blog article

Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Smyth of General Assembly

By Imogen Crispe
Last updated on April 19, 2016

    Table of Contents

  • Q&A


Rachel was a touring singer/songwriter, classical musician, and finalist on American Idol before she switched careers to become a developer. After graduating from General Assembly’s Web Development Immersive program in NYC, Rachel landed her dream job as a full stack developer for Stationhead, a startup at the intersection of music & tech. Rachel tells us about the similarities between music and coding, her learning experience at General Assembly, and jam sessions with her new co-workers!


What is your pre-bootcamp story? What is your educational background? Your last career path?

I have a degree in classical voice and I was a singer for many years. I was a finalist on American Idol and toured successfully for several years. But I was ready to try something different and I had always liked technology. I coded my first websites in DOS when I was nine years old. My brother is a developer at Google, and he had some co workers who went to General Assembly, and suggested I check it out. Since my entire education was in classical music, you could consider me a real tech newbie.

What was your career goal in attending a coding bootcamp?

I originally I thought I would go into data science and learn Python, but I knew I should first learn HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Ruby. A coding bootcamp seemed to be the quickest way to ramp up – and at the very least, I knew I would get some good connections.

Did you consider doing a 4-year CS degree?

I did. I had started a Masters at McGill and I was going to go back to college for computer science. But I talked to my brother about going back to school and he said, “Why get a CS degree? A lot of what you use in programming you don’t learn in a CS degree, you may as well go to a bootcamp and get practical knowledge building projects.”

Did you look at other coding bootcamps or did you only apply to General Assembly NYC?

I looked at the women’s coding bootcamp Hackbright Academy, but it was in San Francisco. Because I wanted to stay in New York, I was deciding between Flatiron School and General Assembly. Flatiron School seemed to focus more on Ruby, and I had seen less job postings for junior Ruby developers. My thought process was that if I’m just getting started in tech, I’d rather have more options and not be fighting for four or five jobs. I also know people who have gone to Flatiron and totally loved it.

How did you pay for the Web Development Immersive? Did you use a financing partner? Did you get a scholarship?

I had a combination of scholarship funding and I had been saving up to go back to school to get a CS degree, so I had a good amount in savings.

What was your class like? Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?

There were 30 of us, including six women, who were all smart and cool. At General Assembly you have your own class, and students in other classes whom you can talk to, and learn things from in a different way. There’s a real sense of community. There is some competitiveness in that everyone wants to be the best they can be, but everybody wants to help each other learn.

We had all kinds of backgrounds. Someone from QA, entrepreneurs, mechanical engineers, CS majors who wanted more practical experience, marketers, people from nonprofits, and someone who had quit pre-med. The youngest person was 20, and we had a guy in his late 40s. People say tech is a youth-centric industry, but slightly older people shouldn’t be discouraged from doing a coding bootcamp. It’s never too late. If you like building things why not do it?

What programming languages did you learn in the General Assembly WDI?

When I was there, GA was changing the curriculum a bit. We learned full MEAN stack, which includes MongoDB, Express, Angular, Node, NoSQL, SQL, and a little bit of React, so very JavaScript-based. But we also did a heavy unit on Ruby and Ruby on Rails.

What was the learning experience like at General Assembly?

Classes start at 9am, and latecomers do miss out. General Assembly introduces students to tech culture and agile methodologies straight away, so we start with stand ups and say what we’ve been working on, our strengths, and weaknesses. Then we do exercises, and analyze our goals for the day and week. Most days we have one or two lectures and a lab, and there was a lot of emphasis on building projects. The lectures go over some theory behind what you’re learning, then the labs reinforce the theory and apply it by building something. Class gets out at 5pm, then we have homework assignments, which most students would work on until 7pm or 8pm at night. I would often work on homework until midnight. I wanted to keep reinforcing, and practicing, drilling this information into my brain.

What did you think of this style of learning?

I liked it. Rather than sitting in a lecture for four hours where your brain spaces out, we had lectures that are 1.5 hours maximum, with breaks in between. It’s hard and intensive, but they are very thoughtful in how they structure the day. In General Assembly classes they don’t just teach you the nuts and bolts of how to build things, but also how to look at documentation, how to find answers, and how to debug your code. You learn how to learn.

Have you found many parallels between music and coding?

While I was in the course and building things, I realized it’s so much like music. You start with nothing and the possibilities are really endless – my imagination is the limit. Being a developer is pretty close to being a musician in that respect – you can build anything. I think it’s fun and fascinating. It’s a lot more creative than people think.

What about the logic side, do you see parallels there with music?

Yes, classical music is very analytical. I studied Baroque music and worked on things that are creative, but historically informed. So that’s very similar to coding too – the sky is the limit, but you need to work in the right framework, and have a good structural plan before you begin. I’m very creative, but I also like being really technical and analytical. As a developer you need both of those. You need to be able to figure out how to make a project look good, and also how to make sure it works and make it scalable. I did pop and classical music, so I’m used to being super creative, just going with the flow, but also knowing how to make informed decisions.

