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Cover image for Diamonds, Mentors & Value – Cutting a Path into Tech with Stephen Ajayi

Diamonds, Mentors & Value – Cutting a Path into Tech with Stephen Ajayi

Mandy Moore
Single Mom 👩‍👧 🐶😺😺😺😺 Owner/producer: Greater Than Code 💕 #DevRel 🥑 WiT/D&I 👩🏻‍💻 Podcast Production 🎙 #BlackLivesMatter #python 🐍 she/her
・20 min read

Host Jonan Scheffler interviews Stephen Ajayi, co-founder of YearOne: a developer community supporting non-traditional engineers to succeed in their first year of engineering and how part of YearOne’s services includes that when a person lands a job, they support them for their first year with partner companies by doing check-ins with the candidate who got hired, making sure that everything's going well, and that they always have everything that they need.

Should you find a burning need to share your thoughts or rants about the show, please spray them at devrel@newrelic.com. While you're going to all the trouble of shipping us some bytes, please consider taking a moment to let us know what you'd like to hear on the show in the future. Despite the all-caps flaming you will receive in response, please know that we are sincerely interested in your feedback; we aim to appease. Follow us on the Twitters: @LaunchiesShow.

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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Launchies, proudly brought to you by New Relic's developer relations team, The Relicans. The Launchies podcast is about supporting new developers and telling their stories, and helping you make the next step in what we certainly hope is a very long and healthy career in software. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of The Relicans podcasts on developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. We're so glad you're here. Enjoy the show.

Hello. Welcome back to Launchies. I have some exciting news about The Relicans. We are going to be building out our very own track at FutureStack; the upcoming virtual event brought to you by New Relic. And you can learn all about it on therelicans.com/futurestack. It would really be awesome if you all come out and hang out with us. It's going to be a lot of fun. I would appreciate you very much registering and coming to chill with The Relicans at our FutureStack track. So we are here today to not so much talk about that conference, which is going to be awesome but to talk about Stephen, who is awesome in the present, right this very moment. Stephen, how are you today?

Stephen Ajayi: I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.

Jonan: Thank you so much for coming on the show. I was so pleased to see you pop up recently in my life again after so many years. So, can I tell this story? Do you mind if I tell this whole story?

Stephen: No, go ahead.

Jonan: You have a really good story, Stephen. So Stephen and I met at a meetup when I was working at New Relic five or six years ago. It must have been six years ago on my first tour at New Relic. And I used to be running meetups after work quite often. Stephen came up and pitched me on a startup idea, which was a brilliant startup idea if I'm remembering correctly. It was about matching companies with people. But tell me more about it; you remember it better than I.

Stephen: I think the core premise was doing value matching of like, “I value this in a workplace as a candidate and then finding companies that align with those values to then getting into their interview process.”

Jonan: And so the idea was that we were going to build this application and help people locally match up with companies that would make them happy. And then I didn't end up building it. And it was very fortunate for you because I would have been way overburdened at the time and not able to give the project the attention it deserved. But this was before you were programming for a living, right?

Stephen: Yes.

Jonan: We were talking earlier about when you first got the bug to write code, but I want to share that story with our listeners. Tell us the first time you experienced the joy of programming.

Stephen: So I was in college at Portland State University, and I took an elective class, computer science 106. And that taught me the bare minimums of coding with Visual Basic, basically. And so that's where I got the bug, and I just started writing Python scripts in my spare time to learn more, and then it just kept growing from there.

Jonan: So I met you at this meetup, and you were around pitching people on this startup that you had. I was impressed at the time, and I still am impressed by the tremendous amount of hustle that you had. You were out there making this dream happen one way or another. And now, fast forward six years, you're here to talk about having actually built one of those dreams and how it's growing. So tell us about that.

Stephen: I ended up going to a coding bootcamp to learn how to write code myself and actually be able to write software and maybe build a startup. And so, through that process, I learned that there are a lot of really talented software engineers who are coming through non-traditional backgrounds into coding bootcamps and other means. And they needed a way to connect with companies and also get support during those hard times of the interview search and job searching, and then also through their first year of software engineering. So we built a startup called YearOne that does all those things.

Jonan: YearOne. So, an imaginary code school education is complete, and then I'm out in the job market, and I'm throwing resumes around. Do I reach out to YearOne then? Are you in the bootcamp? Do you engage with people in the schools, or do I look you up afterwards, and you help me find a job?

