My Experience Joining Toptal - A Day in the Life of Picante Verde
Drew Hendricks
JUL 29, 2015 18:20 PM
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My Experience Joining Toptal - A Day in the Life of Picante Verde

A programming mastermind turns his back on Silicon Valley

by Drew Hendricks

His website sounds like a forum for salsa recipes.

The URL for his personal Facebook page reads more like a fan site for green pepper enthusiasts than the profile of an ace computer programmer.

And yet, he was introduced to me as “a total badass who became one of the world’s leading JavaScript experts while he was bored in his spare time at a major global tech company.”

Now, I don’t claim to know offhand the names of the world’s best developersindeed, I’m not sure if I could pick one out of a crowd of twobut even in spite of my ignorance, a name like “Picante Verde” makes ones ears perk up a little bit.

Naturally, I was intrigued. After all, it’s not every day one comes across a world-renowned tech expert. I was eager to find out the secret behind the so-called “Picante Verde,” JavaScript mastermind. Luckily for me, he turned out to be an open book. He began our correspondence quite amicably: “Feel free to ask me anything you need, even the color of my underwearit’s red, by the way.”

I had so many questions I wasn’t sure where to begin when I sat down to have a conversation with him via Skype. So I started with the name: “Let’s just get this out of the way: is your name actually ‘Picante Verde?’”

Without skipping a beat, he shot back, “Well, yes. I’m starting to feel like Alejandro Hernandez is the nickname now.”

The origin story of Picante Verde, a.k.a. Alejandro Hernandez, begins many years ago, around the time that the Argentine discovered his love for all things programming.

“By the time the Internet was becoming widely available in Argentina, most of the free email names were already taken, so you had to get creative. And I was a teenager, and I thought I was funny, so I went with Picante Verde. Now I’m stuck with it.”

Picante says he knew from a very young age that he felt a calling to pursue programming and development. He can even pinpoint the exact moment he knew his fate was sealed.

“I was destined to write software programs from my eighth birthday, when my mother gave me a computer as a birthday present. It was a damn good present, because back then, around 1990, it was very hard to get a computer in Argentina.”

In 1995, just a few years after Picante received his first computer, JavaScript was created by Brendan Eich. Picante jumped on the trend quickly thereafter. As a teenager.

“I would say I became a specialist in JavaScript in 1997, when I started taking a few classes on the subject. I was fifteen years old. The more I studied it, the more it became my passion, my obsession. Then, when I started getting into functional programming in the early 2000s, I realized that this was where the future was going. It just clicked for me, and I kept digging deeper and deeper into it.”

Picante studied systems engineering in college. His credentials led him to a job in business intelligence for an Argentinian phone company after he graduated. Before too long, others caught wind of his skills with JavaScript, and he was eventually hired by Globant, a major tech company with offices in Argentina, to train their employees in this field that was quickly becoming more and more prevalent as the Internet grew. It was a good gig, but nothing that Picante had ever dreamed up in his master plan.

“I did JavaScript as a hobby, and I kept up the work. Of course, JavaScript itself has now turned into one of the world’s biggest technologies, because of its close relation to web browsers, so I guess that knowledge took me places. But I never had a big plan for it.”

Not too bad for a developer who would go on to be published in leading tech magazines, give JavaScript talks at universities and tech conferences around the world, and turn down CTO job offers from major global tech companies, including some big names in Silicon Valley.

By the time the 2000s were in full swing, there was no avoiding JavaScript. It was, and still is, the most booming technology out there with the surge in popularity of frameworks like Node.js, AngularJS, and Facebook’s React. Suddenly Alejandro’s services were being sought after by household name companies.

“Eventually I got a very interesting project with Intel. This was around the time Windows 8 was coming out, and Globant had been brought in to help do research in the early stages of creating the Windows 8 platform. The research was great because you had to find your own answers. You couldn’t just go to Google and search for them. I realized that that was the kind of experience I craved, starting from scratch and having to find your own solutions to issues no one had tackled before.”

This major project took Alejandro to London for a few monthsone of his first tastes of international travel. The experience left him with an itch to keep seeing the world, albeit on his own terms.

“The experience in London made me realize I loved traveling, but only for fun, not for business.”

When Picante returned to his work with Globant back in Argentina, he was faced with a quandary. He had a secure job in the tech industrynot an easy feat, especially in Argentinabut he ultimately felt his skills as an expert problem solver and JavaScript mastermind weren’t being fully utilized. And, on top of that, now that he had seen a new part of the world, he wanted to travel more and more.

Luckily for him, the solution to his problems walked right into his life, in the form of a company called Toptal.

