“I used to feel that artistic skills and technical skills were very separate, but in reality the work that I did as a designer is very similar to how I approach problems with engineering.” After a BFA, MFA, and the Grace Hopper Program coding bootcamp, Liz Phillips is now a Full Stack Software Engineer at Fabric! Liz tells us how learning to code amongst women felt like a “healing environment,” how she got her job (spoiler: it involves a warm lead from a fellow Grace Hopper graduate), and why she is pushing to hire more Grace Hopper alumnae to work at Fabric.
Tell us about your career and how your path led to the Grace Hopper Program.
Before starting Grace Hopper, I got a BFA in Production Design (designing costumes and sets for movies/theater), and then pursued an MFA in Theater Design. Partway through my graduate degree, I realized it wasn’t a viable career for me and I wasn't going to be happy doing it. So I started looking around for something else.
During grad school, I started teaching myself Python from a book. That was really interesting and I was frustrated that I didn't have more time to learn it. With the graphic design skills that I had, I also enjoyed doing some website design with very basic HTML and CSS.
Did you consider continuing to teach yourself to code instead of going to bootcamp?
I recognized that it would take me a long time if I kept trying to teach myself. But that was kind of my fallback plan. I thought, "If I can't get into Grace Hopper, then I'll just keep studying." I also thought Grace Hopper could fast-track me to being ready to take a job.
Did you consider going back to college or a different coding bootcamp? What stood out about Grace Hopper?
I went straight from high school to undergraduate to grad school – under no circumstance was I getting another degree. It's expensive and it takes a long time, whereas a bootcamp (basically one semester’s worth of time) gives you an overview of all the concepts you need to know to get a job now.
It was Grace Hopper or bust for me because of their deferred tuition model (which means you train first and pay full tuition only after getting a job in software engineering). The environment at Grace Hopper was also really appealing. Initially, I didn't care that Grace Hopper was all-women. But after thinking about it and understanding that the tech industry is a male-dominated field, it was appealing to learn these new concepts with other women.
Once I got there, I really enjoyed the all-women environment. I went to public school and co-ed colleges, so it was totally new to me. When I started at Grace Hopper, I was feeling really burned out. And this sounds cheesy, but it was a healing environment – a really nice environment to learn in, along with all these really intelligent and driven women.
What was the application and interview process like when you applied to Grace Hopper?
Once you’re accepted, the first stage of the program is the Foundations phase online, which is about one month of fundamentals to make sure each student is ready for the on-campus phase. I had to study a lot during that time. Some people continue working their regular jobs through Foundations – I don’t know how I would have done that!
What were the other members of your cohort like?
There was a wide variety of people. Only one or two people in my cohort had taken CS classes or had pursued a CS degree, and almost everybody else was from different backgrounds, like science, medicine, and other disciplines. It was all over the place in terms of backgrounds.
What was the learning experience like at Grace Hopper?
The on-campus portion is separated into two phases. You have your junior phase, then your senior phase. In a typical day, there were two modes. You had lessons, and then after every lesson, there was a workshop that accompanied that lesson. The instructors would introduce a concept, talk about its history, what the tool does, what people were using before, and how it relates to previous lessons. And then after that, it was all pair programming.
As for the teaching style, Grace Hopper has set material that they're trying to get through, but each instructor has a different way of explaining things, or different information that they add. Instructors are always open to answering questions, which we could ask either by raising a hand or writing an anonymous question which teaching fellows would read out. Those anonymous questions were a really valuable thing to see, and I've definitely carried the idea with me. If I’m organizing an event, I always make sure people can ask questions anonymously.
After Grace Hopper, you became a Teaching Fellow – why did you decide to take that role before getting a job as a software engineer?
Towards the end of the senior phase when everyone's starting to ramp up for hiring day, applying for jobs, and meeting employers who come on campus, students also have the opportunity to apply for the teaching fellow position.
I loved being at Grace Hopper, so the chance to stay there longer was nice. I liked the environment, the instructors, the people, and the goal of the program. On top of that, I also enjoyed teaching. The biggest benefit of being a Teaching Fellow is that you get to review all the material again when helping incoming Junior Phase students. I got to work on reading other people’s code and learning new frameworks and libraries.
How did Grace Hopper prepare you for job hunting? What kind of career advice and training did you receive?
We had lectures to show us how to format our resumes, and we did mock interviews. I found it really helpful because I had never had to apply to jobs like that before. When I was working in theater, you couldn’t cold apply to jobs, it was all about who you knew.
I didn't participate in hiring day when I was a Grace Hopper student because I was a fellow. Then as a teaching fellow, I accepted a job offer before the next hiring day. So I never did the hiring day event as a student – I’m proud to say, however, that I have attended hiring day as an employer – but I did utilize a lot of the other career services.
