You don’t need to learn to code to succeed.
A lot of FIRE forums are filled with programmers who made it big in their day jobs, saved up enough “F U” money, and then went on their merry way. I know that it can feel daunting to the other 95% of us who don’t have those kinds of jobs or those kinds of salaries. This blog’s tagline is “Earn more, spend less, invest the rest” – and to be honest, the “Earn more” part is not my strongest suit. Aside from very cleverly investing my savings when the stock market crashed in 2020, I never once made a six-figure salary, and most of my work life (yes, even at Amazon) consisted of making an hourly wage with some overtime thrown in. Rest assured, there is hope.
I know there’s a common throwaway comment – “Just learn to code!” It’s thrown at everyone, from unemployed miners to (occasionally, and from the same miners) to laid-off journalists. There are two schools of thoughts here: one says that absolutely anyone can learn how to code. The other (which I subscribe to) is that no, a lot of people can’t deal with the sort of thinking that’s needed for quality coding. I think part of the problem is that a lot of successful coders are autodidacts who taught themselves. It’s tempting to assume that if you could do that, so can anyone else. (I realize the irony as I type up an early retirement blog that aims to help absolutely everyone.)
The good news is that you can definitely infiltrate a major tech company and enjoy the perks (a 401k with a company match, free food and beer, international work transfers, some company stock, etc) without ever becoming a coder. I still encourage you to try your hand at it (there are lots and lots of sites that will teach you for free) but if you’re fundamentally allergic to the idea, that’s fine too. (Many of my ideas are pretty far out there, but I always respect people’s limits.)
Personally, I spent 11.5 years with Amazon and managed to become a financial analyst, of all things, without ever having taken a single accounting course. (I blogged about my journey over here.) My tech skills topped out at being really good at Excel and reasonably good at SQL. (As coding languages go, SQL is almost like a Lego set.) I’d started out as a warehouse grunt, working 12-hour shifts with my fellow temps, and when I finally became a permanent employee and got a chance to interview for a higher position (still hourly, but $2 more per hour), I focused on math and efficiency. (“Save 34.2 seconds, and you improve the productivity of your 9.5-hour shift by 0.1%!”) That worked, and it got me a job as a process assistant in the quality department of our North Vegas warehouse, and the rest was history… (With a lot of self-taught Excel, of course.)
“But GL, I don’t want to work 12-hour warehouse shifts just to infiltrate Amazon!” you might quite reasonably say. That’s a great point, and I got your back. Some tech companies have higher standards than others: for example, Google is notoriously hard to join, and Microsoft has a much leaner workforce than Amazon. (The fact that they never replied to my job applications also shows that they have higher standards. Heh.) On the other hand, behemoths like Amazon and Facebook (or is it Mega now?) have a lot of entry-level jobs for analysts, clerks, and other such desk jockeys. Once you have your foot in the door, you can get the lay of the land, find more lucrative internal opportunities, and make the most of your status as an insider. (All the while getting those perks I’d mentioned, as well as a stable paycheck.)
And so, finally, here is the big secret. Here is how you can take your Liberal Arts degree (believe it or not, I majored in Political Science) – or no degree at all! – and get an entry-level tech job. Are you ready? I’ve got two words for you: YouTube and Excel.
The job market is not efficient. (Neither is the stock market, for that matter.) There are always some relatively low-level skills that people hate so very, very much that they would rather outsource it than do them themselves. (In the non-tech world, that would be long-haul truck driving.) And if a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed job applicant says that they’re great at Excel and would simply love dealing with the department’s spreadsheets (and making the boss’s job easier)? Let’s just say there’s a very high chance they will get hired.
I will not sugarcoat it: I’ve learned to love Excel after about eight years of continuous improvement and teaching myself, simply because I knew that was the only way I could get an edge over my competition when it came to work transfers and very occasional promotions. There is a distinct possibility (and maybe even probability) that I’m just channeling my own Stockholm Syndrome here. But nonetheless, if you really want to trade in your service industry job for an entry level tech gig, here is how.
Designate an entire weekend – or better yet, a few – to learning. Turn off your phone, close all the social media apps, tell your friends and relatives and roommates that you’re not to be disturbed. It’ll be all learning, all day long. Get your computer. (Sorry, but this won’t work on a phone.) Get a trial version of Excel. Go on YouTube. Start looking up all the Excel tutorial videos, take a lot of notes, and practice in Excel until you get passably good at it.
That’s it. That’s the whole huge entry barrier. You don’t need to learn to code to succeed. If you learn, say, the 10 most common formulas, as well as creating different functions and functional pivot tables, you will know more than ~85% of office workers, at least in my personal (and admittedly anecdotal) experience. Excel has been around for decades, and there are lots of free guides you can find that will explain different formulas and functions. (For example, here is a decent guide I found in just a few seconds.)
Speaking as someone who used to be the designated Excel wizard on many different teams, you’ll be almost guaranteed to get your entry-level job if you learn the following:
- INDEX MATCH
- Remove duplicates
- Pivot tables
I wrote this list off the top of my head, thinking back to my own desk-bound years. Those are the 10 most useful skills that got me everything I’ve achieved. There was also some SQL on the side, but you won’t necessarily need it: merely knowing these 10 Excel features will get you a huge advantage over your competition.
Once again: this will not be very easy, or fun, or intuitive – but if you watch or read enough tutorials, and practice with these commands (or features like pivot tables) long enough, you’ll know more than 85% of all the office workers – especially so if you learn how to make VBA macros. (That would put you ahead of 95% of your competition.) In a nutshell, VBA macros will make your spreadsheet do stuff (crunch numbers, download data, refresh the data, etc.) once the user clicks a button with a macro attached to it. That’s a lot harder to learn than the 10 features I listed, so put that on your wishlist for now.
Tech jobs aren’t always fun, and they’re often stressful, and I cannot and will not guarantee that you’ll have a good time, but this is the one surefire way I know you can get in that industry. The rest will be up to you.
I am aware that not everyone has access to a computer. A lot of things I write here presuppose certain level of comfort that many of us take for granted. (I’m still trying to suppress the memories of living with a lot of drug-addicted roommates, one of whom had a giant loud dog that barked 24/7… I got very little sleep or rest that year.) If you don’t have a computer of your own, then yes, this advice will take you longer to master – but it’s not impossible. See if you can use someone else’s laptop. Check with your local library – typically, they limit computer usage to just 30 minutes (which won’t get you very far), but ask and find out. Maybe you have kids that require your attention – find somebody to look after them for a bit, or do your studying while they’re sleeping. Remember: you don’t need to learn this all at once. Maybe you have a knack for this, and you’ll become a pro in just one day. Maybe it’ll take you a month. Three months. Six. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re making progress.
Lastly, if you gave it a good college try and all this Excel stuff just doesn’t make sense, please consider getting a tutor – or just ask one of your egghead friends for help. We all have different learning styles, and it’s possible that your particular style is utterly incompatible with learning Excel. That’s fine – but until you’re 100% certain that’s the case, just keep trying. Remind yourself of all the worst aspects of your current job, then imagine never having to deal with that stuff, imagine a higher paycheck, imagine getting a much better office job down the line, and use that mental carrot to motivate yourself. This path is not for everyone, and it isn’t easy, but it’s also one of the most accessible paths that I’m aware of.
So turn off all the distractions, allocate several days to YouTube and Excel, and practice practice practice. And hey, if this works out for you, I expect an email with your success story – or a night out on you if we’re ever in the same city. (Or maybe both!) Just the fact that you’ve sought out this blog post and read this far – just this fact alone – proves that you’re motivated to find a new way forward. You’re a badass. You got this. Good luck.