Meet Alex Lee, Frontend Engineer at Amazon. In this episode, we learn why Alex pivoted away from Mechanical Engineering and we follow his journey of transformation, opting to learn to code through a bootcamp over multiple law school offers. Alex also talks about his passion as a dedicated career coach and we learn more about Alex who not only excels in the realm of cutting-edge technology but also empowers others to navigate their career paths with confidence.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about the journey from a bootcamp to a FAANG with Alex Lee, front-end engineer at Amazon.
[00:00:18] AL: I went from getting paid peanuts to quitting my job, to suddenly now working at Amazon. So it definitely is like a journey. And for me, I look at the totality and go, “Wow, like this journey has been so good and I can’t wait to see what else is next.” [00:00:34] SY: Alex shares what made him pivot away from mechanical engineering, turn down multiple law school offers, and instead enroll in the Flatiron Coding Bootcamp after this.
[00:00:50] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:52] AL: Yes, thank you for having me.
[00:00:53] SY: So let’s start from the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your life growing up. Was technology, was coding a big part of your childhood?
[00:01:00] AL: So coding wasn’t a huge part of my childhood. Even in high school, I tried to avoid the computer science classes.
[00:01:06] SY: Really? Actively avoid them?
[00:01:08] AL: Actively avoid them because I really didn’t understand how to code. It was one of those things that felt like weirdly enough code to me. Right? It didn’t make sense. Yeah.
[00:01:18] SY: Yeah.
[00:01:19] AL: But at the same time, I just really enjoyed math. I really enjoyed physics. So after I graduated from high school and started going to college, I did more of the mechanical engineering route, which I didn’t know still had some coding involved with it, so I unfortunately still had to take one or two coding classes and it was very, very miserable. But funny enough, like I’m a software engineer now.
[00:01:42] SY: Yeah. Okay. So you went to school for mechanical engineering. Did you end up working in that field after you graduated?
[00:01:50] AL: I actually ended up in the semiconductor engineering field because when I graduated there really wasn’t a lot of job opportunities out there. So I just took whatever gave me the first offer and that led me down to this like niche industry. And I worked there for about three years as a process engineer, but I really found myself not enjoying the job at all. And if anything, all the excitement that I had in college learning about just new things, new concepts kind of disappeared because when you’re in like a manufacturing facility, there’s less engineering and more about like moving things from point A to point B, point B to point C, and then just getting it to the finish line. And I found myself kind of not having like a very special skillset at all besides just what was really niche in this industry.
[00:02:40] SY: Tell me a little bit more about what you did in the semiconductor field because you had the word engineer in your title, but I’m assuming it’s not coding engineering. So what kind of engineering were you doing?
[00:02:50] AL: At a high level, we basically build chips that goes into your phones, certain devices and whatnot. But as a process engineer, you kind of go through and analyze to make sure like these chips are really performing well through like trends and all of these analysis. It’s been a really long time, so I probably can’t explain it well. But In general, it was just a lot of just looking at charts and making sure things were working, but the problem was that you have to be so ingrained into that industry to actually know how to solve the problem. But I was just like a fresh-out-of-college graduate. So if there were any issues, it was just more like, “Hey, let’s just escalate this to an engineer or someone that knows this process and has worked this for like 20 years plus.” So yeah, it was just really tough to actually solve problems. And I’m a huge problem solver naturally. And the fact that I couldn’t do it was very frustrating.
[00:03:44] SY: Interesting. So what made you decide to look elsewhere, to look into coding as a career option?
[00:03:51] AL: This was a very difficult process for me during that time because I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do. I actually took the LSATs because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.
[00:04:00] SY: Oh wow!
[00:04:02] AL: Yeah.
[00:04:02] SY: That’s big.
[00:04:02] AL: It’s big and I took the LSATs, I got into a few schools.
[00:04:07] SY: Did you really?
[00:04:08] AL: I did. I applied in everything.
[00:04:09] SY: That’s so cool.
[00:04:10] AL: I was so close to going to like the University of Houston or UT of Austin. But at the same time, I just didn’t really feel too passionate about law. Maybe it was just something that made sense since I had an engineering background, maybe I could be a patent lawyer. That was my thought.
[00:04:25] SY: Right. Oh, right. That makes sense. Yeah.
