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How I Got a Software Engineering Job Without Work Experience or a CS Degree

By Charles Treichler (Interviewer) on Jan 17, 2019

How I Got a Software Engineering Job Without Work Experience or a CS Degree

Triplebyte is a really good platform for people with nontraditional backgrounds who are really passionate about developing things. I don't want to say it's a requirement for them, but it makes things much easier. I wish I'd found it a lot earlier than I did. It's definitely something that should be part of their job search.

Marcus Posey is a-23-year old software engineer from Decatur, Alabama. After dropping out of high school, he received a GED and entered college in order to pursue his dream: a career in software engineering. But finances got in the way and he was forced to leave school before finishing his degree. Without a degree or experience on his resume, Marcus applied to more than 100 companies, but couldn't get past the resume screens—despite having strong programming skills. Then, in 2018, Marcus heard about Triplebyte on a podcast. Our background-blind, merit-focused technical screening process allowed him to demonstrate his skills without being disqualified by a piece of paper, and he received multiple job offers. He now works at American Express on the back-end. It's his first software engineering job.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Becoming a Programmer

How did you get into programming?
I was actually first interested in writing literature as a kid—I loved Harry Potter—and I used to buy a lot of books on writing. One day I was at Books-a-Million, and they had stashed their programming books right next to the how-to writing books. I saw one called C++ For Dummies, and it seemed like an interesting name, so I started reading it. I ended up reading several more books on C++ after that. I was just interested in learning about the languages, not even necessarily building any software. I'd just turned 12 or 13, so I was still pretty young.

Why did you find programming so interesting at that age?
I liked that you could create things without having to actually build anything with your hands. I wasn't someone who liked being outside much, and it was interesting that I could start from scratch, with just an empty file, and build something really complex without having to leave my chair. I could be creative without actually having to exert much physical effort.

What were some of the first things you built when you started programming?
I worked through that book, starting with the basic things that you typically work on, like making a calculator, and then I advanced to more complex things. I made a few small text-based games and then my own version of Minesweeper—things like that.

How did you know that you wanted to do computer science for a living?
Most of my motivation came from the fact that I just really enjoyed it. It's something that I would do even if people didn't pay me to do it. That's what I used to do all the time. Even now that I'm getting paid to do it, I write software at work, and then I write more software at home. It's something that I just enjoy doing. It was an obvious choice when it came to picking my major in college.

You mentioned that neither of your parents finished high school—was going to college a challenge for you?
I don't come from a family that has a whole lot of money, and no, neither of my parents finished high school, and they didn't go on to college either. My dad is a construction worker. My mom was always a stay-at-home mom. I have a sister as well who has an associates degree in Psychology. I was hoping to be the one in our group that actually finished—but it didn't happen.

I didn't finish high school, so the initial problem that I had was that I wanted to get into a four-year school to study computer science, but I couldn't find any funding because I hadn't finished high school. I only had my GED and no one was going to let me in with that, so I thought, Okay, I'll do well at a community college and then I'll transfer.

Where did you attend college?
I initially started at Calhoun Community College near home, taking general courses, but I always had the intention of going on to be a computer science major. I eventually transferred to the University of Alabama at Huntsville, a year and a half after starting at the community college. I was there for a year maybe, and then I transferred to the University of North Alabama. I think I was there for a year as well. I didn't actually finish college.

Why did you leave college before finishing your degree?
I had to leave college because I didn't have enough money anymore. My reasoning for going to the University of North Alabama in the first place was because it was the cheapest in the state that would have been reputable enough, so at that point I was like, Okay. I can't afford to remain here. But, there really isn't anywhere else to go. So that was the end of that.

That must have been a really tough decision.
Yes. I really enjoyed school, and I did really well for a long time. I just couldn't get any scholarships. I think people weren't interested in giving me scholarships because I focused a lot on the academic aspect and not much on extracurriculars or anything. I wasn't very balanced I guess, and people like to see you balance things.

What did you do after you left the University of North Alabama?
I came home. I'm really grateful that I could just go home and not have too many complaints from my parents. So I stayed with them for slightly over a year, just trying to become a better software engineer in hopes that some company would value my skills more than a degree.

How did you try to become a better software engineer after leaving school?
I was already decently competent, I guess. I had a firm base in developing software. So what I spent a lot of time doing, actually, was watching conference talks, like QCon or GOTO. They were presented by technical leads or engineering managers who would explain, This is the really difficult problem that our team had to solve, and here are a lot of the ways that we failed, and here are some of the ways that we had success. So I got into the habit of watching those sorts of videos pretty frequently.

I also listened to podcasts on software engineering, and read a lot of company engineering blogs where they picked interesting problems that some of their engineers were working on and wrote about them. I spent a lot of that year just consuming media about how to develop quality, production-ready software. And I learned to build software like people in that sort of environment would. I worked on a lot of really complex systems at home that didn't really do a whole lot. I just sort of intentionally baked in the complexity just to see how I could work my way out of it. It was sort of like an internship but not in a professional environment.

Applying for Jobs Before Triplebyte

What was it like applying for software engineering jobs before using Triplebyte?
I think part of the problem that I encountered was just a geographical one. In Alabama, there isn't much variety in the software engineering jobs. Most of them are military related, like military contracting to build missile defense systems. That's a really big thing there, and it's not something that I've ever really been that interested in. Partly because I'm not really in low-level systems, but also because it just seemed like a lot of pressure. I don't want to work on systems like that. So I applied for jobs outside that area. I think that the problem that I encountered mostly was that I wasn't local, so a lot of companies weren't interested in that.

