Marion “Mell” Lessington III was working at a local bank in Atlanta, but in his 30s, he began second-guessing his career path. When the pandemic struck, Mell used it as an opportunity to reskill by enrolling in the remote Software Engineering Immersive bootcamp at General Assembly. Mell shares how General Assembly ensured his success in his new tech career by helping him land an apprenticeship, which prepared him for his first engineering role at Vanguard. Find out Mel’s advice for others in their late 30s who are weighing a career change into tech through a coding bootcamp!
What inspired you to make a career change into software engineering?
My nephew was a senior in high school and I was helping him navigate his career path. In the process of asking him what he wanted to do with his life, it got me thinking about my own career and what I was doing. I did a Google search for “the most in-demand careers in the next five years,” and came across blockchain. I started digging deeper into that and realized that one of the required skill sets for working with blockchain was software engineering.
I had originally thought software engineering sounded too nerdy for me, and that I’d have to be smart with a degree to even get into it — I knew I didn’t want to go back to school as someone in my late 30s. So, I initially dismissed the idea of software engineering, but it wouldn't leave me! I started researching what it took to become a software engineer. I found out that a degree wasn’t necessary as long as I could become proficient in the skill set. That led me to helpful free resources like YouTube videos, freeCodeCamp, and CodeAcademy, but I knew I did not have the time, patience, or self-discipline to learn all of this on my own. When I get off work, I want to have a cocktail and go to bed!
I was searching for education in the shortest amount of time and coding bootcamps were the answer. The two that stood out to me were General Assembly and Flatiron School. Realizing they could be done in 12 weeks, I looked up salaries of software engineers and then I was really intrigued!
Why did you choose to enroll at General Assembly when the pandemic started in 2020?
As the pandemic led to quarantine which led to lots of time alone, I saw a news article about how bank CEOS were having meetings about “branch optimization.” I realized my job was potentially in jeopardy and finally allowed myself to revisit my ideas to make a career change. It was mid-March 2020, and I decided it was finally time to enroll at General Assembly.
Do you see software engineering as a recession-proof career?
Being a branch manager at a bank, I had access to certain points of data. During the pandemic, I saw our online banking numbers increase from 35% to 85%! I was working for a community bank where our demographic was older, so all the myths of our aging population not engaging with technology were debunked with that data. I saw just how recession-proof and pandemic-proof technology was. That was definitely a pivotal point for me when thinking about making this career change.
In your experience, did you feel like you had to know basic coding in order to apply to General Assembly?
I didn't feel like I needed to know coding to get in. General Assembly provided enough pre-work and resources to expose me to what I needed, and even after that, the instructors still introduced topics at the beginning of the bootcamp as though we were beginners.
Did you receive any scholarships or special financing from General Assembly?
General Assembly offered me deferred tuition. This meant I could start the bootcamp and not pay tuition until I got a job within a year of graduating.
Did you juggle this bootcamp while still working at the bank?
I took advantage of the benefits of my banking job — I saw a career coach and after speaking with them, I was able to take off eight weeks of paid leave to focus on the bootcamp without having to quit my job. I can guarantee that there are lots of people like me who are just exhausted with their job and do not realize how much their current role weighs on them.
What did you actually learn in General Assembly’s Software Engineering Bootcamp?
What was the community like at General Assembly?
I am still connected to my cohort and instructors! I made legit friendships and industry connections at the bootcamp, which are so valuable, especially when starting a whole new career. I text at least one or two of them every week.
What was your favorite project to work on in the bootcamp?
I created an app called The Liquor Cabinet. It was so appropriate during the pandemic because we couldn't go to bars or restaurants, but the liquor store was open. At the time I was converting an antique chest into a liquor cabinet at my house, and that gave me the idea to build something that would help me inventory what I had at home. My app was an inventory system and gave users the ability to create a wish list that could be shared with friends. When you go to different celebrations or house events with your closest friends, you could share wish lists and wouldn't have to guess about what they needed or what they wanted.
How did the bootcamp prepare you for the job hunt?
We each were assigned a career coach called an Outcomes Producer. I did not get a job until about six months after the bootcamp, which had everything to do with timing. When I graduated in August 2020, there was still a hiring freeze because people didn't know how the pandemic would pan out and companies were not hiring so close to holiday vacations.
