In 2019, Bonnie McNeil was worried that the gap in her resume from being a stay-at-home mom might hold her back in changing careers. Knowing that a tech career would afford her better work-life balance, higher salary, and more job prospects, she enrolled at Alchemy. Now a Senior Software Engineer at Quil, Bonnie shares how Alchemy not only helped her launch a new career, but also continued to support her throughout a tumultuous 2020. Learn why Bonnie encourages other stay-at-home parents to consider tech careers and her tips for making a successful career change!
What inspired you to make a career change in 2019?
I have always been interested in technology and biology, so many years ago, I got a degree in biomedical engineering. Theoretically it’s a really interesting field, but without an advanced degree, the career ends up being a lot of paperwork and tedious tasks. Plus, I don’t find the industry very inspirational, as the profit motive was more often prioritized over doing the best science.
Having been a stay-at-home mom for years, I had a big gap in my resume. I needed a way to support myself and my kids, and I wanted to get back on a career path. I knew I enjoyed software development and knew I could make a good living doing it.
There are so many ways to learn how to code, so what motivated you to enroll at a coding bootcamp?
I initially enrolled in the Oregon State Online Post-Baccalaureate Computer Science program. I picked it because it was flexible and online, which was attractive at the time when I had two small kids. However, I didn't feel like I was getting good professional development with the program. Even though it was an academic program, I didn't feel like I was learning skills that I would use on the job as a software developer, and I questioned whether it was a good use of my time and money. Though I conceptually understood algorithms and some basic principles of software development, I wanted something that was more intensive and focused on getting a job than theory, which is why I started at Alchemy.
When you were researching coding bootcamps in 2019, what stood out about Alchemy?
After talking to a few other coding bootcamps, Alchemy stood out because they strongly focused on increasing diversity in the tech industry and offered support for non-traditional candidates. I felt aligned in their values. The admissions team was personable and not pushy about enrolling. I didn't know anyone personally who had done the program, but Alchemy was highly-rated in online reviews. After meeting with their team, I felt confident that Alchemy would be a good place for me!
What were your Alchemy instructors like?
Our instructor, Ryan, was a Senior Developer, and he had an amazing way of making difficult concepts understandable. We also had TAs who were recent Alchemy graduates. There was a lot of support coming from the staff at Alchemy — everyone was really hands-on and fun to work with.
What was the difference between learning technical skills in a college program versus a coding bootcamp like Alchemy?
The major differences were the curriculum and the levels of support:
How did Alchemy prepare you for the tech job hunt?
The Career Services at Alchemy turned out to be a highly valuable piece of the program. I wasn't excited about it at the time because it meant having to learn how to network and talk to people, and I am shy — I thought going into software development meant that I wouldn’t have to talk to so many people! Alchemy helped us set up our Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, work on our elevator pitches, go to networking events, and work on all of the soft skills you need when talking to recruiters or trying to break into a new field. I really didn't want to do it, but it was helpful that I was forced to since it’s required in the program.
I really appreciated the support I got from my Career Services coach. She helped me get my first job from a Women in Tech event. She knew I was shy, so she sought me out and introduced me to recruiters so I could talk with them. I chatted with the folks at Acorns and I liked them and ended up working for them after that!
Have you stayed in touch with your classmates? Did you build a network at Alchemy?
I love my cohort and I'm still friends with a bunch of people from there. The bootcamp was really overwhelming at times, but we had a good time together. When I got hired at my first job, two other people from my cohort were hired at the same time. This was nice because if any of us had questions that we felt were too dumb to ask our more experienced coworkers, we could help each other.
Which tech roles did you feel qualified to apply for after graduating?
I was looking for junior-level roles, which is what I got hired as first. I wanted my first role to just get my foot in the door, but I ended up with my ideal situation at Acorns at the time.
Are there any transferable skills between your former career in microbiology and your current career in software engineering?
What I like about software development is what I liked about doing lab research: logic plays a huge role in reaching a conclusion. You come up with a problem that you need a solution for, then you implement the solution, then you test it to see if it works. If it doesn't, you make changes. If it does work, you're done. I find that process extremely satisfying.
Tell us about your first tech job after graduating from Alchemy! Was Acorns interested in your Alchemy bootcamp experience?
Acorns is a micro investment app company, and their core feature is called Round-Ups. Basically, Acorns makes investing accessible to people who don't have a lot of money.
It was the strength of Alchemy's reputation that helped us get hired. Acorns used Ruby on Rails, which we didn’t cover in bootcamp, but they hired me and two other Alchemy grads knowing that we didn't have any experience in that language, but that our skills were transferable. Acorns was also extremely open to non-traditional backgrounds. For instance, the lead engineer and manager on my team didn’t have college degrees.
What kinds of projects did you work on as a Junior Software Engineer at Acorns?
