An English Major’s Guide to Programming, Part the First: What You Don’t Know

As an English major, you can look forward to a fascinating career filled with solo peek-a-boo sessions.

As an English major, you can look forward to a fascinating career filled with solo peek-a-boo sessions.

So you have your shiny English degree in hand and upon strolling into the job market, have just realized you’ve made a huge mistake. Maybe your hope was to become a great writer, but by now you probably already know that a) there’s no money in it, and b) You don’t need tens hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of classes explaining Jonathan Swift’s metaphorical commentary on 18th century politics. Maybe you wanted to be a teacher. That’s delightful, but you’re probably going to end up teaching a science course anyway. So let’s just agree you don’t have a good justification for your degree and move on to making you not a foolish person who just spent loads of money for the privilege of being in debt longer than virtually any other degree holder (hey, buck up kiddo – at least you’re not a philosophy major).

I’m going to suggest something that’s going to sound crazy, but hear me out:


“Like with computer machines?”

Oh yes.

I’ve had a lot of people asking me lately how I got into “computer stuff” and what they should do to learn programming 1. Software Engineers in their enthusiasm and well-intentioned desire to solve a problem will often respond with a list of books to read and languages you should learn. For the technically minded, this is all well and good, but creatives often lack the confidence to pursue the standard path to becoming a programmer. So, for those starving poets out there, I’ve outlined what you need to know before you even begin, based on my own experience:

(For the purposes of being realistic, I’m going to mostly talk about web development. This will help you get started if you want to build a custom website or a simple program, but if you’re looking to build a new operating system from the ground up, you’ll probably need a more robust lesson plan.)

Engineering is hot.

Since the era of Ricky Martin, there’s been a lot of job security in programming, but right now it’s particularly in demand. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly involving the evolving shifts of our economy (and the mysterious plots of the otherworldly beings who live among us, unknown and unseen), but regardless, there are simply not enough engineers out there right now to satisfy demand, and it’s getting vicious. Companies are poaching from each other, recruiters are offering bounties on programmers, and “idea people” are languishing from the inability to make their “next great thing” into an actual thing. So if you want to stand out from the glut of BA degree-holders entering the job market every spring, learning even the most basic development skills will help (HTML, for example, is fast becoming a required skill even in non-technical fields).

Adopt engineering philosophies.

As you learn to code, you’ll also want to take some time to learn about engineering culture. The community highly values self-motivation, discovery, information sharing, and creative problem solving. Engineers are not inaccessible geniuses. Just like you, they’ve developed a specialty, and are often enthusiastic to welcome you into the cult community.

Coding is not all math.

And it will probably break your code.

Don’t worry: improper punctuation is unforgivable in programming too!

Math is, unfortunately, scary to most people, but it’s rarer in programming that you probably imagine. Most programming (at least early on) is more about logic and syntax. When you do need to leverage mathematics, you’ll discover that it is typically straightforward and often already solved by others who have put together libraries (not those kind of libraries) or modules to handle common tasks (engineers don’t like to rebuild the wheel). In other words, if you can learn iambic pentameter, you can learn this.

Start by doing, not reading.

Obviously, you’ll need to understand some basic concepts to make anything work, but before you delve into best practices and the nuances of whatever you’re learning, build something simple. Don’t worry about doing it “the right way”, just get it working (no matter how perfect you think your code is, your future self will look back on it and find it laughably bad). This will give you the confidence to push onward and keep you from getting overwhelmed by information.

You’re not going to learn everything.

No developer has a mastery of every programming language (they’re not ninjas, no matter what their title implies). Most stick with the prevailing languages for the type of work they want to do.

You’re never done learning.

Unlike many fields, programming demands that you continue to develop your skills as new technologies emerge. The languages you learn today are probably not going to be the languages you’re using in ten (or even five) years. Don’t panic though (unless you really want to) – programming languages typically share many core concepts, so you’re never starting over completely from scratch 2.

Google is your #1 programming tool.

There isn’t a developer alive who doesn’t need to look things up occasionally. Knowing how to search for and find information is the most important skill you’ll learn (see, your high school librarian was right). Never ask the community for help without searching for a solution yourself first. Before you start building out a complicated chunk of code, check to see if anyone else has done it already (spoiler alert: they have) and try to understand their solution.

