All I Want for Christmas Is an IT Job

Svetoslav Vassilev, web developerCan a single event change your life completely? Can you remake yourself just because you were at the right place at the right time? Svetoslav Vassilev, who was a school janitor three years ago and now works as a website developer, believes that’s exactly what happened to him. He credits a chance encounter three years ago with giving him a new lease on life—one that allowed him to pursue his dreams and grow professionally in his native city of Vratsa, in Northwest Bulgaria.

One day in 2015, Emiliyan Kadiyski, an experienced developer and computer science teacher, walked into the internet café where Svetoslav worked prior to his stint as janitor. Internet cafés were popular throughout Bulgaria back when internet access was not as widespread as it is today. In economically vulnerable towns like Vratsa, to this day, they remain an important lifeline to the outside world and the only way to access a computer and a stable internet connection for many people. Emiliyan had gone into the internet café to print flyers for the free programming courses offered by Vratsa Software Community, the nonprofit he had just founded to give people in his native Vratsa access to quality computer science education and a shot at well-paying IT careers. The flyers caught Svetoslav’s attention, so he asked Emiliyan a few questions, and by the time the latter left, Svetoslav had made up his mind to apply. 

A few weeks later, Svetoslav came out of the exam room feeling that he had failed the test. He was self-taught, and his skills were no match for the difficult math, computer science, and English-language questions on the exam. “At least I tried,” he said to himself and moved on.

Shortly thereafter, he took a job as janitor at a local school. When he had to clock in at 6:30 am, he would set his alarm clock for an hour earlier. He usually woke up hoping that time would go by fast, so that the eight hours between breakfast and a warm lunch at home, and the overall monotony of his days, wouldn’t weigh on him so much. Nowadays, the only reason he might be awake at 5:30 in the morning is developer’s fever—the excitement he feels when embarking on a new project or when he is about to complete a client’s website. He also makes enough money to eat out every day—at a time of his own choosing.

When did things start picking up for Svetoslav?

Not only did he not fail Vratsa Software’s entrance exam, but he also passed with a very good grade for a sports school graduate (academic performance is not a priority at sports schools in Bulgaria). Although he attributes the dramatic change in his life to his encounter with Emiliyan, an early interest in computers, his desire to prove himself, and his ability to work hard played just as important a role. As a child, he worked hard to become good at soccer and music, his two great passions. He joined the school choir in the first grade. In middle school, he transferred to Vratsa’s music institute, where he started playing the drums. After eighth grade, he enrolled in the local sports high school to pursue his soccer ambitions.

Although he played in half the games, sports career opportunities were (and are) limited in small towns. The family’s budget for education had been depleted by that time, and so were Svetoslav’s chances of continuing his formal education. His passion for computers—encouraged only by a supportive uncle, who gave him his first computer and a programming book for beginners—faded into the background.

Svetoslav and a colleague at software firm InveitixBy the time he turned 25, Svetoslav had worked as a waiter, a worker at the chocolate factory in nearby Svoge, an internet café clerk, and a janitor. He continued working full-time throughout the nine-month programming course at Vratsa Software, so things didn’t go smoothly at first. As he worked different shifts, he had to change class sessions, which weren’t always taught at the same pace. Sometimes, he would be ahead of the class, and sometimes he’d fall behind. Exhaustion caught up with him, especially when the covered topics became more demanding, and the homework assignments more time-consuming.

The challenges did not put him off: instead, they stimulated his thirst for knowledge and desire to do better. Five months into the course, he started competing. His team came in third in his first competition, a regional hackathon, for creating a website for the City of Vratsa showing parking space availability in real time. The Catering from Grandma website—an online food shop selling traditional dishes prepared by elderly people—earned him and his teammates first place in the next hackathon. “I love the adrenaline rush of having limited time to give a project everything I’ve got,” he says.

Fewer than half of those who started the software course with Svetoslav completed it. Although he was in the graduating minority, he still didn’t feel confident enough to go into programming full-time. To gain more experience, he worked on software projects in the evening after his shift at the school (among them was the creation of a digital archive for Hristo Botev Regional Library in Vratsa). In January 2017, he joined software company Inveitix, which is staffed almost entirely by Vratsa Software graduates. Inveitix develops websites, games, and applications for clients in education, businesses, and nonprofits.

In addition to helping his parents renovate the family apartment, Svetoslav invests most of his income in education—in his own, by taking additional courses, and in that of his younger brother, whose university tuition he’s paying. He remains active in Vratsa Software initiatives as well. In addition to developing a learning management platform where students can upload and receive feedback on their projects, he plans to help out by mentoring students in the future.

His wish for himself? “This Christmas, I know more things than I did last Christmas. Next year, I want to have more knowledge than I do now.”

We hope his wish comes true!

The America for Bulgaria Foundation has supported Vratsa Software Community since 2017.

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