Even while Liz was getting promotions at her administrative job in Health and Human Services, she knew she needed something more. After a personal life crisis, Liz decided to reevaluate her career goals. She drew inspiration from a past tech project, worked hard to save money, and got accepted to attend Startup Institute in Boston, MA. Today, she is a software engineer at WeSpire and loving it. Liz tells us about networking with her Startup Institute instructors (one of those instructors even offered her the job at WeSpire!), falling in love with hackathons, and why the Startup Institute community is so important to her.
Tell us about your previous education and career before Startup Institute.
I was a 3D Art major and got a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. However, in art school I realized that while art is always going to be a part of who I am, that style is really more of an outlet for me and not how I want to make a living. When I graduated, I ended up temping and bounced around until I landed in a health and human services company. I held a lot of different positions there, as I kept getting promoted. I loved my teammates, but at the end of the day, the job wasn't fulfilling in the way I wanted it to be. I wanted a challenge.
How did you get interested in coding?
My company at the time hired a local Boston startup to rebuild our customer information platform. I found that I could understand both the computer side, and the communication side, so I ended up liaising, translating between the two worlds for my company.
I worked really closely with the lead developer on that project. The more I worked with her, the more I realized that she had the job I wanted. She was a mentor to me. She convinced me to join coding workshops here in Boston like RailsBridge Boston, where I met lots of people in the industry. At those workshops, I kept hearing about Startup Institute, and finally decided to research it.
When did you realize that coding workshops and self-study weren't enough, and that you needed to do a coding bootcamp?
I know that I learn best when I immerse myself. I was spending so much energy on my job, that I was too mentally exhausted to be able to start learning something new. I knew I didn’t have several years to dabble in new concepts until I was ready to make a career change. If I wanted to do this, I needed to make a clean cut, leave my job behind, and put all of my energy into learning programming.
Did you research other coding bootcamps before you decided to go to Startup Institute? Did you consider other options in the Boston area?
Yes. I was planning on applying to Launch Academy and General Assembly, because I met a lot of their alumni at the RailsBridge Boston workshops. It seemed that those other two programs focused heavily on coding, and at that point, that's what I thought I needed.
What factors made you decide to enroll at Startup Institute?
As I kept researching, I realized that Startup Institute’s focus is broader than those coding skills; they want to help students understand what they want in their life. Startup Institute values networking and giving back to the community, and they understand that monetary success doesn’t necessarily make you happy. I could get a job that pays loads of money and be successful, but will that make me as happy as I could be? The staff at Startup Institute really value making relationships with and helping people around you in order to build a stronger, happier community of people who are going to be better at their jobs because of that community.
This resonated with me in a lot of ways. It actually reminded me a lot of art school, in a way. Everyone had their own strengths, the medium they were best at, but that didn’t stop anyone from helping fellow artists in whatever project they might be working on. I saw the same community at Startup Institute; I can't do sales, I'm not a marketer, but I can help people in other departments using my development skills. I wanted to give back and feel camaraderie with the rest of the community, and I felt Startup Institute would support that the best.
Were you looking for a specific coding language or technology in the curriculum?
Not specifically. I had dabbled in Ruby, and Ruby on Rails is the language that Startup Institute teaches, so I felt like it wouldn't be a completely new concept going in.
We get this question all the time- how did you pay for the Startup Institute tuition?
Because of other life events, which I actually wrote a blog post about, I was $40,000 in debt and looking at bankruptcy before Startup Institute. All of a sudden, I had no money, no house, and my fiancé was gone. It was chaos. But I was determined to gain more control over my life; I needed to be happy with my job. I wanted to be comfortable again and I wasn’t going to settle for less than that.
I was lucky enough to be able to move back in with family, so wasn't paying rent while at Startup Institute. Every cent I could possibly save was for Startup Institute. I had a strict budget, and a very specific goal. I knew that if my cohort took 8 weeks, and it took another 1-2 months to get a job, I would need to save X amount of dollars. I stuck as closely as I could to that goal because I didn't want to take out more loans. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this.