“This man, Martín Chikilian, he was starting this movement in Cordoba. He was gathering up all these programmers and developers and getting them to join Toptal. I didn’t know too much about it, but Martín really wanted me to join. He was going to bring me on as a JavaScript specialist. He was starting up a sort of ‘Toptal Academy’ for this growing community of developers in Cordoba, and I was going to be teaching the crash course in JavaScript. It sounded very interesting, so I joined.”

In a nutshell, Toptal serves as the middleman between elite freelance developers and businesses taking on major software development projects. On the developer end, Toptal accepts only the top 3% of engineers who apply to join their network, thus ensuring that clients will be matched with a true expert in whatever field their project requires. Toptal’s extremely rigorous vetting process includes everything from a timed algorithm test to an English proficiency test to a personality analysis. On the client end, Toptal screens businesses based on their projects, so developers who are matched with clients are assured challenging and rewarding programming work in their fields of expertise.

And Toptal turned out to be the perfect match for Picante Verde’s aspirations.

“The most important thing in my life is to help people get real fun out of technology, because that’s what it has been for me, what JavaScript has been for me. Fun. I was talking about this issue with a friend recently, and I asked him, ‘what do you really like to do?’ In my mind, Toptal lets you do what you really want to do. And that is why I joined Toptal. Simple as that.”

One of Toptal’s calling cards is the belief that no company should be restricted to the local talent pool when hiring. In order to get the best talent, you have to look all over the world. Toptal allows their clients to do that, and as a company they practice what they preach. Toptal does not have a single office anywhere in the world. Their employees can work from wherever they please, provided they have a reliable internet connection at all times.

So the JavaScript mastermind was given the flexibility to travel as he wished, and he got to spread his love for his craft every day as he taught seminars and classes to new Toptal employees. It’s safe to say he did not miss the corporate world.

“It’s a funny story, actually. When I was leaving my job to join Toptal, my boss says to me, ‘Is there any way we can keep you here?’ And I say to him, ‘Toptal will give me tons of great experiences, and my salary will go up by about 1000%. I don’t think so.’ And it has been really great for me. Argentina is a very poor country. You live month by monththere’s always this pressure on your headand it keeps you from doing the things you want to do. Toptal frees me of that.”

On top of all this newfound freedom, it was while working for Toptal that Alejandro’s status as an expert in his field was vaulted even further into worldwide acclaim.

“Charlie Marsh [Technical Editor at Toptal and now an engineer at Khan Academy] asked me to write this big article on full stack JavaScript for the Toptal Engineering Blog. The article ultimately got picked up by Smashing Magazine. That was crazy. It gave me worldwide visibility. I was getting CTO job offers from pretty well-known companies all over Europe. A university asked me to speak at a conference. It a was wild experience.”

Did he take any of those job offers?

“I turned them all down. I really believe in Toptal. I enjoy the work. It’s unlike anything else. We’re a team even though we don’t have an office. I haven’t felt anything like it in another company. Why would I leave?”

What about the Promised Land, Silicon Valley?

“Oh, yes, Silicon Valley was tempting at first, and I got a lot of offers from companies there, but they required an all-day presence on their sites. When I joined Toptal, I could work from wherever. It was a no-brainer. It’s very important to me to be free to program wherever I go.”

At this point in his life, Picante says there’s little else he needs. He’s a world-renowned JavaScript guru. He gets to spread his knowledge and love of technology every day. Where he used to play ping pong, now he’s playing tennis. Anything else?

“Thanks to Toptal, I’ve discovered even more new sports. I started windsurfing this year, and I’m hoping to start sailing. I’ve even played polo! Before Toptal came along, I’d never even ridden a horse. Now I love playing polo. I play with some Toptal guys in the Argentinian countryside. The adrenaline rush is crazy. Things like that, experiences that were completely unreachable before in my other jobs are now possible thanks to Toptal.”

And how’s that traveling working out?

“I often will take a couple days and go some places. For example, in March, I went to Spain to visit my sister in Malaga, very beautiful place, and then I went back to London. I actually went to the same place I had lived while working for Globant. It was a big moment for me, to see how far I’d come. Every time I go to a different city, I want to explore and meet amazing people. I do that almost every weekend, and sometimes in the middle of the week.”

Whatever you call himAlejandro Hernandez, Picante Verde, take your pickthis programming whiz has been able to achieve things beyond his wildest dreams, both within the tech world and in his own personal life, without ever having to set foot in a Silicon Valley office. Sometimes, he tells me, it feels like a dream come true.

“Being happy is the most important feeling. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, it feels like you’re not really even working. And I feel happy here at Topal. That’s the big thing.”



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