Anna Garcia played music- trumpet to be exact- professionally since age 11. But when she blended her entrepreneurial spirit with her love for healthy living to create a startup called Juice Crawl, Anna knew that she needed tech skills to build the website. Intrigued by the process of building that website, Anna was motivated to learn software development, and enrolled in The Grace Hopper Program’s all women coding bootcamp in New York City. Learn about Anna’s transition from music to coding, and about her new Software Engineering job at American Express!
What was your educational background and last career path before you got to the Grace Hopper Program?
I moved from St. Louis to New York to receive my master’s degree in music. I played professional trumpet for a few years, went on tour, and was even nominated for a Grammy. New York is such an art-friendly place.
I’ve been playing music professionally since I was 11. I was very used to that life, but I was always curious about other things, and
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and you need that in order to survive as a musician or as a freelancer. You are your employer and your employee. You're making contracts, setting up gigs, and planning everything. I eventually started my own company called Juice Crawl, a monthly event in New York. It’s like a pub crawl, except that we go to different juice bars. That was my first non-music project that I had ever done.
How did that develop into an interest in coding ?
Through my Juice Crawl project, I learned digital marketing, PR and even how to create the website. Since launching Juice Crawl in 2014, I started to find myself more interested in building the actual website. I had to make a website for my company that let users buy tickets, sign up, and send a newsletter. I found the HTML and CSS Head First Series by O'Reilly book at a library, which is big and daunting, but it's a really easy read. If you don't know anything about programming, it guides you through it. Through that book, I learned enough to make a really simple, functional web page.
Also, I'm always doing free coding courses. There are so many resources right now like Coursera, Codecademy, Code School, Udemy, and Udacity.
When did you decide that you wanted to attend a coding bootcamp?
Even once I started building the Juice Crawl site, I wasn’t necessarily considering a coding bootcamp. My goal was more to make Juice Crawl successful and to make this website better. Google was a really good resource for looking things up, and then I found out about coding bootcamps.
At the same time, a friend was talking about doing a data science bootcamp and it seemed interesting. I started researching, and it looked really cool. I was honestly a little skeptical- you go to a bootcamp and you are there for four months, and then you get a job? As a musician I've been playing trumpet for years, and you can't just play trumpet in four months and make it to the the Grammys! I was very skeptical, but I kept researching more, and it seemed like a lot of people were seeing success.
Which coding bootcamps did you research?
I didn't want to move, so I limited my scope to New York, and I ruled out online bootcamps because after learning all by myself for a few years, I knew I wanted to code with people. I looked at a bunch of bootcamps.
It really came down to Flatiron School, General Assembly, Grace Hopper, Fullstack Academy or App Academy. For quality, I really liked App Academy, Fullstack Academy, and Grace Hopper. Flatiron School and General Assembly seemed to be larger, and I felt students wouldn’t get as much attention. I also went to meetups to meet people who had gone to different bootcamps, and I noticed which people were unemployed, versus the people that had graduated and did have jobs.
What made you choose The Grace Hopper Program?
I loved the quality of Fullstack Academy and through Fullstack Academy, I found Grace Hopper and I thought it was really cool that they had an all-women program. Also, Grace Hopper has a deferred tuition model, and I felt that if they're depending on me getting a job to get paid, they’re incentivized to be on my side.
I was accepted to Grace Hopper, but also was accepted into App Academy and the other schools I mentioned. I felt that throughout the admission process, The Grace Hopper Program was more warm and caring. I also knew that, after speaking to people at meetups, it was important for me to learn React. I was going back and forth, but I chose Grace Hopper because of their quality of instruction, the opportunity to learn with women, the tuition model, and the friendly atmosphere.
Can you walk us through the application process for Grace Hopper? Did they require a coding challenge?
