From Bartender To Mobile App Developer

34 minute read

I think it was sometime in 2010 that I started to get really fucking sick of bartending. I was living in San Francisco and had been working in the industry for around seven years by then. This was way past the “Ugh, I don’t feel like going in today; maybe I’ll get someone to cover my shift” or “God, people really get on my nerves sometimes” phase, and more like, “If one more annoying person asks me for a vodka and Red Bull while this crappy commercial music is blasting and these stupid lights are going, I’m going to lose it.” To answer the question of whether I was just working in clubs (and could that have been the problem?), no—I was also working in restaurants and I was sick of working there, too. And it wasn’t as if I wasn’t making good money—I was. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t lead a lifestyle that many others were envious of—I did. Girls, lots of cash, free food from my friends that worked in amazing restaurants, and free drinks in nearly any bar I walked into. People may say that I didn’t appreciate what I had, but I did—I was just over it all. It was mindless, hedonistic, superficial, banal, trite, trivial, meaningless, and made no use of any intellectual ability on my part whatsoever. Whether it was seeing drunk chicks (and guys) puking in trashcans at clubs or pretentious douchebags trying to ply their way into the panties of women with their wallets at restaurants every weekend, the whole thing was sickening to me. But it was like quicksand—the more I struggled to escape, the more I felt drawn in. Obviously, people like me shouldn’t be behind a bar, but that begs the question: how do I get out??

Stuck in a rut

I had hardly any professional job experience except for a string of low-level temp office jobs after high school and no college education except for a two-year stint before I dropped out without declaring a major. My real world experience consisted of having had a career in electronic music (which entailed being a DJ, producing music, and owning a record store), and a failed attempt to flip a house in Berkeley that nearly forced me into bankruptcy. Hardly much to go on.

For all my dislike of bartending, I was actually looking for a career to move into next that had many of its key and most attractive attributes: something in high demand that was recession-proof, something I could do almost anywhere, something that could potentially afford me some of the flexibility in schedule that I liked about bartending, and something that paid good money.

Oh yeah, and something that I could do until retirement. Not too much to ask for, right?!

So, where to begin? As I mentioned before, I was living in San Francisco at the time. SF (as we locals call it) lives and breathes tech. It just kind of permeates the air like the way the fog rolls in over the Golden Gate Bridge and blankets the city. Or maybe it’s more like the way mold grows on rotting food. In any case, I had a decent amount of friends there who had careers in tech, and I may have had serial love affairs with the Apple IIE and Commodore-64 computers my parents bought me as a kid—so, I figured something in tech was as good a place to start as any. But where to begin? Having not much of an idea of what “tech” was back then (other than having seen the tech startup bubble burst in 2001 and, as of late, witnessing the antics of what seemed like an ever-increasing group of spoiled tech workers invading the city), I did some preliminary research and found the career possibilities and jargon overwhelming. So, I decided to interview my friends in tech to see what they thought I should do. I approached it very seriously and focused my questions around this general template:

  • What do you do now (with as much technical explanation as they’re willing to give before they get frustrated with my lack of knowledge)?
  • What was your path to get there—did you get a degree, were you self-taught?
  • Where do you recommend I start out—should I go to school to get a degree or just learn on my own?
  • Do you regret anything about the path you took—i.e., is there anything you think I should avoid based on mistakes you made, or things you wish you would have known?
  • What programming language(s) do you think I should learn first?
  • What technology do you think I should learn first (i.e., web, mobile, backend)?

Of course one will receive diverging answers and conflicting advice when interviewing multiple people, and this was no exception. Some of my friends recommended just learning on my own and others recommended going back to school and getting a computer science degree. Some of my friends said I should start with web programming and others advised backend. Some said I should start with Python for a first programming language and some said C++. It’s worth noting that my friends had gone a variety of different paths themselves, which probably explained the diversity of responses—some were self-taught and had their own contracting businesses, some had a degree, and they all worked in different areas of tech.

