What is it actually like to be a Software Engineer at MongoDB? Codesmith alum and remote Software Engineer, Cris Newsome, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at types of projects and teams they work on at MongoDB. As a career changer in their 40s who copes with chronic illness, learn how Codesmith’s full-tuition Black Engineers in Tech Scholarship gave Cris the rock solid foundation of curriculum and career support they needed to switch from blue collar to new collar career in 2021. Plus, Cris shares their top 3 resources for other Black technologists!
Cris, what inspired you to make a career change into software engineering in 2020?
Before software engineering, I was working in physically demanding jobs. I worked for Delta at LaGuardia Airport, heading up an irregular operations team. I progressed to a job in promotions and marketing, where I started going on tour, driving 18-wheelers, building big events, and spending all day unloading and building trusses. I loved this job, but it was hard on my body. I have an invisible disability, which was manageable in my 20s, but by my 30s, required surgeries that were taking a big toll on my life. While I loved my work because it allowed me to solve problems, and interact and engage with people, reliability is everything and the more my body started rebelling, the less reliable I became.
When I realized my disability was getting worse, I tried a more sedentary job as a travel agent. Though it was better, I was still in a lot of pain and would eventually need another surgery. I was good at sales, but, with as many hits as the industry was taking even before COVID, it became demoralizing, so I started considering what I could build instead. The travel agency had its own internal software that we used for CRM, managing clients and calls, and integrations. I realized there were problems with this system that made the booking process unwieldy for clients and led to inconsistencies between agents. I started asking the engineers that worked on this system if we could make adjustments but they were prioritizing cloud migrations at that time, instead. This prompted me to learn basic Python concepts that let me create tools to fill in the gaps I saw in the company's software. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be — Plus, it was actually fun! I got to share it with people, which made me more excited about my job than I’d been in awhile. I wondered if this was something I could do full-time.
While I was waiting for surgery, I continued learning how to code through Codecademy, Udemy, and freeCodeCamp. My travel agency job was closing due to the pandemic, and I realized software engineering sounded like a job I could do even when I'm miserably in pain. Plus, there was a chance that in a coding job, I could have better medical benefits and be making more than I was ever making at the travel agency, which was just over $60K a year.
There are so many bootcamps out there now — Why did you choose Codesmith over other coding bootcamps?
While I was self-teaching, I followed so many coding bootcamp newsletters and events, wanting to know what free courses or workshops they were offering. This was in early 2020, and so many bootcamps were offering lots of online intro courses. Thinking the pandemic would be over soon, I initially only considered bootcamps that were in-person in Houston, such as DigitalCrafts, Flatiron School, and General Assembly. I was awarded the Edie Winsor Coding Scholarship from Lesbians Who Tech, which was so validating for me and I was going to use it for an in-person program.
Was it difficult to get into Codesmith?
I worked my ass off to get into Codesmith! The first bootcamp I gained admission to was nowhere near as difficult, but I was looking for a challenge, and a challenge I got. I took CS Prep to understand the basics, kept studying, and went through three interviews with their admissions team, all while knowing my next surgery was imminent. My very last interview happened the week before I went to the hospital and I found out I was accepted shortly after waking up from surgery. I was so happy to hear that I was accepted, it was hard to tell if it was the call or the drugs, but it was probably a mix of both! I then applied for The Black Engineers in Tech Scholarship and found I’d been granted that just in time for me to start the next cohort.
How could you tell that Codesmith was focused on supporting people of color get into tech?
Codesmith is still doing the work by creating a supportive environment for BIPOC people and creating intentional spaces for Black folks to feel supported, validated, and heard through the recently-launched Black Mentorship Program. Being a Black student at Codesmith, there weren’t a lot of Black faces in my cohort or the previous one, or the ones in LA, but it was something they were (and are) actively trying to change. More than just numbers, though, they’re committed to an inclusive experience. During my time at Codesmith, I created an informal Sunday brunch for other Black female residents of both the NYC and LA cohorts to connect, uplift each other, and share experiences. I started a Black Alumni channel in our Slack, too, which they were, of course, supportive of. I know that ultimately Codesmith is committed to seeing the success of all of their students, and they are receptive to feedback, which is just as important as getting everything “right” from the start.
What were your career goals when you enrolled at Codesmith in 2020? By doing a remote bootcamp, were you hoping to land a remote tech job after graduation?
My career goal was to find a job that took care of my financial needs, offered health insurance, and honored my physical need for flexibility and independence. As a person with a chronic health condition, having a job that offers health benefits and a flexible work schedule is imperative. If you have a chronic condition without health benefits or a stable income in the US, you are in danger! The fear, insecurity, and financial burden are too much to bear without some kind of support. Finding a remote job after bootcamp was definitely a priority for me.
How was learning at Codesmith different from other academic settings?