What was your favorite project that you created? Did you get to use your own ideas?

Every two weeks there would be some kind of major assignment – either a mini app or full fledged project. I loved our group project and I got to do some project management too. It was fun and a great learning experience. I was lucky that my team members were also awesome. We built a trivia app called Battle Royale. We got to deal with opening instantaneous connections and having users be able to play against each other. I also made a wedding planning app for all of my friends who are planning their weddings.

What are you up to after graduating from the General Assembly course?

When I decided I was going to work in tech, and be a developer rather than work in data science, I started thinking about my dream job. I thought I’d like to do something to do with music, and I’d like to help artists monetize their creations. And that’s exactly where I landed! I work at a startup called Stationhead, and it’s totally my dream job. Many of the developers are also musicians, so it’s a really special place and I’m super happy.

What does Stationhead do? And what’s your role?

We’re in stealth mode until our app deploys in a few weeks, but I can confidently say Stationhead is going to change the way you listen to, create, and consume music. I’m a full stack developer – I do what needs doing. If there is work on the back end, work on the database, work in the frontend, I can do it. Everyone on our team works on the full stack. There are 10 to 15 people and most of us are developers, with three or four people in operations.

How did you find the job at Stationhead?

On a site called Liquid Talent, which I love – it’s like Tinder meets LinkedIn. You can see a bunch of companies who are looking to hire now, and you can send them messages. It’s very informal and fast. I messaged Stationhead saying, your website looks like it needs work, if you’re hiring, let’s talk! I was very ballsy, and it worked. I graduated in December 2015, took some time off for the holidays, then General Assembly hired me to be TA in January 2016. I Interviewed with Stationhead in February, and started working for them in March.

What was the interview/application process?

There was a phone conversation, an in-person interview, then I worked with the team for a couple of hours to see how I mesh with Stationhead. We’re in stealth mode so I can’t talk about the specifics of the stacks they use, but in the phone interview they told me they worked in languages and frameworks that I hadn’t learned. But this was my dream job, and General Assembly taught me not only how to code, but how to learn to code. I had four days until my in-office interview, so I decided to watch every tutorial I could, build a mini project, and land this job. And I did it, so thanks General Assembly!

How did General Assembly prepare you for the job hunt?

The Outcomes team coaches you on getting jobs and how to take advantage of your past experience. They kept stressing that even though we may not have technical backgrounds, that gives us added tangential experience that a lot of other applicants don’t have. It can help set you apart in a positive way. They also cover how to network at meetups, how to write a good resume when you have little to no technical experience, how to prepare for technical interviews, and how to negotiate. A lot of their job is helping us feel confident, because we’re all thinking “how can I get a job? No one's ever going to hire me.” And the Outcomes team says “relax, take inventory of the skills you have, figure out how best to present yourself, and you’ll be fine.”

What does your day look like as a web developer?

I love it, I'm coding 10 to 12 hours a day. We have a very small team so there’s a higher level of responsibility and accountability, which can be a bit scary, but it’s also so rewarding. I know that when people download this app, they are going to use features I built and that is awesome. When you’re in a small team you can directly see your contributions.

What was the ramp up period like at your new job?

My team is all still learning. I remember seeing a cartoon that said Google was officially changing “web development” to “searching through Stackoverflow.” Part of being a developer is figuring out how to fix things. That’s what we do all day, we fix things. Also, I currently work with one of my former teachers from General Assembly at Stationhead. I brought him onto the team and now we work together.

We’re getting the app ready to deploy on May 1st. So keep an eye out for us in the iOS app store!

Now that you’re a web developer are you still doing music and singing?

I’m still singing and recording. I’m in three bands and recently did a Christmas and Easter recording for my church. I’m in a wedding band, my church band and I have my own singer/songwriter band where I do original music. And at the Stationhead office we have pianos and guitars and I brought my ukulele in, so sometimes we have jam sessions. At 8pm or 9pm at night if we’ve been working on a bug for six hours, we might crack a couple beers, play some tunes, and get back to work. One of our lead developers on the backend was playing on the Tonight Show last week with his band. I am literally living my dream, it’s great.

What advice do you have for people making a career change after bootcamp?

  1. I was thinking about doing a coding bootcamp for 18 months before I actually did it, and now I’m annoyed I spent that time not doing it. If you’re on the fence, take a short workshop, jump in. Because there is no time like the present to start doing what you love.
  2. With any coding bootcamp the experience is what you make of it. Students who leave class at 5pm and don’t do the homework may not have same experience as people who put in the hours. A bootcamp doesn’t magically make you a wonderful developer, it gives you the tools so you can help yourself. You must be willing to make that commitment.
  3. Also, I’m hispanic and a woman and I found out about lots of scholarship opportunities after I had already applied and been accepted to General Assembly. So if you are in an underrepresented group, research your scholarship options, because even if your school doesn’t offer scholarships, there are a bunch out there.

General Assembly is great; I learned how to learn and it changed my life for the better. I am literally living my dream.

Find out more and read General Assembly reviews on Course Report. And check out the General Assembly website.

About The Author

Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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