From Fast Food Worker to Software Engineer in Less Than a Year: Q & A with Tae’lur Alexis

Tae'lur Alexis talks about what inspired her to learn to code, and how she got into the tech industry without a bootcamp or CS degree.

Tae'lur Alexis

This week, we’ll get to know Tae’lur Alexis, a software engineer at Mercutio.

In January, Tae’lur was working as a server, and by July, she was on her way to Seattle to take her first job as a developer.

I appreciate that she spoke honestly about her financial motivations for wanting a job in tech. Like Tae’lur, most of us enjoy what we do. But let’s be honest, financial security is a huge motivator for people, perhaps even more so than enjoying the job itself. People often talk about how it’s necessary to have a passion for coding, design, or tech. But if you ask me, it’s perfectly fine to not be super passionate about it, and to just want to make a decent living. We all have to eat.

Tae’lur successfully changed her career without a CS degree, and without attending a bootcamp. Instead, she chose to teach herself using online courses, spending hours after work in front of her computer learning and practicing as much as she could.

That’s one of the great things about our industry, right? Whether it’s dev, design, data science, or something else, there are so many free and affordable online resources to help people learn the skills they need to get a job.

I asked her about how she made her transition to tech, including what courses she took, and how she went about the job application process. We also talked a little about what a job in tech means to her, and how she wants to inspire others to get into the industry.

Keziyah Lewis: Tell us a little about yourself. What got you interested in tech?

Tae’lur Alexis: Well I was born and raised in San Diego, California. When my mother divorced my father when I was about 9, we ended up constantly moving to different places. So I’ve lived all over southern California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Daytona Beach, FL; and in a really small town south of Savannah, GA. I’m the first in my immediate family to graduate high school. My main interests before tech was in international human rights and foreign policy. I aspired to be a lawyer. I briefly attended college where I majored in International Relations/Political Science. Before you know it, I was a college dropout working a variety of minimum wage jobs in retail and fast food. My last job was at Boston Market, working as a server/cashier. The work was daunting. Scrubbing bathroom floors, constantly trying to appease management and taking on whatever shifts possible to make ends meet. I’ve worked at Lowe’s (loved it!), Walmart, McDonalds, Macy’s, etc. Working in customer service, you’re often treated as less than and always reminded that you’re replaceable. I just knew it wasn’t meant for me and treated it like a stepping stone towards something greater. I knew that the more in demand your skillset was, the higher your quality of life can be. One day, I was looking up in demand and marketable skills and that’s how I came across web development. My interest was solidified when I watched a documentary about Aaron Swartz, the co founder of Reddit, and my whole life changed. The way he was able to use technology to make an effort to shift the political atmosphere was everything to me. So I said to myself that when I get the time I’ll learn.

KL: When did you decide it was time to change your career, and what were your motivations? Financial security? Just wanting to do something different?

TA: To put it bluntly, I was tired of being broke and I felt like I was destined for a better life. When I started learning how to code, I fell in love with the struggles of debugging and joys of seeing the results of my work. When you acquire coding as a skill set, the possibilities are nearly endless as to what you can build. The possibility of financial stability was also a motivating factor. The 8 year old in me had all of these plans to have a career and to be able to take care of her mom and be self sufficient. I wanted to honor her. For a few years after I left college I was going through bouts of depression and was staying with a variety of people. I was struggling to a point where I was pretty much homeless and unable to do anything for myself. I knew I needed to find a good career because I desired my own peace of mind. We live in a world where you NEED to possess and utilize a marketable and in-demand skill or else you get left behind.

KL: On Twitter, you talked about how you would come home from work and spend hours doing tutorials and practicing. What was your schedule like? How long did you do this until you felt ready to apply for jobs?

TA: My schedule varied and was dependent on whatever shift I was given. Usually I would have to work between 10am-7pm; sometimes I would be able to get off earlier. So I would work and then rush home, get prepared and would dedicate at least 5 hours a day to code. I would usually stick to one course for consistency and then occasionally follow a 30 minute crash course tutorial by Traversy Media on YouTube. I don’t necessarily recommend everyone do that because it can cause burnout, but I was falling in love with creating projects and learning. I knew I was potentially working towards something that was rewarding. As to how long did I learn before I applied? I started learning back in September with Colt Steele’s course and it took me until May of this year that I truly felt able to apply for front end roles. By that time I had learned HTML, CSS, Javascript fundamentals, React, and even Wordpress and some PHP so I could open myself up to possible freelancing gigs. I won’t lie, the job seeking process was a struggle. Living in Orlando, Florida, there are not many web developer positions and they are often very conservative and unwilling to work with those who come from a non-traditional background like you and I.

KL: While learning to code, did you feel like you had to give anything up, like time with family or friends, hobbies, or anything else?

