Emma’s love for linguistics and solving puzzles led her to The Software Guild in Minneapolis. Her background in analyzing language processing tasks using a program written in Python got her curious about learning code. A former member of the Conservation Corp and former English teacher in South Korea, see how this programmer utilized her past skills to transform her career and land a junior developer role at Best Buy!
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What were you doing before Software Guild?
I was kind of a free spirit before enrolling in the Software Guild. I grew up in the Twin Cities area, moved away for college at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. I majored in Classics and Psychology. Because I was studying Greek, Latin, and Psychology, my path was to go to graduate school, and I wasn't ready to do that. I came back home to Minnesota after college and, like everyone else who graduated during the recession, ended up taking an office job, which I really hated.
So I quit, and ended up doing a lot of different things for awhile; mostly to try something new and challenging. I joined the Minnesota Conservation Corps, taught English in South Korea, and worked in a school as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow. As a Promise Fellow, my job was providing additional support to students who were struggling and tracking that data to figure out what interventions were successful. I found that I liked analyzing the data more than doing the actual interventions.
Did that data analytics work inspire you to learn to code?
I found the website Quora and started reading about ways to become a data scientist, and ended up taking an R programming course on Coursera. I found both really interesting and really difficult. Around this time, through a family friend, I got a part-time internship at Pearson Vue working on a natural language processing task.
Did your background in Classic languages prepare you for that internship with Natural Language Processing?
For me, what I was most passionate about in college was studying linguistics and understanding how people understand language. In the internship I acted like the business analyst, so I helped to propose the model that we wanted to analyze with my experience in linguistics. Then I worked with a researcher who wrote a program in Python to analyze data using those requirements. After doing this I saw the power of programming, and knew I wanted to learn how to do that.
How were you introduced to Software Guild?
I had started looking at Python coding bootcamps, but I would have had to move to San Francisco, which was really expensive. I was researching bootcamps in general, and I heard about the Software Guild from some other people I served with as an Americorps Promise Fellow. Actually, in my cohort of ~200 Fellows, there were two people who had already found Software Guild. They were going to enroll in the Software Guild after graduating, and it matched my own ideas about what I should do with my future.
What were some of the other factors that you were specifically looking for when you were researching these bootcamps?
I knew I didn’t really want to go the Microsoft route, Java was more appealing and I actually had taken a Java class in college, although it didn’t really click with me then. Also something that appealed to me about the Java track at the Software Guild is that you use a Linux machine. I was excited about learning Linux a little bit more and diving into another totally new thing. Getting outside of my comfort zone is a big theme my life.
Did you think about doing a CS degree?
I had looked into getting another four-year degree either in computer science, math or statistics. But then I thought about it, already I have two undergraduate degrees and I don’t really use either. Why should I get another one and maybe not use it? It's a lot of time and money. Going back to traditional school didn't seem like a good fit. Especially after finding the Software Guild which wasn't a crazy time or cash commitment. And at that time they had a partnership with Concordia and there was also an opportunity to transition into a four-year computer degree at the end of my bootcamp if I wanted to.
How did you finance your tuition at Software Guild?
I had some AmeriCorps education award money built up (If you serve one year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, you get around $5,500 to use towards education), so I used that to pay for the boot camp. Since Software Guild was affiliated with Concordia University, they were able to accept that.
What did you actually learn at Software Guild? Tell us about the teaching style.
One of the huge benefits to me about attending a boot camp is the accountability that you have by being present in the classroom. I don't think you're learning anything you couldn't pick up on your own through online courses, but working in the classroom, we did a lot of teamwork and pair programming. It was beneficial to growing as developer because tech is a collaborative field. I really appreciated that.
The Software Guild is a 12-week course. You spend the first half of your time learning your core language fundamentals. For me, it was six weeks of straight up Java; no graphics, no UI, no frontend. That was a really good grounding in logic and computer science. After the first six weeks, you move on to making full-stack applications. You learn how to use a database, how to develop the front end website, and how to develop the Java program that ties it all up together.
When you worked through certain challenges, did you have enough support from your peers or instructors?
I was super lucky that my cohort was an amazing group of motivated people. Everyone struggled, it’s a lot of information to absorb in a short time. But I believe that the outcome that you have in a bootcamp depends on the amount of effort you put into it, and how willing are you to ask for help. I noticed in my peer group, the people who didn't fight for their own education weren’t as successful. Parts of it, especially because we were the first Java cohort in Minneapolis, were frustrating at times. But I think it worked out in the end.
Was there a favorite project that you worked on at Software Guild?
During the last two weeks, we separated into groups of three or four to make a capstone project. I really liked the capstone project that we did because we tried to simulate a real world problem. There were four people in our group, and we worked like a little agile development team; with our instructor as our client. We had to ask questions about their requirements, and collaborate as a team to get it done. It was fun because it wasn't structured, so it was whatever we wanted to make of it.
