Q&A with coding bootcamp graduate Johnny Chen

In this post, we’re catching up with Johnny Chen, who graduated from our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp in 2017. Chen is now the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Salezilla, a venture-backed sales automation platform that provides easy-to-use advanced email campaign targeting and message personalization. Before starting Salezilla, he worked at Ford Motor Company’s advanced R&D lab as a mobile engineer and launched a ridesharing service for a governmental agency in Seattle.

What was your background before coding?

In high school, I took an AP Computer Science class, didn’t even get past installing the code editor (or Hello World), and dropped the class within 3 days of starting. In college, I took an introductory CS class, got a midterm exam score of 38%, and dropped that halfway. I graduated a year early in 2016 from Purdue University with a finance degree 6 months before I joined Hack Reactor.

In my last year in school, I started self-studying Python and JavaScript via Learn Python the Hard Way and Code School. I interviewed a total of 3 times to get into Hack Reactor. After my first failed attempt, Hack Reactor assigned me a tech coach, Keeley Nakamoto. Keeley spent a lot of time with me, giving me weekly assignments and walking me through JavaScript fundamentals.

After I failed my second interview, this is what I wrote in my email to her:

Hey Keeley,

I just got done with the interview and there’s really no other way to put it, but I blew it. I was so nervous that I forgot the .length in the for loop. I am sorry. I should have done better and I know I could have done better. I guess I’ll have to think over my options now. I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate all the hours you spent coaching me. It wasn’t the outcome we worked for, but the goal lies within the journey itself and I have become a better programmer in these few short weeks, so thank you.


This is what she wrote back:

Hey Johnny,

No worries! This isn’t the end. Setbacks happen, but if you’re willing to get back up and fight again, I’m right there with you. The next cohort starts in February, and I am sure we can get you passing the interview between now and then if you still believe Hack Reactor is the right path for you.

It’s a pleasure to teach you, and you have already come such a long way from our first session. Let me know what you’d like to do!


And I responded 3 days later:

Hey Keeley,

Thanks for the words of encouragement. Let’s do it. What’s another couple of months if I could have another chance at the best programming training in the world?


In those 3 days, I made the decision to keep going.

Keeley helped me a lot in terms of ramping up my JavaScript fundamentals and was the biggest driver in my completing the 3rd interview question solution with only 15 seconds left in the interview.

What did you hope to accomplish through this coding bootcamp?

I wanted to be able to find a job, but the main purpose was always to be able to build the product myself as a founder of a startup. While in college, I had an algorithmic trading startup where I recruited bright computer science, computer engineering, bioinformatics, and physics majors who built advanced algorithms to profit from the market.

While I was head of the company, I wanted to contribute to the codebase, but didn’t have the knowhow. I stumbled into the world of JavaScript and product building, and it lit a fire within me to master the craft and be able to build products myself.

What have you been able to achieve since graduating?

Immediately after Hack Reactor in SF, I went out to Chicago to do a food cooperative startup with my old college startup colleague (and roommate) to provide bulk buying of produce and food items at a low cost for students in Ohio State University.

I built the entire application myself including scheduling of pickup, delivery, QR code scan, food item voting, Stripe integration, etc. It generated a fair gross merchandise volume, but wasn’t able to scale or increase our margins because we didn’t know how to fundraise or conduct market expansion at the time.

I then came back to the Bay to start my job search. After 140+ interviews, I landed a role at Ford Motor Company’s advanced R&D lab in Palo Alto where I worked as one of the only two React Native developers to launch a highly publicized ridesharing service (iOS and Android) for King County in Seattle. I got to work with IDEO designers in Palo Alto, fly out to Detroit to work with Ford engineers, and Seattle to see our service in action.

When I started my role at Ford, I also started Skillzilla, which was a recruitment platform for fresh college and bootcamp grads. After a year at Ford, I went full-time on Skillzilla, moved to Cleveland to work with my co-founders (the same roommate), and came back to the Bay after the product was in a stable state. I managed a team of UI/UX designers in LA and three engineers in Sri Lanka, did PR reviews and project management (All skills I learned in Hack Reactor and Ford). We formed a superstar advisory board, and this time, we got better at fundraising. We closed a pre-seed round with FuturePlay, the premier AI venture fund in South Korea.

When the pandemic first hit, we had to pivot and now we are branded as Salezilla, a sales automation platform that provides easy-to-use advanced email campaign targeting and message personalization. We are experiencing tremendous growth with strong monthly recurring revenue and sales pipeline, and are on track to start fundraising again soon with a lot of investor interest already and with the help of our lead investor in South Korea.

What was the most impactful part of this bootcamp experience for you?

Three parts: Fred Zirdung, Rebecca Phares, and my cohort mates.

Fred is a world-class instructor and communicated his lessons so well and with humor to keep us engaged.

Rebecca gave me daily encouragement, and the tapout sessions she hosted allowed me to let my guard down and be vulnerable in front of a close group of cohort mates. She made all of us do physical exercises at the end of the day, and I was always happy leading the sessions. She came in early and stayed late with us. She’s a big reason why I was able to push through the program.

Hack Reactor was one of the most difficult 3 months I’ve ever gone through with my father being diagnosed with a tumor and undergoing surgery while I was in the program and the intensity of the program itself. Having a supportive group of cohort mates who were there with you day in and day out kept me going. Everyone in 73 was willing to help one another.

We also had a lot of fun on Saturday nights, our only night off. Quite often, one of us would randomly yell out “73!” and the whole cohort would yell the same thing. Rebecca always shook her head at this with a smile on her face. 73 was and still is a big happy family.

What advice would you give to someone considering a coding bootcamp?

You got to have grit. That is the minimal requirement to be admitted and to complete the Hack Reactor program. Having interviewed 3 times at HR, I know that in the interview process, the questions got progressively harder. If the interviewer saw you had an easy time finishing the question, they’ll turn up the difficulty until you get stuck.

Coding knowledge is part of it, but they were trying to see how you would respond in a tough situation under immense pressure. Do you break down and panic, or do you snap out of it and focus on the problem at hand? Those moments come every day during the program itself. It’s akin to Navy Seal BUD/S qualification training where if you just ring the bell in the center of the camp, you wouldn’t have to go through the pain anymore, and you could exit the program. It’s right there in your face every day telling you it’s not worth it. You can choose to give up, and some do. You could also choose to remember why you’re doing this in the first place, focus and continue.