by Jordan D. Jackson

How I went from enlisted Air Force to software engineer intern @Twitter

A story of coding, networking, and growth.

Photo by Andrzej Grygiel on Unsplash

I went from being junior enlisted to being a self-taught software engineer intern at a tech company. How did I do it?

I am glad you asked, because if I did not live it I would say it sounds far-fetched. But it is possible, and I will tell you exactly how I accomplished it. I will include every relevant detail from the first line of code I wrote to getting my offer letter from Twitter.

Before getting to my base I did not have any programming experience. I had never even hooked up my Myspace page back in the day. I started my learning totally from zero, meaning it is never too late to start learning (Here is an article about people that have done it in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s by Quincy Larson to prove it!).

I also did not have any meaningful connections at any Tech companies or with anyone in the Tech community (this will come into play soon). But it would all come together in ways I could have never predicted. So, let’s get into it!

Side note: A lot of people I have talked to about getting into Tech think they must possess the ability to code to get in. Not true! Tech companies have diverse departments just like any other company. Shoot your shot!

The frustration

When I first arrived to my duty station in Northern California (Travis AFB) in December 2012, I had NO aspirations of becoming a software engineer. Before having this goal, I was just a young Airman with dreams of building a Tech company, with a minimal amount of knowledge of how to do it. The only thing I did have was ideas. And from the crazy number of books and articles I read, I knew I needed a lot more to start a company.

Then I noticed a recurring situation pop up. There were many people like me who had ideas, but could not execute them. What we needed was a “Technical Founder,” someone to build our dreams with code, or at least the prototype (AKA the minimum viable product). After a few failed attempts at finding that someone, my frustration started building up.

Me searching for the answers. Image source.

Eventually this led me to mutter the words “If I cannot find someone technical, I will make myself technical.” And BOOM, my journey of learning to code had halfway started. I say halfway because I ended up starting this journey more than once, unfortunately. But this was definitely the spark that started the fire.

The persistence

To start my new quest, I simply Googled “How to code,” the most millennial way ever to start learning something. I immediately found codecademy.com, which was perfect to get my first taste of writing code. It was perfect because of how straightforward the user interface is and how it gave real-time feedback on your code.

This is codecademy. Instructions on the left, code in the middle, results on the right.

The first programming language I tried was JavaScript, and I also tried some HTML and CSS. It was interesting, but it did not grab my attention how I would have liked at first. For the next few months, I would procrastinate and try to solve the challenges periodically. I also bounced from site to site, trying course snippets here and there.

Learning about freeCodeCamp.org was the turning point of my quest to code. Quincy Larson has done an awesome job making the site approachable and building a huge community behind it.

I discovered it after chatting with a fellow learner that was also learning to code. The structure of the curriculum and the success stories from the users really hyped me up! It hyped me up enough to make me vow to myself that I would finish one of the certifications on the site, and never give up.

This turned into many late nights of coding. It also turned into something that I really enjoyed. Solving the challenges became addictive, and learning to conquer ones I could not solve was also enticing.

This will happen more often than you could imagine!

This is when it hit me that I would love to do this once I got out of the service. For reference, it was January 2016 when I made my vow and my date of separation was early 2018 (how I spent the other years of my 6-year enlistment is another story).

I knew that for this to be a reality in such a short time, I had to put a decent dent in my 10,000 hours. Not complete all 10,000, but enough of them to get a junior engineer or web developer position. I had not even considered going for intern positions. So, I was busy trying to dismantle the freeCodeCamp curriculum.

In addition to coding at home every day, I would also squeeze time out to practice wherever else I could. Being on active duty made this a bit challenging at times, and at the same time it had moments that really helped my learning.

For instance, because I was a shift worker, I would take advantage of the slower work tempo at night and practice coding. Add this to the hours I would do at home, and I was probably doing close to 4–5 hours a day of coding during some stretches.

Searching for that last piece of the puzzle!

Of course, this will not be the case for everyone, but the main point is to find that free time to make it happen.

Sometimes I would get stuck on freeCodeCamp (building Tic-tac-toe had me cornered for a bit). My fix for that was visiting other bootcamps and sites until I had gained the skills to get unstuck.

Among these other resources were TheOdinProject, CodeSchool, Hackerrank, and countless others. You would just never know who had the best explanation for a certain topic.

