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Kingsten Banh Puts Hack Reactor’s Unconventional Schooling to Work

Kingsten Banh came to the United States from Vietnam when he was 15. He’s 26 now but remembers the move well. Before moving to America his relatives living in the U.S. would visit him in Vietnam and tell him about what an amazing place the U.S. was. Kingsten was excited about the opportunities, but his parents didn’t see an easy chance to move at first: 

 Kingsten's uncle visiting in Vietnam

Kingsten's uncle visiting in Vietnam

"Life in Vietnam is not great. Everyone works hard. Like super hard work. And there are really poor cities. You don’t have the great life and freedom like here. The education system wasn’t free, so my parents had to get the money to pay for the tuition or otherwise I’d be without any education."

 

Kingsten and his brother were the first in his family to have a formal education. And ultimately, his parents were able to arrange for the family to go to the United States and provide more opportunities for themselves and their sons. The first time Kingsten’s mother tried to get approval to move to the U.S. she was single, but she did not hear back from the government for fifteen years. When she did finally hear of her approval she was married and pregnant with Kingsten, and that situation changed her status so the arrangements of the approval to emigrate no longer applied. But the family continued to work with a lawyer to re-initiate the process and after many years, approval came through:

 Kingsten's first month in the U.S.

Kingsten's first month in the U.S.

“When I came to the U.S. there was a feeling of cloud nine. I saw bridges and cars on the bridges and I thought America had like...flying cars! It was just the freeway, but that’s what I thought. Like in a Sci-Fi movie when you have cars flying around.”

Kingsten didn’t know any English when he arrived and took English As A Second Language (ESL) classes at a public high school in Arizona. He also chose his own name:

“Initially my name was Quyen but when I became a U.S. Citizen, I changed it to Kingsten. Quyen was difficult to pronounce so I wanted to find a name that was unique and easy to pronounce. People usually have names like Mike, Tony, Nick. I wanted something unique that also resembled my Vietnamese name. I kept the “en”. With Kingsten, it’s easy to use.”
 Kingsten Banh

Kingsten Banh

Transfering to a new school system during the school year, Kingsten learned he would be a year behind in his new high school. He worked extra hard to make up the gap, and when the time came to apply for college he considered Computer Science and Architecture.

“But back then Computer Science didn’t have a lot of exposure to the real world. People thought you had to be super smart, a really nerdy, genius guy.”

Kingsten didn’t feel like he’d had much chance to learn Computer Science in high school, so he decided to focus on a Civil Engineering degree. He liked math and physics and CE seemed like a great way to use those skills.

And in three years he had a BSE in Civil Engineering from Arizona State University, which caught him up for the lost year from moving in high school. In his free time during college, Kingsten enjoyed watching the ABC TV Series, Shark Tank. The show features self-made billionaires (the “Sharks”) who consider investing in a wide variety of ideas and entrepreneurs. It got Kingsten thinking:

“Do I want to go out there and build something useful or something with a bigger impact on society?”

Kingsten decided he didn’t actually want a job in Civil Engineering, so he went to a local Techstars Startup Weekend and received an honorable award.

“I felt like ‘wow, this is cool, you have a weekend to build something cool that’s actually useful’. Quick, fast and nice looking. That kind of culture was moving at a fast pace, compared to civil engineering that requires a lot of processes, a lot of regulations. You have to take licensing tests. You don’t have the freedom to come out and build something by yourself. You’ll always have to rely on a project getting funded and all the government regulations.”

Kingsten was most impressed by the projects at Startup Weekend that were built by confident coders. He knew some CAD but realized a solid set of coding skills would give him the most creative freedom. His next step was to learn from Code.orgs “Hour of Code” modules. Kingsten noticed that everyone was coding, and was inspired by Will.i.am and Drew from Dropbox during a wave of excitement in 2013 captured in this video. Kingsten saw how powerful code was:

“Once you know how to code, you’re like a wizard. You control your world at your fingertips.”

Kingsten began to learn coding fundamentals using resources like Treehouse and Eloquent JavaScript in whatever moments he could find:

“I was constantly trying to work on projects on Treehouse but I didn’t see myself continuing to progress, so I stopped. I’d go back and forth between Treehouse and Code School until I hit a plateau: Whatever I learned I wasn’t actually going to be able to apply in real life and get a real skill that I can apply to a project.”

