Under The Hoodie - Vincent Nwonah, Senior Software Engineer
In this Under The Hoodie edition, Vincent tells us about coming from humble beginnings, failing out of school, making a breakthrough in tech, and quitting a job he didn’t love.
Under The Hoodie is a weekly series where we talk to people about their journey into tech. It focuses on the intersection between life and career. UTH Week 7.
Vincent is a 27-year old Senior Software Engineer and Developer Advocate at DotVVM. He is also a 2-time Microsoft MVP. In this Under The Hoodie edition, Vincent tells us about coming from humble beginnings, failing out of school, making a breakthrough in tech, and quitting a job he didn’t love.
What was growing up like?
I grew up in the north, and it was fun. I used to think my family was middle-class until I realised much later that we were actually poor.
I was also a pretty smart kid, so I finished secondary school at around 13 - a very young age.
That was very young!
Yes. I was so young I couldn’t get into the university. I had to go to a polytechnic which I failed out of because I spent the entire time playing video games.
Wait a minute. What games were you playing?
I mostly played PES 2006 on the PlayStation 1.
Oh. That was a legendary game.
[laughs] yes, but I no longer game. I stopped after I failed out of school. After that, I couldn’t get into school because my family had some financial challenges.
Then there was growing insecurity in the north, so we moved back to Asaba, Delta State. I had to get a job to support the family, so I started working in cybercafes since I was good with computers. I worked at different cybercafes until I was 19 when I decided to go back to school.
So, when did you get into tech?
I didn’t start coding till my second year, but I wasn’t really serious about it. It was just the normal Console.WriteLine and a little HTML but I felt like a genius.
I kept writing some code here and there until 2017 when I discovered the HNG Internship—that was the gamechanger for me. There was a lot of structure to HNG, it was hyper-competitive and stressful, but I would recommend it to anyone looking to get into tech.
The mentors were really interested in my growth and progress. Mark Essien did a lot of mentoring and answered some of my stupid questions. I didn’t know what DevOps meant, I didn’t really know what Ubuntu was. One of these days, I want to ask Mark why he answered those questions because they were so stupid.
A lot of things were like french to me. And that’s how it is for a lot of newbies in tech, and I like to encourage newbies to ask those same stupid questions I did.
How did you get your first job?
By the time HNG was rounding up, I was going for my NYSC. I reached out to Mark Essien and he put out a tweet for me saying he had someone looking to work for a tech company in Abuja. Because of that tweet, someone reached out to me and gave me accommodation and a job.
Sweet. How much was your first salary?
I started working at 30k, and I was leading the team.
Team Lead at N30K?!
[laughs] Yes, but I was really enjoying my job. I have never really being driven by money. I know a lot of people join tech for the money—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just think that you should also allow yourself to enjoy your work too.
Anyway, I did quite well at the job, and other companies started headhunting me. So, my then-company increased my salary to N60k.
2X on your first raise, that was significant...
[laughs] I didn’t know you could earn much more from tech at the time. Then another company reached out to me and said they wanted to poach me for N120k. I took the job and worked with them for a couple of months till I discovered freelancing.
In retrospect, I should have stuck to the company and ignored freelancing. Freelancing was bringing in a lot of money but think I lost on interpersonal skills like team building and communication. All I needed to do was write code and give it to the client.
I think it still affects me today, but I’m now at a company where I work with a team and I am enjoying it.
I worked at that company till 2019 when some Lithuanians came to Abuja to hire software engineers. There were about 2000 applications with 80 finalists. Eventually, 15 of us were selected to travel to Lithuania to work with the team. A number of my friends are still there but I came back a few months after.
Why did you leave?
I didn’t like the work I was doing there. I did a lot of support and low-priority work which I wasn’t happy with. I have always liked to work on the edge of software, driving projects.
I also realised I wouldn’t hit the heights I wanted to at the company. It’s a very hierarchical place, unlike a startup.
So I quit my job and moved back to Nigeria to work with a startup. That didn’t work out great.
After that, I worked remotely with an Australian firm for a year. Right now, I work for a startup. We’re in stealth mode, so I can’t really talk about what we do, but it’s awesome work.
In terms of your first salary, how much is your current take home?
Let me see...I think I earn around 50x of my first salary now.
How did you become a Microsoft MVP?
I first was awarded a Microsoft MVP award in 2020, which was renewed again this year. To become a Microsoft MVP you have to be active in Microsoft's community. You have to contribute to open-source projects.
I like to go into code on GitHub, especially with projects I’m working on, and see how it works under the hood. When I do that, I see holes and lapses and open a push request (PR) to Microsoft suggesting how to fix the problem. Sometimes, I just ask questions about documentation and other things.
Another reason I was awarded the MVP is that I’m big on giving back. I believe that every engineer, especially in Africa, who has the time should make time to mentor at least one person.
I strongly believe tech can be a strong driver of empowerment and development. It’s already happening with founders and startups, but I think we can replicate it at the engineering level too.
How many people have you mentored so far?
Since my graduation from HNG, I have pulled in about 50 people from non-technical backgrounds into tech. I have also mentored people on channels like HNG, StartupNG and others.
One of my favourite stories is about a mentee named Sarah. We met during NYSC and she was interested in learning how to code. A few months after she started learning with me, she applied for a Microsft Lead Apprenticeship for Girls. When she finished, she got a job with a tech company and worked there for a year. She recently got a job in the UK and will be going abroad soon. Some of the other people I have trained work remotely with startups all over the world.
You appear very passionate about the people you train...
I hate the “tech is hard” aura that a lot of people carry. Like you have to sacrifice your life to get into tech or something.
I like to tell people that it’s like carpentry. If you went to a carpenter to learn how to make a chair, you wouldn’t know how to make it on the first day. It doesn’t mean it’s too difficult, it just means you haven’t learned how to make one. It’s the same with tech. You won’t know how to use the tools early on, but everyone can learn how to do it.
All the people I have brought into tech are backend engineering. I believe it is one of the easiest things in tech to get into.
Backend is easy?
Yes, I know people have the impression that it’s hard but I don’t think so. When you write backend, no one knows how bad your code is as long as it works. As long as you’re taking stuff, putting it into a database, and bringing it out, no one cares that the code is not pretty.
It’s not the same for frontend engineering where your code can easily be seen on the screen. If your frontend code is bad, people notice immediately.
I always tell people that backend engineering insulates you from criticism early on. You can write work in backend without necessarily knowing best practices when you start. As long as the code works, most people won’t know.
Yes, the basics of backend are a bit more complicated to grasp, but once you learn them, you can start working and learn the best practices along the way. It also helps that there are a lot of vacancies for backend engineeering.