Austin Grandt is a Software Developer based in the Midwest. He works as a programmer in the education sector while making projects like Financial Toolbelt, which provides easy to use tools to make understanding and improving your finances simple. Austin is a great example of someone who has become a developer despite doing something completely different at university. He even gets to work remotely and travel as a digital nomad around the world. In this interview Austin shares his story of getting into coding, changing career, getting hired and his tips for indie hackers.
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
My name is Austin and I am currently developer living in the Midwest, USA. I've been doing stuff with tech for a long time, but I actually went to college for Global Studies with a focus in international economics. I am currently working at a university where I mostly work on educational apps. I also have a side project called Financial Toolbelt that has tools and resources to help people learn more about how they can reach financial independence.
Can you tell us what an average day is like for you at your university job? What problems do you solve with code?
I am one of the lucky ones where my day primarily consists of heads down development. We try to keep meetings to a minimum and I really appreciate that. Normally I come in with an idea of either something I didn't finish the day before or I take a look at our git issues (how we track new features) to see what I should work on next. We try to plan specific tasks to finish within two week sprints to make sure things keep moving along.
The apps I work on are mostly centered around helping educators in schools. It is a pretty wide range but we try to focus on helping educators help their students in the best way possible. Basically I help them track data, provide analytics, and amplify the work they are already doing.
If you don’t have a CS degree, how did you learn coding?
As I said before I've been messing around with tech things for a long time, but I definitely do not have a CS degree. My dad growing up helped me put up a website when I was really young. It was basically me putting pictures of Tony Hawk and other skateboarders on it. I was obsessed with the visit counter (am I dating myself?) and thought it was so cool to see the visit count tick up. That initial introduction to the web got me interested in tech. When I was in high school I helped my mom build a site called Loving2Learn that we scaled to pretty high numbers.
Directly out of school is when I started taking programming more seriously. I started working on my own startup, Export Abroad, about 6 months out of college and realized I needed to get better at development. I didn't have the skills I needed to be able to build the software that I had in my mind.
I am a huge fan of Treehouse. I personally am a visual learner and it was one of the only tutorial resources that really stuck with me. I started with the front end track and then moved more into some of their Python resources. I was also really lucky at the time to have a patient co-founder who would help me learn the backend heavy languages.
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How did you get your first programming job?
Outside of my own startup, my first programming job was doing some WordPress work through a contracting firm. I am a huge fan of contracting firms, especially when just starting out. The jobs aren't always glamorous, but getting the first gig is the biggest hurdle in my opinion. Not to say the job hunt gets easier, but it is especially difficult at the beginning. Contracting firms are incentivized to get you a job and some will even help you craft your resume and put opportunities in front of you. I suggest to not shy away from reaching out to some if you are struggling with getting your first gig.
Did you have any specific people that inspired you to learn coding?
I would definitely say my dad inspired me to stay involved with tech. I could tell as a kid he really loved his job working with computers and he kept me interested in learning new things about computers.
How has your life improved since becoming a professional programmer?
My life has definitely changed for the better. I think my life is on a much different path than I originally was on right out of college. Before doing my startup I thought I wanted to go into hedge funds and investing. Right out of college I was going to all these networking events, reading books about hedge funds, etc.
Looking back it's pretty funny because I know that the lifestyle those jobs tend to bring just really aren't for me. I really enjoy the flexibility and job opportunities that programming has given me.
Do you think a CS degree is unnecessary now?
No one has ever asked me for my CS specific credentials, but I have been asked to prove that I have a degree in general. I think these types of qualifications are becoming less important. Having the experience is ultimately what matters, which is why it is so important just landing that first job.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn coding?
Have a project you want to hack on. Something like a personal site or a little idea you wished existed. Having a real project to troubleshoot and build is the best teacher. You're going to Google all the time (we all do it) and Stack Overflow is going to become your best friend.
I would often do a Treehouse tutorial that seemed to answer something I wanted to build, then go try to apply it to my site directly after. I think this helped the information I was learning stick.
Have you ever had imposter syndrome and if so, how have you dealt with it?
Yeah most definitely, particularly at coding meetups. I deal with it by just knowing that everyone starts from somewhere and even the smartest people have deep knowledge in areas you don't and you have deep knowledge in areas that they don't. We all have our own specialties and just keep chasing your interests versus trying to know every minute detail about a language. The knowledge will build on itself over time.