An Outside Point of View

So what is it really like out there?

For a bootcamper, a career shifter, to find his place in the tremendously competitive world of software engineering, in the world’s major tech hub?

This is what our special guest talked about, when he graced us with his presence last August 3, a week before the Batch 5 students graduated.

Ricky Z. lives in San Francisco, USA and has been working as a software engineer there for about four years. He started off like many of our students now: had no background in programming, and all he had was his resolve to change careers. He has worked his way up since, and currently is at a new crossroad— going back to a startup after working for a large company.

Ricky held a 30-minute talk at the bootcamp, followed by nearly an hour of question and answer from him and the students. He told us his whole journey in this career— from what he did prior to programming, to cementing himself in the industry.

The Journey Begins

“I studied Anthropology in college,” he said. “I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to code.”

After college, he moved to San Francisco to work as a community organiser for the Red Cross. But working for a non-profit in one of the most expensive cities in the US was hard, he remarked, and he was running out of money. So one day, after a bad day at work, he decided to quit and join a study-now-pay-later bootcamp. There is huge demand and competition for engineers in San Francisco, and his bootcamp provided the gap.

App Academy was the second bootcamp to open in Silicon Valley, and the first to apply a study-now-pay later scheme. He was at the second-ever batch, and at the time they were around 30 people. There, he studied mainly Ruby on Rails among other technologies.

Ricky said he had to rent out his apartment in San Francisco because he couldn’t anymore afford to pay rent without income. He bought an air mattress and slept at the bootcamp for the whole duration of studying there— also three months.

“So I’d wake up, go to the gym at 6am, workout, and well, a huge reason for my going to the gym was that so I can take a shower,” he quipped. “Then I’d be at the computer by 8am to 12 midnight.” He added some of his fellow bootcampers did the same thing.

Ricky admitted that his initial reason to go into software engineering was because he needed the money. “It was either I make it in SF or I go back to my parents’ house, in Virginia,” he shared. “But when I joined the bootcamp, I settled into a mindset that this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” And he said, that since then, he gave his everything.

Bootcamp Experience

“Being at the bootcamp was like being in a new country, an immigrant,” he observed. “You don’t speak the same language, and you’re in a new place where you have no sense of orientation whether you do right or wrong.”

Ricky noted that some of his classmates had background in engineering, and some didn’t, but overall he still considered himself being “at the bottom of the rung”. There were many times he questioned his capabilities.

His key takeaway from this experience, he maintained, was how important it was to adjust himself to the engineering language and culture. “On one hand, it’s important to learn how to code, but on the other, you also have to learn to walk a certain walk, talk a certain talk.” He surrounded himself with everything tech-related, like reading tech news and blogs, or getting lunch with his classmates and making nerdy jokes with them. It is through these, he said, that he learned to get a sense of how engineering works.

Job Hunt

Ricky considered this experience harrowing, sharing with us how much rejection he had to face before making it.

He identified the companies he was interested in, then made a running list of the qualifications they were looking for. He stated, that for the most part, “you’ll only be aware of two to three out of the many technical skills they are looking for, and that’s completely normal.” And this is why, he told the students, that they should take it upon themselves to study more technologies outside of the bootcamp. Ricky would do small online tutorials of these new technologies, or make one project out of it, so he would be prepared when interviewers ask him about it.

He also said he sent about 15-20 applications to companies a day, and had about 4-5 interviews a week, “and a lot of them were terrible”. He was even escorted out of company premises more than once. “But you eventually learn to build a shield around yourself and you just get better.” He mentioned that he and his classmates also helped each other a lot, sharing and discussing interview questions.

He finally got into his first job, at a startup called Teespring, after they gave him a challenge to create an “Unbeatable Tic Tac Toe”, which he spent a lot of time doing.

Getting a Job and Impostor Syndrome

Another completely different journey.

Ricky said there were about six of them when the company started, with three engineers, including him. He exclaimed that his boss intimidated him then, and many times thought that “them hiring me was a mistake”.

“That’s what happens when you make a career change. You might always think you’re not good enough, that you’re a fraud, that people will think you’re not as good as you actually are, and fire you.”

Impostor syndrome is pretty common among engineers, he professed. “But this motivated me, to just ask even the most stupid questions to my manager.” 

He and his manager pair in day in and day out, where his manager mentored him on a lot of things. He commented that “a year of asking stupid questions to my mentor helped me become familiar with the tools and get the job done.” He attributes much of what he knows now to his mentor.

Teespring grew from six to 300 people, with 15 engineers, and Ricky became its senior principal engineer. “It is very rewarding to think about how I was able to take part in building projects that brought the company millions of dollars.”

Early this year, Ricky left Teespring to join a larger company, that had about 80-90 engineers. But he soon realized he preferred startups over big companies. His former mentor recruited him to join him in his new venture, which Ricky accepted.

Advice to the Bootcampers

Ricky capped off his talk with three points of advice to the bootcampers:

  1. Never be afraid to ask stupid questions. Think of it this way: In your job, if you act like you know what people are talking about, and let people think you know them, a couple months past these things you don’t know will come up again and you’d be more embarrassed to ask them.
  2. Find a mentor. Find someone you want to emulate and don’t be embarrassed to ask him or her to be your mentor. You won’t be alone in your journey. You’d be surprised by how many people would be willing to do this; many people do enjoying teaching!
  3. Avoid cargo cult programmingCopying codes without knowing how it works, and pasting them on your work, is a recipe for disaster. It is important that you understand things at a deeper level: read documentation, figure out what functions, the technology, design, and theoretical aspect of what you’re doing.

After his talk ended, questions from the students came flooding in. The whole talk ended after more than an hour. And then, that was it!

Thanks Ricky, for these insights. And shout out to our alumna, Regine, for bringing him in!