The Apple Contractor who lived out of his van

“It wasn’t because I had to” is my reply when people ask why I lived in a minivan for nearly 1 year. My goal, to simply get out of debt and start investing for my future as soon as I can. I wasn’t in a van because my life circumstances were so bad I had to be there, rather van-dwelling offered me freedom from long-term debt and a new perspective on challenges.

In December of 2016 I was first sleeping in my 1999 Chevy Prizm and kept my belongings in a local storage unit in Mountain View, CA. At first it was fun, I am a rock climber anyways, and the climbing community’s moniker seems to be “dirtbag” for a reason. I definitely felt a bit crazy as most people would if they were to willingly leaving the comfort of a nice apartment to live out of their car. But against most of our beliefs of what freedom is or should be, choosing to live in my car gave me more freedom than I’d ever felt before, and it wasn’t from the fact that I could sleep almost anywhere anytime.

Of course freedom comes with a price tag, and yes it seemed difficult to date and invite friends over, but I was willing to compromise these things, and I found that after 6 months I truly was more satisfied even with these restrictions in place. To give some perspective, I’m living in the Bay Area where six-figure salaries can be considered “low income”, so imagine roughly half of that (not including tax deductions) and you’ll begin to see why having a job at Apple can’t even get a recent University graduate out of debt in the Bay Area.

Becoming a developer whether that’s Software QA, Software Engineering or anything in between involves a huge sacrifice of time, mental energy, and overcoming massive competitive hurdles in the interviewing and application process for top jobs, especially here in Silicon Valley. I equate our current “tech rush” to our famed California Gold Rush of 1848 for a reason. So you’ve heard about the gentrification, heard the van-dwelling stories, and quite frankly aren’t surprised that the Bay Area is well represented in the “most diverse” group according to WalletHub. So why come here, make the sacrifices, and in some cases be forced to complete frugality just to suit you or your family’s most basic needs?

Opportunities are king, and where there are jobs people will come, it’s as simple as that. I’m not saying the Bay Area doesn’t have a large turnover rate, but we do see massive amounts of demand being filled in preexisting tech gaps. I’m here because life landed me here, and the job market is ripe for opportunity. Spending the past 2 years in the bay as a contractor for Apple has been… interesting to say the least. I had very little knowledge of what being a contractor meant prior to being contracted with agencies partnered with Apple, and it seemed every year I learned heaps of new “techniques” you might say, to coping with the somewhat stark reality.

A common contractor’s life cycle might look as such: you’re contracted between as little as 3 months or long as 3 years (with your signed consent that you could be let go at any point), this comes to an end (if you’re lucky enough to had made it to the end), you go onto

unemployment (yeah that’s taxed too), and then hopefully you find another contract or get re-hired onto your previous contract before your non-existent rent control forces you to use your remaining savings.

Now I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news but it looks like I have to be. I’ve worked alongside and talked with too many highly intelligent and loving coworkers who were laid off and largely taken advantage of to not say something about this growing employment endemic. If there’s one thing this article does, it helps others coming into the Bay Area “tech rush” prepare for what they could possibly come up against.

So what am I doing about all this? Do I still live in my van? Am I almost dead due to malnutrition? Well I escaped death at the foot of my van’s bed, I do not live in my van any longer, and I’m working towards obtaining a full time job in Web Development. In a disturbing Silicon Valley-esque catch-22, once you become a contract worker, recruiters will really only see you as such, and will only reach out to you for… more contracted positions. This isn’t to say that you can’t become full time from a contract-to-hire position, but these I feel are dwindling in numbers, and severely so.

I needed to get the hell out of dodge (contracting), and the single-most formidable action I could take against this tenuous form of employment was to enroll in a bootcamp or get another degree. Bloc was my weapon of choice. It provided incredible working proof of graduate success, flexible work-at-home curriculum and prorated payment options to make for the ultimate bootcamp package.

I’m a month and half into the program and I’m already calling myself a “Web Developer”. This statement might seem a bit cheeky, but as some may know when you study many hours a week within the same topic of information you’re retention and learning is highly accelerated, similar to experiences of those that travel to Spain to “really” learn Spanish. There are no prerequisites for this Full Stack Web Development apprenticeship, no extra fees, but all the rigorous qualities of a good bootcamp packed with weekly mentorship meetings, and tons of interactive live classes to compliment their core curriculum.

But as I said earlier, this is an extremely rigorous and self-paced option which can lead to trouble if you’re not committed to putting in the hard work coupled with strict self-discipline . I overcame many sticky situations when first learning vanilla JavaScript with the help of their constantly-staffed mentor assistance portals. But before forgiving hope at each difficult problem, I was able to first give it all I had by searching for answers online, formulating ideas and writing things down on a white board for more visual clarification. Only after these preliminary steps did I then reach out to mentors for assistance if I’d already pushed 1+ hours on a single coding problem. These are the basic building blocks for keeping yourself on pace whether that’s finishing in 4 months or 1 year.

As for my days of living in a van, I’ve learned what I didn’t expect to learn, found a girl (while living in the van) I didn’t expect to propose to, and can say wholeheartedly that comfort is cancerous. A phrase my grandfather once recited to my father, and father to me. On the contrary living in discomfort forced me to find a way, it forced me to pack all I needed into a very small space… and I mean small, and left no room for mistakes when it came to locking the doors when leaving, figuring out a bathroom regime, and as always planning for the worst… a break in.

Thankfully I came up with some simple solutions that kept my car away from harm, the biggest player being that I lived in a discrete 2005 Mazda MPV minivan with tinted windows. So did it look like someone lived in this car… no because it’s not a giant Mercedes Sprinter van with stove-top smoke coming out of the roof, was there an unfathomable number of hippy stickers pasted to the back to indicate someone was living in that car… hell no, and did I ever blatantly open up the side doors, play loud music at night or get a little rowdy with invited friends over… maybe once or twice. Live life the way you want to my friends, and remember, the gentrification in this region frustrated me too, I didn’t want to have to live out of my van to pay off student debt but I did, and I hope you might be inspired to do so as well.

My reason for pursuing a career as a developer was made plain and clear to me while living within the humble constraints of my van. Challenges made me feel alive, the never-ending learning and tweaking of things to ensure peak optimization was exciting and required enormous creativity, and last but not least the freedom, with which you could do whatever you pleased was well worth the sacrifice of comfort whether in the office or in the van.

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