Failing at 4AM: One Harvard student’s journey to becoming a coder for Microsoft

Javier Cuan-Martinez (center-left) stands with his co-interns outside Microsoft in Seattle.

This piece is part of the ProMazo series “Before The Degree: Meet America’s future leaders.” It features exceptional students at universities across the country. Know someone who should be recognized? Recommend them here.

It was 4 a.m. and Javier Cuan-Martinez was still awake. The then Harvard University freshman experienced his first ever all-nighter struggling through a problem set for his computer science class. He was exhausted and confused — this class was destroyng him. And yet, it was at 4 a.m. when sleep-deprived Cuan-Martinez completed the code, and he loved that feeling of success. It was that moment when he decided to major in computer science.

A week later he got the graded problem set back. He failed the assignment.

“When I failed in that problem set I had to ask myself: ‘Is it worth it? Do I like it? Do I like it enough to keep going and keep failing?’” Cuan-Martinez said. “Just because you’re bad at something right now doesn’t mean that’s a good reason to stop it.”

It was an interesting dichotomy, Cuan-Martinez said, to realize that he loved programming and that he was not good at it — but that did not deter him. Three years later Cuan-Martinez is an incoming senior computer science major at Harvard; he is the president of Harvard Computer Society (HCS) and a software development intern at Microsoft. It seems like “failure” would not even be in his vocabulary, but it was his failures throughout college that have been his most rewarding experiences.

“Harvard teaches you to fail, and that sounds kind of harsh and a little straightforward, but that’s honestly one of the best things that it’s taught me,” Cuan-Martinez said. “It’s taught me to really focus on the learning aspect of what it means to be in college and what it means to be in school and getting an education.”

Cuan-Martinez was never originally planning on applying to Harvard; it was his mom who encouraged him to try. Born in Mexico into a half-Mexican, half-Chinese family, Cuan-Martinez immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. with his family at the age of 4. His parents are his biggest role models, and they taught him to persevere his entire life.

This hardworking mentality became crucial for Cuan-Martinez during his first year of college when he discovered the challenges of Harvard do not stop at the acceptance letter.

Cuan-Martinez did not have any computer science experience at the start of his freshman year. As a first-generation student from an immigrant family, he felt especially isolated in this experience.

“It felt like everyone around me was excelling at everything and breezing by, and I was struggling,” Cuan-Martinez said. “But it’s because of that struggle that I found a system at which to cope with failure and [learned] to fend for myself as a programmer, as a student, as a human being.”

It was in through this experience that Cuan-Martinez realized the lack of community among computer science students at Harvard. This vision for a community of programmers was his inspiration for attaining a leadership role in HCS. He is now president of the society, and is using his term to establish better membership system that unites computer science students.

But reaching this goal of group unity came with its own challenges and failures. Cuan-Martinez’s first attempt at this environment was to create small communities based on coding projects, but this strategy failed because they mainly involved solitary work.

“Programming is a very independent activity,” Cuan-Martinez said. “There are times in which people can interact with each other and provide guidance to how a problem should be solved, but at the end of the day you have to be at your computer, alone, coding up the solution.”

Cuan-Martinez ended up restructuring the club membership system to foster positive relationships between members by organizing activities outside of the projects. His original failure taught him to focus on uniting the group as a whole. He launched social events, hackathons and events to expose students to different companies.

One of these was Microsoft: a company that Cuan-Martinez has wanted to work at for years. After being rejected from every Microsoft internship his sophomore year, he was inspired to work even harder the following year.

He practiced programming as much as possible. He read the book “Cracking the Coding Interview” from cover to cover. He even scheduled his Microsoft interview as his last one, so he could “fail as much as possible with the interview process” beforehand.

The hard work paid off, and Cuan-Martinez is now working as a summer software development intern at Microsoft’s Seattle office. It takes a certain level of persistence to turn failures into such tangible success, and he seems to make it look easy.

This piece is part of ProMazo’s Student Voices platform. Check out how ProMazo is disrupting work and recruiting here.