Jenny Pletner worked as a program manager in the tech industry and even managed teams of developers, but she always wanted to work on the software development side of the industry. See why Jenny decided to learn to code in San Diego at LEARN Academy, how she’s navigating the career change as a woman in tech, and how she landed her job at Parallel 6 through an internship during LEARN!
What was your educational background and your last career path before you decided to work in software development?
I graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Management Science and I worked as a program manager for about 15 years. The last gig that I had before LEARN was managing a team of Integrated Master Schedulers for SPAWAR 6.0. Prior to that, I managed a software development team for several years.
When did you decide that you wanted to transition from management to being a hands-on software developer?
I was always interested in math and software development, but something held me back from pursuing it. I actually started college as a math major and then switched to a degree that offered a combination of business, economics, statistics and corporate finance. Back then, there wasn't much encouragement for women to learn to code like there is now so I chose the career I thought would give me the most stability instead of pursuing my passion. Hindsight is 20/20, but in the same token, maybe I wouldn’t appreciate what I have now if I had taken that route. With my past experience, I know how good it is to be doing what I love.
I loved the people I worked with, and I was lucky enough to have amazing bosses, but something about my job was just never challenging enough. I really admired the developers I worked with and envied their ability to create tools that directly enhance people's productivity and quality of life. I really enjoyed introducing efficiencies by creating automated Excel forms and MS Project Schedules but it just never seemed to be enough. I was hungry for more knowledge.
You have a unique perspective, with a background in managing developers. How’s that shift in perspective?
It's nice to have that background because I know what my bosses are looking for and I understand their unique perspective. Though now that I’m a developer, I see another side and it’s definitely been eye opening. As a manager and a scheduler, I didn’t really understand how difficult it is to estimate how long a project is going to take, but because of my past experience, I am able to understand why those estimates are so important.
As a program manager, did you learn or teach yourself any programming?
I definitely did some self-teaching, but I treated it more like a hobby and something I thought was fun. I never really thought that after 15 years, when I was in the prime earning potential of my career, I would throw it all away and go back to be a junior-level employee! I wouldn’t have believed that I would have the guts to do that, but my husband saw how much I enjoyed programming and encouraged me to pursue it. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have found my way to LEARN.
Were you considering other coding bootcamps in San Diego? What stood out about LEARN Academy?
I looked at a lot of options: online bootcamps, community colleges, going back to get my master’s degree, and even extension programs at UC San Diego. Meeting with Chelsea and Rob, the founders of LEARN Academy sealed the deal for me. You could tell they really cared about what they were building. They are passionate about nurturing the growing tech scene in San Diego and truly want their students to succeed. You're not just a dollar sign to them, I could feel that, and wanted to be a part of it. Choosing LEARN Academy was the best decision I ever made.
What was most important to you when choosing a coding bootcamp: programming languages taught, location, price range?
I definitely wanted to stay in San Diego since my family is here. The price range seemed reasonable for three months of all-day schooling, and then a one-month internship– which was invaluable.
Could you tell me about the LEARN Academy application and interview process?
They had an online application with essay questions and a coding test. The coding test was great because it gave me a taste of what I’d be learning. I found it pretty reasonable, so that was exciting to me.
After that, I heard back from them a week or two later to schedule an interview. In the interview, it seems like they are assessing your willingness and desire to learn. They can teach anyone as long as you're willing to do the work. I definitely was and still am now. The learning really never stops. Shortly after the interview, I was accepted into the program and the rest is history!
Can you tell me a little bit about your cohort? Was it diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
Yes, yes, and yes. I think I had the best cohort. We had one of the largest classes with about 22 students and about 30% were women. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to dedicate 4 months, full-time to pursuing my passion. Those were some of the best 4 months of my life. I really had an amazing experience. The people that were in my class all came from different backgrounds and different levels of experience but shared the same passion and gratitude for being there. It was a bonding experience that I’ll never forget. A lot of us became friends who I still talk to on a daily basis.
I didn't expect to get that out of a coding bootcamp– a big support system to help each other if we have problems. We all stay in touch on Slack, and we help each other with daily work issues and personal projects. It's been really nice to be a part of such a supportive network of bright people.
How has it felt transitioning into the tech industry as a woman?
Well, I am the only female developer on my current team but it hasn’t really bothered me. The team of guys I work with is supportive, collaborative and extremely smart. They’ve been great mentors so it really hasn’t mattered much. The team of .Net developers that I used to manage were all women oddly enough. I see the ratio of women growing in tech so hopefully some day we’ll have better representation.
