This is the first episode of the “Remarkable Podcast” with host Mark and guest Seamus Martin. Seamus is the founder of Dashlight.io and an ex-PowerSchool Tech Lead.
We discuss how Seamus got started in tech, which includes his transition from math teacher to developer, his experience going through a coding bootcamp, his process of finding interviews to getting hired, and his time working as an engineer at a mid-to-large sized company.
- It’s never too early or too late to pursue your passion
- You never stop learning in tech
- Coding bootcamps provide a tech-like environment, but aren’t necessary to land your first job
- There are many free/inexpensive ways to learn about tech
- Find ways to get paid to learn (e.g., internships)
- Networking, cold emailing, and asking for referrals are all strategies to get noticed by recruiters
- Practice makes perfect when interviewing
- In tech, there are many different roles other than engineering that you can pursue
- Find great mentors and managers who can help you grow
- When you feel like you’re no longer growing or happy, then it’s time to move on
MARK: Welcome to another remarkable podcast. I’m your host Mark and today we’re joined by Seamus Martin. Welcome to the show and thank you for joining me.
SEAMUS: Thanks for having me.
MARK: For the listeners out there who don’t know who you are, can you briefly introduce yourself?
SEAMUS: My name’s Seamus Martin. I work with remarkablemark at PowerSchool—or I did work with him up until last Monday (8/3/20). I quit my job after 2.5 years to start a company.
MARK: Since this topic is about how we got into tech, for those who don’t know, you used to be a math teacher?
SEAMUS: So right out of college, I decided to do Teach for America and I was a math teacher for about 2 years before getting started in any sort of tech discipline.
MARK: Nice. What was your motivation for transitioning from teacher to tech?
SEAMUS: When I was a teacher, I would constantly preach to my students that you could constantly be learning and that you should learn to love learning. By the end of just preaching that for 2 years, I realized that the thing that I love the most was learning. I started to go on Quora and a bunch of different blogs and read about different topics and found I was constantly being drawn towards topics about tech because there’s so much to learn about technology. So that was something that I wanted to do, [which] was to choose a career where I could be learning for my entire career. Learning new stuff—and we do, we learn new stuff everyday.
MARK: For sure, I definitely agree with you that we’re always constantly learning. How was the process of transition[ing] to tech?
SEAMUS: I signed up for 2 years to teach and by the end of the first year, I kind of knew that tech was what I wanted to do. I started to try to find places in the school year where I can work in technology. I did some clubs where we could do basic programming. I worked a lot with our computer science teacher to figure out cool projects for kids to do. I started to do stuff like creating worksheets using programs and getting all of my students’ email addresses and sending them emails automatically if they weren’t doing well. That sort of beginner stuff. By the end of that year—that last year of teaching—I still wasn’t feeling super confident in my ability so I did a programming bootcamp. Shortly after that, I started working professionally as a programmer. Looking back, I probably didn’t need to go to the bootcamp, it didn’t help me that much. It taught me React really well, which was good, but other than that, it didn’t help me that much with knowing how to code.
MARK: Gotcha, that’s interesting because I know that there are quite a few people who didn’t study computer science and so they went to bootcamps. Do you mind going more into your experience in the bootcamp, like how did you get in and the curriculum there?
MARK: Gotcha, that makes sense. I know that 5 years ago, Rails was this big thing and so [for] a ton of bootcamps, the curriculum was just based on Rails. But now, it’s expanded to React and other technologies [like] Node.js.
SEAMUS: Yeah, that makes sense. With those technologies, you can learn one language and be a full stack programmer.
MARK: I feel like bootcamps are trying to ensure that they stay up-to-date. Because if an employer is seeking to hire somebody, it’s most likely going to be one of the more used or popular languages or frameworks these days.