Another problem was that I didn't have my degree. It seems like companies have a checklist like, Does he meet these requirements? If he doesn't, it goes into the trash. It didn't really matter whether I was capable of actually performing the job functions.

Did you ever get the chance to show what you knew during a technical screen or were you passed over because you didn't have a degree on your resume? I have a resume that really doesn't fit with what people would view as a successful hire. I know a lot of in-demand technologies, and I think that should've gotten me past certain screens, but I don't have the job experience that people want and I don't have the degree. I felt like in certain cases there were automated systems that will actually filter your resume without a human involved, so I would get auto-denied, which seemed to happened a few times.

That sounds frustrating. What was that like for you on a personal level?
It was a bit discouraging at first. I would create the cover letters and put a lot of effort into them. Some would take me an hour, and I would submit them, and then I wouldn't get a response. But after a while it sort of just becomes a thing that you're doing. Not like “I'm finding a specific job,” but “I'm applying to jobs and I know that I won't get responses from most of these things that I send out.” I don't know, I guess you just become very desensitized to not getting responses back.

And how many different positions did you apply for?
Way too many to count. Over a hundred.

Using Triplebyte

How did you hear about Triplebyte?
I was listening to Software Engineering Daily and Triplebyte was the sponsor that day. I think the host mentioned that people who listened to the show often score petty highly on the test, so I wondered, Will I actually score highly? I was at a point where I thought, This is probably going to require much less effort than doing another cover letter, so I might as well.

So I did the quiz, and it was a difficult test, and I didn't know if I was going to pass it or not. But I did, and then I scheduled the phone screen. At that point I went from being just like curious, to being a bit invested in succeeding in the process.

What was the process like for you?
The technical interview was nice. I tried to be as prepared as I could, but it was still pretty difficult. At the time I thought it was pretty long, but then I went on to the actual interviews at companies and I was like, Yeah, that was actually pretty short.

After that I got paired up with Kevin, my talent manager, and he laid everything out. It made things pretty easy. I felt like I was in this factory line or something. Like a job factory. It just seemed like I was definitely going to end up with a job at the end. I had a lot of confidence in that. It was very smooth.

I didn't initially have confidence that companies would want to look at my profile and be interested because of all the rejections I had had in the past. But I started to get responses at a rate that I didn't initially think I would. The companies that were involved in the process were more concerned with my abilities than some of the things that I had been rejected for in the past. So I was really happy with that.

What did the background-blind process mean for you?
I think it meant that all of the effort I had put into being the developer that I am paid off. Before, I hadn't really had a chance for people to see that I was actually capable, because I just kept getting denied during the resume process. So having a background-blind process was really helpful for me.

So you said you got more calls from companies than you expected. Was there anything else that was unexpected about the Triplebyte process? I really enjoyed that Triplebyte paid for the trips to the onsite interviews. That was a major reason why I didn't apply to certain companies prior to Triplebyte. I don't come from a family that has a whole lot of money, so it was like, Okay, I can apply to certain companies but if they don't pay for the interview then it's just wasted time because I can't actually go there to do the interview. A major reason that I was interested in Triplebyte was because I could actually go to the interviews and not worry about how I would pay for them.

What has this whole process meant for you personally?
I guess it just gives me more motivation to keep pushing forward. It gives me a lot more confidence that I can put in effort and get the results that I want.

What was the value of using Triplebyte for you?
I think that it exposed me to companies that I wouldn't have been able to get to on my own. So it certainly opened the door and allowed me to go in and show who I was, whereas before I was just encountering a lot of closed doors. So I think that it was a really important part of that process.

What are your favorite parts of the new job?
I enjoy the people more than most things. Before I was building a lot of software alone, and didn't get to encounter things that I encounter developing software at a company with as many people as American Express. I'm getting to encounter new challenges that I didn't really have before, and that's something that I really enjoy.

At American Express, I work on the technology that allows people to become card members. It's great back-end stuff, but it doesn't really tie into what you or the consumer would see on the front end, but it's pretty critical to the flow of people's information.

How does your family feel about you moving to New York City?
They're happy. They want to see me again, though. I haven't been back home since I came here at the end of September. I'm going back home for Christmas, though, so I'm excited about that.

Is there anything else that you'd like to say?
Triplebyte is a really good platform for people with nontraditional backgrounds who are really passionate about developing things. I don't want to say it's a requirement for them, but it makes things much easier. I wish I'd found it a lot earlier than I did. It's definitely something that should be part of their job search.

Why Isn't Everyone Happy All the Time?

We've been ending our interviews with tis question: why isn't everyone happy all the time?
I think it's because the goalposts always move. People like improving things. I guess another way of saying that is that they always want more. One is a bit more optimistic than the other. People like improving their situation, so that they can obtain some state that they want prior—but they can always ask for more. They're certainly entitled to do that, but when they realize there is actually more that they could ask for, then the situation that they're in is degraded a bit. It doesn't hold the same value anymore. It's like if you buy a phone, and it's a really nice phone, and then the new version comes out six months later, then it's suddenly not as nice as you initially thought. So I think it's that people want improvement. That's what got us, humanity, to the point where we are today. It can happen over the long-term or the short-term. People are always chasing improvement.

Thanks so much, Marcus! It was great speaking with you.

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