“What CS taught me,” reflects Caleb Solano, CS class of 2014, “is to never count on the code running the way you intended. Your work will be used in ways you never imagined. My boss loves to test the limits, and she uses my systems to do things that I never intended my code to do.”
Solano completed a four-year Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in only three years while continuing to write code for a local e-commerce company where he started as a data entry clerk before his junior year of high school. So yeah, he’s class of 2014 but graduated in 2013. He’s been doing things ahead of schedule for a long time.
“I’m from Pearland (south of Houston),” he explains, “ and I knew the owner of this company that specialized in online orders before Amazon was around. They hired me in the summer before my junior year to do data entry, but by the end of my first week, I had written a script to automate my own job and so I was out of a job. Then I looked at the work one of the owner’s sons was doing – resizing photos – and automated that, so he was out of a job as well. He never lets me forget that,” Solano laughs. “That’s when the owner figured out that data entry might not be the best use of my time. “
The owner sat Solano down and said, “You know how to fix code. Can you help me figure out what’s going on with my ecommerce site?” So the high school junior began working on their web application code that summer. “Now, eight years later, I’ve rewritten most of their code,” he says, but it is both a blessing and a curse. “The bad code I’m fixing? It’s mine… from my pre-Rice days.”
When he began working for RNK Innovations in 2008, Amazon was still in its infancy and the local Pearland company had become the official online place to buy potty training products. “The owner had invented a potty training doll and also sold other vendors’ potty training supplies,” remembers Solano. “ But when Amazon moved in, we couldn’t do simple online retail anymore. Amazon carried all the same products we did, so why shop with us? So we came up with the new line, custom printed products. We found most people had to purchase custom printed items in bulk, with minimum orders of like 50. But what if you only want a batch of five or even one?”
Solano compares their customer base with competitors. “We specialize in one,” he says. “Instead of a few customers with large orders, we have a large customer base with only small orders. That is where my automation skills come in handy. Originally, we were handling each order manually, drawing things by hand. Now with my automation, our customers go into our site and design their own items. It goes straight from their website order to our printers. Literally. The design tools are my creation, they are my pride and joy.”
But what happens when your customers use your creations in ways you never intended? What if the customer who most stretches your code to its limits is your boss? “That’s a shocker,” Solano admits. “When you walk in one day and your boss says ‘look what I can do’ and you go, ‘how did you do that?’ and she’s like, ‘it’s your system and I thought you knew it could do this.’ And that is really what Rice CS taught me. I realized I was writing a totally different level of code when I could handle uses and inputs to my program that I hadn’t even thought about.” (To see how Solano handles the unexpected use case, see his diagram at the end of this post.)
He paused to demonstrate his web site, RNKShops.com, and then continued, “What I learned here dramatically changed the quality of the things I’m doing. If I’d continued to write code in the way I had been writing it, our whole ecommerce business would have collapsed like a house of cards.” Instead of collapsing, RNK Innovations averages just shy of $1M in sales annually and Solano is set to become a co-owner this year.
Although he learned much of his coding skills through on-the-job training, Solano credits Rice CS with the success of his company today. “I wouldn’t trade my education here for anything but after a while, you want to take what you’re learning and actually make something with that.” He was in a perfect place to apply his knowledge. “I’d be learning things in class that I could really apply on the job that week.”
Solano wraps up the interview with a quip about unintentionally staying on the fast track. At age 24, he has eight years of coding experience for an ecommerce company although he only graduated with a B.S. in CS in 2013. His B.S included the capstone project which is typically only available to fourth year students, due to pre-requisites. “But I was able to take a project I’d been working on for the Shriner’s Hospital and use that as my capstone,” he explained. “Oh, and I also own my own home and I’m married to my high school sweetheart.”