Why write about this? For a couple reasons. One is that I have friends without college degrees who are struggling to make it. They always ask me what I did to “make it” without a degree and I usually respond with a truncated version of this post. The problem is that they throw up arbitrary barriers and discard the advice immediately, typically saying something like “But you’re smart and I’m not” or “I can’t because I don’t have those skills”. It’s hard to convey the sacrifices, pain, and stresses through a truncated version. The other reason is that I hope to show people that there isn’t one path to getting to where you want. College is expensive. Your time is even more expensive. I want to show people that there are alternatives to the norm that can provide the lifestyle people want, as long as they apply the right force. For me, those forces were taught through different lessons throughout my life.
This is not intended to be a “look at how awesome I am” post. This is not intended to be boastful or rave about my success. This post is intended to shed light on just how hard it is to survive without a college degree, the sacrifices it takes, what my journey looked like to get where I’m at today, and be realistic about the journey so that others can see.
These are the stories and lessons I learned leading up to and just after dropping out that helped me survive without a college degree.
I was sitting in the lecture hall going over our syllabus for Entomology. I had no idea why I was taking entomology or how it would be relevant to my life. All I knew was that each year I spent there was equal to about $10,000, all of which felt completely useless. Even in classes that had some remote resemblance to my degree I found irrelevant. I spent many hours in my CS 101 class arguing with my professor about cloud computing. She had claimed it was brand new technology in 2009 while I knew that statement was complete bullshit. I ended up building my own server running Ubuntu Eucalyptus, threw on a static IP address, logged in, and proved to her that this technology had been around for years.
I thought I was angry at her but deep down I was really just angry at the fact that I was spending so much money for what felt like such little information. The running joke in college is that the first two years are insanely easy and generally a waste of time/money. You get all of your core classes out of the way to finally get to the classes that are more tailored or relevant to your objective. It felt easy which made it hard to be passionate about studying. Maybe this was because it was a state school with an average CS program. Or maybe it was because I was impatient (and still am) and thought I knew everything. I still remember skipping an entire quarter of Econ 102 and cramming 18 hours of studying in on course material right before the final. I relied heavily on logic problem solving and brief memories of my cramming sesh to land myself a 96% on the final. A couple of friends that I studied with were very upset that scored higher than them. Had I went to class, I would have spent triple or quadruple the time to get the same or worse results.
I don’t believe that college is useless. There are many incredibly valid reasons and professions that ought to have a degree associated with them. I wouldn’t want a doctor operating on me who didn’t have a degree. What I disagree with, though, is the way colleges go about teaching today. Hell, it stems further back to how our education system is throughout junior high and high school. It feels like education has lost its way with students over tested and less ability for individuals to explore their talents. I guess that’s what happens when you want to produce well rounded workers — you stifle talents and curiosity through standardized teaching. However, I’ll save that discussion for a different time.
Entomology did me in and I needed a different plan. I called my dad (a PhD) as I was walking from the lecture hall and said I couldn’t do it anymore. Needless to say, it was an interesting conversation. I dropped out of college in 2011 with no plan. I trusted myself enough though to know that I was going to figure out how to make it work. To explain how I survived to present day without a college degree requires going back to when I was younger. Surviving didn’t happen overnight — it’s been a compilation of a decade worth of lessons.
The Roots of Survival
I had always been way to curious and hands on for my own good. The way I learn the fastest is by breaking shit and putting it back together, even to this day. I never used the manual when building legos. For me, I always built stuff by looking at or envisioning the end goal then building towards that with the materials I had. Asking “why” or “why not” is go to for literally anything. I was, and still am, curious about everything. I now ask “why not” more than any other question. It helps me check the premise of an assumption, learn about the root problems, and challenge these assumptions. If someone says something can’t be done, always ask why not. Don’t take the opinion at face value.
Throughout my childhood, I always had a computer somewhere in the house. Whether it was my parents, one that was given to me, or one that I bought myself, I always had a way of connecting. I grew up with the early days of dial up (remember the dial tone?) and was an early user of Napster and Limewire. I hacked software constantly, played lots of video games, and spent too much time playing a game called Runescape.
