I have to do the surgery. Part of me hopes that I don’t; but I am ready to be able to live again, to pick up my children again, to not fear that I cannot provide for them due to back pain. Every week my children ask me when I can pick them up again, and whether my back will ever get better, and it kills me to not know when I can respond to them with a definite time.

This is the story of my neck and back pain. I’ve managed to live with it for 15 years and continue working, but it has not been easy. Some days I get very discouraged and fearful. But with these tools and techniques, I have reached a manageable point with the pain for the most part.

My hope is that it helps other programmers with their back pain. Every person and condition is different, but for many only a few of these suggestions or tools could make a big difference for them.

For those who want the tips and products I’ve used distilled down into one short document, here’s the programmer’s back pain checklist of things to try.

Please do leave a comment and share your experience with back or neck pain and what has helped you with it.

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Setting clear goals to help guide your career decisions

For the sake of argument, let’s say that you’ve been working as a software developer for a while and you’ve been able to advance in your career. You’ve gotten a few raises and maybe a promotion or two. If someone were to ask you how your career is going, what would you answer? Better yet, how would you answer? You might say that it’s going well considering that you’ve been able to advance financially and have been promoted to a more senior position. Is this a good enough answer? Are promotions and raises the only measures of success and failure for our careers. If you’ve been following the DREAM principles and have taken the time to DISCOVER who you are and REFINE your goals, then you have a lot more data points at your disposal to answer these kind of questions. Most importantly, you have the career goals that you’ve established and can use to quantify your success and measure how much progress you have, or have not, made towards them.

If someone were to ask you how your career is going, what would you answer? Better yet, how would you answer?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when I came out of college I didn’t really have an idea of what I was going to do with my career.  I was not really prepared to be a professional software developer at all. Nothing in my youth or schooling had gotten me ready for the real world. In fact, for the first few years after school, I just did whatever was in front of me and took every opportunity I was presented with without much regard to career path or any other personal goals.

At first glance, you could say that this was working well for me. I was progressing rather quickly at work and I had become pretty good at my job. In the first 5 years or so, I had switched jobs once, gotten several raises and had already been promoted into a management position. To a certain extent, these minor successes had blinded me to the shortsightedness of my career choices. It took me a while to realize that although I was advancing, I wasn’t really doing well in terms of my career.

You see, the first job I took after college consisted mostly of writing backend applications in Perl. Then, I switched over to a job working at a small Cold Fusion shop.  Neither of these programming languages were what I considered cutting edge and, in fact, I could see that there was no future in them for me. Yes, I was gainfully employed, but I was losing a lot of ground with respect to the changes that were happening in the software development industry. There were new programming languages, tools, technologies and process that were taking off and I wasn’t getting any exposure to them. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that if I didn’t do something about it quickly I would soon become pigeon holed into the niche programmer that I was becoming and it would be really difficult to regain all the ground that I had already lost.

I realized that if I did not set these goals for my career I ran the risk of digging myself into a hole that I would not be able to climb out of.

So, what happened? How did I get to this point? How could I have gone for so long without realizing that I was falling behind and coding myself into irrelevance? After thinking about this for a while, I realized that I had never really set any career goals for myself. Up until then, I had been reactive. I would only ever consider the opportunities that fell into my lap. I wasn’t proactively looking to take the next step to better my career or progress towards a goal. This was a HUGE eye opener for me. I realized that if I did not set these goals for my career I ran the risk of digging myself into a hole that I would not be able to climb out of.

goals-signI immediately pivoted and started working towards what I felt were more appropriate career goals. I decided that I would go back to working in the C# .NET programming language that I had started looking into a few years before. I would use that to try to get my career back on track. After realizing that this was not going to be possible at my existing position, I decided to leave my management role and take a developer position with a different company that was using C# and other leading edge technologies, tools and processes. I knew that it was a very risky move. I was essentially giving myself a demotion but I also knew that it was the right move for me in the long run. I was banking heavily on my ability to learn and excel at anything that I set my mind to. In hindsight, I know I was very fortunate that my gamble paid off in the end.

At this point, you might be thinking “Wait, what’s so wrong with being a Perl or Cold Fusion programmer?” Well, nothing really. I could have stayed at the same job or even gone somewhere else and continued working in either of those programming languages. Maybe I would still be working somewhere in that space today. In fact, I have a couple of friends that are still doing really well as Cold Fusion developers. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t think I could make a career out of Cold Fusion or Perl. The problem was that I didn’t want to…and I had never intended to. I had ended up there because I had not been focused on my career and had made decision without setting or considering my long term goals.  I knew there were other things out there that I wanted to do and I realized that the only thing keeping me from doing them was myself. I had never really focused on my career or set any goals that I could work towards. So I just took what was available and didn’t really consider where I wanted to be in 5, 10 or 15 years.

Things that I didn’t think I was interested in when I was in my 20’s have become a lot more appealing to me now that I’m in my late 30’s

successAfter having refocused and refined my career goals, I took the necessary steps to align my career with them and start making progress in that direction. Soon, I was advancing just as I had at the onset of my career but this time it was more in sync with my long term goals. As it turns out, this wasn’t the only time I had to reset goals for myself. In fact, I’ve found that I have to do this fairly frequently. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We are all growing every day – changing as developers and human beings. Things that I didn’t think I was interested in when I was in my 20’s have become a lot more appealing to me now that I’m in my late 30’s. At the same time, our young industry is changing at an extremely rapid pace. New technologies, tools and processes are being developed every day that might make us reconsider our goals from time to time.

The key takeaway from all of this is that we should always be working towards some goal. That goal might change over time, but it’s crucial that we always have one to help guide us as we navigate through our careers. How can we really quantify our progress if we don’t know what we’re supposed to be progressing towards?

Without [goals], it is difficult to determine if you are heading in the right direction or not. In fact, goals are what will determine that direction.

In order to know whether you’re making progress in your career, you need to establish the goals that you are attempting to reach. Without them, it is difficult to determine if you are heading in the right direction or not. In fact, goals are what will determine that direction. Setting goals is not an exact science, so don’t expect to get it right the first time around. The key is to always have a goal that you’re working towards so that you can remain focused and make career decisions based on whether the outcome gets you closer to achieving these goals. So remember to stay focused on your career and frequently reevaluate your goals so that you are always working towards something.

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