Software Developers Journey Podcast

#269 Lilly Chen from high-school dropout to monk and tech-founder



Discovering the Joy of Programming (00:06)

Lilly began her coding journey at age 8, discovering the world of programming through her father's work. **Start early**, even if it's just with small projects; it can ignite a lifelong passion.

Importance of Internships (05:45)

Lilly emphasized the value of internships in understanding the tech landscape and finding the right fit. Internships offer both exposure and experience. **Grasp every opportunity** you get, even if it’s in a domain slightly different from your core interest.

From A Junior Dev to A CTO (10:27)

Climbing the career ladder, Lilly transitioned from a junior developer to becoming a CEO at Contented. For those starting, understand that **every role teaches something new**. Embrace change and never be afraid to step into a larger role when the time comes.

The Value of Mentorship (15:58)

For Lilly, mentors like Monk and many other developers played crucial roles in her growth. **Seek mentors** in your journey; they can offer direction, advice, and a different perspective that can be instrumental to your growth.

Adapting to Rapid Tech Changes (20:09)

Technology, especially in software development, evolves rapidly. Lilly's experience teaches that it's essential to **stay adaptable and be ready to learn**. Your willingness to evolve and learn will keep you relevant and ahead of the curve.

Challenge of Management (25:17)

Lilly touches upon the massive responsibility that comes with being a first-time manager. **People leave their managers, not their jobs**. As you step into management roles, remember that you're setting the tone for someone's career. **Be a door opener** for your team and guide them, rather than merely instructing.

Lift as You Climb (41:59)

One of the most impactful insights Lilly offers is to **lift as you climb**. As you progress in your career, ensure you're helping and guiding those coming up behind you. Your journey should inspire and make a difference in someone else's path. If you are a junior developer, the overarching advice from Lilly's journey is to be curious, find mentors, adapt to the fast-paced tech world, and remember the responsibility that comes with every role. Most importantly, as you climb the ladder, always look back and extend your hand to help those following in your footsteps.

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⚠ The following transcript was automatically generated.
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Lilly Chen 0:00
They went out of their way to offer me a hand to open a door to push open a door for me that those things made a difference. And I do recall the people who didn't. The people who just need to give me a little help, and they refused. They were apathetic, whatever that is. I remember those people too. But you know, when I think about the monk, Carrie, Jess Cassidy, all of these people who went out of their way to open a door for me, be like those people, be a be a door open or be a lift as you climb person that I think makes everything worth living for.

Tim Bourguignon 0:36
Hello, and welcome to developer's journey, the podcast, bringing you the making of stories of successful software developers. To help you on your upcoming journey. I'm your host team building. On this episode, I receive Lily Chen, lead. He is the founder and CEO of contender generative AI platform for developer advocates, and she serves on the Board of Trustees for Colorado College. As a high school dropout and self taught developer Libby has a unique perspective on developer education. Combining her knowledge on education and AI. She hopes to create a better future or students. And I'm sure we're gonna hear about that today. A warm welcome to d'etre.

Lilly Chen 1:19
Thank you so much. I will use my equally deep voice.

Tim Bourguignon 1:25
Are you getting off my trick now that I'm trying to get my late

Lilly Chen 1:30
asleep listening to this?

Tim Bourguignon 1:34
And if it's not obvious, we've been laughing for 27 minutes now. So we need to come down.

Lilly Chen 1:41
We were supposed to hit the recording button a long time ago.

Tim Bourguignon 1:44
Yes, I was. But before we come to your story, I want to thank the terrific listeners who support the show every month, you are keeping the dev journey lights up. If you would like to join this fine crew and help me spend more time on finding phenomenal guests then editing audio tracks, please go to our website, Dev journey dot info and click on the Support me on Patreon button. Even the smallest contributions are giant steps toward a sustainable dev journey. journey. Thank you. And now back to today's guest. Lily, as you know the show exists to help those nerves understand what your story looked like, and imagine how to shape their own future. So as is customary on the show, let's go back to your beginnings. Where would you place the start of your journey?

Lilly Chen 2:35
I was a bit of a delinquent. Think that's how I would describe myself in high school. I think I missed something like 75 out of like 120 days of high school. So I was there like 25% of the time.

Tim Bourguignon 2:53
Okay. That time, but

Lilly Chen 2:58
no, oh, no. I was playing video games I was sleeping. I was actually sick for a good piece of a tube. Let's not go there. right this second. I did take my first computer science class in high school. And it was the only class that I've ever failed failed. Like, I couldn't even get enough points to get the credit for the class. And in America, it's pretty generous.

Tim Bourguignon 3:24
Okay, if I mean, why, why did you choose this place to start your depth journey?

Lilly Chen 3:31
I think that when I talk to students, I'm 27. Now for the record. When I talk to college students in their 20s in high school students who are younger than that, they often tell me, I'm no good at math. I'm not. I'm just like not a science person. I think my brain doesn't work that way. I don't know if I could have coding as a smart people task. And I am not a smart person. That's basically the feedback that I hear from from young people and I want to correct that narrative.

