Episode 03 – From Finance to Flow State Coding

This episode features a Senior Software Engineer named Rocky, who majored in finance during college and worked as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley. He originally pursued a career in finance in an effort to become more financially savvy and to learn how to make informed financial decisions to help his family. This same desire to help others eventually inspired him to pursue a career in tech. After lots of soul searching and research, he joined an intensive bootcamp called Hack Reactor and the rest is history. Since graduating Hack Reactor, he’s worked for a couple different tech companies, and is currently in between jobs looking for his next role. Tune in to hear about Rocky’s unique career path, his thoughts on The Lean Startup methodology, and some great advice on what he’s doing to prepare for his interviews and next role.


Linda: On this episode we’ll be looking at a former wealth manager turned software engineer who started his journey at an intensive boot camp. He was originally inspired to pursue a career in finance when he saw loved ones struggling financially, but it was the same desire to help others that ultimately landed him in the world of tech. I hope that his story can be reassuring to those who may be working in industries that seem to be far removed from tech and that it can spark a passion in someone. It just goes to show that resilience to make it is what it takes for anyone who wants to change the course of their career in the way that Rocky did. Anyone. in this position can totally can do so as well and so here’s Rocky.

Rocky: My name is Rocky Tang; I’ve been a software engineer for 5 years and have worked at Object Limited and Lending Club. I became a software engineer through Hack Reactor and before that I was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley.

Linda: Awesome it’s great to have you. One of the first questions I usually ask people is what first got you interested in software development and in tech, but just before we dive into that I also really wanted to know what kind of drove your decision to majoring in finance in the first place and how did that change over time? What got you into tech after that?

Rocky: My parents weren’t really good at managing their own personal money– I found this out when they lost his of money in the .com bubble and that really made an impact for me early on. That’s why I majored in finance: to learn more about stock market investments and wealth management in general. After four years of college I thought “What better way to learn them to work for a company that managed money for the richest people in Washington” you know?

Luckily I got a job at Morgan Stanley private wealth and really learned everything from basic management strategies to advanced, and I was able to bring the wealth management fundamentals my parents. When I accomplished that I ticked off that box and was looking for a next mission to accomplish. In the process of transitioning and figuring out what that was, I talked to a lot of people and did a lot of meditation and realized what I really wanted to do was make the most positive impact on the most number of people. And how I wanted to get there was through technology and technology has really become a great way to reach the masses and to help the masses.

Linda: You talked about your program called Hack Reactor… can you tell us a little bit more about the program?

Rocky: At the time that was the “Harvard of boot camps”– it was the most intense version of a coding bootcamp. It was 6 days a week 13 hours a day and at the time Hack Reactor had the leading job placement– there was something ridiculous like 98% of people have jobs within like 3 or 6 months. It seemed like really good marketing and a really good reason to join.

Linda: Were there other things/other factors that really influenced your decision to join?

Rocky: A bootcamp was a possible for me to do; it was just a matter of putting in the time and energy. Getting in was the first hurdle since Hack Reactor wasn’t a 0 to 100 program. It was 1 – 24 and the remaining there was an interview process and you have to pass the interview before they even accept it you. So I hustled hard to study for that interview because I still had a full-time job you know? I would get home, have dinner, study from like 7 till like midnight and then like wake up at 5 a.m. for my job and I would do this for multiple months.

Once I passed the interview (when I quit my job and a few months later moved to San Francisco), I just lived and breathed code for you know 3 months at Hack Reactor.

Linda: I’m really impressed with your dedication and giving it your all for something completely new. That’s really not easy. What language did you use to prepare for the Hack Reactor admissions interview and why did you pick it?Aalso how did you get good at it?

Rocky: Hack Reactor taught JavaScript because it’s versatile in the browser and also in server-side with Node JS. So my thoughts were “Hey I want to get really really good at one language first and then I’ll branch out the others” you know? I got recommended resources and I think that’s how I found Code Academy and went through that course for learning JavaScript code and then practiced how to use logic with that language through LeetCode.

Linda: OK got it! So code academy for the basics and LeetCode for practice. When you were learning to code or even during your time at Hack Reactor, did you ever feel like you needed a back-up plan in case you really ended up hating being a software developer?

Rocky: Good question and nope I did not have a back-up plan! But I took enough small steps in the beginning that I had a high degree of confidence that I would like coding. That’s why I would encourage people to take small steps in the beginning so you have a high degree of confidence of do you like coding before jumping in.