SEAMUS: Right. What was interesting is [that] Google doesn’t realize that I went to this bootcamp but I still get advertisements for my bootcamp. They have a cryptocurrency module now. I think they do 2 or 3 days on an intro to what you have to learn to get a machine learning job. So they’re constantly listening to what students want to learn and adapting to that. All that said, I think I could have probably gotten that first job at Schoology without [the bootcamp]. Nothing asked in the interview was stuff that we’ve learned in the bootcamp. It was basically simple data structures and a couple SQL problems.
MARK: Gotcha. Actually, that’s a really interesting point. I would like to dive deeper into that. So you said that you probably didn’t even need the bootcamp. What do you mean by that?
MARK: Gotcha, I think that makes sense. Then if someone who didn’t know how to code wanted to get into tech, would you recommend bootcamp as an option?
SEAMUS: I think I would say it’s one of many ways that you can get started. I think there’s a lot of free resources out there just to learn how to solve those types of problems. freeCodeCamp.org is great and also there are LeetCode, Codewars, [and] all those places where you can flex your problem solving muscles. That’ll be more valuable than just learning specific frameworks. When you’re interviewing somebody, you’re not looking to test their framework knowledge, are you? Or maybe that’s just me.
MARK: Yeah I think every company does interviewing different[ly], but I also feel like interviewing in the technical profession is still kind of broken. Yes, we have all these prerequisites like X plus years in React, SQL, or some backend language. But when we go down to the coding or technical challenge on the whiteboard, it’s more or less data structures and computer science, which we may not even do on a day-to-day basis. So I feel like coding bootcamp is nice because it teaches you some applicable stuff to help build your portfolio [and] help you create these demos that you can present to companies. But then when it comes to the technical interviewing part, I still feel like that can be improved. I like to structure my technical challenges more on things that I have worked on and [are] more applicable to the feature area. Rather than [asking] all these abstract questions, which doesn’t really tell you how well you are at building something. Maybe that’s [what] we’re looking to hire for example.
SEAMUS: I think that makes sense. I think what coding bootcamp is is [an environment] to give you real experience applying knowledge to a problem. In the form of those demo apps, you basically have [to spend] time to construct a fully working site. That’s not [a] small [feat and] that’s a good test of whether you’re ready to work at a company.
MARK: That’s true. So after building the final project, did the bootcamp help you in any way in find[ing] your job?
SEAMUS: So they had a whole career-services, which was pretty helpful. They helped us write good resumes—that was the biggest help. What I had done before applying for non-technical jobs was writing a lot of cover letters [and] sending resumes out. I found that that took a lot of time and I hated writing cover letters. So when I was applying for tech jobs, I would go on a site called Clearbit and there was a way to find the CTO of every company’s email address and I started firing off emails to CTO’s with my resume. And that’s what finally got me the job at Schoology and got my foot in the door for everything—all the interviews that I had. So that’s a way to do it.
MARK: That’s pretty genius. I actually did not even realize that.
SEAMUS: I think it really does work and I’ve given the advice to other people and they’ve had pretty good success with it too. And you don’t have to write cover letters, which is awesome.
MARK: Yeah I think that’s pretty genius. For me, I actually don’t like cover letters as well because a resume is enough if somebody really wants to reach out to you. They [recruiters or hiring managers] probably run those cover letters or resumes through some machine learning program. If it’s a large company [that] get[s] thousands of applicants a day—no one humanly possible will be able to read each one and spend the right time to go through them. So I think your strategy is brilliant. Getting the attention of the person in charge or getting the referral [are two amazing tactics]. For me, referrals [are] the main thing.
SEAMUS: [But] that’s hard for a new programmer. Especially if you haven’t worked in the industry and you don’t know anybody, it can be tough to be able to find somebody to refer you. Right now [since] I just quit my first job, knowing you and knowing other people from that company has helped me get contract work [and] has helped me open many doors. So that’s definitely how I’ll look for jobs in the future, [which is] through referrals.
MARK: Networking is still key, no matter what.
SEAMUS: Yeah 100%.
