Marisa Akers was a statistician and a quality assurance analyst before realizing that she really wanted to follow her passion for coding. She knew that Tech Talent South was part of her local Charlotte, NC community, so Marisa enrolled in their immersive Web Development Program. She graduated in December 2015, and is now a web conversion analyst at TradeKing. Marisa tells us about building confidence in her new career as a developer, and why diversity at Tech Talent South was one of her most valuable takeaways.
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What is your educational background? Your last career path?
I went to NC State University and got a Bachelor of Science in statistics. When I graduated I didn’t have much confidence or knowledge about the industry – I just had textbook skills and didn’t know how to translate them. My first job was at Chipotle which really didn’t help my confidence.
I eventually got a job doing quality assurance analysis at a local software company in Charlotte. I was really excited to learn more about how technology is growing and affecting us, and how the apps and the products I use are created. I was there for a year, and it gave me a really good background to the language, process, and products of the industry, but I didn’t feel like I was using skills I wanted to use. When the company had a downturn and I lost that job, I was really dejected and confused. I knew I needed a better support system and a stronger set of skills. I wanted to remember what I am passionate about, what I’m curious about, and what would make me feel more powerful as a career woman.
When did you decide to quit your job and do this as a career transformation?
I already knew about Tech Talent South when I was offered the QA job – at that time, it was either take the job or further my education. So I took the job and watched Tech Talent South grow, and impact new students, their alumni, and the workforce in Charlotte. I admired their passion and skill for taking people through that entire experience.
When I lost my job, I met with the co-founder Betsy and some of her staff, and I just knew it was the best option for me. It was difficult to make the decision to commit that money when I was unemployed. But I knew it would be the best option for my future, and would be an empowering, holistic experience to pursue what I dreamed about doing.
What coding knowledge did you have from your college degree?
My statistics degree gave me a background in a few coding languages. I had been using SAS and R, and I used Fortran for one semester. Once I started learning to code I was fascinated, but when I graduated I didn’t understand how to implement what I’d learned in a classroom to real life.
Did you try to learn on your own before you thought about a bootcamp or did you just dive into Tech Talent South? What types of resources did you use?
There are so many resources out there. I was trying to multitask while I was doing QA, and use as many online resources as I could get my hands on to broaden my education. I used Codecademy, Code School, Treehouse, Lynda, and a site called Kaggle that’s really great for people interested in data science.
Did you look at other bootcamps or just Tech Talent South?
I did look at some of the ones that are purely online. But I knew I wanted to be in person, with that one-on-one interaction, and support my local community. Tech Talent South is the only organization to do this for my city.
What factors were important to you when choosing a coding bootcamp?
Did you think about doing another four-year degree in Computer Science?
I did consider it. I greatly appreciate people with a classical education. But I know that because this industry changes so quickly, it’s better to learn fast and hard, than to dedicate that time and money and gain some less than useful information. Also the price is wildly different, and the process is a lot slower in traditional education.
Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
It was about 30 people in the class. I have never been so appreciative of the diversity I saw there. Some students had CS degrees, and some had quit their waitressing jobs the week before. But everyone had this passion for learning. Everyone was accepted no matter their background.
Before that class, when I was working in QA, there were fewer than 10 females in the entire company, and no racial diversity. So to go into the Tech Talent South classroom and see people of different, ages, races and backgrounds was really refreshing, because how can we build products for all people if we’re not including everyone? You have to respect the clients you’re working for, which is hard if you don’t allow them into your offices. So I was really proud of us for bringing our differences together, and the experiences we got out of it was more powerful for that fact. I appreciate it more than many other singular detail.
How did you pay for Tech Talent South? Did you use a financing partner? Did you get a scholarship?
I did get a scholarship, and I did a work-trade. Because of my background in statistics, I was able to help out with the big data analytics class. Betsy is so passionate about making this accessible to people. They have good payment plans, and they have trade with work opportunities sometimes. I was also extremely lucky to have my fiance who helped me with the payment plan because he knew continuing my education was important to me.
What was the learning experience like at Tech Talent South — typical day and teaching style?
The classes are half days. I know some code immersions do full days. But I found the half day really conducive to this type of learning – where you can immerse yourself in a lot of new information, then have time to process it on your own.
We had class with a lecture in the morning with an instructor from 8 am to 11 am, then office hours from 11 am to 12 pm. In the afternoons there was time to have another job, time to work on homework, and any further studies we wanted to do. Then the next morning we did it all over again. I got a part time job at first, but I found I was able to absorb more and dedicate more time to my studies if I just focused on being in class.
What was your favorite project you created?
I really loved doing our final project because at that point we had enough knowledge to imagine a tool we wanted to use and to fully execute it. It was such a powerful feeling for me to host it online, and see it live. My group did a Pinterest-style app called CityBuzz for local businesses to connect with clientele and post promotions, sales, and new openings.
