Humans of Tech: Why learning to code was the best decision this NYU finance major could have made

Humans of Tech is a series by Horizons School of Technology that highlights the lives of people building tomorrow’s world. Our aim is to share a kaleidoscope of paths. Entrepreneurs, investors, product managers, engineers, students — we are curious about all stories.

Harris Gani: weary finance student turned virtuoso engineer

Over the last few years, Harris Gani went from not knowing what he wanted to do with his life and giving up on starting a website because he could not find anyone to build it to learning how to code and landing a competitive software engineering job at a fast growing New York startup.

Harris, who graduated from New York University as a Finance major this past December is now sharpening his new skills every day and getting paid more than most of his peers to do something he loves.

In this article, we share his story, our in-depth interview on his path so far, and his state of mind which has changed a lot.

A few key takeaways from our chat with Harris:

  1. Yes, finance pays well. But so do other jobs that you may love a whole lot more.
  2. If you focus on enjoying what you do instead of how much you make, all the rest takes care of itself. Including money.
  3. Knowing how to code gets you in the door pretty much anywhere.
  4. People who can code are in such high demand that they have the luxury of choosing a company that matches their interests.
  5. It doesn’t matter whether you are a CS major. What matters is whether you can do the work and build real products. Harris embodies this.

*

Let’s go back to sophomore year when Harris interned as an investment banker. Why did he? Because like many, he saw that finance internships were popular and desirable among his peers and he wasn’t quite sure what else he wanted to do, or could do.

As was the case for many of his friends, finance was not for Harris. He found the work to be boring and unsatisfying. He had wanted to like it, but just didn’t.

That Spring, while interning part-time at the investment bank, Harris and a few of his friends set out to work on a social network for travelers — an idea they had after seeing friends post pictures from travelling abroad. However, none of them knew how to code. Freelancing options all seemed impractical and overly expensive. Furthermore, these options didn’t feel like they would lead to building a great product. Harris pressed pause and realized that he needed to learn how to fish for himself.

He started with Codecademy and other online coding resources, but these tools weren’t enough and Harris was unhappy with his progress. So he looked into making a more decisive dive into tech and eventually enrolled in a coding bootcamp his sophomore summer (he was interning at the bank his sophomore spring). For 3 months, he dedicated himself entirely, day in day out to becoming a real software engineer and becoming a person who could build.

While friends and peers were doing whatever they could to find internships that summer, Harris decided to play the long game and to invest in himself.

A big motivator for wanting to learn how to code honestly came from that Code.org video with Drew Houston, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. It gave me a glimpse into the real power of coding and engineering. It was like if you knew how to code, the possibilities were limitless. You could start a startup or work for cool companies, it just seemed to be the right thing for me. I just thought if I learned these real skills, I could run with whatever I wanted afterwards…

A changed man with a whole new arsenal, Harris was finally able to unpause his entrepreneurial aspirations and set off to start a new company that he could finally build himself as the co-founder and CTO. And that’s how Easely got started. At the end of the first semester of his junior year, Harris and a friend began building a marketplace for artwork. Harris was able to use his new skills to build a product that was deeply rooted in his childhood love of art and make his dream a reality.

While the Sophomore internship is viewed as a time to “get ahead,” the Junior summer is perceived as a true cornerstone time in a young person’s career. There’s a lot of pressure to get a fancy internship, beef up that resume and ideally get a return offer from a prestigious company. Instead of a junior year internship, Harris and his co-founder decided to pursue Easely full-time, recognizing an opportunity for a viable business. His team received venture capital funding and forgoed not just that summer but the next school year as well.

Easely grew to hundreds of customers and saw artists from all over the world post their artwork for sale. Eventually, it reached a plateau and Harris decided that he would be better off finishing school. Not a bad first experience for a fresh entrepreneur and engineer!

Harris breezed through his last semester, ended up graduating early and a few weeks into his job search ended up landing a job at a fast growing small New York startup (Frame.io) that makes video collaboration dead simple. As part of a small team of highly intelligent and motivated people, Harris, is now able to contribute as a engineer and as an entrepreneur who has gone through the process of acquiring customers for a marketplace for creatives.