[00:04:27] AL: But something just didn’t click with me and the idea of like going back to school for like two years plus just didn’t settle well with me. So I started looking into other options. And funny enough, this was back in probably like 2015. I was kind of browsing around YouTube and at that time there weren’t that many coding channels that existed except one or two. And the one that really resonated with me was this channel called The New Boston. And I would say that was like the OG of coding channels on the YouTube. And I just randomly stumbled upon it and I found myself just following along, didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I was just following along. And next thing you know, I was building like an Android app and I was just moving this green ball from one point to another, using my fingers. And I thought that was so cool. I didn’t know exactly how I did it, but the fact that I was able to do it was like amazing. And just to provide a little bit more context, when you’re working in the semiconductor industry, you’re pretty much on call 24/7. Basically, you’d be working 8 to 10 hour days, and then sometimes you might get paged in the middle of the night. You don’t really have a lot of hours to yourself, but with the little hours that I did have, I was taking his YouTube tutorials and I found myself enjoying the one to two hours of coding versus the 10 to 11 hours of work that I had to deal with. I was just like, “Why am I actually working so much if what I actually do enjoy doing is coding?” Right? So yeah, I was in a really big dilemma of like what to do next for my career.
[00:06:06] SY: And what made you decide to ultimately make the move to go into coding?
[00:06:11] AL: Right. Again, this was my own methodology or like my own reasoning to figure out why I wanted to do this was just the number of hours, right? The fact that I was so much happier spending one to two hours a day coding versus spending 8 to 10 hours at work. I just didn’t think that it made any sense to me, so I convinced myself to say, “Hey, look. If this is something that you really enjoy doing and you only get to spend one to two hours,” like, “How do we fix this?” Like, “How do you actually make this a career?” And I looked at a lot of different options. And at that time, there just wasn’t a lot of options of becoming a software engineer from scratch. So I was either going to try to read books and become a software engineer that way, or I was going to go to grad school and learn computer science. But as you know, sometimes with traditional schooling, computer science can be like very theoretical. And then I actually discovered this bootcamp experience and there were a couple of friends back in Austin that did something similar and they were able to find jobs. So I just thought, “Hey, look, let’s do a cost-benefit analysis.” If it’s only going to take me three months, but more importantly, outside of just the three months, what was more important to me was that comparing a two-year graduate school to a three-month program, like if I didn’t like coding, I could always move on to something else. So I looked at it from… [00:07:36] SY: It’s such a short time commitment. Yeah.
[00:07:37] AL: Exactly. Right? So if I didn’t like it, I could always look into something else versus like if I did two years of grad school, if I didn’t like it, then I wouldn’t have a way to get out of it. So I found this coding bootcamp in New York City called the Flatiron School, and I basically took a leap of faith. I said, “Okay, I’m going to pay the $12,000 plus. And worst-case scenario, I really don’t like it, and then I’ll try to figure something else out.” [00:08:05] SY: That’s a school that I went to as well. What was that experience like for you?
[00:08:08] AL: It was really awesome and it just happened that that cohort that I joined was the last cohort, the Dean of Admissions or like the co-founder, was teaching the class.
[00:08:16] SY: Avi.
[00:08:18] AL: Yeah, Avi. So we were the last class that he taught before he started going into more of the, I guess, dean responsibilities.
[00:08:25] SY: Yeah. He had other stuff to do. Yeah.
[00:08:27] AL: Yeah. He definitely had other stuff to do, but I think his passion was always teaching people how to code.
[00:08:33] SY: Right. So you did the Flatiron School, you did the three months. What happened when you graduated?
[00:08:39] AL: So after I graduated, it took me about a month to find a role, and specifically I found an internship. And to be honest, it wasn’t the greatest experience because Flatiron School is located in New York and New York is very, very expensive. I just gave up my last semiconductor engineering job. Even though I hated it, it still paid me a good amount, like $75,000 around a year. And then next thing you know, I took a coding bootcamp, paid $12,000, and somehow I ended up in an internship that paid me like 12 to 15 dollars an hour.
[00:09:18] SY: Oh. Yeah.
[00:09:19] AL: So it was one of those things where it’s like, “Wait...”
[00:09:21] SY: Big jump. Yeah.
[00:09:22] AL: Yeah, like big jump the other way.
[00:09:24] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:09:26] AL: To be honest, I kept asking myself did I make the right decision to get into coding, but at the same time, I wanted to get my foot in the door. So I was able to do an internship for about three months, and then right after that I joined a company called Giant Machines, which was a web agency. But funny enough, before I got my internship, I actually interviewed at that company, but I didn’t get the job and one of my classmates did. He was like a partner that I worked with on building our project. So he got the job because there was only one position available. But after three months, he reached out to me and said, “Hey, look, they obviously really loved you too, but they just didn’t have capacity for two engineers, but now they do. So do you want the role?” And so I didn’t even have to interview and I just got the job.
