hackbright-academy-alumni-spotlight-laurel-korwin

After a liberal arts degree, Laurel Korwin wasn’t sure what career to pursue, so tried her hand at financial research. Living in San Francisco, she eventually transitioned into a technology company but became frustrated that she didn’t have the tech skills to solve problems. A friend told her about Hackbright Academy, so she tried out some Python and decided to enroll. Laurel explains why it was important for her to be surrounded by women while learning to code, how she budgeted to get through bootcamp, and how Hackbright Academy’s careers team worked so hard to help her get her job as a developer at Redfin!

Q&A

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

I studied political science and Latin American studies at the University of California, San Diego. I’ve always had a love of natural language. I graduated in 2008 and worked on a political campaign briefly, then after the election I was looking for my next steps. 2008 was the depth of the recession so there wasn’t a lot available. I ended up working at a financial research company, in an industry called corporate governance. I wrote reports on companies around the world and managed a portfolio of clients. Then I moved over to a consulting firm which provided advice to public companies, in terms of how to engage with shareholders, executive compensation, board diversity, environmental issues. That was all interesting, but it was night and day from what I thought I would be doing for a career.

I was living in San Francisco and had many friends who worked in tech, so I was eager to explore that side of things. I eventually got a project management role at a health care tech firm, Zenefits. I worked on a cross functional team where we would liaise between internal teams, business partners, and clients to resolve big problems. It was kind of a crash course in tech, which was really interesting, but I felt like I wanted to have more agency in a technical role to build or fix things myself. That spurred me to consider Hackbright Academy, or a bootcamp. I had a friend who did Hackbright a few years earlier, so I had it in the back of my mind all along, but that was the final push that made me say, “I actually want to do this.”

Did you try to learn on your own before you thought about a coding bootcamp? What types of resources did you use?

I worked through some of Learn Python the Hard Way, and went to some Girl Develop It meetups, which were really fun. Yet, I felt I would learn more in a structured environment, where I was devoting all my time to learning to code. When you’re working 9am to 5pm, it’s hard to find time to devote yourself seriously to it. I felt I would have more impact and more opportunities if I had more formal training on my resume. I also told myself this could be my version of “grad school” since I hadn’t attended a more traditional one.

Did you research other coding bootcamps or did you have your heart set on Hackbright Academy?

I had my heart set on Hackbright Academy for a couple of reasons. As I said, a girl who had gone through it told me really good things about the program. I also really believe that single sex education can be a great thing. I went to an all girls middle school and had a great experience. I was entering an industry where the ratio of women in technical roles is so small, and would be learning all of these new and challenging things, and felt it would be a good environment to be surrounded by women. I also went to some co-ed bootcamp meetups, and felt discouraged by how students interacted. I wanted a really supportive and inclusive learning environment.

Was it important for you that Hackbright Academy teaches Python?

Not in particular, but I had been learning Python before I knew that it was taught at Hackbright Academy. My partner is an engineer, and from his advice, I came to the conclusion that Python is one of the most beginner friendly languages. It’s intuitive, things make sense, and there aren’t a lot of mid-advanced level concepts that you have to understand to start coding. I felt it would be a good thing to learn and build on, and it just so happened that Hackbright was teaching it.

Did you think about going back to college to study computer science?

I looked at a few different masters programs. What dissuaded me was that because I did not have a background in math and science, I realized I would have to do a lot of supplemental course work before I was eligible to apply. And also, although bootcamps are not cheap, an actual degree would be a bigger investment timewise and financially.

How did you pay for the tuition? Did you use a financing partner? Did you get a scholarship? Any creative tips you can share with our readers?

I was fortunate to have saved quite a bit of money in my past job. So I had a decent amount in the bank, and I also took out a loan from someone in my personal life. I could’ve paid the entire amount from savings, but I was cognizant of the fact that I didn’t know how long it would take me to find a job. I put together a spreadsheet looking at how much I could spend per month, because it’s not only the tuition, it’s also living expenses– you don’t get a job on day one after the bootcamp. So I made a thorough plan as to how much I could spend per month, and how long I could afford to be without a job after the program.

