How To Be Strategic About Your Learning and Career, With Mike Chen

How To Be Strategic About Your Learning and Career, With Mike Chen

πŸŽ™ About the episode

Meet Mike Chen πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ! Mike is a self-taught developer who worked at Yahoo, Google, and Airbnb, before becoming a CTO and co-founder of Motivo. Nowadays, he also helps other coders succeed. In this episode, you'll find out what it was like to work at Google and what are the pros and cons of working in a big tech company. You'll learn how to stand out as a new developer without a degree and why you should (not) idealize Silicon Valley.

Ultimately, Mike will tell us why tech is cool (if you have a passion for it), as well as how we should go about putting in our work wisely and why it is worth it. He will also reveal what motivates him to teach and mentor other developers!

πŸ”— Connect with Mike

⏰ Timestamps

  • How Mike went from studying biochemistry to becoming a developer and eventually worked at Google (01:45)
  • Paul Irish: Tools, not rules (04:19)
  • Has the way big tech companies hire changed since Mike broke into the industry? (07:12)
  • How were the front-end roles at Google structured back then? (08:36)
  • Ad break: How to support us + Next week: Rian Errity, who's doing a lot of cool stuff (11:15)
  • How big is Google's infrastructure, actually? (12:55)
  • Mike's experience at Google and the benefits of working at a big tech company (14:22)
  • Why working in big tech ultimately didn't work for Mike (16:01)
  • Why do hiring managers like people with big companies on their resumes (17:15)
  • You have to figure out what you want out of a tech job (20:15)
  • The best way to demystify Silicon Valley is to be in Silicon Valley (21:41)
  • Career advice for new developers: How can they stand out if they don't have a degree and haven't worked at Google? (23:09)
  • Why you should have a demonstrable track record (26:35)
  • Losing your passion is normal over time; here's what to do first (27:34)
  • What did Mike have to give up on to learn to code and change careers? (30:09)
  • In tech, it pays off to put in more work, but not any kind of work (31:59)
  • What motivates Mike to help other developers (36:08)

🧰 Resources Mentioned

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πŸ’¬ Transcript

Mike Chen (00:00):
I think it's okay, also, to not know what you want at first, but I think you should try to figure it out as fast as possible. Before you even break into the industry, it's going to be really challenging to figure out, "Oh, what do I really want in a dev job?" I think you'll figure it out and I think you just have to be really honest with yourself, that's one thing that I was really lacking.

Alex Booker (00:18):
Hello and welcome to The Scrimba Podcast. On this weekly show, I speak with successful developers about their advice on learning to code and getting your first junior developer job. My name is Alex and today, I'm joined by Mike Chen, a CTO and co-founder, who previously worked as an engineer at companies like Yahoo, Google, and Airbnb. Mike is one of the most successful self-taught developers that I know of and his approach to learning to code was nothing but intense. Working a dead-end job, he taught himself to code in an era before Scrimba and freeCodeCamp and those type of websites. He did an unpaid internship and coded for 9 to 10 hours on the weekends. Is this necessary for you to become a top level-developer? Well, that's something Mike and I are going to discuss later in the episode.

You are also going to learn from Mike's experience as a hiring manager, specifically hiring junior developers. We'll explore this idea of virtue signaling and how to stand out as a new developer, in general. I really enjoyed speaking with Mike and I know you're going to love this episode. Him and I actually collaborated on a YouTube video for the Scrimba YouTube channel where Mike joined us to interview a Scrimba student to see if they're job ready, so you can check that out in the show notes, and I think it's a good bit of context for our discussion, as well. You were listening to The Scrimba Podcast. Let's get into it.

We'll jump into the episode with Mike in just a second, but first I wanted to tell you about a limited time opportunity for one lucky podcast listener to get into the interview e-seat with Mike. That's right, Mike has agreed to do another mock front-end job interview and record it and put it on the Scrimba YouTube channel. We're actually looking for a student or an aspiring junior developer to join us in the video. So, if you can hear this message, go to the show notes and we've included a form where you can tell us a bit more about your level, your ambition, and what you're working on. From those submissions, we will pick someone to invite onto the video.

I want to assure you, if you are listening to this message, that means the form is still open, we actually can and will remove this section from the episode when the form is closed. So, if you hear this, there's still time, go to the show notes and apply, it's a great opportunity. We've done two or three of these mock interviews in the past, two with Cassidy Williams, one with Mike Chen, and every single one of those students went on to get jobs, so I think it's a great opportunity to test your metal and improve your confidence. Anyway, here's the interview with Mike.

