Starting college right after the recession, Jisoo chose accounting as a safe and stable career path, even though she originally wanted to study engineering. After working for two years at a big accounting firm, Jisoo realized she had to go back to her original passion and started teaching herself to code. A friend recommended coding bootcamps, so she enrolled at Grace Hopper Academy in NYC and never looked back! Jisoo tells us why she felt more confident in an all-women’s learning environment, all about her Grace Hopper Academy capstone project, and how she landed her new developer role at Stack Overflow!
What is your pre-Grace Hopper Academy story? What’s your educational and career background?
I went to the University of Southern California. When I was applying to colleges, I applied to be an engineering major, but in my first few weeks at USC, I quickly changed my major to accounting. Coming on campus, I got really nervous and overwhelmed, and thought I wouldn't do well in a major dominated by men. Also, financial security was important to me because we had just come out of the recession. I grew up in a financially unstable household, so I really wanted to graduate with a degree that would give me long term job security. I had heard accounting was a really good and stable career path.
In college, I did well in my accounting classes, so I thought this was the right career path for me. In my junior year, I got an internship with Deloitte. After graduation, I joined them full-time in New York and was there for about two years.
What made you decide to change careers?
When I started full-time at Deloitte, I realized I was missing a passion and curiosity for what I was doing. I had a steady career path and income, and I was proud of being a CPA, but there was nothing internally motivating me to go above and beyond, or to think outside the box. I did a bit of soul searching and realized I applied for engineering majors in the first place because I loved math. So on the side, I decided to teach myself how to code. The more I taught myself, the more I realized I was in the completely wrong profession, and I wanted to change my career.
How much did you teach yourself before deciding to attend a bootcamp? What made you realize you needed to go to a bootcamp?
I did a couple of free courses online. I started with Codecademy, and then I took some online courses from different universities like Rice University and Stanford through Coursera and other free online resources. I found myself overwhelmed with how much information there was because I didn't know where to start. I didn't know which programming language I should teach myself, or if I should go into web or mobile. I then talked to a friend who was already in the field and had a CS degree. He told me about a few of his friends who went to coding bootcamps, and how they were really successful. So he recommended I take that path as well.
It took me a while to actually apply to bootcamps. I was thinking about it for about a year and a half, because I didn't know if it was feasible for me. It's really expensive- about $15,000 or $16,000, and I didn't know if I would be successful. Yet, when I came across Grace Hopper Academy, a bootcamp that defers your tuition and is only for women, I immediately knew it was a perfect fit for me.
Did you look at any other bootcamps before you decided on Grace Hopper Academy?
Yeah, I looked on Course Report and Quora. There were a couple of bootcamps that I really wanted to go to, but they were too expensive. I was actually leaning towards App Academy since it had deferred tuition, but I guess Google and Facebook knew I was looking at bootcamps, so they recommended Grace Hopper Academy. I researched it, and thought "Wow, even though I'd be the first cohort, I think this is a really good opportunity." Grace Hopper Academy seemed really awesome and I knew about Fullstack, so I thought it'd be a really good fit.
When you were looking at bootcamps, were you looking for any coding language or technology that you specifically wanted to learn?
Grace Hopper Academy is an all women’s bootcamp – how much of a factor was that in your decision making?
When I was applying to bootcamps, it didn't occur to me that there was something like an all-women’s bootcamp. I thought I would just go to a co-ed one, and be fine with that. But once I saw there was an all-women’s bootcamp, I felt like I would be a lot more comfortable in speaking up. I'm a really shy and introverted person, but when I'm around all women, I feel a little bit more confident, so it did play a pretty big part.
Did you think about going back to college to study coding or computer science?
Yeah, I mentioned that to my mom initially before I found out about bootcamps, but I didn’t think it was worth paying another college tuition and spending another couple years in school.
What was the Grace Hopper Academy application and interview process like?
There was a written portion where you describe why you're interested in coding and how much experience you have. Then you do a Hackerrank assessment with five algorithm problems. They were pretty hard. I don't think I finished. I did two and a half questions, but they still gave me a live interview for the third round. My interview was with my instructor and he was really awesome.