What was your job search like after graduating? How did Software Guild help in that search?
It was stressful. I invested $10,000 and I knew there wasn’t a job guarantee. Software Guild alumni are lucky because a huge benefit of attending that bootcamp is the employer network. Although since we were the first Java cohort, there wasn’t a ton of history with new employers who were looking for people with Java experience.
I really got pretty lucky. Best Buy is headquartered in the Twin Cities, and they heard about The Software Guild, and were interested in the bootcamp model. Our entire class did a 15 minute interviews with some Best Buy staff, then the staff invited a few people for second round interviews, and I was one of them. Best Buy created two new positions for our cohort.
Wow, that's great. Were those interviews hard?
They were more like behavioral interviews and personality fit, focusing on soft skills. There were some technical questions. I didn't know what to expect and neither did they, so we were both feeling each other out. I know not everybody who goes into software development wants to work in a corporate setting, and Best Buy is a little corporate, so I wanted to ensure it would work for me. After the interview they ended up offering me one of the positions.
Describe your current position at Best Buy!
I have been with Best Buy for about seven months. The team that I am on is the Search Product team, which means we power the search bar- it’s actually very exciting. Because it was an experimental position, my position was a contract to hire position as a trial test. After about six months, just recently actually , I got converted to a full time employee.
Tell me about your day-to-day as a developer. Are you using the skills you learned at Software Guild?
Definitely. My job is more complicated than what we learned at Software Guild, but it's the same structure. We were using Spring MVC at Software Guild, and we use Spring MVC at Best Buy. It’s a way more complicated Spring MVC. Additionally, at my job we use an Oracle database which is similar to but way more complicated than database we used at the Software Guild. But in the end making a table is making a table. It’s the same stuff, just different complexity levels.
I’ve been comparing the two experiences as I’ve worked at Best Buy. The first six weeks of boot camp was Java. When we moved on to learning web applications, it was like the world opened up. There was so much to learn. But we got used to it. It’s the same experience when you start your first job. You feel like, "Oh my gosh. There is so much to learn. I'll never figure it out." But you will. If you can make the first hurdle, you can make the second hurdle, and you can make the next hurdle. It's just about learning and experience.
What was the ramp up period like at your current position?
There was a lot of pair programming and shadowing people, which was helpful because we use a pretty complicated tech stack. It took a full day to set up all the applications that we used on my laptop. We are an agile team so every week we do a planning meeting about what stories are on deck and how many points they will take to get done. Everybody has a point capacity and they get assigned stories based on that capacity. For the first couple of meetings I had a smaller capacity, which meant I would do like three points each week, while everybody else would do eight. As time went on, I was assigned more responsibility. It was the same process as other new hires on our team go through.
Describe your current development team at Best Buy. Do you have a lot of support?
We have about eight developers and about eight business people. Out of the business people there’s about half women, but I am the only female developer. Everyone is extremely supportive, and our team is awesome. We are pretty conscious about creating a culture of collaboration and mentorship.
What was your experience as a female developer at Software Guild? Any advice for other women interested in coding?
I was really lucky in the boot camp because there were four women in our cohort, which was about a third of my classmates. And they were trying to increase those numbers. Actually, the only people that I still talk to from Software Guild are other women. They are some of my closest friends.
I think the bootcamp was pretty egalitarian because everyone started the class saying the same thing: "I don't know anything." You realize that it’s important to just pair up and attack the problem. I think for women, you have to be very assertive, especially in a field where you are the only woman in the room. Sometimes, men and women don’t speak the same language, and you just have to figure it out; which is sometimes hard and terrible, but it's worth it in the end.
How is your experience as a female developer now that you are in the work force?
I think it's hard to say if being a woman in the tech industry has really changed my experience. My personality has changed; I’ve grown as a person, and become more assertive than when I first graduated college, and that has shaped my experience. Before Software Guild, I worked in the natural resource field, which is also extremely male-dominated, so I learned some of those skills earlier. Now, I'm on a team that's really amazing, and my supervisors are already empowering. I don't feel like I'm treated any differently.
Do you have advice for prospective students thinking about making that career change into technology and coding?
It's been the best choice I've ever made. I was a volunteer before this job, so by moving into this career, my salary multiplied by six! It’s a crazy jump when you think about it in a purely financial way, but you shouldn't just change careers for the financial reasons. You should get into tech because it's something that speaks to you.
My advice is to take an online course and to figure out if you must have the personal drive and interest to learn coding on your own. It's definitely not a field where people give you all the answers. You have to fight to teach yourself a lot of information. In general, I’d say if you are the kind of person who really likes solving puzzles or if you’ve ever been obsessed with Sudoku, then you probably will fit in the technology world. It's not necessarily about how intelligent you are or how “book smart” you are. It's about having drive and liking solving things.