startup-institute-alumni-spotlight-christina-dastolfo

During her internship, Christina was asked to build a custom website in two weeks. She had never coded before, but rose to the challenge (with the help of Redbull) and says, “It was the most fun I’ve ever had.” Even after starting her nonprofit role, Christina couldn’t get web development off her mind, so she left her job and enrolled in Startup Institute’s Web Development program in Boston. Christina tells us what stood out about Startup Institute’s job support program, why she appreciated the adjunct instructor model, and all about her new job programming interactive videos at HapYak!

Q&A

What is your pre-bootcamp story? Your educational background? Your last career path?

Before Startup Institute, I finished my masters in public administration. During my masters I did an internship, where my boss asked me to build an entirely custom Wordpress website in two weeks, with all of his branding. I had never done that before, but it didn’t occur to me to say “I don’t know how to do that,” so I drank a case of Redbull and taught myself to do it. And it was done when he got back. It was super stressful, I didn’t sleep a lot, but it was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had. From there, while I was finishing my masters, I did some consulting jobs, and even wrote a front end curriculum in conjunction with Google for use in NYC middle schools.

After my masters, I was a Program Coordinator at a small educational nonprofit in Boston. I was also their unofficial IT person, and still doing web stuff on the side. I loved the organization and loved my coworkers, but I wanted something more challenging, with more room for rapid growth. I realized I needed to do web development full time, because it was something I just loved doing.

When you were teaching yourself to build that website, what resources did you use?

I used a lot of Treehouse, Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera, Stack Overflow, and then I read documentation. So if I was using a framework like Ember JS, or Angular, I would read the documentation for that while I was diving in.

What made you choose Startup Institute? Did you research other coding bootcamps?

I looked at the three in Boston: Startup Institute, Launch Academy, and General Assembly. Startup Institute stood out because they had their core curriculum – web development –but they also placed an emphasis on building a network, and figuring out what students wanted from a job. That was really important to me because so much of getting a job that you like, where you fit in, the culture suits you, and you have fun going to work, is who you know.

I took a Fundamentals class in Ruby on Rails at Startup Institute, to make sure this was something I had a facility for and liked doing. I loved it of course, and it reaffirmed my impression that Startup Institute was a network of incredibly supportive, really nice, fun people.

Was it important for you to learn a specific programming language or stack?

I was open to learning anything, because I didn’t really know what type of job I wanted, so it was difficult to pick a language that I wanted to dive into first. I researched what languages are good for total beginners who have no background or foundation in computer science at all. So I knew I didn’t want to start with C. But other than that I was open.

Did you think about doing a 4-year CS degree?

No, because financially that wasn’t an option. Also I felt like I wanted to give coding a try first. When I was teaching myself online, one of the reasons I decided to go from online to a bootcamp education is that I wanted that in-person, collaborative, work environment that you don’t get in online courses. I wanted a network, I wanted somebody to review my work and my code and look at this and say, “It worked, but there is a more elegant solution.” So I felt like that was missing. I also didn’t have time or money to go back to college.

How did you pay for the Startup Institute tuition? Any tips?

I took out a loan. Startup Institute partners with Earnest. Their interest rate was pretty good and it was really easy to apply for. I filled in the application, and they got back to me a day and a half later.

What was the Startup Institute application and interview process like for you?

First there was an online application where they gauged your interest in different courses and asked you a couple of questions. That was followed by two in-person interviews, to gauge the cultural fit. To go to a coding bootcamp, you have to be the type of person who is very ambitious, and a self starter, so those in person interviews were meant to find that out.

Then we were given a technical homework assignment. I had to build an application that hit Twilio's API endpoint, and if you put in your phone number it would send back a text message. There was a final in-person interview with the director of your program, then you got your decision.

How many people were in your cohort? Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?

My cohort (Summer 2016) was 36 to 38 people, and generally we were very diverse in terms of age, and gender. Startup Institute is pretty great because of their commitment to diversity. They talk about it a lot, and in their info sessions it’s a question that almost always gets asked. People can say that diversity in tech is “not a problem”, but it clearly is.

So Startup Institute is always asking, “Are we doing the best we can to create a diverse community?” When you go to Startup Institute events and you’re in the class itself you definitely see that. The Web Development track of the cohort was half men and half women, and the Design track was also almost half and half.