One of the most important classes to me was the day we first used SQL, even though we only had one lecture and one weekend to do an online mini-course. That was one of the most effective steps I took towards my current career. It really was an enlightening experience to go through that part of the course.
Tell me about your new job at TradeKing.
My title is web conversion analyst so I am on a team dedicated to creating the best experience for new clients as they go through the process of creating an account on our site. The account itself can be used to trade stocks, trade options, or to invest in a Roth IRA etc. I’m learning so much and finding it’s a really interesting industry that I had never really seen myself being a part of.
What technologies are you working with at TradeKing?
I use SQL server, R, Python, and Tableau. The tasks I work on are pulling data and performing analysis on our clients, following them through the process of completing an application, and trying to spot places in our process to improve. We’re constantly trying to observe what other people are doing, observe what our clients are going through, and trying to make the process to feel as natural and quick as possible.
How did you find the job? What was the application and interview process like?
I was recruited through LinkedIn, by a local agency that works closely with TradeKing. That was a really exciting way to start a year. In the first week of January 2016 I got a message from the recruiter who was really passionate about the position and interested in me. He had me take some pre-tests on SQL, I did a phone screening, in-person interviews, and a code challenge. It took around 10 days to complete. It’s a really intense but comforting experience to be able to find that compatibility between an employer and employee.
How did Tech Talent South prepare you for finding a job?
In addition to having one-on-one meetings to discuss my hopes, desires, and skills, they connected me with companies I was interested in with direct emails. Tech Talent South encouraged me along the way, and everything I learned in the class helped me be relevant to any development process happening right now. Whether it was understanding the lingo, or being exposed to different tools, I learned to ask the right questions. So if I ever saw something I didn't immediately understand, I wasn’t stuck. They inspired me to reach for things which before I had seen as inaccessible to myself.
What was your original goal in attending a bootcamp? What were your plans after you graduate?
Losing my job was the scariest thing I’ve gone through recently. I was tempted to not work in technology any more, but I just had to acknowledge that this is a difficult industry, and you can’t always control what happens to you. I wanted to be more confident in myself and my ability to pivot. I knew I had this background, this experience, and I could decide how to move forward, and I wanted to do that by being in a developer position. I wanted to combine tech, software, development, and data analysis.
Are you using the tech stack or programming languages you learned at Tech Talent South or a new one?
I did have to learn some new things. When we learned SQL at Tech Talent South, I had never used it before, and that day was a lightbulb moment for me. So when I graduated, SQL was what I pursued the hardest, and one of the reasons I was recruited for this job. I’m also using a bit of my knowledge from my stats degree. I studied R again and picked up Python because I know it’s one of the most powerful data processing languages. I found once you start getting a technical education, and start implementing logic into your day to day tasks, everything starts to feel more natural and you understand what the people you’re collaborating with are doing. So while I don’t use Ruby on Rails in my job right now, I’ve found almost every single thing I learned in that class is still relevant to my career.
What’s been the biggest challenge at your job?
My struggle with confidence. I’m on a small team, in a unique position, and sometimes when you see the brilliance around you, it’s hard to admit you’re on the same level. But with the resources and the support system I have here, it’s about facing each day with courage, being able to move quickly, learn something new in one day, and execute it the next. I have an amazing team.
What sorts of things are you doing to maintain and learn new skills?
I try to read a lot, even if it’s just a couple of Medium articles in the morning on UX or new products. I try to look at my week and balance which tools I’m using and when, so I don’t rely on one too heavily. And then I try to stay curious in my own free time. I still maintain my Lynda membership, and I’ll often play a video while I multi-task to stay as curious as possible.
What advice do you have for people embarking on the job market after taking a bootcamp?
These job seekers are so close to my heart, even if I don’t know them personally, because I know how difficult it is. My advice is to decide on what you want and go for it very confidently. Have the confidence to pivot when you need to. Surround yourself with people whom you can ask questions, or who will give you their unfailing support, and then just know you can do it no matter how difficult it is. It’s strangely difficult for humans to be logical, and that is the foundation of what you learn at a coding bootcamp, no matter what programming language you’re focusing on. So if it feels weird for a day or a week, just know that will pass and you're always gaining valuable skills and experiences.
And when you start a new job, always ask questions of the people you’re working with – they’re a vital resource. If you have good coworkers, they won’t punish you for asking questions. In fact, you’ll have a better experience and a better product afterward.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Tech Talent South?
I hope I’ve been able to express how grateful I am because it’s not common for someone else to want to make you more powerful and confident in yourself. To find this group of people who dedicates every day to doing that for as many people as possible is almost absurd. I’m astounded at what Tech Talent South has been able to build and how they’ve been able to empower people. I still wake up excited that this career change is something I’ve been able to do for myself.