Career, Featured, Income

How I Went From A $50k Salary To A 6 Figure Salary In Under a Year

After college, I moved to NYC and got my first job doing allocation work in corporate retail. My starting salary was $50k a year. My job entailed entering all the things we wanted to order and tracking the orders. Exciting, right? About 8 months into that job, I actually switched to a different retailer and started software engineering making the same salary. After 2 and a half years with only a measly $2000 raise to my career, I made some huge changes that allowed me to start making a 6 figure salary.

Starting Point

The software engineering I was doing might not be one you’ve heard of–I did something very specific called VBA Development. VBA is a language you use in Excel or within other Microsoft applications. It’s responsible for a lot of magical automation you might have seen. The kind like pushing a button and 500 cells populate with data. Either way, it wasn’t a super lucrative form of engineering.

I was worried about the future potential of my career since it already seemed undervalued. Not to mention I had always wanted to do more visual work. I was trying to boost my skills by learning web development on my own. At the beginning of 2015, I had my company pay for a class at NYU, and I got great intros to programming through Coursera and Code Academy.

Though that was a great start and I did learn a ton, it wasn’t enough.

Why Complete Self Teaching Is Hard

When it comes to being a professional Software Engineer, it’s a lot more than knowing just basic programming. There are tons of different programming languages. When you’re a beginner, you’re just learning how to think in programming logic, so any programming language will do. Each programming language has the same basic features and logic. But learning the language is just a building block. How do you do the rest? This is where I was stuck. I had been trying to teach myself for years and continuously ran into the “I know the basics, but now what?” road block.

You Need More Than Just Basics

If you’ve never tried programming before, consider this example:

You’re a kindergartner learning the alphabet for the first time. You learn how to string letters together into words. You start understanding the concept of written language. You string together letters to make words and writing words together. You understand for these strung together words to communicate intentions and stories, they need to be in a certain order.

Great! Now you can write an essay right? Now you can write a short story! Now you can write a novel! Yes, you could start doing any of these things given your building blocks, but you might be a little lost in how to properly do these.

Essays are structured differently than short stories and short stories are structured differently than novels. You, as a kindergartner might not really understand that distinction. Essays have some set conventional formulas like requiring informational context setting and a logical argument towards a conclusion. Short stories require some context setting, but not always. Generally novels require more context development. Not all short stories or novels have conclusions, but some do.

This is sort of what it’s like when you’re trying to self teach. There are tons of different languages. There are tons of different associated purposes of each language. There are conventions that are considered normal for certain types of software engineering. There are conventions that are generally considered wrong for others. Yes, you can do x, y, z one of many ways, but the industry generally has an agreed upon “right way”.

You Need More Than Just Conventions

Let’s take the example further:

You write your first novel! Awesome. Now what? It’s just sitting in your Google Drive collecting dust. How do you turn this file into a real life physical book, and where do you sell it to get people to read it? How do you get it published? How do you find a publisher? Oh, you wrote your novel in Spanish, but actually, publishers only like publishing novels in English because they have more English speaking editors.

Similarly, there’s a ton of logistical and environmental infrastructure surrounding professional software development that’s very difficult to learn. It’s not impossible to learn, but you may not even know you need to be learning it.

An Opportunity For Change And Structured Learning

I had 3 very close friends who went through a 12 week immersive coding bootcamp called Hack Reactor. None of them were software engineers previously. None of them had very technical roles before. And they all made it out of the program with significant pay increases. I had heard from each of them off and on that it would be perfect for me and perfect for the career transition I wanted to make. I was already programming, and I had graduated with a minor in Computer Science.

Breakdown Of Friends Careers Pre-Hack Reactor

Friend 1 – Alzheimer’s Researcher at NIH

Friend 2 – Consulting Analyst at a Market Research Company

Friend 3 – Analyst at LG

The caveat was that it was an $18,000 course, and it was full time in San Francisco, so I would have to quit my job and move (to another high cost of living city), and who knew how long it would take to get a job afterwards?

Hack Reactor’s tag line is “Don’t just Learn to Code: Think Like a Software Engineer”. Hack Reactor boasted a 99% hiring rate within 3 months of finishing the program, but I still worried I would be the 1%. Hack Reactor also boasted a $105k average starting salary at the time, but I still worried, what if I was below average? What if I didn’t have it in me to get the ROI? I really had a lot of self doubt whether I could be one of the people who turned out ok.

If you’re interested in reading more on their 2017 hiring rates and statistics, visit their Outcomes page.

I Committed to Really Trying (Part 1)

I felt completely stagnant in my current role. I was trying to switch teams, but the process was crawling, and the work I was doing to transition seemed so negligible and unnoticed. I had to apply for Hack Reactor and pass a live coding Skype interview anyway to even have the option of going.