MARK: Nice, so I was going to ask you how you got your first job in tech. But it seems like you already answered it, which was [using] the brilliant strategy of firing email[s] to CTO[’s]. How was the interview[ing] process like?
SEAMUS: It was okay. I think Schoology at that time and a lot of medium-sized startups are getting to the point where they want to have an interviewing structure but they haven’t coordinated enough to do it. So I had a lot of really good interviews [but] they probably interviewed me too much for a junior position. I think I was interviewed like 6 times. They were all really good interviews, but they were all kind of disjointed. And good in their own way. Some of them had really good technical problems, while others gave me a better insight in the business and long-term vision. But it was good. I think Schoology was definitely one of the better places [to interview at] compared to [other companies]. I had a lot of interviews where it would be for [a role at] the smallest sized startup. You get kind of discouraged cause the interviewer would ask you a question and have nothing else prepared. If you get the question wrong [then] that’s it. So the interview could be 10 minutes and then over.
MARK: Yeah that’s true. I feel like if the interview[s] themselves don’t have a process, it can be hit-or-miss in a sense. Especially of the size and the maturity of the company as well. If it’s a really small startup that just started, you’re pretty much interviewing with the founder. And that interview could simply be a litmus test of if that person likes you or not.
SEAMUS: Exactly, which is super valuable at that stage. [If] you don’t like somebody that you’re going to spend every day [working] with, that matters so [it] does make sense.
MARK: It also feels crazy [for] the interview to have no technical challenge [and to] ask a basic question. And then you go to super large companies [which feels like such a big contrast]. Schoology at that time was more of a mid-stage company. So it wasn’t like a behemoth in terms of size. But if you interview at Google, I know [of] people [who] have spent a whole year interviewing at Google [and] that’s how long the process [takes]. They have so many checks in place before you can move on to the next round. And I think they’re just doing that in terms of quality control of the people they bring in because they know that it’s always more expensive to fire somebody. So that’s why they probably do that. And I think [at] Schoology we’re trying to get to a good place, but I do see that sometimes the process can get pretty crazy as well.
SEAMUS: I think every individual [at Schoology]—lead or manager—wants to get to a good place, [it’s just] there hasn’t been a great coordinated effort yet.
MARK: And once again, like what I mentioned earlier, I do feel like the technical interviewing process isn’t the best and I think there can be a lot of improvements made to it. So for those who are new [and] are interviewing, it can get pretty discouraging when you don’t see [a] predictable [process]. Or you see a ton of interview questions where the main questions are computer science [related] stuff. If that’s not what you’re doing day-to-day, you might feel discouraged because that’s not what you’re trained at.
SEAMUS: Yeah I think that can be a self-fulfilling thing. You might not want to work at a company that has bad measures for success as a part of their interviewing process. That would probably lead you to believe that there are other parts of the business where they don’t look for quality indicators [like] promotion. What’s funny is that it would be so crazy for us to have to take tests to get promoted. But there’s a test to get hired in the first place. But I can’t imagine Nathan—our old manager—coming up to me and saying, “Reverse this linked list and I’ll make you a senior dev.”
MARK: Yeah that’s true. It’s like once you’re in, you’re kind of clear like you don’t really take any more tests. You can always take certifications and that will improve your outlook, but they don’t make you [take another] test if they’re going to promote you from senior to lead. It’s just based on your accomplishments.
SEAMUS: Right, which is crazy because that’s actually where they spend the most money, [which] is through promoting you.
MARK: I agree with you. I feel like the interviewing process [and] getting the foot-in-the-door [are] kind of [the] hardest [hurdles to overcome]. That’s just something you [have] to practice [to] get better at. As long as the status quo doesn’t change. people [will] use the same structure of asking computer science related questions and whatnot.
SEAMUS: Right. And the reality is too that if you can take the long view, you only have to know that stuff for maybe 2 or 3 weeks out of your life. You can stay at a company for [a long time]. How long have you been at that job?
MARK: I’ve been [there] for more than 3 years.