Tim Bourguignon 3:59
I agree fully. Okay, thank you for putting it this way, then. So, you were in this? Was it a dark place for you? Well, it's um, what was it a dark place,

Lilly Chen 4:11
a dark place? You know, it was a great place. Um, high school. So the the other background to high school is that I was very mysteriously ill in high school. And my parents were poor when we were growing up. So I was on state Medicaid. If you're not from the United States, Medicaid is the healthcare system that supports poor people, but it's not universally accepted. So a doctor has the right to decline health services to you if you are on Medicaid, which means that oftentimes you can you only see doctors that are legally obligated to see you such as the emergency room, or doctors that are very young, new, inexperienced and are just ordered somehow not qualified essentially. So when I got sick and High school I was bouncing around from ER room to ER room getting prescriptions to treat my symptoms. But no doctor actually took enough of a look at me to like accurately diagnose me, which meant that I got sicker over time. And I had compounding symptom effects from from various prescription medications.

Tim Bourguignon 5:18
Okay, that's a little bit more dark place.

Lilly Chen 5:22
But in America, that's just the normal. That's not normal, guys.

Tim Bourguignon 5:29
Okay, I'm showing my European background.

Lilly Chen 5:33
You know, I'm sure to you guys. It's very dark. But if you're from America, you're nodding along being like yes, Tuesday.

Tim Bourguignon 5:43
Okay. People you have to shave.

Lilly Chen 5:49
Some boy. Yeah. We'll get to it on Friday,

Tim Bourguignon 5:52
come to the 21st century. Yeah, okay. Let's leave politics aside. So you did you recover? At some point? Do you find that what that was, and was able to to put this behind you?

Lilly Chen 6:05
It took a few years, I miss a lot of high school. Through that, because of that. I would also say that, you know, I was a very angsty teenager, and it was definitely dealing with some mental health on top of the physical health problems. Ultimately, I ended up dropping out of high school, I never finished. So I was when I had dropped out, I had a GPA of like, below 2.0. If you're not from America, it's like the equivalent like a C minus. I don't I don't know what the grading system is like in other places, but it's bad. It's low.

Tim Bourguignon 6:37
Okay, so how did you rebound from that?

Lilly Chen 6:40
Well, I actually so when I dropped out, I became a monk. And I lived in a monastery and China for a little bit. I was pretty ready to not go back. Actually, I was pretty ready to not rebound. Like, big idea. Let's not rebound. Let us let us quit. And go live in a monastery and call it a day. Am I right, fellas? Anyway?

Tim Bourguignon 7:03
My jaw dropped.

Lilly Chen 7:07
Well, I mean, you know, let's think about it. Right? Like, let your your 1617 you've just spent the last couple of years feeling awful. You've had a burning fever every single day, you can't get out of bed, you feel terrible. Mentally, physically. You're failing your classes anyway. So you're not particularly smart, quote, unquote. And your mom says, let's move to a monastery. Let's just become Buddhist monks. Yeah, you're kind of like, Alright, okay, I'll go. So that's

Tim Bourguignon 7:39
what happened. How was the view experience of your game experience in China in the mastery? Oh, one more time? How was the video game experience there?

Lilly Chen 7:49
No video game? Yeah. If you've never been a vert an actual so the kind of Buddhist monastery compound that is not a tourist site, there are some like the Shaolin Temple is like a tourist that you can just go, that's not indicative of like a standard monk experience. The compound that I was on was like self sustainable. So we were building our own buildings, we were growing our own food, we were doing chores on top of religious tasks, essentially every day. So it's like hard labor, just to be clear.

Tim Bourguignon 8:21
How was it for you?

Lilly Chen 8:23
I loved it. Yeah, I actually loved it. Well, the good news is that when I went there, I got a full reset on some of the medications that I was taking. And because of the food that I was eating, too, so the lifestyle, the food, the reset on medications, some of my symptoms actually got better, because it was caused by other medications. So when you stop taking all of them, it can be very, very, it was very rough, like the first 30 days. But afterwards, my quality of life was actually improved. So I was still like feeling a little bit sick, but not nearly as awful as it was in the States. So the lifestyle was really helpful. And I when I did eventually go back to the States, I was able to get a diagnosis for my actual illness and get treated just for that. So that there was a lot of benefits, but I do I did love being a Buddhist monk. It was a good, good, why did you come by? Um, actually, there was a head monk. So the way the monastery works is there's like one one month to rule them all. And when you go to the monastery, there's no electricity, so you don't like there's no don't bring a computer don't bring a phone. And I was in high school. So the only other thing I could think of to bring was books, and you don't bring clothes because you wear ropes. You wear these monk robes and you just wear them like they you have like a couple sets of them and you just like rotate through them. So I only brought a suitcase full of books. And I had been reading them just kind of whenever I had downtime, I would just sit around on the steps somewhere and just read my books. And the head monk came over one day and was like, you're always reading and I said To him, yeah, I really like to read. And he said, How old are you again? I was 1617 at the time. And he said to me, You shouldn't be here. And I was like, Excuse me? Are we all here for a little enlightenment? I didn't know I had to be 18 or older to receive the enlightenment, sir. I'm just kidding. I, you know, I was, I expressed to him, I was like, I don't, I don't know what you mean by that shouldn't be here. And he said, You're so young, you have your whole life ahead of you. You're not old enough to make a decision about whether or not you want to spend a lifetime at this monastery, go back, go back to school, go be with kids your own age, go do things that interests you read more books, read different books. And if you decide in a few years and a decade, half your lifetime from now that this was actually the right place for you, then just come back. We'll still be here. And then I packed my bags and went back to America.