Collaborate and listen.

Don’t be afraid to post your code. Make judicious use of communities like Stack Overflow and maintain a portfolio of your work at GitHub. Embrace failure; don’t be afraid to get things wrong. Rare is the engineer who will mock you for learning.

Coding should be fun, but isn’t for everyone. It can be frustrating to learn a new skill, but you should feel a sense of accomplishment and pride with each success. If that feeling doesn’t inspire you to keep going, coding just might not be for you. If it does, you’ll discover programming to be more rewarding than you likely expected.

Now, if you’re still reading convinced this is something you want to do, you’re in luck, because the Internet will help you make it happen. You should start here.


1 Answers: 1) I’ve been doing light web development since the 90s (god, those GIFs were majestic), but only got really serious about it a few years ago. 2) Go to my website and read the blog post I just wrote on english majors learning programming.

2 A good way to stay on top of what is going on in the tech world is to follow Hacker News on a regular basis.

Coming soon! The sequel to this post!

“HTML and CSS – How Initialisms Will Transform Your Love Life”

(or, err… maybe with a different title, but yeah, HTML/CSS will be the topic)

A Very Special Episode: Bombs, Bullets, and Being in the Moment When You’d Rather Not

Not too far from where I grew up

Not too far from where I grew up

One summer day when I was 13, I received a strange phone call from my mother. I had biked over to a friend’s house to play video games earlier that day and we were progressing nicely through Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (“no cheats this time”) when my friend’s mom came in and handed me the phone. My mother’s voice cut through phone receiver clearly and crisply, requiring no identification:

“Come home NOW.”

I remember the feeling of dread; it was that non-negotiable tone of voice parents only use when you’re in the deepest of shit. For a brief moment, I considered lingering a bit (“Only two more Chaos Emeralds to go!”), but my friend’s mother did not leave, confirming through the oft-utilized stalwart Consensus of Moms, that it was indeed, time for me to go.

It’s normally a five minute bike ride between my friend’s house and mine, but I was met halfway by my mother’s pickup truck. That moment made my previous moment of dread seem like the smallest of concerns. If my presence could not be waited upon for another 2 minutes, I must have done something truly and irrevocably reprehensible. I tossed my bike in the back, and rode home silently, hoping for the barest mercy that could be afforded.

As it turns out, I had done nothing. Someone, I was told, had just shot several people at the grocery store in town and was currently at large. My immediate reaction was relief – I was out of the deepest pit of trouble I had ever imagined! But our town was a quiet one, tucked away in the mountains with a population of barely 2,000 and now we were locking our doors and my dad was checking his gun cabinet. Creeping unease quickly became true and present fear. The shooter would go on to kill and injure several more people that day, before dying in a shootout with police. I was never affected directly by the events; I only remembered the strange feeling of being told that we would not, could not, leave our rural New Hampshire home safely.

One night last month, I was startled awake by the sound of a large blast. Initially dismissing it as a blown transformer (a not uncommon occurrence in Watertown), I settled back to sleep, but then heard a series of strange popping sounds. Strange lights were bleeding through the edge of my bedroom curtain so I decided to get up and take a look. I couldn’t see anything in the dark initially, but as my eyes adjusted, I spotted some strobes coming from a few streets over. My girlfriend, meanwhile, not having awoken by the noise but by my sudden departure, insisted, eyes still shut tight, that it was a thunderstorm. After pointing out there was no storm, I was convinced to let it go and return to sleep.