First you fill out an application online, and you have to write about yourself, and why you want to attend. I don't think there was anything too technical, but then after they look at that, they send you a coding challenge. Grace Hopper’s coding challenge matched what I thought it would be as far as quality. The bootcamps I thought were better, had a harder coding challenge. Grace Hopper had a pretty difficult coding challenge, the first time I took it really late and missed their first cohort deadline, I didn't even past the first test. I retook it, and it was challenging still, but I passed. Then two different people called me, and asked me about myself, and I elaborated more on the first application about who I was and why I wanted to attend.
After the coding challenge, I had a Skype challenge. Then I met with one of the teachers and it was like a job interview actually, because they ask you questions and you have to solve it without your computer's help. You can't really check what you're doing. It's what you call whiteboarding I guess, but on the computer. I felt good about that portion and then the second portion they try to teach you a new concept, and they try to see how receptive you are to learning with one of the teachers. That was the last part of the application, and then they let me know within a few days.
Your cohort was obviously all women, but was it diverse in terms of race, age range and career backgrounds?
Yes- it was amazing. We started with 24 students and only 20 graduated, but everybody was super smart, really nice, and friendly. It made the whole experience great. The majority was generally around the millennial age range.
In terms of backgrounds, some people actually had CS degrees. I think maybe two people had already had previous job experience as front end developers, and then we had people with completely different backgrounds like Macy's department store managers, musicians, and other jobs unrelated to tech. I was really surprised as we all became really close.
This is a really intense program. You’re in the classroom Monday through Saturday, for 10 hours a day. If you're learning and growing with your classmates for that long, it's hard not to make close bonds.
Can you give us a peek into a typical day at The Grace Hopper Program?
The whole program is split into a Junior Phase and a Senior Phase. The Junior Phase was really structured. We'd arrive at 9am in the morning and start with a quick lecture, or we would go over a concept that we had talked about the day before. Then we went into workshops, which would always include pair programming. I think some people don’t like pair programming, but I loved it because I wanted to learn with people. That's the reason that I chose an in-person bootcamp instead of an online program. What I loved about pair programming is that when you're not the driver (typing code), you're watching your partner’s thought process. If you're with a group of really smart women, it's hard not to learn something new from that process.
After the workshop, we reviewed the workshop via a video or an instructor. If we had a video, an instructor would come in after we watched the video to clarify any concepts. We would then have lunch and then another workshop learning more quick concepts. It would change day to day, but basically, Junior Phase was a lot of learning.
The Senior Phase was full of projects. We did three projects– one project was a solo, hackathon-style project (there were even prizes at the end) that took two days and you could basically build anything you wanted. We were supposed to put everything that we’d learned during Junior Phase into that project.
What did you build for your first project at Grace Hopper?
At that point, I was voted the class alumni representative, so I built a simple way to keep in touch. The app was called "Keep in Touch” and it emails all of the alumni every month, then collects everybody's responses.
What were the other projects you built?
My team of five built a mock e-commerce store called "Wish Upon a Store," where we sold wishes. My favorite was the capstone project, where Grace Hopper encouraged us to use what we've learned, along with whatever new technologies we wanted. My group essentially made our own game engine and built 3D Memory Palace. We used a new technology, Three.js. It was scary because we only had a few weeks to make this project, and you start by thinking to yourself, "How in the world can I make these projects?" We decided to use a different technology, but we made it. We pulled through, and that's the project that we used for Hiring Day and all of our job applications.
What technologies were you using for those projects?
How did the all-women learning environment compare to your past education experiences like your master's program?
I'm a trumpet player, so I'm used to being the only woman in all-male spaces; I knew that I could deal with it. My master's program was small- about 12-15 people in a trumpet studio- and there were only two women. I’ve spent the majority of my life in that type of environment and so I never really thought about it or was bothered by it too much. Being in an environment with all women, I think the difference is that everybody wanted to create a community, be friendly, and meet people and make friends.
How was your job search? Did you have support from Grace Hopper throughout the process?
