In this interview, Binh Nguyen discusses how he made the transition from a career as a microbiologist to becoming a web developer for HTML Fusion, a web development company based out of Los Angeles.
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Binh graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in microbiology and spent a year unemployed, applying for microbiology lab positions. He finally landed a job in quality control for a lab and spent two years as a scientist until finally, feeling frustrated and stagnant, he took the first step toward becoming a full-stack web developer.
We discuss the exact moment Binh decided to quit his job as a microbiologist and how he was introduced to web development. He also explains how exactly he developed his new found skills and get a job as a web developer. Binh also shares an unexpected, but useful skill to help you grow your network out of college.
To learn more about Binh and what he does (and maybe talk business), visit his personal website.
You can find the complete interview transcript below.
David Ly Khim: I want to say thanks again for taking the time to let me interview you. Like, it takes – I’m sure you’re super busy. But yeah, I’m doing this just because, I noticed that there’s a lot of people, not just college grads, but even people who are older. They’re going down this path and all of a sudden they decide they don’t want to do it anymore. Some decide to change it and most, I’d say, decide to just stick with it because it’s safer. So I wanted to interview you because you went from microbiology to web development which is super different. So I was interested when you hit me up about that. And I was thinking that you’d have a lot of insight into your thought processes and how you went about making the change.
So just to start off, could you describe your path to what you’re doing now?
Binh Nguyen: I graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences and I went to the lab workforce afterwards. I worked as a microbiologist for 2 years. After that I realized it just wasn’t meant for me. I could get into the details later, but I just realized it wasn’t meant for me. My friend Evan, who was in the similar position as me, introduced me to a program called General Assembly where they get you involved in the tech world depending on what type of course you want to take. He told me to take front-end web development and I gave it a lot of thought because it was expensive.
Before that I took online tutorial course at Codecademy and I enrolled at a community college to take HTML coding classes and I realized, “This could be it. This could be something that’s close to my passion,” because it was a creative outlet. So I guess before I made that commitment, I just had to think real hard about it because
it’s really expensive. That course is 10 weeks. It’s like a make it or break it thing. I don’t want to waste my education like I did with my bio degree.
After I took those free tutorials I was like “You know what? I’m gonna give it a try and I’m gonna put my 100% into it.” And then after I took that course, I end up getting a job and now I am a front-end web developer.
DLK: Were you ever interested in programming when you were in college?
BN: Hell no. It was terrible. My dad is a programmer. He does more back-end stuff and every time I saw his code, I was just not interested. At all.
At the time I wanted to do things to help people; and I realized “I guess I can’t do it through bio.” The further I educate myself with bio, I realized “maybe I can help people in different ways rather than being a doctor.”
DLK: Yeah. So what was it that made you feel like you couldn’t help people or you didn’t want to help people through bio anymore?
BN: Well, the thing was, I was a microbiologist and at the time I was testing skincare and hair care products; and I thought “This is so useless to humanity.”
DLK: Oh, were you doing quality control?
BN: Yeah, that’s the department I worked under and I was just testing these products that they had for the six types of diseases/bacteria that you could get from shampoo or soap. And I realized that if I really wanted to help people I would have to go back to school for another four years and the thing was, I didn’t want to do that.
That’s just too much time wasted. I’d be in debt a lot more, my loans are already high and I don’t want to increase that anymore. So I thought “You know what? Maybe me being me–me being friendly–is already enough to help people… make them happy.”
And, if anything, I could already make people websites. So far I’ve been making some websites for my friends, and it’s just to improve my skills and everything. It’s a win-win. I make them happy, I improve myself.
DLK: What were the nitty-gritty details that you didn’t mention before?
BN: Oh yeah. So, management at my microbiology job was–they’re pretty terrible. They didn’t treat you like employees, but I still worked it and toughed it out everyday. I still gave it my best. And the worst part is they don’t recognize you for that.
There’s this one incident where I got scolded or yelled at because they told me to do something and I did it. And then they came me back and was like “What I told you not to do this.”
So I snapped and right then and there I gave in my two weeks. I thought “I’m better than this.” And I felt like I worked harder than almost anybody there.
Yeah so that made me snap. I guess all these flashbacks are just hitting me. The negatives outweighed the positives of working there. I just thought “I deserve something better than this.” Maybe somewhere I can have a creative outlet because there’s no way of being creative when you’re working in a lab–unless you do research or something, but that’s not what I did.