It’s a beautiful start to a very promising career and we have no doubt that Harris will be up to quite a lot over the next decades.

It all began because he made that leap, recognized what was the most valuable skill he could pick up, and went for it despite having no experience. There’s always time to learn. Harris will keep growing over the coming decades. And as a businessperson and engineer at 22, nothing can stop him now.

*

So, Harris, where did you go to college?

NYU

What did you major in? Why?

I was a Finance major. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, so I followed friends and family. I eventually realized I really should have been CS. I was a double major in CS for a short period of time, ended up graduating early when I realized I was going to learn most things I actually needed on the job

What did you want to do when you graduated college?

Job wise I really had no idea. After taking finance classes, I realized they kinda sucked. That’s why my freshman summer, I wanted to explore something I liked. I was really into mobile games at the time and was fortunate to land a product manager internship at Zynga.

Tell me more about the Zynga Experience

The whole reason I applied to Zynga was I played a LOT of Scramble with Friends and Word with Friends. To be a part of that was really nice even though I was working on a different game. It was a great experience and environment with engaging and challenging work. The hierarchy was very flat, which made it easy to talk to anyone and get things done. There was also great mentorship and this constant emphasis on treating you as an equal and not a second class citizen.

What were some of the things you did day to day?

I would actually play the game we were making a lot, as well as our competitor games to familiarize myself with the space. I’d constantly look for ways to increase the virality of the game. I’d take all my ideas about how to improve the game, make mockups and specifications for features, and then work really closely with engineers to get those features implemented. I also asked for some excel work that summer because I hadn’t ruled out finance and got to work on a few excel models.

You did this investment banking internship too, tell us how you got into that? And it was part-time, during the school year… Very interesting.

I came to business school to do finance, and it seemed stupid to not give it an honest shot. But I didn’t want to waste the summer with the crazy hours, as a lot of my friends were miserable in those internships. So I emailed a bunch of banks and found this part-time spring internship at a boutique bank.

The first project they gave me was somewhat engaging. They had this restaurant that was expanding to new cities and I helped make an expansion plan about where they should put new locations.

After that, there was definitely a lot of grunt work. A lot of formatting presentations and monotonous work that didn’t really challenge me. One day they said get me list of all the CEO’s and CFOs of these 50 companies. That day, I was like “I need to get out of here ASAP.” This seemed to be a common experience at banks, but I just wasn’t willing to work through all of that.

Ok, so this is now into Sophomore Spring? How did you jump from this to learning to code at a coding bootcamp Sophomore Summer? Why didn’t you get an internship like everyone else!

There was actually an idea my roommates and I wanted to build. We tried to find engineers to help us, but we quickly learned that was the best way to build bad products. During my part-time work in banking I also trying to do things like Codecademy, but I was not able to learn enough to build something real like a website or an application. I heard about coding bootcamps and thought “this is fantastic. ”I could get all of the skills I really needed in a few months.

A big motivator for wanting to learn how to code honestly came from that Code.org video with Drew Houston, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. It gave me a glimpse into the real power of coding and engineering. It was like if you knew how to code, the possibilities were limitless. You could start a startup or work for cool companies, it just seemed to be the right thing for me. I just thought if I learned these real skills, I could run with whatever I wanted afterwards…

What was it like learning to code at the bootcamp?

It was very cool to see how much better you got everyday. You also get to meet other super smart people who you learn from. But it was a lot of work. Just code code code, even on the weekends. But it was not like you were ever thinking when is the day going to be over — you’re always learning. There were also times that were definitely frustrating because it was hard and new. But that’s why it’s good to learn with others and have people ready to help out.

The whole process teaches you how to learn. Once you kind of figure out how things are connected, you can start piecing it together. I was able to start picking up things on my own after just diving in.

So you spent 12 weeks learning to code, what did you do when you came back to school?

When I got back, I wanted to do something part-time and experience working with a team of engineers. I joined some former Zynga managers at their new company Swell. I got to work with designers, pms, and other engineers. And yeah, I got to push code on day 1. By this point, I only took 2 CS classes, so this was all from the bootcamp.

