We had the good fortune of connecting with Justen Phelps and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Justen, how do you think about risk?
Risk has been an incredibly common theme in my career, and all through conscious decisions of my own. The first 10 years of my career were spent at jobs where I felt unfulfilled, unimportant, and replaceable. I spent years of my early adult life cleaning toilets, bouncing at bars, and living in my grandparents Volkswagen van. Approaching 25 I had reached a point in my career where I was legitimately stuck and unable to improve my situation. I was working as a researcher in Palo Alto, working with people extremely more qualified than I. I had worked my way into this position after years of pharmaceutical grunt work, and was proud to have made it into a position where my coworkers had doctorate and masters degrees in their field. I was working alongside some of the brightest people I have ever met. After about a year, it had become very clear that this job was the end of the road for my improvement. I had been told by management that in order to be promoted or improve my compensation, a degree was needed. I had no interest in spending 4 years learning a field I stumbled into. After a small bout with depression, I decided to teach myself to program. This is where the largest risk I’ve taken in my life happened. I quit my well-paying and easy job, to dedicate myself to learning to become a software engineer. I spent 6+ hours every day in the Santa Clara public library, completing course after course of development and programming languages. One I had eaten through my savings, my wife, my 4 month old son, and I all moved back to Southern California to live with my parents while I continued to study full time. It was a total of 6 months of full-time joblessness and study that I managed to land my first part time development position, and I remember crying when I was told the job was mine. The largest risk I took in life, turned my life around for the better. I threw myself into a sink or swim situation and managed to not only swim, but to thrive in the water. I have now been a full time software engineer for 6 years and my family and I are living comfortably in southern California.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I feel blessed and lucky to call myself a software engineer now. Being self taught, I have struggled with imposter’s syndrome. If you are unfamiliar with what this is, the best way to explain it is as a constant voice in the back of your head telling you that you are not good enough, and that your success is a fluke. I have struggled with this for my entire career, and until recently have never felt validated as an engineer. Within the software industry, most of my colleagues have been well educated and university graduate engineers. There is a very obvious difference between a college graduate engineer, and a self taught engineer, but not in ability. There is a noticeable juxtaposition in demeanor and approach in programming and algorithmic logic between the two backgrounds. This has been intimidating to me for a very long time, but at my current position I am now teaching other engineers how to fix their code and help them solve problems within their applications. I feel validated. The most important lesson I’ve learned throughout my journey so far, is that while your background might be different, this could be a benefit and advantage. I have learned how to learn independently, and have become increasingly proficient in problem solving and logical approach. Imposter’s syndrome is real and common within the software engineering community, especially lately. I feel like instead of looking at your lack of formal education as a flaw, it needs to be looked at as an advantage or alternative method of solution. By being self taught, I am able to approach a problem completely differently than someone that was taught formally and could be biased from prior knowledge of a similar educational situation.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’ve recently been introduced to Temecula, and it has now become one of my favorite places to visit. The downtown area has incredible local shops that are hard to find anymore. There are almost no chain restaurants or franchise businesses in the area. Every shop is locally owned and family operated, and it is an absolute breath of fresh air. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
While I studied day in and day out, I had two very major support systems to back me up and allow me to dedicate my entire life to studying. My wife Emily, trusted me enough to quit my job and be unemployed in order to pursue a career that I had no background in. She not only was home alone for most of the day while I studied, she also had to care for our son William while he was only a few months old during my study hours. She never once doubted my ability to learn programming or told me I should go back to my old job. I could not have made the career shift without her absolute trust and support she has given me. Thank you love. My parents, for allowing me to move into their home again, at the age of 25. I know it was not easy watching your son leave his comfortable career to pursue software, but you allowed my family to move in with zero complaint. You turned your living room into storage, and your extra bedroom into my family’s home. Without you allowing me to move into your home while jobless, I could not have spent the time studying. Thank you.