Only I couldn’t quite. After about seven minutes, I heard a helicopter fly low over our apartment. A minute after that, another helicopter, and another. I uneasily decided to check Twitter out of prudence (and paranoia). Tweet after tweet said the same thing – the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were currently fleeing police in Watertown, very very close to where we live. Turning on the TV, we were greeted by national news coverage of our bus stop. It wasn’t very long after that a SWAT team, fully equipped with body armor, automatic rifles, and night vision cameras, crept up our back stairs (wooden and creaky, scaring the shit out of us) before finally announcing themselves. They then proceeded to search our apartment while we were asked to wait outside. Within hours, Watertown became a militarized zone. Mind you, that’s no artistic exaggeration; nobody was allowed outside, traffic in and out of the city was suspended, and these bad boys (affectionately called “bearcats”) were constantly roaming the streets:

Watertown Marathon Bombers Manhunt

The 20 sleepless hours following our nighttime disruption were some of the most stressful of our lives. At the time, there were reports of possible IEDs all over Watertown, on streets directly adjacent to us (“what is the blast radius of a pressure cooker explosive?”). There was conjecture by authorities that there may be multiple suspects beyond the two they were aware of. Our building had at least one helicopter hovering above at all times, and SWAT teams were combing back yards and houses for a second, third, and fourth time. We were glued to the live-streaming police scanner as they identified cleared sections of surrounding neighborhoods (but not ours). At one point, the governor, a few streets away, announced to the press that the Watertown lockdown was to be lifted. We took the opportunity to try a nap, but 15 minutes later, we were again woken by gunfire (closer and unmistakable this time) and the lockdown was reinstated. When they finally located the second suspect, I was watching the spotlight-equipped helicopters through my kitchen window and listening to the scanner as the various armed teams coordinated their plans and finally, fell into radio silence. After what seemed like hours later, the announcement went out that the suspect had been successfully taken into custody.

Watertown Sidewalk chalk (2013-04-20)

Later estimates would put the count of armed units (city/state police, ATF, FBI, etc) at around 10,000 (roughly a third the size of the city of Watertown). That presence (and the subsequent shut-down of the Greater Boston area) would be later criticized as “heavy-handed”, but within hours after the events ended, Watertown had largely returned to normal, and by morning, walking the streets, you would not even know anything had happened (other than the occasional sidewalk chalk thanking the local authorities for their work). In the following days, this entire story, like so many in our recent history (particularly in the past year), has been packaged and treated with the kind of perverse, short-lived (but intense) interest that only results in conspiracy theories, unhelpful assertions, judgemental conjecture, and complete ignorance of the greater good (don’t memorialize killers by putting their names, faces, and life stories all over the news).

I don’t really have any lessons or opinions to share. Others do a fine job of that. Crazy people are crazy. Evil people are evil. Fixing x system will make sure this never happens again. We will endure. Forgive in the midst of anger.

This is a Thing That Just Happened. To those who see it up close, they know it’s not really a story, but the story helps. To those who suffer loss, the story is inescapable, and maybe even crucial. Having a narrative makes Things That Just Happen make sense.

In another time, I’m getting in my first car accident, building my first software program, losing a family member, or making my first trip overseas. Those moments probably shouldn’t be abused, but without a narrative, I don’t know what to say about them, or how to share them with others.

…or maybe this is all incoherent nonsense. Either way, it’s a great story.

A Classy Nemesis Review of “Organ Trail” For iPhone and iPad

Earlier this year at PAX East 2012, I had the opportunity to meet the developers behind the recently released game, “Organ Trail”. A clever take on the classic “Oregon Trail” series (but with zombies), I found myself mildly obessessed with the concept and immediately contributed to the project in order to secure my own pre-order. Now that I’ve had some time to play, I have to say, I’m not disappointed. Take a look at my video review below:

How to Record Your IOS Environment as Simply as Possible

This past weekend, I spent a hefty chunk of time trying to solve a problem I’ve been having for a while – recording video of my iphone and ipad screens to produce video demos via PC. After extensive research, I’ve been able to nail down three methods to record your IOS environment (with all the accompanying caveats):

tl;dr – skip to the summary

Use a specialized cable and/or adapter

There are tons of configurations and apps to wade through when going this route, and all have different levels of functionality and reliability. The idea is to output video/audio from your device to a video capture card or otherwise properly equipped device. Even if you get the right cable for your hardware, you still have to contend with the myriad of apps which may or may not work with said cable on the particular generation of your iDevice and version of IOS. Because of the unmanageable variables involved with this method, I recommend against it.

Update (9-10-2012): If you do decide to go with an adapter, I’d recommend this HDMI adapter. There’s nearly no lag, and the resulting image is crisp and clear. It’s unclear whether it’s an official Apple accessory or not, but it looks good, has a solid build, and best of all, works! Be warned though – apparently only newer devices support it.

