Q&A with Lee Robinson of Hy-Vee

Lee Robinson does it all. A software developer, writer, videographer, and creator living in Des Moines, Robinson currently serves as a Tech Lead at Hy-Vee where he helps develop Aisles Online, Hy-Vee’s e-commerce grocery shopping platform.

Earlier this year, Robinson launched Mastering Next.js, an online series of video courses on React and Next.js. An ISU graduate, Robinson has spoken across the country at conferences and meet-ups about front-end development, design, and recruiting.

And if that wasn’t enough, he also has a newsletter, where he writes about software development, tech careers, and his personal life.

Our Q&A is below:

Have you always had an interest in software development? What is it about software development that attracts you the field?

Before college, I’d never written a line of code. I was between Engineering, Graphic Design, and Music. Ultimately, I made my degree choice based on which major gave me the best career outcome. My passion for software development came after years of persistence and hard work.

Being a developer unlocks the ability to create anything your heart desires: websites, phone applications, physical devices, games, and more. A career as a developer creates a lifelong learner. This mindset makes it easier to acquire new, tangentially related skills (video editing, music production, etc.) 

You’ve been at Hy-Vee for about two years now. Can you talk your time there so far and what your role consists of?

When I started my role at Hy-Vee, I began working on improving our e-commerce platform, Aisles Online. I helped add new features and streamline existing processes for buying groceries online. Over time, I began to focus more on the “front-end” of our applications (what our customers see). I led the creation of a reusable set of building blocks that allowed Hy-Vee developers to work faster and more efficiently.

Since then, I’ve transitioned into a tech leadership role. I lead a team of six engineers on one of our four Aisles Online teams. Just two years ago, there was only one team! Now, more of my time is spent coaching others, reviewing code, and ensuring business deadlines are met.

Prior to Hy-Vee, you spent three years at Workiva. Could you talk a little about your time there and the impact it had on you as a software developer?

I’m very grateful for my time at Workiva. I met many amazing people and grew immensely as a developer and a leader. Workiva lives and breathes software, and it shows in their company culture and the quality of their products. With offices around the world, Workiva also exposed me to remote work and the many benefits of decentralized teams.

At the beginning of the year, you launched a 50+ lesson video course on React and Next.js. Can you talk about that endeavor?

I’ve been writing online since 2014. I mostly wrote for myself, repurposing knowledge I was paid to learn at work into content others would find valuable. After years of sharing content, I realized I’d slowly built an audience and established my credibility online. I wanted to capitalize on that opportunity.

Inspired to generate passive income, I set out to create a programming course to educate developers. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I worked tirelessly to construct a set of videos explaining concepts in a beginner-friendly way. After months of work, I launched the course. Since then, Mastering Next.js has taught hundreds of students and generated over $11,000 in revenue. 

Creating a successful online course requires many skills: writing, speaking, video editing, graphic design, sales, marketing, and so on. If you want to know more, I have 1,000 words on my journey here.

I saw that you’re currently building another course called React 2025. Can you talk a bit about what that is?

You are correct! React 2025 is an entirely different approach to online programming courses. It focuses on teaching skills applicable to real-world programming challenges. Rather than build an application no one will use, React 2025 documents the journey to a build a SaaS (Software as a Service) product from the ground up.

Are you working on any other solo endeavors/passion projects at the moment?

Most of my time outside work is spent building React 2025. I’m also working with a few freelance clients for both development work and technical writing. I’ve tried to offset per-hour freelance work with products that generate revenue while I sleep. My ultimate goal is to have this eventually match or replace my full-time income.

What are the biggest challenges facing software developers/engineers in places like Iowa and the Midwest right now?

The biggest challenges are likely the inverse of what developers outside of the Midwest face. While our cost of living remains low, developers in major cities are fleeing as the majority of tech jobs have shifted to remote. The advantages of places like San Francisco (network, VC funding) continue to dominate.

People underestimate the Midwest. Here’s a thought exercise. Would you rather live where you want to travel or live elsewhere and have more money for traveling? For the top-tier engineers with generous stock options and compensation, they can have both. The other 95% of engineers should consider a mid-sized city. It’s hard to provide generalized advice on where to live because it’s very individualized.

Where do you see the scene for software developers in Iowa being at five years from now?

With the rise of remote work and distributed teams, you can truly work from anywhere as a software developer. We’ll continue to see developers from the coast move back home or relocate to mid-sized metros like Des Moines as they start a family. As more and more Iowa businesses embrace software, the number of jobs will continue to increase slowly. We’ll also see coworking spaces expand as developers live in Iowa but work for companies across the globe. 

What tips do you have for those who are interested in pursuing a career in software engineering but don’t know where to start?

I have some good news. There’s never been a better time to start. First off, you don’t need to go to college. You can learn right now through Google and YouTube. The hardest part is picking the right content to watch. I’d recommend investing in cheap, paid content versus thousands of dollars on tuition. There’s also software boot camps like DeltaV if you prefer in-person learning and more accountability.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

18-year-old Lee was very discouraged by his first year of college. I tried my best to learn to code but struggled to keep up with my peers. Most others in my major had prior programming experience. I was starting from zero. My biggest piece of advice would be around persistence. 

Even though it seems like you’re behind, you’re not. You’re establishing a base of knowledge to build on top of over time. Others will lose motivation and eventually give up. You have to persist. Create the habits today you wish you had next year. I can guarantee you’ll be in a better place than you expected. This concludes my motivational speech.

What profession would you want to attempt outside of software?

Great question! I’m confident I could have a steady career as a photographer/videographer if I needed to. Occasionally, I’ll do some freelance work. After shooting seven weddings in two months, I realized that I was in jeopardy of ruining my hobby. That’s when I scaled things back dramatically. Now, it’s an outlet for creativity and expression. 

Are there any additional thoughts/comments you have on software engineering or the overall tech ecosystem in Iowa that you’d like to share?

There are many excellent developers in the world. Significantly fewer share their knowledge online and teach others. This is a huge opportunity. Not only will you understand the content better, but you’ll create an audience and platform for career stability. I’m happy to share what I know if you want to grab (virtual) coffee.