As a math and science teacher, Rebecca was always interested in using technology in the classroom, but it wasn’t until working in EdTech that she saw a career for herself as a developer. So in 2016, she enrolled at Hackbright Academy, the all-women Python bootcamp in San Francisco, to make the career change. Rebecca tells us how Hackbright Academy’s teaching style compared to traditional education, what she got from learning amongst women, and why she was admittedly picky while interviewing for her first job as a Software Engineer at Streak!
What were you up to before Hackbright Academy?
I was on the pre-med path in college before finally getting the guts to tell my family that I didn’t want to be a doctor. So naturally, I instead graduated with a degree in Spanish. But I had always had a penchant for teaching and working with kids, so I applied for Teach for America and taught middle school Math and Science in North Carolina.
After teaching for five years, my husband George was bitten by the startup bug and we decided to move to the Bay Area. I used that move as an opportunity to transition from the classroom to...literally anything else. I ended up finding a position in customer service in an EdTech company, which is where I started to get more technical.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a software engineer?
I was always interested in tech in the classroom and I had always had a propensity for math and science, but it wasn't until I joined that EdTech company that I started to actually parse JSON and work with a database or an API. I kept learning those things as a customer service representative, moved on to manage the team, and then I moved into product management. As a product manager, I missed debugging and doing the technological stuff. When I realized that this piece was missing, that was a huge part of my decision to go to Hackbright Academy.
How did you first learn to code on your own?
The way you learn to code really depends on your learning style and also the people who are around to teach you. Interestingly, as a customer service representative, no one expected me to be very technical. But I found that I could do a much better and more efficient job if I was, so I found some engineers who were willing to help me.
They later admitted that they only taught me because I was a quick learner and because I taught others once they had taught me. That actually brought an efficiency to the rest of the team and prevented engineers from having to answer the same question over and over again. They learned that it was to their benefit to answer my questions.
Whatever I couldn't figure out, I would try to figure it out online first. I spent a lot of time Googling little pieces and asking for help when I ran into a wall and didn't feel like I could go any further in the debugging process.
Did you think about going back to college or getting a masters degree instead of a coding bootcamp?
I found that the return on investment for a coding bootcamp was so much better than going back to college, which is a much bigger monetary investment and a much longer time investment.
Once you decided to attend a coding bootcamp did you research other bootcamps, or did you have your heart set on Hackbright?
I decided to only look at schools in San Francisco. I had really good friends graduate from Dev Bootcamp and eventually work there, so I knew a bunch about Dev Bootcamp. Another friend went to Hack Reactor. But most of my friends had been to Hackbright Academy, and I heard from them that Hackbright offered the most in terms of career opportunities, name recognition, mission, mentoring, and pedagogy – I had my heart set on Hackbright.
Was it important to you to learn with all women at Hackbright?
Actually, that was the aspect I was least excited about because I've always been one of the guys. I was actually pretty terrified that I wouldn't get along with anybody, but it turns out that I could not have been more wrong and I was delighted to be proved wrong. The women in my cohort are some of the best people in the whole world and I'm so grateful to have been surrounded by each of them.
Something interesting and unexpected was that we started recognizing and dropping the niceties that we put into place as a result of being women in the workplace. That was actually spurred on by the teachers at Hackbright. For example, one time my classmate answered a question with “I think…” and the instructor responded back, “Why are you prefacing your answer? You’re totally correct, so why don’t you just say the answer if you know it?” That’s a verbal nicety that women use in the workplace to seem less bossy and assertive.
Together we broke down some of those niceties that we had added into our language in order to fit into a mold. I don't think that we could have accomplished that in a co-ed environment. Being in an all-women classroom started a lot of great conversations between us as a cohort and women in the workplace and even personally. I continue to inspire those conversations between me and my friends of all different genders.
Since changing my career into tech, I had a conversation with my mom where she actually apologized for not pushing me towards computer science because it is so incredibly male dominated. I think that that's a really interesting reflection on her part. I just didn’t know that computer science was an option.
Was it hard to get into Hackbright?
With your background working in education and working for an EdTech company, what did you think of the Hackbright teaching style?
Overall, I really loved it. From a pedagogical standpoint, there was a great mix of learning and doing. There's a huge difference between hearing about a topic and actually doing it yourself.
When I was teaching in my own classroom, I very purposefully broke it down into I Do//We Do//You Do structure, and the most benefit to my students was when they actually got their hands dirty. I thought Hackbright allowed us time to get our hands dirty with enough structure and support that we never felt like we were flailing, which is the dangerous flipside of that teaching style. And their student to teacher ratio was very well suited to the environment.
The only critique that I could offer is that Hackbright didn't tell us their pedagogical method until the very end of the program. Their pedagogical approach works for motivated adult learners, which essentially means that they're going to throw more information at you than you could ever possibly absorb. Then, you rely on your own passion and interest to allow you to dive deeply into a specific technology that you’re interested in.