[00:10:12] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:10:13] AL: And that’s how I started my, yeah, full stack developer position, because I think they did really want me. It was just one of those situations where they only had a budget for one person.
[00:10:21] SY: Right. Right. So at what point did you feel like you made the right decision? You mentioned that when you’re doing the internship, there was a little bit of doubt and you’re like, “Oh, man, did I do the right thing? I’m really not getting paid very much.” When did you decide that it actually was worth it?
[00:10:38] AL: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I don’t know if I ever came to that conclusion as like, “Oh, hey, this was worth it,” but maybe my body just naturally said, “Wow, this was worth it,” because as I was developing and writing code and building really cool stuff, my excitement would always go up, right? This is something that I always wanted to do when I didn’t have time, and now I get to do it all the time, basically from morning to night if I wanted to. And I don’t think I necessarily looked at myself in the mirror and said like, “Wow, this was worth it.” But I do reminisce here and there and like I do talk to my parents, or like my fiancé about just like, “Wow, I can’t believe I went from quitting my job to getting paid peanuts to suddenly now working at like a really big company like Amazon.” So it definitely is like a journey. And for me, I don’t necessarily see a snapshot where I said, “This is awesome,” but I look at the totality and go, “Wow, this journey has been so good and I can’t wait to see what else is next.” [00:11:40] SY: Yeah, it worked out. It worked out.
[00:11:41] AL: It worked out. Yeah.
[00:11:43] SY: Yeah. Yeah. So they say that if you love something, especially as a hobby, don’t make it your job. Because when it becomes your job, it becomes all-consuming and it takes over and the requirements change, the responsibilities are different, the pressure is different, and you end up falling out of love with the hobby that you have. So I’m curious. If you loved coding in your free time, you did it in the few hours that you had in your semiconductor role, now you’re doing it full time, do you still love it as much as you used to or has it turned into just kind of a job at this point?
[00:12:17] AL: It’s a bit of both. You can’t say that I’m so passionate, my job doesn’t feel like a job because with software engineering, you could kind of work anywhere you want because every company or software needs software engineers, right? So ideally, you should be in an environment where you’re passionate about the product and then you build cool stuff for them. But that doesn’t necessarily always apply because you have to pay the bills. The reality is like you may not be able to get that one job that you really, really wanted because the technical interview was so, so tough. With that being said, I would say I still love it, honestly, but I don’t hate on people that don’t love it and just treat it like a job because to each their own. I honestly believe that. But here, I really don’t think I have a lot of huge hobbies outside of coding. Maybe I do watch like a lot of sports and stuff, but actually writing code never bothered me. The only thing that bothers me about code is when you can’t solve it. Right? That’s when you start grinding the hours and in that way if you’re still interested, you still keep going.
[00:13:23] SY: Absolutely. So tell me about that first full-time job. When you started, you went from intern to full-time role. What was that transition like?
[00:13:33] AL: It actually wasn’t too bad. The time there at Giant Machines, there was a lot of ups and downs, but the ups were very, very nice because they really emphasized a lot of pair programming, which I appreciated because a lot of new engineers that join companies, I find them kind of stuck on an island or they’re just expected to solve and figure things out, especially in this like remote work environment that people are not used to. But back in the day, when everybody had to go into the office, you had the flexibility to just tap on someone’s shoulder as someone that was not very good at coding at the time to just ask the questions. Right? And the fact that we also had pair programming just made that so much easier because you could start absorbing a lot of the knowledge and thoughts that your senior engineers are thinking about. So to me, that was a really great environment to be in and I felt like I leveled up pretty quickly.
[00:14:27] SY: Very nice. And what were you doing in that full-time role?
[00:14:31] AL: It was just a mixture of everything because it was an agency. So essentially you just kind of had to go build whatever was on the contract, right? So you build apps for, and then you just do what you can do to survive. So sometimes I was working with like a shoe company. Sometimes it was like an art company. It was just whatever contracts that company was able to get and then we would build out the features for them.
[00:14:56] SY: I feel like that’s such a great way to get exposure to so many different types of problems.
[00:15:01] AL: Yeah.
[00:15:01] SY: Right? So many different problem spaces. So many different potentially types of technologies, types of products. I feel like as a junior developer, as a first job, it feels like a really great place to just learn and really focus on being exposed to so many things. Was that your experience?
[00:15:18] AL: Yes, that’s definitely true. You just get thrown in. They always say you get thrown into the fire whenever you join a company. But I felt like I was getting thrown into multiple fires because every app felt like a different company.
