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Michael Chan Teaches You How To Break Into The Industry

Michael Chan chats with Kent about how he broke into the tech industry after the 2008 recession.

It was around 2008-2010 when Michael's family's business went under due to the recession. From that point, Michael spent every spare second he had reading whatever he could. He'd be reading Ruby and JavaScript documentation while he pushed his son on the swing.

In this episode, Michael talks about what it takes to break into the tech industry. He explains how interviews are a hackable skill and the importance of building relationships in the industry.

Homework

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    Michael Chan

    Michael Chan


    Transcript

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Hello friends, this is your friend Kent C. Dodds, and I am joined by my friend Michael Chan. Say hi, Michael.

    Michael Chan:
    Hey, how's it going?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Good, good. So happy to have you here, Michael. I feel like you should have been one of the first people I reached out to because I just feel a strong kinship to you, and so I'm excited for my friends who are listening to get to know my friend Michael. So Michael, can you tell us about yourself? It can be tech-related or anything else that you want to say.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah, yeah. So first I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to be on your show. We've had a few with you on the React Podcast and it was super fun. I love chatting with you. I'm actually nervous, which is hilarious, since I do this like twice a week, but it's good. It's good nervous.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    You're surrounded by friends here.

    Michael Chan:
    So yeah. So I'm Michael Chan. I go by Chantastic all over the internet, and I hosted React Podcast, and I work as a front-end architect just kind of doing front end things and CSS and JavaScript and I don't know, whatever else I'm supposed to know at the given at a given time. But yeah, that's what I do. And yeah. And then I'm trying more and more to follow your lead and some of the great educators of our time to just share what I know and help other developers be the best that they can be and be happy, not just in the short term but in the long term.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Oh, that's excellent. And, and you do a great job of it. I just want to make sure everybody understands the scope of this. So Michael, you teach on egghead.io. You've got tons of stuff on there. You have that React holiday. Is that what it is, React holiday?

    Michael Chan:
    Oh yeah. Every December. I do a kind of advent calendar-style thing where I do these two-minute videos on... I think last year it was just general React, the year before it was suspense, which all got blown away the year after.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That tends to happen. But yeah, by the way, it was just a Twitter thread of all these videos, and so engaging. Oh my goodness. If I could have a sliver of the engagement that you have in front of a camera, I would be really happy with myself.

    Michael Chan:
    Well, thanks. I blame that on my, my drama and show choir teachers. They extracted more out of me than I was willing to give. And now I guess maybe it feels easier.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Actually, I didn't realize you were in show choir. Show choir was a huge part of my growing up.

    Michael Chan:
    Oh, really?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, yeah. In high school, our show choir competed in the Northwest and won competitions. We went to Disneyland one year and won a big competition there.

    Michael Chan:
    Awesome.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, yeah. It was a huge part of my high school experience. So

    Michael Chan:
    Were you baritone? Tenor? Where were you?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, so let's see. I was baritone/tenor. I think that half of it I was baritone, and then the second half I was tenor, and then I went to men's chorus at BYU, and in men's chorus I started as 10 or tenor two and then the tenor one. So I mostly have been on the higher end of that spectrum.

    Michael Chan:
    Nice, nice. Singing in a choir is so fun. I have this dream, I think, when I have a little bit more free time in my life to just find people who sing barbershop and learn all those songs, because there's something about doing something in unison with other people, being so in sync and being that much of a team, that just thrills me. It literally gets my heart going. And now that we're talking about it, I feel like those moments, the unison that I experienced in choir, is something that I'm always chasing, and not quite getting in software development.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Totally. Yeah, absolutely. I certainly wasn't thinking about talking about this now, but just thinking about the experiences that I had in high school and in college when I was singing more... I absolutely know the feelings that you're talking about, and I have not felt those feelings in a long time.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. It's, it's tricky because so much of at least modern software development, and I can't speak to I guess earlier than 10 years 10 years in the past, but it feels like so much of it is about self-expression and self-validation these days. I mean, even to the point that I know that the last stack overflow report or whatever, the thing that was most important to developers looking for a job was the stack. And then it's so wild to me because, and maybe this is our choir coming out, but for me, what I want more than anything is unison. I want everyone to just be working as one, to depend on each other, and understand each other. This conversation is already making it clear to me what I'm missing from software development.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. I definitely feel something missing. It's one of those things where you didn't realize that you were missing this until something reveals that to you. Because I'm absolutely thinking about that. There's absolutely stuff that I miss from being a part of a group like that.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. This is something that I've been on the last maybe six months or something, is this idea of teamwork being the only thing that matters. And I think that we put so much focus on being the best, and it's automatically exclusionary. Because to be the best, you have to be better than everyone else. And so it's comparative by default. And I wish that we had a better way to think of being our best, and think about it being more collaborative. Who have you collaborated with today? How was that co-collaboration? Did both of you feel listened to and empowered? And so much of the metrics that we have just are not set up for that.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Totally.

