Our takeaway from Annika’s story? Learning to code is hard work. After years in sales and marketing, Annika was looking for a mentally-stimulating career change and wanted to try coding. Her husband (a lead engineer at MongoDB) suggested The Grace Hopper Program, and after a month of independent learning, Annika decided to apply to the all-women’s coding bootcamp. She tells us how she persevered through 9-hour days in the classroom plus extra hours of studying, why she continues to battle imposter syndrome, and how The Grace Hopper Program prepared her for her first job as a Software Engineer at Jet!
What were you up to before Grace Hopper?
I was heavily involved in performing arts and studied acting until I was 20, but then realized that it wasn’t the career I wanted in the long run. I decided to study international business, then got a Masters degree in Marketing and Economics.
In 2009, I moved to New York from Finland for an internship at the UN. I fell in love with the city and decided to stay and work at an organic food company. After 5 years, I was the CMO at that company, and in 2014, I took a job as the sales manager for a small juice company. After that, I went through a period of evaluating my next career move. I thought about starting a business, or getting another degree. Every day I had new ideas, but none of them seemed to make total sense. I’m at an important point in a woman’s life, because if you plan to have a family, that can interrupt your career. I wanted to start a career that inspired me and stimulated me mentally.
What motivated you to start learning to code?
Did you research other coding bootcamps? What made you choose The Grace Hopper Program?
Did you think about doing another 4-year CS degree?
A coding bootcamp seemed like the perfect choice for me; almost too good to be true. I didn’t want to wait too long to break into tech. I’m 34, and historically I’ve been a little non-committal, so I didn’t want to make a huge commitment, time or finance wise. College would have been very long and so much more expensive.
What was The Grace Hopper Program application and interview process like for you?
There were three stages. First, I sent in an application, then the second stage was an online, 75-minute coding challenge on Hackerrank. I needed a bit of coding knowledge before applying. I still found it extremely hard – I think I passed half of it. The third stage of the application was a Skype and screenshare interview, which was also pretty hard. They asked me about Recursion, which I had never heard of. My interviewer explained recursion to me, and looked at how I could figure it out on the fly.
I had only been coding for a month when I started at Grace Hopper. The program starts with one month of remote classes plus homework, then I went to the campus for three months. I found the remote work very hard and intense. During the first days on campus, you have to pass an exam to make sure you are ready. But I was in over my head, and felt like I couldn’t swim. I didn’t pass the on-campus exam, so they asked me to defer to the next cohort. I studied for another 6 weeks, which turned out to be the best thing for me. When I came back to campus, I was much more prepared.
How many people were in your cohort? Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
It was very, very diverse. That was one of the coolest things about the Grace Hopper Program: meeting women from so many different backgrounds. There were about 18 people in my cohort, and ages ranged from 22 to late-30s. Many of my classmates had come from a different job and wanted to change careers. Others started Grace Hopper right after college, and one of my classmates had a computer science degree.
What was the learning experience like at The Grace Hopper Program?
The three-month, on-campus time was split into two, six-week sections, with one week in between for checkpoints and reviewing material. During the first section, we had class every day, with interactive, high quality lectures in the morning, and workshops and pair programming in the afternoons. In the second section, we got into the project phase, where we got split into teams, and worked on three different projects, including an individual project and our capstone project.
What was your favorite project that you built at Grace Hopper?
Definitely my capstone project: Brainlab.tech. That was an amazing experience – I was very happy with it. We took on a pretty big challenge, to build a neural network graphical user interface. It’s a user-friendly site, where users can create an account, and create a neural network using a data set. The website explains what neural networks are and shows you how you can add and remove inner layers and neurons, in a beautiful way. We got to learn some data visualization tools, and a Python neural network library that we hadn’t learned in the curriculum. We were lucky to have the CS graduate in our group, and we could not have done it without her because she had already worked with neural networks in the past.
It’s been exciting to talk to potential employers about that project. I think it’s very important to show that you put a lot of effort into your capstone and to be excited to talk about it.
How did The Grace Hopper Program prepare you for job hunting?
We had classes on writing resumes, general job-seeking information, and a LinkedIn workshop. We also had a hiring day event where The Grace Hopper Program invited the school’s partner companies, and we could meet them and show them our capstone projects. Once we graduated, the Grace Hopper team kept in touch with us very actively. We used Asana, a project management software, to track our job search, and they were very communicative and supportive. I always felt like I could call people from the careers team.
How did your job search go? What advice do you have for other bootcampers going through the job search?
If I could give advice to future students, I would say put a lot of effort into the hiring day event. I was living in some sort of dream world where I thought it would be super easy and fast to get a job, but that was just too optimistic. If I did it again, I would research the partner companies more, talk to more people, and try to present myself really well.