Runescape was an MMORPG that had leveling, monsters, money, and people. I learned a lot from that game. Things such as supply & demand, human emotions, human manipulation, goal setting, grinding through the tough times, losing everything, and gaining everything. It sounds stupid and quite ridiculous but that game helped accelerate certain areas of learning faster than anything else. I set lofty character levels to achieve in small time frames. Many goals were unobtainable but I pushed hard to achieve them. I frequently reduced my sleep to 6 hours, switched my sleep schedule so that I slept during the day and played during the night so that I had less distractions during the summer. It was my first taste of setting insane goals and forcing the cards to play into my favor to achieve them.
While Runescape was influential in a certain set of characteristics, Dell was even more so — and not in a good way. When I was 13, I got a Dell computer for Christmas. It was the most basic Inspiron you could buy ($350 or something). 6 hours after I plugged it in, the computer died. Completely fucked and the OS not responsive. I didn’t know much about computers then but what I did know was how angry I was. After complaining to my Dad, he said “Call tech support and figure it out”. My dad has never been sympathetic which has helped. I called tech support and 4 hours later they were overnighting a recovery disk. Since the OS wasn’t responsive, I was still shit out of luck because the CD did nothing unless you could boot from it. What did I do when you don’t know the answer or are stuck? I got on my dads computer and started searching away (Ask Jeeves FTW!). I finally found a forum that explained how to access something called the BIOS, change the boot sequence, and boot up from the CD. A few hours later and I had it up and running again with the recovery disk.
It was eye opening for me. A month later and I wanted to play a video game that came out. My computer didn’t have the specs so I searched on how to get them. I learned that computers could have additional “memory” installed and that video games take advantage of something called a “graphics card”. Mind = blown. I ordered both from money I had saved up from mowing lawns. After receiving both, I realized I had no idea what I was doing.
“Well, now what?”
To the internet search gods once again. Another few hours later and I had just performed my first hardware upgrade. It was too easy. There was a slot for everything and it reminded me of playing legos. I then asked a life changing questions: “Can I build my own computer?”
Fast forward 2 months and I had just built my first gaming computer. I learned about CPU caching, memory timings, north & south bridges. Friends liked what I did and asked if I would design their gaming rigs. We all played Counter Strike or Unreal Tournament in LAN tournaments and wanted to compete against each other so the demand was high. Then I started to get request from folks I didn’t know. I asked my dad what he thought and he said “Well, why don’t you start a company?”.
The History and Lessons
I was 14 when I started my first company. We built high performance gaming computers and charged a build fee. I initially bought components at retail price from Newegg but obviously it was expensive. After being curious about how to reduce my price to be more competitive with the big guys, I learned about “distributors” and tiered pricing. It was like a whole new world opening up to me. I contacted Synnex, MAlabs, ASI, and Ingram Micro to open up accounts. My dad took out a credit line of $10,000 for me since I wasn’t old enough yet. I got Net 30 terms from each of the distributors. My prices decreased and I started to get more orders for consumer grade computers ($400-$600). I hired my friends on contract and paid them flat fees for building the computers after I taught them how to build. We bought some shitty plastic tables from Wal-Mart and set up and assembly line in my dads basement. The large room was for assembly, small room with no windows for burn in testing, my bedroom for back office and administrative work, and spare bedroom for parts. We had to have an electrician come out and install additional outlets to cover our needs.
6 months after opening and I was selling a decent amount of computers. My dad started using them for his bioinformatics work due to the raw processing power we provided. His work with my machines landed me a meeting with my local Chamber of Commerce to give a demonstration to them plus some biologists in town. I had purchased my way into the Chamber a month prior and people were interested in both of us. I first dazzled them by showing our most powerful computer rendering out amazing video games. I then handed it over to my dad where he demonstrated, in real time, a computational drug discovery program in 3D. We dragged molecules in 3D space and showed the bonds forming between a gene and the drug. One of the individuals in the room asked if I knew anything about building supercomputers and, if yes, could I build one for his company.
I responded with “I haven’t built one yet but absolutely. I can build one.” I had no idea what a cluster was then. Zero. After doing some more searching, I learned of things called nodes, blades, switches, racks, and more. My dad was also familiar with supercomputers as he was a system admin for many years on these beasts. I collected knowledge from him and synthesized it with the knowledge of the internet. This was the first time I punched way above my weight which is lesson 1 on how to survive without a degree: Say yes even if you don’t know how. Then, frantically figure out how.