I was hired on the Round-Ups and Bank Linking team at Acorns, which is their core functionality, as a primarily Back End Engineer. One of my classmates from my Alchemy cohort was on that same team as a Front End Engineer. Sometimes we would pair on tasks so that we could keep our full stack skills up-to-date.
Has Alchemy continued to support you in your job searches even though you graduated three years ago?
Alchemy was so supportive during that initial job search. When I got laid off from Acorns in May 2020, I was terrified. I went back to Alchemy’s career support for help, and they set me up with job listings that would be good for me. I interviewed, but I ended up continuing to work with people I had worked with at Acorns. Truly, I haven't had to do a lot of job searching after landing that first job, thanks to the networking I did through Alchemy!
After Acorns, you moved to a job with Bickford+Godson. What kinds of projects did you work on there?
Bickford+Godson was run by those who launched a startup that Acorns acquired. When Acorns laid everyone off, Bickford+Godson hired several of us for contract work then hired us as staff as they launched the startup that is now Quil. I liked working with them at Acorns, I knew that they had good engineering experience and that our values aligned!
You’re now a Senior Software Engineer at Quil! As a Senior Software Engineer, what kinds of responsibilities do you now have?
We have a pretty small dev team, so everybody has a lot of ownership over the code. As a Senior Software Engineer, I have a lot of say over what we develop and how we develop it, like what tech we use, what features, and how the features are designed. I get to be Lead on projects, which feels huge! I think Quil gave me that promotion because I had been the lead on developing a big feature. I was hired on as an individual contributor instead of a manager, which is where I want to stay. I want to be an individual contributor because I like writing code and I don't want to manage people.
Are you still using what you learned at Alchemy on the job today as a Senior Software Engineer?
What we learned at Alchemy is similar to what I'm using on the job now, as I work with Node.js, Typescript, and React
You’ve worked at startups and bigger companies. Are there pros and cons of working in either environment as a recent bootcamp grad?
As a new grad, it’s good to work at a bigger company to have experience with an established software system, so that you know what works. You can get familiar with the patterns that work, ones that don't, and things you would do differently. At a bigger company, there are more resources and people to learn from. It was really valuable for me to learn from people who have more experience than I do.
At a startup, you're designing from the ground up, which is cool because you can decide what you want to do and how you want to do it. But somebody there needs to know what you should do and how you should do it since they've done it other ways before. I also really love working closely in a small team in a startup. By working at a startup, I have familiarity with every part of the code and the whole way the system works. Building from scratch is demanding, and it’s what you do in code school — you're not maintaining legacy systems like you do at bigger companies. Working at a startup is more closely related to the experience of a coding bootcamp.
Like anything, it depends on the team and people you're with. I like working at the startup because my co-workers are extremely smart and have a lot of experience. Nobody's afraid to ask questions or try new things that might not work.
Since you’re now a Senior Software Engineer, what is the next step you’re looking to take in your tech career?
I am happy doing what I'm doing right now and I just want to continue to get better at it. When they told me I had a Senior title I couldn’t believe it because there’s still so much I don’t know! I am working closely with so many smart people that I respect. It’s humbling when experienced devs share that they have no idea how to do something because that resonates with me! I have to remind myself that everyone has imposter syndrome. If they don't, they're probably way too confident in themselves.
Overall, I just want to keep getting better at what we're doing, hopefully watch Quil become big and successful, and continue to take on more responsibility for designing and building.
At this point in your tech career, was Alchemy worth it for you?
Absolutely. It’s really intense and it’s an investment, but it's unbelievable how a six-month program can lead to a job like this. Sometimes it feels unreal that this is my life! Some people are really self-directed and can do it all on their own, but for me, it would have been really hard to get into this industry without attending Alchemy. From teaching the tech skills to the career development support, it was completely worth it to attend Alchemy.
What is your advice for other parents who took a pause to stay at home with their kids and are now considering a career change into tech?
Take some online courses to figure out if tech is something you're interested in pursuing as a career. If it is, a coding bootcamp is a great way to get in the industry, not just because you gain these highly marketable tech skills in just a few months, but also because this industry is really open to people with nontraditional backgrounds. Nobody cares where you went to school or where you got your degree from as long as you can do the work. When interviewing for my tech roles, nobody ever cared that I had this huge career gap on my resume. I was able to demonstrate that I had these skills, and I had the experience with my bootcamp projects. I had the answers to all of the soft skills interview questions from doing my group projects.
Tech is also a great career for people with kids because it's flexible. We work hard on my team, but I still am able to pick my kids up from school in the afternoon and take them to their activities and then get caught up on any work later. My team is really supportive of people taking time for family responsibilities. I would love to see more former stay-at-home parents get into tech!
Find out more and read Alchemy reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with Alchemy.
Jess Feldman is the Content Manager at Course Report. As a lifelong learner, Jess is passionate about education — She loves learning and sharing insights about tech bootcamps and career changes with the Course Report community. Jess received a M.F.A. in Writing from the University of New Hampshire and lives in southern Maine.
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