For me, I feel lucky that it was relatively painless. The day after Hiring Day and graduation, I went to Thailand for vacation for two weeks. It wasn't completely ideal to do that vacation right after the program, but I followed up with everybody that I met on hiring day, giving them a heads up. When I came back, I was a little worried that I had missed out, but I actually think my time off helped me to relax after such an intense program. It was very fun, but there's only so much your brain can handle!
In fact, I got a coding challenge from every company that I met at Hiring Day. Then I met a majority of them for in-person interviews. I met American Express at Hiring Day, and got an offer from them fairly quickly.
Congrats on your new role at American Express! Is the life of a software engineer what you expected?
I am a software engineer on the New Initiatives team at Amex. That means that my team gets to brainstorm, “proof of concept” a lot of ideas, and then test them. We get to work with different teams, and see a lot of parts of the business. In that way, I’m in an engineering role, but also a little bit of a business role. My team at Amex sort of operates like a startup (we’re a team of three), but with the security of a large company.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. This is a totally different life. It's actually easier than playing the trumpet. I still play the trumpet, I just get to pick my favorite gigs instead of playing to survive.
Tell us about your first few weeks at American Express. How have you transitioned into the real world?
Amex is really good about helping further your career. They offer to pay for classes so they can help me to continue and further my learning. I jumped in on the first day at American Express, and I've been able to be really helpful and fit in. It's a big company, so there's still a lot to get used to, but I’ve avoided imposter syndrome for the most part.
I have a one-on-one every week with my manager to check in and talk about anything. I've graduated from a four-month coding bootcamp and I've definitely learned a lot, but I didn’t know if I felt like a software engineer. In my most recent one-on-one, my manager told me that it’s not about the amount of time you spent learning, but rather the quality of your learning. That’s really helpful for other coding bootcamp graduates to hear, and it’s true! We put in quality time in those four months, and we learned so much. I had classmates with CS degrees, but even that doesn’t necessarily mean you have current job industry skills. That’s why coding bootcamps exist, and that's why they're successful.
I use Angular at American Express, which is what we learned at Grace Hopper. CSS and HTML are constant no matter your job. Grace Hopper now teaches React, but since I didn’t learn React in my cohort, I spent a month teaching myself while I was waiting for my background check to clear. By the time I started at Amex, I felt pretty good about it.
You're not going to learn everything in one day, but you can use Google, Stack Overflow, etc to learn the right syntax and the language. The concepts are the same, so it's not too bad.
What's been your biggest challenge on your journey to learn programming?
The biggest challenge is when that negative voice comes up in your mind– maybe you’re just starting on this ladder, or you don't have a CS degree, or you’re learning a lot in four months of intense programming. You have to remind yourself that you are here and you’re benefiting the team. Life is always a journey in learning. There's never a point where you're done learning and you've mastered a topic. That's probably the thing that gets in my own way, but you just have to stop and silence that voice.
Are you still involved with other Grace Hopper alumni?
Since I’m the alumni representative, I planned an upcoming Sunday brunch to get my cohort together again! But I haven’t been very involved in the newest cohorts.
Do you have any advice for bootcampers who are about to start the job search?
I feel lucky that I got an offer so quickly, but my advice is to apply! Don't put yourself in a position where you feel like you shouldn't apply because you're not going to get the job. Just do it. The worst thing that could happen is you don't hear back from a company. Also practice coding challenges to be fresh for the interview, and do your research about the company you’re interviewing with. Instead of mass emailing a ton of companies, send a thoughtful message to a company and demonstrate that you understand who they are and that you care about what they're doing. You’ll get more responses.
For someone who is on the fence about joining a coding bootcamp- what’s your advice?
I guess it depends on why you're on the fence, but I would say if you can do a coding bootcamp, even if you decide you don't want to become a software engineer, programming is such a good skill to know today in today's job market.
If your hesitation is because of financial reasons, Grace Hopper is so great with the deferred tuition model. If you're on the fence because of finances, I would really study up and try to get into one of the deferred tuition bootcamps.