A local engineer company purchased a small cluster from us as a pilot. I didn’t tell anyone because I was so nervous that I was going to fuck it up and didn’t want to embarrass myself. It was a 16 blade cluster; all Intel Xeon CPUs. I built it myself, performed burn in testing myself, delivered it myself (with the help of my dads truck), and assembled it in their office. I charged $50k for it. $50k as a 14 year old was insane. I did this while continuing to run the business, building our ecommerce website, learning about marketing, going to trade shows, and last (and by far the least important) attended junior high. I was given exemptions by the principal to leave class for business phone calls. Back then, we still had shitty flip cellphones. I would take calls with distributors, handle customer support, and do PR calls with local newspapers.
I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. Lesson one of “how to survive without a college degree” was in full force. I was literally figuring out how to do all of this as it happened. We started to get more advanced in our computer building with water cooling options, airflow testing, hardware optimization, and larger clusters. I had just turned 15 and was working north of 60 hours per week while attending school full time. I would go to bed near 1 am after cramming homework in, wake up at 6, answer a couple emails, sleep on the school bus, go to school, come home, build computers, take phone calls, eat occasionally, then sleep. I was tired but having the time of my life. I lost friends and girlfriends over how much I was working in junior high. It taught me lesson 2 on how to survive without a college degree: work your ass off and hustle like crazy. This shit isn’t free.
I would get patronized due to my age until I opened my mouth. I had to do a lot of convincing to different folks that our computers were worth it, that we knew what we were doing, and that their money was safe with us. After a conference we attended, I got a lot of press for the computers we were building at such a young age. It was crazy that we even got press after that show because our main showcase computer actually got a BSOD during a presentation. Talk about fucking embarrassing. In my defense, we had built the computer literally the night before the conference due to a huge problem with our tier 1 supplier. We were also pushing the limits by cramming 4 GPUs in SLI into a single computer — specifically while keeping all PCIE2.o lanes at 16x speed. Most of the time this degraded the bandwidth to 8x or 4x when you added more GPUs. Regardless of the failure, the press put us on the front page of the local newspaper which caught the attention of my local mayor who asked me to meet him for lunch. I got approval to skip school and rode my bike to get lunch with him. We discussed many things, but the one that struck me the most was his hints at potentially finding a new supplier for computers for the local government office. I pressed him on it and learned that they were opening up something called an RFP — whatever that is — for some new computers. I said I’d like to supply his office with the computers they were asking for so he got me in touch with the local government IT director. Lesson number 3 on how to survive without a college degree: Be perpetually on the lookout for opportunities, and when you find one make sure to grab it tight.
The RFP was for laptops. I can’t manufacture laptops. I have no clue how to build something like this from the ground up, nor do I have the time. I was worried that I’d have to source these parts from around the globe and pair it with local chassis manufacturing. It felt like a logistical nightmare and I didn’t have the capital to build out a facility to do this. So I looked to Asia for help. I found Sager Laptops which allowed me to white label their product (at least back then). I made our bid through the RFP process (which I had to learn on the fly) and we were awarded a small subset of the contract: 10 laptops. I paired their order with some orders for my friends and submitted it to our supplier. The laptops took 3 weeks to arrive and then I hand delivered them to the IT director. They felt sturdy enough.
1 year later (age 16) and all of the laptops had died. Completely burned out, failed hard drives, fucked memory, failed track pads — the list goes on. What hurt the most is that I sold a laptop to a friend in which it died days before his final paper was due, losing all of his work. I felt like shit, was completely embarrassed, and was thrown into a quality control shit show with me as the main act. Fortunately, I didn’t get sued because our warranty only lasted for 90 days but the pilot was deemed a failure at that point since they were expecting the laptops to survive longer. It left a bad taste in their mouth and we weren’t included on RFPs in the future. A few of our computers started to fail and quality started to decrease. Retrospectively, I think this was partly due to too much demand and me not having enough time. School was catching up on me, I was starting to get C’s and D’s, and felt like I was drowning. Lesson number 4 on how to survive without a college degree: Get used to failing a lot. Learn from it and persevere.