Chaos and a move

During this time, my mom passed away and my life was thrown upside down. Now, I was dealing with the death of a parent in addition to my existential crisis about what I wanted to do with my life. When it rains, it pours. As all of my family was on the East coast, I decided I wanted to be closer to them—luckily for me, I had some good friends in Washington, DC (one of them being my best friend from SF who’d moved out there a few years ago) who bartended. They encouraged me to move out there and said they could help find me a gig. Thanks to their connections and the universal demand for my trade, I had a bartending job almost immediately and decided to move to DC in early 2010. Did I mention that I had a love-hate relationship with bartending? The fact that I could get a job at a moment’s notice 3,000 miles away on the opposite side of the country is definitely where the love aspect came into play!

After around six months of getting settled, working, and doing more research on what aspect of tech I wanted to study and how I was going to do it, I decided to do an online class. As it was the middle of the fall semester on the academic calendar, I didn’t have many options and figured this would be a good way to get my feet wet. The online class was ok, but as I didn’t have much of a tech background it raised a lot more questions than it answered, and I found myself just following steps that I didn’t really understand (the goal of the course was to create a restaurant reviews web site). However, it was a start and, encouraged by it, I decided to take two courses at a community college in DC in the spring semester of 2011.

I was 37 at the time and hadn’t had any academic exposure since I dropped out of university when I was 19, so apparently my math skills were at an 8th or 9th grade level and I had to start with an algebra class (you think all that advanced math we do as bartenders would count for something?!). So, I started with that and another class—I wanted to see what it would be like to go back to school but didn’t want to bite off too much initially, so I thought taking two classes would be a good way to start.

Surprisingly, I liked it a lot. I say “surprisingly” because, as I said before, I had dropped out of university initially when I went there straight out of high school. At that time, I was so enamored by getting out from under my parents’ iron grip and getting my first taste of freedom that all I could focus on at university was going to raves up and down the East coast, hanging out with friends, and staying up till all hours talking to people on IRC (bonus points if anyone knows what that is) in our school’s computer lab. I wasn’t mentally prepared nor was I in the academic headspace necessary for immersive study back then, so I failed out of nearly everything and then finally quit after two years of hemorrhaging money and being miserable.

Going back to school

It was for that reason that I was somewhat trepidatious about going back to school. But, to my surprise, I really liked the classes—I found there was something really nice about the structure of school, the learning, the stimulation of the mind and intellect, the regimen, and, yes, even the studying. I think I found all of these aspects about school so appealing now that I had initially eschewed as a teenager because I had spent so many years living this very chaotic life of incessant traveling, partying, drinking, and not having much of a regular schedule—first, as someone who was self-employed as a record store owner, DJ, and producer, and, second, as a bartender. Even as the latter, I worked a shift or two a week at an ever-changing lineup of up to three to four bars, clubs, and lounges at a time, plus I would constantly get last-minute calls to fill in at random places.

It was after that semester that I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into going back to school and pursuing my Computer Science degree, and to do it as quickly as possible. Indeed, I also took classes that summer and would take them during a few summers, except when I could find something better to do that would contribute towards my background or degree in some way (more on that later).

If you are the slightest bit interested in finishing your degree as quickly as possible, summer classes are absolutely the way to go.

You are most definitely going to work your ass off at them—as a typical summer course lasts only six weeks but packs in an entire semester’s credit into that time—but if you’re up for it you could probably knock out anywhere from 6-10 credits in the two sessions usually offered over the summer.

I was also bartending during this time and, pleasantly surprisingly again, I found that the freeform and nontraditional schedule of the industry lent itself to my studies. As each semester’s class schedule would change, so I found myself able to usually work that around my bartending schedule, or to change the latter a little to suit my studies. Mind you, I wasn’t bartending a full-time schedule—I was doing Friday and Saturday nights, and around two other nights during the week. Luckily, I’d saved some money, so between that, my public university’s inexpensive tuition (it was incredibly affordable), and the bartending I was able to make it work. I may be stating the obvious here, but each person has to develop their own balance between school, work, and anything else they might have going on. Your timeline for completing your degree will be offset by your need to work to support yourself (unless you win the lottery, are independently wealthy, or have someone sponsoring you), and only you can decide what that work/school balance is. And if you have to work x shifts a week in order to support yourself but also want to finish school as quickly as possible, you can also make the conscious choice to perhaps sacrifice a bit of your grades to further that endeavor. But I would be very careful about this latter move if you have the slightest desire to pursue further degrees after you get this one, as your GPA being below a certain amount can possibly result in academic, financial aid, or grant money doors being shut to you.

