Pull Quote: I wouldn't be anything without the help of those around me.

Firefighter to Web Developer

I’m jolted awake to the sound of the tones going off in my room. I knew that I hadn’t been asleep long because we’d already run a late call and it was still dark outside. Running to the truck, I hear the address come out over the radio for a medical call. It’s the third time this week we’ve been called to the same house.

My driving is on autopilot because I know the city streets like the back of my hand. Not only had I worked in the same fire department for the last 6 years, but I’d also grown up in this city. On this and many other times I’d been woken up in the middle of the night, I’m starting to realize that I’m losing my passion for the job I once loved.

How I Got Into Firefighting

At 19 years old I was working in fast food, and I knew I needed to do something more with my life. I wasn’t really keen on going to college just yet, so I started looking for jobs that only needed vocational school. Knowing that I wouldn’t be a very good police officer, I signed up for fire school.

During fire school I found the only way to get a job as a firefighter in Florida was to also be an EMT in order to run medical calls, so I enrolled in there as well. While I was in school, one of the instructors I met told me their department was taking on volunteers.

Six years in the field, a year of paramedic school, and many sleepless nights later, I’m driving to a call feeling trapped in a career that I don’t care for anymore.

One of the perks of being a firefighter is that in between calls the free time is ours to do what we like, we just need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Some of the time we watch movies and play video games, but I wanted that time to do something productive that I could turn into an opportunity for a side gig.

Why I Chose Web Developer

I stumbled across a YouTube video that demonstrated how to create a webpage with HTML. I loaded a page that stereotypically read “Hello World” and I was hooked. I didn’t even own a computer at this time in my life, but my wife had a MacBook Air. She was nice enough to let me borrow it so I could keep learning. Downloading a text editor, I started creating web pages and loading them up in a browser. Though, as I was creating these pages, it was pretty obvious there weren’t any live websites out there that looked as bad as what I was creating.

While going through YouTube looking for more tutorials, I kept seeing videos for this thing called WordPress in the sidebar. Curiosity got the better of me and I clicked on one of the videos. I saw how pages were being created from an admin background and how themes changed the look of sites, while plugins added functionality. I was completely blown away.

By this time, I had purchased a $250 Chromebook I was running Linux from, and I decided that I was going to run a local development environment on this little computer with a 16GB hard drive. I managed to succeed, and with each accomplishment I had, I found that I was becoming extremely passionate about building these little websites.

Meeting Other Humans

I knew that I wasn’t going to make it very far past the beginning stages without help from someone other than a search engine. Though without any knowledge of the community and how they would act towards me, going to a local meetup was something that made me very uncomfortable. I thought the second they caught a glimpse of my Chromebook and my silly beginner questions they’d have me out the door before I could sit down.

Even in the parking lot before my first meetup, I was sitting in my car telling myself that I should just drive home.

When I walked into the meetup I was surprised to find people in all stages of their growth with WordPress. There were even people that knew less than me, and they were accepted just as much as I was. It was there I learned about this event called a WordCamp. I knew that whatever it was, I needed to be there and it was only two months away.

First WordCamp

Sitting in my car in front of my first WordCamp Orlando, I felt the same feelings that I did before my first meetup. I reminded myself how welcoming the meetup was, and that this wasn’t going to be any different. When I grabbed my seat in the main auditorium, I started feeling pretty strongly that I was alone in a room of 300 people. There were business owners that could actually make money off WordPress, and it felt that there weren’t many people at my experience level. As I went from talk to talk, the topics flew over my head and I became very overwhelmed. I told myself that I was going to stick it out till lunch and that I could go home after if I wanted.

Lunch came and as I was walking around looking for a good place to sit, I noticed a familiar face sitting at a table with no one next to him. Up until now, I had been learning exclusively at Lynda.com and Treehouse. I was learning to use the Genesis Framework and took a couple courses by an instructor named Jesse Petersen, and this guy looked just like him. Walking up next to him I said: “I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you look just like an instructor I learned from on Treehouse.” He laughed and said that he was indeed that instructor from Treehouse.

The pitch of my voice shot up an octave, and I started fanning out over how I had learned so much from him and asked if I could eat with him. While we ate, I told him that I was a firefighter and how I also wanted to become a web developer and build websites. By the end of the lunch, he told me that he saw something in me and that he wanted to mentor me if I was ok with that. Was I ok with that?!? Of course, I was ok with that! I was doing my best to sound cool all the while I’m absolutely ecstatic on the inside.