Stephen: It's both. So we partner with 50+ coding bootcamps across the country right now, and then also people who are in coding bootcamps who will become candidates apply to be part of our community as well. So both work for us.

Jonan: Do you happen to partner with Turing School of software design?

Stephen: We do.

Jonan: Yes! I am an alumni of a bootcamp that was one of the originators of that series that became the Turing School.

Stephen: That is awesome.

Jonan: Yeah, I'm really glad to hear that you're working with them because they're a good outfit. And let's pitch your code school too. Where did you go?

Stephen: I went to Epicodus here in Portland, Oregon.

Jonan: Yes! Epicodus is a really good one too. I remember when Michael started Epicodus. He was one of the Ruby meetup members there too. We ran a little meetup called Hackbright in Epicodus when it was just a single room across the street from New Relic's offices.

Stephen: Wow.

Jonan: We had this thing every week where we would get together and do pair programming exercises and rotate pairs, and then people would present whatever they'd built. So we'd come up with a fake programming problem. And Michael was very generous with his space. So thank you, Michael; if you're listening, I hope you are. Epicodus is in a much bigger space now. How many people are in a class at Epicodus these days?

Stephen: I don't even know. It was growing when I was there, and I think it exponentially grew from there as well. So I know they moved buildings and everything after I graduated. So they're doing pretty well.

Jonan: They have multiple software language tracks, and they may have multiple floors in this building. And Turing has taken off similarly. This is a growing industry. It seems like a really good time to be doing this YearOne thing. How long ago did you start it?

Stephen: So we started six months ago, so the summer of 2020.

Jonan: Summer of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, you kicked off this business.

Stephen: Yeah.

Jonan: So you're still in year one of YearOne.

Stephen: Yes.

Jonan: Are you going to have a big party when you're all done? I want to come to the party. I'll bring you a birthday cake with one giant candle on it.

Stephen: [laughs] We should think about it just for the cake. So yeah, it's possible.

Jonan: I'm going to throw a party. Once we're out of the pandemic, we're going to have a YearOne year one party at the top of Big Pink where New Relic's offices are, and I'll get you the biggest cake.

Stephen: Let's do it.

Jonan: So we've skipped a lot of history that I think is very interesting, which is the part where you're off at university, and you're studying other things. You were pre-med studying the sciences, is that right?

Stephen: Yep, and general business.

Jonan: And general business because you clearly are a business-oriented person, young entrepreneur. And then you started writing code, and you thought you know what? This programming thing is pretty cool. I feel like tech has a future. And you went off to make that happen.

Stephen: Mm-hmm.

Jonan: So when you left school, what were you doing right afterwards?

Stephen: I was writing code with Epicodus and doing that in my free time and work time as often as I could do. I just programmed as much as I possibly could.

Jonan: And then you got out of Epicodus and took a job writing software.

Stephen: Yeah. So I ended up in an internship here at a local company in Portland. And then after that, I just ended up working my way up into eventually going to the Bay Area to be a VP of sales at a startup as well.

Jonan: So that sales gig, was that your first sales gig that you ever had?

Stephen: No. So it was my first sales gig in technology. But before, in order to save up to get into coding bootcamp, I sold jewelry, and also cologne, and fragrance, and stuff like that.

Jonan: You sold jewelry in a jewelry counter. Like, I would walk in and come to buy a diamond to get married with, and you would sell me that diamond.

Stephen: Exactly.

Jonan: Is it easier to sell software than it is to sell diamonds?

Stephen: That's a really good question. I don't know if it's easier. I almost think it's the same, honestly. I'll explain why. So I think it's similar because oftentimes, when someone's coming to a diamond counter, they're getting a diamond, but they're trying to communicate something else. The diamond is a symbol of how you feel about someone and this really big choice you're making. And so oftentimes, you're just listening to them, and in a lot of cases, you're being their therapist as they're making this really large life decision and helping them navigate that. I think software has very similar aspects to it in terms of software sales. And so I think that that is where a lot of skills that are not necessarily transferable into tech actually are because they pull from very similar types of places and result in similar outcomes.