[00:15:32] SY: And what was that agency work like? How long did you stay on a typical project?
[00:15:36] AL: It was usually about a couple months per project, maybe like two months per project, and then you move on to something else. Sometimes you could get off that project, do another project, and go back to the original project that you’re on.
[00:15:50] SY: And how long did you end up staying in that role?
[00:15:52] AL: I stayed about 10 months and then I found another job at a startup, worked there for about a couple of years and then moved on to my current role as a front-end engineer at Amazon.
[00:16:03] SY: So you stayed at the startup for a couple of years, you said?
[00:16:06] AL: Uh-hmm.
[00:16:07] SY: What was it like for you to grow with that Series A company?
[00:16:10] AL: It was very good. I had a lot of responsibilities. When I was at my agency, I still felt very new, and I was very new actually, and I didn’t know too much. But after about 10 months of actual good experience can have a huge impact on your next steps. So I felt like I gained a lot of confidence in myself as a software engineer. So moving from agency to the startup where I had the 10 months of experience really got me to feel more confident about my code. The type of stuff that I actually did was pretty high level in my opinion, and I would say that months or time of experience is less relevant than like what you do with that time. So one thing that I probably didn’t talk about too much is that during those 10 months, I still treated my learning like a coding bootcamp, and I don’t encourage everyone to do this. This is just kind of up to basically yourself to decide. But for me, living in New York City, I knew that if I wanted to make more money and survive, I needed to level up very, very quickly. So I basically made the conscious decision to say like, “Hey, I’m going to work the eight hours, plus I’m going to spend the extra hours to even get better.” Right? Get better so I could catch up. So by the time I got to the startup, I really felt very confident about my skill sets.
[00:17:31] SY: What did getting better look like? What were you doing? What courses were you taking to level up?
[00:18:01] SY: When you started at the startup, what made you decide that it was time to move on from the agency?
[00:18:08] AL: I just felt that I wanted to see what the next steps were. It’s really hard to put it into words, but basically I felt like I needed to go towards a different goal, and I didn’t know what that was. But once I started applying and seeing the opportunities that were out there, I just thought it made sense for me to just see what an end product could look like potentially. And that’s why I felt like maybe something was missing when you work at an agency, like you don’t really get to see the final product. So that’s kind of what my vision was at the time.
[00:18:40] SY: And did you get to see what that was like and was that what you thought and hoped it would be?
[00:18:45] AL: No, not exactly. I think there was…
[00:18:47] SY: No? Okay.
[00:18:47] AL: Yeah, because I would argue that if you have a finished product, then there’s no more use for the engineers, right? Because what else is there to build?
[00:18:55] SY: Yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah.
[00:18:56] AL: But you’re constantly building, you’re constantly iterating, like it never stops, but at least you get to see like milestones that were accomplished along the way. And I felt pretty good about that.
[00:19:08] SY: Very cool.
[00:19:24] SY: So from there, you ended up at Amazon next. How did that happen?
[00:19:28] AL: So I felt like, for me, as the company was growing, my familiarity with the code base was very, very strong in a good way and a bad way because I’ve seen this code base for almost like three and a half to four years and I wanted to see what else was out there. So I just thought it was the right time. And I really didn’t know if Amazon was going to be the actual final destination. I just knew that I needed to look for different opportunities to challenge myself. And funny enough, as I started applying, they reached out to me through like AngelList, I think it’s called Wellfound now.
[00:20:03] SY: Oh, cool. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:20:04] AL: And then I was able to talk to my recruiter and schedule something and I did a lot of preparation for it. And then, yeah, I was able to land that role.
[00:20:11] SY: What do you think it was about your profile, your background that got them interested in you?
[00:20:17] AL: I would say, and I’m going to be very honest here because I think sometimes people omit things to sound like it’s anybody can do it kind of thing. And I know that a lot of people can get roles into these things, but I think what really helped me out was having a mechanical engineering degree and have relevant software engineering experience. Because at the end of the day, like people are going to say, “You don’t need a degree to get into this industry.” And I do agree. But at the same time, I think having a degree will always help. Right? Especially if you have something in the technical field. Even if I don’t even consider my mechanical engineering degree very relevant to what I do now, I think the optics of it really helps. So the fact that I had about five years of experience as a software engineer, and then I also have this degree in mechanical engineering, they probably thought I was like a safe option to reach out to and just kind of start that conversation.
