Written By Imogen Crispe
Marisha was a professional soccer player and collegiate soccer coach before she discovered a passion for coding. She taught herself the basics of web development to help with her sister’s startup, and loved the creative problem solving aspect of programming. Marisha chose to enroll at Hackbright Academy coding bootcamp in San Francisco because she wanted to be part of their women-focused network. Marisha tells us about making the decision to use a SkillsFund loan to cover the Hackbright tuition, the similarities between soccer and coding, and how she learned Java from scratch for her new job as a Software Engineer at Ellie Mae.
What is your pre-Hackbright Academy story?
I went to Boston University for undergraduate school and majored in international relations, because I was interested in studying different cultures and doing government work at that time. For most of my life, soccer has been a big passion of mine; I played soccer in college and professionally for a few years after graduating.
After undergrad and playing pro soccer for a few teams in the US and in Europe, I went to England to get a masters degree in education and worked as a collegiate soccer coach for a couple of years at a university in Sacramento, California. I enjoyed coaching, but at the same time I felt like there was another purpose for me. I was so into soccer my whole life, but I felt like I wanted to give back in another way. My sister got into tech a few years before I did and she was always raving about how many opportunities there were in the industry. She encouraged me to work with her on a new startup idea and build a website together, which turned into an interest in coding. I considered pursuing another graduate degree, but I would have had to invest another two years of study, and even more money. I knew that people were getting jobs right out of 12-week coding bootcamps, and I thought that would be a better investment of my time. I eventually applied to Hackbright.
What was the startup you were working on with your sister?
My sister had already founded a couple of startups, and she had an idea to create an online resource for startup founders to share resources, tips, advice, and lessons learned. I helped her with the technical groundwork. I had never taken a computer science class before, so I had to teach myself. I always spent a lot of time on the computer outside of work, but I never thought about learning what was going on behind the scenes until working on this project with her. I used free online resources as much as possible, just to get a feel for it and build that first website. I didn’t start taking any online coding courses until I was applying for Hackbright and needed to get a foundation in Python.
What made you passionate about coding?
When I was an athlete, I felt like I was challenged every day, like I was problem solving and being creative, in a different realm. Aside from playing soccer, I had never really felt that same kind of passion or challenge in a job. With coding, at first glance it can sometimes seem difficult to break down an issue or design a new functionality, and I like the fact that you can be creative, problem solve, build things, and see the immediate results of what you build. That was more intellectually stimulating for me.
Did you research other coding bootcamps or did you have your heart set on Hackbright Academy?
My sister knew one of the founders of Hackbright Academy, so she had mentioned that to me as an option early on in my search. I started researching other coding bootcamps as well, and I ended up deciding between Hackbright and a coding bootcamp in Oakland, CA. My goal was to find a bootcamp that focused on diversity, by bringing underrepresented minority or gender groups into the tech space. After doing research and talking to alumni, I decided on Hackbright. After experiencing an all-women team environment during my soccer career, I realized in many cases that type of environment can automatically make some people feel more comfortable. They can achieve more because they are part of a team, supporting each other rather than competing with each other, which makes learning something completely new a little bit easier. I knew that I’d have a big network after graduating from Hackbright, which would probably help me land my first and second job, and be able to create lifelong connections with women on a similar path.
Was it important for you to learn Python?
I was still new enough to programming that I didn’t feel I had a solid grasp of what type of language I wanted to learn. I felt that just by being in that environment and learning a first coding language was enough.I did like Python because it is a functional language and more human-readable, which is why Hackbright focuses on Python as a foundational language. Plus, a lot of my classmates at Hackbright are now using it in their jobs. I ended up learning a different programming language for my job, but I think the Python curriculum at Hackbright is really good; it challenges you every day.
How did you pay for Hackbright Academy tuition? Did you use a financing partner?
When I joined Hackbright, I was able to put down a little bit of money, and I received a small financial scholarship from Hackbright, but I had to get a private loan from SkillsFund for the remaining tuition. Paying for the bootcamp definitely has to be a consideration for people. Depending on your financial situation and what you end up earning after the bootcamp, you might be able to pay that loan back pretty quickly. I know some students were able to pay for tuition outright or have others support them, which would, of course, be the ideal situation. However, if you don’t have that option, taking out a loan might be a risk you have to take to put yourself in a better position. It would be great if Hackbright and other bootcamps could provide more financial assistance to those students who are talented but might not otherwise be able to afford the opportunity.
What was the application and interview process like for you?
The admissions process had a pretty quick turnaround since I was applying closer to the start date of a new cohort. You submit an application online, and have to complete a coding challenge. The prerequisites include taking a couple of Python courses online, which shouldn’t take too long. You have to be successful in the coding challenge and then you get interviewed by alumni of the program – every cohort has the opportunity to interview new applicants. If you pass that interview, the recruiting staff interview you and contact you with their decision.
How many people were in your cohort? Was your class diverse in terms of race, life and career backgrounds?
My class was very diverse in terms of career backgrounds. There were about 36 students in a cohort when I was at Hackbright (they now have two smaller cohorts running simultaneously). It’s interesting you asked about diversity because that’s something I noticed towards the end of Hackbright. My final project was related to diversity in tech, so I looked at the numbers in companies for race and gender, and as I did that, I also looked around in my cohort. There were different ethnic groups represented in my cohort, but proportionally it could have been better. In addition to gender diversity, incorporating a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds into programs like Hackbright is very important for overall sustainability and improving diversity in the tech industry.