Tim Bourguignon 11:07
Did that make sense to you back then? Did you fight against it internally?

Lilly Chen 11:13
No, I mean, actually made so much sense. It was like pretty clear, right? He was just like, you're, you're like, 16? You don't know what you want? You don't know anything? And I would agree now.

Tim Bourguignon 11:25
Okay, I guess we will have to say it's a reminder to talk in the half lifetime again. It's gonna be a funny reminder.

Lilly Chen 11:35
I obviously don't want a good guy, right? Like, you're a good dude to be like, is this what you want? Like, you don't have to be doing this? Because he does not need to say that. Right? No, he really doesn't. He went out of his way to give me a moment to choose something else. And I thought that was very brave of him.

Tim Bourguignon 11:53
Indeed, indeed. So now it's time for some kind of rebound. You're coming back to the state? Oh, yeah. We're

Lilly Chen 11:59
back to the States. Okay. Yeah, exactly. How can America go from there? Um, obviously, you got homeschooled myself for a little bit. Oh, really? Yeah. Because I was recovering. So there was like an intermediate period, I was feeling better, but not 100% yet. So I was homeschooling myself for a bit. I just never, I just never really got back around to attending school. The concept of it was sort of like, you know, it was just weird to me at that point. So I was very fortunate that the high school that I went to, despite again, not showing up for well over half of it, they gave me a diploma. So I homeschooled myself, but they awarded me a diploma and I didn't walk at graduation.

Tim Bourguignon 12:45
Okay, so you had to take the exams at the high school and just didn't show up for the classes or

Lilly Chen 12:50
just just took the final exams. Okay. And it worked out for me. So, you know, exactly, I was just like, well, that's better than taking the in America, you can take something called the GED if you don't, if you don't finish high school, and I did not have to do that.

Tim Bourguignon 13:08
Okay. Okay. So, you finish high school you've spend when you're when you're in China, and you didn't really mingle into high school in classes. How did you decide what to do next?

Lilly Chen 13:22
Um, honestly, again, I would say that college admissions counselor, her name is Carrie, she, she reached out to me, and was just like, you should come to Colorado. And I was like, I've never been to Colorado. And she was like, you'd like it here. It's just like, you don't know that. Exactly. Well, she she flew me out. Um, she paid Yeah, like she had a program to the school that would pay for students to fly out to Colorado. They paid for my mom to come the cover the hotel costs food, travel everything. Wow. Yep. And I did like it. She was right.

Tim Bourguignon 14:04
Okay, love at first sight or take some time.

Lilly Chen 14:08
Love it first. I had never seen mountains like that before. In Colorado. When I first landed. I remember come, you know, the mountains coming in over the clouds. I was looking outside my airplane window. I had never flown West before in the United States. And seeing it for the first time, I was immediately in love. And I wanted to go there. My mom was in convinced she didn't really want me to go so far from home. But when we had returned back to, you know, when we flew back after that trip, Carrie had painted me a watercolor of that mountain view that I that I told her I loved so much that I immediately fell in love with. She had sent me this watercolor painting and she wrote me a note that said, Lily, it was great to meet you and your mom. Wherever you go. I'm sure you'll find happiness. And my mom was like, Okay, now you can go cuz

Tim Bourguignon 15:03
that is insane. This Yeah, this is a second person really getting at a different level with you and helping you on your on your way.

Lilly Chen 15:13
I don't even know like, I think she's just that person like she was the kind of person who just like goes out of her way for people. I mean Yeah, isn't that fantastic

Tim Bourguignon 15:27
to be inspired from?

Lilly Chen 15:29
Right and like it's very low it's almost low lift like yeah she like painting recently mange but she wrote me a note, you know wasn't overbearing wasn't like come to Colorado College. It's gonna be the best place you've ever been. I know you love it. No, it was just like, wherever you go, I trust you. I believe in you. You're gonna do great.

Tim Bourguignon 15:47
Wow. So you're enrolled.

