Manisha Patel has a background in fine arts and worked in project management at Apple, but she was always fascinated by the work of the engineers she worked beside. So she decided to enroll at all-women coding bootcamp Hackbright Academy to learn Python in a supportive environment. Now Manisha is a software engineer at Reddit, and is excited about inspiring more women to make the move into tech. She tells us why Reddit has now hired six Hackbright grads, her advice for other students to get the most out of their bootcamp, and how Reddit’s new scholarship will enable more women to learn to code at Hackbright Academy.
Find out more about the Code Reddit Scholarship Fund and apply for $5000, $10,000 and full scholarships to Hackbright Academy.
Can you tell me about your career and education background and how that path led you to Hackbright Academy?
I have an MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. As a working artist, I have always had a day job. For a while, I was doing FileMaker development at various companies. FileMaker is a WYSIWYG application development tool that lets you create databases and interfaces. You need to code a little bit, but it's not real engineering.
I ended up in a project management role at Apple where I managed external vendors. I had a great relationship with the Apple developers, but I always felt like they were having more fun than I was! Every time I brought them a new requirement or feature, their eyes sparkled and I could see they were having a lot of fun. I'm a lifelong learner, so after a few years, I looked at the engineers’ enthusiasm and thought, "I want to do what they do and be a proper engineer." So I started looking at coding bootcamps.
How did you decide that a bootcamp was the best way to learn, rather than college or teaching yourself?
I'm a huge advocate of schools and institutions and I love education and learning. But I also didn't want to spend another four years at school, so a bootcamp was the right answer for me.
Knowing my own learning style, I knew I couldn’t learn effectively if I only studied a couple hours each night. I knew that facilitated learning was the right thing for me as opposed to teaching myself. I had to make the commitment to a fully immersive program, where I had to show up each day. It's the same idea as exercising – you work out harder in a class with other people than you do alone. I needed a program with strict hours, curricula, and a responsibility to other people as well as myself. In a classroom environment, students infect each other with their enthusiasm.
Why did you choose Hackbright specifically over other immersive bootcamps?
I had some conversations with other coding bootcamps, some of which had this old-school approach and said, "We're going to kick you down and if you can take the pressure, then you'll be amazing." On the other hand, Hackbright said, "We're going to set you up to succeed." You pay a lot of money for these coding bootcamps so I wanted to choose a school that would guide me to the finish line, not push me down to see if I'd get up.
At Hackbright, you feel like you're in it together, and you're showing up to support the other people in the program as much as you are there to support yourself. 12 weeks was the right time frame – there's no way I could do a shorter program.
The fact that Hackbright Academy teaches Python was also a factor. My engineer friends with CS degrees told me that Python was great, and was the language that all their early CS classes were taught in. I know that the underlying skills apply to all programming languages, but Python seemed like a more accessible language to learn, so you're not focused on the oddities of the language. Instead, you're learning the concept of programming.
Before Hackbright, I had never participated in all-women’s education, but I could see that it would be a different learning experience. I'd spent a lot of time working with male engineers and I know they're very knowledgeable and generous, but I also knew they had a different way of talking, and sometimes didn’t answer the question that had been asked.
What was the learning experience like at Hackbright Academy?
There were 26 people in my cohort and we were all in the classroom by 10am. We had lectures in the morning and a lab in the afternoon. The lecturers were really great and had good ways of explaining things. One of the lecturers stuck Post-it Notes on objects around the room to explain classes and inheritance, which we found way more useful than a PowerPoint. Everybody was engaged, it wasn't a shy group. People were asking questions to get deeper into the topic.
The day was well-structured; we alternated between consuming information and implementing information. We did a lot of pair programming, and that forces you to articulate – that's a really important soft skill.
Was there anything you didn’t expect during the bootcamp? Anything that surprised you?
In addition to the quality and accessibility of the instructors, Hackbright has great relationships with partner companies who took the time to have their engineers come talk to us. They brought in successful women who presented very motivating inspirational topics to help us see ourselves in their shoes. I thought that was a nice part of the curriculum. Before Hackbright, I don't think I knew that I needed those role models, but it was definitely a benefit.
Do you have advice for future bootcampers who want to graduate at the top of their class?
You should definitely take advantage of free classes and get familiar with coding. If you do some Codecademy and you actually enjoy it enough to get to the end of a free class, then you probably like coding.
For women, we have a lot of negative talk in the back of our minds, so my advice for women is instead of focusing on why you can't do it, focus on why you want to work in this career. In my head, I had a picture of people who loved their work – my former engineering team who showed up every day with enthusiasm. I wanted to have that much fun. And it can be fun! It's still a job, but it's really interesting work – you get to feel smart, and solve problems. If you choose to focus on why you want to do it, that'll really help you along because it's easy to get stuck with all of the reasons why we can't do something.
How did Hackbright Academy prepare you for the job hunt?
Hackbright does an amazing job teaching you the basics and building up your GitHub, so that you have work to point employers to. Hackbright also prepared us for the technical interview with algorithms and whiteboarding, but I found personally that I needed another month of practice after graduation before I actively started interviewing.
Hackbright Academy introduced me to the company where I work now, but they did not “get me the job.” In general, I found it most useful to go out and talk to people myself.
What advice do you have for other bootcamp grads who are looking for jobs?