Getting an internship

After being in school for almost two years, I decided I wanted to try and get an internship in my field. It had become glaringly apparent to me that I wasn’t getting much real-world experience at my university (it was mainly a lot of theory), so that, coupled with my desire to reboot my life as quickly as possible, made getting an internship seem to be a logical move. Given the one-sided nature of learning taking place at my school, the alternative was my worst-case scenario: graduate and have to start at square one in my career. Depending on the age that you go back to school, you may or may not experience this dread. For me, I was around 39 at this time and was keenly conscious of the desire to get my career going as quickly as possible. I wanted to graduate and to not only immediately be hirable, but to also be able to make good money out of the gate. There was no way I was going to be able to achieve this unless I had at least an internship under my belt, if not prior full-time employment and a salary history. I felt the crunch of time in a way that I never had felt it before—prior to this, I think I had sort of haphazardly and somewhat naively sailed through life. It was right around this time that I really regretted some of those years of incessant partying, and wished I had started on this journey earlier.

If you stop reading past this point, I want the last thing you read to be this: getting an internship was an absolute game-changer and its value cannot be overstated.

If you’re still reading, I would advise you to put together a resume and look for an internship in the field you want to go into. For me, I wanted to be a mobile app developer, so I did the following:

  • Looked online for companies looking for interns
  • Tried using job/career placement resources from my school
  • Asked at the industry groups I had signed up for (meetup.com is great for this) and whose meetings I attended
  • Kept an eye out for industry conferences and events

After trying for a few months without much success, it was through this last point that I eventually got my internship. A startup down the street from me was hosting a party for a tech conference in town—I got an email about it from a tech meetup group I belonged to, so I went to check it out. It seemed like a cool company that had cool people working there, so I went back there the next day to ask if they had any internship positions open. This brings me to my next point: Don’t wait to see an internship position advertised before you try to get one! As internships can be coveted, your best chance of getting one may be when it’s not even advertised yet!

In my case, the company I applied to was thinking about getting an intern but hadn’t actually made any formal moves in that direction. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. However, lest you think that things magically fall into place for me all the time, all was not perfect—unfortunately, they didn’t need an intern for exactly what I wanted to do; they needed one for a role that involved testing software. But I would be working directly under and with the software developers I wanted to one day become, so without hesitation I accepted. It paid $10/hour but I didn’t care—some of them don’t even pay anything. The best thing is that because it was an internship they were super flexible with my schedule and let me switch it around occasionally if I needed to do so for midterms or finals.

The ironic thing is that I was bartending right around the corner from my internship. I felt this sort of odd duality between the two very opposite worlds of my tech internship and my bartending life, although of course tech people like to get smashed at bars (as I had seen all those years while bartending in SF). But I was very conscious of wanting to be perceived as being professional, and so I took great pains not to disclose anything of this other world at first. I relaxed a little after six months and they all actually came to visit me while I was working happy hour once. I think it actually made me cooler in their eyes, but I was only looking to distance myself from that industry then and was laser-focused on my dreams of getting into their industry. Later, I would realize that many of the skills I learned during bartending would prove advantageous in my new career.