I knew it would be like learning from a fire hose, but since I had come from a background in traditional education, I assumed that if the information was presented, then I needed to know it. So I had this mismatch of expectations between the traditional schooling that I had received in the past and the pedagogy that they were using. It could have made it a little less stressful for me if I had known that up front, but I don’t regret the way I approached it.
What was your favorite project that you built at Hackbright?
We did a lot of little projects that were very structured and gave us an opportunity to dive deep into the lecture of that day. We also worked on a capstone project, which we displayed at demo night.
My favorite project was my solo capstone project, which was called Shnerdy. Shnerdy lets users search for very specific tee-shirts. The biggest thing that I learned was how to debug my own code and move forward on my own. I learned a lot of the broad strokes from Hackbright, but then if I really wanted to dive deep, I had to figure out how to do that myself and how to implement that technology.
What I learned through my project was how to manipulate the DOM, get specific information into a database from my front end or even transmitting information through Python on the back end.
Did you get a job during Demo Day? What are you up to now?
I didn't get hired from that demo day, but I found a job at a company called Streak and I absolutely love it. Streak is a Chrome extension, and it’s like a CRM for your inbox. I was very picky when I was interviewing with companies.
You said you were picky about choosing your first company to work for – what stood out about Streak as a new developer?
I wanted to work for a company where I could add value, first and foremost. The other thing I looked for was a supportive environment. And I don’t mean supportive in terms of, 'Tell, me what to do and when to do it," but supportive of my nontraditional background.
A lot of people will tell you to hide the fact that you’re a junior developer. To me, that sounds like a really good way to be very unhappy, very quickly. So I wanted to work for a company that didn't hold my hand but also had a realistic viewpoint of where I was coming from.
I have no regrets about being picky now. I cannot speak highly enough of the way in which Streak has incorporated my background into the role that I'm doing now to make it a good transition for me. I love the people I'm working with and I love the job I'm doing. It is incredibly challenging and I'm learning a lot. I also feel like I'm learning at a pace and a level that is appropriate to where I'm at, and in the long run, it's going to make me a really phenomenal engineer.
Do you think that your previous background as a teacher and working in customer service has been useful in your new job as a developer?
Absolutely. I've learned something different from each realm and each career that I've had up to this point, even though it's been very difficult. For instance, when I was transitioning out of the classroom and looking for different jobs, I cannot tell you the number of times when an interviewer said, "It's really interesting that you're interviewing for this role, especially considering that you're just a teacher."
I have managed and taught a class of 42 thirteen-year-olds at once – I challenge anyone to do that and not learn something about managing a team. I think that those skills will continue to be important throughout the course of my career. Having been a teacher, I have a greater understanding of what makes a good student and that has been really valuable as I go back to basics and learn about being a software engineer.
Do you feel like you learned everything you needed to know at Hackbright for your first job at Streak? What has the transition been like into the tech world?
I think Hackbright does a wonderful job teaching you as much as they can in the time window that they have. I discussed this with my CTO and one of the co-founders at Streak – I'm going to be learning at an incredible pace for at least six months.
Have you stayed involved with Hackbright after graduating?
Yes, and that’s a really big deal for me. I wasn't expecting to fall so completely in love with all of these women. Actually, my cohort and I have dinner every other week. And there’s usually a group of like three to eight of us, that will go to events together, which is really neat. I am also a mentor at Hackbright, which means that I am helping somebody through their current bootcamp experience. Additionally, I'm also an ambassador for Hackbright Academy, meaning that I represent them at various events when they need a voice.
Do you want to go back to working in EdTech at some point? What are your plans for the future?
Some of the best advice I got was from one of my mentors at Hackbright. I assumed that since I had a background in education, I would need to work in EdTech. My mentor said, "Becca, you are an engineer. Engineers are profession-agnostic. You have a great background in education and in tech, but as an engineer, you shouldn't pigeonhole yourself into one sector.” I took that advice to heart and so, no, it's not a personal goal of mine to get back into EdTech at all.
What’s your advice to other folks thinking about doing Hackbright?
Since graduating from Hackbright, everybody's been asking me, "So, do you like being a developer?" It's like they expect me to not be sure if I liked the career. For me, that was never something that I was concerned about because I had tried learning to code before and knew I would enjoy the technical part of this job. So my advice for anyone considering a coding bootcamp is to ask yourself, “How do you know that you'll like this?” I also say that in a slightly selfish way because there is a generalization about bootcampers that they won’t like programming and be good at their jobs, and that’s hurting the reputation of bootcamps.
Hackbright does a great job making sure that they admit people who are passionate about being a developer. This fights that stereotype, but it's really unfortunate that a lot of folks make this incredible transition and huge financial commitment only to figure out three months into their job that they don't actually like being a developer. So I would encourage folks to figure out how they know that they're going to like programming and to go from there.
Otherwise, I think that coding bootcamps, in general, show a really good return on investment and I would encourage anybody who is sure that they're passionate about this career to dive in.