I used to write rhymes. Now, I write software.
How I went from being a hip-hop artist to a software developer
What do you want to be when you grow up?
This is the classic question that kids are asked at a young age, and it continuously reappears throughout your life. It’s also one of the first times in many peoples’ lives that we’re introduced to the notion of a dream - obviously not the sleep type.
Some kids are lucky - they know right away what they’re going to be. Their childhood is painted with opportunities of discovering more about their interest. They have a decorated history of library book rentals or some involvement in a wide range of activities that support their thing.
Eventually, these lucky ones will go to college and study in that field they knew about since childhood. They’ll graduate, and proceed to fulfill that dream.
But like many others out there, I would travel down the path, not knowing. Unlike those fortunate kids who knew their destinies early, I would resort to figuring it out along the way.
A student of the game
It’s a good time to admit that I was one of those students in high school who didn’t have a clue as to what university I was going to attend, nor did I know what I career path I wanted. While I’m at it, I might as well point out that I never did too well in school either. I was at best a B student, more accurately, a B- student.
In college, instead of hittin’ the books and focusing my attention on shaping my future, I spent most of my time devoted to rapping.
Yes, that is correct. I wanted to be a hip-hop artist.
As someone who was born and raised in the 80’s, hip-hop was in my veins and it never escaped me throughout all my years. Even after I quit my hip-hop career, it’s still within me. For example, to this very day, I still spit a few bars on my commute into the office, I still sport a tilted fitted cap, and I still keep up with the battle rap scene - it just doesn’t ever leave you… true heads know.
Writing and recording rhymes - that was all I cared about back when I should have been concentrating on my education and future career.
The backup plan
As a safety net, I did have a pretty decent resume though. After all, I had mounted up over 15 years of experience in various academic settings ranging from elementary to higher-ed. These roles included working as a Montessori teacher assistant, transitional aid for students with Autism, youth leader, and finally as a program supervisor for a literacy program.
This backup career path also satisfied an inner desire to help young students discover their calling within academia, especially because I struggled with that myself. Ultimately, if blowin’ up in hip-hop didn’t work out, at least I had this plan of rising through the ranks in whatever organization I was working for.
In my mind, time and hard-work would handle the rest :fingers-crossed:.
First came love, then came marriage…
In December of 2006, I met the love of my life - Khristine. (I can’t believe it’s been 10 years!). It happened during a time when I was purely focused on a flourishing hip-hop career. She, too, had established a successful career of her own - working as a paralegal for highly reputable law office in San Diego. My first impressions of her were that she was very intellectual, far more polished than myself, and so much fun to hang out with.
A year after we met, I proposed. Two Decembers later, we got married! Eventually, we began a family.
By the time we had our first son, I was still doing the hip-hop thing. In addition, that whole ‘rising through the ranks’ approach had only led me to being a YMCA Site Supervisor for a before-and-after school program. And while I loved the work that I did and the learning community I served, it just wasn’t enough for the fam.
Okay, I admit - I failed
The biggest problem was, my career as a hip-hop artist didn’t provide enough bread for the table. Truthfully, neither did my Supervisor role at the YMCA. Imagine being a father, a supposed provider, and bringing home a humbling $700 check, every two weeks.
We struggled. To be completely transparent, it was mostly my fault. I was embarrassed as a husband and especially as a father, to make such a modest living. They deserved better, and it used to break my heart just knowing that I just wasn’t providing for Khris and our baby.
In retrospect, that entire path and approach failed because I had never invested the time, nor did I put in the right amount of thought into what I wanted to do. I wasn’t proactively mindful of the future like I should have been.
Something had to change. Scratch that - everything had to change.
Redefining the dream
On one particular morning, after working the before-school shift at the Y, I remember turning down the music in my car, and quietly praying while exiting the 805 freeway. I searched for help and guidance, to discover a better career path for myself, which in turn, would benefit our futures.
I finished praying at the intersection of 805 and Plaza Boulevard, then asked myself:
“What field are you willing to give 110% to, for the rest of your career?”
An inner voice immediately spoke - technology.
Those 4 minutes of reflection would subsequently lead me back to school, while still working full-time. I’m not sure how, but, I went on to accelerate through another undergrad program and received a BS in Information Technology within two years.
Still, we didn’t know where I would find a decent enough job, especially since San Diego wasn’t known for being too much of a tech city. I had zero real-life experience in the field, and all I had was a shiny, new diploma.
By the time our second son was born, I was sure of a few things. I knew I wanted a role in the tech industry, and I knew that because San Diego had a very limited tech scene, we would eventually have to leave.
For the next two years, I would find myself applying to job after job in cities throughout Oregon, Washington State, and Colorado. None of them panned out. Over 60 applications, over 60 rejections. With each one, our hopes went up, and with each one, our hopes were shot down.
I recall one particular interview for an Ed-Tech specialist role at small school district in Oregon, where the interviewer asked what my thoughts were on using Dreamweaver vs writing CSS from scratch? My heart sunk as I remember admitting to the gentleman:
“I apologize, I have no idea…”
That failure cut deep; it had me soul-searching in the weeks after. I began to question if any of this was going to work out.
That all changed, however, when my wife’s good friend Peter, suggested that I attend a software development bootcamp. We had never heard of such a thing.
After about a week of research, I knew where I wanted to apply.
I am not throwin’ away my shot
I’ll never forget the days leading up to the technical interview with MakerSquare. I remember studying like crazy; I hand-wrote notes on Ruby, practiced code, recorded voice notes and listened to them on my commute to and from work. I knew deep in my heart, that this was my chance.