Education vs. real-world experience

Now I want to say a few words about the school I was attending, as I think it’s important to make a few things clear that may help anyone reading this who is thinking about going back to school. As I said before, I was going to a community college in DC. It wasn’t particularly nice and it wasn’t particularly good. Once I quit bartending (also more on that later), I had to camp out in at their financial aid office every semester around the time paperwork would get submitted for that semester’s financial aid (along with what seemed like half our school) for the few hours it would take to see someone and deal with their incompetence and under-staffing issues—all to make sure they didn’t screw up anything with my financial aid. Many professors in my department had gotten their degrees a long time ago and were woefully out of touch with current developments in the field. Academic standards seemed to be somewhat relaxed, as the majority of our exams were open-book or take-home. Equipment was old and outdated, supplies were scarce or nonexistent, and buildings were in need of major repair. And, frankly, many of the students didn’t seem to possess basic levels of competency in core subject material, but maybe that was because I was attending a public university that seemed to be something of a catchall in DC.

As I was conscious of all this, I had a decision to make around the two-year mark (which is when I earned my Associate’s degree). Do I complete my BS degree at the public university in DC (who also operated the community college I went to) or apply to matriculate at other schools in the area with much more rigorous and respected academic programs? As much as I was aware of the academic shortfalls of my current institution, the relative ease of my degree program was also allowing me to accelerate my career by way of my internship (which by now had turned into a regular part-time position)—but would the former come back to bite me? I turned to my network of tech friends again and posed the question to them. They advised me that unless I was going to a truly top-notch school (MIT, Stanford, etc.), the main thing that mattered was just getting that little piece of paper one receives after four years. And so I rationalized the following:

  • For me, it was more important that I get real-world experience that would enable me to (hopefully) get a good job when I graduated than it was to have the best education I could have
  • I was smart and could pick up anything that had fallen through the cracks academically
  • The demand for workers was much higher than the supply in my industry, so most employers cared less about what school you’d gone to (or even if you had a degree at all) and were mainly concerned about whether you could get the job done—hence, the tech job I had on the side

The first point may sound counter-intuitive or foolish, but it worked for me. I would caution you not to blindly pursue the same course as I did without thinking about it carefully, as the same things that held true for me in my situation may not hold true for you. If you’re in school or thinking of going to school for a specialized degree in something that you want to do, stay on the pulse of it as much as you can. See what the demand’s like and try to forecast what it will be like: after you have your degree? Five years later? Ten years later? Be prepared to pivot if your industry is fast-changing. Maybe you thought you needed to learn a particular skillset initially, only to find that two years into your degree that’s shifted somewhat or that maybe you were wrong all along. Who cares. Don’t beat yourself up over it—knowledge on its own is always important and things have a way of coming back to be helpful when you’d least expect it!

One of the ways my decision to eschew pursuing the best education I could possibly receive may not be good for you is if you wanted a career in academia. Or maybe the industry you want to go into doesn’t have a terribly high demand for workers and where you graduated from is more important than it was in my case. Think about all this stuff first.

Try to develop networks within your desired industry. Try to find mentors and people that can help you. If you meet someone that’s doing what you want to be doing and they seem cool, offer to take them out to coffee or for a drink to see if they’ll share some of their story with you.

I was lucky enough to have this opportunity with a couple people I’d met along the way, and it was both fascinating and fruitful—it’s like peering into the window of another world; a world you want to be part of and will be someday. Pick their brains while they’re sitting in front of you. Ask them how they like their jobs, what they do there, how they do it. Inquire as to the path they took, regrets they might have had about career decisions they made, and anything they would have done differently that might have saved them some of these regrets. Parse all of that in the context of your own life and situation, and see if you can take any of that and apply it to where you’re at right now. If you can’t at this moment, file it away somewhere and chances are it will be applicable at some point!

Real-world experience wins

So, I decided to finish my degree at my mediocre public university at which I could excel academically but also have time to acquire real-world job experience through my part-time side job. By this time (as I mentioned before), I had been promoted to a part-time employee within the same company I’d started out as an intern with, and had graduated from software testing into being a software developer. My situation was extremely lucky—part-time positions in my industry are almost unheard of, but as I had started out as an intern my company was ok with me keeping that general time commitment, along with the flexibility of working more or less hours any given week depending on school obligations. At this point, I was working 20-25 hours a week with them and, while my limited availability didn’t allow me to get the kind of immersion into ongoing projects that I would ultimately need, I was learning valuable skills about the software development process and auditing different technologies that the business was interested in pursuing. I was also still bartending about the same number of hours per week, so needless to say I was very busy. This brings me to my next point: organization and time management.

