This self-taught former Tesla developer talks learning to code
Eric Bishard is a professional web developer without a degree in Computer Science.* I was lucky enough to be able to interview Eric about learning to code. Eric, who used to work at SolarCity and then Tesla, talks about his initial projects, how he got hired for the first time and his tips for newbies. Enjoy!
- Eric is now a Senior Developer Advocate at Couchbase
Many thanks for the interview! So can you give an introduction for people who want to know more about you?
This company was acquired by Tesla where I went on to work for another year and a half as a software engineer with a focus on front end development in Angular building UI components for their inventory and Service Center mobile web app. I was laid off with 4000 other employees in a massive down-sizing in the summer of 2018.
Since then I have worked as a Developer Advocate for Progress Software and the KendoReact team where I have traveled all over the US and Europe with the opportunity to speak internationally at conferences like DevReach in Sofia Bulgaria, React Live in Amsterdam, React Loop in Chicago, Silicon Valley Code Camp at PayPal Headquarters in San Jose and many other meetups throughout the Bay Area. I have always gravitated towards frontend development and more recently have found my passion building UI and components in React and Web API in Express and GraphQL.
How did you originally get into coding? What resources did you use?
I first got started programming in 1999 when I took an accelerated two year degree program in Digital Media at FullSail in Orlando, Florida. We learned very little about actual programming techniques, rather we focused on learning the multitude of tools that one needs to know to create graphic and print designs, edit audio and video, and design multimedia experiences.
In 1999, the shiny new things were CD ROM design, Flash web development and very basic web programming with technologies like PHP and ASP Classic. Building a web page was quite easy and the concept of responsive design and single page applications were not something we would hear about for another ten years. The first websites that I built were to advertise myself and other DJs in Florida, Miami and Jamaica for electronic, hip-hop, reggae and reggaeton artists.
I built a few websites for clubs in Orlando too. This was my foot in the door and along with small business websites I made a name for myself in the central florida area as the go to guy for many businesses web and print needs especially when it comes to nightlife and DJing.
I learned to code by simply building website after website, it helped that I was building real web applications as early as 2001. This meant websites that were coded in PHP or ASP Classic that were backed by MySQL or MSSQL databases with custom administration systems allowing my clients to easily add and remove content through a user authenticated login system and backend.
Did you ever consider doing a Computer Science degree?
I never considered a CS degree because everyone that I knew that was building software or web sites were mostly self taught. Instead, I enrolled in a 13 month program at a school called FullSail in Orlando. I do credit them with teaching me how to learn and giving me the tools to teach myself.
But we didn’t graduate with any knowledge of how to program software. Most of us were lucky to have picked up a few skills in graphic and web design through learning programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash and multimedia programs like Premiere, After Effects and Lightwave.
Even in this area we were only taught the very basics before moving onto the next course. It was on us as students to continue on after school and pick a lane and keep learning. I chose web development and started a small web hosting and design company with a friend that I met in 2001.
How did you get your first job as a web developer?
When I got out of school in 2001, I was given an 'in' at a web design and hosting company in Orlando. A friend of mine that I had worked on a small project with introduced me, I interviewed with them and completed an initial project (A CD ROM FLYER). This was a small business card size CD that contained a flash application on it and it was a club flyer turned flash presentation for a local club.
After this project, they hired me and I joined a team of four developers. We mostly focused on small business and local companies. We had the opportunity back then to work on print and multimedia and Flash was popular at the time so we built many dual flash/html sites with splash pages and intros back then. Slowly, we moved into web applications using a combination of ASP Classic, SQL Server Databases and HTML and Flash on the front end.
What advice would you give to someone that thinks learning to code is too hard?
It is hard and it takes many years of work to become productive on your own but you can shorten this on-boarding by partnering with amazing developers. I would also recommend doing as much work on their own and not taking shortcuts. You only get good at programming by doing the job and figuring out the majority of problems on your own. You can shorten the time it takes to get there if you have amazing people as mentors, but it’s not really a shortcut. It still requires a ton of work.
Has your lack of a Computer Science degree ever been an issue when looking for work?
I think that back in the early 2000s it was a big deal to not have a CS degree if you wanted to do work as a developer that involved serious programming. But my suggestions is not to let that keep your from seeking out those opportunities.
You can always cram and learn more about the specific job once you get an interview, then you can lean on your networks to help prepare you. This is how I got my job at SolarCity which turned into a job at Tesla. I sat in a hotel room for 2 days preparing. I probably worked straight for two sessions of 15 hours each with several mentors, learning everything they thought I would need for the interview and then I nailed it.
What is the most fun thing about coding for you?
What does a typical day look like for you now?
I get up early everyday, I try to get my work done before noon and I’m mostly given the freedom to pick the projects I deem necessary to teaching others how to learn new concepts, new libraries and I build demos to help illustrate how to work with the products and framework associated with the tools that I advocate for like KendoReact.
Do you have any advice for developers looking for their first job?
Make sure that you are all-in on web development or native development or whatever it is that you are seeking. Become a life learner and don’t give up. Make sure you like the process of learning new technologies and exploit the time you have to prepare for new jobs and the resources that can help you quickly level up, be this other developers you know or known courses and or videos and books that will help you attain the skills you need.
Can you tell us about any projects you make and plans for the future?