Mike Chen (02:55):
I went to university, but I didn't study CS, I studied biochemistry. My intention was to go to medical school. I worked in clinical research for a little bit and biotech and I really didn't like it very much, so I decided not to go to medical school and not to make a huge, expensive mistake, I decided to self-teach. Back then in 2009, 2010, it was much harder to learn how to code, there weren't resources like Scrimba, YouTube was not really for teaching, it was for entertainment, and blog posts and stuff like that.It was very, very difficult and all I had were books. I bought a bunch of books on Java and object-oriented programming and JavaScript and just read a lot and just tried to figure it out on my own. Was able to land a job at a small startup, it was a tiny startup with just 12 people, only two engineers including me, and went from there to bigger and bigger companies. Eventually, I ended up in Silicon Valley, where I worked at Google, Yahoo, Airbnb, and then now, I'm back in startup land, where I am CTO and co-founder of another small startup.

Alex Booker (03:59):
That's so impressive, the fact you taught yourself back then, when YouTube was about cat videos and fail videos, less so about how to comb your favorite app with React and stuff like this, but then you made your way into Silicon Valley, as well, which, for many professionals, is a lifelong ambition. Was it the fact that you went to San Francisco for the jobs and the career opportunities, or that you just happened to find yourself there and making the best of it?

Mike Chen (04:23):
Oh, I was dying to work for Google. When I just started working at startups, I really fell in love with programming. Just to give you a little bit of context about my career passions, I'm not a very career-minded person at all. When I was growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do and I got so lucky that programming was both accessible to me without a degree and is really lucrative and prestigious and I happen to love it. I feel like a lot of people getting into it now, it feels like a very lucrative thing to do. I think it's a really great career path and I find that not everyone loves it, but I happen to love it and I think that makes me really lucky. When I was working at my startup, I read a lot about Google and I followed the influencers at the time, I wouldn't really call them that back then.

Alex Booker (05:10):
Who are you thinking of?

Mike Chen (05:11):
I'm thinking of Paul Irish, Addy Osmani. Addy Osmani is still out there.

Alex Booker (05:15):
Oh yeah.

Mike Chen (05:15):
Paul Irish, I think he's a PM now at Google and doesn't really create tech content, but Addy's still out there doing a lot of stuff, and Ilya Grigorik. So, these are the OG DevRel people, before I even knew what a DevRel was.

Alex Booker (05:29):
But the funny thing is, some of Paul Irish, his work and stuff, people still come across a little bit today, I see his blog posts. Just the other day, I don't think it's so relevant these days, but creating a HTML5 Shiv and stuff like that. Ah, it's just cool that they inspired you.

Mike Chen (05:42):
One of his adages, I still stick to it, it's tools, not rules, so the idea that instead of relying on people to follow rules to not make mistakes, you build tooling around it, so CI checks, anything around linting and pull requests, making it impossible for people to make mistakes, automated testing, all that kind of stuff. So, building guardrails in place in your systems, rather than relying on tribal knowledge, telling people what to do. I'm going into detail on this, because this is something that Paul Irish espoused a decade ago, it still holds true. I was so enamored with all those influencers back in the day and they really make me want to work for Google, it worked.

Alex Booker (06:22):
I think I started a little bit later than you and I was never as successful as a developer, by the way, I never worked at Google, but Addy Osmani really inspired me, as well. I think the way in which he inspired me as a content creator, and this applies to the progression of YouTube, too, is that Google, maybe it was Google Chrome developer channel rather than the Google Channel or something, but Addy Osmani and crew, there's a few of them, started making these really high production quality videos around stuff you would never, up until then, never have expected to see people invest in the production quality of. Because even when coding videos were starting to emerge, it was just really low, 360p resolution quality, his problem A, his solution B type of thing, I love that.

For me, by the way, as someone who grew up in the countryside and I never really got to interact with developers, I love just getting to watch them work and see how their minds work and see how they interact and things, and that totally fueled my ambition, as well. But obviously, different parts of the world, I'm more into content, you're more into coding. You got into Google, I think, in 2014 or around then, and although today, it's quite commonly understood that Google don't really gatekeep based on computer science degrees, I think back then, it was certainly less clear. I'm sure there were some outliers and I think you might have been one of them. But rather than gas, I'd love to hear from you, what was your experience getting into a MAANG company, I guess, like Google at the time, without a computer science degree?