That's an amazing story! What was the Startup Institute application and interview process like for you?
The application process included five conversations with two or three different people. We discussed where I’ve come from, what I want in life, and what I’m interested in. They asked questions like "What do you not like about your old job? What are you looking for? What kind of relationship do you want with your co-workers?" I think they were trying to get a feel for if I would fit into the Startup Institute community. The community is very much about helping each other, being there for each other, and giving back.
Some of the conversations were more technical, asking about my programming experience. They gave me a week-long technical challenge, in which they challenged me to build an app and launch it online using the resources and instructions provided. If you don’t already have the development skills necessary to pass the assessment, it doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected. Startup Institute has online learning resources to help you build your coding skills before the program, so you’re ready to tackle the curriculum.
What type of app did you have to build during the application?
It was a web app which enables a user to go to a website, put in a phone number, and then get a confirmation text on that phone number. I could write the code however I wanted, as long as it worked. It was quite tricky and here was some stuff I had not done before. But for the most part, I was able to figure it out.
Once you got to Startup Institute, how many people were in your cohort and was it diverse in terms of gender, age, race, and backgrounds?
There were between 40 and 60 students split up into the four different tracks: Sales, Marketing, Web Design, and Web Development. My class was pretty diverse across the board. There was a diverse spectrum of personalities, and a definite age difference. And in the web development track, we thought it was very cool but surprising that there were more females than males.
That's awesome! What was the overall learning experience like at Startup Institute? Maybe you can give me an example of a typical day.
“Typical” is not exactly the right word to use. There was some routine to our days-a standup at 9:45am and lunch at 1pm. Within each day, though, there was a lot going on. There were fireside chats, in which a CEO, or Boston startup founders would speak to us about their journey. We had what they called “in-track” learning courses, lab work, and classes that brought together each of the four tracks. For the in-track sessions, we'd split off with our specific tracks (Sales, Marketing, etc) and do work specific to that track..
In my Web Development track, we built a restaurant app over the eight weeks in which users could search for restaurants, make a reservation, or map out the location of the restaurant.
We also got to participate in a “Partner Project” where we were assigned, in small groups, to work with one of the innovative companies that partners with Startup Institute. Once a week we go work on-site, for the partner company on a particular project. This was great, because it gave us a chance to really see the way startups operate and also gave us hands on experience working with on a small team.
And how did you interact with your Startup Institute instructors?
All of our in-track sections were run by an instructor, who was actually a developer volunteering their time to talk with us about each day's topic. One instructor specialized in web security, another one taught us how to make categories in the Ruby language, and another instructor taught us how to debug our Ruby code.
There was a lot of self-learning at Startup Institute, too, and the instructors were fantastic about being there for questions. They weren't giving us the typical "how to." Instead, they would let us work through our Restaurant App project and be their for guidance, as they taught us new concepts. We each had our own goals, and it was really useful to get information and honest feedback from people who were already in the field.
What did you think of the adjunct instructor style? Did it fit your learning style?
I'm not sure every student would enjoy that style, but I liked it. Startup Institute is only eight weeks long, and in that time you're getting exposure to many different styles. By pulling in different instructors to talk about their strengths, we were getting the highlights of all of their fields, which was very cool.
In a way, Startup Institute was like a type of therapy for me. It was all about learning what makes you happy and knowing who you are and who you want to surround yourself with. In learning from all of these different instructors, you're also learning about their different jobs, you're figuring out what teaching style you learn best from, and what you should be looking for in a job. It really helps in the process of figuring out what you do and don’t want for yourself.
I went into Startup Institute thinking I would be a Back End Developer, but through interacting with different instructors, I realized I want to do more Front End Development.
What was your favorite project to work on at Startup Institute?
My favorite part was the hackathons, because we got to work with other tracks. We didn't choose our own hackathon teams; Startup Institute would randomly split us up into different groups for each one.