Linda: Yes that makes total sense. So what about jobs in tech that might not require coding or were you just really interested in the coding piece of it?

Rocky: I would also think about other careers in tech like product management or being a designer or being a QA tester or data data scientists… I think that would be a viable alternative if you didn’t find coding particularly fun. Looking back I could have explored a few more career options but I think I’m the type of person who wants to get my hands dirty first and understand how the machine works and so I think I was mainly focused on software engineering. One thing I’ve been thinking lately is if I want to continue on the IC (individual contributor) route and keep coding or go to the management route.

Linda: Yeah that’s a fork in the road engineers frequently come to. So what’s your current job status?

Rocky: Currently I’m in between jobs. My last job I had I was working for an early-stage pre-seed startup. Before that, I was at a public company called Lending Club. Now I’m in the “what company do I want to join next” phase.

Linda: Yeah which impacts what projects you build or work on with your current time. But since you’re job hunting now can you talk a bit about the interview process?

Rocky: First meeting is a behavioral screen where it’s the chance for the company to find out more about your story and your background; and also for you to ask questions and learn more about the company. Then it’s followed by a technical screen which is essentially a timed test where they ask you a coding challenge and you’re attempting to solve it in 45 minutes to an hour. There might be another phone screen which happened to me and then might come the offer or an on-site screen– somewhere between that actually.

Linda: Yeah that’s that’s pretty much been my experience as well and so what what are you doing right now to prepare for these interviews?

Rocky: Going through you know examples of what went well and what didn’t go so well in your previous jobs. There’s a book called Cracking the Coding Interview with questions to prepare for the behavioral side so I highly recommend checking that out. Some of the most brutal interviews were because of a challenging coding problem with the limited amount of time and so in order to prepare for that I’m sifting through different problem solving strategies to help break down problem. I’ve just seen LeetCode at various interview studying bootcamps so I’m going through right now.

Linda: I actually did one of those two recently and I think that interview prep boot camps are totally great. It almost seems like there’s a boot camp for anything nowadays but I’m curious about what has been your biggest challenge in becoming a software engineer?

Rocky: I think being a software engineer everyday you face unknown challenges on a number of problems. The most challenging part was waking up every day and not knowing what problems I was going to face you know? Having that resiliency to keep busting through and like solving problems day-by-day can take a toll on you real quick if it if you don’t enjoy it.

Linda: And with regards to these unknown problems do you think there’s anything you felt like your training was lacking or was there something that came up while working in industry that you felt really unprepared for?

Rocky: You know I didn’t expect a level of autonomy I had on the code base. As a software engineer you have a lot of stay on what the code base looks like and I used to think there was one right way to write code but quickly learned that was not true. Although there are definitely fundamentals, I might be a bit more relaxed in the way I handle my first few months in the job.

Linda: So are you saying that this autonomy scared you and that you felt like you could really mess things up?

Rocky: Yeah exactly. I was afraid that I might you know introduce like bugs and be embarrassed by this code I pushed up to production. A bug that this like rookie made or something…

Linda: Yeah that’s a good one! I’ve definitely heard of that happening before with interns or more junior developers. You know just the other day I got an email from a pretty big company where the subject line said “integration test” and the body was something like “This email template is for integration tests only” so I I really can’t say that your fear was invalid! Haha.

But you know these these challenges aside… what do you think has been your favorite part of your journey into software development so far?

Rocky: I think my favorite part is the building a product that millions of people can use. I found that very rewarding. I also love getting into a flow state when I’m coding. It happens for me when I’m like 30-45 minutes deep into coding and something just clicks inside of you and then you lose all sense of time and you’re just completely inside the code base for like 3 or 4 hours and it’s just like state of like joy and happiness. You’re just in flow and in the zone until basically when I get tired or when I’m hungry. Code for 4 hours and then I have to like eat to like refresh again but you know there’s like 3-4 hours of flow state while coding! That’s one of my favorite part of my day today.

Linda: When you’re really in a different level of focus and almost in a different world I’ve had this experience myself definitely but now I’m really wanting to know whether or not you would do anything differently if you could go back and redo your career path knowing what you know now. Is there anything you do differently?

Rocky: I would probably pursue a computer science degree in college and tinker with other projects on the side.

Linda: Do you think majoring in CS would have changed your experience with you wanting to help your parents with their finances?

