Zach Wunder

A Story of a "Self-Taught" Engineer

My intention is this essay is as far from persuasive as possible. I aim to share my professional experience as someone who knew what they wanted but was unsatisfied with the typical path of getting there.

I’m currently the Manager of Software Engineering at Pod Network, originally working on a mobile app that has now pivoted into other ventures. Before this, I worked at Belkin International as a developer at some of it’s subsidiaries, Linksys and Wemo. Perhaps the more interesting part of my career is that I didn’t go to college, instead opting to pursue turning my high-school job into a career.

After high school, I made the decision to focus on my job at Belkin, where I received valuable guidance and inspiration. This transformative experience then came to a close when I received an offer from a brand-new startup where I was enticed with a fresh opportunity to prove myself.

This led to my current position, joining when the team size was still in the single digits. Being a part of a smaller team has directly enabled many opportunities, despite my lack of college degree.

Not having a degree added unique challenges, insecurities and doubts to the first couple years of my career. I questioned if I had made a huge mistake often. But I’ve also had the good fortune to meet people who believed in me. People who’ve taken chances on me and enabled amazing opportunities and experiences. Thanks to them, I’ve been able to move beyond many of those challenges and can now (hopefully) reflect on that time with some objectivity.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to start working at a young age. The summers after my sophomore and junior year of high school, I interned as a software developer at Belkin International. I enjoyed everything about the job: the work, people, office, everything. Where I was previously incentivized to attend college to get a good job, I now found myself in the place I had envisioned I would be many years down the line.

I received outstanding mentorship and guidance during these summers. Even more importantly, thanks to my manager, Mike LeDuc, this experience then led to a job throughout my senior year and onwards.

I would arrive at the office after my lunch period, staying as late as 9:00pm most of the time. Nights alone in the office, solving interesting problems, and working on projects that actually had a real-world impact, felt empowering and rewarding. These feelings quickly cemented the idea that I just wanted to keep doing this, rather than more school.

In my free-time I worked on Ascendit, an algorithmic trading platform that I spent the better part of two years on. If I wasn’t working or playing water polo, I was engrossed with Ascendit. What I wanted was to turn it into a startup, before I knew what a startup really was. In that regard, I was wildly unsuccessful. But it was an incredibly useful context for me to try out new technologies and practice programming. It also became the focal point of my otherwise sparse resume, giving me something real to talk about during interviews.

I thrived with my work and projects. With them, I found joy, challenge and meaning. In contrast, my feelings towards school trended towards apathy. I was obstinate, insisting that what I was learning didn’t apply to the real world. As a result, I got (relatively) good at coding to the detriment of my grades.

I was “strongly encouraged” many times to consider how neglecting academics would affect my future. At the time though, I couldn’t hear it. I had my convictions, right or wrong. In the end, I didn’t get into the few colleges I ended up applying to.

For the prior few years I had had regular conversations about my future with the adults in my life, but the one I remember most was with my uncle, someone I’ve respected greatly my whole life. He sat me down over lunch and nicely made it clear how much of a mistake it was not to go to college. He explained the term glass ceilings to me, told me about how it’s easy for people to say that what I’m doing is great, but still not hire or promote me. How right now things might look ok while I still lived with my parents, but it’s unlikely I’ll get a job that will pay what I want in the future without a degree.

After graduating high school, I continued my employment at Belkin full-time and began community college concurrently. My plan wasn’t to skip out completely on school. I intended instead to string it along while I focused on a career in programming, keeping it open as a backup option.

At times, reality hit harder than I had expected, despite numerous warnings. The reality being that I was eighteen, making minimum wage at a job that, while I loved, didn’t have a clear path to becoming a sustainable, successful career. Still, I often acted nonchalant about what the future held for me with my family, which was a terrible way to instill confidence in them.

Despite this, working and studying full-time allowed me to maintain their support, as well as give myself some security knowing I had a fallback. Even if it meant weaving through LA traffic after work to get to the 5:30pm-8:30pm Calculus 2 class on time.

Of course, it was a considerable commitment, especially being a student athlete. It was difficult to stay afloat, but thankfully it wasn’t long before work picked up and I could scale back my studies. I caught an extremely lucky break when Mike left and moved me on to the team that was developing the native iOS app for all Linksys routers. This was a pivotal moment for me, going from a semi-isolated, not-quite-intern to a proper junior team member.

I picked up iOS development on the job and started to receive positive feedback at my weekly 1-1’s. Eventually, this was backed up with an incremental increase in pay. I began to settle into things, flip flopping between confidence I could make this work, and being unsure if I was capable of moving up meaningfully from my junior position.

Sure enough, seven months in those doubts made their way into reality. I was working a full 40-hour week which, with the approval of my boss, was 12 more than was in the contract I signed while I was still in high school. I had gone from supporting other team members to now taking on feature requests just like the more senior people on the team. I even got the experience of leading up a couple projects. This was until someone from HR realized I wasn’t working in line with my contract and politely enforced the original hourly cap. In response, with the support of my boss and colleagues, I began to negotiate for a salaried, full-time position.

I felt I was already doing the work for it, my boss the same, but a college degree was listed as a requirement on the job posting nonetheless. The wheels and cogs of process churned along for months. I was finally feeling the cold pressure of the glass ceilings I was forewarned of.

I took it personally at the time, the fears I had of not being able to transition my job to a career were coming true. The message I heard was that I wasn’t capable of doing a good job without a degree. The reality was that I was an edge case in a massive system that took time to figure out.