Lilly Chen 15:49
So yes, so yeah, so then they they gave me a full scholarship to cover the fact that you know, it couldn't really afford to go to university otherwise.

Tim Bourguignon 15:57
Okay. How do you decide which curriculum to take in there? I guess you have some some majors, minors, stuff to say, I'm not entirely sure how the US system works.

Lilly Chen 16:09
Well, it was a because I had done so badly in high school GPA wise, I was pretty convinced that at first, I didn't want to do any type of math or science. I felt like oh, my grades are indicative of anything. I'm not very good at that. So I started off with economics. They do have like a business program that's less math heavy and more sort of social. So I started off there. I had a couple of professors who just really inspired me and I decided I was like, You know what, I'd love to be a professor someday I'd love to teach the way that the great teachers in my life have really, the monk carry, you know, all those people who have like really reached out to me as a student. And as a person who really lifted me along the way, I want to be like them. So I'm going to get a PhD and I will also be a professor like them. And then when I asked that professor who I loved so much, her name is Jessica Hoyle. She said, Well, you need to in order to get a PhD in economics, you need to take this much math. And it was a billion times more math than I'd ever math in my life. But I was just like, that's a lot of math. I failed calculus, so I'm not really sure if I can do that. It was just she said no pressure. She was like yeah, I'm just saying if you want it to get a PhD in economics, these are the requirements. Take it or leave it. So I took it

Tim Bourguignon 17:34
Okay, now I want to hear the full story. So how did that go?

Lilly Chen 17:38
Well, actually turns out I'm not that stupid. Yeah, not that sounds nice.

Tim Bourguignon 17:44
How did that how did you how did you discover this?

Lilly Chen 17:48
Well, I'm Matt builds on itself. So when you start from behind, when you miss a lot of school, it's hard. Like you just there's certain fundamentals that you don't know, right, like, if you don't know algebra, it's hard to do certain parts of calculus. That's just that's just the facts. So I struggled a lot in the beginning and I I kept thinking like, well, this is indicative of me being stupid, right? Like this is proof that I'm too dumb to do well. But I had, you know, the, the professors just like never gave up on me. Like, they just kept being like, well if you want like I will keep my office hours open every day this week. If you want to come by and we can work on these problems together. And I probably spent more time out of class with those professors and I spent in class like I would go to all my classes and then I would on top of that be going to all of their office hours I went to all the tutoring sessions I just caught up because that's that's what knowledge is actually it's just like knowing stuff is not indicative of how smart you are. Knowing stuff is basically just a function of how much time you spend getting to know the stuff

Tim Bourguignon 19:00
is almost quotable. Okay, so did you go all the way to to a PG

Lilly Chen 19:07
I did not but I did really well. I did really well in undergrad ended up you know, one of my my undergrad thesis one the most innovative award, it's awarded to one thesis per year. So I want that for my graduating year. GPA wise is alright, I did like a three six. So it's like an A minus or b plus or something like that. Probably could have done better but I honestly didn't really care. I was like marginal improvement over that too. Oh, in high school, I'm crushing it

Tim Bourguignon 19:45
Okay, so we're 19 minutes in this interview and we haven't talked even development yet about computer science, etc. So what?

Lilly Chen 19:56
Okay, we're actually very quickly there. So in high school, I I was sick. And it was part of that the, you know, poor health care system. Public health care in America is not good. In college, my younger sister gets sick. And my parents are still on Medicaid. So she's in danger of going through the same things that I went through. And I can't have that because I know what happened. And I didn't want that for her. So now I'm suddenly faced with how do I make a ton of money? Because I require money in order to pay for private, private medical care in the United States. It's absurdly expensive. And I first I just open up credit cards. I'm just like, I'll just go into debt. And then I'll figure it out. After I graduate, it gets so big. Like, I'm about to, I'm gonna put out a number. And all the Europeans in the crowd you gotta go at the same time. Okay. By the time I graduate from college, it's about 120k. As a new, yeah, that is hard. As a new college grad, I have 120k to pay. And the interest rate is like 24% APR. Yeah. Because I have no, I have no, I have like nothing, right? Like, I'm, I am nothing. I have nothing. I am nothing.

Tim Bourguignon 21:17
You can continue to repeat it.

Lilly Chen 21:19
I mean, I did 20%. Yeah, I did. This is the scene. So So okay. So going into my senior year, I realized that I need to somehow come up with 120k as a new grad, which by the way, has an annual salary for a new grad, that's actually pretty good. Like, if that was your entire year's worth of salary, pre pre tax. So the PhD is out the window. You can't pay you cannot pay that the money on a PhD.

Tim Bourguignon 21:50
Okay, so you're under pressure of having to pay that back and having to find a job that pays that much. And that you can get

Lilly Chen 22:01
development. Let's go Software, Software developer's journey.

Tim Bourguignon 22:06
How did you do that?