Ok then you started looking for summer internships right? How easy was it to find internships / jobs as a non CS major?

For me, it actually was not that bad. Almost everywhere I applied, I was getting interviews. There were a lot of big companies (Facebook, MongoDB, Venmo, Amazon, Palantir, Yelp, Foursquare) and I was getting interviews even though had not really taken CS classes. I just showed what all I had done, my projects, etc.. I did not even do OCR. I just looked on the companies’ websites and applied.

Did you feel prepared for the interviews at that point? Or was there more prep to do?

I could have done more prep work, especially for the larger companies where they ask a lot more about algorithms and data structures. These aren’t really things you deal with everyday when you are building stuff, but have to do more with analyzing space and time complexity. It’s more about brushing up on it. For smaller companies it seems you can just focus more on projects and experiences.

What was your thought process like when you decided to forgo an engineering internship to work on your own startup? Were you scared of not having something on your resume.

Well we started Easely at the end of Fall semester and were doing it part time for fun — skyping every day and night during the Spring. Around March or something, we thought it could be a viable business, but were not ready to stop interviewing. We started applying to accelerators because we saw this as the “credibility” we needed for our resumes. We thought that would be at least equivalent if not better than an internship. But in hindsight that was kind of a stupid way to think of an accelerator/why to start a business. If you think it will work, then just go all in no matter what.

What was it like learning on your own for Easely?

It started out kind of frustrating because there was a lot I didn’t know. But I knew how to learn and just enough to be dangerous. I had to try a lot of things on my own. You try and fail and quickly learn how to learn and you get good at being a self starter. You can’t just ask a peer or a boss how to do something. I really noticed this after some time.

It’s a much different type of learning than an engineering internship. At a startup you have to be really scrappy, and you will run into a lot of problems you don’t know and you have to Google and StackOverflow around to learn what you don’t know. In an engineering internship, it’s more formalized. You have peers, direct mentorship, and an established codebase. It’s just a different experience.

What / how did Easely do?

Easely is a marketplace for art. We called ourselves a Netflix for Art. Hotels, businesses, and individuals could rent and rotate art for their properties.

At first, we acquired 100s of customers and saw artists from over 30 countries post their art on our site. We pivoted to selling to businesses who were willing to pay more and were interested in upkeeping their place. This led to more art being rented even though it was fewer people renting.

Easely closes down and you decide to go and get a job as an engineer. How was your job search as a new grad, non CS major?

Easely ultimately was not growing fast enough to stay out of school. At this point, I had learned more in a year than I had ever in my life. I decided to drop my CS coursework and graduated early as a Finance major.

I knew what interviews were like from my internship interviews. I knew I needed to go brush up on some algorithms and data structures. I got that Cracking the Coding Interview book. Within a week of applying I was getting a lot interviews. 4 interviews a day sometimes. I essentially had to stop prepping algorithms and focus on researching companies and my talking points. But pretty quickly, I found a company I liked and accepted that offer the next day.

How does your story compare to friends in tech in terms of looking for jobs?

I don’t have a LOT of engineering friends given my major, but my sense is if you are smart and work hard, it’s pretty easy to pick up an offer. Whether you learn to code late or started early on, it seems it’s pretty possible if you work at it. I think my story of coming to school and following my “passions” and things I actually liked doing also really helped me. Startups and big companies all seemed to like the story. I think people really admire genuine interest and a good story.

If you were to give advice to new grads interested in tech what would you say?

I think I would try and major in CS if you are early enough. You can make it without it, but it certainly helps. I did a few classes, and they were a breeze after the bootcamp. But the more the better.

How would you have done if you did CS with no bootcamp?

Not well, because I would not know how to build an app. I could probably think really well, and write fancy algorithms but I wouldn’t be able to make an app.

How important is that to getting a job?

It’s key. There is not really a job where you just do textbook CS problems. Even if you’re CS, you’ll be good in the interviews, but you have to learn a lot on the job. I think a lot of CS majors end up picking up side projects to show they are interested.

Where are you working?

Frame.io. They, I guess “we” now, are creating video collaboration software.


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