Prior to all this, I had never been very good at either of these things. Well, I should probably add to that statement that I never really needed to be before this. But between taking a full course load of five to six classes a semester, juggling work projects, bartending, and going to the gym four days a week, it became really fucking necessary to have these skills or else I most definitely wouldn’t have succeeded. But I found it really wasn’t much of an effort to develop or grow them—to me, they just kind of evolved naturally as a necessity to support the kind of changes I was making. And, to be honest, with the kind of technology we have these days, it’s not terribly hard—although, some of my practices were definitely very low-tech. High-tech or low-tech, it doesn’t matter so long as whatever you’re doing works for you. On the side of the latter, I had a whiteboard in my living room with all of my upcoming class assignments’ due dates on it, I took handwritten notes in class because I found it helped me retain information better, and I had little ways of writing my assignments down and filing coursework so I could always have ready access to it in my notebooks. On the digital side, I had each semester’s schedule in my phone’s calendar along with my work schedule and bartending shifts (when I was still doing this). I was never a fan of e-books, but as I would typically be gone all day at school and bring a meal or two with me, plus sometimes go straight to a bartending shift afterwards, I would typically have the e-book versions of my course books on my computer. As big and amazing as the Chrome bike messenger bag that I stuffed all the things into, abused, and pretty much lived out of during my four years in DC was, there were days where I could not fit all of my massive college textbooks into it, so the e-books came in handy.

As I alluded to earlier, I eventually quit bartending entirely. My last shift was in June of 2012. By this time, I had developed quite the love-hate relationship with it, as on the one hand it allowed me to make good money and support myself while in school, while on the other hand I was sick of all the drunk people, banality and general douchebaggery that seemed to accompany it. Taking a bit of a jump, I decided to take out student loans instead to make up the difference. The ~$30k in loans I would need for the remainder of my time in school was a bit of a risk (and one that I was initially somewhat reticent about taking on), but it would allow me to focus more on my studies and to develop my tech skills further. During this whole time of being in DC I was also rebuilding my credit, which I had trashed over years of reckless credit card spending—so, at this point I wasn’t even able to get student loans on my own. Luckily, my dad offered to cosign for them, for which I was immensely grateful.

No more summer vacations

This is a good time to talk about summer again. Summer for most students involves hanging out, traveling, partying, and hopefully a romantic fling or two. But if you want to get your degree as quickly as possible and are willing to forego these wonderful pleasures (especially if you’d already been doing most of these things full-time for years while you were bartending), summer can be a time to get in more credits or advance your career in other ways. For two of the four summers I was in school, I took summer classes. As I advanced in my degree program, however, I found that summer courses weren’t offered—at my school, only more general classes that larger amounts of students need are typically available. That being said, sometimes those would be canceled last-minute due to low enrollment, necessitating us all marching down to some school official’s office activist-style, in order to try to plead with them to reinstate it. Once I got to the point where I couldn’t take summer classes, I thought of what else I could do over my summers to advance myself. Luckily, within the STEM (Science, Technology, and Math) fields in this country, there is a tremendous push going on right now at all academic levels—all the way from elementary to the pre-graduate level. iPads are being given out like candy, kids are being taught to code instead of how to play in the dirt (I’m exaggerating a little on that), and there are amazing summer programs available to college students, especially if you are a minority or are attending a minority institution, as I was. And, yes, even if you’re twice as old as the average college student, as I was. Entities like the National Science Foundation sponsor annual summer programs called REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) that are designed to offer undergrads a taste of what graduate university life would be like in the hopes that they might pursue higher education.