Mike Chen (07:42):
You're right that there was a bit of a turning point around when I was looking. It's funny, so I got recruited to Google, sheer luck. I got recruited to Yahoo and then I got recruited to Google from Yahoo, and I think being at Yahoo is how Google noticed me. They asked me to submit a resume, even though the recruiter family on LinkedIn. By the way, always have a LinkedIn. It's crazy to me that there's advice out there being like, "LinkedIn doesn't matter." I hate LinkedIn, but I think it's extremely valuable, I have no idea why people are telling you not to be on LinkedIn. I found every good opportunity, so many good opportunities through LinkedIn, just do it. So, I got recruited through LinkedIn and they asked me to submit a resume, and I intentionally left my degree off of my resume and they said, "Hey, put your degree on," so they still cared. So, I think maybe we were using it as a signal, but not as, necessarily, a gatekeepy tactic.

I don't know if this is a confession or not, but I got into Google through not this software engineering role, but at the time, it was called a webmaster role, which is hilariously outdated. It was hilariously outdated even back then. But I got in through this webmaster role and it turned into another role called creative engineer, which also sounds like a fake role, but I transitioned to a role called UX engineering. So, there are different ladders, at least at the time, I don't know what it's like anymore, but UX engineering is still a real ladder, and the hiring bar is a little different for each one. The software engineering bar is very different than UX engineering or creative engineering.

If you're looking to be a software engineer at some point in the future, too, you can always transition and I think that transition's a lot easier than interviewing. So, my experience is getting in the side door. I'm not sure I would've passed the software engineering interview back then. I think at this point, I probably would. I didn't know as many data structures and there weren't as many on the interview, it was more practical back then. So, I don't think they were as strict about the degree for creative engineering/webmastering and so I think that's partly contributed to my success in breaking in.

Alex Booker (09:46):
Can we just understand that a bit more? What made it different from the software engineering role? What made a creative engineer a creative engineer?

Mike Chen (09:53):
So, creative engineering and webmastering is more about websites rather than web apps, so a lot of what you'll see now is people hiring for web apps, people building a Gmail rather than the marketing site for Gmail. So, creative engineering was more about the website portion of it and I think in that sense, it was a little bit easier than a general front-end engineering role. Back then, front-end engineering was seen as a very much lesser role. This was very true at the second startup I worked at, where my manager specifically said, "I don't think JavaScript is a real language." She was actually saying that around the same time when these frameworks started coming out, we were using Backbone at the time. I think it led us to a lot of tech debt because she wasn't taking it seriously, even though our app was built in, essentially, JavaScript.

I saw a lot of this attitude in the mid-2010s, where companies were still not really taking JavaScript seriously and single-page apps were starting to become a real thing. We had a lot of engineers who didn't know JavaScript really well and CSS really well, we still have a lot of engineers who don't know CSS really well, and I think were building bad apps back then because of that. So, I think Google started to think about front-end in a more holistic way and split up these different roles. I just named three different front-end roles, UX engineering, webmaster/creative engineer, and they also had a front-end software engineer role, so they had three different roles to describe three different areas of the stack. I think they weren't the only ones starting to think about that as these front-end frameworks were starting to come about.

So, creative engineering, this is my experience with it. Creative engineering was more, like I said, websites, UX engineering was more UI/UX, there were two different UX engineer ladders. I apologize that this is getting too much in the weeds, but I think it's interesting to see how different companies deal with the distinction. There were two different UX engineering ladders, one was more design focused and those were people who were doing prototypes and design, and then one was more engineering, so those were people building web apps, we limit it to the front-end. And then there was another front-end engineering role, which is I think what most companies would consider full stack, is just they work on front-end, they also work on the Java layer, but they don't get into the microservices and the deep backend distributed computing stuff.

Alex Booker (12:18):
I will be right back with Mike Chen in just a minute, but first, Jan, the producer and I have a quick favorite to ask of you.

Jan Arsenovic (12:25):
Word of mouth is the single best way to support a podcast you like, so if you're enjoying this episode and if you want to help us keep doing what we're doing, please share it with someone. You can share the podcasts and socials like Twitter and LinkedIn on Discord or even in-person, a little social proof goes a long way. If you're feeling extra supportive, you can also subscribe to the show wherever you subscribe to podcasts or wherever you follow podcasts, we don't discriminate. You can also leave us a five star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. This is a weekly show and if you subscribe, you can make sure you will never miss a thing. Next week, we're talking to a new developer who is doing a lot of fun stuff. RΓ­an studies computer science, linguistics, and a language, he interned at Microsoft, and he also teaches kids how to code in Java and HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

RΓ­an Errity (13:20):
So, at Microsoft I was backend, I was C#/ASP.NET. In my free time, which I suppose it's not really free time because I'm working, but I'm working with the research group in my home university called Abair, it's the Irish word to speak, and what we work on is Irish language speech technology, so things like given an arbitrary string of text, let's generate speech. I'm also working on an AAC device, which is augmentative and alternative communication. It's a tool to allow people who are non-verbal to communicate electronically using the synthesizer.