SEAMUS: You could get rusty at this point. Or you could be forgiven for being a little rusty.
MARK: It’s like what they say, right? You should always practice interviewing once in a while just so you have all your concepts up-to-date and reinforced.
SEAMUS: I mean that’s true. After 3 years, you’ll forget [most of] anything.
MARK: Exactly, which is why I have this little rant about why I feel like coding interviews [are] just broken because in the end, knowing these concepts [are] good [since] it shows [you have] a good understanding of the fundamentals. But [during] the day-to-day, you’re never using it or you’re using a library that does all the work. Then why do you ever need to invert a binary tree? Why do you ever need to manually write the logic to do that if you have a library that’s used by millions [and is] open source too?
SEAMUS: Right. I was just going to say [that] those sorts of problems may be solved at certain jobs at hyperscale, so maybe that [is] actually relevant. But for writing a CRUD web app that’s still written mostly in Drupal, you don’t need that. That’s not the critical part of your site. And that’s reflected in the interview process [as] that sort of mid-tier company probably [doesn’t] have those sort of really tricky problems.
MARK: So like you mentioned before, the interviewee can learn about the company that’s interviewing them. I think that’s a really good point as well. [You should] always prepare questions [and] do research [before] the interviewing process [because] you can learn whether it’s a good company for you or not based on [the] questions they ask [and the responses they give]. So I think that that’s a super good point as well for those who are currently interviewing for example.
SEAMUS: Yeah and I think you can learn more about what you need to work on too. [This can help with] creating a baseline. What’s so crazy is that I think that if I had gone to a couple interviews before going to bootcamp, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a bootcamp. So [for] anybody who’s considering going to a bootcamp, [you] should first apply to three or four companies, try to get an interview with three or four companies, and see if you can just get a job. You might be able to.
MARK: Yeah, that’s true and then you save the money you [would have] spent on the bootcamp.
SEAMUS: Yeah, [you] save several thousand dollars.
MARK: Exactly. Bootcamps are pretty expensive.
SEAMUS: They really are.
MARK: They get the job done, but it is a bit pricey.
SEAMUS: Yeah and what’s crazy is at my bootcamp, the reason why it’s so expensive is that they typically run them out of these like super high rent office space. They try to give you, what is essentially, the tech life. You have Slack, sometimes catered lunch, all these things that try to give you this tech lifestyle but costs a lot of money. It’s like college, [where] you’re paying for room, board, and all of that too, which is crazy.
MARK: Maybe that’s the real price in the bootcamps—the environment they create.
SEAMUS: Well I mean, they do all of that and then they have to take a profit. Or they don’t have to, but they do. [That’s] private education.
MARK: Interesting. So after the interview, you landed your first tech job. How did that go?
SEAMUS: It went pretty well. We met each other [and] met a lot of cool people at Schoology. Schoology was a great place to grow up in a technical profession. [I] had a lot of good mentors [and] a lot of good managers. It went super well. The thing that I love about programming that I said earlier—that I always get to learn—that held true. I was learning the whole time and it was a lot of fun. I think that near the end I realized that I wasn’t learning as much because they put me in a good position for the business, which was creating and maintaining all of those different ETL’s in the backend. I pretty much had that part figured out so I wasn’t really learning as much anymore. And so [I] felt like I had to leave to go try something new. But overall, I think it was a super fun and successful couple years. I think the reason why it was so fun and successful was [because] I was always able to learn new stuff. [Plus, I was able to] reach out to kind mentors like you and other managers that I had. And [I was able to] get more work [done] and learn a lot.
MARK: Yeah, you never stop learning, especially when you’re in tech. One opportunity creates another so the more you learn, the more opportunities and paths you have. So for anyone who has a similar background as you and who would also want to get into tech and are new, what advice would you give them?