One of the hackathons was only four or five hours long, which was super fast and really fun. Another hackathon was two or three days long. During hackathons, we got to showcase our own skills while learning what our classmates can do. I've always liked that collaborative feeling of knowing that you're boosting somebody else's strength, and that they’re boosting you as well. And it was fun, during final presentations, to watch how different teams’ solutions were when presented with the same problem.
How did Startup Institute prepare you for job hunting? Were there career coaching or hiring events?
They had hiring partner fairs throughout the program. There were networking events, and more importantly, we got to network with all the instructors, and the startup CEOs and founders who came in to speak to us. So we were always getting exposure to different jobs and people. Startup Institute also taught us how to network on a more casual, one-on-one basis.
We also had “speed-dating” rounds where you learn about lots of different jobs opportunities with the hiring partners. We learned how to have conversations and how to actually listen to somebody and hear what they're saying without always worrying “what is the next thing I have to say?” Being able to listen and digest everything somebody else is saying, and figure out whether or not it resonates with me was huge for my job search. It's not just, "Here's a pool of resources. Go find a job." There was a lot of guidance and they teach you how to sift through everything to identify the right opportunities.
What are you doing now? Can you tell me about your new job?
I started as a QA developer for WeSpire. I learned onsite by QA-ing the full time engineers’ work. I was getting exposure to code while I was QA-ing it, but then I could fill in extra time by learning through a curriculum they had set up, or going through Treehouse tutorials.
About four or five months ago, I transitioned out of QA, and into a full time software engineer role.
Congratulations! And how did you actually the find the job?
It was through one of the Startup Institute instructors, actually. I was interested in WeSpire pretty early on. Our instructor said to me, "We're not hiring, but if there's anything I can do for you, any introductions I can make, let me know." He came back and taught two more of our classes, and did a mock interview night with us, where we could test our interviewing skills. And through those networking events, I ended up talking with him more and we got to be friends. Then, towards the end of my cohort, WeSpire suddenly had a position open. At our Startup Institute Talent Expo, he came up to me and said, "We have this job, and I want you to interview."
Wow that’s awesome!
Yeah. I got the offer three days after our Talent Expo. The Talent Expo is a culminating day at the end of the program where all the students present their new career goals and explain, "This is who I am; this is what I want."
Tell us about your role at WeSpire.
The last few months, I've been doing more coding than I was the first few months. It was a good transition because this is a huge career change for me, and everything was brand new. For the first few months, WeSpire let me get more familiar with what the code is supposed to look like, and how to approach their app, was really great
Are you still using Ruby on Rails in your job or have you had to learn a new stack?
Yes, we use Ruby at WeSpire. I'm able to build on that knowledge more and more. I did mostly learn back-end development in my track, so now I’m trying to build on more front end skills.
What has been the biggest challenge in your journey to become a software developer?
Time. Both in saving the money for Startup Institute and the time it takes learn a whole new skill. The challenge of Startup Institute, and learning programming, feels different though; It feels like an energizing sort of challenge because I’m doing it in order to make myself happy. It’s something I really want.
Have you been able to stay in touch with Startup Institute and keep in touch with other alumni?
Yes. My cohort was pretty close, which was really fun, so we all try to hit the Startup Institute networking and alumni events. My current roommate was even in my cohort with me. I think that sense of community is something that was part of all of our decisions to go to Startup Institute in the first place. We all continue to stay in touch as much as possible because it's something that’s important to each of us.
What advice do you have for someone who's thinking about making a career change and going to a coding bootcamp?
Talk to as many alumni and developers as possible. There are a lot of networking events in Boston, not just through Startup Institute. For example, She Geeks Out is a group that has events for women in tech once a month. Speaking to people who have jobs in your field can be amazing. Hearing that somebody else has been through this process can really make all the difference.
If you’re deciding which bootcamp to go to, reach out and speak to alumni- I haven’t come across one person from Startup Institute, Launch Academy, General Assembly, or any other bootcamp who doesn’t want to speak to future students. This may be a scary career change, but fear is not a reason to avoid something; talking to other students will give you the information you need. The entire experience was pretty amazing.