Like I said, my friend Evan introduced me to web development. I saw all the stuff that you could do. It was just really, really exciting.
DLK: How did your friends and family react when you made that change?
BN: *laughs* They were surprised and disappointed. I went to UC and I was going to be a computer science major, then I went to biological science, and then after I graduated I told them I wanted to quit my job and everything; they’re like “What? We told you to do this, now you want to do this. That was like a waste of college tuition and everything else, waste of life and time.”
So they didn’t support it immediately when I said that “I want to be a web developer. I don’t want to hear anymore. Mom, dad just please support me for once.”
That’s what happened. And my siblings actually supported me because they actually saw how the tech industry was growing and they thought it was a good path. They said it’s never too late to change and if you have a passion just strive for it. There’s no age in a career.
DLK: Yeah. Exactly. So what was the process then, after you made that transition? You said you had already taken free classes and then you did General Assembly. What was that period of your life like?
BN: Oh my goodness. So while I was still enrolled in a class, I was still working. I worked Monday through Friday full-time. Then all day Saturday I’d be in Santa Monica, just working and studying and going through workshops all day for 10 weeks.
It was very intense too because there were days after work where I wouldn’t have time to go home and study because I’d be working overtime. It just killed me. So the next week when it rolls by I’m just like “What just happened again?”
Because every week is crammed and you just have to study everyday. But that was really intense. I had to really try my best to study everyday because everybody in the class–if you’re paying paying 3.5 to $4000 for the class, you know you’re competing against people who weren’t messing around,
So that was that.
DLK: Did you get the job from that program or did they help you find a job afterwards?
BN: They actually gave me experience and having that under my belt–under my resume–was actually a good referral. It’s funny because Evan–I actually work with him–he referred me to his boss and his boss said “Oh yeah, GA. That’s a good program, that’s how I got Evan. Maybe we could open up a spot for you.”
So I hopped on board and now working full-time. I’m very involved with the company now so that’s really good.
DLK: And what company is that?
BN: It’s called HTML Fusion
DLK: Oh. Okay, cool. Can you describe what you do there?
BN: Yeah. So I don’t want to say we’re a design agency–we’re like a development shop. If you have an idea you want to bring to life, we’re there to make that happen. So what I do there is I’m more of a layout designer. Everything you see on a website I just design it for improvements, smooth interaction, user experience, that kind of thing.
DLK: What I’m really curious about is, when you made that transition, what was going on through your head and what was that one moment where you decided you are going 100% in? Because to quit a bio job, after two years and four of years of college and then go to something entirely different, there must have been some sort of switch that went off, you know.
BN: Oh yeah, that was extremely life changing. *laughs* I guess I got lucky because at the time I told you I was just “Oh man, I can’t handle this anymore, I’m just gonna just go for it.”
At the time I had a slight passion for coding at the time. Like I said I took free tutorials, and I had a slight passion. And when I have a passion for something, I’m just going to pursue it all the way. For example when I took a dance workshop a long time ago, a free dance workshop that CG or MCIA was giving. I started to like it and I thought “Maybe this can be a thing that I can belong to.”
DLK: And you did.
BN: Yeah! That’s what happened. I thought like “This tech industry is growing, and it’s hinting to me that coding, it could be my passion and maybe I just want to belong there.” And that’s what exactly happened. And like I said, at the moment I fell in love with it and I just had to give it my 100%. When I gave it my 100%, I knew that I had to keep trying because if I fall off, someone’s going to pass me up and take these opportunities that I can’t take.
DLK: I noticed that you say passion a lot. How would you define passion?
BN: *laughs* I feel like, I guess it’s a water-down word. And this may sound kind of cliché, but it’s more like, you want to do what you love. *laughs* I guess I can’t really elaborate on that you just want to do what you love.
DLK: Yeah, because the word passion is used a lot but when it comes down to actually finding your passion it’s super difficult. But it looks like you are able to kind of navigate around it and find it. Looking back how would you advise someone else to figure out what they’re passionate about?
BN: Well, let’s just say if had to talk to myself, my past self, it would be like “Do you feel like you’re wasting your time?” The moment you feel like you’re wasting your time, you better stop that and find something that you really like because that will determine your future.