Jonan: This is interesting to me because I have felt similarly. After I came out of university, I had about a 10-year stint doing random everything. And I feel like a lot of the skills I picked up along the way transfer to the environment I operate in now. But I get that question a lot from people going off to code school where they're like, "Well, listen, I have been a yoga teacher for a decade, and now I'm going to come and work in software. And I had this whole career, and I'm starting over. And I feel like I don't have anything to add." And I will go through with them and be like, "You were a yoga teacher. You run a small studio. You had students, and they were your clients, and you handled billing and customer service and all of that." And they slowly come to realize that they have a whole skill set that transfers really well into the world of software. So you see that a lot of your time spent before you came into software is applicable to your daily life now.

Stephen: Absolutely. I think I have a pretty broad range of interests and things I wanted to do and experimented with. And I think that helps along the way in ways you don't really always understand of how that connects the dots once you actually find yourself in technology. So yeah, I think that those skills are absolutely transferable. But I do completely empathize and sympathize with that feeling of this past experience isn't worth anything where you feel that, but it's not true. It does actually have value.

Jonan: I feel that way about a lot of my software experience because I started programming when I was very young, and I had several false starts. This was before the internet and before I knew anyone who could program. I taught myself BASIC by trial and error like, run this thing, did it do anything? Then run this thing. And it was fun. I could make a little program, but I never learned how to save a file even. I would create these complicated journaling apps, my secret diary thing, and I'd put a password on it. And then my younger sister would come and try and guess the password. And when she got the password wrong, the program would insult her in varying ways.

Stephen: [chuckles]

Jonan: And then she would turn the computer off and turn it on again. And I hadn't saved it. I didn't know how to do any of that. So I had all of this knowledge of how to use BASIC, and later I was using DOS to do all kinds of things. And none of that really applies to my life now, except for the curiosity, the problem-solving piece. And I think people, when they come into tech, look around, and they see all of these people who have these massive skill sets. Oh, this person does really well with Linux, and then they know Ruby, and Python, and JavaScript, and I only know this piece. But you don't realize that what you're looking at is basically a Venn diagram where you only see their half. You're looking around at all of these people with all these skill sets and discounting all of your experience and your skills. And you see the part that overlaps, and then you see all the rest that they have, but you don't really give yourself credit. Why do you think that is about humans? Why do we do that?

Stephen: It's something that we think about often, especially with what we do as a startup. Because I think from watching a lot of people go through the interview process, watch them try to land jobs and ultimately matriculate into roles and things like that, there are similar sorts of things that people struggle with, no matter what their background was. So it doesn't matter if you've graduated from college or if you were a barista if you were a lawyer before; if you're transferring over, you feel like you're starting from scratch. And so then it also feels like okay; now I know all this stuff, or at least I feel like I know some stuff. And then it feels like once you get out of code school, you just realize that there's so much information just to learn about software, so much to learn about engineering. It's like, well, should I have gone to a four-year computer science degree? Maybe I would've known so much more of this information if I did that. And so it just becomes this ever-growing problem that results sometimes in imposter syndrome, I would say. But I think the reality is people often discount what they know. And so I think that that particularly applies to women and people of color. You've seen that happen a lot. People just have to be comfortable with what they know and being confident in the stuff that you know and just knowing that you'll learn the rest as you go. But it's not a fair comparison to compare yourself to someone that has ten years of industry experience working as a software engineer to where you are when you're first starting trying to break into the industry. It's just not really a good equivalent there.

Jonan: There isn't really an equivalent. The race is long, and it's only with yourself, right?

Stephen: Exactly

Jonan: I wish more people understood that. I wish I could remember that in every moment because I frequently forget my own advice. Working in tech, you get to hang out with some really brilliant, successful people. It's hard for me to remember sometimes that I actually have my own unique contribution to this space. And I really appreciate that you're helping to build that out for people. That imposter syndrome you mentioned, too, people coming through a traditional CS program, and I've seen it in plenty of them coming out of school. "Well, I've studied for years. I should know this. I should know web application development." Well, you didn't study web application development.

Stephen: Exactly.

Jonan: Right? Why is it that we expect ourselves to know things before we know them? My kids do this all day. They're like, "Oh, I'm the worst drawer ever, dad." And I'm like, "You can't draw because you're three." [laughter] You're doing great. I don't tell them that they're terrible. I coach them. When people get into this program, speaking of coaching, this is a feature that you provide. As part of YearOne, you are able to follow people through their first job.

