How I got into Software Engineering

With the eve of the New Year coming up, I caught myself reminiscing about the day I decided I was going to become a Software Engineer.

It was NYE 2013, I had graduated college earlier that year in June with a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I was getting ready for a night out with friends and loved ones, and uttered these words:

I think I’m going to get into “Coding”, I heard you can make a lot of money doing that.

Before we go further, this is my story of how I went from a clueless college student to my first amazing Software gig. I hope this inspires you, and will be the starting point of my next blog series.

College

Let me show you a picture of me in college:

Not actually me, but I was in a Fraternity

Throughout my studies not once did I think about what I wanted to do after school. I carried many jobs in college, bouncing around from research positions to procurement analysis. I had a job at UCSD’s Business & Financial department, where most of the employees were in their 50–60s. There had been people working there for 50 years and just collecting pension. While working there I was like, “Damn they’re really nice to me, they like me, I haven’t really thought about working after school, maybe I can just work here for 50 years too!” So there I was, 21 years old ready to accept my fate, when suddenly my wants changed.

Entrepreneurial bug

It is said that the entrepreneurial bug is infectious and I was indeed bitten. At UCSD if you wanted to go out to bars/clubs there would be these bus companies that would meet up at a parking lot and just haul kids back and forth from the campus to downtown. Mind you, Uber was just launching its pilot program in San Diego at the time, so either you had a designated driver or you hopped on one of these buses.

I thought to myself, if only there was a website that provided a summary of all events in San Diego with Bussing schedules? With that, I set out to build a company called The NightLifers. I didn’t know how to code or design anything, so whats the most common thing to do!? Hire people in Russia! But wait! Contractors from another country? Wouldn’t that be hard to communicate with the language barrier or time difference? Of course not! I’m 21, I know fucking everything because I read tons of self help books about business. I can make this work!

*** TIP: Don’t be a know it all after reading Business books.

Spoiler, it didn’t work. Not getting your vision on the screen bothered me so much. I’d always complain to my friends, “man I wish I just did this myself, maybe I should learn!” I was more interested in partying, so I never did.

So my initial idea to be a one stop hub for party goers just didn’t work out. Especially since the entertainment industry is quite shady and there are tons of under the table deals that happen with cash. So after reading some BS book about “pivoting”, I transformed this digital site into just a calendar with events. Then I went around San Diego’s entertainment industry trying to see if I could get anyone to set me up with a dedicated Bus to dedicated night clubs. That idea actually was quite successful. Every weekend I’d have hundreds of students using my service and it was completely non technical! Fuck you contractors, I did it without ya!

Then like all good things, college came to an end. Like many of my peers, college didn’t prepare me for the real world. After 4 years of mathematics, I didn’t see a career living in the abstract. Having explored entrepreneurship, and made a lot of money for someone my age, I turned to my other major and explored the opportunities in Finance out there in San Diego. My one mission? NOT to move back in with my parents.

Mogl

My first job out of college was at a startup called Mogl.com, one of the biggest if not THE biggest startup in San Diego. I was working in the Accounting department. Yeah I know Finance vs essentially I was doing bookkeeping was not all that glamorous. Though it wasn’t the most glamorous, it was here I met a good friend of mine: Seth Sandler a really talented iOS developer. I loved working at Mogl for the people. My bosses really pushed me to be more diligent, and I could see our CEO’s passion to get the product to grow.

At Mogl we had this nice little kitchen area where I took every chance I could to talk to the engineers. Turns out engineers love snacks.

I wanted to know the answer to all the things I was curious about:

  • “Is it hard to learn to code?”
  • “Do I need to go to school and get a computer science degree?”
  • “What do you think about these coding bootcamps?”
  • “What language should I learn?”

Here are the answers I got:

  • “Is it hard to learn to code?” — No, it takes time and patience
  • “Do I need to go to school and get a computer science degree?” — No, but it helps if you want to get a good job without much effort
  • “What do you think about these coding bootcamps?” — You don’t need them, but it might help
  • “What language should I learn?” — JavaScript

With that I started looking around my network to see if anyone was taking Engineering interns. I knew nothing about coding, but I could totally learn on the job as an intern!

*** TIP: Grow your network, make friends, and have fun.

I owe 95.5% of my success to one of my earliest mentors and friend Vivek Poola. Without him none of this would have been possible. Vivek was a lead engineer at a San Diego based Web agency. He was a solo developer swamped with the constant stream of projects with short deadlines. The agency wasn’t even considering hiring interns, but Vivek plead his case and got me an offer. Also, he also tried to get me some compensation which I am forever grateful for.

I remember my conversation with Vivek. It was pretty short, “Quit Mogl, stop playing in excel, and come learn how to build some stuff”.

So there I was on NYE, on one hand an offer of $15 an hour (looking back on this ridiculous number, its hilarious) to change my career and start anew in the Software Industry and on the other to keep my life status quo.

The day I came back to Mogl from the holidays, I quit on the spot and started my job at the agency.

*** TIP: Keep in touch with people you care about

Agency Lyfe

Web Agencies are the BEST place for a noob to prosper and grow. You get a variety of different projects every week, you have the opportunity to learn new things, and you can write extremely shitty code and no one will know.

