Shawn got a developer job aged 30 at AWS without a CS degree. He picked up coding with Free Code Camp and then followed that up with a coding bootcamp. He is the author of the Coding Career Handbook - a guide for pursuing a job in web development. Read on to get his top tips for getting a job in tech without a CS degree!
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
Sure! My name is Shawn and I currently work at AWS as a Senior Developer Advocate. I started coding seriously after burning out in my hedge fund career and decided to learn to code during my nights and weekends. I am normally based in New York City but am currently hanging out in Singapore due to covid.
What does a typical day as a software developer at your company look like for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day for a developer advocate! One day I could spend having meetings with products and engineering managers, the next I could be heads down working on a demo or open source application, and some days I am just rushing to complete a talk, since I speak at roughly 2 conferences a month. At AWS we typically do team stand-ups during the start of the week, and the end of the week is capped out by customer and business reviews, where we go over the latest quantitative metrics and qualitative customer feedback.
Is freecodecamp worth it?
Finally as you get towards the later modules it gets tougher, so having a big active community is also very critical for you to finish what you started. FCC has all these and more. I did go to a bootcamp after completing FCC, because I didn’t feel job-ready yet, but I could probably have gotten a job if I wanted.
How did you enjoy your bootcamp?
I particularly enjoyed the learning sections of the bootcamp because it gave me the opportunity to really solidify the knowledge that I had vaguely skimmed over during FreeCodeCamp. The bootcamp is also laser focused on teaching employable skills and even organises a hiring day at the end which is where I got my first developer job. The job hunt is the hardest part of transitioning careers so it is very helpful to have an organisation dedicated to helping you succeed.
How did you get your first entry level software engineer job ?
I got my first software engineer job straight out of the hiring day of my bootcamp! I think it was a combination of luck because it was the very first person I sat down with, and also a fit in terms of background because they were looking for someone who had some financial exposure. The interviews were very straightforward, some take-home tests, some on-site live coding and culture fit questions, and I got the job. I did have some things on my portfolio and GitHub but to be honest I doubt that they even looked at it.
What was more important was to be able to intelligently answer questions that were given to me during the on-site interviews, for example one of the interviews I had to justify why people use Redux, with the interviewer taking the other side for argument's sake. It can be intimidating to debate during a job interview, but they are looking for you to stand your ground with technical substance if you can. I think this is how you can show that you add value to the team before you join it.
What advice do you have for someone without a CS degree who wants to get their first programming job?
Keep going! The software industry is far more open to people without credentials than most. There are two things that people want to know when hiring you: that you have covered your bases, and that you have done cool things.
“Covering your bases” means knowing fundamental knowledge like how to work with git and how to write a basic program in your chosen language or framework. “Doing cool things” can include a side project that experiments with new technology or having contributed to open source projects that the company uses.
You don't need to have a whizz-bang portfolio and you don't need a verdant green GitHub. You can demonstrate these two things do any number of methods including having a coffee with the hiring manager or giving a talk in a meet up or writing about them in a blog post. Mekka Okereke, a hiring manager at Google, adds a third dimension - something with a story. You’ll get these with more experience.
Can you tell us about your Coding Career Handbook?
If you look at engineering career ladders you will find that only about 25% of evaluation criteria has to do with technical matters. As much as 75% of the skills you need to succeed in your coding career is non-technical. There is a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge in this industry that is not at all taught by universities, bootcamps or technical books - you are just expected to pick these up over time by hopefully having the right bosses, the right friends, and the right mentors!
My goal with the book was to condense everything I have learned from senior engineers into easily accessible Principles, Strategies and Tactics that people can use to accelerate their own advancement. The book includes over 1400 links to original source material so you can learn more beyond the book and you can also join our community of career focused readers where you can discuss these questions outside of the politically weighted boundaries of your co-workers!
You can find some sample chapters and see for yourself!
I decided to write it because I had two months of free time between jobs, and had just completed the junior to senior transition myself within three years. I realised that the reason there aren't more books focused on the junior to senior transition is because nobody ever starts to write these things down - by the time they are in a position to write a book, other “bigger picture” ideas become more top of mind. So I suspect this is the only time that I could ever have written a book like this.
What are your career goals for the future?
Long-term, I want to run my own bootstrapped SaaS business and achieve financial independence for myself and my family while making happy customers, and perhaps employing some other developers too.