What was the Hackbright interview and application process like?

First of all, there was a written application with essay questions, then there was a coding challenge. My first interview was with a Hackbright alumna, who was really great. She and I are now connected on Linkedin, and have run into each other at many events. She asked about my background, and we looked over how I had tackled the coding challenge. After that I spoke with Dori Grant, Director of Admissions, and again talked about the coding challenge and why I used JavaScript rather than Python. We also talked about my background and what I hoped to get out of the program. I think from when I started the application to when I was accepted was about two to three weeks.

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

My cohort was about 26 women. There was another cohort there at the same time with around the same number, but we attended classes separately, so we got to know the women in our own cohort more than the other. It was a really diverse group of people. There were people who had done finance and banking, people who had worked in architecture, people who had been teachers, all sorts of things. When I was first introduced to my cohort, I remember thinking, “This is the coolest group of women with the most interesting and diverse backgrounds and experiences.” It was really interesting to have so many different perspectives, especially at the end of the program when we were talking about careers and job searches.

What was the learning experience like at your bootcamp— typical day and teaching style?

The program was split into two sections, the first five weeks were lecture and pair programming intensive. We’d have lectures in the morning and the afternoon, and afterwards we’d pair on concepts we had learned that day. Lectures were on things like basic concepts in Python, different data structures, and object orientation. In the second half of the program we had lectures in the morning, then would work on our capstone projects for the rest of the day. In that section we learned about developer tool boxes: APIs, different tools you could use, as well as core CS concepts like linked lists, and recursion.

How many instructors did you have?

We had two lead instructors who taught the bulk of the lecture. We also had two lab instructors and two TAs. In the first five weeks the lab instructors and TAs came around as we were pair programming, helped us debug, and answered questions. It was really great. During the project season, we had a help queue where someone would come around and help you debug, and that was so nice. Sometimes in my professional life, I wish I still had the help queue.

What was your capstone project? Was it a group project?

We all chose our own individual projects for the last five weeks, and devoted ourselves to working on them so we could present them to companies. Mine was a cross between Pinterest and Goodreads. I really love to read so I hooked up to the Amazon API, and built a kind of social network where you could make boards to categorize books you’ve read or wanted to read. You could recommend books to your friends, look at your friends’ boards, and move books onto your own board. I thought about deploying it, but there were some legal loopholes with the Amazon API. It’s something that I actually would really like to use myself – I wish it existed! The tech stack was Python on the backend, JavaScript on the frontend, then we used Flask as the framework, a PostgreSQL database, and SQLAlchemy as the ORM (object relational mapping).

What was it like studying in an all-female environment? How did it compare to college or other learning environments?

It was really great. Not having had the experience of doing the same thing in a coed environment, I’m not sure exactly how different it would be. My Hackbright Academy cohort was a very supportive group of people. There were times when I got frustrated, or found certain topics harder than others, but people were very open about talking about those things. We said if we were frustrated, or if we didn’t understand something, or asked for help from a peer or TA. I definitely felt like there was a really great, open listening environment.

How did the Hackbright Academy’s careers team prepare you for job hunting?

They had career coffees which started in week 2. Every week a member of the career services staff would give a lecture on things like building a personal brand, or fine-tuning your resume and cover letter. Then we also had one-on-one meetings with members of career services to talk about what kinds of companies we wanted to work for, to look at our connections to see what’s feasible, and to talk about different companies Hackbright had connections with.

We then demoed our capstone projects to various companies. After that, the official education part of the program was over, and the last two weeks were dedicated to career services. Hackbright Academy brought in a lot of guest speakers to speak about technical topics, as well as job search, and interview preparation. I found it really helpful to do interview practice nights, including technical and behavioural questions with different people in the industry.

Congrats on your new job! Can you tell me about what you do and how you got the job?