On-device recording with Display Recorder.

Display Recorder InterfaceIf you’ve jailbroken your device (you totally should), you have the option of recording from your device itself. There are a few apps in Cydia that achieve this, but the one most commonly recommended is Display Recorder, so I purchased the app for $5 and tried it out. The first thing I noticed was how easy it was to start recording – you just hit the + in the corner and you’re off. The app also allows you to record in one of two formats: H.264/MOV or MJPEG/AVI. One important note: while you will have the option to record audio from the onboard mic, you will not be able to record the system audio. One way to get around this is to output your system audio to an audio recorder via the headphone jack and sync the video and audio later. Display Recorder MenuDespite this limitation, Display Recorder comes with some additional handy features as well. Not only does it allow you to adjust the quality settings of your video output, but it comes equipped with a built-in, unobtrusive, touch/gesture indicator, so your audience will have an easier time following along with your videos. When you’re finished recording, you have the options of adding the video to your Camera Roll, uploading to YouTube, or downloading directly from your phone through a wireless network connection. For $5, Display Recorder is actually a very polished app, and it’s a shame you can’t get it in the Apple app store.

Wireless Screen Mirroring via AirPlay.

If you don’t want to jailbreak your device, this is the way to go. The main limitation of this method is that it will only work on newer IOS devices (iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPhone 4S). There are ways to get around this with hacks or jailbreak, but that’s a whole other ordeal. Anyway, you’re basically taking advantage of the AirPlay screen mirroring functionality to display your IOS device video/audio wirelessly on your computer. When your device detects a compatible AirPlay host, the AirPlay icon will appear next to your volume bar. Tap it to select the host machine and turn the mirroring switch that appears to “On”. This is integrated into IOS, so there is no further configuration needed. While this means you won’t need to download any apps to your device, you will need to run a program on the host computer. Maybe there are a bunch of Mac programs that let you do this (though it doesn’t seem like it), but if you’re using a PC like me, there are pretty much just two options. iPhone Mirroring on Windows 7Both allow image scaling, multiple device connections, and resolution specification (you can even display at a higher resolution than your device). Both also experience very slight image tearing on low-end host machines (or if you have a bunch of processes running in the background). The only real disadvantages to this method are the rare apps that don’t perfectly support AirPlay display and the lack of a touch indicator. The latter is fixable if you use an app like Touch Pose (Free on Cydia – requires jailbreak); you can make your touch points and gestures visible for recording, just like Display Recorder. In any case, here are my impressions of the mirroring software options:

AirServer – $8 for PC / $15 for Mac
The Mac version of this looks much better, but the PC version isn’t great (it’s pre-release software) and only offers support for audio in the alpha build. The displayed image plays at the same average framerate as its competitor, but with significantly more scaling artifacts. There’s no built-in recorder, so you have to use a program like Camtasia or Camstudio to capture the output. About the only thing it has going for it right now is a nicer website and a cheaper license. – $15 for PC & Mac
This is definitely the better of the two options. Not only is the display image smoother when scaling, but the interface is cleaner, includes full audio support, and even a built-in screen recording tool. The operation is very slick and responsive enough that even speed/reaction games are very playable on bigger screens.

iDemo – $18 for PC & Mac
I may have lied a bit earlier when I said there were only two options. You can use iDemo as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Among it’s deficiencies: no audio support, poor image quality, extremely low framerate, no built-in record function, requires a jailbroken device, and a helper app like Display Recorder running on the iDevice (it’s basically a VNC client). Why even mention it then? Well, this works without AirPlay, so you can use this method on older devices that otherwise don’t support wireless mirroring.


Overall, I found mirroring and recording via to be the most pleasant, straightforward experience for capturing my IOS environment. I also enjoy the added benefit of being able to play games smoothly on larger screens (PC HMDI output to a 50″ TV is damn impressive); it performs well enough to play quick-reaction games like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride without trouble.

Below I’ve included a handy feature comparison matrix for quick reference, as well as short sample clips using each method of recording.

