When mechanical engineer Celia Song launched a startup, she had to teach herself to code to build it's website. That experience kickstarted her career change and Celia found all-women bootcamp Hackbright Academy and won their Phenomenal Woman Scholarship. Celia tells us how she landed a job as a Software Developer after the Hackbright Demo Day and shares advice for other women who want to work in tech.
What’s background before attending Hackbright Academy?
My original degree is in mechanical engineering. I come from a family of engineers. After school, I worked as a Mechanical Engineer for a few years in the aerospace industry working on telecom satellites (which sounds cooler than it actually was). I was doing a lot of CAD (computer aided design) work. From there I worked at a smaller engineering firm in manufacturing which I liked better. It was a project management position and was faster paced. Working on satellites, it can take years to see your work. In a smaller manufacturing firm, it was more like months.
During that time, my friend approached me to start an events company with her. I figured I wouldn't have an opportunity like this again, so I decided to do it. It was a pretty scary leap to go from a full-time job to starting a business. It was exciting and I learned a lot.
Why did you want to do a coding bootcamp? Did you consider continuing to teach yourself or any other ways of learning to code?
The events company started growing. It got to the point where I was doing less coding and tech stuff, and I wanted to get back into it. I wanted to pursue software engineering more seriously. I was self-taught in web programming and I wanted to get a solid foundational education.
I knew I could teach myself because I'd done it before but I figured it would be kind of slow. Having a structured environment would push me to build up my skills faster. I felt like it was the proper way to do things and it was a good pathway to build a career in software engineering. Going back to college seemed too expensive. This led me to Hackbright Academy. When I started looking into bootcamps I'd heard a lot of good things about Hackbright. I also knew some friends who had gone through it and had great experiences with it.
What did you think at that time about the fact that it was an all women’s bootcamp?
It did cross my mind. I honestly didn't think that it would make much of a difference until I actually went through it. That surprised me. It was such a good thing. I realized that having a supportive environment of women was nice. Part of the reason I chose Hackbright was that I figured they would be able to help us navigate how to be women in engineering (which is a male-dominated field) more so than a mixed-gender bootcamp.
Congratulations on winning the Phenomenal Woman Scholarship! Tell me about it!
Yeah, that was a surprise! I'm very grateful. I had to submit an application form online. I was looking at the financial aid options that Hackbright offered and this was the only scholarship I was eligible for. I figured I'd try for it and see if anything would come of it. I told my story the same way that I told you and I was lucky enough to get it!
It covered half of my tuition, which is a significant portion. Mostly, it eased the burden of having to think about coming up with more money to pay for bootcamp. I was very grateful that I had this opportunity and that I got it.
What was the Hackbright application and interview process like for you?
There was a phone interview with the Hackbright staff to make sure I was a good fit for the bootcamp. They asked what my motivation for doing a bootcamp was and we went over my background. Then there was a technical coding interview to test my basic coding skills – to make sure everyone starts at Hackbright with the same basic level of knowledge. I think it helped that I had taught myself a lot of those skills already. I reviewed some concepts for that part, but it wasn't too bad.
What was your cohort like?
My cohort was about 15 women. I got a chance to meet women that I probably never would have had the chance to interact with or meet otherwise. People came from a variety of backgrounds like one woman was from the film industry and one was a math professor before. It was cool to meet women from all different industries. It was a great learning environment. It was nice to go through such an intense course with kind and supportive classmates.
How did learning in Hackbright's all-women environment compare to your previous educational experiences?
It was different because in the engineering field I had become used to being the only woman in a meeting or the only woman in a group working on a project. I had forgotten what it was like to work with all women. There's less pressure. I don't know how to describe it! It feels less intimidating. Everyone is more willing to speak about what they're worried about and ask questions. It felt less competitive in some sense. Everyone was nice to each other.
What was a typical day like at the Hackbright bootcamp?
The bootcamp was split up into sections. The first month or so was lectures and labs from 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. There would be a morning lecture and a lab and an afternoon lecture and a lab. In the labs, we did coding and pair programming. I hadn't done pair programming before so that was a good learning experience. I was used to working by myself and in my own head when I'm coding. It was a bit of an adjustment to talk to someone and think out loud.
During the second month, we started our final projects. Some days we'd have lectures. We worked on our project every day to prepare for Demo Day where we would show off our projects to companies who are hiring. The last two weeks were filled with guest lectures. Guests would talk to us about people networking, computer networking, salary negotiations, micro-services, security, and all sorts of other topics. They were high-quality technical and practical lectures from awesome speakers.
Did you have a favorite project that you worked on Hackbright?
The final project that I worked on combined everything that we had learned up until that point. It was a nice challenge and I enjoyed working on it. I made a Yoga Workout Generator. I took a database of yoga poses and using this concept called a Markov Chain, I generated yoga workouts based on which poses made sense to come after certain other poses. That was an interesting problem to implement. I enjoyed piecing everything we had learned together into one product. I’m proud of how it turned out!
What career support did Hackbright give you?