I had just entered negotiations with an IT servicing company in Denver who wanted me to build out a business line of computers for them. They had large IT contracts with Fortune 500s and wanted to expand their offerings to their own personal brand of computers. The negotiations were going well. Our ecommerce site was starting to produce orders from folks all over the country. Stock traders, mom and pops, businesses, gamers, and even some governments. Shipping, supply chain, and taxes started to become a fucking nightmare. Additionally, I was exploring a pilot project of virtualizing computing resources. This was 2005–2006 time frame and software like Hypervisor was becoming/was mainstream. I had a vision for creating some sort of user-based system where users could log in and run computations on our servers without needing to purchase the whole thing upfront, paying for resources only. Sound familiar? Since the shipping and customer support was wearing on me, I was exploring options to consolidate everything into one location so that it was easier to control. We were starting to bid on bigger RFPs. Things were growing. I was on the edge of building a cloud computing service before cloud computing was a “thing”. Original tech hipster right here. I had toured a local server center and was starting to put feelers out to find an anchor client to pilot it for us. I was right on target with where the market was going to be and we had an opportunity to be player. A small player against the big guys but potentially a player.
I then sold the company.
I was working 70–80 hours a week now, was constantly dipping in and out of classes, had what I felt like was no life, and had a ton of pressure on me. School was holding me back; work was holding me back. I didn’t know which was the culprit. I felt like I had to make a choice: drop out of high school or sell the company. I was stressed beyond belief and, after much thought, sold the company to the IT firm in Denver. They purchased the company for an undisclosed amount for the web presence, accounts, and inventory. I made decent money off of it but was deeply depressed. There are times where I still kick myself for selling the company because the optimist in me believes that I could have built something huge. The next Dell or whatever. I could have taken on capital, scaled up operations, hired a system admin, built out the cloud computing service, created a marketing campaign. Who knows, maybe even help usher in the SaaS era. It’s all “what if” land but I knew my vision for the company and I gave it up.
Nose diving into depression, I tried burying myself into something else to drown out the self doubt. I didn’t tell anyone that I had sold the company or how much I made off of it. I was embarrassed because I felt like I had failed, so I opted to be as discrete as possible and keep it under wraps. I poured myself into reading about finance and stock trading because I had money in my bank account and found it intriguing. I spent the next 4 months drowning my depression with reading and learning about finance. I picked up a part-time job, started doing more sports, gained friends again, started dating, and went back to being normal again. Close to turning 17, I was starting to read books on technical stock trading. I started to invest money into stocks at $15 or less. I watched videos, read books and articles, listened to the news, and more. I still remember my english teacher criticizing me for reading a finance book, deeming it as “not literature”. I told her to f-off but in a socially accepted way. There’s a trend with me not playing nicely with people against me.
By age 17, I was making a lot of money from trading. I was starting to play more risky stocks but the market was hot. I kept it secret that I was trading stocks. I learned early on that people will try to become your friends if you have money. At that time, I was buying and selling $5,000 to $10,000 per day. I constantly learned from my mistakes, kept reading about finance and economics, and doubled down on technical trading. Lesson number 5 on how to survive without a college degree: Constantly, constantly, constantly be curious and learn as much as you can about everything.
I learned about trading on margin. “Wait, I can trade 2:1 on my money?” I said to myself. Holy shit this is amazing! I opened up a margin account and started to trade in higher volumes on more risky stocks — $.05 to $1 stocks. Total hype land. Then 2008 came, and holy fuck did it come in full swing. It felt like a train had hit me. I lost tens of thousands of dollars in days. My margin account ate into all of my savings. I lost all of my money in literally days. I went from being very well off to losing it all because I was short sighted, not diversified, and reckless. I wanted to make gains quickly, to “beat the game”, to have enough money to do whatever the fuck I wanted. My shortsightedness made me forget that life is both long and short, and that when you’re 60 looking back on your life that you want to point to the accomplishments that you’ve performed rather than the “things” you’ve acquired. Greed got the better of me and my lack of patience bit me in the ass — something I still struggle with today. It was a vivid lesson number 6 on how to survive without a college degree: maintain a core vision of the long term future that you can rally around for when your judgement is clouded.
