A Developer’s Journey: BJ Burns

By: Yadira Y. Caro

If you are a developer, aspire to be one, or simply want to understand this field,  the Complete Developer Podcast is a must-listen. Topics of the show have ranged from coding best practices, optimizing algorithm, surviving boring meetings, improving your listening skills and how to talk with non-techies.

Hosts and friends BJ Burns and Will Gantt, began this show as an experiment after people around them, entertained by their banter when discussing development topics, prompted to do so. Will is the more experienced developer of the two, while BJ focuses on sharing “his journey as a journeyman developer,” as he states on the show.

A few years ago, BJ was on his way to finish medical school until a personal heartbreak changed this. With the help of Will and other developer friends, BJ’s career and life took a turn. In this interview, BJ explains his journey to become an Advanced Software Engineer for the State of Tennessee, and gives insights on the development of this successful podcast.

Note: See here Will Gant’s interview. 

Did you started college as Pre-med or Psychology?

I majored in Psychology; while I was getting my masters in Psychology, I was working at a psychiatric hospital and decided that instead of getting a PhD in Counseling, I wanted to get a medical degree to do Psychiatry. I was working at an addictions unit, helping people who struggle with addiction who also have mental health problems. What I wanted to do, at least at that time, was to get into that world and be a medical doctor that could help people with their addiction and their psychological issues.

How did it evolve eventually into going into computer science and development?

It actually started before all of that. When I was in high school, I took three years of programming classes. When I first started, QBasic and Turbo Pascal were the languages that were offered in school. In my senior year of high school, they decided to upgrade to more modern languages. I got Visual Basic and C++. I got the opportunity to do that, and I loved it. I thought that’s what I wanted to do for a living.

When I graduated, I was planning on going to college to be a software developer. My mom, who is a nurse, at the time was head of a foot and ankle clinic in town. One summer in high school, her secretary took time off to go have surgery. So I worked at the clinic with my mom at that time. All the doctors kept coming and showing me things and saying, “Hey, this is really interesting.” I got to sit in on surgeries and procedures. For a really nerdy kid, it was a dream come true because I got all these very intelligent doctors wanting to teach me and show me what they were doing. I just sort of fell in love with that. So when I went to college, I started off pre med. Then I took a psychology class and decided, “Hey, I like talking to people, so I want to go into this area of healthcare.” I pursued that all the way up to medical school.

What brought me back around to development was that in my third year of medical school while studying for board exams, my wife at the time decided she did not wanted to be my wife anymore. She had the divorce papers delivered to me while I was studying for board exams, and I did not pass for obvious emotional reasons. It was a bit of a surprise to me, and then I had to go in front of the promotion and matriculation committee. I explained to them everything that was going on, and why I didn’t pass my board exams. They basically told me to take some time, get through the emotional side of it, get through the divorce, and look at coming back to school later. I left med school then moved back to Tennessee.

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Medicine requires a lot of focus. You spend six to eight hours a day in a classroom, and then another six to eight hours after you get out of class studying. To go from that sort of lifestyle to have nothing to focus on; all of my focus went on to all the bad things going on in my life. I was getting very depressed and so my friends, who were developers, were like, “All right, we’re going help you, we’ll give you something to focus on”. So they started introducing me to different programming concepts. I think they started off with this online game where you wrote JavaScript to move the character around.

Within about two or three months, I had gone from that to looking at some different tutorials, taking some Udemy classes, and I was asking questions about expression trees and some pretty heavy topics. They were like, “Oh, we got you hooked now!” And so about six to eight months after I had first started learning or relearning development, I decided I didn’t want to go back to med school. I wanted to pursue this.

My best friend Will, who does the podcast with me, brought me on as an intern. He had his own company doing consulting, and he did it just so that he could show me things as he was doing them. I was working in sales at the time. So, I would work from about 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Then, I’d go over to his house from eight to six or seven and sit in his office. Over the course of the year, I started doing more and more things for him until I think about two or three months before I got my first full time job in development.

