I graduated from Colorado College in 2019 with a degree in Mathematical Economics. I am a self taught coder. I previously worked at Rapid7, a cybersecurity company in Boston and Midgame, a gaming AI startup. I currently work at Facebook. In my free time, I enjoy playing Dota and volunteering.
I grew up in a house shared with 2 other immigrant families. My parents owned a Chinese-American restaurant and worked 14 hours, 7 days a week. I was obnoxious and loud. Other parents kept their kids away from me because I was a “bad influence”. In high school, I was absent more days than present. I earned C’s and D’s in my math and intro to CS class. I dropped out in the 10th grade and ordained as a monk. I became a vegetarian and eventually lived in a monastery in rural China.
A kindly monk saw me reading one day and asked why I was not in school. I was confused why a monk would question my decision to leave behind society. After all, we were on top of a mountain, hours away from any school. He told me I was always welcome to pursue the paths to enlightenment, but to make that decision after I became of age.
I re-enrolled in high school, a little older and a little wiser. I was able to bump up my dreadful 2.5 GPA with a series of all A’s, including one in calculus that I was particularly proud of. I had arrived at school an hour early everyday to meet my math teacher, who graciously and patiently taught me everything I was supposed to already know. By the winter, I secured a full scholarship to Colorado College.
At Colorado College, I immediately fell in love with economics. I wanted to pursue a PhD in economics and contribute to bettering peoples’ lives. J-PAL, a MIT lab researching ways to lift people out of poverty, was my dream job. My advisor recommended I pursue more rigorous math courses if I wanted to be competitive for graduate school. I attended a year at London School of Economics, struggling with real analysis proofs and my diet of purely tea and scones. Around this time, I realized it was no longer practical for me to pursue a graduate degree.
My family at home was suffering financially. My parents were in dramatic debt, partly due to bad investments, and partly due to the demands of raising immigrant children. They did not pressure me to take on their debt, but my current regime of math courses showed the writing in the wall. The family home would be foreclosed soon and my little sister, only 12 at the time, would be adrift. A PhD student would not have the income to support parents and a child.
I tried to pursue finance. The LSE was well known for producing investment bankers earning 6 figures, roughly the salary I would require. A summer internship later and I knew investment banking was not sustainable for me. At this point, I was a senior in college and my time was ticking. While my friends were mostly carefree about their futures and enjoyed their last few moments without responsibility, the thought of being unemployed kept me awake at night.
I connected with a few alum who introduced me to the tech industry. They told me fantastic stories of amazing cafeteria food, nap rooms, ping pong tables, and casual dress! Then they told me their salary numbers… on par with investment banking. All I had to do, was learn how to code.
I was told a free online resource was HackerRank. If I could solve those problems, I could say I know how to code. After rightly earning a D in my high school intro CS class, I did not have high hopes. The first few weeks were extreme frustration. I felt like I was putting my brain through a meat grinder. The thought of failure— of letting my little sister become homeless and my aging parents destitute— pushed me through any lapses in motivation.
I took my first CS class late in the fall of my senior year. It was an upper level elective called Distributed Systems. It had about eight pre-requisites and I had only a gold star in HackerRank’s Python course. I made my case to the professor, who agreed to let me join. I drank only Redbull for a month. My assigned group had shunned me for my lack of experience, so I was forced to do group assignments alone. By some hazy, caffeinated miracle, I produced an A in the class.
I received my first interview opportunity that same week at Rapid7, a cybersecurity company in Boston. I had read the first few chapters of Cracking the Coding Interview, but otherwise was flying blind into my first technical interview. I remember when the interviewer opened a plain text editor on a computer and asked me to construct a linked list that would bubble sort when adding a new node. At the time, I literally did not understand any of those words. I can still remember his attempt to hide his surprise when I stated plainly, “I’m sorry I don’t know what a linked list is. Can I Google it?“. Luckily, he was agreeable and after reading about it on Wikipedia, I was able to code something.
The code didn’t work. I had never defined a class before, only writing functions in my HackerRank practice and my CS assignments. After the interview was over and I had thoroughly sweated through my blouse, I found myself at the Boston-Logan airport, still thinking about linked lists. On the flight back to Colorado, I purchased wifi for the first time in my life. I looked up bubble sort and re-wrote my code correctly. I emailed the interviewer my file and an apology. Despite being exhausted and with the dread that I lost my shot at providing for my family, I then started my economics homework for the night.
During this time, I was working 40+ hours a week at a campus job. In my freshman year of college, I co-founded a collegiate esports organization that eventually became the first NCAA Division III team and would bring home the regional trophy. So as far as campus jobs go, mine was definitely the only one that involved video games. I was managing player relationships, organizing tournaments, reaching out to other schools, and sometimes casting games. While I enjoyed my job, the toll of working a full time job, pursuing my studies, and learning to code was extreme.
When an offer letter arrived from Rapid7, I was dumbfounded. I could not believe my luck. The interviewer must have took pity on me. I was moving to Boston! I recall crying tears of relief and happiness. I wouldn’t have to work two jobs to support my family. I would have dental insurance (a out of pocket root canal sophomore year had put me in debt). Someone out there was going to call me a software engineer.
Six months into my job, a friend at a startup reached out to me. He knew me from my time as a cofounder with Colorado College Esports. He asked me to join his startup as a software engineer. We were going to build a gaming AI. After participating in Betaworks and TechStars, we were unable to raise another round due to COVID-19. We used our remaining funds to pay everyone for 1 month while we looked for jobs.
I was filled with regret at this time. My friends at Rapid7 had a stable job. COVID-19 was scary and unknown. My parents both stopped working (my father as an Uber driver and my mother as a home health aid). The dread of unemployment and failure was creeping up on me again. Grinding Leetcode in March, at the height of COVID-19 intensity, reminds me of this meme:
At this point I wonder if I had used a lifetime of miracles, because Facebook gave me an offer. I was to move to the Bay Area, scarcely a year after learning how to code. The salary meant not only would my parents’ debts be paid, but I could support their retirement. My little sister would be able to buy a new computer. My heart was bursting with gratitude for all the people who brought me to this moment. The monk who welcomed me and then encouraged me. The high school math teacher who tutored me before dawn. The college professor who gave me a shot. The interviewer who saw something in me that definitely wasn’t linked lists. The friend who believed I could build a company with him, or at least get a job at Facebook.
Many of the doors in my life have been the result of generosity and kindness from strangers. I view it as the highest honor that I am in a position to pay it forward. Outside of work, I enjoy mentoring students in organizations such as Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and Dev Mission, and more informally when the opportunity arises. I am fairly decent at a number of video games, my favorite being Dota 2. I’m currently in the process of adopting my little sister.