Becoming a software engineer took a lot of hard work and individual drive for Edwin Elia. Drawing from his background in music, he learned to transfer his perseverance to the professional world and push himself to take on projects that would grow his skill set as a front-end engineer. Today he aims to connect with UnCollege fellows as a mentor to create an achievable plan that will help them accomplish their dreams. We sat down with Edwin to talk about his journey and how he hopes to give back to the UnCollege community.
UnCollege: For those of us who don’t know, what is a front-end engineer and what kind of work do you do as one?
Edwin: A front-end engineer is involved in software engineering but the focus is mainly on the user experience, so it’s creating the interactions within the webpage. It’s more on the visual side than the data-processing, if you would.
So what does a normal day at the office look like for you? What kind of work are you doing?
The typical work is feature development or bug-fixes just like any other software engineering position really. But one extra thing that we do is usually dealing with user interface or user experience design. So that is part of the job description, as well. You know, making sure the layout of the page makes sense. Things like that.
How did you discover this is what you wanted to do with your life? What influenced you?
In the beginning I know for sure that I’m the type of person that gets bored very very easily so I need constant challenge. Software engineering offers that kind of avenue where everyday it’s a new challenge; it’s a new puzzle to solve. That’s very interesting to me. And then I’m a visual person so I like to see the changes I am making. From changing the positions or the layout of a certain element I can see immediately what happens when I make that change. That’s how I decided to be a software engineer.
You also have a big interest in music. How has that passion come into play in your professional career?
Music started as something that was forced by my parents where I did not enjoy it. I did not enjoy music until, like, ten years after I started my music education. But I think having the discipline and that other side of my brain being active, it gives me perseverance, I think. I don’t get discouraged easily because, in music, it’s definitely not one of those things where you get immediate results. It takes years and years before you develop a certain ability to just play a piece of music straight through and understand what’s going on with the repertoire. So it has definitely ingrained a certain passion of perseverance in my character and I think it’s very useful in pursuing a career since you don’t get discouraged easily when you fail. You take learning steps and little by little improve whatever you can and do a different approach to your career.
So being so self-directed is hard, right? It’s something we constantly have to pay attention to and motivate ourselves to not only find the best next step, but also take it. What mistakes did you make early on and how did you learn from them?
The biggest mistake I made was probably not thinking in the big picture. Sometimes when you are learning something new you are being too specific about what you’re learning and you don’t get the big picture. For instance in software engineering, if you just learn one specific technology and you don’t understand how that technology relates in a bigger picture and application then that knowledge sometimes becomes useless. You don’t actually understand the context behind why that technology exists. If you were to focus more on the big picture first and then learn the subject technologies you need, number one you can produce visible results more quickly and two you won’t waste time learning something that you might not even use. So that was the biggest mistake that I made: being too specific on a certain technology with a specific language and not understanding the bigger picture of how that technology relates to another.
What advice would you give to other young professionals in your field?
Do projects. That would be the biggest advice, especially with front-end since usually the mistake that we do is very visible. It’s the first interaction between the customer and the product itself. By doing projects, you immediately know what knowledge or skills you are missing. You have to get out there as quick as possible and as much as possible. So do projects because that is the best way to learn, to expose yourself to a lot of different challenges and different problems and just push yourself. When we’re trying to hire somebody, we always check their portfolio. And, if the portfolio is light, you have a certain resistance to hiring that applicant or interviewing them. But if they have a portfolio and it has really cool projects in it, we’re much more inclined to interview them. We know that they know what they’re talking about. It’s not just a resume that at this point practically means nothing, it’s just words on paper and there’s no evidence. But if you actually have projects to support your resume then it becomes evidence because I can see that what you’re saying is true. I can check your work essentially.
Alright, now I’m curious. What has been your favorite project so far?
The project that I’m working on right now at my company is actually pretty cool and complex. We’re a startup company and luckily we’re creating an open-source product as well so everybody can check it out. My work is out there in the public. In the front-end side of it we created essentially an ETL pipeline (and ETL stands for extract, transform, load) for big data infrastructure. The cool thing about this is instead of writing code to transfer data from one database to another database you can simply drag and drop a database plugin and input the login and password to that particular database and it can pull the data from that database. Then you can see whether your data is valid and in the conrect format before you load it to some other database. You can do all this through the UI. So that was a really cool project that we’re still improving on but it definitely took my programming skills to the next level.
What kind of work do you hope to do with the fellows at UnCollege? How do you think you can mentor them?
My life has been full of mentors and where I am right now is thanks to the mentors that I have. So I believe in that approach and I believe that everybody needs a mentor in their life. The biggest thing I want to do with UnCollege fellows is to push them, try to get them out of their comfort zone, and be a resource to them. Sometimes talking through your career goals and your future with somebody helps to solidify what you’re trying to achieve. A lot of times goals are kind of this abstract thing, castle-in-the-cloud type of thing but my hope is I’ll be able to turn that castle-in-the-cloud into building the steps to reach that castle-in-the-cloud, if you would. So I’m hoping to help them to create that systematic plan to reach their goals or where they want to be in life.
Are YOU looking to share your skills with the next generation of self-directed learners? To become an UnCollege mentor, click here.