Terri was a graphic designer in Hong Kong, but when she moved to the Bay Area she wanted to get in on the tech scene. An advocate of #changetheratio, Terri enrolled at Hackbright Academy women’s coding bootcamp to turn herself into a unicorn bridging the divide between design and engineering. Now Terri is a UX Engineer at GoDaddy and creating beautiful, functional, intuitive user experiences. Terri tells us why she enjoyed learning with all women at Hackbright Academy, why pair programming is so important, and what it’s like being a UX Engineer.
What is your pre-bootcamp story? Your educational background? Your last career path?
I went to Hong Kong Baptist University and majored in Digital Graphic Communication, where I learned graphic design, interaction design, and 3D animation. I combined my minor in Business and picked a focus on Branding. But when I graduated I didn’t end up being a graphic designer straight away. My first job was a producer in a 3D animation production company. They needed someone who could communicate between the design side and the technical side. So my main job was being the communicator between the client who doesn’t know the technology, and the technical staff. Although I was not employed as a designer I picked up design tasks such as company branding on social media alongside my main role.
After that job, I landed an opportunity to build a mobile app with teams in China and Hong Kong, and again, my title was not designer but Project Manager - the communicator between the iOS and Android team, and business decision makers. I also served as gatekeeper for designs and worked with Branding team to polish the campaign. My third job was at a tech startup in Hong Kong where I was finally a graphic designer, and I focused on UI for web and mobile apps.
Why did you want to change career paths and do a coding bootcamp?
I had recently moved to the Bay Area, and I was thinking about doing a bootcamp before I arrived because I knew the area was a tech hub. The reason I decided to switch from pure design to something more technical is because I finished another bootcamp in Hong Kong, which taught me how to build a startup from idea to company. During that process, everything went fine until I was trying to build my website. I could do really good visual UI, but I couldn’t code, and it really frustrated me. I had an idea in my head but couldn’t turn it into a product. I realized coding has an irreplaceable power, it can help me turn ideas in my head into a real product, effectively and precisely.
As I kept reading more about Silicon Valley, and meeting people from the Bay Area at startup events, I heard that companies were looking for unicorns. A unicorn is someone who can bridge the gap between design and engineering. I realized I already had a design background, so why not acquire one more skill, coding, and make myself a unicorn? Plus, I hoped it would help me easily transition into this environment and prepare me for finding a new job when I relocate. I also did some research on career and salary. From a lifelong perspective, the leap from pure design to a unicorn role is likely to pay off well, and provide more career options.
There are a lot of coding bootcamps in the Bay Area, what made you choose Hackbright?
I knew about Hackbright before I moved here, from my research on bootcamps. Hackbright is special, they emphasize supporting and empowering women who are changing careers to tech. Their proposition resonated with me because I am an only child, born in China and raised in a family where they appreciate boys over girls. I grew up in an environment where it takes more effort for girls to achieve the same thing as boys. So I understand the need of having support in critical times, like during a career change. That’s why I chose Hackbright. I definitely needed that support and I needed a group of people who shared the same mission to support women.
I want to support other women as well if I’m successful. After Hackbright, I realized a woman engineer in herself is a unicorn. I feel lucky, I know there are a lot of girls who need more support and inspiration out there, so I want to be part of the mission to change the ratio too. I also love the idea of how Hackbright connects graduates with real companies in Silicon Valley. I was excited about meeting all the companies by the end of the program, so I didn’t even ask what language they were teaching, I just jumped right in.
Did you think about going back to college to study computer science?
Yes, one option was going back to college to do a master’s degree. However, after some research and analysis, I realized a bootcamp would fit my situation better - it’s more cost effective because it’s less time and more job oriented. People who received master’s degrees told me it’s more theoretical and not necessarily job oriented. Since I was relocating, I needed a new job, I wanted to know more people, and make new friends, so I chose a bootcamp for now.
How did you pay for the Hackbright tuition?
A year before I moved to the Bay Area, I knew the Hackbright Academy tuition cost. So I made myself a one-year savings plan. I saved 50% to 80%, but there were still ongoing costs. I got support from family, especially my partner who totally supports furthering my education. He paid the rest of the tuition so I didn’t need any scholarships or financing. Thank you Danny!
Just three weeks after I graduated, I got multiple offers, and was able to negotiate successfully. So looking back, Hackbright was a good investment, and the ROI was pretty good.
What was the application, interview process, and coding challenge like for you?