    Michael Chan:
    Look, we have a 10x developers, the rock stars, and the all stars, and I wish we borrowed more from team dynamics, whether it be sports or choir or anything that you have to do together.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, absolutely. And I think that our social media amplifies that because when you get likes on a tweet, it's not your team getting likes on a tweet. You're the one getting those accolades. With educational material that I create, I create lots of that, but there's a lot of collaboration involved. But I'm the one who gets all the accolades for that because it's my voice. It's my hands on the keyboard. But there's so much that goes into that. And we've got open source libraries I'm using, and there's so much, but just the way that things are set up, the accolades go to the last person in the production line.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. And especially in our attention economy, it's so hard to... If you spent the first 10 minutes of a one-minute video, like one minute of content, just thanking everybody your work touches, no one would watch that. So it is kind of tricky.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. That's something interesting to think about. But let's go ahead and transition into something else that's also very interesting and wanted to talk about here. And that is... So I'm not exactly sure when this podcast will be released, but it should be when we're still going through or have very un-fond memories of the current time. And so this is being recorded on April 7th, and March was just a total nightmare with the coronavirus thing, and I expect that the economy will be in an even worse state. There will be even more people who have died from this thing, which is just so awful. And so Michael, one of the things that you wanted to talk about today I think is just really applicable to the current situation and maybe in the future situation for people, and that is how to transition careers in maybe not industries, but your specific niche in a career, during a bad economy or when things are not optimal for you to do so.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    And so the first thing I want to ask you about this is because we got started just chatting before we hit record, and you were telling me about the last recession that we went through in the United States, and some of your experience in there. Do you want to kick this off by telling us about your experience in that time.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah, absolutely. So I just want to preface this with just a privilege disclosure, because it's impossible for me to know all of the tailwinds that I had in this process. And so I don't want to be at all dismissive about how much more difficult this transition is depending on what degrees of privilege you have on that matrix. And I know that's something that's important to you, but at the same time, my story is my story, and wherever you're at on that, if it's helpful to you, great.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That's great. Thank you.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So I was working with my dad, and I was doing accounting for a small business and we were importing furniture. And my dad was this very fascinating kind of international man. He was born in Vietnam during the Vietnam war, and then they fled to Brazil because at the time they had a ton of money and then they had no money and then they made their way up to America. And so he was just full of grit. He was just an iron person. And, yeah. He built this business that I was taking part in and working together, and I had had a little bit of fascination with the web, just as a child of the eighties, I guess, coming up with the web and really being excited about it.

    Michael Chan:
    And so I'd built our websites and all that stuff, but right around, I can't remember exactly when it was, it was 2008, 2009, 2010, our business just collapsed because we had that recession, and all of the jobs that we had planned on were falling apart. There was no work on the horizon. And so the business just went under and I was four months or something about that time on unemployment. And it was a really tough time, and it's wild too see it 10 years later, right? Because I feel a little bit divorced from that feeling. But it is really sobering to have a lot of empathy for what people are going through right now because this is incredibly real for people. what was the statistic that you said before we started recording?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, so two weeks ago they'd said there had been 3.3 million accepted applications to unemployment in just that previous week, and then last week that said it was another 6.6 million for that that week. So a total of over 10.10 Million, and that was almost a week ago. So I can't even imagine. And that's just the people who were able to get on unemployment. You're not counting the people who probably need it but couldn't, or the people who couldn't get through because the phone lines are jammed.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah, yeah. And that's a very real thing. I remember I after my three or four months of being on unemployment, the thing that stopped me wasn't that I had a job, it was I didn't get the return stub sent in in time, and I couldn't get ahold of anybody on the phone.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    And we all know how good government programs are at getting the people things that they need.