TA: Oh my gosh yes definitely! I know for a fact I sacrificed a social life because I was in a relationship at the time and they would throw parties and BBQs. I would decline the invitations to participate because I would be too focused on trying to understand functions & loops! I would stay in my room, have Family Guy or Catfish in the background and just zone out. My mother and sisters understood why I wasn’t available all of the time, and I appreciate them so much more now. I think it’s important that people cherish those who understand and support you while you’re grinding because those are the people who will always be there for you.

KL: On Twitter, you said you only spent about $15 to learn to code. What online resources & courses do you recommend, and why?

TA: I recommend Colt Steele’s Web Developer Bootcamp because he is by far, one of the best instructors you can find online. He has experience teaching in bootcamps and is translating his style and expertise to Udemy to make an even bigger impact on the world (inspires me!). He goes over web development fundamentals from the frontend to the backend and you. Earlier this year Udemy released a course by Andrei Neagoie where he also teaches web development and what separates his course from Colt’s is that he teaches you React and Redux, the most in demand Javascript frameworks today. Overall what Andrei teaches is a bit more recent and uses the latest versions of technology like Bootstrap 4, ES6/7/8 (the latest versions of Javascript) so his course is also a top recommendation. For those who are seeking to learn React, Stephen Grider’s React and Redux course is top notch, along with the official documentation tutorial. There’s a plethora of free online resources, you seriously have to google! Medium, Egghead, and YouTube became my primary resources for projects and to keep myself updated on the latest technology! I strongly recommend.

(Keziyah’s note: I’ve also taken Colt Steele’s and Stephen Grider’s courses, and I also recommend them. Traversy Media, mentioned earlier, is good too.)

KL: Once you started applying, how did you go about getting interviews? Did you do any networking? If so, what networking tips do you have?

TA: I was mass applying on all of the top job sites: Indeed, LinkedIn, Monster, etc. Twitter was instrumental in me actually getting interviews. I was tweeting my progress daily on that platform and was starting to gain some traction. In particular I had made a tweet about how the only things keeping me from a high paying job was knowledge and hard work. That tweet invited people to offer me interviews for contract work, remote positions and ultimately the job I have now.

A tweet from Tae'lur that reads: "I work so hard and code everyday because I am tired of minimum wage retail jobs. I never want to go back to that. I want to get paid and challenged to do what I love everyday. The only thing separating me from a high paying job is effort and hard work so I work towards it"

KL: Did it seem like employers were concerned about the fact that you had no degree or hadn’t gone to a bootcamp?

TA: The few interviews that I had didn’t seem to care that I didn’t have bootcamp experience or a degree. They were more so impressed with my portfolio and my passion. I was always a “cultural fit” but I do think that they were really trying to assess my technical ability and see if I can do the job.

KL: What kinds of projects were in your portfolio when you started applying for jobs?

TA: I had a WooCommerce site that was inspired by American Apparel, a real estate listings site inspired made with React, a Node/Express/MongoDB blog, and a few other landing pages I made.

KL: How many offers did you get, and why did you choose Mercutio?

TA: At the time I was interviewing with Mercutio in July, I was actively speaking and interviewing with 3 other companies. Those other companies including a remote front end role at an AI startup, a mid-level front end role with a military contracting company, and a front end software engineer role with software company based in Orlando, where I was living. I chose Mercutio because the CEO directly reached out to me. Not only that but he did his research before we even spoke. He really seemed to like my Github and was impressed with my projects. So the first interview was basically a soft chat about the company, what they value, and what they’re looking for. In the second interview, I had the chance to meet the CEO face to face on Skype. Then I met the two project managers who went over how they communicate and break down the process. Next I met two front end developers and walked them through an existing project I had. I broke down some of the React components and explained my thought process behind some of the decisions I made while creating that project. Finally, I met the front end lead and this is where I knew I really had to sell myself on being an ASSET, not a liability. So I asked him ALL of the questions I’ve ever been asked in a technical interview or phone screen. I inquired about design patterns, what framework does he like and why, what does clean code mean to you, what testing method do you use, etc.

KL: What did it feel like to get your first offer?

TA: I will never forget that day, it’s embedded in my soul. It was July 18th of this year, which marks the one year anniversary of my father’s passing. The last conversations I had with my father involved his deep desire to help me grow and soar. He wanted me to be financially independent, to have an entrepreneurial spirit and be able to break out of a poverty mindset. He was determined to see me do well and so when my CEO called me and offered me the job, I screamed. I cried. He’ll never know how much that meant to me. He explained the overwhelmingly good feedback about the quality of my code, the questions I asked the senior developer, etc. I was offered a great relocation package, competitive salary, benefits, and an opportunity to start a new life in one of the biggest tech cities in the world, Seattle. This meant the ability to have my own place, a step into one of the most competitive and rapidly growing industries ever, and the perfect start to something great.