So, in the summer of 2013 I found myself doing one of these summer research programs at beautiful Indiana University in Bloomington with around 20 other people that were mostly much younger than myself. It was an amazing, life-changing experience that I won’t get into in any more detail here, but if you want to read about it, you can do so on my blog. Suffice it to say that if you can get yourself into a program like this (or something similar), I would highly advise you to do so. While I didn’t end up directly using the fruits of this program in my career (yet, at least), I got second author on a published academic paper, published in a book, and learned all about NoSQL databases, Python, and Linux. That either sounds really good or really weird to you (and I wouldn’t blame you if the latter was true). If you can’t get into one of these programs, there are also summer internships available, and you can usually find out about those through your school or through general Internet searches.

First: Me posing next to our project research poster. Second: The beautiful IU campus. Third: There were lots of these really cool clocks dotting the campus.

In the summer of 2014, however, something entirely different transpired. Initially, I tried to get into one of these NSF-sponsored programs like the one I’d gone to last summer, but had no luck. Then, I tried applying for a few summer internships but had no success there, either.

A contract job in Philly

Conscious of the fact that I was supposed to graduate after the fall 2014 semester and worried that I wouldn’t have enough job experience by then to immediately get a good job, I decided to switch gears and look for a contract job over the summer. Contracting (or consulting) jobs are present in nearly every industry, but in mine they are especially prevalent. Software always needs maintenance, it needs to be built, features need to be added, etc. Being able to write code from anywhere also adds to the different types of contract jobs available! As I really enjoyed getting out of DC the previous summer (truth be told, I never really felt like I fit in there), I started applying for contract jobs from DC up to NYC. As far as my part-time tech job went, I was more than ready to quit it. While immensely grateful to the company and to some of the great mentors I worked with, I wasn’t quite getting the in-depth experience I needed. This was mainly due to the limited time availability I had, but they also didn’t have much of the type of work going on at this time that I wanted exposure in. To make a long story short, I eventually ended up getting hired for a six-month contract job at an HR management company in Philly. During the last year or so, I had been working on an app on the side—and that combined with my job experience, a little bit of luck, and the desire to learn was enough to get me my first full-time job.

Six months, you say? But the summer is only three months. What about the fall semester? Ah, you’ve actually been reading what I’ve been writing? Well, if that’s the case then you’re absolutely correct.

I decided to take a semester off school so I could move to Philly and work this job. This was the best thing I could have done for myself and it advanced my career immensely.

Like sacrificing some quality of education for job experience and some of the other things I did along the way, this is also one of those things that is entirely subjective and may not be right for you. This was right for me because:

  • I was single-mindedly fixated on having enough job experience by the time I graduated so I could get a good job immediately after
  • I was single, had no kids, and had nothing holding me back from moving out of my apartment in DC, throwing a bunch of stuff in storage, and moving up to Philly for six months
  • I was willing to take some risk that this job was going to work out (i.e., that I wouldn’t get fired after I had moved up there) and I believed in my capabilities
  • I love traveling and seeing new areas
  • I didn’t like DC very much and relished any chance to leave it
  • I love cheesesteaks

I had an amazing time in Philly. I lived in two different neighborhoods (Rittenhouse Square and Fishtown), saw my sister and her kids frequently (she lives outside the city), reconnected with some old friends (I’d grown up outside of Philly), and went up to NYC and saw my friends up there often (it’s only 90 mins away). Philly was my first taste of what I had been hoping to achieve after these past few years of grinding away incessantly at school and my internship, of feeling isolated from my friends when I stopped bartending, of living this somewhat solitary life I had constructed around myself in order to focus on my personal development, health, and fitness, of going through an ongoing grieving and healing process around the death of my mom—in short, after trying to reboot myself and my life. I was making good money and was finally financially self-sufficient. It felt great.

But it was not all good—I had a horrible experience with a coworker who seemed hell-bent on sabotaging me for much of the time I worked at this job. While of course not a good experience, it taught me new skills to deal with this situation and made me realize how lucky (and somewhat spoiled) I’d been to work with the good people I’d worked with prior. As I was planning on going back to DC to do my last semester in January of 2015, I didn’t want to quit my job halfway through, get a new one, and then quit that one three months later.