I committed to working really hard for 1 month studying the recommended interview prep materials they suggested for the technical interview. For anyone who wants a glimpse at what I was working on, take a look at this free ebook, Eloquent Javascript.

I took notes on paper as I went through the book as well as did all the coding exercises for an entire month, after work, and for several hours on the weekends. I had never committed so hard to making something happen. I hadn’t even prepared for interviews for my current job with 25% of the commitment I put towards passing this interview for Hack Reactor. I failed so many times in the past by fooling myself saying I tried, when I didn’t go all in when I was “trying”. This time, I committed to going all in.

I Took a Calculated Risk and Invested in Myself

Spoiler alert! I passed my Hack Reactor interview! But then came the next decision. What now? Should I take the opportunity?

What if coding bootcamps were just the shiny new investment people were talking about? What if Hack Reactor was? What if the people who had successfully completed it and come out with a new shiny job were just the exception, not the norm? What if the statistics were made up? Was this just another “get rich quick” scheme to get people to buy in? Was it really going to be worth the $18,000 price tag? Was I even ready yet? Maybe I needed to prepare more…

When we find an opportunity, these are the questions we always ask ourselves. It’s not just applicable to software engineering or this program, but it’s applicable to any opportunity that sounds too good to be true. I’ve heard of people selling things on Amazon making 50k a month. You just think…how is it possible? They must have already known x or had quality y that allowed them to be successful.

With every opportunity, there’s always the chance of failure. There’s always the choice to say that other person succeeded because of x, y, z factors that don’t apply to me. But in the end, what good is that going to do you? It did nothing for me. Stop making excuses for why you can’t, seriously. I didn’t learn this for so long and I didn’t feel empowered until I started doing instead of finding reasons not to do.

It’s up to you to assess the opportunity and then above all else, believe in your own ability to execute on it to the point of success. It’s up to you to cultivate the skills you need with every failure to ultimately succeed.

It was definitely a little easier to take the leap for me since I personally knew 3 people who had gone through successfully. So, I signed on the dotted line. I took the leap. Yes, I was investing in the program, but ultimately, I was investing in myself and my ability to take from the program what I needed and run with it.

Two years ago today, 8/14/2015, I flew from New York to San Francisco.

I Had Luck On My Side

Because what success story involving hard work doesn’t also involve a little bit of luck?

When I agreed to go to Hack Reactor, I had no ideaย how I was going to pay for it.ย I had only about $10k saved, and based on my San Francisco cost of living calculations, that was barely going to cover living expenses for 3-4 months and beyond if I couldn’t find a job immediately.

I applied to a scholarship sponsored by the SF startup, Optimizely, that would have paid the entire tuition, but unfortunately I was rejected. Both my parents and Hack Reactor ultimately came to the rescue. Hack Reactor allowed a one year deferral of $8000 of tuition to make the program more affordable for minorities. And because 2 of my friends had successfully gone through the program, my parents felt comfortable fronting the rest.

If they hadn’t, I would have had to use my $9k of savings for the tuition, cash out the $2000 in my 401k, and couchsurf at various friends’ apartments in SF, which is a huge stroke of luck in itself that I have such an incredible support system out here!

I Committed to Really Trying (Part 2)

Once Hack Reactor started, it was really rigorous. You start with about 80 other people split into 2 cohorts. You code all day from 9 am – 10 pm everyday Monday – Friday and 9 am – 6 pm on Saturdays for 3 months. You can read more about what it’s like on their blog.

The first 6 weeks, there are programming assignments due every 2 days. You complete each assignment with a new partner from your cohort. It’s called pair programming. In each assignment, you’re picking up conventional industry tools and best practices. The last 6 weeks, you complete 3 projects with 2 groups of 4 people, and you get to make whatever you want, however you want.

If you want to take a look at what I worked on during Hack Reactor, you can visit my Github (it’s where most programmers keep their programming portfolios). If you click through any of the Repositories published in late 2015, you can see they’ll say “This is a project I completed as a student atย hackreactor.”

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When I put it this way, it almost seems easy. They give you a path to follow. That’s what you’re really paying for–structured curriculum. You do an assignment every two days. You have 2 lectures per day. You have an assessment every Monday.

But every day of the program, you’re confronted with material you don’t know and a very strict deadline for the 2 day assignment despite getting stuck constantly and feeling completely lost. Very rarely, students who were really behind on coursework were asked to leave the program, and the idea that you could be the next one asked to leave looms over your head every time you’re stuck or aren’t picking up something that everyone else seems to get. Multiple classmates of mine were stressed and worried they would be asked to leave. You kinda felt like this:

The biggest thing I had to confront on a daily basis still was my self doubt. How can you fully give yourself to learning when half your energy is spent worrying and wondering “Can I do this?” That’s what I mean by committing to try. It means completely leaving the self doubt at the door.