In class at LEARN, the women banded together. We try to get together regularly and created our own Slack channel to stay in touch. Some of us are even planning to go to a Rails or Ruby conference together this year.
Did the teaching style at LEARN Academy work with your learning style?
LEARN prioritizes teaching students how to collaborate and how to learn. Typically, our teacher started the day with a demonstration and a discussion period. Then we would go back to our desks and pair program.
LEARN Academy’s whole goal is not to have you memorize a bunch of syntax. Instead, they want to teach you how to learn and how to solve your own blockers. The project-based learning made it so much more interesting than a lecture type setting. It was fun to be hands on and I really enjoyed it.
LEARN had a couple of TA's and a teacher or two walking around at all times. They were always there to support you, but they didn't spoon feed you the answers. So if you asked a question, they would guide you to reach the answer on your own. Their goal was to prepare you for real world experience. Now that I've been working for a year, I'm grateful for their approach because it set me up for success in my current position.
The internship is a unique part of LEARN Academy- how was the intern selection process?
It was a really interesting process, and LEARN Academy put in a lot of work to make it successful. The intern companies came in and presented to the whole class. Then we put a list together of our top rated intern companies that we wanted to interview with. I wanted the interview practice, so I interviewed with about five companies. When I was done interviewing, I made a list of my final selections and the internship company made a list of their top students that they wanted. LEARN looks at you and the company’s preferences and matches you up.
What were you looking for in an internship?
Tell us about Parallel 6- what was your first internship like?
Parallel 6 has a platform that is primarily focused on patient enrollment, engagement, and management of clinical trials through websites and mobile applications. For the internship, myself and one other student from Learn were in charge of planning and executing the upgrade of their Rails platform from version 3 to 4.2. It was a big project for us and we were completely and totally overwhelmed at times, but it was a great experience, and we learned so much more than you can ever learn in class. Plus, I ended up getting hired and am still here a year later!
How did the LEARN Academy team support you throughout the internship?
The LEARN team was available to us via Slack, ScreenHero or by phone throughout the experience. My partner and I did use our LEARN phone a friend lifeline a few times!
Did you have to learn anything new during your internship that you didn't learn at LEARN Academy?
We were upgrading the Parallel 6 platform from Rails 3 to Rails 4.2, and that's a huge jump. It was a pretty large, complex platform, and there were over 2,000 RSpec tests at the time. Once we got the platform up and running after making several changes to the configuration, syntax and various gems, several of the tests were still failing. To get the tests passing again, we had to refactor a lot of code and replace unsupported gems as needed. It was a really good way for us to get familiar with the P6 platform since we touched so many aspects of it.
Congrats on being hired on full-time after your internship! How was your transition from an intern to full-time employee?
I feel really lucky because I get to work with a great team that is invested in my growth. Someone on our team is always available to answer questions or work through an issue with me, though I try not to take up too much of their time. It's been challenging but fun and I absolutely love what I do every day.
I feel like I have so much more to learn, but when I look back over the past year, it’s hard to believe how far I've come. I can't imagine how much more I’ll know a year from now. My biggest challenge is being patient. I want to know everything I need to know immediately, but I’m learning to accept that it takes time. I work hard on adding to my skill set by reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and doing tutorials on new languages. As a developer, you can’t ever stop growing. Even the mid and senior level developers are constantly teaching themselves new things– it’s just part of the job.
How well did LEARN Academy prepare you for your role at Parallel 6?
I didn't learn everything I needed to know at LEARN Academy because it's impossible for them to teach you everything in three months, but I definitely learned how to find the answers to my questions. Also, Parallel 6 is using Angular as a front-end framework, and we didn't learn Angular at LEARN, so I've had to learn that myself. LEARN gives you the confidence to be able to teach yourself new languages. Every day I'm learning something new- a new syntax, a new design pattern, etc.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about making this career change and attending a coding bootcamp?
My advice would be to think about the “why.” I think a lot of people may hear that programming is a lucrative career, but if that is your only motivation, then it may not be the career for you. Programming isn’t for everybody. This is just my opinion, but writing code has to be something that you at least like, or even love.
The great thing about this field is that there are a lot of online intro courses that you can take to see how you feel about it. It's definitely a unique thing to do all day- sit in front of your computer and code. Personally, I think it's the greatest use of my time. I absolutely love it. Even though sometimes it can be frustrating and challenging, I still wouldn't want to be doing anything else. If you enjoy it, you absolutely have to pursue it.
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