My first day on the job, I was fucking lost. Apparently Vivek had told our boss that I actually knew how to code already. Feeling the pressure, I started approaching everyday as if I was studying for a final exam.

Sink or swim really brings out the best in you. It’s in times of stress where you really can surprise yourself. This was my schedule for 9 months straight:

  • Wake up at 7am. Head to the gym.
  • Walk on the treadmill for 1 hour watching Programming lectures and talks in JavaScript.
  • Took the train to work, on the train follow as many thought leaders in JavaScript on Twitter and start tweeting questions to them.
  • Get to work at 9am, leave at 5pm. TBH, I smoked some weed when I got home
  • Learn and code from 6pm — 3am
  • Rinse and Repeat

*** TIPS: Work on Work! What does that mean? Work on your actual 9–5 work so you have more skin in the game. (Granted you are not doing BS work)

9 months straight. No breaks. I went from not knowing anything, to becoming really knowledgeable about a niche area in Software: the User Interface.

As my skills were ramping, my pay was staying the same. As my network was growing, the more I realized how little my salary was. I had friends, who honestly, weren’t as passionate as me making 3x my salary. This started to eat at me. I thought Software Engineering pays the big bucks!?

Why the hell am I getting more than half the INDUSTRY AVERAGE. Thus, unhappiness ensued. It got pretty bad. Complaining on Complaining. Every piece of advice was to get another job.

Easier said than done. This was my first engineering job, who knows if anyone else thinks I’m good. I’ve only worked on the scope of problems an agency can solve, how am I going to get a Product Development job?

Workpop

Remember those connections I was encouraging you to make? I woke up one day and saw that Seth Sandler was thinking about leaving Mogl to work for some company. He didn’t give me much info, but after our conversation I wished him good luck on his new endeavor. Months later, I found out the company was called Workpop Inc and I was in luck! AngelList said they need a front end engineer, I jumped on it.

I first talked to Seth and told him I was interested and then sent the funniest email, most unprofessional email ever to the CEO’s Reed and Chris.

Reed,
Thanks for getting back to me and nice to meet you. I’d love to talk to you anytime about myself and to find out a little more than what Seth has already told me about Workpop, MeteorJS, etc. It means a lot that he has good things to say, I look up to that guy so much. I’m free everyday for a lunch time call, or, post 3pm whenever stops giving a shit at my job.

With a fast follow up reply

Abhi,
I try to give a shit at my job all day long (but I have to since it’s my company). :-)
Adding Ben, our CTO. What’s the rest of your week like? We could probably jump on a call this afternoon at the post shitting hour if it works for you.

After getting that email I thought I completely fucked up. I thought startups were supposed to be laid back and cool. Did I ruin my chances at this job?

Thankfully Ben, the CTO, followed up with me and I got through interviews and a coding challenge to finally be invited to come in person at Workpop HQ in Venice beach at the time.

After meeting the team, I had a conversation with the two CEO’s Reed and Chris. They talked to me about their vision for the product and questioned why I hadn’t asked anything about the monetization strategy. It’s funny, looking back I didn’t care about any of that. I wanted to work somewhere with cool people, get paid a fair wage, and build some dope shit. We could have been selling anything and I would have been down.

***TIP: Be down for anything, if it fits your moral compass of course

If I got this job Workpop would be a dream come true. Building cool software to disrupt the hiring industry for the main street economy. I was in! But after I left the interview I felt like I didn’t get it!

So I moped back to San Diego and back to my day job.

I remember the day I got my offer from Workpop. I was working out with some friends, and got a call from some number. I picked it up, it was Reed and Ben offering me a job. I didn’t even ask for details, I accepted on the spot and started planning my move to Los Angeles.

*** TIP: When you’re getting your first offer for a job you really want, don’t blindly accept it like I did. I just got fucking lucky.

My first day of Workpop, I called my mom that night and told her: “Mom, I am so screwed. This job is going to be hard, and I don’t know if I’m going to make it. I have no idea what I’m doing”

So again, I had to do the same strategy:

  • Head to work at 10:30am
  • Leave work at 10pm
  • Squeeze in a few more hours to learn more.
  • Rinse and Repeat

** TIP: Burn out is real! Beware, but if you think you need to spend more time to master the craft, do it.

The Journey / Conclusion

My story is pretty unique, and I got super lucky with the cards I was dealt. But the core of being successful in your career transition would be broken down like this:

  • Find Mentorship in the industry you plan on moving to.
  • Sacrifice your ego and salary until you understand the ins and outs of the industry
  • Root yourself in the culture of that industry
  • Make connections all over with potential friends and thought leaders

And bottom line, to do this, you have to sacrifice time. To learn engineering takes hours of banging your head on your keyboard to magically have all this makes sense. Code that reads like Chinese eventually becomes an extension of your vocabulary. Concepts and ideas that don’t make sense initially will make sense overnight if you keep at it.

Engineering is a craft. You need to respect it as a trade that is ever changing. Be prepared to Form, Storm, Norm, and Perform

This was my story of how I got into the industry. Since getting my job at Workpop, I’m still here!

And we’re looking to hire! www.workpop.com/careers