Lilly Chen 22:08
Yeah. So fun fact, when you major in math and econ, it's very easy to get an investment banking job. Investment Banking is the boring as job you could ever have. And when I was working that job, I had so much free time, because that job cares a lot about the way you present. Meaning you can't leave that job that you can't leave for the day until your boss leaves, but your boss can't leave until his boss leaves. And he's not leaving because his managing partner hasn't left yet. So we're all just in the office, sitting there, adjusting this PowerPoint slide together. The point is there was a lot of downtime when you work a job like that. So I just taught myself how to code during that job. I did like a who what is it called? It's like, it's like leak code. But I just started doing them for like Python.

Tim Bourguignon 23:02
Okay, some some kind of tests or some kind of exercises. And

Lilly Chen 23:06
I think it's yeah, like hacker hacker rank or something like that. I think it's called hacker rank. It's it's one of the common like, ways that people in Feng interviews. It's like the interview style coach. Okay.

Tim Bourguignon 23:17
Yeah. How did you find out that? That was what you needed to do? I mean, you were facing a world of things you didn't know. I mean, you had a little bit of, of computer science in high school. You said, but

Lilly Chen 23:33
one class? Yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 23:35
You're in a world of I don't know, what's out there. How do you pick? How did you pick that? Python? Python and this this, this curriculum or this this exercise stack to do?

Lilly Chen 23:46
Oh, okay. Because I was looking up, how do you get a job and tech? And they said, You have to read the book Cracking the Coding Interview? Do you have it? Are you about to pull it off? So you know, the book? Yes. And the book tells you in like the first two chapters, here's what interviews look like, do that. And so I was like, okay, so it I think it suggests both leetcode and hacker rank as like actual websites. And then picking the language Python was because financial, you know, financial models are close to our which is then close to Python. So it made the most sense.

Tim Bourguignon 24:22
Okay, so you did that for a while. And at which point did you figure out okay, now I'm ready for something else. And now I need to jump.

Lilly Chen 24:31
Oh, I did. I completed every single Python question on the website. Okay, which was like a couple 100 I think over the course of the summer. And so by the end of that summer, I was like, Alright, time to apply for some software engineering jobs then see if I got them. So that's what I did.

Tim Bourguignon 24:52
This is such a Hell yeah, let's do that mentality. I love it.

Lilly Chen 24:56
Yeah, I was like, you know, I got I got responsive. I got Bill was the pay? Let's go.

Tim Bourguignon 25:01
I guess that motivates. Yeah. All these interviews go,

Lilly Chen 25:06
oh my god, they were shit. Oh god, they're so terrible. Oh, my first one was so embarrassing. It was a DevOps job for a public cybersecurity company. And this was back when interviews were flying. So this was not a zoom call. I, you know, had to dress in business casual. They flew me out to balls. I know the horror, but business of me and my business, casual sweat, fly to Boston. And I'm in a conference room for like six hours while software engineers cycle in and ask me random questions. And they it was, it was terrible. It was absolutely terrible. Because I the question, one of the questions that came through, I remember it so clearly, this guy sat down, handed me a piece of paper and a pen, and said, Build me a link to list with Bubblesort. And I say, Uh huh. Uh, what do I and then I looked at this piece of paper, I'm like, I'm this.

Lilly Chen 26:13
I don't even know what that is. I had never heard of a linked list, none of the questions that I had done in like the Python course. Because I guess like link lists is not really something that you would do in Python natively. Like, there's not a whole lot of reason to do it. So it wasn't in the the online curriculum that I learned. And so I was very confused. And I remember being like, what sucks, but I'm already here. And he's already sitting down. So I might as well tell him what I'm thinking. And I remember turning to him and being like, I don't know anything. You just said. Those were not English words to me. But since we're both here, can you let me use your laptop and Google what those words mean? And he, you know, he paused, he looked at me, and he was just like, Oh, what the hell? So he slides his laptop over the conference table. I open it, and I literally type in what is the linked list? And I read the Wikipedia article out loud, about a wiki about link lists. And then I you know, I just start with that. I'm like, Okay, well, let's, let's start there. Let's see if I can make like a class that defines like these nodes and put them together in Python. I don't even get to Bubblesort. Before the time is up, we end up, I get to a part where I have a link list where you can add nodes and delete nodes. But that's about it. And on my way back, they dropped me off at the airport, I feel terrible. I'm like, my first real job interview, I got so deep in the process only to fail on like something I'd never heard of. I don't want this. I don't want this to be the end. But I sort of accept the reality of it. And I pull up my my personal laptop. And I finished the assignment. So I rewrote the stuff about the link lists I did on his laptop, I redo the stuff on the link list, I add the Bubblesort. You know, and then I buy some Wi Fi on the plane, and I emailed a guy and I'm like, hey, just want to let you know, I really appreciate your time. Like you didn't have to do it, or you could have walked out. But I appreciate that you didn't. I want to let you know that. That 30 minutes, I did learn something. Here's what I have. It's what you asked for I understand the if it's too late, no hard feelings. Just want to let you know that you didn't waste your time. That's all and I got the job. Next week, I guess

Tim Bourguignon 28:40
this is this is what I mean. Not that exactly. But this is what I've been searching for in interviews really connecting with someone having a moment of genuine curiosity and honesty and saying, Okay, now how do we go get from there and see really the person behind it and really seeing how you think what you do with the unknown with something you truly don't know, how you react and how we can get we'll go from there. This actually golden. Really?