“Look at what you want to do and list it out if you want to work in a certain field. Find out what that field needs, and what you need to work in there.” – BJ Burns

What was your first job? Was it primarily developing websites?

My first job outside of the apprenticeship was as a contract developer for the State of Tennessee.

What’s your current job?

My contract was six months and it was a six month contract to hire. They decided to hire me on after six months, and actually just got promoted up two months ago to Advanced Software Developer.

Why did you start a podcast?

I’m a talker as you can tell. When you get him going, Will is a talker as well. He loves to talk about development. I also learn best through teaching. So, part of the reason we did it was to help me learn to be a better software developer. Part of it was to give me a little bit of credentials coming into the industry without a degree in software development.

What really put the nail in the head was when I was interning with Will. We had both taken the day off to go to an event at the Microsoft office here in Nashville. We’re sitting at a table with about five or six other developers, and I’ve been asking him some questions about some of the stuff they had presented to us. We were sort of bantering back and forth about it and we noticed that no one else at the table was talking. They were all just sitting listening to the two of us go back and forth. We kind of stopped and looked at them like, “You guys can jump in here too.” And they’re like, “Oh, no this is great. You guys should totally do a podcast or something. We just enjoy listening to the two of you go back and forth”. I think that was around April (2015). So, we started doing our research and looking into what does it take to create a podcast.  And then that July, we started building the website and recording episodes.

We wanted to have about three or four episodes ready to go when we launched because we didn’t want to be trying to learn how to do this while also trying to produce an episode every week. When we launched our first episodes in September, we had four episodes already recorded, and mostly edited. It used to take me a lot longer to do the editing back when I had no clue what I was doing. I think our first episode was about 30 minutes and it took me about 12 hours to edit because I was learning the technology.

How do you pick the topics?

What we were talking about at that lunch just kind of led into it. It was how to talk about technical subjects to non-technical people, such as managers, or Business Analysts. Then after that, we did a series on health, where we talked about physical health, mental health, financial health, and those sorts of things.

The first year we struggled. Each week, we’d try to come up with a topic, and we’d take turns writing them so one person doesn’t get burned out. We had a list just in a text file of topic ideas. If you couldn’t think of something to write about that week, you could go to that list and take something off of it. That kept growing especially after I started working. I would see things at work and think, “I want to learn more about this. Let me make an episode, and then I can kill two birds with one stone. I can learn about it, and we’ve got a podcast episode”. Now, I get the episode topics from everywhere.

We have a board with all of our episode ideas on it. We have 201 episode ideas that we haven’t even worked on yet. We break them down into three categories. There are technical episodes. There are business episodes, such as the signs your co-worker is quitting episode that just came out. Then, we have the life category. These are life skills, like we have one episode in the backlog called the real cost of interruptions. We try to keep that balance in what we’re doing.

Is there a specific key piece of advice that you will give to people who want to get into development?

It takes work. You have to put the effort in and stay focused. You get in, you’re learning, it’s exciting, and then you get to, I wouldn’t say the boring parts of the learning, but the more difficult things. You want to go learn this other really new thing over here and this other really new thing over there. Then you end up becoming what we call “Hello World” experts, where you know how to write very basic stuff in five or six different languages. But not one of them are employable skills yet.

My advice is to look at what you want to do and list it out if you want to work in a certain field. Find out what that field needs, and what you need to work in there. Nashville is very .Net heavy. So if you wanted to work in the Nashville, Tennessee area, I would suggest learning .Net. If you want to work in other areas of the world, there’re different things that are more popular there. So, look at what you want to do, and then focus on that. That’s what’s going to help you in the long run.

Do you have 2 or 3 recommendations for resources (book, podcasts, etc.) that have helped you in your career?

Coding Blocks Podcast is great. The guys that run it are friendly and knowledgeable. Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual by John Sonmez. I suggest the audiobook version.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me! 

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