SEAMUS: Yeah I think the biggest thing is a bootcamp isn’t going to break down this imaginary wall. There’s no sort of credential that’s going to make you automatically a programmer. So you can put [your] resume out there and try to get a couple interviews if you think that you know programming. And [you can] save yourself a couple thousand dollars on a bootcamp or a CS degree. So that’s the biggest piece of advice and also there’s something for everybody in tech. The people that we work with are some of the most diverse people. If you’re not a programmer, there [are] other careers in tech. And tech’s a good industry to be in. You know we’re treated well, we’re respected at work, so if you’re not a programmer [then] maybe you can be a project manager, quality analyst, testing engineer, [or] plenty of other options.
MARK: Yeah, that’s for sure. If you want to try it out, I don’t think it hurts to try it out. And even if it doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something from it and it’ll help direct you to a path that you actually want to be getting towards. And I’ve seen many people who maybe once were engineers and then they transition to [a] PM role. Or someone who once was a QA analyst and ended up becoming a PM or developer. So there’s a lot of lateral movements that one can make, especially once you get into tech.
SEAMUS: Right, and there [are] so many different types of roles. There shouldn’t be anybody who can’t find a good role in an industry where you’re respected at work and paid pretty [well]. [So] it’s not a bad career to be in.
MARK: For sure. Tech, of course, is now a booming industry. [It] has been for the past decade. It’s always in high demand so I think it’s a good place to be in. And to follow up on that, what advice would you give yourself if you were to go back in time before your journey even started?
MARK: I agree with that comment 100%. I feel like sometimes somebody who’s new to something might think, “Oh, I shouldn’t do it yet because I’m not ready or I’m not prepared.” But in the end, you’re never ever 100% prepared so always take the first dive. And sometimes you need to kind of fake it until you make it. Similar to you, that was the same thing for me. I wasn’t great at tech [and] I pretty much knew nothing, but I got paid to take online courses [that taught] me tech and programming. And that’s actually how I got into it. Over time, I kept learning, I kept saying, “Yes, I can do this.” Then I ended up learning how to do it and then doing it. And I finally got up to where I am today. So I agree with you 100%.
SEAMUS: So tell me more about in what environment you were getting paid to take online classes.
SEAMUS: Yeah so I left Schoology to start a company and I’m about 5 days into it. My company is called Dashlight and Dashlight is trying to solve the problem of the silent unhappy employee. As you know, [since] we worked together for a long time, I was a very vocal [and] unhappy employee towards the end. Sometimes maybe too vocal? Telling everybody who would listen to all the gripes that I had day-to-day. And ultimately, those gripes went unanswered and I felt like I had to leave. But for every one of me, there’s a lot of less confrontational people that have feedback about how they’re being treated at work. And my company wants to create an avenue for collecting and analyzing that feedback. So that’s what I’m up to. If you want to check it out, it’s
https://dashlight.io/. Right now it’s just under construction, but it’ll change everyday so keep watching.
MARK: Nice, I’m excited.
SEAMUS: Yeah, it’s 4 days into it. I got the website up, got my backend [up], got my CI/CD set up, but not a ton of movement on the actual product.
MARK: Hey that’s fast. 4 days [to] get the site up? That’s pretty impressive speed. I’m excited to see where Dashlight goes. And for those who want to learn more about Seamus, how can they do that? Is there a way for them to contact you?
SEAMUS: Yes, [email protected]. My GitHub is spmartin823—I’m on there all the time. I’m around and I answer emails every hour.
MARK: Nice, awesome.
SEAMUS: Hit me up if you want to collaborate on any sort of project. That’s how me and Mark did this. [Laughs.] Just something to do. I’m always open to creating new things.
MARK: Yeah for sure. For those who are interested in getting into tech or have any questions or whatnot, feel free to reach out to Seamus or [to] me—my email’s [email protected]. And once again, I just want to say thank you for joining this podcast Seamus.
SEAMUS: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me Mark.
MARK: I wish you luck and stay remarkable!
Check out the next episode “How I Got into IT with Minh Nguyen”.