How He Made His Own Coding Curriculum and Got His First Job in Tech: Q & A with Lennyroy Robles

Last year, Lennyroy was working as a case manager at a non-profit. This year, he's a software engineer. Find out more about how he learned to code and landed his first job.

Feature graphic. Lennyroy Robles

This week we'll get to know Lennyroy Robles, a software engineer at IV Interactive.

Last year, Lennyroy was working as a case manager at a non-profit in Queens. It was the latest in a series of jobs that just weren't quite right for him. The work was difficult and "soul-crushing", (sounds familiar, hashtag non-profit life), and the commute from New Jersey certainly didn't help.

Lennyroy knew he had to make a change.

"Something snapped on my 28th birthday though, and with the encouragement of my friends and family, I decided to jump head first into learning code and change my career path yet again, hopefully for the last time."

So how did he do it? He considered going to a bootcamp, but decided to learn on his own using the many free and inexpensive resources available. In total, he spent just over $200 to make his career transition.

Keep reading to learn more about what courses he took, how the interview process went, and how he landed his first job.

Keziyah Lewis: Tell us a little about yourself and what you're working on.

Lennyroy Robles: My name is Lennyroy Robles, and I am a Junior Developer at a small but incredibly busy agency in Jersey City, NJ. We make websites for clients in the healthcare field, but my role as the junior developer is to learn as much as possible and fill in gaps wherever I can, on the front and back end. I’m a first-generation Latinx American - my family is from Barranquilla, Colombia, and I first wrote my first line of code on my birthday, May 4th 2017.

KL: When and why did you decide to get into tech?

LR: There are some big picture reasons I pursued tech. For a few years, I consistently followed technology news/trends, and the notion that tech was a growing field with ample career opportunities became lodged into my subconscious. If I were to make a career change, it seemed like it would be a pretty safe one to make. I also just wanted a job that would put me in a better financial position.

LR: My job at the time was somehow both overwhelming and underwhelming. I worked as a caseworker for a non profit in NYC, but my cases were all in College Point, Queens while I lived in New Jersey. The commute was absolutely brutal, and the job itself was draining and occasionally, soul crushing. It was the latest in a long line of jobs that were just *not quite* right for me, but I really wasn’t sure what to do about it. I had met a few people in tech along the way and of course, that world seemed impenetrable from the outside. Something snapped on my 28th birthday though, and with the encouragement of my friends and family, I decided to jump head first into learning code and change my career path yet again, hopefully for the last time.

KL: How did you learn to code? What programs, courses, or tutorials were most helpful to you?

LR: The very first product I used was SoloLearn, not the most robust tool at the time, but it gave me the confidence boost I needed in the first few days. After that, I dabbled with Code Academy, and various IOS apps that were all practically the same. My coding journey matches closely with a scene with a gold prospector in the Netflix movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. He finds tiny bits of gold in the water, and from there he chases it, closely monitoring his progress. My first bit of gold was finding the Learn to Code With Me podcast. Not only did they introduce me to the first few paid services I used, it also was the first resource to provide a hint of the tech community that was out there waiting for me. It made some of the fears I had about tech dissipate by giving voice to them. From there I spent a little bit of money on Skillcrush for a month, Code College with Brad Hussey, Treehouse and Lynda. I think I spent about $220 in that 4 month period. Overall, I used a wide variety of resources. The self-teaching aspect is one of the things I love the most about this industry. I would recommend the frontend masters free courses (make an account!) and then a tour of the free trials available (Treehouse, LinkedIn Premium). After that, it’s time to build build build! I would recommend these two as my “desert island links” if you really want to supercharge your coding skills: Chingu.io && Learn to Code With Me.

KL: When learning to code, some people choose to attend a formal program like a bootcamp, while others like yourself choose to learn on their own. Each option has its pros and cons. Why did you choose to learn to code on your own?