This cycle would continue, “learn, stuck, learn, stuck, learn,” Before I knew it, I would be looking at the screen like, “I wrote this……whoa.” What looked like gibberish at the start of the year I could now write from scratch and read. Crazy stuff! This was not the end of my learning, though. As a matter of fact, as a software engineer you will NEVER stop learning.

The perseverance

At this point in the story, it sounds like I had this coding thing in the bag, right? NOPE!

Do NOT think you have to try and learn any language 100%. Image source.

I had my fair share of dark days while learning to code. And I want to make sure that I make a place for them in this story. It is easy to hit a wall and take a day off, and then that turns into weeks, and then months, and then you are like “Why did I stop?”

I think it is important to know how to protect yourself from getting deterred like this. Especially if you end up like me with no one in your immediate circle interested in coding. A lot of the topics are manageable alone, but there were some more complex ideas when I needed a shoulder to cry on.

It was pretty lonely most of the trek. Some of the topics that gave me trouble were recursion (the idea makes sense, the implementation was hard though!), AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript & XML), Big O notation, and some of the harder algorithm challenges.

An example of how recursion works. :-/ Image source.

To understand some of these topics, I would literally not read anything else until I could understand them. This translated into sometimes days of researching one topic, watching YouTube videos, digesting Stack Overflow posts (your new best friend!) and, of course, more Google searches. These were the days I would say “Is this for me?”

With time, the concepts would click, but running out of gas before they did was always a fear. Keeping the vision of why I started coding in the first place helped a ton — that and Glassdoor salary estimates!

Even more than that, just remembering that I was taking a major step towards my dreams kept the fire inside burning. With that said, that fire does not have to be directed towards coding. No matter what your dream is, keep pushing and make it happen!

The clandestine

I was working hard, I had taught myself to code, and simultaneously I had started a small loose network. Small and loose as in I exchanged a couple emails with people. So not much of a network at all. So, I was still a gem (self-proclaimed) in the rough.

I know that it is possible to get a job without a network, but the old saying goes “it is not what you know, it is whom you know.” And as bad as I wanted to disagree with this, I knew that building a network would help me reach even greater heights. Why not increase my chances of finding employment via an awesome network?

Do it!

Being active-duty meant I was dropped very far away from my home of Detroit, where I could just reach out to family first. This meant that I would have to build a network in Northern California (not the worst place to be stationed for Tech).

I had previously reached out to an investor named Charles Hudson on Quora (1/2 of my small network mentioned above). Why Charles you ask? He is a well-known investor in the Tech community, his firm at the time had invested in companies similar to the one I want to build and, after watching one of his interviews, I learned that we had the same hometown!

It helps to have something in common with the people you are reaching out to. But other than this, it was just a combination of searching for mentors and taking a chance. Luckily for me, he was very receptive and gave me tips to reach my goal. The chat I had with him was how I first discovered the true networking potential of Twitter (totally unrelated to the internship).

He referred me to an article by Ruben Harris titled “Breaking into startups”. The article blew my mind — especially how Ruben used the platform to grow his network and personal brand. It was insane, and is still worth a read.

Fast forward to now, and that article has transformed into a company that creates awesome podcasts to help people break into the technology industry!

Taking heed from that post, I moved networking up as a priority, and on Twitter especially. This led me to talking to a few people Ruben mentioned in that original article itself, like Naithan Jones (Fits and Starts) and investor Kanyi Maqubela, who both gave me invaluable advice and guidance. (At the time I was just thinking like, hey they are receptive why not reach out after reading about them in Ruben’s article!)

Naithan ended up linking me with William Treseder who allowed me to intern at the startup that he is currently at, BMNT Partners (after months and months of emails showing how serious I was — sorry William). This opportunity was amazing, because a lot of the people at the startup were prior military, so they could relate to me better and aid my transition.

It was also awesome to get that first-hand startup experience, which is the opposite end of the spectrum when considering military culture. The biggest project I worked on with them provided me with some of the best answers for the interview I would eventually have at Twitter.

Going back to Kanyi, after getting on a call with him, I had some ideas of how to set myself apart from the crowd given how competitive getting into Tech is (more on this soon). After this, I loved every aspect of networking. There is just no limit to the doors that can be opened or even CREATED when others want to help you out. Little did I know one of the best connections would happen while at work at Travis AFB.

The prosperity

This is the point in articles where something crazy awesome happens that leaves you with that “this would never happen to me” feeling. I just want to say it will happen to you if you keep pushing and telling people about your passion.