    Michael Chan:
    So my heart just deeply, deeply goes out to people. But I'm really excited to see things like the free code camp numbers just skyrocketing right now because I see myself in those numbers. I see that was the moment that I decided to transition, because I knew there was no way I was going to be able to get a job in the things that I knew, which was handling money and a little bit of small business management, because that wasn't going to recover for another, I don't know, 6 to 12 months. But yeah. So just spending literally every spare second of my life, just reading what I could. I remember I'd go to the park with son who was, I don't know, maybe one at the time, and then if I was standing behind him pushing him on the swing, I'd be reading docs for Ruby or JavaScript or whatever thing I was trying to be able to use in my career.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Hardcore hustling there, man.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. So I definitely empathize with where people are at right now, and I really love the opportunity to talk about I guess what's demanded of people in that time because I want to say it's really maybe unfair. I know that I cut years off of my life by only sleeping three hours a night during that time because I was actively putting in applications for jobs that I knew I wasn't going to be able to get, and then trying to find anything on Craigslist that I could find that would pay me even a little bit to do the thing that I wanted to transition into. I think that's one thing that's so unmotivating to a lot of people is they see all the jobs, right? And these jobs are inflated wildly. And you and I both know that. When someone puts a job posting, it's like they're asking for 20 things, and they would accept two of them.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, absolutely. This is like, these are suggestions for the type of person that we want because we know that there are three people in the world who have all of these qualifications, and we couldn't afford them anyway.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. And that's such a big thing to navigate, but it's so intimidating when you start in... Tech is just one place where that happens. But any place where you to start to transition into a new industry or field, it's so intimidating to think, "Wow, that's who I have to be to get this job? I'm never going to be that." And yeah, starting small is so important, and just trusting the process that if you keep pressing into it, you'll get there. Have you been on hiring at all?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Are you talking about a specific site or just like hiring people?

    Michael Chan:
    Oh, like hiring people at all?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. Yeah, I have done that at my last two companies. I hired a couple people.

    Michael Chan:
    How did you feel about that process.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Oh my goodness. So the first one was a really small company, and I was hiring the second front end engineer to work with me, and so that one was not as difficult because we didn't have as many applications. It was actually people I reached out to and stuff. But you hate saying no because I reached out to you, and now I wasted all your time. That's the way I felt.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    But yeah, my second experience at PayPal, I interviewed an infinity people and yeah, it was really hard. We had a pretty well-structured process and stuff, and so you'd have a couple of people interview and you'd say yes, you'd say no, you say maybe, and whatever. And I felt a little more disconnected to that because sometimes I wasn't hiring for my team, somebody working for me. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but the way I felt about it was just pretty disconnected because I didn't have to be as invested in this person, which is a personal feeling, for sure.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. It's interesting because I think I always want people as soon as they can to get to a place where they can at least start reviewing applicants. I mean, definitely in tech, but Rachel Nabors, I had a conversation with her, she is part of the React core team and does a lot of the docs community stuff. We had a chat, and she was saying interviewing in tech is a skill that is totally separate from the skill of being able to do your job. And once you realize that, you realize just anything else, it's totally hackable. And I get asked a lot, like, "Oh man, I have all this imposter syndrome around going out for interviews and trying to land a job." I feel like I just don't know enough. And I always tell people, "Make your goal to fail 10 interviews, because what you'll learn from failing those interviews is what you need to know to nail the 11th." And for most people, I doubt that you'd even get through all 10.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, yeah. That's awesome. I love that mindset. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like the mindset isn't so much dejected and like, "Oh, I'm going to fail 10 interviews," but it's more like, "I'm going to at least get through 10 interviews, and I'm going to learn as much as I can through this process. And if I get picked up, then that's great. But my goal is just to get through these 10." And that's something that you can control, right? I can control that. And so I'm the master of my own destiny.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. I think that's the most important thing because at the end of the day, it's a mental hack. You're going to do 10 interviews either way. So it's really framing, but it really does give you that control over your life where it's like my value is not defined by what someone says I can or cannot do. It's I came here expecting to fail this. This is just episode 1 of my 10 episode course on the interview pipeline.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, nice.

