Andy Zhang had an undergraduate degree in Music Business/Management from Berklee College of Music and a law degree from the University of Chicago when he decided he wanted to become a software engineer. His story of breaking into the world of computer programming from a non-traditional background is becoming more and more common. We asked him to share his experiences, and for his advice for other professionals looking to make a similar jump.
Below, Nick Ackerman, who is a grader at HireArt, interviews Andy.
Nick: You were at law school when you decided to take your career in a different direction. Let’s start there– what was that experience like?
Andy: I went to law school with an interest in having that background as a tool and not necessarily in being a practicing lawyer. Law school was an amazing, intellectually stimulating experience. However, the timing and the bad economy pushed me to assess what my goals were, before I even graduated. I think the economy was a blessing in disguise.
N: Did you know that software engineering might be something you’d want to pursue? Or was that something that came later?
A: Software engineering was actually the first skill I ever picked up outside of riding a bike. I came to the US when I was five, and I think I learned how to code when I was maybe seven. BASIC was the first language I learned after English. It’s something I’d set aside for a while, and it took trying a lot of different things to get to find my way back . I didn’t actually get to that phase until I was studying for the bar, right after law school.
N: What were some of the phases that you went through before you got there?
A: So I started out in law school thinking that I was going to come out and work as a lawyer. Not for a big law firm, but work in-house at some entertainment or digital media company. I actually interned for a couple of them, and found I didn’t enjoy the legal role. I entertained management consulting for a while, and then considered product management at a big tech company. Even thought about investment banking for a week, but that was short lived.
I ended up doing due diligence for an angel-investing group, and watching software entrepreneurs from the sidelines is what really made me commit. I knew I had it in me to write good software.
N: What steps were you taking at this time in terms of teaching or re-teaching yourself coding?
A: I studied every night. I think this is a really important point to stress—every day, if I had any free time I would study programming. I didn’t go out and get hammered, and I didn’t spend time socializing. If I was out anywhere, it was a programming meet-up or a pair-coding session, where you learn collaboratively by trading of writing code.
N: Would you be able to guess how many hours a week you’d say you were working on coding?
A: I’d say the day work was probably 20-30 and the coding was probably 40-50. Sleep was of secondary importance.
I’m glad you asked this, because I always get this question: “Hey, how easy is it to just become a programmer?” I have to stress that if you’re using the word “easy,” you’re not doing this for the right reasons, and on that alone, you won’t succeed. It’s something that you really have to love and you have to be dedicated to, with the expectation that you won’t become a Mark Zuckerberg, even after an immeasurable amount of effort. That’s the level of heart it takes.
N: You had something of a leg up in that you were familiar a little bit with the programming, with some of the languages, since you were seven years old. What if somebody is interested in this stuff but really doesn’t have even that sort of background. Do you think it’s something you can catch up to?
A: There are loads of engineers that have a great degree from a great school and enter the job market with very little motivation. As far as they’re concerned, they have it made. They can kick back and coast. You can use this to your advantage – catch up and overtake them! As much as experience counts in this field, it’s ultimately a learning-driven field, because everything is changing, and new concepts are being continuously introduced. If you use your motivation, work ethic, and focus to your advantage, you will be pretty darn good, even if you don’t become the best.
N: To jump forward a little bit: you’ve worked hard, and you feel like you have improved your abilities and that you’re competitive. Tell us about your experience founding a start-up. Did that help you as an engineer?
A: Doing a startup is a totally different beast. For me, it became an even stronger motivation to improve my chops. In my consumer start-up, engineering was not the biggest concern, but it’s always there to slow you down. Startups rely on execution speed; increasing the number of things you try before you run out of money increases your chances of survival. A stronger engineering team means you can iterate on product that much faster, or simply spend less time building product and more time selling. All that being said, startups ultimately have a different focus, and I don’t think you’re best served learning to be an engineer by doing a startup.
N: How does your path to becoming a software engineer affect your work now?
A: I work at Livefyre, a social enga ement platform, with an engineering team that’s both traditionally and non-traditionally educated. I think we ‘non-traditionals’ add a lot of value, both because we have a different perspective, and because we’ll always feel like we have something to prove. When I first started, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my abilities. With my recent focus on learning, I feel like I can offer a lot more as either a technical CEO or CTO. I know that I can hold my own, up against kids from CMU or MIT. I know it with the utmost confidence. That’s enough to say that this journey was worthwhile, and the hard work and dedication has paid off.