Stephen: Yeah. So part of our services when someone does land a job, we actually support them for their first year with our partner companies.

Jonan: And then the student ends up paying you for this service.

Stephen: It's actually free for students. So companies end up paying us, not the candidates.

Jonan: So if I have a company -- I'm just promoting myself to CEO of New Relic for a moment. Sorry, Lew, bear with me. So I am the CEO of New Relic, and you come to New Relic and said, "Hey, we have a great candidate pool. Do you want to talk to some of them? We see you're hiring for some positions." And as part of that, is it like a recruiting bonus that ends up being paid to YearOne from the company? New Relic pays you a service fee. How does that work?

Stephen: That's basically how it works. So we do 15% of the first-year salary, or for companies who are hiring at volume, it's an annual enterprise contract of 25,000 to 75,000, which includes a year of candidate support for every candidate you hire for whatever case.

Jonan: Oh, wow.

Stephen: So that's what we do and make sure those candidates are successful.

Jonan: That's actually a really reasonable price. If I'm a company the scale of New Relic, on behalf of New Relic as the new CEO, you're hired. We're all in. I'll give you the keys to the bank account. To be clear, I'm not at all in charge of those kinds of decisions for a good reason, clearly.

Stephen: [laughs]

Jonan: So then during the year, how do you support them? Are you checking in with them? Are you coaching, mentoring? What happens then?

Stephen: So we do it in multiple facets. So the first facet is that we actually do check-ins with the candidate who got hired, making sure that everything's going well, that they have everything that they need. We also do check-ins with the team lead every month, make sure that everything is going well on their side. And then I think the biggest part that we've seen be really, really valuable is that because it's a network, you have people who are landing jobs at multiple companies who are able to talk to each other about the experiences that they're going through. And so you almost basically get this thing you would have if you went to a really great university where you get an alumni group of people who are your friends and that you can talk to about problems or reach out to like, "Hey, I'm working on X, Y, and Z thing. Oh, you've worked on this before. You could help me with this problem I'm having, right?" And so it almost becomes like a safe space for people to go through their first year of engineering from a non-traditional background and be successful. And so that's the way that we set that up.

Jonan: You're basically the missing alumni network. Many people go to more cohesive programs like Epicodus or Turing, where they have these strong alumni communities. But there are plenty of people who just self-educate online. They work their way through freeCodeCamp, which also has a good community, but you know what I'm saying. I could be entirely self-educated without ever having had that community to have my back.

Stephen: Exactly, which is true. And I think that it ends up being very similar to -- I found that there are similarities between being a founder of a startup and then also going through the software journey as a non-traditional engineer going to coding bootcamp. Either way, it sometimes feels it's a little bit of a lonely journey. And I think that having Techstars or having an alumni group is actually really supportive to help you feel like you're not by yourself in those situations. Most of these situations are not unique to you, but it's hard to realize that sometimes in the moment.

Jonan: It is always hard to realize that in the moment. I feel like software developers have a special ability to feel as though the problems they are encountering are unique.

Stephen: Yeah.

Jonan: It maybe leads to the tool bloat that we see so often, inventing solutions over and over again to inventing problems. So what do you see in the future for YearOne? Where are you trying to go from here? Do you want to be focused on getting more companies or getting more students, or getting more support? What do you see happening in year two? Well, are you going to change the company name first of all?

Stephen: No. I think for us, even three years from now, five years from now, ten years from now, the foundation starts with your first year of engineering. So I think that's a pivotal part of being successful in engineering as you're transferring in, so definitely keeping that name. But I think that what we really want to be is a growing alumni network. So you can start to see people who look like you and that are successfully transferring into technology and that you can have a resource of people who understand what you're going through at all phases from just getting right out of coding bootcamp to leading teams and all the way through that gamut. And so that's really what we're building is that network. And then also making it easier for companies to hire really talented engineers that they otherwise might have missed because they don't have a traditional background that they're looking for typically within their screening criteria. So that's where we want to be on both of those fronts.

Jonan: Is it hypothetically the case that if someone gets hired into the company and has a terrible experience that you would then hesitate to partner with that company in the future?