Program / App Cost Jailbreak Required? Records System Audio? AirPlay? * Format Output Sample File **
Specialized Cable / Adapter
(One example)
No Configuration Dependant N/A N/A N/A
Display Recorder $5
Yes No No H.264/MOV or MJPEG/AVI Download
AirServer $8 for PC
$15 for Mac
No Limited Support Yes N/A N/A $15 for PC or Mac No Yes Yes MP4 Download
iDemo $18 for PC or Mac Yes No No N/A N/A

* (Requires Bonjour. Newer IOS devices only)
** (Samples files produced with the program’s default settings)

A final note: If you are an IOS developer, you can use the IOS player in the SDK to simulate an iDevice. I left this method out however, since it’s not available to most people.

5 Things Recent Graduates Need to Know Immediately

Why hello there, recent graduate! If you’re reading this, it probably means I’ve perished horribly in a surprise rabid elk attack you’ve come here looking for a nice, clean, simple checklist of things you have to do in the coming weeks. After all, that’s what you were given in school: study x hours to ace your test, finish this assignment to pass your class, mix these chemicals to dissolve a corpse, take these classes to get your degree… you might expect post-grad life is similarly structured. If you were fortunate enough to snag a decent job out of school and have had this expectation validated by glorious luck (and as much as you might want to credit merit, believe me, it was luck) then you’re probably all set. Nothing for you to see here – enjoy your regular paychecks and healthcare coverage.

Effect of a Price Floor

I'm a big fan of impressive charts next to text. They make it look like I know what I'm talking about.

Okay, now that all the people with technical degrees are gone and it’s just us good ‘ol liberal arts majors, I’m going to let you in on some secrets. Now, I’m not going to profess to be an expert and have all the answers (though I will certainly imply it), but there are some things I learned from being irregularly employed for nearly 4 years. See, I had the great fortune of graduating in early 2008, directly before the economy went all Hulk on our asses and obliterated the job market (see how I slipped in an Avengers reference? That’s SEO gold right there). I made a LOT of great mistakes along the way (and will probably make more), but I don’t see any reason to not share those mistakes (I’ve also spent a good deal of time talking with HR reps about hiring practices, so that doesn’t hurt either). So without further ado:


By now, you’ve probably heard enough about the job market to reduce yourself to a quivering pile of goo1. Stop it. Stop. I mean it. Having a poor mindset will make you vulnerable to depression2 and will severely limit your effectiveness. You may be in the same boat as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get out and swim for it. And if the sharks attack, use bat-shark-repellent on them and continue onward, avoiding any additional extended metaphors.

The first thing you need to do is stop watching the news. There is no joy you will get from the media that won’t be immediately crushed several thousand times over. You may not think it will affect you at first, but you’ll be bombarded so much by a message of hopelessness (and celebrity reality news), that you’ll eventually give in. This becomes more true as more time passes. Don’t worry, if something big happens like a zombie apocalypse (god willing) or an Australian military invasion, you’ll hear about it anyway. If you really just can’t bring yourself to give up news entirely, limit yourself strictly and avoid financials / economics like the plague.

Kill your pride

Ptolemaic System

This chart clearly demonstrates something about the information previously presented or soon to come.

If Fear is the mind-killer, then Pride is the, um… other… mind killer. So you have a disgustingly expensive degree. Good for you; so does everyone else. If you’re lucky enough to not be burdened with an uncaring sea of student loan debt and have plenty of savings, this lesson will probably take longer for you to learn (you son-of-a-bitch). For everyone else, Pride will cost you dearly. It is a jerk and an opportunity-killer. Pride has no foresight and will embarrass you. Keep an ambitious and confident spirit, but temper it with humility.

Live in your parents’ basement. If you have friends or family willing to house you for free / on-the-cheap, do it. You will save so much money and suffer much less for the lack of it. Don’t worry about what people will think; you’re just out of school during one of the worst economic periods in recent history. Anyone who judges you for that is an asshole and not worth your time (and also probably about to be set on fire by the hand torch you keep handy).

Use your unemployment benefits. Depending on where you live, you’ll have access to a variety of government programs that will help you financially over short periods of time. When you’re between jobs, take advantage of those programs – your taxes pay for them in case of exactly these situations. I’m serious about this; you can note the lack of snarkiness here as evidence of how serious I am.