Jan Arsenovic (13:55):
I am really looking forward to this episode, so stay tuned for that, RΓ­an is on next Tuesday. Now, we're back through the interview with Mike.

Alex Booker (14:05):
Google is such a huge company doing so many things and I think people forget that sometimes, because you will have people who are contributing to products like Gmail and user interfaces like YouTube come to mind, but then they also have Google Home and Google Home has marketing pages. They have other things like Google reviews and then they give support agents internally tools to help customers with their negative reviews and dealing with conflicts and stuff. It's just so different and so vast, I think it's hard to generalize what any of these given roles do.

Mike Chen (14:36):
Agreed. I think the scale of how many just marketing pages they have, they translated things into 66 languages when I was there. Even just the translation architecture for these marketing websites was a team on its own. It's hard to grasp the scale of it when you're just looking at it from the outside, but it was really fascinating to be inside and seeing all the different people necessary to just produce this one marketing site for Google Cloud.

Alex Booker (15:06):
It sounds like the experience of a lifetime, to be honest. I'm sure you're very happy for the experience and the things you learned, but ultimately, you decided to go back into the startup world. I was interested about your perspective as a developer. It sounds like yes, you preferred working at startups, but can I ask why? What would you recommend to new developers, should they pursue midsize businesses, huge businesses, or maybe startups?

Mike Chen (15:32):
This is based on outdated intel. By the way, if anyone gives you advice about what to do with your career, you have to always keep in mind that this is just what they did and they have an entirely different set of goals than you do and they were living in a different time than you were. I'll give that caveat even for my advice, you should always remember that I'm giving advice based on my perspective and what worked for me. I think everyone should go to FAANG if you get the opportunity. I don't think you should trip over yourselves to get into it, but if you're given the opportunity, it's crazy to me that people would say, "Turn that down," because it's not a big deal, it's not as prestigious. I agree, you should temper your goals, but for me, going to Google was the opportunity of a lifetime, not even just me working there, but the opportunities that I had after that. Anyone will give me an interview now because I went to Google, and whether it's fair or not, it's besides the point, I actually think it's not.

I've worked with many people in the course of my career and some of them were good and some of them were bad or not as good, even a FAANG, but I think it's just such a good opportunity to get a big name on your resume and to see what kind of opportunities happen after that. So, even just for the name recognition, I feel bad perpetuating and being an apologist for this prestige-based recruiting method, but it is the reality of it. I'm just giving advice based on that reality. I mentioned the coolness of being involved in this machine of all this different stuff that happens at a global scale, but I think the downside of that is not really the feeling like the ownership of just the craft.

So, for me, I really like just building something from beginning to end, it's really hard to do that at Google. It's really hard to just start with nothing and create something, you're always relying on other people and the systems that are in place. I think that there's something really magical about creating something from scratch that didn't exist at all before and now it exists. That's honestly why I got into programming in the first place. My very first app that I created was this flashcard app for my girlfriend at the time. She was studying for her GREs and I created this app and I did it for nothing. It was just such a magical experience to just sit down at my keyboard and just create something. I didn't feel that at Google or at any other big company that I've ever worked at. I wasn't really feeling like I was creating, I was just part of something. I think that's cool and I think it's got its own positives, but in the end, I think it was just a personality thing, it wasn't for me.

Alex Booker (18:08):
I like that, man. I wish I knew I could impress girls with my coding skills earlier in life.

Mike Chen (18:13):
I think that there's just that creative aspect of it that allows you to give gifts. If you make something cool for someone, I feel like that's worth more than just buying something. Doing something yourself allows you to do that from start to end.

Alex Booker (18:25):
I make light of it, but I completely know what you mean. For some reason, it always seems to be for a partner or something, but a friend of mine I used to work with, for his anniversary, he built his girlfriend a digital version of a game she used to play as a kid, which I just thought was awesome. I forget their name, this person's more prolific, I think they're a course instructor and this is going back a few years now, but they proposed to their girlfriend using an app, essentially, which I think, again, if it's what you're into, I don't think my girlfriend would like that, but I think it was really cool. The real point you're making here is that this was your passion, building stuff from beginning to end, feeling ownership of it, having autonomy, getting to choose a little bit what you work on and how you do it.