Part of what I’d been learning through all this time was to try and get something out of every experience I have, positive or negative. This situation, while toxic, taught me how to deal with situations that I hope I’ll never have to deal with again.

It also taught me that this is one of the reasons why companies hire contract workers—so they don’t have to get their HR departments involved in situations like this (I was contracted to them through a contracting company that I was employed with).

First: My walk to work through Rittenhouse Square every day. Second: Inside our office. Third: A cloudy view of City Hall from our office inside the Wanamaker Building.

Graduation, finally

I ended up staying at this job through the end of 2014 and then went back to DC for my last semester of school in January of 2015. I was able to work remote for the first month of school and then had to ship my work laptop back and buckle down for the home stretch. Talk about senioritis! I think it would be bad enough on its own, but to go back to school after eight months of having a normal life was no bueno. Complicating things were that two of the classes I needed to graduate weren’t offered at my school, so I had to take them at another university. It was at times like these (I had taken a few other classes at other universities along the way) that the glaring differences between the disparate levels of education offered at my school versus those at other institutions was most apparent. I worked harder at those two courses for the “B” I ended up getting in each than I did for the “A” that I received for all my other courses that semester combined. It made me briefly regret the decision I’d made to focus more on job skills than education (mainly because there’s a part of me that truly loves the pursuit of knowledge and learning), but I ultimately reaffirmed that I’d made the right decision for myself given the situation.

After what seemed like an eternity of final projects, graduation paperwork, exams, and the like, the time I’d been waiting for had finally arrived. In May of 2015 I graduated with a BS in Computer Science Summa Cum Laude. Our graduation was held in the convention center downtown and my dad and girlfriend at the time were there. The auditorium was full of parents, relatives, and friends of those graduating. After what seemed like another eternity (but was in actuality only a few hours) of hearing the hundreds of other names called out that were graduating, it was my turn.

Four years of the grinding out of school, studies, papers, and projects, the frustrations, the angst, the fear, the quitting of bartending, the starting over in life. Four years of going to the gym, of learning to eat and live healthier and more responsibly, of grieving over the loss of my mom, of feeling lonely and isolated in DC—all that boiled down, distilled, and compressed into that one moment. That moment of hearing my name called out, of walking up to the stage dressed in a black graduation gown with the cap with the golden tassel hanging off it. That moment of my arm outstretched to shake the hand of an official from my school that I’d never heard of prior. That moment for us to be frozen in time so a photographer could capture it, so I could order an overpriced print from them, so I could frame it and put it next to my diploma, so I could remind my future self of all this—lest I ever forget.

First: Me in the crowd, about to go up and get my diploma. Second: Me posing with my dad afterwards.

Epilogue

But this was really not the end of anything; rather, it was only the beginning. All of this—and just to start over again. And start over again I did. Shortly after I graduated, I went to NYC to look for a job and an apartment. After about 15 interviews, I had two job offers in a month and started work July 1st, 2015. After accepting the job offer, I found an apartment and moved up to NYC. Finally, after all this time, change, and work I had achieved what I wanted! The rest is not, as they say, history—but instead the future. A future that is continuing to evolve day-by-day, just as yours will!

A few last takeaways and bits of advice:

  • The social aspects of bartending (being able to start conversations, listening to people, “bullshitting”, etc.) may be able to help you out and put you in an advantage in other careers, especially in careers like mine where people are traditionally more introverted
  • Going back to school later in life can also put you at an advantage (as it did me), as you are more motivated and more suited to getting everything out of it that you can—there are also numerous resources available that the average-aged undergrad may simply not have the interest in pursuing
  • If you’re interested in leaving the industry but just want to take a cursory step, try taking an online course—either through an academic institution or through one of the several sites like Coursera or iTunesU that offer free MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses)
  • Getting out of bartending can seem like a monumental process, and, truth be told, it’s not easy—just remember that you’ve most likely taken the path of least resistance down the road you’re on and that it will require a lot of work to reverse all that

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