I went back to being very depressed. My family now suffered heavily in the recession. This created huge tensions in our already broken homes. My dad and I were extremely unhappy with each other to the point where we didn’t speak. My mom was having personal issues with her significant other at the time, causing her house to be a dangerous place to be in. I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I was too prideful and embarrassed to ask my friends and their families to take me in. I felt ashamed of myself because people had always considered me the one to “make it and do big things”. I went from being in the press to nothing. My relationship with my girlfriend struggled. I couldn’t focus on my part-time job selling business suits at Men’s Warehouse due to constant turmoil at home. I would get phone calls from police officers saying that my moms boyfriend had been jailed, again, for domestic abuse while at work. Frequently breaking down, I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I packed all of what I had left into my car and left. I slept in my car for about 1 month when I was 17. I showered at the gym, continued to work, and continued to slide into depression. At the time, I felt like I had lost everything.
I contemplated ending it many times and taking the easy way out of the pain. I struggled to find support from my friends and often found myself taking long drives while homeless to force the debate on whether to end it or not. I got very close one night. I had 5 miles worth of gas left in my car and had just pulled into a gas station to fill up my car just enough to go drive off the cliff a few miles away. I went to swipe my card and got denied — bank account was empty. I stood there looking at the “Card Denied” sign. Internally, in my head, I had lost it.
I was prepared to go step in front of the train that was coming next to the gas station when someone from my school pulled up. It was 2am on a Wednesday night. Let’s call this person Gary. The odds of Gary pulling up 23 miles outside of the city in a random farm town gas station were zero. He looked at me immediately and asked if I was alright. I had plenty of classes with Gary but we weren’t necessarily friends. He was always a kind person. Respectable, comforting. I tried lying to him but he read me like a book and knew something serious was going on. He walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said “It’s going to be ok. Whatever you’re going through is going to pass. It always does.” He filled up my gas tank and asked if I needed a ride home. I said no which he promptly replied with “Don’t give up. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” I was on my toes on a cliff when Gary pulled up next to me. It is one of the biggest lessons in my life so far. Lesson number 7 on how to survive without a college degree: Never give up. Ever. Period.
Fast forward a bit and I’m getting close to graduating high school. Life is better. I had ideas about what I wanted to do, fields I could look into, but ultimately it was still a discovery game for me. I had a 3.0 at graduation but didn’t have any scholarships or college fund to pull from. I went to college because it was what everyone did after college. During college, I helped my dad out with his consulting company for GPU programming & hardware. I continued to learn about large scale RFPs and supply chain shit shows while trying to compete on bids for the U.S. Navy, DoD, and the University of New Delhi. Shortly after I got there I started to feel as if it was the wrong choice which brings us back to the beginning of this story. I dropped out of college without a concrete plan but trusted myself to figure it out. I started networking with friends to find a job doing something. Anything. I landed on manual labor doing both landscaping and construction. I worked 12–14 hour shifts 5 to 6 days a week and lived with my dad after we had a long discussion. I lived and breathed lesson 2. It was brutal work digging ditches and hanging sheet rock, but it paid the bills and bought me time. I’d come home after these long shifts, grab dinner, then get heads down in learning about web development, often until midnight or 1am only to be up by 5:30am to do it all over. I learned about different CMS platforms, how they work, and how to manage them because I knew that these skills would be useful. Lesson number 8 on how to survive without a college degree: No work is beneath you. Take pride in what you do — regardless of the industry or the haters. Don’t listen to the haters. Refer to lesson 6.
I networked through friends and utilized LinkedIn to gain different contacts. I would softly reach out to people I connected with to try and build relationships. After about 1 year of manual labor and networking, a friend of mine was working at a web development company that needed programmers. I was very average at web development (at best) but knew enough to build a basic website. He got me an interview for a web development position. When my future boss walked in, he didn’t have my resume in hand so I handed him a copy I had brought. We still used paper back then. He opened the interview by asking “We’ve had a ton of resumes come through since we’re hiring so much, so I apologize but are you here for the programmer position or project management position?” Queue lessons 1 and 3.
I landed the project management position and frantically started Googling how to be a project manager. Lesson 1 was in full swing as I learned project management on the fly, often bullshitting my way to complete projects. My basic background in web programming and CMSs paid off, as well as my previous management skills from when I was a younger lad. I worked extremely hard, always said yes to taking on new clients, and pressed the limits in order to impress my new boss. Lesson 2 got me noticed.