Oftentimes in a conglomerate, you're something of a small cog in a big machine and you're often tasked with quite specific things rather than exploratory things, which doesn't suit everybody. But conversely, at a startup, pretty much nobody knows what they want or what they're doing, so you get a lot of chance to not only explore, but make a big impact on the process, and it sounds like that's suited you. It is an individualistic choice. Maybe you have to try both, maybe you can rely on what you know about yourself, maybe you make a strategy. I like your strategy a lot. You're so right, if you can get a big company like Google on your resume, and I know about this prestige hiring because I've not worked at Google and had someone reach out to me, but I've worked with hiring managers and leaders who've actually been like, "Oh, we've got this candidate in the pipeline from Google," and they're super excited about it, but they don't necessarily talk about anything else, just their credentials. So, I totally get that as a strategy, but startups suit some people more, I guess.

Mike Chen (19:57):
Honestly, as a hiring manager, I understand it a little bit more, it's a shortcut. Seeing that this company was on a resume, it's a shortcut to getting a little bit of signal about how good this person is as an engineer. When you're trying to hire, time is really precious. I get hundreds of applications for every single role for my no-name company. By the way, the name of my company is Motivo.

Alex Booker (20:21):
We'll link it in the show notes.

Mike Chen (20:22):
I just want to be clear, too, that Google wasn't for me, but I say this a lot, that even if present day Mike went back to 2010 Mike and was like, "Hey, I know you want to work for Google, but it's going to disappoint you," I still wouldn't have listened. I would have had to see for myself, and so I think everyone should see for themselves and see whether they enjoy it or not. Some people, that's all they want to do and I don't think that's good either, I don't think that's healthy. So, I think finding that balance of if you're interested, try and get in, but don't let it be this unattainable dream that you put on a pedestal, because that's what it was for me and it took me a while to get out of that mindset when I decided I didn't like it.

Alex Booker (20:58):
Some people, they associate working at these big companies as being successful and they associate everything else as less than. For most people, it's about prestige, and you've used that word a few times. I think development is a very prestigious career, actually. We don't always recognize that, but I tell people I know how to code and they're like, "Oh, you know how to code?" They're always a little bit impressed by it. At the same time, once you're in the industry, you don't appreciate how you can code and how special that is, you're comparing yourself now with other developers.

I think a lot of people now have heard stories about kids being pushed by their parents to do something they never wanted to do, like dentistry or medicine or whatever else it might be, eventually, it all comes crumbling down, because they were never that keen on it in the first place, they were just doing it to appease someone else, I suppose. The same is true for your career as a developer, what was far more valuable, what burns a lot cleaner and longer in terms of energy and motivation is your intrinsic motivation. If you can articulate that somehow and nurture it and get to the bottom of your reason why, what is your purpose, what do you believe in, what do you enjoy doing? You can probably create a checklist of the things you want from a job and a career and you can satisfy that checklist with probably hundreds of different companies and teams and equally get compensated very well in the process.

Mike Chen (22:11):
I love that mindset, I think it's okay, also, to not know what you want at first, but I think you should try to figure it out as fast as possible. Before you even break into the industry, it's going to be really challenging to figure out, "Oh, what do I really want in a dev job?" I think you'll figure it out and I think you just have to be really honest with yourself, that's one thing that I was really lacking. I had that introspection when I first started, and then I was so goal-oriented that I lost that for several years. I probably gave Google more of a chance than I should have and maybe could have saved some time. If you are really thoughtful about what you're looking for, I think you can be happy at a number of different places.

I would also say the best way to be taken down a peg is to go work at FAANG companies in Silicon Valley itself, because when you are there, everyone you meet works at a FAANG company and it seems like very not a big deal at all. I think even in the startup land in Silicon Valley, it's looked down on to work at these FAANG companies, because it's taking the easy, cushy way out rather than really working hard. This is another thing, is that grind mindset, which is also bad, but I think it's a bit humbling to feel like, "Oh, I got to Google and I'm the king now," or, "I'm royalty now," and then to just meet everyone that already works there and it's not a big deal.

Alex Booker (23:34):
You're 1 in 20,000, at least.

Mike Chen (23:36):

Alex Booker (23:37):
I've been on work trips to San Francisco and the Bay Area and you go to a bar and you're just meeting strangers and you're like, "Hey, what do you do?" And every other person is like, "Oh, I work at Oracle. Oh, I work at Microsoft." It's actually kind of hilarious when you think about it.

Mike Chen (23:51):
It's really hard to be in a coffee shop without seeing someone talking about coding, without hearing about some investor talking to some founder-

Alex Booker (23:59):
And they have the backpacks and the jumpers and the stickers. You see it everywhere, don't you?