At that point Kingsten heard about coding bootcamps and researched options over a few weeks. But he ran into another kind of challenge. He’d always thought the recipe for success was about going to school and getting a degree, and he had to let go of his old mindset:

“I should have a degree, actually have a piece of paper to prove you have the knowledge. That was very important to me. The culture...our society says you need to prove you have some credentials, you have to get a degree.”

And Hack Reactor makes a point of not giving degrees. So Kingsten struggled to commit. He walked through the CS degree requirements and tried to see how many of them he might have completed so he could calculate how far he was from a degree. Could he get the degree in less than 3 years? But then he thought about the debt. And finally it was his entrepreneurial spirit that pushed him forward:

“If you want something, just take the action. Just go out and do it, rather than wait.”

He measured coding bootcamps in investment terms: $18,000 in 3 months was a good deal compared to the time and money for all his other options. He could do so much with the difference in time and money. It was all about resources.

Shark Tank gives clear advice to entrepreneurs: keep a job while you’re pursuing something else. That made sense to Kingsten, so after college graduation, he worked two jobs, as a Vietnamese interpreter and as a pharmacy technician at Wal-Mart to save up enough money to go to coding school.

Applying for Hack Reactor was intense, and the technical interview felt like the same pressure as applying for a job. Then Kingsten needed to move to San Francisco and that meant telling his family about his plan:

 Kingsten and his family.

Kingsten and his family.

“It was like: ‘Hey mom, I’m not going to be a Civil Engineer, I’m going to go to a coding bootcamp.’ I didn’t know how to explain that to my parents. They are immigrants and they always turn to the traditional way of schooling. So...to tell them...there’s a program that’s going to teach me how to code in 3 months. It’s like...what? ‘Is it going to give you a certificate or something? Is it a real thing? How much is it going to cost you?"

Kingsten’s parents remained suspicious and warned him that Hack Reactor might take his money and kick him out after one or two weeks. But they trusted him.

His parents gave him a few thousand dollars for living expenses during coding school. Kingsten used Quora to learn about shared housing options. He lived in a bunked Airbnb room he shared with another Hack Reactor student in Daly City and took BART to the Powell Street stop in front of Hack Reactor’s campus in San Francisco.

Kingsten finished Hack Reactor in January 2015, moved back to Arizona and got a job in  6 weeks. Coding graduates were still not common in Arizona, so Kingsten had to show all his Hack Reactor projects to prove his knowledge of JavaScript, HTML and CSS and show how quickly he could learn new skills:

“I applied to a lot of different places, but I went to an interview and within a few hours my boss called me and said ‘I want to give you a job right away.”

Kingsten’s first job was as a Software Developer at a Microsoft .NET framework agency called The Monastery. He wanted to work at a small company to hone his skills by working closely with coworkers. Kingsten was the only front-end designer for the team and worked on 3-4 projects at the same time. He expanded his skills in Knockout JS and JQuery and then moved to Angular and Ionic to build mobile applications.


After a little over a year, a recruiter reached out to Kingsten with a Software Engineering opportunity at Nextiva, a company that offers businesses a unique communication platform. His tech skills pivoted from Angular to React Redux.

“I didn’t know the tech before I applied, but because of the skills I have they knew I’d pick it up quickly. At Nextiva I was converting the state management from Alt JS to Redux JS within two to three weeks compared to current employees who were taking two to three quarters to get that done. Hack Reactor asks you to learn really fast and pick up stuff really quickly. Because of that I’m not afraid to take on any tasks. If I want to learn something just Google it and find all the resources available.”
 Kingsten's workstation

Kingsten's workstation

Kingsten was excited to work at the biggest, most relevant company he could match with. When a Software Engineer II role opened for him at  Infusionsoft , Kingsten was ready. He learned Vue.js at Infusionsoft and worked with great engineers to build out a design system. He also built out mobile applications using React Native that he picked up quickly, and in July 2017 he was promoted to Software Engineer III at Infusionsoft.


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