Hackbright’s careers team helped us with our resumés and general goal setting. They helped us figure out what we want out of our careers, and how to choose a good company to work for. We did a lot of technical interview prep through whiteboarding practice. Whiteboarding is a big part of technical interviews. At the time, I did not want to do it but I'm grateful for it now. With enough exposure and repetition, you become acclimated to it.
We also had mentors working in the tech field whom we met with once a week. We also visited a few companies to see their offices and practice interviews with their employees. It was cool to interact with actual engineers in the field! Lastly, we presented our final project at Demo Day at the end of the bootcamp. Hackbright invites companies that are looking to hire. Making connections at Demo Day was extremely helpful.
Congratulations on landing a job! What was the job hunting process like?
I found my job through the Hackbright Demo Day! The company I work for now is called Expanse. I had a phone interview with the hiring manager during which I asked a bunch of questions. Afterward, I went in for an onsite interview where I went through a few technical interviews with some of their other employees. It went well!
What is your role at Expanse and what does the company do?
I am a Software Engineer. Expanse is a cybersecurity start–up. They track businesses' internet assets and how those assets are configured for business security. I currently work on the client-facing product. I'm on one of the feature teams. Right now I'm working on the back-end API. I'm learning a lot of Java, which I haven't seen since college. I'm learning a lot and I enjoy that!
What has the learning curve been like? How are you learning Java?
In my first few months, I wasn't working with Java yet. I was doing front-end work. They paired me up with another Engineer and we would have 1:1 meetings to keep me on track and answer my questions. It was super helpful to have a point person to help me navigate my new job. I later transitioned to working more on back-end stuff.
The most recent project I'm working on is in Java. There is a Senior Engineer who is very experienced in Java who has been helping me get up to standard in terms of best practices and doing things the right way. The other Engineers here have been nice and supportive and willing to help when I have questions.
Since you've graduated from Hackbright and joined Expanse how do you feel like you've grown as a Developer?
I think I will always feel like a Junior Developer. I feel like I'm super slow at things. Sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself that I have gotten faster and better – I am improving. With each new language or API that I work with, I get a little bit faster because I have previous experience to guide me. I'm learning a lot from the Engineers around me too.
How has your background in mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship been useful in your new career?
Having the general engineering background helps a lot with problem solving. Debugging is a lot of what programming is about and I'm grateful that I have an engineering background to give me that foundation already. My entrepreneurial experience has helped me with thinking about the product. I understand how to keep timing, prioritization, deadlines, and planning in mind. I have that project management mindset. It gave me a great communication foundation as well. Being self-taught in programming helps too. In software engineering there is always more stuff to learn which is exciting! You'll never get bored. Learning to teach yourself is a super important skill.
As a woman in tech, are you still finding that you're often the only woman in the room?
We do have a number of women on our engineering teams which is awesome. It's a good sign that this company went to Hackbright to recruit because it means that they are thinking about diversity. I'm still the only woman on my team (which is a small team), but in the overall engineering department there are a number of us. The VP of Engineering seems like he wants to actively continue hiring women and maintaining a diverse group. It makes me feel better to know that the management team is aligned on that. I haven't felt like I'm being treated differently because I'm a woman on the engineering team. That's been pretty great.
What has been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to becoming a Software Engineer?
Dealing with my own insecurities. Everyone has them. Fighting that feeling of always feeling like you're not quite good enough or not as fast as everyone else or not as good of an engineer is a constant. I have a good support system of friends and family who have helped me take a step back and see how far I've come. It's good to have a little bit of those feelings to push you to get better all the time. On the flip side, those feelings can be destructive and limiting.
Do you think you'd have been able to get to where you are today by continuing self-teaching?
Maybe. But, honestly, not as quickly. Hackbright provided a lot of resources and support. Having the condensed three months of learning was hard but also pushed me in a good way. I wouldn't have necessarily gotten that momentum by teaching myself. Having structure and external influence to help move you along is key.
Have you been able to stay involved with Hackbright or any other alumni?
I still keep in touch with a few of my friends from my cohort which is nice. I'm part of the alumni Slack channels which are pretty active. Hundreds of women have gone through this program now. Connecting with that network of Hackbright alumni is inspiring and helpful – not necessarily for this job but for future jobs. I'll always have this network that I can rely on.
I also mentored a Hackbright student for one cohort. Hackbright pairs each student with one or two mentors throughout the course. You meet with them once a week for about an hour. The mentors are from all different levels of experience in the tech industry. It's a chance for students to meet someone in the industry, ask questions, and get help if they need it. I think it was helpful for the person I mentored to meet another Hackbright grad and get advice from someone who had recently gone through the program. I was actually able to help her with her project a little bit too.
What advice do you have for other people who are thinking about making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
It's definitely worth it. It's a lot of hard work, but you have this history of all of these women who have done this career change successfully. If you have any doubts you can look to them to know that you can do it too. Often times we as women think we're not good at math and science and give up before we ever try learning. Don't think that because you're not good at math or science or because you're a woman means that you can't code. Have confidence in yourself that you can do this and that you can make this change. Having that attitude goes a long way in terms of success later.