Lilly Chen 29:10
Really, thanks. That was my first job. That's my first step job. We're also we're like, it's 28 minutes were there because yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 29:18
Not that I didn't appreciate the other part. I really liked it. So yeah, okay, so first first DEF, def, def Game Dev dev job. How was it?

Lilly Chen 29:31
I was behind it was just like when I first decided to study math in undergrad I was so behind because there's like the link list. It was a there are so many things like that about computer science, that it's we abstract it out for the most part, but sometimes you get into the nitty gritty of it and you realize that you just have a gap that you don't know something. I read a like technical textbook every month that I was there. So I would Get to the office again, this is back when we were office people, I would get to the office probably like two or three hours before and my team would show up, my team was like a tenant, there were like 10am people. So I'd get there around like 7am. And I would just have coffee in the cafeteria and, and read my book. And I would do the assignments, read the book, and then I would go to my regular job, like, you know, once a team got there, I would then do my day job from like, 10 to 510 to six, whatever, then go home. I just did that. And turns out if you are pretty consistent about learning a little bit, day after day, you can fill your gaps.

Tim Bourguignon 30:38
And how was it in the in the first month? Well, when the gaps probably were bigger? How do you How did you? How did the team cope with that? I'll help you bridge the gap. How did you manage to to? I don't know how to describe it, be there still and, and still be productive? And how did that go with us first month?

Lilly Chen 31:05
It was it was hard. I mean, it was hard. I think the team recognized that I was a grinder and that I was going to keep trying. But I couldn't help feeling sensing some of their disappointment sometimes around my just the knowledge gap. And they knew that I was addressing it that I was working on it. So it didn't come up super often. But I cried a ton. So any criers out there. Especially I know, I feel like every time I work with like early women in their career, they bring this up about they're like, I hate crying, but I keep crying during my one on ones I cried at every one on one for like six months, just putting it out there.

Tim Bourguignon 31:46
Out. But if you're in the right place, it might be okay.

Lilly Chen 31:53
Oh, my manager was super sympathetic. He kept being like, you don't have to do this. And I was like, I know. But I am going to

Tim Bourguignon 32:01
how do you? How long did you stay there?

Lilly Chen 32:04
I actually only ended up staying for six months, because a different manager, someone who I'd worked with as an intern throughout college, reached out and wanted me to be his first software engineer at his startup. He wanted me to be his like first technical hire, which is a massive privilege, by the way, being a solo like not so I wasn't a solo Dev. He was also a dev. But being like the first technical hire at a small startup is a big risk. Because you typically want somebody really experienced who knows a lot because you know, there's so much do you have a very broad stack, you have to cover everything. And so yeah, he he called off for the job, and I took it.

Tim Bourguignon 32:45
How did that go?

Lilly Chen 32:49
Well, his reasoning was, he said that, like he believed, whatever happened, I would be able to figure out how to do it. And to him that was way more valuable at a startup being able to execute. And if you can't, to figure out how to do it, and then just get to it just piece by piece. And so yeah, I took that job. And then three months later, COVID happened. And we all went into lockdown. Oh, and the company got purchased by Facebook. So now I'm at Facebook. I didn't want to be here. Just kidding.

Tim Bourguignon 33:26
Okay, how did that integration go?

Lilly Chen 33:29
joining Facebook was a very, very big leap because I was a very scrappy learner. So but Facebook is all process. Everything is streamlined. They recruit mostly from big universities. All my co workers were like Stanford, MIT. You know, the pedigree is there. They, they were like, Oh, yes, I've interned at Apple and Google, and you know, Snapchat, whatever. So it was a, it was a pretty big jump. That was like another massive learning gap. Also, Facebook has a ton of internal tools that I'd never heard of before. So like a lot of the previous knowledge of like, how certain systems work, they had their own own way of doing it.

Tim Bourguignon 34:13
That you probably cannot really you will, you cannot

Lilly Chen 34:15
google it. No, you cannot. And because everyone there has sort of a pedigree, there's a certain assumption that you know, things. And so not everything is like well explain. You know, there isn't some nice guy named Tim, making a video explaining to me how to do linkless.

Tim Bourguignon 34:33
So more grinding for you.

Lilly Chen 34:36
More grinding for me, God, and it's for the Zucker bucks, which is the worst type of grind.