LR: I wasn’t necessarily against going to a bootcamp and even seriously considered it for a bit. Ultimately, a combination of factors informed my final decision to not attend a bootcamp including that some high profile bootcamps closed due to shady practices, the prohibitive costs of various bootcamps, and the time commitment. I instead chose to focus more on self teaching.

LR: I did consider two boot camps though, and the process of trying to get in actually taught me a lot and made my self teaching journey more disciplined. It’s just like applying for jobs you are not ready for. Once you get in the door and have the technical interview, it’s like a baptism by fire. Both of the bootcamps I applied for provided me with in person coding assessments, which were mind-blowingly stressful and cathartic.

LR: The preparation for these two interviews/assessments greatly informed my approach to self teaching.

LR: It took a while, but I eventually fell in love with doing it on my own. Crafting my own curriculum on the fly, changing it once I got my job to fit with the stack at my first position, filling entire weekends with courses and then taking two weeks off. It hardly ever feels like work for me, and my curiosity has remained high through the process as a result.

Image description: Picture of Lennyroy Robles sitting on a bench in front of a coffee shop window. He is holding an open book and looking away from the camera into the distance. Source: Lennyroy Robles.

KL: Did you have any mentors while learning to code?

LR: Sure, though never in an official capacity. There is something really special about a podcast and its audience. The podcasts Code Newbies, LTCWM, Vie en Code, and Syntax all helped me feel I was in the tech world before I actually knew any real life coders. Also, these shows provided a roadmap to new technologies and strategies, which put me on a path to success and even some mastery. Eventually, I even met Saron Yitbarek of Code Newbies at Code Land! After crossing paths, the CEOs of Codesmith, Skillcrush and Glitch, the world of tech looked a lot smaller and my goals seemed more attainable.

KL: How did you meet other learners like yourself, or others in the tech community? Were you active in online communities like #CodeNewbie, or did you attend local meetups?

LR: Yup, meetups are a critical component when learning to code. It’s very easy to become isolated in this world, so a meetup, even if a little awkward at times, can really be beneficial for learning new technical skills and working on improving soft skills. Also, connections made at these meetups might be the one connection that gives you that first opportunity!

LR: I attended the Build With Code meetup in NYC at the Codesmith offices. I also attended the free Hack Reactor weekend courses and a few more. The watershed moment was volunteering for the Code Land conference, where I meet hundreds of coders all at once! After that, my Twitter followers grew and now people actually laugh at my semi-obscure tech jokes.

KL: How did you know that you were ready to start applying for jobs?

LR: I had some friends who looked over my resume and gave me some advice on how to spruce it up. The changes I made put my coding related accomplishments in focus, and more narrowly positioned me as a real coder instead of a professional who can also code. While I was in the process of fine tuning my resume, I decided to start sending it out. By that point, I had been teaching web development to 4th graders, created my personal site, and helped collaboratively create a project with the Chingu Voyage Program. All that was reflected on my resume, so I thought “why not now”? A few weeks later after I started applying, I got my first interview and take-home assessment: a PSD comp to recreate. It was one of the most thrilling and educational failures of my life, but I think I came pretty close to completion due to sheer grit and determination. My frontend chops still had a long way to go though.

KL: What was the interview process for you like? And if you don't mind sharing, how many interviews did you go on before you found your first job?

LR: I had one take home assignment from a company called Halo Media, which was really exciting, but once I handed it in, I was swiftly (and politely) told It was not enough to move forward. After that, I had a few phone interviews. One recruiter really got me pumped, asking really specific questions about work life balance and what computer I like to use. She never got back in touch. I did loads of research on one particular startup before the screening, but then didn’t really vibe with the CEO over the phone. I started to hone my search to just paid internships and had a few in person interviews that went really well! To this day, I have never been put in front of a white board during an interview, but I prepared for one anyway. I ultimately got two paid internships at the same time and a temporary teaching job over the summer of 2018! Since I was a junior heading into my first role, all my interviews centered around my personality and willingness to learn/ be receptive to feedback. By that point, I had been eating and sleeping code, so I think all the interviewers saw that my passion & enthusiasm for the job was high. Finally, I decided on the job I have now with IV, since they made it very clear I would be full time if I stuck with it and showed growth. It was ultimately the right call.