Once companies opened up hiring again, I started getting all kinds of interviews! It didn't take me long to get a job after that. The entire time, my career coach from General Assembly was there, walking me through it, telling me what to do. I was getting really discouraged and she helped me every step of the way, providing support. It was really beneficial. I don't know if I could have done it without her help.
What tech roles did you feel qualified to apply for after graduating?
I was going for Junior Software Engineer, but I also did a Google search about titles that were comparable, so I also applied for roles, like: Junior Software Engineer, Software Engineer, Software Developer, Web Developer, and Application Engineer.
After General Assembly, you became a Fellow for WeUp’s “It’s All Good” Apprenticeship! How did you get this apprenticeship?
This has everything to do with the power of networking. I was on a General Assembly webinar about DEI that featured entrepreneur Ramona Wright. She was talking about WeUp’s “It’s All Good” Apprenticeship that she ran, and she was looking for software engineers, data scientists, and UX designers to help with an app prototype. I applied for the apprenticeship and got it specifically because I was a General Assembly grad! It was my first time working with a full team and it was a really good experience.
How long is the apprenticeship? Is it full-time?
It was a part-time apprenticeship for six months.
And now you’re an Application Engineer at Vanguard! Was Vanguard interested in your General Assembly bootcamp experience?
Landing this role at Vanguard is another testament to the power of networking! On social media, I kept in touch with a person I used to sing in choir with. I saw he was getting engaged so I replied with a congratulations. I had been sharing my career journey on all my socials and he replied with gratitude, adding that he’d been following my journey into tech. Turns out, he works in HR at Vanguard and was specifically tasked with locating talent that is not only ethnically diverse but also neurodiverse, so they were expanding their reach beyond colleges and universities and recruiting bootcamp grads! It was so empowering and validating to get a job because of my specific experience and because I graduated from a bootcamp.
Did you feel General Assembly prepared you well for the technical interview?
No college or coding bootcamp could ever totally prepare you for a technical interview — it’s something you have to put the work into. General Assembly does provide the resources for studying data structures and algorithms, but you have to practice in order to prepare.
At Vanguard, I didn’t have an intense tech interview or coding challenge because I was coming in as a bootcamp grad. But at this point in my career, I’m targeting a job with one of the FAANG companies and you have to know your data structures and algorithms, so I’m doing lots of practice work again.
When you started at Vanguard, did you feel like you benefited from doing an apprenticeship before your official engineering job?
The apprenticeship helped me get the feel of how to work on an Agile team. Along with the online bootcamp, it also prepared me to work with a team remotely.
What team do you work on at Vanguard and what kinds of projects are you working on?
I work on an engineering team that supports our Marketing Division. We own the part of Vanguard’s web application that handles the fund literature and marketing that financial advisors give to their clients.
Are you using what you learned at General Assembly on the job today?
Does your former banking career help you now on the job as a software engineer at a financial institution?
My banking experience helps me understand the regulatory parts that Vanguard has to go through as a financial institution. I have an in-depth understanding of why we have to code certain information in certain ways, for various security purposes. That is one of the things that I bring to the team that no other team member can.
At this point in your career, was General Assembly worth it for you from a salary and/or quality of life perspective?
I would not have done it any other way. I didn’t get my first job in tech until I was 39, but I'm making more money now than I ever have! When I was negotiating my starting salary with Vanguard, the floor was the ceiling that still would’ve taken me another five years to reach at the bank.
What was your biggest challenge in making this career change?
There were many, but my biggest challenge was believing in myself that I could do it and believing that this really could happen.
Transitioning into software engineering is really different from other career types: For most careers, it's about what you know. In software engineering, it's more about what you don't know. It's about being curious about that and using tools and methods to fuel that curiosity. You're learning how to learn all over again, but it doesn’t stop — it becomes constant.
Once I shifted my mindset to be comfortable with not knowing and using the not knowing to my advantage, things became easier. Once I got over my own mindset, it was easy.
Since you were in your late 30s when you made a career change, did you experience any ageism when you were applying for jobs?
Not at all. I am pretty youthful-looking, but honestly, it has been beautiful transitioning into tech because there are so many younger people which makes it revitalizing! You're only as old as you think you are — Age is a construct.
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