I knew I wasn’t a typical candidate, so I was very active and applied for so many jobs. I felt like a maniac. I applied for about 60 jobs in total, and interviewed with 12 companies. I definitely improved in every interview.
I didn’t apply for the Fellowship program at Grace Hopper, but I think it’s a really great option. In my case, I felt like I had to put more time into interview practice, and am older than many other applicants, so I wanted to find a job ASAP. But in hindsight, I think it could have been great for me. I think the Fellowship is a huge advantage and the students who do it usually get jobs very quickly.
Where are you working now? Tell us how you got the job!
I’m now a Software Engineer at Jet, and I work on the internal tooling team. At Jet, Category Managers use several tools to handle all the different categories on Jet.com, so we build, and work on the platform that they use. My team consists of two product managers, one UX designer, and 15 developers (5 new devs since I started, we’re growing very quickly!); I’m on the User Interface side of the team.
I contacted everyone I knew in the tech field. I knew two people who worked at Jet, and they both seemed to love working there, which was important to me. After I did the on-site interview at Jet, I became obsessed with getting that job. I was interviewing with another company at the same time, and both options would have been amazing. But Jet’s office was really beautiful and it’s a big company, yet still feels like a startup with great energy. Everyone I met seemed really smart and inspiring, and they were all so excited, passionate, energetic, and loved what they do. Those things made me feel like I really wanted that job.
There are lots of women at Jet, but only one other female developer on my team. To me, it’s not a huge deal, but I definitely think women in tech should stick together and support each other; that’s very important.
Do you think your previous background in marketing has been useful in your new job?
In terms of learning to code, not at all. I feel like I’m using a part of my brain that was asleep for decades. That’s been a really cool experience for me. However, my past background has made me a strong communicator, and I’ve taken that with me. During the Jet job interview, I asked my boss what the most and least important qualities they were looking for in a developer. He said the most important quality was curiosity and being able to dig deeper. He wasn’t looking for an applicant who was too introverted to communicate about problems. After being a manager and leading teams, communication is something I have a lot of experience with.
Did Grace Hopper teach you everything you need to be a developer, or have you had to learn a lot on the job?
There is so much new material to learn. When you haven’t worked for a tech company before, that’s the most overwhelming part. In terms of frameworks, I learned Angular 1 at The Grace Hopper Program. At Jet we use Angular 2, which is pretty different. I expect I’ll have to learn more languages in the future too, and am currently digging deeper into React.
When I started, Jet gave me instructions about everything that I needed to install on my computer. They also put all new hires through a couple of bootcamps. There was a two- to three-day front end bootcamp, and an F# bootcamp, which I was able to take too. Jet uses F# on the back end – I don’t work with that now, but it was still cool to learn.
I really love being a software developer. It’s amazing to be learning so much new every day. I’m sure the learning curve will become less steep over time, but in this industry there will always be more to learn. There are so many cool opportunities in tech – you can be creative, and have a sense of innovation and flexibility.
What’s been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to learn to code?
I had never felt Imposter Syndrome before this. I was used to being top of the class, and didn’t have to make much effort to get there. Changing careers into tech was hard on my ego; and I respect it so much because of that. The challenge is feeling like you’re stupid, you’re never going to learn, everybody is so much better than you, and having imposter syndrome.
It’s always going to be a process, and I’m still struggling a little bit with this, but I’m trying to tell myself that I want this challenge. I’m going to get better with time, and the more challenging it is, the more I’m growing and learning. That feeling has not gone away yet, but I’m better at dealing with it. Everyone is very supportive at my job and tells me that it’s a normal feeling.
How do you stay involved with Grace Hopper? Have you kept in touch with other alumni?
Grace Hopper and Fullstack host a lot of events and the alumni are all very involved. Our cohort was very tight, so we stay in touch and get together regularly. You definitely feel like you're a part of the alumni community, and can be more or less involved, depending on your preference. At the moment there are five Fullstack/Grace Hopper alumni at Jet, so that’s pretty awesome.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Honestly, if you can’t keep up at Grace Hopper, then you won’t graduate, which I think is a good thing. It gives me more respect for Grace Hopper, because they aren’t just pumping out students and taking their money. They actually care about their students’ reputations after the program.
A coding bootcamp is like drinking out of the firehose – you really have to take in all the information at once. That was very hard for me because I’m more of a thorough learner and I prefer to know everything in order to put the pieces together, but you just can’t expect that from a coding bootcamp.
If you enjoy the learning style at a coding bootcamp, you can keep up with the curriculum while working 15 hours per day like I was, and you still like it, then I think that’s a really good indicator that you will enjoy working in the tech field. Bootcamps are unique because they’re a few months long, not four years of your life. It’s a great way to see if programming is something you like. If you had told me, even two years ago, that I would be a software developer, I never would have believed you!