Our interview was supposed to be an hour long, but he extended it to an hour and a half to teach me the concept that I was struggling with. At the end, he also gave me a bonus question, "If you want, you can try solving this on your own and email me with your solution." I did that, and I was completely wrong, but he emailed me back going in-depth into where I was going wrong and what concepts I didn't understand. That really impressed me, and gave me a sense of Grace Hopper Academy’s teaching style.
What was that Hackerrank assessment like?
There were five questions. The first and the second ones were really easy, like, "Write a function that counts down from five to one.” But then the third, fourth, and fifth questions were really hard. I can’t remember them, but I remember not passing all the test cases.
But you did okay in the end, right?
Yeah. I think they purposely make it hard, so they can more accurately assess your skill level.
How many people were in your cohort and was it diverse in terms of background, race, and life experiences?
Yeah. My cohort was 16 people. It was super diverse in terms of everything like age, major, race. A lot of people had more artsy backgrounds. One was a music composition major, one was a theater major, but there were bio and finance majors. The age ranged from fresh out of college to maybe late '30s.
Can you tell me about the learning experience at Grace Hopper Academy and give me an example of a typical day and the teaching style?
We would come in between 9am and 10am and work on our own, either catching up from yesterday or working on Codewars problems. From 10am to 11:30am, we'd usually have a lecture introducing us to a new concept. Then the rest of the day would be dedicated to a step-by-step, hands-on workshops. The workshops wouldn't spoon feed you the answer, but would make you think and pretty much force you to problem solve.
Students were usually paired with one other person for each workshop. If we got stuck, we could file help tickets to our TAs and our instructors who were in the room, and they'd come over and put us on the right track. Towards the end of the day, we would review our workshop and have a Q&A session for about an hour to an hour and a half. The first half of the program is structured this way, before we start project phase in week 7.
How different did you find it compared to the style of learning you'd had at college?
It was definitely much more intense, and instructors were way more hands on at Grace Hopper Academy than in college. It was just a very different environment. I think in college, you're in class because it’s what you have to do- I took a lot of classes that I wasn’t particularly interested in just to fulfill requirements. But in this environment, everyone is super excited to come to class every day and everyone really wants to be here. So many people have completely shifted careers because it's something they really want to do, so it's definitely a more intense experience, in a good way.
Being in that all women's environment, did you find that different or better for learning?
Yeah, I found it to definitely be better. Throughout college, I rarely spoke up in class, and I was afraid to have the spotlight on myself just because I was afraid of saying something dumb. But in this environment, I found myself raising my hand, being more collaborative, and just speaking up a lot more than I ever had before.
What was your favorite project that you worked on while at Grace Hopper Academy?
Definitely my capstone project. It was a really fun experience because we got to choose everything ourselves in terms of what we were going to build, and what technologies to use. I had a great team and we worked really well together. It was a fun experience seeing what we had accomplished in just three weeks and showing that to friends and family and potential employers.
We recreated a board game called Robo Rally. It's where you try to reach different checkpoints on a grid, but there are different obstacles like walls, lasers, and pits. I had two teammates, and only one of them had played this game before, so it was pretty fun the first couple of days just learning the complexities of the game and figuring out how we wanted to model it.
How did Grace Hopper Academy prepare you for job hunting? What kind of career coaching did they give you?
It actually surprised me how much career coaching they gave us because I wasn't expecting it. We had mock interviews, technical interviews, and one-on-ones with the instructors. We also did a lot of behavioral interviews and resume/cover letter reviews. Every morning in senior phase, we would do a whiteboarding algorithm problem; that prepared me the most for the job hunt.
Congratulations on your job at Stack Overflow. That's super cool. Can you tell me about it, and what you're doing so far?
This summer I was in their first 12-week apprenticeship program. I was in the program with Ian, a Fullstack Academy grad. I worked on the careers team and Ian was on the core Q&A platform that Stack Overflow is more predominantly known for. For the first two weeks, I was learning their tech stack, which was completely different from what I learned at Grace Hopper Academy, by building a ping pong scheduling application.