[00:21:30] AL: I think with any degree it kind of just shows you that you have the commitment to finish and get a degree no matter how hard or easy it is. But at the same time, I think in this scenario, having the word engineer is also helpful in your degree. So saying like mechanical engineering, even though engineering is very broad, like I think it still helped me to get noticed a little bit easier.
[00:21:56] SY: Got you. Okay, so I’m going to change my English degree to English engineer.
[00:22:01] AL: Exactly. Right?
[00:22:01] SY: And see what that does.
[00:22:04] AL: I think that’s the secret sauce right there.
[00:22:07] SY: That’s just add engineer to the end of whatever degree you have and you’re good to go.
[00:22:11] AL: And again, this is just my guess, I honestly don’t know why anyone would reach out to me. I think at this point now, like having a more definitive resume in software engineering is always going to be the number one thing that most recruiters look at. And then after that, it’s going to be like the other tangibles. Right? So it’s baby steps along the ways, and then as you get more and more foundation as a software engineer, a lot of the other stuff aren’t as relevant probably.
[00:22:39] SY: Got you. So it feels like it’s everyone’s dream to work at a FAANG company, right? It feels like such a prestigious thing to say that you do, to be able to do. I’m sure the pay is really nice and we always hear about the benefits and all of that. What were your expectations going into the job and how did it measure up?
[00:22:59] AL: Yeah, I was scared, to be honest. Number one, I didn’t even know if I got the job because I felt like I failed the interview. But somehow, someway… [00:23:07] SY: Oh really?
[00:23:08] AL: Yeah. I mean, usually with those types of interviews, they always say you have to be picture perfect, like you can’t make any mistakes because there’s just so many people applying. And I know myself, like I know I made a few mistakes here and there, but was it enough to say that I didn’t get the job? Or was it enough to say that I did get the job? There’s just so many questions you ask yourself and imposter syndrome kind of kicks in. But luckily, I was able to get the job. And once I started, like as much as I’ve had the experience working at a startup and working at the agency, which was about like total of like five years, there’s still a bit of like an intimidation factor when you’re going into such a big and well-known company, right? But at the same time, there was a bit of confidence on my end knowing that I built some really cool stuff during my time before. And once I joined, it just felt like I was coding again. Right? And there wasn’t anything too special about all the people that I was working with from my perspective, but one thing that really helped me out a lot during that time was I was surrounded by a lot of smart, but very nice engineers in my team. So they were very supportive of like all the questions that I asked. I also provided a lot of feedback as well. So it was just a very collaborative effort and it didn’t really feel like I was working at this huge, daunting company.
[00:24:31] SY: And how long have you been at Amazon now?
[00:24:33] AL: About two years and seven months. So almost three years now. Yeah.
[00:24:37] SY: And what’s it been like? What’s the experience been like to work at Amazon?
[00:24:40] AL: It’s been great. I definitely feel how intelligent and smart everyone is, and you can’t really force your way to pushing certain code decisions because there’s a lot of smart people that are going to push back if it doesn’t make sense to them. So you have to do a very good job of convincing a group of engineers that your design decision is actually really good. And that’s kind of what I really learned while working here is like you can’t fake it till you make it kind of style. Like if you want to build out a certain feature, you have to actually justify with tangible like evidence or like performance and all of these things. And it’s been a really eye-opener for me to like really think about my code in a more like thorough way outside of just writing code.
[00:25:29] SY: I imagine going from agency where you’re working on, kind of smaller projects you’re working for, I assume, startups and other kind of new projects than going to a startup where it’s smaller, going to the behemoth of Amazon. I mean, that must be a culture shock for you. What was it like to go to such a huge environment?
[00:25:49] AL: Yeah. I mean, Amazon still follows this like two-pizza team concept where they still try to keep it relatively small within this big, big company. Right? So I would still say that yes, even though it is daunting to like try to figure out who is who and what they work on and all of those things, you still have like a little like small tribe within your Amazon umbrella to ask questions and like, “I’m not going to talk to someone that’s not in my department.” Right? So you still stay in the scope of whatever project that you’re working on, which I think is pretty good. Occasionally, you might reach out to different teams that have like your services that are kind of connected together. But overall, I would say that it feels daunting from the outside looking in. But once you get in, there still is that cozy team environment, which I still like a lot.
[00:26:39] SY: And the two-pizza team, is that when you can feed your team with two pizzas?
[00:26:44] AL: I think, yeah. I think that’s what it is, yeah.
[00:26:46] SY: Okay.
[00:26:47] AL: Yeah.
[00:26:47] SY: How many people does that end up being? Is that like 10 people, like 8 to 10 people?