Mike Chen (24:02):
Yes. My wife is commenting on how, we live in Seattle now, and just when you look around, people are dressed in work clothes. In the Bay Area, no one's dressed in work clothes, everyone is just wearing hoodies and tech backpacks and stuff like that. It's a very stark difference.

Alex Booker (24:19):
That's hilarious. Sneakers and skateboards and boosted boards, I love it. We don't have too much time left. I really badly want to shift the topic a little bit into advice for new developers. The first thing you mentioned is virtue signaling and how, for example, having a prestigious company on your resume like Google can certainly signal to people that you've already been vetted and that they can trust you a bit quicker. I was wondering, as a new developer, how can you achieve something similar? I'm thinking roughly along the lines of certain ways of approaching your portfolio or building a bit of a reputation online, for example. Do those things realistically help a new developer without a degree and how can they go about doing that, would you say?

Mike Chen (25:00):
A lot of what I look for when I hire people is I want to know that you care. For a lot of technical skills, you can teach those on the job and you will teach them on the job. There's so much that you'll learn on the job that you won't learn beforehand, you don't have that much time to do it beforehand if you're working some other job and learning on the side, but you can't teach people how to care about something. I think that is something that is really valuable to me, is just getting signal that they care. It doesn't necessarily mean, "Oh, you need to code 25/7," it's just about showing that you actually what you're doing. I think also this is something that I feel pretty strongly about, I don't think you should have to programming later on in your career, but it really helps if you're learning from scratch and you're not that good at it yet and you need to get better, it really helps to like it.

I like seeing newer developers that like programming, because it gives me good confidence that they're going to push through when it gets hard. This idea of passion is such an interesting concept, because when you're very competent, you don't need to be passionate, you can get your work done and just go home and it's not a big deal. But when you are just starting out, I feel like it makes a really big difference. This is something true for every single developer that I've come across who feel like is exceptional or significantly above average, almost all of them went through a phase in their lives when they were just studying all the time. I feel like that's a bit of work glorification, but I think if you want, it's very unpopular to say, I feel like these days, that if you want outsized success and you want outsized skill, you need to put in outsized effort. I feel like that's very unpopular these days.

It feels very capitalist to say, but at the same time, I feel like it's been my reality, that I put in the time when I was younger and now, I need to work not as hard because I'm better at the craft. So, that's my advice to people, is having a portfolio. I don't necessarily think the social media stuff very much helps. I think writing about what you're learning is really helpful to show what are you actually learning and sharing that with other people, but I think the portfolio stuff, in the absence of other signal, that's really helpful for me to see that, "Hey, you know how to solve problems with code." I think it's been said many times before, but just build things, it kills two birds with one stone. When I'm looking at new developers, I'm worried about their skill level, I'm worried about their longevity. People out there building projects really shows me that they can do this and that they like it, those are two things that I really look for in new developers.

Alex Booker (27:45):
You want to see a demonstrable track record. It's not something they've picked up and slugged through, but rather, not just that they have a track record, but also they still have momentum and you can see that they genuinely enjoy it. That's probably a great sign that they're intrinsically motivated and they're going to keep putting in the work to get to the level they need to be to be successful in the role. I also completely resonate with what you say, that if your starting point is that you're dull about coding and you're like, "Oh I don't know, I just want a job," kind of thing, where are you going to go from there?

You're only going to go down and that can't be a good thing. But if you do start with a huge amount of enthusiasm, over the course of years doing the same thing, it might, it might not deteriorate a little bit, or you find new ways to make it inspiring and interesting for yourself. You, for example, you mentor others and I think that's one way you keep this role and what you're doing interesting. But also, what you said I think rings completely true, that the more you've been doing it, the more skillful you are at it, the less time you can spend solving the same problem. But am I understanding you, more or less?

Mike Chen (28:44):
I think that's pretty much what I'm saying. I recognize my privilege. I understand that I was given a lot of really good opportunities early on in my career and I know it's much harder to do that now. I also know that it's a painful journey into development. I didn't really talk too much about how much I worked back then. I had a full-time job, I studied around four to six hours a night on weekdays. When I did an unpaid internship to try to get some experience, I probably studied 9 to 10 hours on the weekends, and that is draining, so I very much empathize with people who are trying to break into the industry. I think my whole timeline was about, from start to finish, was 9 to 11 months, but I know some people who have been at it for year and a half, two years, even more than that, so I totally get being too tired to really give out that passion.