The rest of the program was really well planned out. In addition to working on bugs and small features, we also had technical talks with different engineers every week on specified topics and met with people from different departments like marketing, community, and HR. In the final three weeks of the program, we got to work together on a feature of our own. We ended up building a feature on Stack Overflow’s jobs platform, and we worked with a project manager, a designer, and another developer who helped us with code reviews. In our final week, we demoed the project to the product/engineering team.
Have you finished that program now?
Yeah. At the end of our program, we were given offers to stay on full-time. I joined the Core team, and Ian joined the Marketing Engineering team.
And what's your specific role?
I would definitely call myself a junior developer, but at Stack Overflow they don't give seniority based titles. Everyone is called a full stack developer no matter how many years they've been doing it. Technically, I'm a developer on the Core Q&A team, and I'm working on a project called “The Developer Story.” It’s a new way for developers to showcase open source projects, apps, blogs, and other public artifacts. This differs from the traditional resume which typically highlights what school you went to, what major you had, and your work experience; this doesn't really work well for someone like me who has had a nontraditional path to software development.
How did you first get introduced to StackOverflow and get into the apprenticeship program? Did you have to apply for it?
Stack Overflow was one of Grace Hopper Academy’s hiring partners, so they came to our hiring day. All of the students chose companies that we wanted to have a speed interview round with, and Stack Overflow was one of my top picks. I was really interested in the apprenticeship program so I reached out to Stack Overflow after hiring day and they brought me onsite for interviews.
Was the interview for the apprenticeship program quite intense?
I think it was much less intense than their regular developer interviews. The onsite portion was with three people who asked both technical and non-technical questions. I think they were more interested in what I’d done so far, rather than the depth of my knowledge in software development
You mentioned you had to learn their tech stack. What stacks did you have to learn when you got there?
Stack Overflow uses Microsoft technologies: C# and ASP.NET MVC with SQL Server as their back end. We also use technologies like Redis and Elasticsearch, which I hadn't used before. I found the best way for me to learn was to actually build something, rather than just doing a step by step tutorial. I think people in the company felt that way too, which is why they told us to build this ping pong scheduling application to start.
It was completely new to me, but I had a really great mentor who was always there for me when I had questions. Stack Overflow also set us up with anything we needed to learn. They gave us paid subscriptions to online video lectures, and we were able to any buy books from Amazon that we were interested in.
Was this apprenticeship almost like another bootcamp where you were learning this new stack?
It wasn't like a bootcamp because it was a lot more relaxed and you were working on a lot more real world things. I purposely wanted to do this apprenticeship because I had that burning feeling still to be in an environment where I was constantly learning new technologies. I really liked the idea of working on a graduation project, which reminded me of the capstone project. In that way, it was kind of similar.
I wanted to ask about your co-workers at Stack Overflow. Was there a good mix of men and women and different cultures?
It's weird because I never feel like I'm a minority. We have a really good culture, especially in terms of diversity and inclusion. If you look at the statistics, the engineering team is around 40 people, and there are only three women, but I never feel like my opinions are not being heard.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge in your journey to learning to code?
Sometimes I'm impatient, and I just want to learn so many different things at once just because there're so many things to learn. I struggle with trying to learn many disparate things at once when I could just take it step by step and one day at a time.
What would you say has been the best thing about learning to code and getting into this new career?
It’s really exciting to learn about something you are interested in and to see yourself grow and getting better at it. I really love the problem-solving aspect of coding, and the satisfaction of finding a solution to a problem that you haven’t encountered before.
Are you still involved with Grace Hopper Academy or in touch with your cohort mates?
Yes. Whenever there's an alumni panel, Shanna will usually reach out to our cohort or the cohorts after us, and ask for volunteers. So I usually volunteer. I've been on two panels and it's really awesome going back. Once every other week or so, we'll meet up on a Friday and get happy hour, which is fun.
Overall what kind of advice do you have for people who are wanting to change their careers, do a coding bootcamp, and become a developer?
If you're constantly looking at Course Report and teaching yourself how to code, there is probably something in you that really wants to do it, and you'll be successful as long as you don’t give up. Don't doubt yourself just because you don't have the background or don't have any experience. If there's something burning inside of you to do it, then just do it. I had that feeling for a really long time, and I could've switched earlier. There's no reason to just keep thinking about it and not act on it. There are so many resources, and there are so many great bootcamps.