First up was the coding challenge. I was so nervous. Hackbright suggested we spend 30 hours learning before taking the coding challenge. I took it very seriously, I worked day and night, and did the 30 hours. The coding challenge was a classic algorithm question combined with some smaller simple questions. The reason it’s so complex is that you need to solve multiple questions before you can get to the final answer. It was interesting and not that hard, but it required research and patience. When I look back, the problem has a number of different solutions, so your answers can be different, but what they really want to know is “do you like coding, do you like solving problems?”
After the coding challenge I had two interviews. One of which was with the nice Hackbright admissions director who answered all my questions about the support, and the mission of the program.
How many people were in your cohort? Was your class diverse in terms of race, life and career backgrounds?
There were 35 students in my cohort. Everyone has different backgrounds. I’m Asian and there were several more Asians. We also had African Americans, Hispanics, and other races. We are from different industries, and different stages of life. Some were moms, I was a newlywed, some were dating, so it was definitely diverse.
What was the learning experience like at Hackbright Academy?
Hackbright divides the program in two. The first half is lectures and lab practice, and the second half is fewer lectures with a lot of project time.
The first half focuses on building a foundation of coding skills, understanding algorithms, and solving problems. We cover the basics, mainly focusing on Python, with a little bit of front end. Each day we have one morning lecture, one afternoon lecture, then the rest of the day is lab time and pair programming.
In the second half of the program, we focused our time on our solo projects. I spent a long time on my project, almost 50 hours a week. If I couldn’t solve a problem with Google or online resources, I could reach out to a TA in the lab and they would come help. We still had lectures every morning about frameworks and tools we could use in our project. The last 2 weeks of the program were dedicated to career services where we had workshops, mentor meetings, mock interviews, and whiteboarding.
How important was pair programming?
Pair programming is very important at Hackbright for a number of reasons. It teaches you to talk through your thinking processes out loud, which is useful for whiteboarding sessions. Communicating with your coding partner is great practice for your future job, because you’ll need to work with and talk to other engineers. Pair programming also encourages you to write usable, maintainable code because you have to pass the code to someone else.
Every day we would switch partners, so we wouldn’t work with the same person for two days in a row. The idea was to keep changing out our programming buddy to train ourselves, because every person has a different communication style. It was training and practice on how to communicate with different people, regardless of who they are.
How many instructors or TAs did you have and how many students?
The student to teacher ratio was 4 to 1. We had 35 students in my cohort. Now, Hackbright splits people into different cohorts and keeps the low student to teacher ratio.
What was it like learning with only women? How did it compare to college?
We have a lot of intimate discussions exchanging ideas and knowledge about how to deal with stress, sleep, mindfulness, and how to balance family, work, and studying. It’s a very supportive network and we all know we can’t do everything perfectly, so we embrace the idea that we have to address problems as we run into them. We know we are not superwomen, but we are becoming superwomen. It’s a safe place where we can ask for help. That’s very different from my college experience, because with boys around, you don't want to be laughed at, you don’t want to voice your problems.
Everyone is taking a leap by joining Hackbright. We’ve all quit our jobs, and we’re all looking for opportunities, so we’re all in the same boat. Whenever I was frustrated, everyone else was too. Everyone’s running to a deadline, everyone’s stressed. In our cohort, bubble tea was a big deal. Whenever we felt like, “no more coding for me - I cannot code, talk, or think anymore,” we’d go get bubble tea, then come back and continue working on the problem.
What is your favorite project that you built at Hackbright?
We had one personal project as a final project, and we had a lot of little coding assignments along the way. The projects I loved were after class homework assignments which simulated an internship at a startup called Ubermelon. Every day just after 5pm, we’d get an email from a “virtual manager”, just like in real life when your manager emails you right before you want to go home. We’d get some instructions and we’d have some tiny little tasks to finish to simulate a real life startup experience. Ubermelon is Uber for melons and is a continuous thing within Hackbright. I love that idea, it’s fun and valuable.
How did the bootcamp prepare you for job hunting? What advice do you have for other bootcampers going through the job search?
Towards the end of the bootcamp, we had a day to demonstrate our personal projects to potential employers. After that, there are two weeks of career services. Career services focuses on researching the companies in Silicon valley, teaching us about the hiring process, and practicing whiteboarding sessions. The whiteboarding sessions were hosted by partner companies nearby so we can learn more about them and make connections while site visiting.
Tell us about your new job at GoDaddy!