The rest of the day I followed him around to talks, and while I was listening, he was setting up my computer with tools to help get me set up for further development. He added me to his Slack channel and told me that we were going to be working together remotely. When the day finished he asked me where we were having dinner in between the last session and the after-party.

I’ve never gone from feeling so out of place somewhere to then feeling so welcomed.

I was talking to a person that had absolutely no gain from helping me out, yet spent the entirety of his day getting me set up to work with him in the future.

Jesse wasn’t feeling well the next day due to an illness he had called Cystic Fibrosis. He said that he would keep up with me through the day on Slack though. Whenever I felt like I didn’t belong I would look at the tools Jesse had installed on my computer and the Slack channel and would remember that I was welcome. I was going to be learning some awesome stuff, and now I had a mentor.

Gettin’ Paid

I spent the next few months going to two other WordCamps learning as much as I could and meeting as many people as possible. After going down to WordCamp Miami, I got approached by a local agency owner at a meetup that had some extra work I could help out with. Little did I know, they were also friends with Jesse and he had told them about me and what I’d been learning. This gave me a chance to get my feet wet and build some very strong friendships with some amazing people. I was now making money doing what I loved.

Four months later I got a Slack message from one of my friends telling me that Jesse had passed away.

I was on shift at the fire department that day, and I felt like someone had hit me with a bat. He was due to get new lungs any time, and just the day before was telling me how he was going to start a new life once he had the strength of new lungs to do so. We were all crushed to hear of his passing. I knew it was going to be hard moving forward without him, but I knew that’s what he would have wanted.

Keynote Presentation

I continued working on my skills until I was asked to do a keynote presentation at WordCamp Orlando. The very WordCamp I’d thought about leaving halfway through just a year before. The owner of the agency I was working for, Chris Edwards, told me they’d had a speaker back out and they needed someone to fill in, so they asked me. They wanted me to tell my story of how I had gotten into the WordPress community. I agreed, believing it was only going to a small room full of people, but when I said yes, I was then told I would be giving the opening keynote address in front of the entire WordCamp. I had already said yes, so now there was no way that I could back down and tell him no.

As I was standing on stage waiting to be introduced, I was relieved to find there was a podium. Now no one could see my legs shaking as I stood there for an hour. I could now put all my focus on making sure the hand holding the microphone stayed steady. My talk was on the past year that had led me to this point and all of the fears and vulnerabilities I’d faced. If there was someone that was feeling the way I had a year ago, I wanted them to know that they were welcome and I was excited to have them there.

Leaving the Fire Service

The rest of the weekend passed, and I got a message from my friend Chris Edwards telling me that a company that makes a donation plugin called Give was looking for a support technician. Matt Cromwell, who was about to be my new boss, was sitting in the audience while I gave my keynote presentation. I filled out the application and got a response back that he wanted to set up an interview.

A year has passed since that time, and I’ve grown so much in my knowledge of web development, website management, and WordPress. I’ve just started my first business as a freelance WordPress developer, and again I’m feeling the same fears, excitement, and vulnerabilities I felt every time I started to push myself. It’s now to the point where I almost keep a lookout for the fear because I know that something amazing is going to happen on the other side.

I’m always going to remember the compassion that Jesse Petersen had for me, and remember to pay that kindness forward in helping others.

There’s no way I could have planned this path for myself even if I’d tried. I know that I’m in the right place now, because every day I wake up I’m happy that I get to work with WordPress and interact with this awesome community. I wouldn’t be anything without the help of those around me, and I will always be grateful for everything they’ve done.

7 comments

  1. So excited for Sam! I’ve known Sam a little over a year working together at Give, and I can honestly say what a compassionate, talented guy he is with an amazing sense of humor. His story is worth reading.

    I hope it inspires others to pay it forward like Jesse did for Sam, and help others along the way.

    Good luck Sam!

    • Sam Smith says:

      Thanks for saying that, Anita. Your story is really incredible too. Make sure you eventually get that van and travel 🙂

  2. Sam, I use your story every day when I talk to people who are interested in switching careers. It is truly inspiring and shows how a little bit of will power and a great community can really help change someone’s life for the better. I know Jesse is looking down on you so proud of what you have become. He was always all about helping others achieve their goals.

    This was a great essay! Maybe we need to throw you feet first into a few more keynotes :p

    • Sam Smith says:

      Thanks, Chris. You and Sandy have done so much to help me as well, and I’ll be forever grateful.
      I’m also going to second guess your motives every time you ask me to present somewhere 😛 It could be 20 people, it could be 300 who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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