When Hack Reactor graduate Jackson Harris III flew to Miami to attend a hackathon, he didn’t expect to move there. But at the hackathon, he was recruited by Niantic, Inc. where he now works on exciting projects that weave together NFTs, blockchain, and interactive experiences. In this Q&A, read about Jackson’s journey to software engineering, how the bootcamp helped him reach his goals, and about that life-changing trip to South Beach.
How did you find your way to software engineering?
I was very fortunate to have my own computer at six years old. Having that when I was super young changed my relationship with computers, in general.
However, I never understood that software engineering was a thing until a couple of years into college. I didn't know there were engineers who built the backbone of the internet, and the Facebooks, and all of those things. I was going to be a traditional “engineer,” a mechanical engineer. I wanted to build cars, so I went to college for that and ended up going on the seven-year plan, bouncing around a lot, and eventually graduating with an economics degree.
But during my time in junior college, I met this guy named Sam, and he was making money as a software engineer, making nearly six figures as a freelancer at the time. I worked with Sam on different projects, and we attended different events and he would code things. I worked on building websites with him and learned some Python.
When I eventually graduated from Sacramento State, the job market between 2014 to 2018 wasn't really friendly to a regular business grad. I was fortunate enough to get work at a company where the CEO was teaching me all this business development and marketing stuff. But as the company’s priorities shifted, I had limited opportunities there.
After that, I found a bootcamp program offered through UC Davis, and it was awesome. It helped me become what I would call a software developer, not an engineer. I started doing freelance work before applying to full-time roles. After taking multiple interviews, I realized that there was something missing. That’s when I found Hack Reactor. I started preparing for the Technical Admissions Assessment (required for Hack Reactor 12- and 36-week programs) and got accepted for the remote bootcamp.
What did you get out of your time in the bootcamp?
I would say it really took me from that developer mindset to an engineering mindset. It gave me a framework for approaching engineering problems or approaching problems from an engineer's perspective. That’s useful, not just in coding, but in problem-solving in general.
Second, I learned how to speak about engineering concepts in a way that’s required to be successful at a high level when talking to business development people or other engineers. If you know how to code, but you can't talk about it, it's not very useful. We're in a people business, no matter where we work. Additionally, the Hack Reactor alumni community has been very valuable to me.
Let's talk about what you're doing now. What is your role at Niantic? What kinds of projects are you working on?
While working for my former company, I was sent to a hackathon in Miami. The only thing I will say about Miami is: if you don't want to move to Miami, don't go, because the tech ecosystem, it's like a neutron star. You cannot escape the gravitational pull. I came out here and people were like, "You're going to want to move,” and I was like, no way. I was very happy where I was at the time.
So, I participated in the hackathon, and the environment felt very much like what I imagined it was like in Silicon Valley in the 90s. The hackathon was a week-long event, where you stayed in a house and worked on a project. I was with a group that built an augmented reality NFT scavenger hunt. We put QR codes at different houses. Users could go find the QR code, scan it, and then in augmented reality, there would be a floating NFT that they can collect. At the end, we minted those and sent them to people's wallets.
It was kind of like Pokemon Go meets NFTs. Well, the CEO of Pokemon Go happened to be in Miami that week and wanted to meet a team that was doing augmented reality and Web3 things, and they were seeking out a group that had female founders. Of my team of five, we had two women on the team, so we checked off all the boxes. He met us on a Monday, and he made an offer to us on Wednesday to essentially acquire us, like we were a startup company, to hire us on full-time to Niantic. I moved to Miami soon after.
That’s incredible! Now that you’re on the team full-time, what’s it like?
We've run different NFT scavenger hunt experiments for Niantic at Mardi Gras, and another at South by Southwest, where we created commemorative NFTs that plot people’s journeys.
I'm currently one of the lead consultants at Niantic Labs for blockchain. When a blockchain company or institution that’s in the blockchain space wants to interface with Niantic, we get on calls and we kick the tires, so to speak. We're building experiments to test out how blockchain and NFTs interact with Web2 applications and augmented reality and some of the other tools that Niantic will be releasing soon.
That’s pretty much what I do now. I'm actually at a Web3 blockchain conference as we speak, just interfacing with different companies and seeing what’s on the horizon, just being a student of the space.
Simultaneously, I'm a full-stack developer. So I also work on the smart contract side, and I do most of the architecture and design for our front-end, for the different experiences that we're building. For the augmented reality scavenger hunt we were creating, I need to ask: What is our front-end going to look like? How are we going to manage data? How are we going to interface with the API?
There's another person on the team who manages the back-end stuff. I still write code for both, but primarily design and architecture for the front-end. And then, we have to think about how we’re going to interface with blockchain.
What's the work and team environment like? Since you moved to Miami, do you work in an office?
It’s pretty much like the hackathon never ended. We had the hack-house during the hack-week, and then Niantic got us in an Airbnb. We lived in the house together. We’d wake up, we did the code, we wrote the stuff, and then went to sleep. Then we did it again for a month preparing for Mardi Gras.
We went to Mardi Gras, and then we lived in Austin, Texas for a month for SXSW. We were writing code and building things, and then executing the event over 14 days.
Now that we're back in Miami, we're currently at a coworking space. We get a conference room for the whole day and we’ll be in there together, and then maybe sometimes we get a second room and break into smaller groups. It's kind of like pair programming and Hack Reactor or how you work in a hackathon. That's very much the style and the vibe.
Have you been able to utilize any of your previous business and marketing experience in your new career as a software engineer? Does any of that experience carry over in any way?
One hundred percent. I think what's really great about being a software engineer is that it requires a specific toolset that you can use in almost any vertical. My business development, marketing, and sales experience make me a more valuable engineer. Being an engineer for engineering’s sake is great, but everything is about selling. I look at the world like everything is sales and everything is incentives.
Through the economics lens, it’s all about being able to advocate for whatever you’re interested in and being able to sell your idea. As long as you're providing value, that’s the incentive mechanism for someone to buy into what you’re doing. I think that lens is really critical to how I view what I build, the team that I work on, and how I interact with people on a regular basis.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s just about to start the bootcamp?
It's a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time and enjoy it, because if it's not fun, then it's going to be harder. I’m not saying it won’t be difficult, but if you can find fun in the difficulty somewhere, that’ll be a good thing.
For me, I look at writing code like playing video games. I used to play video games for hours, sometimes even 15 hours a day. That same feeling I got from playing World of Warcraft for 15 hours a day, is what I get when I write code. I know it’s not going to be the same for everyone, but when I thought about it that way, that’s how I tapped into my passion for coding. If you can find a way to get into a flow state with coding, and if you can find it to be a little bit of fun, it'll make time fly by faster.
And as time goes on, you'll get more proficient and more successful. Understand that it's going to be a long journey, but try to find some fun in it. Because if you can, getting through the marathon will be much more tolerable and enjoyable.
Interested in becoming a software engineer? Jackson graduated from our 12-week bootcamp. In this blog post, read about all of our bootcamp options, including a new 19-week program specifically designed for coding beginners.