Get my 7-day guide to increased energy, lower stress + foods to feel fresh!

Seattle-based writer obsessed with fitness, health, work/life balance + travel. Oh, and coffee. Always coffee.

How Learning To Code Changed My Life

It was summer of 1996 in Madison, Wisconsin when I met one of my best childhood friends. We were both attending a two-week long day camp for “gifted kids” — you know, the kind that skip math class to go to the high school next door for Algebra, the ones that  get pulled out for an hour for “advanced” english, and generally get made fun of until they get to college. Summer was one of the rare times I felt like I fit in, spending a few weeks every summer vacation surrounded by other super smarties.

That camp in the summer of 1996 was my first foray into gifted kid camps, and I instantly felt connected to almost everyone. I ended up going home after the camp one day with Katie, a girl who lived on one of the lakes in Madison. On the walk to her mom’s car, she started talking about how she was working with the local zoo to build their website, casually mentioning she also had her own website, too.

Seriously…a beach and a website? Even by gifted kids standards, this girl was cool. 

Since I naturally needed to be better than everyone else, I started prodding her about these websites. I’ve been online since the days of 14.4kbps modems and Prodigy, but I didn’t know the technology behind the message boards and chatrooms I was so keen on. When we got home Katie showed me her Geocities website, which was a wonder of glowing text, sparkling pandas and a scrolling status bar.

To say I was jealous was an understatement.

I went home that night and instantly signed up for my own Geocities website. (Unfortunately, the site has long been deleted. Long live /EnchantedForest/5665.) After a few days of playing with the WYSIWYG editor, I realized I needed to learn HTML. With very few resources for learning HTML online at the time, I finally begged my dad to take me to Barnes and Noble to buy HTML for Dummies so I could start learning how to code.

By the end of the summer, I was wireframing my site on paper a new way every week and learning how to turn my vision into a reality on GeoCities. I even dabbled in JavaScript — but mostly so that I could customize all that glowing text that was so on trend in the 90’s. (I know. Ugh.)

For the next 5 years, I coded what felt like 1001 different versions of what was essentially my blog, capturing the essence of life as a teenager. I learned photoshop and eventually moved my website to a private server, creating my first “branded” blog – Elescence. (Yeah, I don’t know what it means either.) My high school peers followed my “blog” at a distance…during my Senior year, one Sophomore even used my blog in their English class as an example of “new media”. (They had no idea.)

What I had no idea about was how much learning to code HTML was going to change my life in 2010. After graduating from college in 2006 I tried my hand in the legal field, dropping out of law school, then spending two years working on-and-off as a paralegal. After being laid off from my second firm in 2008, I went “back to school” to get my Paralegal Certification in hopes it would give me an edge in the market. To get things over with, I signed up for a 2 part Saturday seminar to get a quick 5 credits.

During the second Saturday, I made a decision that would change my life.

After not blogging during most of college, I found myself exceptionally bored during the seminar. I had my laptop and WiFi, so on a whim I decided to look up some blogs from bloggers I used to be connected with back in high school and quickly found myself going down a rabbit hole of now 20something lifestyle bloggers. It didn’t take long to convince myself I needed to start writing about my life again. Back in the day, I used a CMS called GreyMatter. I had no idea what WordPress was, but after realizing GreyMatter no longer existed, I hopped on GoDaddy, bought a domain and hosting, installed WordPress, and hacked together a custom theme.

Cliche as it sounds, starting to blog again was just like riding a bike. 

I finished my paralegal certificate the following spring, but thanks to the economy, still couldn’t find a job. I went back to waitressing to make ends meet, and kept blogging, documenting life as a smart and savvy college graduate stuck in a quarter-life rut. I was obsessed with customizing my WordPress theme, the emergence of social media, and the rising trend of “blogging”. After waitressing for almost a year, I had one exceptionally bad day, which led me to Craigslist. A company in Pioneer Square was looking for a customer service-oriented person who could essentially teach lawyers how to blog. Examples of blogging and social media use was encouraged.

Boom. I was hired 3 days later.

And that started my career in startups and social media. Without that blog I started almost 2 years prior on a whim, I would have not been offered the job — and my life would not even remotely look like it does today. Ultimately, learning to code set the trajectory for what became my career – and changed the direction of my life entirely to shape who I am today.

  • Laura Kimball

    “Even by gifted kids standards, this girl was cool.” – Good god, Kelly, this post is all sorts of awesome. First your voice and word choice; as a fellow ‘gifted’ kid, you did us all proud.

    And then there’s the fact that you just told us so many stories about your past that were woven together by this one skill. Awesome. Excellent post, Kelly.

    • Kelly Clay

      Oh, thanks Laura! And thanks for the inspiration to write more. Loving your prompts!

  • Bret Mavrich

    Very similar to my journey, except that mine ended in those obscure high school days and is only now resurfacing. Fortunately for me, most people are still deciding whether or not it’s a good idea. I, for one, know it is.

    • Kelly Clay

      It took a long time to get the validation. You’re obviously ahead of the curve — leverage your intuition and do big things :)