The bootcamp is set up differently than their free courses. Instead of digging into the details, the bootcamp teaches “hard learning,” which was difficult for me as a neurodivergent person because I learn better from direct explanations and I found some of the instructions hard to interpret. Rather than spoon-feeding us every lesson and tool, Codesmith taught us how to teach ourselves. This individual accountability empowers us to confidently keep learning on the job and solve future problems. Codesmith prepared me with crucial skills which I depend on now as a software engineer.
And now you’re a Software Engineer at MongoDB! What team do you work on at MongoDB?
MongoDB identifies as an application data platform offering tools like Realm, Atlas, and Compass. I am currently on the document platform team. Some programs have better docs than others, but MongoDB docs are clear and straightforward.
It’s been so exciting to work at MongoDB! I am surrounded by smart people. As a remote team, we’re from all over the place, including Canada, NYC, California, Colorado, and Texas. Promotions are common, my boss is phenomenal, and the company is completely dedicated to building on every team member’s career goals. Our experience at MongoDB is built by us individually. We have goals as engineers here and beyond, and the management ensures we’re on track to learn the way we each want to learn. Everyone is totally invested in the team.
Do software engineers at MongoDB work with other teams at the company?
There’s a documentation team that writes all the content, then our team works on the platform. Sometimes we cross-talk, particularly when events like a rebrand happen, which did recently. Other than that we don’t really interact between teams. We do have a very active Slack where people are excited to answer questions and help out. It’s a great environment.
What does a typical day look like as a remote Software Engineer at MongoDB?
We do standups in the morning and then we focus on our own work throughout the day. MongoDB intentionally leaves Wednesdays free from company-wide meetings so we can have a full day focused on projects.
What kinds of projects are you working on, Cris?
I work with our product called Snooty, which is in the doc publishing field. When working with our platform, documents have to be uploaded in a certain way and written in a basic way. Docs go in the auto-builder and we maintain them from there. Everything is built into the back end. We all use the same banner so it’s neat and aligned.
Did you learn MongoDB at Codesmith?
Are you using all of the concepts and tools that you learned at Codesmith on the job?
What are the most important soft skills that you use as a Software Engineer at MongoDB?
Humility and communication. It's been difficult having health conditions that impact my ability to deliver on deadlines. It's been hard to have the humility to communicate what's going on with me so we can make adjustments, whether that's bringing another person in to work on it with me or an extension on a timeline.
I built my whole reputation on reliability and follow-through, so it's really hard to have to ask for more time, flexibility, or grace, as I heal. MongoDB has been so supportive of me because I respect them by communicating ahead of time so they aren't blindsided.
What’s the next step in your career, Cris? Senior Software Engineer? Team Lead?
Right now I just want to focus on becoming a better engineer. As someone that's had management roles in other careers, I know I'm great with people and that that's probably where I'm going to end up. MongoDB has an engineering matrix used as a part of our performance review that shows how you can grow and in which direction, which enables us to personally assess if we're able to do the job and if we want to follow the trajectory to that career path. It helps us decide if we feel more aligned to be an Engineering Manager, Engineering Team Leader, a Staff Engineer, or something else.
How does MongoDB support your growth as a software engineer?
MongoDB also utilizes Skunkworks, where they give everyone a week off to work on whatever project they want to — it doesn't have to be related to what we do on a daily basis. Often it's a way for people to explore new code.
So far, is working as a remote software engineer at MongoDB the career you expected?
Sometimes working independently can be isolating, to only see people for 15 minutes in the morning before I'm left to code alone all day. On the other hand, not managing anyone or a team right now allows me to take a break if my body is going haywire. When I'm feeling better, I jump back into work. The flexible work-life balance is amazing and my team at MongoDB is very supportive.
How did Codesmith support you in your career change?
Before I even started Codesmith, I was assigned a mentor through their Women's Mentorship Program who was a constant source of encouragement, focus, and accountability. The Codesmith staff was so understanding of my surgeries and healing process, plus I had some weather-related power issues that affected my ability to work on certain projects.
The careers team at Codesmith was so supportive, too. I was assigned a career coach, Natalie, who coincidentally had a similar story to mine - she’d also struggled with a chronic illness during the Codesmith bootcamp! Knowing someone else had completed the bootcamp and got a great job after graduating boosted my confidence and safety in Codesmith and their commitment to their students.
When I had to take time off after graduation, Codesmith was there for me when I was ready to apply for jobs again. They helped me negotiate my first salary (which started at $90k and I signed an offer for $120k)! The careers staff is so knowledgeable and offered great advice — they’re great people to talk to.
Looking back at this career change journey, was enrolling at Codesmith worth it for you?
Absolutely. It would have been a difficult process no matter what because of my physical limitations and neurodivergence. On the other hand, even though it wasn't the most pleasant journey, I came out of it better for going to Codesmith than I would have coming out of any of the other programs I researched, which was the goal.
Cris, what are your top resources for Black technologists? I recommend:
What you can expect from the Niantic-sponsored cohort at Tech Elevator!
How Mell became a Software Engineer at Vanguard after General Assembly!
What you need to know about Alchemy's admissions!