So, I understand if people are listening to me and being like, "Oh, it's easy for you to say," but I think as much as you can do that. I would to the point about not having to work as hard later in your career, my passion has waned over the course of time. It's almost impossible for that not to happen, I feel. Actually, that's not true. I know people who like it pretty much as much as they did when they first started. But I think if you put in the work at the beginning, I would say that I could probably pass for a senior engineer at a big company with three to four hours of work a day, if I'm working from home, but the only way that I could do that is because I put in so much time to get fast, to learn how to think quickly and to write code quickly. So, if that is your goal eventually in life, to work less, then put in the work now.

Alex Booker (30:21):
It's a very delicate subject these days, because the narrative is very much about self-care, avoiding burnout, doing things sustainably, long-term consistency over a short-term intensity. I have found myself starting to buy into this stuff and I do believe it's possible for me to be a high performer in the long-term whilst doing that, because I often get very excited about something and then, unfortunately, on the long long-term project, that initial excitement can fade. So, I found that once I entered the workforce, sustaining myself and pacing myself has worked a lot better overall, and I can be a better performer, better teammate, better contributor. But when I was learning to code, I took that very intense approach. I was quite fortunate to be able to do that, because I was a teenager, I didn't have to work, necessarily. I had to pay a very small amount of money towards bills and rent and stuff, but nothing compared to what some of my guests and successful students I've spoken to have had to do, like supporting a family alongside their learning and stuff like that.

But I took a very intense approach, much like yourself, the weekends weren't really a thing, I would seriously have a disciplined schedule, and I would just try and cram as much as I could out of every day. To be honest, when I reflect on it, it wasn't because I was super disciplined or anything, to be honest, I was mostly kind of scared, I think, because once you go down this path long enough, you are all in and you've told everybody, "I'm going to be a developer," and you don't have a backup plan. I think I was just kind of scared to realize that.

I can't say I burned out in that case, because I also did deeply love problem solving. I loved getting better at something actually meaningful. Instead of quick scoping on Call of Duty or something, I was actually getting good at something that can make a difference. I guess everybody's a little bit different. People have different temperaments and stuff, as well, that doesn't work for everybody. Some people prefer to learn code alongside their job and find a way to make it work, but allocate more time to do it. A lot of the time, it comes down, like we said earlier, to your intrinsic motivation.

Mike Chen (32:16):
I'm gradually revealing my journey throughout the course of this podcast. This advice has worked well for me financially, but I also lost something in those years when I was grinding. I remember, my brother at one point, he invited me to go to a movie and I think he was really bummed that I kept saying no. We had to have a conversation where I was just saying, "Every day that I don't put in this effort is another day I have to stay at my dead-end job." I felt this urgency about it that I think hurt my relationships, it hurt my hobbies. So, it is a little bit hard for me to not backtrack on that advice, but I think now that I have kids and stuff like that, and I want to work at a comfortable salary, it's a little bit easier for me to do that because of the time I spent becoming more efficient back then. It is a really tough trade-off and I want to just pitch both sides of it.

I also think that a lot of the advice that I see around this whole quiet quitting concept, which is just crazy to me that this is a term that is being used to just do your job requirements, that's just working. In my opinion, quiet quitting is just working. But for me, I always wanted to climb the ladder because I wanted to have more financial security and also get better at the craft, and so I had those motivations to doing it. I feel like tech is one of the very few industries where if you put in more time to get better at what you're doing, it will pay off. That's definitely not true in every industry. There's so many industries where you can put in 80-hour weeks and it doesn't earn you any more than 40-hour weeks.

I feel like with tech, I just want to be clear that it doesn't mean, oh, putting in more hours to solve a couple extra tickets at your junior engineering job. It means going home and studying and really brushing up on those things that you had trouble with and getting better at problem solving, getting more efficient at your editor, just really being strategic about the actual things that you're spending your time on, rather than earning your company a little bit more money. I'm not saying just grind it out mindlessly, but really being strategic about your learning, if you do that, I think you will get rewarded for it in the long run and that's the only reason I advocate for it. I wouldn't do that for retail. If you're working retail, I feel like there's only so much you can do to move up the ranks.

Alex Booker (34:36):
Fundamentally, you are a problem solver and you're building a specialist knowledge and you have so many paths within coding, so you could, over the course of a decade, develop deep, specialized knowledge about one thing, and then you can solve a problem in a few hours that only you or a few others can solve, but it would take everybody else hundreds of hours, and why should you get paid less to do that, just because you'd invested all that time to do it fast? They might say, "Why should we pay you so much? It only took you an hour." It's like, "Do you want me to spend 100 hours doing it instead?" They probably wouldn't want that either. So, there's a few things we could go into there. There are so many powerful things in tech as to what you learn and how you approach your career. You might just get really good at doing one thing, you might become a generalist and that affords you the flexibility to work at lots of different types of companies that see your other interests and passions. I love that about tech.