    Michael Chan:
    But yeah, it's so tricky, and there's so much emotion tied into all of this, and those little mental hacks are so valuable in getting yourself past the emotional part of it. You're already in a vulnerable spot anytime you're switching careers or are forced to rethink your career. In a time like this, you're already so emotionally drained, the idea of failing anything and putting all of that effort in sucks. And I definitely admit that. And it's easy to say in retrospect, but is extremely emotional at the time, just feeling totally dejected from all that.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. Yeah, yeah. How do you pull through that emotional drain? In your experience, when you were making this transition, what were some of the things that you did to take care of yourself mentally and to really pull yourself out of the situation you were in and actually make the transition?

    Michael Chan:
    I don't think I handled it well, to be honest. I think I have a personality that thrives on pressure, and I know that that's not where a lot of people are, but I think that the fact that I had just bought a house and was pretty recently married... I was still like a young married, we just had a kid. I had to make it work, right? And I think for me that was fine. I know for a lot of people that could be enough to really drive them into a deep, deep depression where they're incapable of working. And so I definitely empathize with that. But I think for people who are driven by pressure, it kind of worked.

    Michael Chan:
    But I do think that insulating yourself from outcomes is a really important life skill. And I think that that time really set me up for success throughout the rest of my career where it's like now I don't feel as tied emotionally to outcomes anymore. The idea is you do your thing, you do it to the best that you can, and you know what happens, happens. And businesses have to make decisions that businesses have to make, and sometimes that hurts emotionally because you felt really smart for coming up with this thing that didn't get accepted and it would have been awesome, and you have to let that go. And such is life.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So let's envision this person, Cheryl, Cheryl's like, "Hey, I was laid off by some company. I've been tinkering around with building websites and I kind of want to get into this tech thing, but I'm seeing all these jobs listings for the impossible engineer. How do I break into this? Especially in a such an uncertain economy right now."

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. Man, that's tough. I think, to be totally honest, I could not have done it without friends. And I think that going to meet ups, just talking with the people in my life who were already in the industry that I wanted to transition into, like tech. I got my first job post all of the PSD to HTML and HTML signatures that I did on Craigslist for \$15 a shot. But beyond that, the first actual job I got in tech was just from a friend, right? And they, they were in a position where they were looking for people, asked if I could learn enough to actually get through the interview process. And that's how I transitioned in. Having those relationships is invaluable, and finding them wherever you can, and I guess exploiting them.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. You're taking advantage of something that someone's offering, right? That relationship, yeah.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Exploiting has a negative connotation, but I think we know what you mean.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. And to be fair, this particular friend, I started that specific conversation by offering up answers to questions that he had. Because he was in this new role where he was managing a tech team, and he had things that he didn't know. And I said, "Hey, I'm happy to answer anything that I know that you might need to know in managing these people." And I think that's where it started because I was able to help him look good. And so in turn he wanted to return the flavor.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Nice. Return the flavor.

    Michael Chan:
    But yeah, I think relationships are so important, and I think we undervalue relationships I think across a career trajectory. I think as we were talking before, we want to be this hero, but accepting help and then also providing help is so critical to any meaningful career in this industry.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. And I just think that's so true. And there was another thing that you mentioned as you were saying that that I think is a pretty good takeaway for people as well. And that's that you were working on PSD to HTML Craigslist opportunities. And there's one thing... People ask me this a lot, and they say, how do I get experience as a software engineer? And so I wrote a blog post about it, of course. But the TLDR of that is you get experience from having experiences. And it seems so obvious, but you can make yourself have experiences, right?

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    It sounds like that's what you did, is you said, "Hey, I'm willing to take this $15 job that's going to take me three hours to do, $5 an hour job, but I don't just get \$5 an hour. I'm also getting experience from that."