KL: Now that you're a full time dev, what would you have done differently while interviewing?

LR: Hard to look back and say what I would have done differently, since all things I did led me to the right job, and luck had lots to do with it! The one glaring thing I would change is I fell into a pattern where I applied for dozens of jobs a week. I did scope out some great companies, especially ones that were looking for newbies. I also avoided companies that were looking for rockstars or very small ones that needed someone to contribute right away. I spent a lot of time sending resumes to companies that I shouldn’t have. I could have spent that time doing more research or even better, studying. My next job search will be a slow and more methodical process and involve real world connections and less luck-of-the-draw resume sending.

KL: Tell us a little about your job at IV Interactive. What do you work on and what technologies do you use?

LR: To put it mildly, I love my job. It’s a small company, but we work in a specific field that is growing very rapidly. There are 3 developers besides myself and we each contribute to all parts of our projects. We use Laravel, the Kirby CMS, and I’ve learned a little bit of Vue along the way. Most of my work is on the frontend using SCSS, but I’ve gotten all sorts of assignments in the last 5 months, pushing my knowledge of JS & PHP to its absolute limit and beyond. A lot of the regular day to day about being a professional developer was awesome to experience. A particular project can jump from designer to senior developer to president to project manager back to me and out again. That is where my soft skills really took center stage.

KL: You have experience teaching coding courses to youth. That must be very rewarding work. What have you gained by going from learning code to teaching code? Is teaching something you'd like to do more of in the future?

LR: I taught web development courses to students in 4th-6th grade and even some high schoolers over the summer. Both of my teaching positions took place in Harlem in NYC and my audience was almost entirely POC students. I don’t think I’ll ever have a job quite as fun and dynamic as that. Getting kids excited about computer science was a struggle, but once they were into it, I felt like I was talking about my favorite subject (coding) with my favorite people. And those kids were FUNNY and had endless energy and creativity. My start in tech will always be attached to that year I spent teaching. It infused me a with a love of coding. Working with kids is something that can really change you, for better or for worse. Luckily for me, my genius kids made this.

LR: Teaching is something that I would definitely do in the future. I hope to move into content creation for younger students learning to code in a few years.

KL: Of course, we're all still learning. You've been documenting your #100DaysOfCode on Twitter. What skills do you want to learn/improve upon, and why?

LR: I really want to contribute to my team as much as possible. They have done a great job bringing me up to speed with the tech we use in-house and are quick to hop over and answer any question I have. However, these past few months have definitely exposed some blind spots I had while I was learning. Keeping up with new tech and addressing blind spots is actually much harder when you have a regular 9 to 5 on top. I’m using the #100DaysOfCode challenge to keep myself accountable but also to have a time capsule of my learning process, so that when I make a course for newbies in the future, I can address specific pain points that I had. That being said, I need to know my JavaScript fundamentals cold, and this is my current focus with the 100 days challenge.

KL: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to become a software engineer?

LR: Take a methodical approach to your coding journey. We spend all day logically solving problems, so apply that to the unbelievably difficult task to getting your first job in tech. Ask yourself the pros and cons of doing it, examine all the problems in your way, and assess your current skills. Then, work towards knocking them out, fully knowing you will take 1 step forwards and likely two steps back. It's hard not to get bogged down in platitudes when giving advice. But as a person who went through it, I can tell you it pays to be a little optimistic and positive in this industry. Get your resume in order, clean up the LinkedIn, practice interview questions, etc. There are Lynda courses for all of these. Attend free workshops in your city or host one and teach others. Give up TV or video games for a year, read super juicy exposes on Theranos or the AirBnB story. Participate in discussions on Twitter regarding representation in tech, and even make a ugly website or two and show it to people. Listen to tech podcasts on the way to work. Immerse yourself in tech and you might find yourself with a job in it sooner than you think.

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