One of the MakerSquare founders, Shaan Shah, was the one who conducted the technical interview. On a screen-share, I had to demonstrate a fundamental grasp of certain programming concepts. For me, it was definitely a challenge.
Two weeks later, while driving home, the bright green notification flashed on my phone and it caught my eye. I quickly unlocked the phone and saw the email preview from MakerSquare’s Director of Admissions, Amanda.
I pulled over to the side of the road, opened the email, and read the subject - “Hi Randy! Take a look at the attachment. Congrats!”
Farewell familiarity, hello discovery
Leaving our family and friends behind is something we would’ve never dreamed of doing as a family. But, after learning that I was accepted into a software development camp in Austin, TX, my wife and I made the life-altering decision to take the risk, sacrifice the comforts of being at home, and move.
The transition was difficult, it was not cheap, and it didn’t happen without a ton of struggle. For once in our lives, we had no one - no family, no friends, and no help. What we did have was this great opportunity to change the trajectory of our family’s future.
On March 2nd, 2014, we left the sunny west coast and bid farewell to San Diego.
It was 28 ºF when we landed in Texas.
And if you don’t know, now you know…
Prior to applying for MakerSquare, I knew pretty much zero code. Sure, I had earned a list of badges through online code platforms, but there were many pieces of the puzzle that were missing. I didn’t have the right mental model of how all these pieces of code were supposed to fit together.
At MakerSquare, this is one of the most important things that I picked up - context, at least at a junior level. I learned to appreciate the pains extensive searching when encountering problems. Lastly, I discovered how the sharing of knowledge, through pair programming, made a world of difference trying to solve complex issues.
From the get go, I knew I had to take advantage of my time at MakerSquare. Every day, I’d wake up at 3:30 am to study, then drive into downtown at 6:00 am. I used to get there so early that at one point, the building security guard suggested I get a key to the MakerSquare offices instead of work in the lobby. Later that week, one of the co-founders gave me a set of keys.
In the end, I acquired an amazing network of developer colleagues and new friends. Every individual in our cohort went on to find successful positions within the tech industry, very quickly. Overall, it was nothing short of an amazing experience.
We made it
The job search after graduating was busier than I ever anticipated. In 5 weeks, I had applied to over 50+ companies around Austin; it seemed like every day, there’d be some sort of traction. It was such an interesting feeling to experience - the feeling of having companies interested in you because of your skills.
Less than 8 months after quitting my job at the YMCA and relocating my family to Austin, I accepted my first offer as an Associate Web Developer.
I will never forget that day.
Of course, this wouldn’t have happened without the generous help of another MakerSquare grad, Mateo Clarke. Together, we worked on a great team of devs at a full-services agency whose primary clientele were major non-profit organizations.
After about 9 months of continuously learning and applying my skills there, I had gained enough confidence in my skill-set, I was ready to test the waters again. Only this time, I had my sights set on a much bigger company.
This time it would be for one of the largest tech companies in the world.
Everyday is feeling like Friday
Back when we first met, my wife introduced me to a song by John Legend entitled Live it Up. In the lyrics, he illustrates a story of triumph, after years of struggle. We used to bump that song, knowing that one day… one day, we’d be able to live it up.
After accepting an offer from IBM Design, as a Front End Developer, I went and found the song on Youtube. And while everyone in the house was going about their business, I played the song on blast. I pulled my wife into the living room and began dancing with her while attempting to sing the lyrics.
“You know, we’ve been struggling for such a long time, working here and there just to get by… it’s finally time for me to get mine”
The kids laughed hysterically at the sight of seeing us having fun like that. But to be quite honest, she deserved that moment. We all did.
Looking back at what just happened
Every once in a while, I’ll break out the old journal that I used to keep Ruby notes in, and I’ll return to the nostalgia of what it felt like to begin this entire journey. On the very first page, there is an initial entry that I wrote, where I promised myself, my wife, and our boys that I’d dedicate 10,000 hours to becoming a Software Developer.
Two years later, I’m happy to report that the initial sacrifices we made have paid off beautifully. For me, personally, I couldn’t be happier in my new career as a front-end developer, working in the tech industry. And for my family, we are truly blessed to be living a simple, healthy, and close-knit life.
If there’s one thing I learned over the past couple of years, it would be this: you have to welcome, embrace, and take the risks - even if that ultimately equates to only the possibility of something greater. These possibilities can be life-changing, not just for you, but for future generations that follow.
If I ruled the world… Imagine that
Last week, I had the opportunity to hop on a call and catch up with Shaan. We revisited those times where our paths intersected at MakerSquare, we exchanged updates, explored what our individual futures had in store, and we also discovered that at the core of our personal goals, we had something in common.
Shaan asked me to imagine the perfect situation for myself. We discussed what that might look like and some possible ways of how to get there. Then he asked me to imagine what I would do, once I actually reach and obtain that situation. Without hesitation, I responded:
“I’d turn around, and figure out a way to help others find it for themselves.”
Interestingly, this aligned with one of his own personal goals - to ultimately help people and inspire people to become happier. I applaud this vision and truly believe that this is a part of his calling.
Appropriately, our conversation inspired me to reflect on my own journey, and motivated me to put it out into the world. I know for a fact that there are thousands of others out on a similar paths. If my story finds you, resonates with you, or if you straight up need help with anything that I went through, reach out.
*Special shoutout and thanks to Shaan Shah for helping me shape and share this story. Now it’s your turn 😉