Tim Bourguignon 34:43
Wait, when did you leave? What triggered you leaving the this grinder? Oh,

Lilly Chen 34:49
one of my side projects went viral and helped the guy break a Guinness World Record. And then yeah, so because that happened and it made a lot of new cycles. VCs reached out offering me money to start my own company. And that's how I got like my first million.

Tim Bourguignon 35:06
Wow, what was that tool?

Lilly Chen 35:09
It's contender. It's what I'm doing right now. Money. It's modern day.

Tim Bourguignon 35:17
No, it was two years ago, something I guess. Yes. It's two years ago still in COVID. So you treated your company during this hell of time. Yes. Wow.

Lilly Chen 35:30
Accident by accident, though. So it wasn't like intentional, right? Like I didn't plan it to happen during

Tim Bourguignon 35:37
Iowa love you're willing to tell us about content that went that products would that interested us those bases.

Lilly Chen 35:45
So the original version of content was an AB retention product for Twitch streamers. The idea is that Twitch streamers see a lot of churn on their subscribers. And so we were wondering, how can we figure out ways to keep subscribers retained over time and therefore improve on like top line revenue? So that's the original pitch, and it was just a side project, because Twitch streamers are not like, it's not a very big market. So it's just something we were doing on the side while I was working at Facebook. And, yeah, that project took off, because one of the people that we were working with one of the streamers, his name is Ludwig, he's, he turned out to be the biggest streamer. And he ended up making a lot of money using our product.

Tim Bourguignon 36:25
Okay, so So this is something you worked on, or more or less works on in this first startup, and that you continued afterwards.

Lilly Chen 36:33
So it was called contenta, then actually, it was also called that it was just doing something completely different. And it was a side project, meaning there was no funding for it. Okay? Just like, you know, a bootstrapped thing that, you know, people bought it, we paid, we supported it, that's what it looked like. But then because Ludwig blew up, and he wanted Guinness record, VCs were like, they saw that and they reached out. And we're like, what if you made this a whole company? And that's how we became that's why I quit my job at Facebook.

Tim Bourguignon 37:04
So how was it coming to being a first engineer at a company, your first tech hire, as you said, then being swallowed by Facebook, and then going out creating your own company and now being not just the first hire, but the first person there?

Lilly Chen 37:23
It's hard man. So so the good news is I have completely solved my family's healthcare problems. Okay, this is a check. This is Yeah, well, because that was the original motivation, right. So the original goal has been satisfied. So the reality is that this is all gravy. This is all this is all the fun part now.

Tim Bourguignon 37:42
So you can go back to getting a PhD in Economics now.

Lilly Chen 37:44
You know, I did bring that up. And several people said no. Someday, I would like to you know what, when contender exits for a bajillion dollars, you will find me and a library somewhere getting my PhD?

Tim Bourguignon 38:00
I'll take what you said contender back then and consider now two different things.

Lilly Chen 38:08
They are Yes. So the once we got venture funded, venture capitalists want one thing, and it's a lot of money. And Twitch streamers do not have a lot of money. Problem, indeed. So solution, build something else. Just to keep the same, and we were already legally Incorporated. So it was kind of too late. Yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 38:35
How did you pivot?

Lilly Chen 38:37
So we wanted to stay on Twitch. So we were looking around on Twitch, and we realized that there was a category of streamers in the technology section. They're called developer advocates. They were streaming kind of like on a personal brand making content for themselves. But they also were employed, usually by a large ish tech company. And so we reached out to them because we're like, well, companies have money, maybe maybe companies will pay us something. If we if we build on top of you know, this, like streaming video idea. So we ended up talking to a bunch of people. And we learned that there's a workflow that a lot of them have to do, which is after they do a live stream, they have to convert that live stream into a tutorial or blog in order to cover like a written posts version. And that could actually take more work than the original recording. Oh, yeah. 10 knots along.

Tim Bourguignon 39:39
Before before the show started, we were talking about my recording process. And there was some of it's in the earlier years, and I dropped it because it was so much.

Lilly Chen 39:49
Yep, yeah. But it's like it's how people consume content, right? Like not everyone's gonna listen to this. If you're still here. Thank you for being here. But if you're not here, that's okay. Maybe you prefer to read, I am actually someone who prefers to read over listen. So for a lot of reasons people consume content in different media forms different platforms. And so that's why dev advocates have to do that workflow. In fact, a lot of people actually have to do that workflow, not just of advocates. And that's a contender became, we transform videos into technical tutorials.

Tim Bourguignon 40:22
Okay, so grabbing text of probably closed caption, reworking it, grabbing pictures, maybe? Yeah,

Lilly Chen 40:30
picture codes or code snippets code. Okay. Yeah. Okay. Generating like topical outlines with like timestamps, giving blogs, allowing you to reference material hyperlinking image highlighting all the stuff that you need the full workflow for, for creating a strong technical tutorial.

Tim Bourguignon 40:48
Anything goal is, you just drop a video. And there you go. You don't have to touch anything.