Concurrently, I was approached by a startup who was looking for a React Native engineer; a technology I was familiar with through my experiences with Belkin and Ascendit. I interviewed with three people, a board member who was a CTO at a much larger company, the CTO, and an engineer, respectively. I left feeling good overall, with the vast majority of that good feeling coming from the first and third interview.

I didn’t end up receiving an offer.

Fast forward a couple months, I got an email from the startup asking to interview once again. When I got there, I learned they had parted ways with the CTO and I got to talk with nearly every single team member at this tiny company.

This time, they took a chance on me.

Early-stage startups don’t hire enough people to bog down the process with lots of rules. At their scale, they can evaluate each person without relying on rigid filters like degrees or years of experience.

Additionally, when the people steering the company are close to the hiring process, they have the power and incentive to gamble on someone like me. They had the capacity and incentive to invest in the slope of what I would be able to do in time, rather than solely look at my qualification and experience in the present.

Even so, startups aren’t a blanket solution for anyone with a non-traditional background. I was initially confused as to why I received a second interview, when I was rejected the first time. It took a while to realize that as much as I wanted to think about big companies with lots of rules and process as incompatible with someone without a degree, I was just as much at the mercy of an individual’s rules and process here. The former CTO didn’t want to hire an uneducated eighteen year old, but thankfully, the CEO was willing to take that chance.

I was closing in on an offer from Belkin, though still not guaranteed, when I got the email with my proposed contract. It was over a 50% increase in pay plus stock options. I was scared to leave a job I enjoyed so much for an almost complete unknown, but the pay and title was so much better I resolved to accept almost immediately.

I regret this. In the end, I made the right decision for the wrong reasons. I should’ve done the move because it greatly increased my responsibilities and consequent learning. I should’ve done it because the experience complimented my long-term entrepreneurial goals. Words came to this feeling only recently, when I received the excellent advice to optimize my career for rate of learning and most other factors will take care of themselves.

I’ve now been at Pod for two and a half years. My time here has taught me more than any other experience in my life, through both example and mistake. Because I’m still here, I can’t properly reflect on everything, but there have been some early lessons that remain true through today.

Life at an early-stage startup is wildly real, shockingly so when I first joined. I have the permissions to press the same buttons that bring down the whole operation as easily as launching a last minute patch that ensures an important demo goes off without a hitch. This level of autonomy is what has really embodied my experience here, along with the greatly increased scope of responsibilities.

I now report directly to the CEO. This means no backstop from a more senior technical team member. I’ve gotten to make mistakes that have cost the company money and myself sleep but that’s also meant an incredible opportunity to learn.

Of course, this made the transition unbelievably difficult. I felt constantly out of my depth for at least the first year and a half, but short of starting my own company, I can’t imagine an environment where I could be exposed to as much real-world learning in as short of a time. The struggle to stay above water is also what necessitated growth.

A lot of this value has been through this exposure to areas that would’ve been inaccessible to me for a very long time at other companies. Simply because there aren’t enough people to only handle one job each.

There’s certainly been tradeoffs, going from a very large to a very small company. I sacrificed stability and predictability for exposure and faster growth. I also traded mentorship for autonomy. A huge benefit has been that since I became a manager, I’ve been able to work with someone far more experienced than myself outside of the company to weigh in on big decisions and problems. Similar to a personal board member. It’s reminded me how far just a bit of guidance can really go, something sorely missed from my days at Belkin.

Overall, I’m appreciative of both opportunities for their differences. I was still in over my head starting at Pod, but it would’ve much worse if I hadn’t had the experience from the far more forgiving environment at Belkin. In the end though, I’ve come to love startups. The impact I can make as an individual, the fast pace and the ability to try radically new ideas are all traits that I can’t move away from.

Being self-taught has had its benefits, some of unanticipated and underestimated magnitude. Being comfortable without a curriculum has helped me navigate the uncertainties and autonomy of life at a startup. Over time, I’ve also come to be comfortable with not having a well-defined path to success ahead of me.

My tolerance for risk has grown from this experience as well. At each transition I depleted some of that tolerance, but in time as things stabilized, it has come back, plus more. Coming out on the other side each time has made me reevaluate what is truly risky versus what I’m just scared of.

Simply taking some risk off the table by saving money has been transformative for me as well. The opportunity cost, not to mention the actual expenses, of going to school would’ve been significant. It’s created a safety net for me that I can fall back on for when I want to make another big move in the future.

But the people who warned me about not pursuing a degree were still right in many ways. Until recently, I felt as if I had more to prove than most. Prove to employers that I could do the work. Prove to colleagues that I knew what I was talking about. Prove to well-intentioned family and friends that I wasn’t going to end up both uneducated and unemployed.

I’ve been asked about my experience from people even younger than myself a few times now. In these cases I try to emphasize the downsides.

There have been social challenges. It’s easy to hear the praise for those around you who get into great schools as comparative. Some people will look at you differently when you tell them you aren’t going to college. It takes more effort to build a great network.

There have also been mental challenges. It’s hard not to base your metric of success off of what the people you respect value. There’s doubt that you'll be relegated to lower level positions for the rest of your career. And there’s always the feeling that if you had just listened to common wisdom and worked hard, you would be the one with prestigious education and the quarter million dollar FAANG salary.

Even with a carefully crafted plan I wouldn’t blame someone else for having those feelings. But I definitely didn’t have a plan like that. Many of my decisions were deluded with arrogance, stubbornness, and a lack of determination.

I say these things because it’s certainly not the path of least resistance. But I do get to say that my path has been authentic to who I am, for better or worse. Frankly, there’s no other way things could have gone.