My advice is first to be confident about the fact that you are an engineer, and that you can figure out anything you don't know. No engineer knows everything, so the skill you're selling is that you know how to solve problems and find solutions. That's what Hackbright is preparing you to do and that's what you're offering an employer, so lead with that skill.
Secondly, be honest with yourself about where you're at. Go to a couple of interviews with companies that you don't care about to understand what it feels like to interview. Then be prepared to work as hard as, if not harder than you did during those 12 weeks of bootcamp to get your first job.
Congrats on your role at Reddit! Are there any other Hackbright grads working there?
Thank you. Hackbright Academy and Reddit are very close partners, and they made the connection. I was the second Hackbright grad to work at Reddit. And because we’ve been successful in our roles, we opened the door for the others. Since I started 1.5 years ago, we have hired four additional Hackbright grads, so we're up to six total.
Reddit also has a lot of employees who volunteer as mentors at Hackbright. They've been a huge supporter of Hackbright grads. They host whiteboarding events and to help students prepare, which is also nice. You pair up with an engineer and practice algorithm questions.
Reddit is partnering with Hackbright to offer a scholarship. Do you think companies like Reddit have an obligation to offer scholarships like this to help women get into tech?
As a company, Reddit is super committed to diversity and inclusion, so opening a path for women to join the ranks of engineers is really important to them.
I think the Hackbright scholarship is amazing. It's scary to make a job change, it's scary to envision yourself doing something you haven't done before, so any kind of support, whether it's mentoring or financial aid, is great. It's just nice to know there are people out there who believe you can succeed – and being able to see that in a scholarship is incredibly important.
The lack of women in tech starts in Kindergarten and we're not going to solve that overnight. But the more that little girls can see adult women working in the field, the more they might imagine it for themselves.
What is your role at Reddit and what kind of projects are you working on?
I work on the Infrastructure team, which means that I help keep the site live so our users can always access Reddit. Reddit is the sixth largest website in the US, so we have a lot of traffic to maintain. When I started, there were eight people on my team, and we're up to 15 now. We use tools like Terraform to bring up server instances (we run 2,000 servers) and use tools like Puppet to configure all those servers, and manage hundreds of different microservices that all connect to make Reddit run. I also work on a team called Core Services, so I'm building internal tools that allow other Reddit developers to be more productive and work in a consistent and scalable way.
Since I was hired, I have been promoted but I'm on the same team in the same role. As we've grown, I am now more focused on the services side – writing services for other teams as opposed to the DevOps side. Actually, the work I’m doing now is more relevant to what I learned at Hackbright.
Did you learn about infrastructure at Hackbright or are you learning on the job?
Infrastructure technology is not at all what we learned at Hackbright, but I am working in Python at Reddit, so that’s perfect. Hackbright really prepared me for that. There have been so many new things that I've learned on the job and Reddit has been amazing in helping me learn.
What other technologies have you learned so far?
Because we're such a large website, we use a lot of distributed management. At Hackbright we learned the very simple concept of the “queue” but at Reddit, we use RabbitMQ and AMQP Processor and put millions of messages in the queues and process on downstream all the time. So I had to learn about RabbitMQ.
At Hackbright, they teach you the basic concept of a “least recently-used cache.” At Reddit we use Memcached, local cache, and load balancers. At Hackbright we learned how to make one service, one application, and then on the job, I've had to learn how to allow 2,000 instances of an application talk to each other and what kind of tooling you use to make that possible.
How has the Reddit team helped train you on those new technologies?
There's no formal training program, but there is a lot of documentation so you have to spend time reading code and asking questions.
At Hackbright, there was a very specific format for how to ask questions. Hackbright taught us to be very thoughtful about framing a question, saying, "This is the problem I'm trying to solve, this is how I'm approaching it, here's the code. Can you tell me how to debug it or can you see an issue?"
That approach has been useful because during my first six months on the job I was always asking questions. It made a difference to be able to ask good questions of my team members.
There is enough work at Reddit that they were able to find bite-size issues for me to learn with. For example, they gave me a small tasks to help me get familiar with Puppet and with using the Amazon console. Those smaller tasks helped me understand all the different pieces, then I gradually started working on bigger tasks.
Since you joined Reddit, how do you feel you've grown as a developer? Would you still call yourself a Junior Developer?
Oh, I definitely feel I've progressed from a junior developer. The fun thing about seeing fresh Hackbright graduates start at Reddit is that I can answer all their questions and I realize how much I now know.
When I first started, I felt like my job was to learn really fast, so my instinct was to just listen. Now, I notice that when I’m in meetings, I’ll speak up and make suggestions. I work on a team with some incredibly knowledgeable, tenured, really smart engineers. I'm nowhere near their level, but they ask me questions and listen to what I have to say. I can see that I've come so far.
Do you think your background at Apple and working in project management has been useful in your current job?
I think it's been invaluable. I don't know that I would've been successful without it. As a project manager, you're aware of all the constituencies you're serving – your business owners, your internal clients, and your external clients. At Reddit, our internal developers are our clients, but everything we build is about affecting the experience of our end users. Bringing that focus into an engineering team is really important. Understanding that connection between the work you do and users’ experience has been very helpful.
When you look back over the last two years, what kind of role do you think Hackbright has played in your success? Could you have reached this point by self-teaching?
I don't think I would have made the jump or succeeded if I had tried to do it by myself. I think I found the right program in Hackbright. I had a very clear career goal vision and I knew I needed help to get there – Hackbright helped me get there.