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Sam Zoll Brings Design and Coding to His Role at JP Morgan Chase

Sam has always been a maker of things. As a child, he spent his time woodworking, building little tables, chairs, and totem poles.

In high school, his interests turned to computers. He picked up Photoshop and other digital design tools, which led him to architecture and a few high school internships with architectural firms.

He explored architecture further in college, taking it on as his major:

“I just wanted to learn how to make anything. It wasn’t specifically buildings that I wanted to learn how to make. I went to the University of Michigan. They offered an architecture program. I was a little more interested in industrial design at first. But architecture was good enough for me. I thought once I knew how to design a building, I could pretty much make anything.”

After graduating, he returned to Chicago, his hometown, where he began working with Purple Gator, a local start-up, as Lead Product Designer.

He applied ideas and processes he learned in his architecture education, but quickly realized his contribution to projects abruptly ended once he completed his UX work:

“I would give my designs over to the coders and I felt like my role ended at that point, that I couldn’t really help out anymore but could only point. That’s something that really frustrated me because coming from an architectural background, I always loved being able to make everything I was designing.”

His idea to learn coding came once he realized he could hold more ownership, from front-end to back-end, and see projects through from start to finish.

Sam began with online courses but soon explored coding bootcamps in order to “learn how to do it 100%.”:

“I explored all the different bootcamps, determined that Hack Reactor was the best, and then applied a bunch of different times. I failed the tech interview a few times.”

Sam took a chance before getting accepted into the program, and moved to San Francisco:

“I was still in a prep program. There was a chance I could’ve failed and might have been stuck out there and would have had to go back home.”

Out of the numerous Hack Reactor campuses, as well as the remote program, he chose San Francisco because it seemed like the best place for him to find potential work opportunities after the program:

“I thought ‘If I’m going to take this program, I want to be immersed around all the people who are in tech, and San Francisco is the place for that.’”

Eventually, Sam was accepted in the Immersive program.

Day 1 of class arrived. He was both nervous and optimistic. Although he met one friend through the remote prep program, Sam did not get accepted into the same cohort. So, he entered the class knowing no one. He quickly realized he was not as strong as many of the other students, many of which had more coding experience than him entering the program:

“There’s a lot of the imposter syndrome among classmates. Right when you get in, it’s kind of scary because you really don’t know what you’re in for.”

At first Sam teamed up with the students that seemed smartest because he felt they might be able to teach him more. But his strategy soon shifted:

“I realized everyone’s kind of in it for their own personal success. Even though you’re on a team, you still want to get the most out of it yourself. So my first couple partners kind of whizzed through the material and sort of explained what they were doing but not really enough for me to understand. My new strategy was to team up with anyone who was either my level or below my level so that I would be forced to push myself more and learn it myself instead of someone trying to teach it to me. I just needed to do it for myself.”

His new approach worked in his favor. He put his all into his studies, something he learned from architecture school:

“What architecture school does is put you through a similar type of program. It’s extremely rigorous and requires a lot of hustle. So you need to spend day and night working on the same thing and iterating over and over and over, building something thing up and learning more about it. I would work as hard as possible until I couldn’t see straight. Then I’d sleep for a little bit, then do it all over again.”

He called upon those same skills at Hack Reactor for the first 6 weeks. Staying up late almost every single night. No time off, no weekends, just trying as hard as he could to make it through the program and not bail out before the middle.

The second half of the program, for Sam, was more enjoyable. With more opportunity for team building and team projects, he was excited to work towards the final project, a team-involved app:

“I kept in mind that these projects we were building were going to be on my resume and I was going to using them for interviews. I had two motivations. I needed to make the best project possible so I could put it in my portfolio and show it to potential employers but I also wanted to be a good team member and work with everyone and try to balance that.”

But the team Sam were initially deadlocked:

"We ended up being one of the groups that took a really long time to decide what we were going to make because we all had unique visions of what we wanted to make.”

It took them about 5 days to agree upon a project, and only because their instructor asked them to make a decision.

Their final app, a San Francisco food truck-finding app, turned out to be pretty great. But the path it took to get there was not perfect. But despite some conflict within their group, the team resolved it and ended up with a solidly-designed and built project.

There were lessons learned. What did Sam learn?:

“I learned that it’s really hard to be a leader and a coder and a designer. You can’t overstep and be the lead of everything. It’s better to take part of the project and own that part rather than own everything.”

With a respectable portfolio piece to utilize, Sam began the job search:

“At first the job search was a little tough. I wanted to use my design skills in addition to my new coding skills. So I wanted to try to find something ideally that was a hybrid role of UX and development. That is a pretty sought after position. But I was applying to UX job. I was applying to engineering jobs. It was all over the spectrum. It took me awhile in my search to hone in on a specific kind of position.”

One employer, Bay Area News Group, was looking for a Node developer:

“I didn’t have any idea I wanted to do anything related to back end. But the position they offered was really great. I loved the project we were working on. The role was in San Jose which is kind of a hike from SF where I was living. But it was a cool opportunity so I decided to go for it.”

While in that role, Sam got contacted by both Google and JP Morgan Chase. They extended individual offers to him:

“It happened organically. I stopped looking but I had my tentacles out there already. They both approached me on Linkedin and solicited.”

After interviewing with both companies, he accepted the JP Morgan Chase opportunity. One of the individuals he interviewed with at the investment banking firm is now his boss:

“He used to work with Steve Jobs at Apple and accepted a position at JP to be a new technology fellow and was recruiting specifically for his team. I happened to be his first hire.”

Sam is a big part of a small, innovation-centric team, and enjoys his role:

“We conduct research and prototyping for new products for the bank. All our projects are 3-5 years out. It’s a really great team I’m on and I love making new products constantly that aren’t even out yet.”

Sam’s role involves not only managing project but also interacting with executives:

“I fly back and forth between New York and San Francisco. I give demos to our executive staff based on what we make in San Francisco. It’s pretty cool to show off what we make and see what our executive leadership thinks about it. The role is a perfect melding of everything I was looking for. It just happened to fall in my lap. I don’t think I would’ve been able to get into this position if I didn’t have the wide breadth of experience in many different areas.”

His recommendation for incoming Hack Reactor students:

“I think the key is to just give it your full effort. There were a lot of people that maybe could’ve tried harder. If they applied themselves more, they would’ve been more successful in the end. Everything you put into the program is what you get out. If you give it your all and try your hardest it will return that effort to you. It’s not about if you’re the smartest in the room. But how dedicated you are to making it happen.”

You can see some of Sam's design and developer projects here.


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