But above all else, you are building knowledge that no one else can take away from you, you are truly investing in yourself. It's very hard to code day in and day out and not get better at it and not to go deeper into it and not to become quicker, more experienced. We spoke a little bit about how, in a sense, if you have a lot of experience as a developer, you can work a bit less and get paid the same, and maybe you choose to take your foot off the gas, this is a privilege you unlocked. You can take your foot off the gas in your career to focus on family and stuff while sustaining an income, but if you are still ambitious, things might not get any easier, but you certainly go a lot faster and you can do bigger, better things, make a bigger impact, do things you believe in. I just think all these things are so powerful about learning to code. However you approach it, whether it's intense or long-term, it is certainly worth it, isn't it, Mike?

Mike Chen (36:08):
Yeah. Something I got used to being in Silicon Valley, just the idea that you can make $400, $700 million a year if you get good enough at your job, that's not true for almost any, maybe finance or something like that, but this is one of the few industries where there's almost no cap on how much you can make. Obviously, I think have to work at a healthy company that respects your skills or, like you said, you can try to find a job where you work less. There's so many different options, because if you are good at development, there's going to be almost an unlimited supply of jobs that you can get.

Alex Booker (36:40):
We're so almost out of time, but I have one last question. It's about the fact that, for all your success, you now spend a lot of time helping others. You came on this podcast, you did a mock interview with me, we've done a lot of Twitter spaces together, you've done a lot without me. You've also published a lot of blog posts and you live stream, not only doing the code, but you engage a lot in the chat and helping people. As far as I can tell, this has got very little, if anything, to do with money. It seems to be something about which you're passionate and like to pay forward. Just in closing, I wanted to understand why you're so motivated to help everybody. Where does that come from?

Mike Chen (37:18):
I think it is that self-taught nature of my breaking into the industry. When I came into the industry, I was hired by, I would say, one of the top two best mentors I ever had in my entire career was my first one. He was so smart and knew everything. I still, to this day, am not sure why he hired me. I basically didn't know that much PHP, but I did the coding challenge in JavaScript, even though the job was mainly PHP, and he saw something in me that led him to hire me and coach me up and worked with me really closely. I got paid very little, by the way, so this wasn't like they were doing me a huge favor, but my mentor, at least, he was really a huge value add to my life. Before I broke into tech, I found this email thread that I had with someone who I basically heard, this is still the message today, is get into open source.

So, I heard, "I'm going to get into open source, I'm going to try to write some code for Chromium," this C++ open source project that Google Chrome runs on, and I was trying to get the dev environment set. There was no GitHub back then, everything was these different repos. I was trying to get the repo onto my machine and get the C++ stuff to compile, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember having this conversation with this one guy who's working on the project, I found it in my Gmail, this 30-thread long conversation with this guy who was trying to help this new engineer get up to speed on this open source project, he was just so patient with me. That's basically it, is remembering, back then, that people had to take a chance on me. I see this happening now with all these people who are trying to get into tech and it's really hard. It's really, really hard. There's so much competition. I always remember back the time when someone had to do the same for me and I try to do the same for other people.

Alex Booker (39:09):
We appreciate it so much, Mike. I've had a blast jumping on events and doing videos and now, this podcast with you. Thank you so much for joining me and spending some time with me and the Scrimba listeners. It's been a super inspiring, super impactful, and I hope it was really fun for people to listen to, because I had a lot of fun speaking with you today.

Mike Chen (39:26):
Thanks so much, Alex, I really appreciate it. I hope I am not canceled for my pro-work mentality.

Jan Arsenovic (39:34):
That was Mike Chen. Thanks for listening. Make sure to check out the show notes for all the ways to connect with him and the resources mentioned in this interview. We also did a couple of YouTube videos with Mike and I'll be linking them all in the show notes, which reminds me, if you can still hear the ad after the intro, you can also be in a video with him, so check out the show notes for that. If you haven't heard the ad, well, keep listening to the podcast and you will hear about a next opportunity when it arises. The podcast is hosted by Alex Booker out of London, you can find his Twitter handle in the show notes. I am your mildly nomadic producer, Jan, and as you're listening to this, I'll be going back to the Netherlands, where I'm based out of, after five weeks on the road. Where are you listening from? Tweet at us and tell us. Don't forget to share what you've learned from the pod. Otherwise, we'll see you next week.