Remember when I said I couldn’t work in the lab for the rest of my life. I just realized how depressing it was. This is stagnant. I just kept plateauing with my happiness and that’s the key thing.
You find an occupation or a job that you really like and the moment you find out how happy you are, that’s when you know you hit home.
During General Assembly, I wasn’t working at the time. I was still learning and everyday and every week that I learned I just fell more in love with it.
DLK: Awesome. That’s rare to find because I know some people like, they go searching around for what they are passionate about and some never find it. I have my own like position on what passion is so it’s interesting to hear how other people get to it. Yeah so I’m interested in where you see yourself going in like–I mean at our age, things move really fast within a year or two–where do you imagine your life being like in five years?
In the future I do see myself as a full stack developer working for probably a large company like say–oh I can’t say Google, that’s too intense–probably Facebook.
DLK: Okay cool, what advice would you give to someone trying to move out of bio? I think, out of most majors people go into, a lot of people want to switch out of it. But most of them are Asian, they decide to stick with it whether it’s because of their parents or whatever and some just end up sticking it through and going along with it even though they didn’t like it. So what advice would you have for someone who’s trying to switch out or thinking about switching out?
BN: Well, as I mentioned, if you’re not happy, just don’t do it. If your parents tell you to do it and you don’t like, don’t do it. You’re wasting your time. You’re wasting their time. If already at a university or you’re at a college, it’s a blessing to be there so make the most of it. Just find a way, find a “passion” that you really want to strive for.
You’ve just got to find a way to be happy. And the moment that you find you’re going to hit your stride, you’re gonna keep going. I guess that’s it for now.
DLK: Okay, I mean, you just keep it simple. If you’re not happy then why are you doing it? I’ve met a lot of people in bio classes, I would be like, “So what do you want to do?” And they are like “Oh I don’t know. I don’t even like bio.” And I’m like, “Why the hell are you in a bio class?” It’s one of the toughest majors ever, you know?
BN: That’s funny, because everything you’re saying right now it’s describing me. Because yeah I did it because I thought it was going to get me somewhere in the future. And here’s the thing that a lot of people should know: just because you go to college does not mean that you’re guaranteed a job after college.
That’s what I thought. I fell for that trap. I was actually jobless for an entire year, just trying to–just trying to fit into the lab industry.
DLK: Before you had the lab job, you didn’t have a job for an entire year?
BN: Yeah, basically. That was actually a terrible point in my life. At the time, I was just working really hard to get somewhere. When I landed that microbio job, I settled. And that was a problem.
You don’t just settle. You gotta keep learning more. Try to improve yourself. Because the more time you invest in yourself, the better you become, and the better the company becomes. That’s where I am right now.
DLK: What advice would give to someone wanting to switch into web development then?
BN: I wouldn’t give them advice. I’d just support them and be like “You’re making the best decision of your life. Everything else sucks. Going into the tech field is good.”
DLK: OK, I respect that, I totally agree. Are there any other pieces of advice you would give, in generally, to someone about to graduate or graduated from college?
BN: Here’s a random advice: learn adult humor. Adult humor could really get you somewhere when you start talking with CEOs or executives because that’s the first step to networking with someone.
DLK: What do you mean by adult humor? Because I think I need help with that too.
BN: *laughs* Adult humor is just like–okay so I guess the type of humor I’ve been growing up with is like Tumblr. It’s just really ridiculous. Things that just don’t make sense. When you small talk with someone at a company, you say “I’m old and blah, blah, blah,” and someone replies, “You’re not that old, you’re fresh out of the womb! Ha. Ha. Ha!”
You know that’s just the first thing I thought of. Small talk humor, that will really get you somewhere.
DLK: I think I know what you mean. Whenever I talk to an older person like in line at Starbucks or something they always crack some type of joke, and it’s not something that I would say, but it’s the way they say it is funny.
BN: Yeah, I guess that’s the way you perform that joke.
DLK: Well those are all the questions I had for the interview. Thank so much again for taking the time to share your experience with us. I’m sure a lot of people will find your insight really useful.
BN: Of course, thanks for having me.
Coming from someone that is on the verge of a career transition similar to Binh’s and yours, this interview is truly inspiring. I’m really glad that I found your blog. I have a feeling it is going to be a valuable resource for me in the coming months. Keep doing what you’re doing!