Under the Sun

Phoenix Coder Aaron Soto on Why Upskilling is Important

This local software coder has arrived.
This local software coder has arrived. Aaron Soto

There wasn’t anything especially lousy about carpentry, Aaron Soto said. As an industry and as a job, building things out of wood seemed okay.

“I mean, I didn’t have anything against carpentry,” he admitted last week. “It was something I liked to do, and it’s something I still do on the side. But I knew that it was a field that wasn’t going to work for me as a long-term thing.”

There was no room in carpentry, Soto said, for upskilling. He thought upskilling was essential these days if you wanted to make something of yourself.

“I didn’t know about upskilling before I started hearing about it,” was how he put it. “Alls I knew was there was no way to move up as a carpenter. As far as work went, I would always be moving from side to side.”

No one mentioned upskilling when Soto was growing up in nearby Casa Grande, just south of Phoenix. He didn’t hear about it in high school, either, nor when he joined the military and went to Army Ranger training.

But everything worked out, he believed. “I had always wanted to be a pilot. And the funny thing is that now that I’m a software developer, I’m able to afford flying lessons. So being a pilot is still on my radar, only not as a profession,” he said.

Flying for a living didn’t offer upskilling, it seemed. Neither had being an Army Ranger, though there were reasons for doing work like that.

“You’re protecting people,” Soto said of military life. “I was in a special operations unit in the Army, so I can’t really go into detail about what we did. We mostly trained for four months, had four months off, and then got deployed for four months. But anyway, when I got out I wasn’t sure what to do next.”

For a while, Soto had a job building custom RVs. But carpentry, nice as it was, had that side-to-side problem. Upskilling, which he thought of as similar to the military, saved him.

“In the Army you’ve got ranks and goals and things to work toward,” Soto said. “I wanted to get going real fast, and someone told me about coding boot camp.”

Software coding boot camp was not actually a boot camp, he was quick to explain. “Yeah, no, it’s not like a military boot camp where there’s someone standing over you screaming while you do push-ups. It’s more like you wake up, you eat breakfast, and you start coding. For like 90 hours a week.”

Soto had his sights set on a career in the software industry, where there was plenty of upskilling to be had. He learned three different programming stacks — Python, JavaScript, and C#/.NET — and very quickly landed a job as a development consultant with a local software company.

He was so sold on upskilling, he wanted to share it with others. Soto’s "publicist," a woman who he said he knew from Coding Dojo school, notified the media that he was proof that the secret to self-improvement was upskilling. He especially wanted military vets to know about this keen new career tool.

“I think, based on some of the vets I know, they would be especially glad to hear about this path to a better career,” he said.

Soto didn’t like to think what would have happened if he hadn’t heard about upskilling. “It’s not like I think people who don’t learn HTML are going to wind up bagging groceries or anything,” he said. “But finding a job that comes with a chance for advancement is super important. It helps you get focus and keep going.”

Just lately, Soto was focused on returning to civilian life.

“Even though it’s been a couple years, it’s still a transition for me,” he said. “It’s not easy going from having everything scheduled for you to being in charge of your own life. I wish there was an upskill for doing that.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela