Software developer

How I Got Here: Software developer Mike Lamb went from ‘doing well under the El’ to presenting business executives

Seven years ago, I was 27 and homeless for the second time in a year.

It was the unsurprising result of a 13-year struggle with addiction that had thwarted all my attempts to get my life off the ground. It had taken me five years to earn 61 college credits before my will to show up in class was completely shattered. I had worked in hardware stores and liquor stores, washing dishes, shoveling asphalt and serving tables, before becoming completely unemployable.

I remember knowing deep down that the rest of my life would be a revolving door between streets, prisons and hospitals. I remember feeling like a ghost outside of Wawa as morning commuters passed me on all sides. Their lives were unfathomable to me.

When I landed on the steps of the Last stop in Kensington – “recovering under the El” – I was looking for a way to get off the streets for a night. What I found instead was a community of people who were like me, but learning to live a different way of life.

Mike Lamb in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

I stayed there for a year and slowly began to learn to live in an environment that encouraged constant attention to service. After about six months, I got a job as a waiter at Fishtown Restaurant (at the time it was Mugshot Diner). I worked there for 15 months. In my spare time I have worked for various volunteer efforts in Camden and Kensington.

In the spring of 2016, I had my resume in front of someone looking for a body to fill a seat on a contract.

The work was repetitive, with a lot of copying and pasting. It also required extensive research on a bunch of different systems with poor user interfaces. I was good at doing the repetitive parts quickly. My tolerance for mundane details was like a superpower. I had a knack for identifying patterns to speed up the research process. I became a team leader and trained other team members with what I learned.

I stayed in this role for 21 months, but realized that I was not developing marketable skills for the future. I considered going back to college to complete my studies. I was approaching 30 with tens of thousands of dollars in college debt still owed from the first time. I was averse to taking on new debt and the opportunity cost of spending so much time just to get a basic degree.

Fortunately, I had also developed an interest in code by working so much with Excel. After about six months of researching bootcamps, I decided to take the risk and sign up for New York Code + Design Academy. I cashed in the few thousand dollars I had in a 401(k) at the time so I could have money to survive for a few months out of work.

Towards the end of my three-month bootcamp, I came up with an idea for Code for Philadelphia 2018 month Launchpad Hackathon. It was a web-based application for homeless-serving charities to let the community know what items they needed. The concept would also allow donors to make informed donation decisions to better meet the needs of their community. Voluntary organizations often have too many commonly donated items (think shirts and pants), while experiencing shortages of other important items like socks and underwear. I delivered my team’s project presentation at the end of the month, and our work won the contest by public vote.

An audience watches a presentation.

At the Code for Philly’s Civic Engagement Launchpad project demo party in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Code for Philly)

After the bootcamp, my old boss made me a nice offer to go back to my old company. My money would run out within two months, and if I didn’t have a job by then, I would have to go back to the waiting tables. I decided it was better to earn more in the short term and save more time to complete my web development skills, so I took the job.

This turned out to be a great opportunity to create myself a developer role by automating the team’s most repetitive and time-consuming work. Over the next two years, I gained valuable experience taking a program from concept to development to deployment.

Being in management consulting, I was also deeply involved in the sales process. I have developed demos and made presentations for stakeholders up to executive level – both for our client and within my own company. I participated in strategy sessions and helped write proposals.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to develop such a cross-disciplinary skill set, but I believe my talents should be put to use in a way that is more in line with my values. I’m launching as a consultant to bring the benefits of modern tech stacks to small businesses and individual creators.

I share my story because I want to challenge the idea that people from certain backgrounds should remain silent. My story is obviously not for everyone, and not for every context, but it has shaped who I am at a fundamental level.

My favorite thing about technology is how it separates power from institutions and old norms. I feel drawn to devote my energy to spreading this opportunity around me.