Lilly Chen 40:54
Yeah, you polish it for phrasing. But the accuracy, is there the code snippets? Are there ever. All the information that you need? Is there?

Tim Bourguignon 41:03
Wow. Cool. It's working the way you want?

Lilly Chen 41:06
Yeah. And by the time this podcast comes out, even better than how I was

Tim Bourguignon 41:12
even better than you imagined. A long time. This is, this is awesome. This is really cool. Do you see yourself doing this until you get to gazillion dollars? Or until the end of time?

Lilly Chen 41:30
The End of Time? Well, AI has made a lot of rapid transformations. So I'm not actually sure what is going to happen in the future. I don't know if anybody really knows. So we'll have to see. A year ago, I would have been so much more sure. But as time has gone on, I've become less sure.

Tim Bourguignon 41:48
You mean that the EDI is is transforming so fast that that these kind of commoditize Soviet workforce? What do you mean by that?

Lilly Chen 41:59
I'm not even sure what the field is going to look like. I mean, what the way that copilot works, like, let's talk about a product that's completely different from ours, GitHub copilot, some people think that that will actually reduce the number of developer jobs or the type of knowledge that is important for developers to have, that determines the type of content that you create for developers restroom. So there's a lot of cascading effects that could happen. And a lot of it's happening so fast. So I don't really know maybe in three months from now, we'll know a little bit more,

Tim Bourguignon 42:28
you will definitely know more. This has been such an interesting story. Really you thank you so much for that. In the in the Bible, I read the ISO you are on the board of trustees of the college, the College credit college you went, you probably interact with a lot of students do what you tell them? What is the advice you tell them again? And again. is such an advice.

Lilly Chen 42:57
Yeah. I, I always tell people, the first thing I always tell them is lift as you climb. That has been passed down to me. i It has been passed on to me both verbally and through action. It's something that I try to do. You have a massive responsibility as a first time manager. People leave their managers not their jobs, you probably heard that plenty of times. And first managers can can really set the tone for someone's career. It's a massive responsibility, and you need to take that seriously. And I would say beyond just taking that responsibility seriously. It's not, it's not just about not doing badly, but really going out of your way to be a door opener for people. And that's why I tell that's what I tell the kids I tell them like, they they they think I'm going to tell them advice on how to climb. But the only thing I want them to know is that you should lift as you climb.

Tim Bourguignon 43:58
Did you think you've connected with them? When when you tell them? how old they are?

Lilly Chen 44:04
It depends. Yeah, they they might not connect right now. It certainly didn't for me when I was you know, 1920 year old. I was like I don't know what I could offer. What can I as a 20 year old possibly offer anybody. So I understand. But it stuck with me. And when I got older, I did realize all of the people who lifted me up when they didn't have to when they went out of their way to offer me a hand to open a door to push open a door for me that those things made a difference and I do recall the people who didn't the people who just need to give me a little help and they refused. They were apathetic, whatever that is. I remember those people too. But you know when I think about the monk, Carrie, Jess Cassidy, all these people who went out of their way to open a door for me, be like Those people be a be a door opener Bo lift as you climb person that I think makes everything worth living for

Tim Bourguignon 45:07
Hell yeah. Thank you so much for highlighting this. And for this fantastic story. No worries. So where would be the best place to find you? Probably online and study this question. We will continue this one.

Lilly Chen 45:21
Yeah, you can add me on LinkedIn. I can't believe I'm saying it. I don't want to be a LinkedIn influencer anything you can find me there and I will respond probably. So that's, uh, let me actually check on my LinkedIn handle is let's, that's how bad this was. If you want to add it to the show notes, you can add me on LinkedIn, I'm on blue sky, if that's still around and three months from now. But if not, you can still technically find me on Twitter. I also respond to emails. If you are the kind of person who likes to get their thoughts out. I will respond to your email so you can email me at Lily at contended Dotco.

Tim Bourguignon 45:56
Duly noted anything else you want to plug in?

Lilly Chen 46:00
This is a really cool podcast series that you did. And I think it's really impressive that you've done it for so long, doing be able to consistently do something over time is is how you get those results.

Tim Bourguignon 46:10
Thank you. Lily. It's me bless less. Thanks again. And this has been I like because it would have to first journey and we see each other next week. Bye. Thanks a lot for tuning in. I hope you have enjoyed this week's episode. If you like the show, please share, rate and review. It helps more listeners discover those stories. You can find the links to all the platforms to show appears on on our website, Dev journey dot info slash subscribe. Creating the show every week takes a lot of time, energy, and of course money. Will you please help me continue bringing out those inspiring stories every week by pledging a small monthly donation, you'll find our patreon link at Dev journey dot info slash donate. And finally, don't hesitate to reach out and tell me how this week story is shaping your future. You can find me on Twitter at @timothep ti m o t h e p corporate email info at Dev journey dot info talk to you soon