A tweet from Tae'lur on July 18th, 2018 that reads: "It happened. Today I was offered a Front-End Developer role and I will be relocating to Seattle. Words can't express how I feel. I turned the pain that I felt losing my father into motivation. All of the doubts, the effort that I put in, I can now say I am an engineer. Wow."

KL: How is the job going? Do you feel like the online courses you took adequately prepared you?

TA: The job has been great overall I’d say. The team is small and consists of bootcamp grads and the lead developers are self taught developers from Florida which is amazing. The CEO is instrumental and resourceful. The door is always open to talk to him which I cherish. The front end lead, David, is always willing to provide feedback on how I could go about doing things better when it comes to coding and everyone has just been very nice and helpful. We work on maintaining and improving eCommerce sites for a variety of clients. I definitely will say I underestimated the importance of Git. I feel like the courses prepared me to know how to work on my own. Being self taught is such an asset because you learn what style of learning works best for you, Google becomes your best friend, and you master time management which is essential.

KL: For those interviews that didn’t end up in offers, did you get feedback? If not, what do you think was missing for the employer?

TA: Most of the time, I actually never got a response back. After my first interview for a React Native role, I was advised to get a better understanding of Javascript fundamentals. So that’s what I did. Anthony Alicea’s Understanding Javascript: The Weird Parts was really helpful. The first 3 hours of his course is available on YouTube. MDN (Mozilla Developer Network) has thorough documentation on Javascript arrays and functions, which is extremely important when preparing for technical interviews.

KL: If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently about the job application process?

TA: I’ve seen people make Excel spreadsheets where they list the employer, the job they applied to and how far in the interview process they got. I like how organized and thorough that approach is. I would have also advertised on Twitter that I was looking for a job sooner. Utilizing social media can be key. Another idea would have been to directly reach out to those companies too because even if they aren’t hiring, you can gain someone as a connection.

KL: It’s not all about the money, but for a lot of people, having a job in tech can be life changing because of the huge jump in salary. For me, it’s nice to know that I can pay off my debts and help my mom pay the rent. One day, I may get to buy her a house. From a financial perspective, what does having a job in tech mean to you?

TA: Having a job in tech allows me to think positively about finance. I’ve been investing in some really good e-books on investing and building generational wealth. I’m able to save so I can work towards the goals I have of investing in property and starting a business. I’m also able to help provide for my mother. That means everything.

KL: Do you think the tech industry is doing a good job of getting underrepresented people like us into tech? If not, do you think the industry can do differently?

TA: I would say the industry is making great strides, but that there is still an elitist attitude that needs to die. I think doing what my CEO did by being active and aware of talented developers on social media is great! It would also help if other companies revised their job descriptions in their ads to be more inclusive of those who don’t have a computer science degree or 5+ years of experience when it comes to entry-level positions.

KL: How do you hope to inspire or help others who want to do what you did?

TA: I hope to inspire others by becoming a source of support in the developer community on Twitter. Social media is the best way to get to me and I often receive messages from people who like my tweets and the fact that I’m transparent about my journey. I recently took on the opportunity to teach for Egghead and hope to utilize that platform to share what I know. Ultimately I want to inspire people to be self determined, to defy the odds and work hard. I know what it’s like to have people doubt the possibility to transition into tech and I hope that you and I can do our part to motivate people to think otherwise.

KL: What do you think is next for your career?

TA: What’s next for me in my career is really honing in my knowledge of algorithms and data structures. In fact, I’m starting another round of #100DaysOfCode to learn this and Javascript design patterns. I’ll release videos and write articles sharing what I learn to help people grasp those concepts. I’m determined to break down these barriers and help others get access to this knowledge. I definitely see myself teaching in the future.

KL: Do you have any general advice for someone who was where you were just 10 months ago, and is trying to get their first job in tech?

TA: Join and commit to the #100DaysOfCode challenge. Let it be a daily reminder to work towards your goals. Also, don’t be afraid to take a break for a day or even a week. Ask questions using the #100DaysOfCode or #codenewbies hashtags on Twitter. Develop a portfolio site with a few good projects. If you’re following a course or a tutorial, try to add your own creative spin to them so you can separate yourself from the rest. For instance, build a landing page for a fictitious company like a coffee shop or a phone. Continue your post your progress and reach out to people on Twitter. You’ll end up finding people who are resourceful and experienced and can wind up meeting your future mentor or employer! Lastly, try to remain focused on yourself and don’t compare your journey to others. I say that because I did that & I went through what I call “social media depression” where I saw others succeeding before me. Instead, turn that into motivation to do better for yourself and to aim higher than you thought you could be. Think, “I’m happy for them! If they can do that, so can I.”

Copyright 2018 Zeebra Labs, LLC | Stock Photo from WOC In Tech Chat