What was the learning experience like at Hackbright Academy — share a typical day with us!
On a typical day, we were onsite at Hackbright from 10am until 6pm, Monday through Friday. We had two lectures a day: morning and afternoon. After our lectures we do pair programming, alternating with different partners throughout the duration of the program. All the exercises and hands-on learning are done through pair programming, until we do our final solo project during the last half of the course. Hackbright does a really great job with the curriculum. They have great instructors, and with the evenings and weekends off, you have some time to further study and prepare for the next day’s material.
Another part of Hackbright’s learning experience is that there is a good amount of time dedicated to discussion. They split up the discussions so that people who have more experience on the topic, and people with less experience can discuss things separately. That makes it less daunting to ask questions and feel comfortable about it.
Did you notice a difference being in a learning environment with all women versus your co-ed college experience?
I wouldn’t say it was better or worse, I just think I learn differently in those environments. Maybe it’s easier for some women who are surrounded by women to speak up, and ask the questions they want to ask. It’s just more of an open and supportive environment.
Can you tell me about the diversity project you worked on for your final solo project?
I was really interested in learning more about the tech landscape. Diversity in tech is such a hot topic, and has been for the last few years. Some companies have started voluntarily reporting their diversity information to the public, and I wanted to find a way for both employers and job seekers to visualize that data and see how other companies are doing. I created an application that has information about all the companies that I’ve found which have publically reported gender and ethnicity statistics. The user can play with the data, compare the companies with each other, and see how much a company’s workforce statistics are representative of the US population. Companies are ranked on how they are doing in terms of gender and ethnicity, and I also built an option for current employees to write reviews on their company. In addition, users can see news stories that are related to companies’ diversity efforts. I’ve deployed it online at diversitech.io and I’m still working on it regularly and updating it with company information.
How did Hackbright Academy prepare you for job hunting?
Hackbright does a really good job helping set to set the landscape for what to expect by providing tools and interview practice for the job search. Through the mentor program, each student is matched with three mentors who work in the industry and volunteer their time to help with projects, questions, and the job search. Some alumni stay connected with their mentor after they graduate from the program, which indicates what a great resource it is. I actually found my job through a referral from my mentor, so I feel very fortunate for that. Hackbright makes really strong initial connections for alumni because they have a whole network of partnerships with tech companies.
Unless people have prior work experience in tech, it can be more challenging to find a job right away. You have to study, prepare, and learn from every interview you go on. Hackbright puts you in the mindset to learn and understand the overall picture, but it’s really up to each person to work hard and continue to develop after the program to land a job.
What are you doing now? Tell us about your new job!
For eight months, I’ve worked at Ellie Mae, a software company in the real estate industry which focuses on automating the loan origination process. It’s a medium-size company which has been around for 19 years. I work within the platform engineering division. I was the first junior engineer within that division, and also the first coding bootcamp alum! It’s been a really good learning experience because right now we’re upgrading, migrating, and developing new services in order to become a public-cloud based platform company. They are using a lot of new tech resources, refactoring, and creating new microservices, so it’s a really exciting time for me to join. Everyone on my team is learning something new at the same time. There are also a number of other women on the engineering team– in fact, there might even be more women than men on my team, including QA test engineers.
You mentioned you had to learn a new language for your job. What technologies are you using at Ellie Mae and how did you ramp up?
I had to learn Java right off the bat when I got here. We use MySQL for database management and AWS for deploying our microservices, which is another exciting technology. Even though Hackbright trained us to be full stack developers, I’m primarily working on back end development in my first role.
During the interview process, I had to start learning Java before I went in, but for the most part I just learned by doing on the job. I started off just writing tests to understand the codebase first, then I was able to get into development pretty quickly. The pace was pretty fast on my team when I joined. I had to sink or swim with Java.
How do you stay involved with Hackbright? Have you kept in touch with other alumni?
I went to their 2016 holiday party recently! They have events all the time, they keep alumni up to date, and send out a bi-weekly email with alumni and other tech-related events. My cohort schedules our own events to keep in touch a few times a year. It’s only been a year since I graduated but we’ve met up pretty frequently. You tend to stay in communication with the people you’ve found a job close to, but I feel like I could still reach out to any of them – it’s still a close bond, even though it was such a short period of time.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Make an effort to really understand the industry you’re getting into. It’s the hot thing right now to be in tech, and it’s definitely a big part of the future. But you have to try it out, build something, and work out, “Do I really like this? Do I want to be doing this all day every day?” There are people who know they do and are really passionate about it. Before switching careers and deciding, “This sounds so great,” do your due diligence. I would recommend meeting with a few people in the industry who have full-time software engineering jobs. Don’t be afraid to ask them what their typical work day is like, what their career trajectory in this industry has been like, and what they see as the great future opportunities in the tech industry.
For me, Hackbright Academy was a great opportunity. Life is too short not to pursue your dreams and take risks, and if you are willing to do it, a coding bootcamp can be a great option. It may be a big cost in the short term, but you can reap a lot of benefits.
Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves exploring technology and education in her work.
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