Redfin was a Hackbright partner company, so I met them there and started the interview process. I’m a developer on the tour automation team. Redfin, in addition to being a platform where you can search for homes, is also a real estate brokerage– we have 1,200 agents across the country who can meet with clients and take them on tours of homes. My team is building software to streamline the touring process, which is actually more complicated than people might think. It involves calendar times, home availabilities, different local partners and agents. We are working out that architecture on the backend, so that it’s easy for the customer. Our goal is to make seeing a home as easy as it is to order an Uber.

What was the interview process like after you initially met Redfin at Hackbright?

I loved their interview process. They contacted me and said they were interested in bringing me in for an interview. First I had a phone screening with my manager, which was a more typical coding question. They code in Java, but I went through the process in Python. Once I passed that, I went in for a full day of interviews. It was really progressive compared to other coding questions and interviews I’d seen.

There were four panel interviews. The first one was whiteboarding a brain teaser to see how I approach a logical problem, and how my mind works. I also had to explain something technical, so with my background, I explained how health insurance works from an employer’s perspective. In the second interview, I did a code review of sample code and pointed out errors. l also talked about my project and the architecture behind it. Then there was a lunch interview, and two pair programming interviews.

You mentioned Redfin uses Java. How do you learn a whole new programming language?

I started learning Java when I got there. I also started a bit beforehand, doing some online tutorials on basic syntax, but I’ve learned mostly on the job and by reading books. Redfin has a wonderful onboarding process; they have a series of what they call “new hire labs” for everyone from entry level to senior engineers, to get you acclimated to their structure and how they do things. There were front end labs, back end labs, and a database schema lab, which consisted of pre-reading, online tutorials, and exercises. Those were really great, and really helped me dive in into Java and into Redfin’s giant code base that has been around for 10 years.

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

I think my perspective is useful. Having worked on the side where you are using products that people put out, and asking “why is this done this way”, has inspired me to understand the people who use the software, and to make things as useful as possible in terms of UI and the way things work. There are also some transferable soft skills from my background in consulting– attention to detail, the ability to dive into something and tackle a problem without knowing anything about it, and knowing when to ask for help.

How diverse is your team at Redfin? Are there many women?

I’m in the San Francisco office and the diversity there is pretty great. My team is actually majority women which is pretty rare! My manager is a guy, and then we have one guy who works remotely and one guy in the office, but otherwise there are four or five women on the team. I also have two mentors whom I pair with quite a lot who are both women.

What’s been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to learn to code?

The most challenging thing is coming from an untraditional background. Sometimes I struggle with knowing what are good questions to ask– is this something I should know or be able to find out myself? Does the way I’m phrasing or thinking about this problem make sense? There are a lot of feelings of imposter syndrome, and it’s certainly challenging to be among people who’ve studied this for years, or worked in this field for so long.

How do you stay involved with Hackbright? Have you kept in touch with other alumnae?

In terms of alumnae, our cohort tries to keep in close touch. We have a cohort Slack channel that we still use, and we try to do happy hours once or twice a month. As far as Hackbright itself, I’m mentoring a Hackbright student this quarter as part of Hackbright’s mentor program where they pair students with people in the industry. I also participate in the ambassadors program, where I’m on call to answer questions from prospective students and go to conferences.

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

On the practical side of things, make sure you feel comfortable with your ability to get through a coding bootcamp, because it’s an expensive decision. I feel so happy with my decision, but after doing budgetary and technical pre-work I felt comfortable going through the program, and knew I would feel comfortable in the job search. So do your homework in advance to find right program that suits your needs.

You also need to realize that there will be a lot of situations where aspects of the curriculum seem weird, confusing, complicated, or might not make sense at first glance. You have to really dive in and be challenged, and know that some things might not make sense right away. You might work on a problem for three hours and get really frustrated, then when you step away and come back to it and it makes a lot of sense. Being comfortable with being challenged and having the feeling like you don’t know how to do everything all the time is a really important thing to go in with.

Find out more and read Hackbright Academy reviews on Course Report. Check out the Hackbright Academy website.

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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