Randall Kanna caught my attention on Twitter by announcing to the world that you don't need a CS degree to get a job as a software engineer. Predictably this riled up some gatekeepers. Randall has a really interesting story. Having found she couldn't get a job with her Communications degree she knuckled down and learned to code in order to get profitable skills for the workplace. In this interview she gives some great advice for people wanting to learn to code and get their first job as a developer. Randall's book the Standout Developer is out now!
Hey, so can you give us a short introduction for people who want to know more about you?
Hi there! My name is Randall Kanna. I’m a senior software engineer. I work remotely and I live in the bay area. I attended the original coding bootcamp six years ago in San Francisco back when coding bootcamps were just taking off. Two weeks after I graduated from my coding bootcamp, I got a developer job. I started as an apprentice but they ended the program a month early and offered me a full time job as a software engineer. A year and a half after that, I was promoted to senior software engineer.
I’ve been lucky enough to work at some really cool companies since then such as Eventbrite and Pandora. I currently work at a small startup that’s writing software to help support executive assistants better in their jobs.
I recently published an O’Reilly book -- something I’m super excited about because this was a lifelong dream for me. More of a pipe dream really. I remember reading O’Reilly books back when I was a teenager and thinking I would have really “made it” if I was an O’Reilly author.
What does a typical day as a software developer at Base look like for you?
I’m lucky enough that I can work remotely all the time. In the morning, I have a standup on zoom three times a week with my team. The other days, we get to do a slack message with our updates. We’re a pretty low meeting team which is nice because I have more time to focus on coding. I work with some pretty nice teammates as well who are happy to always jump on a call when someone is stuck on a problem.
I’m a full-stack engineer so I’m currently using both React and Node.js to build software for executive assistants. I’ve had the opportunity to lead several projects that I’m really excited about and provide a lot of value to our users.
I mostly write code all day which is great. It was fun working at bigger companies and enjoying great perks for a while. But there’s something really special about working for a tiny startup. I’ve been able to ship a ton of new features to users quickly.
How did you learn coding? Did you do any particular courses?
At the age of 12, I was obsessed with Neopets.com. It was this virtual gaming community where users could adopt virtual pets and you could play games and have these small websites called “Guilds” with members. I created my own guild which was a fan page for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. (embarrassing, I know!) I learned basic coding skills, mostly HTML and CSS. I was obsessed and I would create a new website each week.
I didn’t think I was smart enough to become an engineer so I didn’t pursue a CS degree. But after college, I couldn’t get a job with my mass communications degree. I felt really lost because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next.
One day, my aunt sent me this article about coding bootcamps. I immediately started researching coding bootcamps. I applied to a few and finally decided to attend the original coding bootcamp, Dev Bootcamp.
But I spent six months teaching myself how to code before I even attended the coding bootcamp. I was building apps and doing coding challenges as much as I could while I worked. I printed out a graph and I would write a little “x” every day that I coded. By the time I attended the bootcamp, I had built an entire ruby on rails application. It was probably overkill but it helped me get a job two weeks after I graduated.
How did you get your first programming job at Ticketfly?
After I graduated from my coding bootcamp, I wanted to find a job fast so I could afford to keep living in San Francisco and prove to myself that it was the right decision to attend a coding bootcamp.
I had worked really hard the six months before I attended the bootcamp building a bunch of projects and then I created a ton of projects during the coding bootcamp as well. Thankfully, that helped me to prepare for the interview at Ticketfly.
The interview was mostly focused on a take-home challenge. They asked me to build a small music focused app in a framework that I was familiar in. Instead, I taught myself the framework that the company used over the weekend and built a small app in Ember.js. The app actually broke when the interviewers were taking a look at it. I was horrified and thought I would never get the job. But they were impressed that I taught myself the framework and I wanted to learn so badly.
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How has your life changed since becoming a professional programmer?
My life completely changed. I felt lost before I became an engineer. I was making next to nothing. I had no career goals. I was drifting aimlessly. Becoming an engineer gave me a direction to focus on and this exciting new goal.
Before I learned how to code, I didn’t have a truly valuable skill that I could take to employers. I was a hard worker and had job experience because I worked throughout college, but learning how to code gave me a tangible skill.
I struggled to get interviews before I became an engineer. I couldn’t even get a company to call me back most of the time. After? I have companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, PayPal and more reaching out to me about job offers.
I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to really cool places and speak at incredible conferences. I’ve gotten equity at big companies and I’ve even been interviewed several times on television and in the news because of my coding journey.
Has anyone ever asked about your coding qualifications by interviewees or clients?
When I first started out as a junior developer, people would ask me about my qualifications or if I had a CS degree all the time. But after I had a few years of experience, people stopped asking about my lack of a CS degree because I had the experience to back up my skills.
It’s not easy to get your first developer job. But once you do, the world is your oyster. After a few years of experience, your skills won’t get questioned anymore. I can’t remember the last time that anyone asked me about my lack of a CS degree.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn to code without a CS degree?
Start building your own projects. Stop doing tutorials as soon as you can.
A few tutorials when you start out is great, but the best thing you can do to learn how to code is start creating your own projects. Start small -- you don’t need to build an entire application at first. You can create very small projects and slowly build up until you can create a larger application. Find one idea that you’re excited about building and just get started.
I didn’t truly know how to code until I put down the tutorials and forced myself to start building things. Our brains tend to shut off when we’re just copying and pasting code without writing it ourselves or understanding it.
Have you ever had imposter syndrome and if so, how have you dealt with it?
Thankfully, my imposter syndrome has started to lessen over the last five years. It used to be crippling. Sometimes I wanted to take a sick day so I could avoid feeling like an idiot all day at work.
I don’t think anyone ever gets rid of imposter syndrome. I’ve talked to some senior engineers who sold companies and even had CS degrees and they said the imposter syndrome never goes away. I remind myself of this anytime I feel like I’m not good enough to be an engineer.
I deal with imposter syndrome by reminding myself that nobody knows everything. You might know nothing about infrastructure but you might be super good at React. Nobody can know it all. It’s impossible!
What are your coding dreams for the future?
I’m always focused on developing my skills. I love to learn. I think it’s the best part of being an engineer. Your job is never the same. It’s always changing. I’m never forced to do the same thing every day.
I’m also really excited about sharing what I’ve learned over the years with developers that I wish someone had taught me. I actually have a book coming out in May on how to land your developer dream job. I’ve worked on hiring teams at big companies like Eventbrite and I have all this knowledge that I want to share so developers can make themselves stand out more and get their dream job.