Stephen: Yeah. So it's something that we definitely have to think about. It's like, well, why did this go badly? I think that there are a lot of reasons why things don't work out and sometimes it's neither person's fault like, for some reason, it just didn't work for the candidate, and it didn't work for the company, and that's okay. But I think if it's one of those things where it's something a little bit more egregious, then you have to reflect on that and figure out why if it makes sense for that company to still be a client that you're sending candidates to. And I think we're particularly careful about that because a high percentage of our candidates are women and people of color. So they're underrepresented in technology anyway, and we don't want them to essentially feel like those edge cases represent a larger situation that they're always going to run into in technology and therefore leave the industry.

Jonan: Because they go into two or three of such toxic workplaces in a row and decide tech is not for me.

Stephen: Exactly.

Jonan: I'm really glad to hear that you exist as that safety net for the industry. I would hope then that YearOne continues to grow. I'm very disappointed to hear that it's not going to change the name to YearTwo. But you've got to re-file all the paperwork to get the name change, and it's complicated.

Stephen: C corps and all that stuff. It's a whole thing.

Jonan: All that stuff. So, when we have you back on next year, and I hope you'll come join me for year two of YearOne then you would consider that to have been a successful year if you've grown the network of candidates and have people out there in the field and growing the number of companies you're working with. But if you're going to measure something like that based on a success metric for the individual rather than for the growth of the company, would you measure how many people succeed in these roles as compared to a traditional bootcamp graduate who doesn't have the support? How would you measure that?

Stephen: So it's a really great question. One of the things that we're tracking right now is actually what the starting salary is for these candidates that we're placing versus the market average. So I think that the average coding bootcamp graduate right now nationally starts their software engineering career making right around 75K a year, and so our average is about 105. So basically why that is so much higher is because our candidates are landing software engineer one jobs in roles at really great companies. And so I think what I would want to see as that metric that we're tracking is how many people we can impact like that. Because I think that if people are matriculating into software engineering one jobs or jobs at really great startups where they are starting their career off in that way, then that means that they're not having to possibly getting bucketed into an apprenticeship program that they might be overqualified for. So that's the way that we're thinking about that is how many people we can actually truly impact. And I think the financial part of that is part of the story. But I think it's a big part, especially for candidates who are coming from non-traditional backgrounds where that's a really big leap for them in a lot of cases. So there's real economic and socio-economic impact there that's really, really important. So that's the way that we think about that.

Jonan: I am shocked to think back to what I made during that period of time in my life before I got into software. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that once you're in, once you find that first job and you have that first year under your belt, you're pretty much good to go for the next one, and the next one, and the next one, that this will be the last job you really look hard for.

Stephen: Yeah.

Jonan: Well, I thank you very much for being with people to support them on that journey. And I hope to our listeners out there if you are in a code school now or considering one that you take a look at YearOne. It's not going to cost any money. It costs your company money, but you also gain access to a huge network of companies where you know other people have succeeded and a network of peers who can help you succeed.

Stephen: Exactly.

Jonan: Well done. I'm so glad that you built this thing for the world, Stephen. It's been really nice hanging out with you. Thanks for coming on the show.

Stephen: Thank you so much. Great to see you.

Jonan: Stephen, I almost forgot to ask you how people can find you on the internet.

Stephen: So our website is joinyearone.io.

Jonan: And they go to joinyearone.io and sign up to learn more. And you personally are on Twitter. Do you tweet?

Stephen: I am not a big Twitter person, but we are on Twitter. You can find us there. But we definitely need to up our game on Twitter for sure.

Jonan: You're probably a little busy right now with that startup thing.

Stephen: It is true.

Jonan: Find more time for social media. It's important. I want to see your awesome Twitter takes on...no; I don't actually. There's very little value that Twitter on mass offers the world, but I do recommend that people coming into tech get a Twitter account because there are a lot of friends on there.

Stephen: This is true.

You'll have the YearOne network, though. You won't need Twitter.

Jonan: All right. With that, we are closing out this episode of Launchies. Thank you again, all of our listeners, for joining us. And your final reminder that you should be attending FutureStack with The Relicans to come watch us get up to all sorts of tomfoolery, and you can learn more about it on therelicans.com/futurestack. Thank you again, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you.

Jonan: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. You'll also find news there of FutureStack, our upcoming conference here at New Relic. We would love to have you join us. We'll see you next week. Take care.

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