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The 4 guiding stars for career changers

Blackfynn software engineer Daniel Hunter wasn't always a coder. Here are the principles that took him away from the music business and into a career as a self-taught technologist.

Daniel Hunter (right) at Blackfynn's Center City office. (Courtesy photo)

Technical.ly’s Editorial Calendar explores a different topic each month. The August 2018 topic is Technologists of Color. These stories highlight the contributions of technologists and entrepreneurs of color across Technical.ly’s five markets.

As told to Roberto Torres.
There’s a huge appetite for knowing how to get from A to B.

At the beginning of it all, when I was working in the music business, I didn’t have any experience or relationships in the industry, but my thought was: How do I focus my energy and improve my economic well-being without drifting further into debt?

A lot of people from different backgrounds don’t have the resources to pay for bootcamps and they wrestle with the idea of taking on high-interest-rate loans. You see a lot of companies now offering to defer the cost of a bootcamp until a student gets a “tech” job, then they’ll take a percentage of your salary. I’m not completely against this model, but if you’re broke today, and scrape through a bootcamp to get an entry-level job at $50,000 a year, giving up a percentage of that for three years after graduation is tough, especially if you already have student debt.

(Newsflash: Not everyone comes out of a bootcamp making $80,000.)

A lot of people are interested in how to do this without paying money, and that was the whole point of the Free Code Camp Philly meetup. I’m pretty passionate about serving those who want to be in a better place. It’s important to attend events as often as possible to get comfortable in the tech community. If you’re moving from an all-black community into tech, that transition can be challenging. The more you immerse yourself before you get to the interview stage, the better off you’ll be.

After making that transition, and getting to a front-end engineer role at Blackfynn, I’m happy to share some of the guiding stars that helped along the way.

Get past the access barrier

I think getting the actual technology — having a computer to actually get up and running and setting up your local environment properly — is a huge challenge. Free Code Camp and other services have opened up that barrier because you write code in a browser where you don’t need to install any programs or deal with binary files. This reduces the barrier of entry and that’s great but you also don’t get the experience of working in a real-world environment by writing code online.

The domination of Apple and Linux in the tech community is actually a challenge when you start talking about people who just have a Chromebook. There’s a gap of the haves and the have-nots. It’s not just about money, but knowledge as well. Most people starting out have no idea they can turn their Chromebook into a Linux computer. Google is even beginning to support Linux on Chrome OS. As a beginner, this is the kind of insight you could get by attending a local meetup.

Another solution could be more training and awareness around services such as AWS Cloud9, which is arguably the best cloud-based integrated dev environment. It’s very cheap — less than $10 a month. It allows you to use a terminal and work in a more real-world environment and also integrates nicely with the array of services AWS offers. It helps reduce the barrier of entry when trying to learn the basics of cloud computing.

Long story short: You could buy a Chromebook for $200 and add $10 for the service and be in much better shape than having to spend over $1,300 for for a Macbook or struggle with an old PC.

Mentorship is key

As part of a program with edtech company Thinkful, every week I met with a mentor who had over five years of experience. The structure of those video chats was around working through the curriculum but because I got through projects quickly, I spent most of the hour hearing about things the engineer thought I needed to know in order to get a job.

For example, we focused more on critical thinking, debugging and unit testing. My mentor took me through code he wrote at work and forced me to find out how to contribute to it. There’s another level of patience that you need to have in order to contribute to a messy, real-world codebase vs. building a greenfield project.

Interview time is all about problem solving

The interview process varied pretty drastically depending upon the company. When I started trying to get interviews I spent a lot of time on coding exercises that focused on data structures and algorithms. When I interviewed at P’unk Ave, it was an eight-hour interview and I was given a set of tasks to complete.

I was able to lean on other engineers at the company but I had essentially had to figure it out. I had to build a small feature within their codebase. It wasn’t like “build a thing using any technology you want” — no, I had to use their code, and understand and build this thing inside it. I had to do it on the spot and on a deadline and present it to the whole company. And this was for an apprenticeship. That challenge was an order of magnitude greater than memorizing and recalling the steps for implementing a specific data structure or algorithm.

The key there is really strengthening your approach to solving problems and focusing on your process for breaking things down into smaller pieces. Enhancing your communication skills and being able to convey your approach to verify that you understand the problem.

It’s also about not being afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify a question.

Love overcomes failure

If you ask me how I was able to stay motivated during difficult times, a few things come to mind. The first is that I really love it: Coding is the ultimate left-right brain exercise, though it also involves more creativity than I realized. Before, I was in a very cushy job at Sony, and I had a lot of perks. But I felt my brain was rotting and wanted something more technical as well as creative.

Once I started learning, it was such a gratifying feeling to succeed after a failure. It’s like a natural high when you kill a bug or solve a tough problem. You need to be able to remind yourself that failing is very common.

In baseball, if you bat .300 you might get into the Hall of Fame even though you failed to hit the ball seven times out of 10. If you’re not comfortable with constantly being wrong and knowing that the pursuit of excellence is a lifelong journey of improving ones craft, maybe a career as a programmer isn’t for you.

When I got to P’unk Ave I really struggled. I was so frustrated and I had a severe case of imposter syndrome. It was one of the toughest stretches of the journey. Then I got past that six-month time period and started working at AuDigent, where I was the first engineer hired so I had to deliver, and that pressure was probably exactly what I needed. It brought the best out of me and I’m so thankful for that experience.


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