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. If you open your eyes to it, or even just ask around, there's so many people in your local community that are entrepreneurs or small business owners that need work in a lot of different fields but can't afford the high paid person to do it. And so if you open your eyes to it, there's so much stuff that people need to do, and like you said, an opportunity for you to gain that experience. And yeah, you're going to eat crap for a while with all the stuff that nobody else wants to take. But that's how you get the experience.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, absolutely. That can't be overstated, I think. It's stuff that other people don't want to take, but that's because they've already had those experiences. They don't need those experiences like you do. I mean, maybe it's not super fun work, but for you, as a new entry into this, it can be pretty rewarding work. Like manually copy pasting text into this other text field or whatever, you can turn that into an opportunity to learn something new. Like figure out how to script that so you can get yourself out of that. That's how I got into programming was scripting my job, and yeah. I think that can't be overstated as a useful thing to do is there's no shame or even lack of dignity I guess in doing these lower jobs, because you're not just getting the low pay, you're also getting the experience. That's what you're looking for.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. And there's so much to be said about real work experience just as being a high value. Because I mean, I still think back to the lessons that I learned about the differences in email clients and the way they render markup and all that kind of stuff from literally just making email signatures for people. I learned so much about semantic markup and rendering engines in that time, that has paid dividends throughout my entire career because I don't have to relearn these small lessons anymore. If you're open to it, you can learn something powerful from any project.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Absolutely. I feel we could go on and talk about this forever, but as we wrapped up and come down to the end of our time here, the homework assignment that we want to give people. Start thinking about what it is that you want to do. You may be listening to this thinking, "Well this sounds a really great thing that I can share with my friend Fred who is interested in transitioning out of plumbing into tech or vice versa," whatever the case may be. But maybe there's something that you would rather be doing than your day-to-day job.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    And so the challenge applies to everyone here, but our homework for you is to sit down for five minutes and just think about what you really want to do with your life. What you really want to do, and because we live in a capitalist world, you have to get paid to do that. So think about how you can get paid to do the thing that you want to do. So figure out how you can sell that thing that you want to do, and then get one customer. Get one person to pay you just any amount of money to do that one thing. And yeah, then that can be the first step in making this transition for you. You have anything else to add to that, Michael?

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah, no, I think that that's perfect. And I think it's a really good way to wrap up. One analogy that I to make is with a dial. A dial, once it's in place, is really easy to turn up, but it's really hard to make the dial, right? So blogging, if you want to write, you need to find the least amount of friction, and sometimes setting up the blog and making all of those decisions is really the hard work, but you want to get to that point where you have something, you have a post out there, you know exactly what to do when you sit down, and then just crank it up. Like, "Okay, I got one customer, now I need to find another customer, or charge five more dollars an hour," or whatever it is. Just keep cranking that dial up. Once you have it, it's easy from there.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah. Oh my goodness. So I hope people don't mind me mentioning this last other thing and going over time a little bit. But my oldest sister is a very skilled violinist, and she knows a lot of very skilled musicians, and right now they're really hard on work because nobody can go to performances. And so she was asking me how...

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Because I do a lot of online training, she was like, "How can I help these musicians do online training?" And she had this big idea of... She wants to hire some software engineer to come and basically build Zoom and Tito and Google calendar all in one thing, and I was telling her, "Hey, listen, I really don't think that's probably the best course of action for you. Here's what I recommend." And I said, "Start doing everything manually. Get the pieces of software that you need work, put them together, and that's the value that you can provide to these musicians who are your instructors is do all of the work for them, and tell them all you need to do is show up and teach some people for an hour, and you'll get money. And I'll do everything else." And everything else when you're just getting started is just a ton of manual work. If you try to automate all of this stuff before you've done any of the manual work, you will automate the wrong staff. Or you'll automate it in the wrong way.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    And so I think she's taking my advice, but that would be maybe another related takeaway to all of this is just don't try to build the solution before you've experienced the problem.

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah. The best advice. Hot takes.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, it's hot in here. All right, let's wrap this up. Michael, thank you so much for coming on and chatting. It's been a pleasure. Hopefully my friends have gotten to know you, and we're all friends now. And yeah. Sometimes, Michael, I end my podcast by saying we'll be in your ears next week, which I shamelessly borrow from you. But yeah, I guess I don't the weekly shows so we'll be in your ears next time. Oh, actually really quick, Michael, what's the best way for people to get ahold of you if they want?

    Michael Chan:
    Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I'm Chantastic on Twitter, or React Podcast if you don't necessarily want to hear from me, but you want to hear from me and other people, and yeah, that's probably the best way.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    All right. Awesome. Thanks so much, Michael.

    Michael Chan:
    Thank you.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Bye everyone.

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