Rocky: Yeah that’s a good question so I’m so it’s always hindsight is 20/20. I think I could have done both at the same time I think I could have pursue a computer science degree and help learn the basics of wealth management through outside of school– like friends in finance or other means. It was great working at Morgan Stanley wealth management. I see all the years dedicated to working at Morgan Stanley– those three years at Morgan Stanley equating to a seven-year cycle to fix that one problem. Had I known Lean Startup and Build Measure Learn methodology I would have tried to solve that problem in like a few months rather than have seven years. That would have probably saved me a lot of time and energy. I could have hired a financial adviser and then picked his brain 4 hours… or there might have been some class online to teach me wealth management instead of me dedicating 7 years into this career path to solve that one problem.

So yeah I mean that if I were to travel back in time that’s what I would do. But because I started out with the business degree, I do understand the business goals I would say more than the average engineer because of my experience and so as I am a senior software engineer now I am more easily able to combine business goals with engineering tasks. And this has actually helped me accelerate in my engineering career by really understanding what the business once and you know what drives the business goals. For example what drives more users or where revenue will go and how the engineering tasks relate directly to that. I try to bring you in useful Finance skills wherever I can to engineering. Its the idea of the best bang for your buck: what is best bang for the engineers’ time the engineers’ time is what cost the company the most money. So what they spend their time on is the most important thing for a software company.

During my last start up I was able to help decide what the product strategy would be, introduced new product ideas and ways that I think will help the user experience. How to increase the number of users, increase revenue, and the end-to-end journey of just coming out with the product idea and then putting it on an engineering path. Then, executing it and deploying it to production… it was really an accumulative skill-set from my business days to engineering days.

Linda: That makes a lot of sense. I think it’s important for engineers to be business-minded as well since it just really makes for better software product. So how much do you think you are applying these skills have contributed to your success as a software engineer?

Rocky: I think time the answer is tons. And it’s not just software engineering it’s my road in to tech, into software engineering I learned the principles of The Lean Startup. The Lean Startup is a book written by Eric Ries and it’s based off of a methodology called build, measure, learn. So what the purpose of this book is to help people test their start-up ideas in incremental small steps and gain user feedback and gain traction until it has enough momentum for you to launch the real thing. I would say almost all software companies use this methodology in like the product features where they built like an MVP to see if their users like it and then they invest more money and time and labor resources into developing that product.

Using that idea build measure learn, I honestly apply it to like every facet of my life, whether that’s like personally or relationships, or with family with friends… every time I tackle an issue I always think about that methodology.

Linda: That’s really interesting I don’t think I’ve ever heard of The Lean Startup before. So do you think you could give a specific example of how you applied it to deciding to become a dev?

Rocky: I think my small steps were first deciding on what I wanted to do and also talking to as many people as possible as a relates to your decision. This is to try to gain clarity on if this is the right for you and after all that (once I was confident and I was excited about that), I started studying code to see if that’s something I would be interested in.

Linda: So when you were talking to people who exactly did you reach out to and is there anything else that you did? What else did you do?

Rocky: I talked to other people and finance people. Talked to people in the street, I talked to my all my friends who are software engineers to figure out you know what their lives were like… to see if that’s something I wanted to pursue. And then after I decided I wanted to be a software engineer then it was like how to do it, and I researched all the coding bootcamp available talk to my friends that went to Hack Reactor. I did research to understand the differences about a boot camp.

Linda: So you kind of incrementally took steps to get closer and closer to your goal. I think that’s really cool that you started reading this book and found this concept and just readily adapted and applied it to your career. Do you have any advice for someone who just looking at jump-starting their career in tech and maybe specifically software engineering?

Rocky: Good question. So I would say noticed your deepest excitement. You know, notice where your thoughts go in your free time; notice where you feel flow when you lose track of time and moments of joy. I would say by testing in small increments. Talk to people if you’re interested in coding. Go do some free online classes; go to code academy; play with Leet Code. Build like a really easy basic website or API server. Always be curious to talk to people in roles that you would like to be in. And then after you have a high degree of confidence, it’s time to take that leap with faith and go all in!

Linda: I love this advice! I’ve heard of a lot of recent boot camp grads who started out in a completely different industry so I think your sharing your experience will be really relatable for a lot of people out there. Your story is a great inspiration and I really hope that your next role will help you maximize that joyful flow state. Thanks for your insights today!

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