Be willing to wear a nametag. The worst thing you can do is turn down a job when you have no other prospects because you’re “above it” (believe me, you’re below it, I checked). Aside from the immediate benefit of earning cash, low-skill jobs can sometimes lead to better and more interesting opportunities in surprising and unexpected ways. Just don’t forget (and this is important) to keep looking for something better.

The Lies We Tell

Now that you’re equipped with the right attitude, you need to have the right expectations. There’s a lot of poppycock out there about hard work, crafting the perfect resume, and where to find jobs. If you think any of it is valuable, by all means give it a try, but remember: all your competitors (aka the-people-you-finally-graduated-with) are reading the same stuff. Take what proves to be useful, and abandon the rest.

So much job hunting is luck. There are things you can (and should) do to make sure the odds may be ever in your favor (Hunger Games SEO-boosting reference!), but sometimes every advantage you can get will not be enough. Don’t take it personally.

Nobody cares about your grades. Very few employers will request a copy of your transcript, and very few that do are worth working for. This is because many HR reps already know what you don’t – good grades are not indicative of a good employee. Plenty of high-achievers in school fail to perform in the workforce (and the bedroom – I’m looking at you, Stephen Hawking). Don’t ask me why, I don’t understand it myself; it’s simply an observable phenomenon, like how being hit by lightning will give you psychic powers and/or cancer.

Nobody is going to read your resume. Well, some will, but consider this completely anecdotal evidence: The HR rep at my last temp gig told me she had received over 300 resumes in a week for a low-paying, entry-level position. Her process was to scan quickly and pull out the few that matched her nonsensical criteria, but heavily relied on recommendations from employees. Those connections were worth more to her than the random resumes (qualified as they may be) that she received and ultimately didn’t even read. This has been corroborated by other HR reps I’ve had the fortune of forcibly extracting information from learning from, so it clearly must be true everywhere. (Don’t forgo the resume altogether though. Obviously, you still need something for when you do get your foot in the door.)

You are not special. Your experience is for shit, and you probably don’t have a lot of skills outside of your field of study. It’s time to change that. Instead of spending your free time perfecting your Facebook Liking skills, take the plunge and learn some real skills outside of your core capabilities3. The added versatility *will* make you special, and very valuable to the right employer.

Your Social Network

China's Resources (1971)

There are so many things going on in China, and it has a lot of people. I'm pretty sure this map is a map of China.

THE way to find work is to meet people. If you look for work by mailing out a ton of resumes and wait for a response while re-watching every season of Buffy, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re pretty much relying on luck or desperation (which means work nobody else would take). Your network is your most important asset when job-hunting; use it and grow it (and yes, you can increase your social connections without being phony).

Go to social events. Especially the ones that don’t interest you. There are tons of free social events around – they cost nothing but your time, and are a very worthy investment of it. Have some business cards handy (scraps of paper with your e-mail jotted on them are NOT business cards) so people don’t have to try and rembmember the name of yet another unemployed post-grad they shared a brief moment of conversation with. And hey, even if you don’t learn anything or meet anyone new, you’ll probably get some free food out of it at least.

Start a community. So let’s say you live in a small town with not much going on. Let’s say it’s your hometown in the remote wilderness of Northern New Hampshire/what-might-as-well-be-Cananda. Or let’s not. Either way, the absence of activity is a good excuse for you to stir things up. Find some like-minded folks, and start a regular meeting of some kind about something you enjoy (or don’t enjoy. I don’t know, maybe you’re just a masochist. Maybe that’s your thing.) It will have the benefit of being fun AND productive.

Develop connections outside of your age group. Just because someone is 20 or 30 years older than you doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer. Some of my best-paying temp gigs came out of knowing someone I wouldn’t typically hang out with. And they usually have great stories too. Once you earn someone’s trust, they become a lot less boring and tell you all the crazy shit they did in the 80s 70s 60s.

Look out for the people in your network. If you’re not able to accept or pursue a job opportunity for some reason, help the employer connect with one of your colleagues who can. This is not only a cool/nice thing to do for someone, but it encourages reciprocation (wink wink).

