Passion is overrated - why Shaquil learned to code
As Shaquil puts it, "passion is for people who are already taken care of". He learned to code in order to provide for himself and his family after witnessing how his father was treated without adequate healthcare.
Read on for Shaquil's tips on learning to code and getting hired, the benefits of networking and why he thinks passion is overrated.
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
I’m a freelance Full Stack developer. I work with React on the frontend, usually NextJS, and on the backend I use Node with Express. I live in Paterson, New Jersey. We’re about twenty minutes from NYC, so it’s a very vibrant urban area.
What job were you doing before software development?
I was a freelance videographer. My specialty was music videos. It was fun, but a lot of work!
Sadly your dad passed away recently. How did that affect your drive to learn coding?
It made me more dedicated than I would’ve ever been.
The big motivator was the way this country treated him. Because he had no money, essentially no one cared if he lived or died. The doctors didn’t care, the paramedics didn’t care, and even the nurses wouldn’t come help him if he pressed the emergency call button. Hell, medical transport companies wouldn’t give him a ride to the doctor, even if he offered to pay in cash, because he didn’t have the right insurance.
That made me realize a dark reality: money is equivalent to human value in this society. Point blank period. If you have more money, you matter more as a human. I don’t want another family member or friend to have to lay in a hospital bed knowing they’re probably being willfully deprived of care that could save them, just because they don’t have money.
Did I get into coding for money? Yes, and I’m good at it, so people hire me anyway. I’m not pretending this is about passion. I coded for years in my free time out of passion, and I hope no one thinks I was making full stack web apps and wordpress blogs. It was little video games—things I loved, but things that don’t make money.
My father’s passing was a harsh wakeup call: Passion is for people who are already taken care of. For the rest of us, there’s money or nothing. It wasn’t hard to do 13-hour-days of coding when I came to that conclusion. The only thing stopping me from doing 80 hours of coding a week right now is that I’m physically injured from all the coding I’ve done already; but trust me, I’d do it.
Can you tell us a little about how you motivated yourself to get a better income and learn React?
I actually learned React because of a Hashnode hackathon. There was a $1000 Amazon gift card reward being offered for the first place in a hackathon that used AWS Amplify to deploy an app. I’d never used React up until then, and I’d never heard of GraphQL, but I banged around like a monkey for a few days until I got something meaningful up and running.
The result was not too bad! Necronomisearch, an app that lets users search the entire bibliography of HP Lovecraft. I of course didn’t win, because there were way better coders than me in the competition, haha. But that’s what got me started.
I then had another app idea called OnePush—an app that lets you write a blog post in one interface and then cross-post it to other platforms with the push of one button. That was a big learning experience, and the excitement of the idea kept me going.
But now you’re past that, and it’s time to really push yourself. You’re a software engineer! You can make anything. What’s a website or app that should exist?
How did networking help you as a developer?
Networking mega-boosted my career!
I had a three-part strategy when I decided I wanted to chase a developer job:
- Build insane, over-the-top portfolio projects that no one could compete with
- Join a slack, discord or some other social group of connected developers
- Apply to 500 jobs per month.
I accomplished the first step with an app called BuddyViewer. It was a web app that allowed people to create private rooms where they could watch videos from any website in sync. After that, I was ready to look for connections.
I spent hours on eventbrite and meetup, joining remote meetings and online get-togethers, but I couldn’t make many connections. A lot of those events are really just presentations with an anonymous chat.
So I transitioned to Twitter, where I befriended some people who were building a slack group called CodeShareGrow.
These guys have led me to some of my biggest freelance wins. One friend was transitioning out of a relationship with a client, and ended up recommending me to the client directly. Another got me in contact with someone I’m going to be collaborating with in the near future for a few thousand dollars. Networking has been the driving force behind my freelance success.
Do you have any courses you can recommend that improved your coding skills or any other tips for becoming a better developer?
In terms of courses, I always go for free content first. I’m very business-like with everything I do; what’s the least amount of investment that yields the highest amount of return? How do you dip your toe in?
Buying a 100-hour course is not dipping your toe in. So check out WebDevSimplified, TraversyMedia and Academind on YouTube. By jumping back and forth between their content, you can work out a lot of what a big udemy course would take hours to tell you, and you can jump straight into code.
Based on my discussions with other experienced developers, a lot of the issues new devs face with learning technologies will never go away. If you feel like everything makes sense when you’re watching the tutorial, and then when you try to put the information into practice you can’t figure it out, that’s normal. There are people with ten years of experience still going through that.
The difference is, they realize that it’s better to follow a tutorial while building your own thing. Don’t just go along with the project the tutorial is doing—build something of your own that uses similar features to the tutorial, then learn by making the knowledge fit your use-case.
How has your life changed since learning to code?
Well, I went from earning $1200 a month as a cashier and a few hundred a month doing freelance art and videography to making $5000 per month so far. I will likely be making that much as a baseline for at least the rest of this summer.
To be honest, learning to code isn’t even most of the reason for that though. Learning to code was the foundation, because it’s important to be able to deliver on what people ask—but learning to communicate was even more valuable.
What code on its own has done for me is: connect me with other people thriving for success, who are positive, passionate and supportive; give me a platform from which I can spread that positive and supportive energy to others; rescued me from feeling like a loser who had nothing great to contribute to the world.
Learning to code isn’t easy, but it’s possible. For me, that was all I needed—possibility. Not only was learning to code possible, but it opened up so many more possibilities.
What does a typical day as a software developer look like for you?
Right now I’m working with two big clients: A startup who needs their product documented, and an entrepreneur who needs their SaaS built. Full disclosure: I have trouble sleeping, so I wake up around 5am and try to build myself up to getting to work at 7am to start.
From 7 to the afternoon, I work on the SaaS. During my late lunch I’ll try to network on Twitter and catch up on all my little social groups. From then, I do documentation for my startup client until the evening, at which point my time is free. I usually hunt down clients, improve my portfolio site, or catch up on work I’m behind on with the SaaS.
For the SaaS, my tech stack is NextJS and SCSS modules on the frontend. It’s beautiful. All the custom power of SCSS without class-naming conflicts. Can’t think of a downside yet. The backend will eventually be built with NestJS, where I’ll make a GraphQL API that connects with either Postgres or Supabase.
What I expected to do in freelance was basically no coding, all Wordpress and Shopify—but man am I happy to actually be building an app. I’m loving it!
What are your career goals for the future?
My ultimate goal is passive income, either through apps or building a platform that helps people. To that end, I’m tweeting a lot of guidance for new freelancers on my Twitter, @shaquilhansford. Meanwhile, I’m working on two web apps!
The first is OnePush, an app I described earlier that lets users manage their blog posts on different platforms all in one interface. The other is BuddyViewer, an app for watching synchronized videos with your friends across the globe.
Thanks for the interview!
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