Hi, my name is JP Miller, and this is the story of how I went from courier to cofounder of Skragglies.com, a web development company. In my opinion, the greatest thing about the proliferation of technology is the ability to network and develop hard skills outside of traditional channels.

The Backstory

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s with a deep interest in computers, but drifted from that passion in high school and instead chose to study the liberal arts while working in retail management. I prospered in that environment, but wanted to do more than sell merchandise. I desired to create something. So at the age of thirty, I interned at a dating advice website as a content writer and enrolled in improvisational acting classes at Chicago’s Second City. While learning the art of short-form improv, I befriended another student who happened to be a real estate professional, who in turn connected me with a contractor in need of freelance writers. During this whole time, I was paying my bills by working as a subcontractor for my father’s courier business. If it sounds like I was busy, you’re right. I haven’t even mentioned that my wife was also expecting our first child!

I was thirty, with a child on the way, and fifteen years of experience in the workforce, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career.

A Self-Made Education

I knew I didn’t want to be a courier for the long-term. I liked freelance writing, but the work was sporadic and well-paying gigs were hard to find. I had bought myself an iMac after two years of freelancing and thought, “I have this powerful machine that can do anything. I don’t want to play games on it, so what am I going to do?” My checks as a freelance writer were becoming more and more infrequent because my original contractor shifted her career to create a fashion line. Again I thought, “She has these graphic designers and this new website. That’s something I’ve been interested in for some time so maybe it’s time I learn how to build a website.”

About this same time I happened to read that the University of Milwaukee was beginning a two-year program in Web Development. I checked it out online, but with a newborn, the traditional route was too expensive, and I lived too far from the city to drive in several days each week. So I did the next best thing I could think of—look through the program, copy the required courses for graduation, and hope that I could hack together a self-made education online.

The Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree program

After much Googling, I found Udacity’s course on Design of Everyday Things, and the offer to register to be notified of the upcoming-inaugural Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree program—which could be completed in eight months for $199 each month. That met my budget, and gaining a portfolio and an education from my living room sounded like a helluva deal so I filled out a submission form and went back to being a courier. Some weeks later, I was surprised to find an invitation to enroll in the first ever Nanodegree program!

The encouraging community in Udacity forums really made the Nanodegree program memorable for me. I never felt like I was alone. It wasn’t that someone was always there to hold my hand, but that a community of students, guides, and eventually alumni, were there to offer encouragement and direction.

Participating in the Nanodegree program introduced me to a community of passionate, diverse, and interesting people. Udacity students treat one another with respect. Finding a degrading response to a question was extremely rare. Interacting in Udacity forums was like an electronic breath of fresh air. The strong network of support kept me coming back to the computer every day to face the struggle of gaining hard skills.

Recognizing the need for a support network, I reached out to a web developer that I happened to meet while performing stand-up comedy at a local open mic. He offered to connect me with a guy he knew who had a development shop in town. A couple days later I received a call from a local entrepreneur, Mike Creuzer, who offered the use of his office once a week to study on an otherwise unused computer. The ability to study uninterrupted for six to eight hours was a boon to my progress. As a bonus, some of his employees were friendly enough to talk to me about their jobs, what it was like to be a developer, and offer direction as I progressed through my Nanodegree projects.

JP Miller at Udacity Intersect 2016

JP Miller at Udacity Intersect 2016

Intersect

Making new acquaintances and networking with colleagues is my peanut butter and jelly. So naturally, I was ecstatic to be invited to Udacity’s first conference, Intersect 2016. The event was hosted in Menlo Park over a fast-paced two-day weekend. Intersect was an exciting opportunity to meet a community of people bound by their enthusiasm for technology, lifelong learning, and an affiliation with Udacity. You just don’t know how connected you are to online associates until they run to greet you in person. My daily associates don’t do that! I formed a carpool for the weekend as an opportunity to meet other grads and make new friends under Udacity’s umbrella. It was thrilling to cross paths with people that would not have met one another without Udacity’s Nanodegree programs. Without a doubt, Udacians are cultivating one of the coolest online and offline cultures I’ve ever been party to.

I completed the Front-End Nanodegree program in May 2015. My search for work was frustrating, so I began to look for avenues to create my own opportunities. One such opportunity called last October. “Hey,” the voice on the other end of the cell phone was saying, “I can’t make this website I’m building behave like I want on mobile devices. Would you know anything about that?” It was the web developer I met at an open mic many months prior. We began talking shop over the following weeks and by the end of November were exploring the possibility of cultivating our own clients in a joint-venture.

To date, we’ve completed work for roughly one dozen clients, developed partnerships with content creators, and formed mutually beneficial relationships with two graphic designers and a professional photographer.

Networking creates opportunities for growth and personal enrichment. The proliferation of technology negates the constraints of traditional systems and opens avenues of opportunity for anyone willing to expand beyond their current station. Some of the most defining elements of my career have been outside of the traditional methods of growth and personal development. I did receive a B.A. from a four-year university, but my technical skills have been hard won through a mix of online studies and opportunities created through the power of consistent networking, both locally and globally.

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Thank you JP, for sharing your story!

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