What was the learning experience like at Startup Institute?

A typical day starts with catching up on emails until our daily standup. We stood in a circle and talked about what we were working on, challenges, and blockers. Then, the day was divided into cohort sessions, so I was with the Web Development students. After standup we’d have a fireside chat where a CEO of a company would talk to us and answer questions. Then we’d have our in-track session, with a different instructor every day. That is something different from other bootcamps – we had different instructors for every in-track session. I really liked that because I got to meet and talk to a lot of different people, but it’s maybe not for everyone.

After in-track sessions we’d come back together as a big group, to talk about something like how to brush up your resume, and how to tell your story in interviews. Then in the evening, we would either have another fireside chat, partner fairs, or practice interview sessions.

With your background in education and curriculum development, did Startup Institute’s teaching style impress you?

I liked it. I think a lot of educational experiences are very big on lecture, and light on actually doing things. Startup Institute was very practically oriented. We had our in-track sessions and there would be a powerpoint presentation, but we’d get through that quickly to start building products.

In general, it’s difficult for me to compare the two teaching styles because in college, there is a very long learning period, and then you hope that you’ve been prepared enough for the real world. But with bootcamps and programming in general, tech changes so quickly that you’re never going to feel fully prepared or know everything. And you probably shouldn’t, because what you’ve learned could be obsolete or totally different in a year, and you have to update your base of knowledge. So really the best way to learn is to go and do it and debug as you go. Startup Institute was the kind of experience where they throw you in head first.

What is your favorite project that you built at Startup Institute?

I had a couple of side projects I worked on while I was at Startup Institute, and one of them was a social network application in Ruby on Rails, called Otterbook. It’s the silliest thing- Facebook except everything is about otters. You create a profile, you pick your otter avatar, you have otter face emojis, and every time you login there is a fun fact about otters.

It was something I really enjoyed working on so it motivated me to program and push stuff to Github every day, so I had activity on my Github profile. For developers, your resume should be strong, but your Github is way more important. Since I didn’t have a lot of experience I had to make sure I really built up my portfolio. I worked on Otterbook in my own time. At Startup Institute, we build a reservation application like Open Table, where users could put in restaurants, map them, and make reservations.

My friends and I also built a blackjack game, which was really fun. I also made a Ruby Gem called “Which Cheese” which will randomly pair a cheese with an alcoholic beverage.

How did the bootcamp prepare you for job hunting?

Startup Institute was great at this. The best thing they did was network us very heavily. There were a ton of networking events and partner fairs where they invited tech employers from the community. I would hit it off with somebody at an interesting company, then get introduced to the hiring person by Startup Institute. I don’t think I applied for a single job in the traditional way, it was all via email intros, having coffee, and meeting people. That was fantastic. Other times I’d find a company I liked, and someone at Startup Institute would know someone and introduce me over email.

The most important thing Startup Institute does is teach you how to craft your story. They encouraged you to research a company to figure out how best to present your experience, and what you could bring to that company specifically. It can be hard when you’re coming in with no computer science experience, to ask an employer to hire you. It can be challenging or intimidating to figure out the best way to present your background, and Startup Institute is very deliberate about helping all of us craft that story for ourselves.

They also prepared us by making sure we applied for jobs that were right for us. They talked about three important things when you’re looking for a role – company culture, the functional role, and the industry. They told us to pick two out of three that were most important. So I decided I didn’t really mind what industry I was in, but culture and functional role were pretty important. That helped me narrow down my job search when I was figuring out who to talk to.

Congrats on your job at HapYak! What is HapYak?

HapYak is awesome. We are a SaaS company, with 10 people. We have an interactive video platform, where users can make interactive videos, hosted on any number of online video players. You can add chapters, quizzes, branching points, choose your own adventure, clickable hotlinks, or a shopping cart, to a video, and users can buy products from a video. There is a ton of functionality included with the platform.

One of the coolest things we do is we enable users to add annotations and clickable items to 360 videos. We’ve created a safety demo where you’re in a warehouse on your phone, and it says find the safety violations, and you literally circle around this video on your phone, and have to search for them. It’s super fun, like a game!

What is your role at HapYak?