Temp Agencies

Temp agencies, for the uninitiated, are companies who sell workers to companies who have temporary (and often boring) work for a project they need completed. When an agency sends you to an assignment, they charge the client an hourly rate for your work and pays you a (typically undisclosed) portion of that rate. You’re almost always getting paid much less than what the agency charging for your work, so don’t have any illusions about being taken advantage of: you are (you’ll find there are a lot of parallels between temping and prostitution). But no matter how you feel about temping, it can be a delicious lifesaver when you’re strapped for cash and just need to make it through the month. That said, there are some hidden benefits to temping, and plenty of unspoken practices you should be aware of.

Agencies are tissues. There are so many, most of them are crap, and they will usually do the bare-minimum to get you into any assignment they can make money off of. Sign up with multiple agencies4 and let them know they are competing to place you quickly. That said, if you find a good agency that consistently pays or places you well, give them preferential treatment.

Don’t turn down any opportunity. When you say no to a assignment, make sure it’s for a good reason, because you won’t hear back from that agency. They have plenty of people who will reliably accept whatever they offer. The same is true if you walk out on an assignment.

I don't even

Check this out. How complicated is this? Pretty impressive, huh? You must be, like, a genius or something.

Learn new and disparate skills. Remember what I said earlier about learning skills outside of your core? Not every temp assignment will be a cornucopia of challenges, but even small things like learning how to manipulate pivot tables in Excel, maintaining government records, or manipulating a maintenance worker into giving you late-night access to the office so you can pull an ill-conceived prank involving plastic cement and several live falcons on a co-worker can be among your many assets later on.

Don’t pay for a recruiter. I’m going to invoke Yog’s Law here: as a job seeker, money should pretty much always flow toward you – you shouldn’t have to pay for a job placement, training, or equipment.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Ask a lot of questions. The advantage to temping is you’re probably not going to be hired, so you don’t have to convince anyone that you know everything. Take advantage of that to learn more about the field you’re currently occupying.

Be as effective as possible. I know it’s tempting to pop in the headphones, crank up the deadmau5 (seriously, SO much SEO happening), and text on your phone all day while doing the bare minimum to keep your crappy temp assignment. But remember: when you’re temping, you’re working for testimonials. If a client reports back to the agency with tears of joy at how you completed the project early (and without having to use the office spear-gun once), they’ll be more likely to use the agency again, and the agency will reward you for it. Also, it’s rare, but if you do a particularly spectacular job and the client decides they’d like to hire you as a full time employee, they may decide to purchase the right to hire you (I’m not kidding) from the temp company.

Develop a relationship with the agency’s client. If you get to know the employees at a client’s office and build a rapport with them, they will often help you in your job-hunting activities (and start to think of you as “part of the team”). Stay in touch when each assignment is over, and you’ll soon have a lot of new connections in your network you didn’t have before. If it helps, you can think of them as your personal job-sniffing minions.

If you can afford it to work without pay for a while, apply for internships. Some organizations will entertain bringing you on as an intern even if you are not a student. This is an excellent way to break into an industry you have a specific interest in (see: dashing secret-agent-gone-rogue) and will typically yield greater/more diverse training and experience.

Banks Done Got Smaller

Bank shrinkage charts that look like ovums.

Core Thoughts

If you can’t be bothered to read the specifics of the above advice (and really, if you did, there’s your first problem), here are some core concepts that should lead you in the same general direction:

  • Make yourself uncomfortable & embrace the unusual.
  • Don’t be picky.
  • As things improve, be more picky.
  • Always be selling. Every interaction with every person is an opportunity to seek work.
  • Find work you enjoy that other people do not.
  • Keep yourself sane. Be deliberate in taking the time to relax and have fun.


1and if you’re not worried, start. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
2go ahead and laugh – see how much you’re laughing when you’re broke and stranded in the arctic tundra with no clothing and a hungry polar bear bearing down on you
3I highly recommend developing a working understanding of HTML – it’s easy to learn, and fast becoming a standard expectation from employers, even in non-technical fields
4make sure there are no legal obligations binding you to a specific agency – MA, for example, is an “at-will” state, leaving workers as free to leave without notice as employers are to fire