I joined GoDaddy in May 2016 as a UX engineer. A UX engineer’s role is designed to be a bridge between the design and engineering teams. Now that I’m able to code, I can fill the gap using both designer eyes and developer fingers, which used to be totally separate. Usually the designer and developer don’t communicate as effectively, or they argue or fight with each other because of “the gap”, but both sides are important. Designer eyes need years of professional training as a designer; developer fingers need lots of training in programming as well.
I work closely with the UX design team and developers across product teams. I take care of interaction, craft user experience in motion and explore new frontend technologies from research, prototyping to implement. We UX Engineers try to zoom into problems that need both skills to solve and focusedly tackle them. Sometimes I also provide designs. Since I know the code base and the technologies we are using, my designs are tailor-made for our system. We also design and develop components that are reusable across the platform. We go agile and we incorporate user testings to help our team create a more delightful user experience based on the feedback we get.
How did you get the job?
GoDaddy is one of the hiring partners at Hackbright. They came to our career day, but it was not my current team which was looking for candidates. They looked at my project on GitHub and I got a call from VP of Engineering. I was told they were looking for someone who can bridge design and engineering. The interview process was really fast because GoDaddy was a late comer in my pipeline. I had already been interviewing with two other companies, and I told GoDaddy it might be too late. I chose GoDaddy in the end because the CEO is really supportive of women in tech. And like when I chose Hackbright, I felt it very important to have mission alignment with the organization and myself. I graduated in April, and started the job in May.
Tell us what a web developer’s day-to-day looks like?
For my workflow, I work with UX Designer and PM to identify a problem, then if there’s something critical we can improve on, I will jump right into research, and see what sort of solution I can provide based on the code base, and the design direction we are heading towards. I’ll create an interactive prototype, I code it out, and a UX manager can pass the prototype on to set up a new round of user testing to see whether it makes an improvement to the user experience. If it is proven that it makes an improvement, then we can pass the new improved design to the engineering team to build it into the product. So it’s a cycle of getting feedback from the real world, then figuring out how to improve the product in an agile manner.
Are you using the stack/programming language you learned at bootcamp or a new one?
How has your past career helped you in your new job?
It has definitely been helpful. The decisions we make in design, how to do spacing, fonts, colors, layouts, proportion, it still helps me today when designing for web. So the only difference is I used to produce static designs, but now I can animate designs and make them interactive using code. It’s more intuitive design, everything is live, and I feel like it’s a level up. I know I can make some magic happen somewhere else beyond my design skill set. For example, CSS3 and HTML5 do things that designers cannot even imagine. So I feel more powerful right now.
How do you stay involved with Hackbright? Have you kept in touch with other alumni?
I recently hosted a whiteboarding session at the San Francisco GoDaddy office with two other Hackbright graduates who are now GoDaddy software engineers too. We met the current cohort and talked to the career services staff. I also went back to Hackbright to share my experience about what happened after Hackbright and last week I attended their graduation ceremony.
It’s pretty hard to catch up with my cohort mates because everyone is spread out in the Bay Area or out of state. We have a Slack channel, and from time to time one or two girls will host a gathering.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Ask yourself whether you’ll enjoy coding all day long. Becoming a software engineer is tempting, especially in the Bay Area where we are surrounded by tech companies. But coding is not for everyone. If you cannot sit in front of a computer and enjoy coding on a daily basis, or you are not interested in solving problems or going geeky, rethink that. But if you like to solve problems, and want to be able to build, update, and make changes to a web product, that’s what motivated me to learn. I believe that everyone can be a unicorn in their own way. Be fearless and passionate about what you believe yourself should be. Truly challenge yourself to see if you love doing this.
Everyone has a set of talents and skills already, and finding an intersection between those skills is very important, because it will make an individual more valuable in an organization. For me it’s design and engineering. All the students who joined Hackbright have their past lives, and some professional experience already. Market yourself, position yourself so that people acknowledge your past experience.
Get support from family and friends, because a bootcamp is very intensive. During my 12 weeks at Hackbright, Danny agreed to do all the housework so I could focus on the study during that time. I also got a lot of support from family and friends. So I would like to thank them all, especially Danny. Without such a life support team backing me, I wouldn’t have made it through the relocation and career change so smoothly. Build yourself a supporting team for your life outside of the bootcamp. You can save a lot of time and stay focused on solving the critical problems, if someone can work with you to help with daily tasks and errands. Get yourself laser-focused on the bootcamp, because you pay, you invest, and every minute counts.