A majority of the individuals we’ve interviewed for Thinking Cap have been to a university and graduated with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in computer science (or a related field). During and/or after their studies, they were accepted into internships which helped them kick off their professional career.
But theirs is not the only path. For Damian Philips-King, most of his knowledge of software development came from reading books and taking online courses – all on his own. Today, he is the CEO of his own startup.
Damian’s journey begins during his teenage years in Barbados, where he first developed an interest in technology and the intellectual freedom that computers brought to the country.
“I come from a developing country, which is Barbados, and getting education outside of the basic fundamentals like math and English; technology is something that’s not pushed heavily in that society. So, just being able to get that information from the internet was huge for me. And that was kind of like, Yo, this is something that’s cool. ‘Cause, like, we can be anywhere in the world, and we can learn to do this stuff and we can generate new jobs and stuff based off of this stuff.”
With his mother’s help, Damian enrolled in a vocational school where he learned how to build computers from the ground up. “That’s what sparked my interest [in computer science],” he said. “From then on, it was like slowly adding onto that curiosity.”
Unlike many computer science students, Damian doesn’t have a strong math background or even strong math skills. He considers himself more creative, as he likes to draw and come up with new ideas.
Damian knew that he would have to obtain some sort of post-secondary education to gain entrance to the computer science industry. He chose a school called CompuCollege in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada because they offered a degree path that could be completed in two years instead of the traditional four years. His reasoning was that he wanted to be able to work in the field as soon as possible.
Damian considers attending CompuCollege a “necessary evil” because, in truth, he doesn’t believe that you need to go to school for 2-4 years to learn how to become a developer. (To become good at something …)
“‘Cause at the end of the day we learn on the job, and we learn by making many, many mistakes. I always look at the light bulb. Thomas Edison famously said that he didn’t fail 10,000 times but successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work. And he created the light bulb, something that we use in our lives day in, day out.”
Despite his misgivings, he was determined to stay focused on his goal. “Your whole life is ahead of you,” he told himself. “You’re here for a reason to start your own life, but also to be able to give back to your family back in Barbados. And you know, they sacrificed a lot for me, especially my mom. So, I had all of that motivation.”
Right out of CompuCollege, he started working at Blackberry in tech support. This was an eyeopener for him because it was his first real job and he had to work many long hours.
Despite that, he kept learning on his own time. His new focus was programming, which is the bedrock of software development.
“Fairly recently after I joined Blackberry, I realized, oh, there’s like a whole new like area and I wanted to be part of it. The only way you can learn is just get knowledge and I wasn’t in the position to go back to school. So, I just started buying a bunch of books.”
Sacrificing sleep was no sacrifice at all for Damian. “And the cool thing is I was working shift work,” he said. “So, in the daytime, instead of sleeping, I was working on understanding that stuff [programming]. ‘Cause the day is when I work my best. That’s pretty much what I did. And I did that for several years before I was confident enough to say, alright, I understand this shit.”
After learning about programming for several years until he felt confident in the subject, he started applying for jobs outside of Blackberry. But, since he didn’t follow the traditional university education route for computer science students, many of his applications were rejected.
“I was applying for jobs left right and center. I’ve been going to Toronto, and I was turned down a lot. Obviously, because it’s like, here’s this guy, he has zero computer science background, like he’s junior and we want a senior. I wasn’t able to get an internship or go through natural channels.”
Finally, a shop called Blazing the Agency that built web applications for companies on contract gave him a chance. His position gave him the industry experience he needed to qualify for other, better jobs down the road. It also taught him a lot about software development, which is the area of computer science that piqued his interest above all others.
At his next job at Igloo Software, Damian was finally able to pursue his curiosity in software development and flex his programming skills in that area. He continued to do so at a series of startups that he worked at over the following few years, including Terminal and MioVision. At Miovision, he met his future business partner, Kurtis McBride, and together they would start a company called Formicidy, which is a platform for health professionals.
Today, Damian is CEO at Formicidy, as well as CTO at a development shop called Strata Research. His idea for this platform, from which health professionals can run and expand their businesses, was born out of his determination to become healthier and more fit.
“I love front end development. I love all of this stuff, but also like paying attention to my health. So, I was like, how can I marry all of the things that I love and build something that can fund my life, not just like, I wanna be able to work in something that I do every day and I wanna be able to share that with other people.”
For future high school students looking to become entrepreneurs in computer science, Damian advises they follow his example and discover their passions.
“Find something that you want to do that you love and you are passionate about and build that… Because if you like it, you can probably find a hundred million people that [like] the same thing, too. But you have to be passionate… It has to be something that’s true to you and resembles you… And that’s what investors look at. They don’t ever invest in a company. They invest in you as a person.”
Damian’s journey is a powerful reminder to high school computer science students that passion and creativity are just as powerful as the ability to solve algebraic equations. You don’t necessarily have to follow a traditional path to get your foot in the door in this industry.