Last month, I, along with 30 University of California Berkeley Coding Bootcamp students, entered the offices of Instacart in San Francisco. We were invited by James Jalandoni, a Senior Software Engineer on Instacart’s Emerging Products team. In 2014, James graduated from a coding bootcamp and was looking to pay it forward by inviting current bootcamp students to tour Instacart and interact and learn from his accomplished teammates.
Security signed us in, and we piled into elevators to disembark on one of the two floors occupied by Instacart. The office space was open, filled with light, and punctuated by photos of healthy people eating fresh food. Our hosts could not have been more generous. Each person we met was friendly and excited to meet the Berkeley bootcamp students. Plates of food were piled high and we had our pick of cold beer.
I wanted to learn more about our charitable host– a bootcamp graduate who within 5 years of bootcamp completion finds himself working as a Senior Software Engineer at not only a company that has raised over $900M in capital and has a valuation of over $4B, but seems to be alive with smart people who all love the problems they are trying to solve and working with each other.
James was a political science major who realized he loved tech. He dropped out of college and landed himself a sales job within a tech firm. Here is when the engineer within James emerged. He quickly noticed a problem he thought he could solve. He and his fellow sales reps were completing lots of repetitive tasks in google sheets. And while an intern had written a short script that automated some of the tasks, James knew that he could expand and improve on the script to create an app that could make the sales reps jobs easier and more efficient.
James devoted long nights to teaching himself what he needed to know and after considerable effort, he had developed an app that the company adopted to track sales calls. From that moment he was hooked. “I got addicted to the feedback– the thrill of building something and then seeing it used in the real world. I could see how my work can be a multiplier of other’s work. If a rising tide raises all boats then I had the ability to rise the tide.” With that, he enrolled in a coding bootcamp to immerse himself in programming.
What advice does James have for bootcamp graduates who are looking for their first job in tech?
“Build things.” James goes on to explain, “It’s important to build for two reasons. First, because your ability to share what you have built and to speak about it in interviews will help you nail your interview. And second, because building is the best way to learn.”
James offers a second piece of advice that he believes is equally important. He describes it as the “human aspect” and it includes networking and practicing for interviews. He acknowledges how hard it is to network when you are first entering the tech industry. “You don’t have a network and you have to build one.” And he stresses the importance of practice to have a successful interview. “Practice interviewing a lot. It is that simple… and that hard.”
I wanted to know what it takes to get hired at Instacart. James’s answer was consistent with what we hear from all employers. It takes a mix of technical skills and soft skills and employers weigh these equally. Here are a few examples:
Technical skills. You have to meet the level of proficiency that the company is looking for. James describes this as binary. “You either meet it or you don’t.”
Ability to own your own work. “We give our engineers a ton of responsibility and we expect them to take that freedom and make decisions that are best for our users, our shopping community.”
Humility. “We pride ourselves on our open community. Our engineers are humble. People really do consider everyone’s opinions. We are not an aggressive environment. People are kind and hopeful.”
Before our time was up, I had a quick speed-round of questions.
What is your favorite technology?
What is the piece of tech you use most often in your personal life?
My laptop. I’m not a big phone user.
Last great book that you read
I have two. Principles by Ray Dalio and Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
Something that excites you about tech in the future
Tech has the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems we are facing as humans. I am sure that without tech, we will not be able to solve them.
Something that scares you about tech in the future
In the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle, With great power comes great responsibility. We can save the world with technology and equally true, technology can be used to end it.
First concert you ever went to?
Before we hung up, James wanted to add one more thing. “I’ve just started my professional career and yet, I cannot imagine something more fulfilling. Each day, I am happy to get up in the morning and excited to move forward. Who could want more than that?”