Once I was able to do that, I felt I learned more than I ever had been capable of before. I was able to truly enjoy my time in the program. I was happy learning. I had this creativity to tackle technical problems I never had before. If you want to see the final project I built with 3 other friends/classmates, you can check it out at dateworthy.ioย (it’s a date idea generator!)

I Committed to Really Trying (Part 3)

Once the program was finished, it was a full time job search. Luckily, things move pretty quickly in the Bay Area for software engineering jobs. Hack Reactor does provide resume and job search coaching, so that really helped to build a framework around what I should focus on in my job search and how I should market myself.

My job search out of college was a difficult one filled with (again) self doubt, questioning if I was doing it right, etc. I refused to let that be a part of this job search. I was committed to not letting the fear of rejection stop me from trying.

Mostly, it was just an onslaught of applications. I applied to 5-10 companies almost every day. Over a 1 month period, I applied to ~120 jobs. 25 companies rejected me. 57 didn’t respond at all. 5 companies rejected me after the phone screen. 2 companies rejected me after a take home challenge. 3 companies rejected me after the technical phone screen. 3 companies rejected me after a half day on site. I’m so lucky to have experienced so much rejection and “failure”!

My schedule at the time looked a little like this:

As opposed to 2012 (below) when I was looking for my first job. If this doesn’t convey the difference in mindset, initiative, and effort, I don’t know what will!

I Found A Job In A Location Where My Skills Are In High Demand

My job search ended when I finally got 2 offers after a single month of hard core job searching. One for a full time position, and another for a contract to hire position, both offers were 6 figures. The average salary of a Software Engineer in the Bay Area is $124,000, so it was a great place to find a job.

I ended up taking the contract to hire position which paid $70 per hour, and I was working 50-60 hours a week. It worked out really well for me because I was still under my parents insurance at the time, and within 3 months, I was able to pay Hack Reactor the deferred $8000 of tuition while still building a lofty emergency fund.

Are Coding Bootcamps Worth The Money?

Short answer, for me, 100% yes. It was worth more than I paid for it. Why?

  1. The curriculum taught me the practical skills to actually build an end product. As promised, it taught me the conventions and infrastructure I had been missing the entire time I was self teaching.
  2. The program provided a great network of supportive peers and alumni network (our graduates Facebook group is now 2090 members as I write this).
  3. Unlike most programs at the time, Hack Reactor had great job search support and resume coaching.
  4. The program taught me how to learn.
  5. The program made me a hustler and made me realize I can improve in any area I want, as long as I’m willing to work for it.

With that said, there’s no “get rich quick” way to make more money. Whether it’s getting a raise/promotion, changing careers, starting a successful business, we need to appreciate the fact that a lot of hard work and some amount of risk goes with it. It’s easy to be blown away by someone’s end result as they tell their story in retrospect. The point of these stories isn’t to discourage people into thinking “that can’t be me”, it’s the exact opposite.

What was the moment you realized you just needed to go for something, and did it work out for you? Are there any other questions you’d like answered about coding bootcamps? Would anyone be interested in reading an interview of someone who was completely non-technical before?

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Jing is currently a software engineer based in Oakland, CA. She left her job in New York, moved to San Francisco unemployed, and more than doubled her salary in 4 months.

24 thoughts on “How I Went From A $50k Salary To A 6 Figure Salary In Under a Year

  1. Wow this is such a great story about determination, courage, and hard work! It’s great to hear that the course paid off big time, and that you like what you do now as opposed to before. My husband has taken CS courses on Coursera too. He’s still taking online courses although I’m not interested enough to ask where >_<

    1. Thank you Ms. FAF! Coursera is a great starting place! Did he become a software engineer through self teaching or is his program related to computer science as well?

  2. What a story, Jing! I have heard of coding bootcamps (a friend of mine took one and found a great job right after… not sure if it was Hack Reactor or not). I admire your drive to take a chance on yourself, invest and dive in… fully committing in so many ways. And all those rejections… phew! That would have been rough on me! I love how you saw it as a positive though ๐Ÿ™‚ They all led to where you are today, which is amazing!

    Oh- and to your last question- I’d be interested in reading an interview from someone who was non-technical before! I am about as non-technical as they come, so that would be fascinating to me ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks Mrs. AR! There are definitely plenty of great bootcamps other than Hack Reactor, but it would be so cool if we went through the same one! ๐Ÿ˜› It’s funny, I can’t imagine being so resilient now–I think that means I have to put myself through the next big unknown scary thing soon!

      I’ll do some digging and try to get in contact with one of my less technical cohortmates soon ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. This story is so inspirational. And the difference in between the two interview calendars? I loved that so hard.

