A career in software engineering is all about curiosity: digging into tough problems, solving those problems in innovative ways, and constantly learning new languages and processes. Software engineers don’t back down from a challenge—they absolutely love it.
But what does it take to land that kind of career?
To find out, we sat down with five software engineers who have already gone down that path. Their experience may vary, from having a computer engineering degree to completing a three-month programming fellowship to being completely self-taught—but in the end, they all enjoy solving problems on a daily basis to make the best possible products.
Senior Software Engineer, Twilio
In terms of his career, Andrew Benton simply wanted to do something useful in the world. But as he soon found out, it wasn’t actually that simple. He started by studying math in college—but quickly determined he didn’t have many career options with that degree. So, he moved on to pursue a PhD in economics, which turned out a lot like his pursuit of math, as he found himself with fewer career options than he’d hoped for.
Frustrated that he wasn’t yet doing “real work” to make an impact on the world, Benton moved to California. “I started hacking on web-based projects with a friend from college,” he shares, “and then I met the founders of Twilio at Google I/O in 2010.”
He joined the then-small company, which has since skyrocketed from 12 employees to 120. As a software engineer there, he divides his time between product development, writing code, and reviewing customer needs to determine what to build next. As a result, Benton shares, “I’ve learned more here than at any job I’ve ever had before this.”
2. Joy Ding
Software Engineer, Nextdoor
Following her studies in political science, Joy Ding immediately jumped into a New York City district attorney campaign as a field organizer, followed by a stint of research into the electoral process at Duke. Then—randomly, as she says—she landed a marketing role at LinkedIn. “While I was there, I realized I really wanted to be building products,” she shares. “When it came down to it, I wanted to be at the heart of the creative process.”
So, she took a leap of faith and went to Hackbright Academy, a three-month women’s engineering fellowship—and by the time she was done, she was ready to start interviewing for software engineering jobs.
After considering several different companies, Ding found Nextdoor, which combined two of the things she was extremely passionate about: community building and being able to use technology to do that. As a software engineer there, she uses creative problem solving on a daily basis, building tools to create safer and more connected communities.
3. Cheng Zhang
Senior Software Engineer, Chegg
Throughout his childhood, Cheng Zhang studied math and science rigorously—and that didn’t stop when moved from China to the U.S. to pursue a college degree. As he worked toward a PhD in material science from the University of Southern California, he became increasingly interested in big data questions and using creative thinking to solve them.
That led him to Chegg, where he had the opportunity to mix his technical skills with his ability to solve problems. In fact, his typical day as a software engineer centers around problem solving. First, he determines what challenges he should tackle—then he turns to his teammates to brainstorm how, exactly, to approach them. “I’m fortunate to have a really smart team of people around me,” Zhang shares. “I use my colleagues’ ideas every day and get to absorb their knowledge and intelligence.”
Software Engineer, PaperG
Following in the footsteps of her father, a programmer, Katie Verbeck always knew she wanted to work with computers. Armed with the introductory skills she learned from her dad, she started dabbling in programming in high school. After college, she met the founder of PaperG, who offered her a position where she’d be able to gain even more development experience.
She jumped on board, and now spends her days both fixing bugs and fulfilling client requests for new features. But no matter what, one of her main goals is to continually grow and develop new skills—following the advice of her boss and the culture of the entire company, she’s constantly learning new programming languages.
“Everyone here is adamant about learning,” Verbeck explains. “There are so many opportunities to pick up something new.”
Director of Software Engineering, Kontiki
Jeremy Gentile entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York as a physics major—but ended up graduating as an electrical engineer. In graduate school, he went on to earn a degree in computer systems engineering. He stayed in the East for his first few jobs, but he couldn’t deny it: “California was calling me,” he says. “The weather, and the general technology out there.”
After a few jobs on the West Coast, he settled in at Kontiki—where he’s been for the last 13 years.
As the head of the company’s engineering team, Gentile oversees the projects of his engineers, guides them in the right direction, and hires the right people to continue growing the company—basically doing everything he can to help his team, “so they can do their jobs and produce the best software possible,” he says.
Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.
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