[00:26:51] AL: Yeah. So like at least in my team we have about like eight engineers-ish and like with the one manager, and then there’s like another manager with like eight to some nine engineers. And then I guess there’s like a manager on top of that manager. Right? So it’s just one of those things where you just try to keep your team relatively lean, but it also makes them like hyper-focused on what they need to accomplish.
[00:27:14] SY: Got you. So if someone is looking to break into a FAANG, looking to break into specifically Amazon, what would your number one tip for them be?
[00:27:23] AL: Yeah, outside of just doing the technical preparations, one thing that I would highly recommend, and it’s very public, is study the leadership principles. The leadership principles are just these top beliefs about how an Amazonian should be. And if you go online and you search just leadership principles, you’ll be able to find like sample questions and how would they ask you certain types of questions to like check off these types of leadership principles. So come prepared with accomplishments that you’ve done as a software engineer prior and try to fit it into one of these like leadership principles if you can. That would be my big recommendation because more often than not, people think it’s like purely technical, but if you fail on the leadership principles, then from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen, most people tend to like not pass the interview.
[00:28:14] SY: Interesting. Ha! That’s a really good tip. Okay.
[00:28:17] AL: Yeah.
[00:28:17] SY: And in terms of getting noticed by recruiters, obviously it helps to have that engineering degree on your resume if you’re able to get that. But assuming you don’t have that degree, are there other things that folks can do to get their attention to look appealing on LinkedIn or on the resume?
[00:28:34] AL: Yeah, there’s just so many things and this is something that I actually do separately outside of Amazon is try to help people level up as software engineers and/or try to help them land their first job. There’s just so much to go about doing this, but like a very simple recommendation even on the LinkedIn is making sure your header not only says your name, but also like what technologies you’re interested in or whatever technologies you know. And then generally, most people’s resumes that I look at, they don’t do enough of a job of really highlighting what they’ve accomplished, and generally they say like, “Oh, I built this app,” and then it just goes to the next line and it goes, “I built this app again.” [00:29:16] SY: Yeah.
[00:29:17] AL: It doesn’t have enough context of like what did you build and how did you build it? Like what technologies did you use? And also what was the result of that? Right? Did customers love it? Did customers hate it? How did you measure the improvement? Right? All of these little things are so important in your resume and your LinkedIn, but I think most people, especially for software engineers, because I think they just enjoy coding so much that they start to neglect all the little things that really help them stand out. That’s really good advice. Coming up next, we’ll learn more about what advice and training Alex offers through his YouTube channel, Tech Rally, and one-on-one coaching sessions after this.
[00:30:11] SY: So I know that you have a YouTube channel called Tech Rally. Tell me about this YouTube channel. What do you record about? What do you post about?
[00:30:19] AL: Yeah, so mostly I record about how to break into tech, especially because I took a pretty non-traditional route to get into software engineering where I basically quit my job and then packed my bags and moved to New York, like took a leap of faith and it kind of led to my journey here now. So I create content related to my own journey, but I also try to give relevant advice for 2023 on how to break into tech. The one thing that I will mention is like although I really enjoyed my time at Flatiron School, like Flatiron School 2015 is not the same Flatiron School experience in 2023. Right?
[00:30:57] SY: Right. Right.
[00:30:57] AL: So there is something that I have to do where like I have to do my research, like I have to understand how the markets have changed. Because if I gave the same advice that I went through in 2015, then it would do a disservice to my audience about the type of advice that I’m giving. So it’s a really great channel because it forces me to figure out the pain points of my audience. At the same time, I get to give my advice relevant to the current times.
[00:31:26] SY: That makes a lot of sense. So what made you decide to start a YouTube channel at all compared to being active on Twitter or doing LinkedIn posts or kind of other places you could create content? Why YouTube?
[00:31:38] AL: So originally, the content wasn’t meant to be this career service or like how to break into tech. There was just this funny thing on my bucket list of showing my face in front of the internet, right? I had this fear of like showing my face in front of the internet. So I just thought, “Oh, man, do I really want to do this? Do I want check this off my bucket list to see if I can actually do it?” So I just created a channel first, and then I got a camera and did all of these things. And my first couple of videos on my YouTube is just me doing tutorials because I still felt like, “Hey, I’m showing my face, but I don’t need to show my personality. I could just show them me coding.” Right? And that technically, that checks off that thing on my bucket list. So that’s why I actually started the YouTube channel. But then as you get more and more comfortable… [00:32:29] SY: Interesting. That’s cool.
