Letters to a young software engineer in Boise

November 10, 2019

I just grabbed coffee with a young man that's looking to get into the tech industry in Boise. He's been going through a bootcamp and wanted to learn more about what it would take to break into the industry. After some thinking, I've put together some pointers.

Breaking in to the community

Everyone knows everyone

In comparison to other communities, Boise is tiny and in turn everyone knows everyone. No really, it's amazing how many people know each other in the tech scene around here. Instead of it being six degrees of separation it's probably one or two. I won't go into the details of the root cause of this, as it would warrant a whole post in and of itself.

This can be invaluable when trying to break into the industry as getting to know someone at one company gives you a high likelihood of also being recommended to other companies as well. On the flip side, this can also be a disadvantage if you end up making a bad name for yourself, so just be careful when you're working with others and try not to burn any bridges. Word travels fast in the area.


Since everyone knows everyone, one of the best ways to break in is by going to meetups. There's no better way to get some good face to face time than over a beverage and pizza at a local company's meetup. It's a chance for you to start learning what people in the community are talking about. This way you can learn to tailor your skill set to the area while also making some acquaintances.

This doesn't just apply to Boise, but face to face connections often mean skipping multiple filtering functions in the application process when applying for jobs. It's far easier to trust someone you've had a few conversations with than the name and history on a CV. Check out gemstate.io to have an up to date listing of what's happening in the Boise tech scene.

Not sure which meetup you want to go to? Just pick one. Seriously, I've never been disappointed in going to a meetup. They're great opportunities to learn and if you don't end up liking whatever you chose, they're just short enough to warrant the time investment.

Idaho Tech

Idaho Tech is another way to start building connections in the community. It's a slack team that was started by J.D. Mullin to encourage conversations outside of meetups. You'll need to go here to sign up. I've also created a reddit community to offer as a more publically visible extension of the community.

Here's a short list of channels I recommend you join and why:

  • #jobs: New job postings are put here frequently. It's a great way to also communicate with employers if you're looking for a job.
  • #webdev: At one point, one of the most active technical channels.
  • #meetups-general: This has basically become gemstate.io
  • #mentoring: Not super popular but still a channel to ask for help if you're looking for a mentor.
  • #coffee-or-beers: Not super popular but still good to see if there is anyone that wants to grab some beers for a chat

Distinguishing yourself

Considering the size of the community, you can rise to the top without as much effort that would be required in other tech areas such as Silicon Valley. This isn't a dig on Boise, it's more of a natural aspect of the number of people in the area. Here are some recommendations for distinguishing yourself.

Work on side projects

Always be building. Honestly though, I've been surprised at how few people work on projects outside of their day job in the Treasure Valley. Of course, family time is extremely important so make sure to stay balanced, but make sure to hack on something to continue learning and growing. Your project doesn't have to use the latest and greatest tech, it doesn't have to have a purpose for anyone besides you, just build.

Side projects signal to your potential employer that you are curious and you're a self starter, which are some of the most important values that a software engineer can have. They also offer as a way for you to continue practicing outside of work. There's no other way to get better than to have something that you're constantly applying learnings from your job to. I've heavily borrowed from my side projects for my own work in my career as well.

You get an added bonus if you increase the visibility of your side projects. Writing your learnings down in a blog post and sharing your code on github helps to increase the level of visibility into how you conduct yourself for potential employers.

Find a tech specific community that interests you

Find a tech community that interests you and participate. I can't recommend this enough. This is probably one of my favorite tips. I've learned so much by following the creator of d3.js, Mike Bostock as well as the people he interacts with. I've learned about project structure, coding practices and the history of data visualization all by reading through his repositories and following him on twitter.

Be careful though, it's easy to become a lurker and to only consume. It's far more difficult to participate, but it's invaluable. Lurking allows you to learn, but to solidify those learnings you need to synthesize those ideas by putting them into practice. Try building a project with the things you're reading about, create a package that solves a common problem you run into, or just rebuild something that is heavily used in the community that you're in. Just make sure you don't find yourself only reading. Formulate your own ideas and try building something in relation to the community, no matter how simple or complex.

Remaining healthy

Our jobs are killing us

But really though, by all accounts, sitting is the new smoking, so is standing. With all of this mention of working on side projects and the importance of remaining up to date in your spare time, it means nothing if you're not taking care of yourself. Being healthy should be your number one priority along with keeping a healthy social life.

Stay active. Make sure that you're working out consistently. Find an activity that you love that keeps you away from screens of all sorts. There's a lot of research that shows that mental health is heavily tied to your levels of activity. Get out, get away and disconnect.

Take walking breaks during the day. If you find yourself stuck on something. Take a 10 minute walk. It's better than surfing social media and often times your brain will figure out what you're missing in the background while you're enjoying some fresh air.

Beverage intake

Startup culture encourages drug use. Erm, startup culture encourages high coffee and beer intake. It's easy to start slamming down a lot of coffee when your team has brew constantly on tap. I abused coffee for a long time. What I didn't realize was that coffee has a half-life of around 12 hours. That meant that drinking coffee until 3PM would leave caffeine in my body until 3AM. My sleep was heavily impacted by this and over time I fell into a vicious cycle of crummy sleep. I would wake up groggy because I didn't get deep sleep, so I would pound more caffeine to stay alert, which in turn would impact my sleep more. To combat that, I now only drink coffee before noon. I also try and get really good sleep so I don't feel the need for caffeine in the day.

Unfortunately alcohol is baked into the startup culture in this area. While it sounds great initially, over time it can be easy to abuse. It's easy to feel the pressure to drink especially when a lot of the social aspects are predicated on it (see #coffee-or-beers for example). You can especially feel the pressure to drink as you're trying to integrate into the culture of the company that you're joining. Well, don't. It's certainly easier said than done, but if integrating into your company is predicated on drinking alcohol, maybe that company isn't for you. Just remember, as you're integrating into a company, it's just as much a time for you to determine if you want to continue working for the company as much as it is a time for them to determine if you're a cultural fit.

Just make sure that you enjoy yourself in moderation. For a period I realized that I was drinking over lunch pretty consistently. Couple drinking over lunch, with a job that has you sitting in front a computer screen for 8 hours a day and after a few months you could find yourself in bad health.

Other thoughts

Here are a few other things that would be good to look at if you're interested in getting into the tech scene in Boise. I won't go into detail, but will instead leave a bulleted list for you to research a bit more into.

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