    Question: do you feel like there are minimum requirements for someone to see success in a program like this? Like, what if you aren’t a systematic thinker at all? Was there anyone in the class who really struggled? If so, why do you think so?

    That job-rate is really impressive.

    1. When I look back on 2012, I just shake my head at meek little post-college me.

      I think the minimum requirements would be doing enough of the pre course work to 1. get in and 2. pass the official precourse the program gives you. I think to some degree we’re all capable of systematic thinking, the difference is really how the material is taught in a way a less systematic thinker is capable of relating to it.

      I actually think I personally am less of a systematic thinker than the typical CS/Math grad. I got into programming because in high school I loved webites and design, I was ok at Math–good at Algebra, really struggled with Geometry/Calculus. I dropped out of CS as a major because I just wasn’t getting it. But Hack Reactor was different because it framed all the problems in a way that was closer to a physical end product instead of dense CS theory.

      Another question though, is if you’re a non-systematic thinker, would you really enjoy becoming a software engineer? There were definitely people who struggled during the class, they were constantly reviewing/studying. I can’t say how much of that was their own imposter syndrome vs. their actual performance.

      I think the ones who struggled the most were mainly non-STEM people so there’s definitely something to be said about being introduced to a new way of thinking. The guy I paired with on my first day and that I did one of my main projects with was probably one of the weakest performing, yet he was the first to get an offer out of bootcamp! I think after the mid-way assessment, Hack Reactor gave him the option to leave, but he stayed, thankfully!

  4. Well done! I love that you took initiative and took risk as well coming to San Francisco with no job but a can-do attitude.

    I’m really beginning to rethink the necessity of a four year college degree. Think about a system where we identify two things we really like to do and spend the time learning about those two things. And then using outside time to well around ourselves.

    Sam

    1. Thanks Sam! I think it’s true that we can get better at anything we decide to spend our time on, even if it doesn’t come naturally ๐Ÿ˜›

  5. This story was SO impressive! As someone who slogged through 8 hours of CSS courses, this super intense bootcamp seems like it was a ton of work. Super impressive to hear about how you were able to double your income with a TON of hard work and a leap of faith. Thanks for sharing!

    1. CSS ain’t easy! I still google things all the time. I find it therapeutic writing CSS though, so I’m sort of a weirdo because I don’t think software engineers even like doing that ๐Ÿ˜›

  6. Wow! You have shown that will and effort go a long way. But I also think it is great that you mentioned that a bit of luck along the way is a big help. I myself went from $50k to $100k. But I did it in 4 years. Jealous of your one year!!! ๐Ÿ™‚ Jealous in a good way! I liked reading about your go-get-it attitude.

    In my case, getting my CPA degree helped forge the path to a higher salary. Luck was also on my side. My company was going through a spinoff and the experience helped me get a better position with a higher salary.

    Kudos to you!!!

    1. Thank you! For a while, I stopped believing that education could actually help you with increasing salary–I was pretty jaded after getting my useless undergrad degree. The unfortunate thing is that many universities focus so much on professor research that they don’t give any thought to curriculum structure and the best way to teach students who aren’t already fully committed to a field.

  7. Awesome story Jing. It would have taken tons of courage to go to SF with less than the tuition fee and find a way to make it work.

    Glad it totally paid off for you, finding your creativity, mojo and of course, making 6 figures +

  8. Filtered through Rockstar Finance’s blog roll for lady devs, and you were the only one who came up! I wondered if maybe you had done a bootcamp, and then you posted this ๐Ÿ™‚ I ended up going to Turing in Denver about a month before you started at Hack Reactor. Awesome you’ve found success! I love SF, but the mustachian in me is scared away by the cost of living. Love the blog and look forward to following along!

    1. Thanks for doing all that filtering to find me, Rose! It’s always so fun hearing how people land on my blog ๐Ÿ˜› How was your experience with Turing? I may look into Denver in the future, though it seems like COL is going up and up there too! SF Is definitely intimidatingly pricy :/

  9. Love this! Congrats! I remember taking my first and only programming class in high school nearly 3 decades ago. It was Basic, literally, but I really enjoyed it. Thought about getting a Computer Science degree but never pursued it. My brain moves more slowly now so…

    1. Thanks Darren! I wish I would’ve gotten an even *more* basic intro than the intro class I took in college. I was so lost honestly I thought I would never get the hang of programming…only took almost 10 years to circle all the way back around!

  10. This story is so awesome – congratulations! It sounds like you put in a tremendous amount of hard work that totally paid off! I’m always so impressed by people that move across the country to better themselves – it’s definitely brave.

    1. Thanks Shawn! Before SF, I had also moved to NY without a job. I guess I must just be used to moving to a HCOL place unemployed…it’s like a very anxiety inducing hobby of mine ๐Ÿ˜‚

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