My role is a Sales Engineer, so my time is split between talking to customers and creating demos for clients. If a client wants to buy our platform, but is not sure if it will do what they need, then I create a demo. For example we had a client who wanted the products in a video to have clickable hotspots, so that when you click on them, they would go into a shopping cart on the screen. So I created a demo that had all those different elements in it.

The other part of what I do is development, so creating and coding new features, and fixing bugs. My big project right now is working on our e-commerce widget. I’m doing testing to make sure it works on every browser, and on phones.

How did you find the job and what sort of interview process did you go through?

HapYak is one of Startup Institute’s partner companies. They came to a couple of partner fairs where we asked questions about the company and what they were looking for in terms of hiring. I really liked them as people.

At the end of Startup Institute, one of my favorite things to learn was API integration – figuring out how to communicate with different end points. So I knew I wanted to work with APIs at work. At the Startup Institute Talent Expo, where we all present 60-second pitches to potential employers, Hapyak came up to me and said, “So you like APIs,” and I said “Yeah I do!” and they said, “Do you want to work for us??” A lot of what we do at Hapyak is integrating our product with so many different video players. I had a phone screening with someone at HapYak who had been a sales engineer, I sent them my Github, then they had me create a project using the HapYak platform. I had an interview with the founder and I was hired.

Are you using the programming language that you learned at Startup Institute in your job at HapYak?

Not at all! On the front end we are using EmberJS, which I had never programmed in before. Our back end is Python, which I had also never programmed in, so that has been such a learning experience, but has been really fun. I have no background in this, but I can apply concepts I’ve learned in other languages at Startup Institute and I’ll figure it out.

You chose to work for a smaller startup – did HapYak give you onboarding or mentoring?

They are so small, there wasn’t really the capacity, but I feel like my workload was reflective of the fact I was very new. When I first started I was making very simple demos, doing a bit of custom CSS, HTML- no heavy stuff. For my first couple of weeks, I was mostly making demos, I wasn’t touching the code base at all, or I was looking at other people’s pull requests, to observe how it’s done.

Then I started getting tickets that were more involved. It wasn’t a gradual slope, there were moments when they said, “We need you to do something you’ve never done,” but that’s startup life! It was something I very much expected, and Startup Institute did prepare me for that. They told us that if you need hand holding, an early stage startup is not a great environment for you. I like being thrown in and asked to solve a puzzle I’ve never seen or done before.

How has your previous background been useful in your new job?

My new job is very different from my previous career. I still feel my background in education has been helpful because I’m very methodical about teaching myself things. From the start, if I was given a bug to fix, I could quickly figure out the problem, because I had a very methodical approach to debugging in the browser. I would see what and where the error was and put a breakpoint in that line – that was because I had written curriculum for middle schoolers telling them to do the exact same thing. That was helpful knowing that even if something seemed overwhelming, I needed to approach it very methodically, step by step.

How do you stay involved with Startup Institute? Have you kept in touch with alumni?

We have a Slack channel that is constantly active and we text each other all the time. Startup Institute has a very strong alumni network – once you’ve drunk the kool-aid you are in it for life. I’ve been asked to speak on a couple of different panels at Startup Institute, and a lot of instructors that come back are former students. There are also three other people besides me at HapYak from Startup Institute, and then one from Launch Academy.

What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?

Do your research, and try a couple of courses online. Coding is really hard, and I am still doing a lot of learning at my job – I take work home with me every day, because it has to get done so I’ve got to figure out how to do it. So don’t go to a bootcamp because you want to be in a job that makes a lot of money, or you want to be in the tech field. Go to a coding bootcamp because you’ve tried to code, you really love it, and find it interesting. If you’ve tried Treehouse or Khan Academy and find it really fun, then check out a coding bootcamp and see if it’s the thing for you.

Then just keep learning, increasing your skills, read books, talk to people. Before I went to a bootcamp, I contacted a bunch of different alumni from Startup Institute, and asked them to tell me about it, from an honest perspective. That was very helpful, so I advise people to do the same if they can. I’m so happy to talk to anybody who wants to talk about Startup Institute, so feel free to get in touch!

Find out more and read Startup Institute reviews on Course Report. To learn more about Startup Institute’s web development course, download a free syllabus.

About The Author

Imogen crispe headshot

Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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