Ralph Landon is a 32 year old software engineer and former oil-worker who was recently hired by Render, a San Francisco based startup that lets users deploy web applications without having to manage their own servers or databases.
Ralph grew up in West Texas and Michigan. He was the only one of three children to finish high school—but later dropped out of college twice. He worked briefly as a marijuana farmer in Colorado, in tech support in Kansas City, and then as an oil worker in West Texas.
Ralph started programming in childhood and continued to learn on the side while working in the oil field. He applied for over 100 software development jobs but, without a formal CS degree or work experience, he never got past the initial phone call. He finally gave up, but, in 2018, stumbled on Triplebyte's online coding quiz. After performing well on the quiz, he took a single technical interview with Triplebyte and received multiple job offers from tech companies in San Francisco. He now works as a software engineer and lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Penelope, and their daughter, Lorelei.
This interview has been edited for clarity and style.
Working in the Texas oil fields
What was it like growing up in Texas?
In West Texas, everyone works in the oil field. Everyone does labor jobs. We don't have a tech scene, or a business scene at all. If you're not one of the few business owners, or bankers—we have one lawyer in town—then you work in the oil field.
Why did you decide to drop out of college?
I was not really focusing on my studies you could say. I spent too much time partying with friends. Technically I majored in biology, but I didn't really have any direction, or plan, so I fizzled out after a semester and a half. I figured, “Okay, I'm just gonna leave and get an oil field job, because oil-workers make good money for somebody with no degree.” But it was definitely a case of not making a wiser sacrifice in the short-term in order to gain an advantage in the long run.
What's it like to be an oil worker?
You never know what kind of hours you're going to have to work—or if you'll get injured that day. A couple of months before leaving the oil field, I damaged my arm a little bit. I got sucked into a winch. I could have broken my whole arm—I don't know if you can see it—there's a dent right here [Ralph rolls up his sleeve to reveal the divot in his forearm], and this finger doesn't go all the way straight anymore.
Yeah, it was, I could have died on any random day at that job. It's definitely something that you think about a lot. You know what I mean? Don't get me wrong—the danger is mitigated as much as possible, but people still die regularly. That's one reason why it pays a lot.
My brother was a derrick man on a pulling unit which means you climb 70 feet up a tower, and you're up there with the blocks coming up, and pipe moving. He would wonder every day, “Is this the day that something happens?” It's just always present. I actually had a relatively safe job in the oil field doing well servicing. Testing tubing was primarily what I did.
What kind of hours did you work?
I was working 60 to 70 hours a week most of the time, waking up at 4:00AM because I had to commute an hour to Odessa to work. We got dispatched out to different wells, so we never knew how late we were going to work each day—it just depended on how much there was to do. Sometimes I'd get off at 2:00PM, but other times, I'd get off at 11:00PM or midnight.
Pot farming and fatherhood
Did you do anything else besides working in the oilfield?
I actually moved to Denver when I was 21 and grew pot for three years. I tried going to college again, this time as a music major in classical guitar composition, but I still didn't have much direction.
I bought an Arduino along with a temperature and humidity monitor to help with the pot business. I was curious what the humidity was doing overnight and stuff like that, and I whipped up a program to graph the temperature and humidity changes for my boss. I mention that just to say that programming has always been there in the background of the other things that I've been doing.
What happened next?
I moved up to Kansas City with my girlfriend, Penelope—my wife now. I got a job in tech support, hoping to work my way up to become a software engineer. But I was only making $12 an hour, so when we found out we were expecting, I said, Nope, we gotta go back to Texas and get a job in the oil fields. I've got a baby on the way, and I don't have the luxury of taking the time to go this route anymore. So, I put software development on hold, and went back to Texas, and got back in the oil field.
Learning to program
How did you make the switch from working in the oil-field to programming?
In early high school I played a lot of MUD games, (MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon). They're basically text-based, computerized versions of Dungeons and Dragons, and they're almost all open source. I used to download copies of the source code and build my own themes and styles on that. That was all in C. I got a book called Teach Yourself C++ in 24 Hours, and I learned a bit from that, but mostly I was just poking around this rather complex server program and not really understanding a lot of it but getting familiar with the syntax. I saw how stuff was done and copied it to make my own little methods to do something slightly different. That was my first foray into programming.
Later, in tenth or eleventh grade, I took a Java class in high school. I made a 2D game where you were a diver swimming for coins and there were fish you had to avoid. I did the graphics myself, so it looked like crap of course.
Why not go to college for software engineering?
I guess I just didn't have faith in myself that I could do programming for a living. I didn't really understand what I could do with computer science aside from creating games, or bank applications.
When did programming become more than just a side-project?
I always had this faint inkling telling me, “Yes, someday, I should do this.” But I never thought, “I'm gonna do this, and I'm gonna do it this day.” But at a certain point, I suddenly realized, “I've built up these skills—I just need to polish off what I'm missing and try to find a job.” So, I did some data science classes on Coursera. That way, I thought I could have something on my Linkedin. It wasn't a college degree, but it was at least something.
It seems really impressive that you were able to learn so much on your own.