For one job interview I had scheduled, I made sure to do a mock interview specific to that company. I made an appointment with one of the Career Services staff, she did some research on the company, then I did a mock interview with her, which very much helped me prepare for the real thing. I also got feedback on cover letters, the outfit I was going to wear to my interview, and how to negotiate my salary. I was super nervous, but it all worked out fine.
Congratulations on your job! How did you find it?
I’m a Full Stack Software Engineer at Fabric, which is a site for new families to start their financial futures, with a current focus on life insurance. I've also chosen to take on some additional hiring responsibilities, including recruiting from Grace Hopper itself!
A big reason I’m passionate about that work is that that’s essentially how I got my job there: I got the interview while I was still a fellow at Grace Hopper because a woman who was a fellow when I was a student recommended me. I took that interview and got the job.
How large is the engineering team? Are there many other women?
I believe we're seven engineers now. Currently, it's three women and four men, and another woman from Grace Hopper is starting in July, whom I was involved in hiring. I do quite a lot of candidate outreach and interview scheduling so I have an insight into that process. For example, I went to Grace Hopper’s hiring day because I enjoy doing things like that, and sourcing a diverse range of candidates is really important to me. I personally want to keep our company as diverse as possible – I believe it makes the company stronger. Anything I can do to contribute to that I was happy to do.
Can you tell me what a typical day is like as a developer? What sort of projects are you working on at Fabric?
In a typical day, about 70% of my time is coding. That includes research, reading documentation, typing, and reviewing other people's code. About 10% to 15% is meetings and that includes a stand-up at the beginning of the day, planning meetings, and small meetings with people on the team to figure out the structure of what we're going to build. Interviewing candidates and hiring duties is probably 10% of my week on average.
I'm a full stack developer, so I work on projects on both sides of the stack. I have an interest in security specifically. Right now, I'm working on a new product that needs a new authentication and authorization flow. So I'm doing a lot of research and creating new features that utilize AWS Cognito, which is an AWS service for authorization and authentication.
Are you using the technologies you learned at the Grace Hopper Program?
On our front end, we use React and Redux with some additional technologies like Gatsby and Glamor. React and Redux were taught at Grace Hopper; Glamor and Gatsby were not – but Fabric actually started using Glamor after I started working here so that was a learning process for the whole team. Gatsby is a static site generator for React sites so it wasn’t too hard to learn.
Do you feel like you've grown as a developer since you started? How does Fabric help the engineers make sure you're all continuing to learn and improve?
I have definitely grown exponentially, almost more than I can explain. But I think I am still a junior developer – right on the edge of mid-level. Judging by the types of projects that I'm able to work on, I definitely don't feel like projects are not assigned to me because of my skill level.
Fabric definitely has a culture where it's acceptable to take time to watch a video, read docs, or read tutorials. Also, in our SCRUM process, we try to balance working on new features versus working on technical debt or implementing new libraries. Working at such a small startup, we have a real commitment to always moving forward because our velocity is really important to us as a company.
Has your background in lighting and set design been useful in your current job as a developer?
I strongly believe that bootcamp grads have a lot to offer to companies. Because you have a different background, you're going to have a different perspective. And like I said, diverse backgrounds make a company stronger because you have fewer blind spots.
My design background has definitely been useful. I used to feel that artistic skills and technical skills were very separate, but in reality, the work that I did as a designer is very similar to how I approach problems with engineering. Most people with engineering backgrounds don't have designer training, but I can understand our designer's intentions.
Having that that pretty solid foundation of CSS and HTML beforehand really helped me because when I got hired, it allowed me to be able to contribute to the front end immediately.
Looking back at the last couple of years, what role has Grace Hopper played in your success? Could you have got to where you are now by self-teaching or another method?
I'm sure it's possible. But I have the job that I have now because my former teaching fellow recommended me for an interview – Grace Hopper provided me with a network and the tools to start in this new industry. So Grace Hopper played a huge role in where I am now. I wouldn't say that I could not have been a software engineer without it, but I definitely think it got me here faster and with more financial stability.
What advice do you have for other people who are thinking about making a career change by going through a coding bootcamp?
I really can't recommend it enough, especially if you can get deferred tuition. The program is three months, plus four weeks of pre-work. It costs about one year of college tuition and you can get hired in this new field immediately afterwards. So I really don't see a lot of downsides to it.
Definitely don't approach a coding bootcamp with the expectation that you'll understand everything right off the bat. The pace is really fast and there's so much information. Common metaphors are, “it's like trying to drink from a fire hose” or “trying to hold a teacup in a storm.” Expect to be familiar with many concepts so that when you hear a new term, you at least know where to start looking, how to learn from docs and tutorials, and how to teach yourself new frameworks and skills.