[00:32:30] AL: Yeah, exactly. But then as you get more and more comfortable, you’re just kind of like, “Okay, I want to try something different. Maybe I should talk in front of a camera.” And so I did that, and oh my gosh, the first early videos are so bad because the lighting was horrible. My mic sucked. Just a lot of painful lessons in the beginning.
[00:32:50] SY: No, I completely understand. I feel like the first time we tried to create content on any platform, it’s terrible. The first time we recorded the CodeNewbie Podcast over 10 years ago, we actually had to rerecord the podcast three times because the audio kept messing up or like something went wrong. Luckily, the person we were interviewing was very gracious and let me record him three times. But yeah, it was pretty bad.
[00:33:11] AL: Yeah. You start getting better and better and better and now it’s just like a well-oiled machine.
[00:33:18] SY: So on your YouTube channel and on your Twitter, you also say that you are a career coach for software developers. Tell us about that. What does it mean to be a career coach?
[00:33:26] AL: Yeah. This is a great question and I don’t know if everyone will agree with me on this, but I think what makes a career coach more distinctive than maybe like a mentor is that a career coach has kind of skin in the game, as in they want to help you land a job or maybe they want to help you get that raise or they want to help you get that promotion, right? Depending on what your need is. But with a mentor, it’s just one of those things. Maybe you could just do like a monthly check-in, like, “How are you doing? Do you feel well?” Like, “What are you struggling with at work?” Kind of concept. But with the career coach, we go really, really in depth about like, “What are your pain points?” Like, “What are you trying to accomplish?” And I give my advice on how they can get to that next goal. Right? And generally, with my one-on-one sessions, we kind of have like a list of things that we need to do, whether it’s like homework or like resume optimizations. I actually got an email today from someone that I worked with yesterday that I told him to fix his resume doing X, Y, Z and he already sent me an email saying like, “Hey, can you review this today?” So probably after this interview, that’s what I’m going to be doing.
[00:34:35] SY: And what interested you in wanting to be a career coach?
[00:34:37] AL: Yeah, the career coach thing is something that I think I thrive working in a more one-on-one setting. And personally, I just really enjoy helping people. Right? So rather than just trying to go for this like whole breath style of like helping people, which I still do through my YouTube channel, I do occasionally want to see like how can I help specific people that are wanting this type of service, right? Because I truly believe what I provide is very beneficial and it just kind of opening the doors for them to see the light kind of thing. Long story short, I just really enjoy helping people and especially in career development and software development. So that is something that I just started as like a personal interest and then kind of built into this business.
[00:35:27] SY: And how do you feel like software engineering has changed over the years in terms of getting into the industry, breaking in, getting that first job? Because you got started in 2015, I got started in 2013, just a couple years before you, and it feels like things have just shifted so much over that time. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen today compared to the way things were when you got started?
[00:35:50] AL: Yeah, especially because of all the incidents that have been happening these past few years, I feel like the demand for tech jobs has significantly decreased. So while the supply of new software engineers is actually going pretty high, whether it’d be computer science degree majors or coding bootcamp graduates, or even self-taught software engineers, so a lot of people want to be software engineers. So it really creates like this high supply but not as much demand right now, especially in 2023. So what I was able to do in 2015 where I just go to coding bootcamp and like my bootcamp was able to kind of like build those connections for me with different companies doesn’t really exist now because coding bootcamps now, they do have a lot more students that they need to take care of. So the structure is just completely different. With that being said, it puts a lot more onus on the individual to not only learn how to code, but learn how to market yourself. And that second part is super, super important that many aspiring software engineers forget to do. Like they treat this journey like school. As in, “As long as I learn the curriculum, then I should be able to find a job.” Right? But it doesn’t really work that way. In this day and age, you really have to make sure your LinkedIn, your resume, it’s really top notch. And then on top of that, you have to kind of do additional things like go to hackathons or connect with old alumni people that maybe in the industry that you’re in. All these like little tricks and tips are super important for you to get noticed because what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to have someone take a chance on you, especially if you’re a new developer and if anything, it’s a risk, right? How do you mitigate that risk? You pretty much create as much good content about yourself than we say that, “Hey, I know I’m a risk, but at the same time, you’re going to get me for cheap. And if I show you that I’m an awesome developer, then it’s like a win-win for both of us.” So there’s just a lot more effort required on the individual to do so much more outside of just pure coding.