People talk about being “self-taught,” but I owe so much to so many resources on the internet. Codecademy is great, and Udemy—and Coursera. Their free course offerings are really helpful. I also read a ton of blogs. Resources abound if you really want to learn coding. It's all out there.
Trying to find software developer jobs
What was it like applying for jobs without a CS degree?
I had read on the internet that all you need to do is show what you can do—but that's not totally true. I sent out a lot of applications, at least 100 or 150. But my resume looked really horrible. It's all oil field jobs and a few little side projects. So I only got a couple of phone interviews out of it, and I could never get past the initial phone screen. I never got a second interview. I really think that was because my resume was so weak. So, yeah, I gave up on the interviewing process then. It was pretty disappointing for sure.
But you kept on programming?
Finding a job using Triplebyte
How did you find Triplebyte after giving up on your job search?
I was looking something up on another website, and I saw an ad for Triplebyte that said, Work for a startup without using a resume! And I thought, “Hey, that's right up my alley (the not-seeing-my-resume part)! Well, why not?”
I took the little online test, and was like, “That was super easy!” And then I got a technical interview. I felt like I didn't do too great on that, but I guess a lot of candidates probably judge themselves more harshly than the interviewer does. I guess it went well cause all of a sudden, “Hey! You've got all these interviews coming up.” And it's like, “Okay, crap, well, that's crazy.”
It moved a lot quicker than I expected. Soon it was, “Now you're going to be flying out to New York—and flying out to San Francisco.” It was the first time I'd been to either city, the first time I had ever flown anywhere for an interview. It was a really cool experience. And then I wound up landing a job. I got two offers actually, including one from Render.
That's exciting—to join a startup like Render at such an early stage.
Yeah, if we all work really hard and it works out, then we'll be living the startup dream, right?
Working in San Francisco
How does San Francisco compare to Texas?
In West Texas, we didn't really fit in, and we wanted to get out of the area. If you're not one of the more well-to-do families, then you really feel somewhat ostracized in our area. I was always a loner going through school just because my family was a lot poorer and not as community oriented I guess you could say. We really didn't want our daughter to grow up in that kind of school environment. There weren't really activities for my daughter to do in that small town. Also, everyone is very strongly religious, and I'm not religious. And if you're not religious, you really just don't fit in in small town Texas.
What has the move and the new job meant for you and your family?
The transition to white collar—I guess this is technically a white collar job—was kind of crazy. It's not something I really expected, but it's something I always hoped for. It's definitely an amazing feeling. It's nice just going into an office every day now. And I know what hours I'm going to work. I know that I'm not going to be injured today. The worst thing that I have to worry about now is carpal tunnel syndrome and seasonal affective disorder, right? Now I have a lot more financial security too—before we were living paycheck to paycheck.
Sometimes it feels a little unreal, you know what I mean? When I was flying around for the interviews, I felt a level of importance that I'd never felt before. I'd never thought, “Oh, somebody wants to pay to fly me out for an interview because they want me to work for them.” I was always on the other side. I would go apply for a job, and if they said yes, then I got my hardhat and went to work.
Why a background-blind process matters
What do you think is valuable about the background-blind process?
I'd say it was invaluable. It got my foot in the door. I'm a two time college drop out, working in the oilfield, doing manual labor with no projects to speak of. It's really amazing that anyone would want to hire me based on paper for sure. It's understandable that I had trouble with the process before.
It made a night and day difference really. It was very different from the interviews I had done on my own because now the ball was in their court to pitch to me. I actually wound up having to trim down the list of companies I was interested in quite a lot, and that was actually a pretty difficult decision. I made up a little spreadsheet and put down pros and cons.
That's exactly what we're hoping for—to change how hiring works.
Yeah, it's great platform, great concept. I really appreciate what Triplebyte does. There are a lot of intelligent people out there with skills that are being wasted. They could be making products that are going to further society, in the “greater good” sense. There's a disconnect between these good engineers and companies, which is just a waste of human resources. It's just crazy.
Companies like Triplebyte that are facilitating that connection have this trickle down effect on society. I've been very selfish in talking about the benefits to my own life, but this can really benefit society. It's not over night, and it's not necessarily very direct. But the existence of platforms like Triplebyte helps the percentage chance of propagating good stuff like that, which is all you can do.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Not really—just that Triplebyte not only opened up this door for me now, but also in the future. It's so much more than, “Oh, they got me a job at Render.” No, they changed the outlook of the rest of my life—and my daughter's life because now she's not going to grow up seeing me working a blue collar job, barely bringing home enough money and being stressed out all the time because I'm waking up at 4AM in the morning and not getting home until who knows when at night.
I've been able to spend a lot more time with my family. And that's just amazing, having a two year old and being able to wake up with her in the morning and have breakfast with her.
We've been ending our interviews with a silly question: Why isn't everybody happy all the time?
Is happiness even the goal? Happiness is more fleeting—there's hedonic adaption and all that—so, maybe not happiness, but “contentment.” Why isn't everyone content all the time? I guess the answer is because life is hard. There are a lot of hard things about life.
Sorry, it was supposed to be a silly question, but I got a little serious there.
It's a silly-serious one. Well, thank you so much. It was really great to talk with you today.
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