Whether Nikki Woelk was working in Drupal and PHP or in non-profit fundraising, her goals have always aligned with meaningful companies working to make the world a happier place. When she decided to transition back into a technical role, Nikki was sold on online bootcamp Bloc because of the chance to work 1-on-1 with a mentor and update her skills at her own pace. While she learned Rails with her mentor, Chris Beck, Nikki applied for a Software Engineer job at Kiva, an online lending platform. We talk to Nikki about flexibility at Bloc, the technical interview process at Kiva and how she’s seen the women-in-tech community change for the better.
What were you up to before you started at Bloc?
Immediately before starting at Bloc, I was the development database manager for a large environmental non-profit. “Development” here meant fundraising, not technical development. I was more of the end-user application manager of the database that managed donors and donations.
Did that job require a technical background at all?
I did have a previous tech background, so I used what I could there.
10-15 years ago, I was working at a small web development company in San Francisco building e-commerce sites. When that disbanded, I started freelancing for a lot of those clients, on and off for about 7 years. Freelancing was becoming increasingly isolating and I wasn’t learning everything that I thought I could be learning.
Freelancing is what a lot of people aspire to, but it’s also hard to manage work-life balance because you’re spending all of your time working on your clients and then you wind up spending all your free time learning to keep up with the technology that’s changing so fast. I didn’t feel like I was growing.
I like technology, but it’s very important to me that I’m working on something very meaningful to me, and hopefully contributing to make this world a happier place.
You were writing in Drupal and PHP in your job 10-15 years ago?
I wound up doing mostly Drupal. When I started out, my first professional language was ColdFusion and then I picked up a little bit of PHP. I continued with freelance clients in ColdFusion and gradually picked up more PHP on my own.
Did you keep your job at the environmental non-profit while you did Bloc?
I did; I was not prepared to not have any income for weeks, so I looked at online programs where I did not have to quit my job.
Did you ever look at an in-person coding bootcamp? Did you look at other online coding bootcamps?
So many people told me that with my experience, I could probably get a job with my current skills, but since I was out of technology for so long, I didn’t really feel like a developer anymore.
I knew that I couldn’t afford to quit my job and do a 15 week bootcamp full time. Financially, that was beyond what I was looking for.
I heard about Bloc and everything about it resonated. It was online, but you got to work with a dedicated mentor and that was really the big deciding factor for me. One of the things that I was missing while freelancing was working with other people and feedback. I can figure out solutions to problems I run into, but did I do it the best way? Is there a more elegant way?
I learn well in one-on-one interactions and the fact that you could choose a mentor with Bloc and then work with him or her in a dedicated fashion throughout the whole program, it just resonated with me.
Was there an application process at Bloc?
I just enrolled. However, I heard about Bloc through a talk at a Women Who Code Meetup and heard about a scholarship with Women Who Code. I did apply for the Women Who Code Scholarship and I got it. To be part of this community around women in tech and to be able to take advantage of a resource like that was pretty incredible, because that kind of community certainly didn’t exist 15 years ago when I got into tech.
Was it a long process to get that Bloc scholarship?
No, it wasn’t. I filled out an application with a little bit about my background and why I wanted to attend Bloc and somebody from Bloc called and we had a nice chat.
Congrats! So you enroll in Bloc, then how did you choose your mentor?
I live in the Bay area and went to a Bloc happy hour a couple of weeks before I was supposed to choose my mentor. Because I had a chunk of experience, a few people counseled me to choose some of the more experienced mentors. Somebody suggested Chris Beck, who is now the head mentor.
Chris also just launched an online Slack community for his former, current and future students.
How personalized did you feel the Bloc curriculum was to your needs at the time?
I pretty closely stuck to the curriculum. Having said that and having worked with Chris, I know he and any of the other mentors would’ve been completely flexible with folding in and working on other things you wanted to learn.
For me, because I wasn’t new to programming, I always tried to do the extra projects since I was getting through the basics fairly quickly. I think the mentors are totally amenable to being flexible and adding in other technologies.
When you wanted to go deeper into the curriculum, was that material available?
I know where my interests lie in programming. I’m basically a back-end programmer, but for my own edification I’ve always been interested in learning more front-end stuff and I certainly could have pushed to add more of that onto my projects.
Was your motivation to get a job as a software developer once you finished Bloc?