[00:38:05] SY: A hundred percent. Like I remember when I was doing my bootcamp, the expectation was that you would get a job within weeks. You’d graduate, you’d have like a big science fair or some type of student showcase. You’d get connected, a career fair of sorts, and then you interviewed the following weeks, and definitely within a month or two you were expected to get something, whether it was an internship, apprenticeship, or a full-time job. And these days, I’m talking to people and it’s closer to six months, sometimes a year to get that first job. And it just feels like there’s so much more work that needs to be put in, so much more of a grind that needs to happen before people are willing to give folks their first chance.
[00:38:47] AL: Yeah, and especially with social media, sometimes there is this unrealistic expectation that you should find a job within three months or four months of learning how to code, right? But I would encourage a lot of people here, I think in 2023 it’s so much harder and three months is very, very short. If you do get it, then kudos to you, but I think I agree with you, it does take about the six to nine, to twelve months. Maybe even over a year. So definitely give yourself the time to learn and just time to like do your job search correctly.
[00:39:22] SY: What are some things that you think people get wrong about the job search? You mentioned kind of these unrealistic expectations thinking it’s going to take a couple weeks or a couple months, when really it might take as long as a year. Are there any other things that you’ve seen people do wrong, either their approach or their expectations when trying to get that first job?
[00:39:41] AL: Yeah. I think one mistake that most people commonly make is doing the quick apply on LinkedIn, thinking that they’re going to get a response back. So many people are doing that, right? And there are ways around it, like you can see who the potential recruiter is. So you can find that person’s name and then send them a DM with like more context about who you are. And maybe you can even share like a personal project, all of those things. And another common mistake is like thinking that your resume isn’t going to really do much. You really need to focus on your resume because the resume’s the thing that most recruiters are going to look at. Like if you are an experienced engineer and you have like a really good work history, the resume is not as important. Right? But then if you’re someone that’s transitioning into this new industry, the resume has to really highlight your skill sets as a software developer. And sometimes if you just keep it too simple, again, like I built this using this, and that’s it, it’s just not enough of an impact. Right? So those would be my recommendations. And maybe the last recommendation I have that I heard from someone that I worked with is maybe try to find industries that you’re pretty familiar with. So the person that I talked to, her name was Vanessa. She was like a lab scientist and she ended up working at a company that helps lab scientists be more efficient. Right? So if you have the ability to like niche down, it might be worth going into that because they might take a chance on you more than someone else that doesn’t know the industry.
[00:41:11] SY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Cool. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks with some very important questions. Alex, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:41:26] AL: Yeah.
[00:41:27] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:41:30] AL: Let the work speak for itself.
[00:41:32] SY: Oh, tell me about that.
[00:41:33] AL: Yes. I mean, I think this is just in general, when you’re working at a company. You can’t just expect the work to speak for itself because. I don’t know, like back in school, as long as you do the right work, you get a letter grade, right? And you like saying, “Oh, I did well, I did bad.” But in the working industry, you really have to highlight yourself and you have to let the right people know what work you’ve accomplished. And during the review cycle, they’ll know what you’ve done already. You would be your own champion, right? Because you’ve already told your manager and hopefully your manager told your skip manager and that way everyone knows exactly what you’ve done that year.
[00:42:13] SY: Very cool. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:42:17] AL: Always run towards something than run away from something.
[00:42:20] SY: Interesting. What does that mean?
[00:42:23] AL: So generally, if something isn’t going your way, you want to leave. Right? Maybe it’s like a job that you really don’t like. Right? So your natural reaction is to find another job that you may not love, but it’s kind of running away from that job. The advice that I was given about running towards something means like you’re running towards a goal and then that’ll keep you excited about it. So I really love that advice because it felt like sometimes, rather than running away from something, it’s better to run towards something.
[00:42:55] SY: Very interesting. I really like that. That’s cool. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:43:01] AL: It was this project called Project Euler and it’s a bunch of like coding questions and it doesn’t really matter what coding language you use. It’s just basically a set list of questions. I worked on it during my coding bootcamp with two of my partners. It was really, really fun and I learned a lot building it out.
[00:43:19] SY: Very cool. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:43:24] AL: I wish I knew Git better.
[00:43:27] SY: That’s a good one. Yeah. True.
[00:43:28] AL: Yeah. Git still is very important in my software developer journey and I just feel like it’s not as discussed about in the general, like Twitter, Tech Twitter community, or even YouTube. But Git is so important because at the end of the day, you’re going to be working with other engineers and it’s important to know how to version control your code.
[00:43:49] SY: Yeah. Love that. That’s a really good one. Well, thank you again for joining us, Alex.
[00:43:53] AL: Thank you.
[00:43:56] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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