My boss opened up an internal position for a Sr. Project Manager to lead a team of 16 project managers. I had been there for 3 months, wanted the position, but was going up against folks who had been there for multiple years. I asked if I could buy him lunch one day so I could get him alone. We spent an hour talking about the future of the company, the vision, and everything in between. I took a big bold leap of faith towards the end of our conversation and said “Listen, I want the Sr. PM position. I know that I’m new but I always excel when given the chance. I’m confident that I can grow the business and crush this role for you.” He liked how forward I was and, after a round of internal interviews, gave me the position. Lesson 3 paid off for me once again.
I was 20 years old, managed 16 employees, and a $2.5M web development operation.
I spent the next year practicing lesson 5 and learned as much as I could about everything. It was very stressful, I worked long hours, had the hardest and most complex projects (and clients). I got a significant pay raise and a big title. My ego inflated quite a bit and I bought an Audi A4. (Not a lesson for this post but pro tip: don’t buy a fancy car unless you’re uber rich. It really isn’t worth it and ended up being a big headache and waste of money.)
The long hours started to push on friendships and I ended up cutting out nearly all of my friends. I started befriending folks much older than I for wisdom and continued to network. While the company was growing and the pay was decent, I wanted to get back to building something bigger. A few folks had left the company together and started a small agency with the hopes of scaling it up to big custom website. I left the company to join the small agency as the General Manager/Lead Project Manager. We did ok but struggled for the first year. It was tough. I had to sell, project manage, network, do marketing, and everything else in between all for very little pay. I thought it was what I wanted but 6 months in I started to come to the realization that I wanted to work on building software rather than be services based. (Note that this company is now doing very well — woot!)
Fast forward a bit and I was starting to interview at software companies for all sorts of positions primarily on the west coast. I vowed never to go to the east coast because “it’s just a bunch of pricks out there”. However, I flew out to Boston for business as well as networking and ended up grabbing drinks with some folks from a company called Acquia. They liked my background in CMSs and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for a marketing position. I had never done product marketing and sure didn’t want to move to the east coast, but something told me to do it for the hell of it. I could always say no, right? They loved me and I loved them. We started negotiating on salary and they offered me the position. I signed and overnight I had tripled my salary and was one step closer towards the software world. This created lesson number 9 on how to survive without a college degree: keep your doors open and allow yourself to change your perspective. You never know when something will try and change your life.
I packed everything I could into my little Audi A4 and drove across the country leaving everything behind. Friends, family, girlfriend, my life. It was scary but also exciting because it felt like I was starting over. Fast forward 6 months and I’m crushing the product marketing manager position. I studied like crazy in the evenings, read books on product marketing, and watched many webinars or speeches. I doubled the sales pipeline for my product by the millions which got me attention as someone who “gets shit done” around the organization. I was reckless and often rebelled (harmlessly and politely) against my bosses when it came to things like product messaging and positioning. See a trend in my behavior yet? I learned by trying many different things rapidly and pushing the marketing organization to be more responsive. It used to be that we would send out an email blast, wait a month for the results, then send out something yet again that was similar. My team sent out marketing material weekly, measured the results within 3 days after, then changed the messaging based on the response. We hit all channels quickly but steered clear of over messaging our users by creating small but specific audiences. The collateral we sent was often not approved by the broader team as I erred on the side of speed with my backup plan being begging for forgiveness if it failed.
I breathed lessons 8, 5, 4, 3, and 2. Then a new opportunity opened. We got a new Chief Product Officer and he was opening up new product management positions. I had never done software engineering but knew I wanted to get into it. I briefly mentioned being interested in the role to the right people and was quickly in the guys office. He had built supercomputers in the past as well so we jived immediately. I landed the position and started working with a team to build software. I consider this the turning point in my life from “surviving” to “thriving”. I knew the right people to make this happen and continued to network throughout my time there, which led to many other opportunities that I’ll explain in a later post. There was an important lesson that has been consistent throughout my life, but started to become in full effect when I moved into product management. Lesson 10 on how to survive without a college degree: Network like hell with people who interest you. Grab coffee, be interested in their work, help them. Doors will open.