Yes- what I predicted was to go through the 3-month program with Bloc and then start interviewing and just try to get my foot in the door somewhere and continue learning Rails skills, since that’s the program that I was enrolled in. That’s not exactly what happened, because within weeks of starting the Bloc program I saw this job posting for a developer at Kiva and I just knew had to throw my hat in the ring.
The entire time that I was at Bloc I was also in this interview process with Kiva.
What does Kiva do?
Kiva is an online lending platform that works to alleviate poverty globally.
So you were applying for the Kiva job in September while you were doing Bloc; was your mentor Chris helpful in that? Did you talk about that application?
That was one of the best things about having access to a well-learned mentor. I’ve had online sessions with him right after I had an interview, so I could talk with him and decompress and it was great. His moral support through the whole interview process was great and he also ended up being a reference for me.
I saw the job posting for Software Engineer at Kiva in September and the phone interview started in October; the whole process took about 3 months. I had to go in for a couple of interviews and do an at-home programming assignment as well.
That’s pretty intense!
I had to slow down the whole Bloc process as well, it was a lot to juggle.
I was initially doing the 36-week program. The 72 week program seemed much too slow for my purposes.
But then I wound up going through it a little bit more slowly even though I was going through the course material quickly. It was a lot to manage with the full-time job and the interview process at Kiva, so I needed more mental space. The other great thing about Bloc is they’re totally flexible. We were meeting twice a week online, but we switched to once a week. It was flexible.
In your job at Kiva, you’re a PHP developer. What is interesting to Kiva that you were learning Rails at Bloc?
I think it was important to see that I could learn new technologies. The hiring manager was fantastic. It was the first technical interview that I’ve ever had, and his perspective was that it’s more important that you can learn because technology is always going to change.
The fact that I was putting myself out there and picking up another skill demonstrated that I could learn.
Are there things you learned at Bloc that are applicable to your new job as a PHP Developer?
Even though I had worked in PHP before, that was all procedural. Working in an object-oriented framework like Rails helped me think in a more object-oriented manner.
I had never written a unit test before so learning unit and testing concepts was useful. I had never used Git before and I didn’t know anything about database migrations, which I learned at Bloc. The “gems bundler” concept in Rails is analogous to PHP Composer, which I had never used before. These are all very real day-to-day things that I’d never had experience with before.
It was really great coming to work with that experience and not feeling like I was completely fumbling with what I thought should be really basic stuff.
How large is the Dev team that you work on at Kiva?
It’s around 30 people.
Whoa, that’s huge!
Yeah, Kiva has a lot going on. It’s so complex which is one of the things that I love about it. It’s a financial engine because we’re managing loans. We have a lot of internal tools that the public never sees that help partners and borrowers do their work. Then we have the public website which is obviously what people see and use.
What are you working on at Kiva today?
The biggest project that I’m working on right now is rebuilding our data warehouse. We’re building our analytics platform from the ground up so that means I’m using a lot of those SQL skills.
You said that your hiring manager going through the interview wanted someone who could learn; do you feel like you’re in a supportive learning environment at Kiva?
The people here are incredibly supportive. I had this fear going in that I’d been out of the game in some respects for so long, but the people that I work with are so great and so helpful and supportive. If I don’t know something, I just ask.
It’s also very team-oriented so I work with people on a regular basis and we collaborate and we bounce back ideas on the best way to handle things.
Are their women on your team at Kiva?
There are! We’re a minority but we’re definitely here.
What is your experience as a woman in tech fifteen years ago versus now?
I’ve always been really lucky. Today I hear horror stories and have some friends and colleagues that have a really difficult time navigating the gender gap.
When I worked at the small development company there were only 7 of us; it was really a supportive environment and the guys that I worked with were great and they actually had a couple of other female developers then as well. What I feel has really changed, which is part of the reason why I still keep a foot in the Rails community, is all the support for women.
A couple months ago I volunteered as a teaching assistant at a Railsbridge workshop. I can go to a Women Who Code meetup just to hang out with other female developers and feel like I’m not in a bubble.
That community didn’t exist before. I remember going to workshops after work 15 years ago and there were maybe 5 women for every 100 men and nobody talked to you. It wasn’t unfriendly but I didn’t feel connected to the community. The fact that there are so many events around women in tech is just amazing.
Would you recommend Bloc to a friend? Is there anyone that you wouldn’t recommend it to?
The only time I wouldn’t recommend it would be based on the person. Don’t go to any coding bootcamp because you think it’s the “hot thing.” You have to actually like to code!