This type of thing happened to me one night while I was at work. Just a regular old shift, and I struck up a conversation with Captain El-Amin, one of the pilots at my job. We would always chat about random things including my love of tech and startups.

However, on this day I happened to mention something about Twitter over the course of our conversation. And the next sentence that came out his mouth was equivalent to, “I know somebody that works there.” It was like a movie scene, but I could not have guessed what that sentence would turn into. The person he knew was Trier Bryant, a prior Air Force member herself!

After getting on a phone call with her, I felt both motivated and weary due to the competition. I just knew I had to keep coding and maintaining a healthy virtual connection with her. This connection became real when a friend and I made a visit to the Twitter HQ. We were floored by the tech environment. And Trier and her team were floored by us being floored. We then collectively said we should do this again, but bigger. The next time we came with twelve people, and we even met Jack Dorsey.

Jack made a surprise visit during our time there!

After this trip, we were floored once again and said that we should take it up another notch. That visit morphed into what eventually became me and 50+ other active duty personnel visiting the Twitter HQ for a full day professional development exchange.

And thus, I had completed an event big enough to set myself apart from the crowd (with a ton of help from my boss/personal event planner SMSgt Outsey and others). I had no clue how make an event happen, but they believed in my vision and passion and helped me see it through. And it turned out to be perfect!

My “could this get any better” face.
Smiles, smiles, and more smiles!!!
Air Force is happening!!
Me actually telling THIS part of the story to everyone.

The Air Force came and presented a lesson, and then Twitter presented a lesson. It was just great for both sides. This event happened in November 2017, which meant that I was now closing in on my separation date. Everyone thought I was going to work at Twitter. I seemed to be the only one that thought otherwise.

From my first time talking to Trier to this point, I had hit many troughs and peaks. But she consistently told me to “hush and believe in yourself!” So, I remained persistent at learning to code no matter what.

It was a scary feeling to think that I was trying to do in under 2 years what people go to school to learn in 4. That and combating imposter syndrome due to not have school credentials to validate my skills had me worried. One thing I did not give enough credit to was my drive and dedication to learn these new skills, which I just passed off as normal. Luckily everyone around me could see just how badly I wanted this opportunity, or any kind of chance to prove myself.

Always remember the stuff below the surface. Some will see it, most will not!

Before I knew it, Trier had secured me a slot to interview as a software engineer intern. Then I studied like crazy (a certain someone was nice enough to help me study, Thank you Susan!!!), went to the interview, got smacked up a bit, drove home to lick my wounds, and waited.

I felt like I did good, and at the same time I felt like I did bad — you just never know sometimes! But when I got the call that I had been accepted to be a Software Engineer intern, I cannot explain how I felt. It still feels surreal! It can happen to ANYBODY willing to put in the work. Someone will notice and help you get there.

My first week as a tern!

The conclusion

Going from not knowing anything about code to interning as an engineer at Twitter in under two years would sound insane to me. Heck, it still sounds insane! Even as I sit at my desk in the HQ. Add twelve hour shifts, a newborn daughter, and the randomness of the military, and it sounds almost impossible.

I am here to tell you that if you want it bad enough it is in your reach. Despite what everyone thinks, and despite who may be in your way. There were people who told me try to do other careers in Tech, because becoming an engineer was too hard.

There is a path that exists that can get you to that goal. It might not be Twitter, it might not be the same people that get you there, but the opportunities will come. You just have to be ready for them.

What if I never started coding? What if I started, but then gave up? What if I never spoke about my dreams and goals to anyone that would listen? What if I listened to people telling me it is too hard? A lot of “what ifs” that would have dramatically altered my path. That same opportunity would have been nonexistent, and if it did exist I would not have been ready for it.

I will end this by saying get the perspiration out the way so that when opportunity knocks you have already put in the work!

You can be this.
Or this.

The postscript

Thank you to everyone that has assisted me during this process! Every tweet, email, text, video call, and phone call is appreciated. It was so many times where I could have stopped and instead I kept going because you guys gave me hope. So, thank you a million times and I will surely pay it forward by helping others.

There are also others like me, waiting for their chance to show Tech that they belong there. I can think of two right now! So, if you have any questions about ANYTHING I did or how I did it, please reach out. Lastly, if there are people reading this with access to internship opportunities that you would like to fill please let me know, I have a few people that are beyond interested!! Thank you for reading!

Stay tuned, more good news on the way!