The technology behind electronic music inspired classically-trained pianist Alisa Kolot to explore a career in coding. Alisa was drawn to the all-women environment at Hackbright Academy and the community support they needed to learn software engineering in 12 weeks. Read Alisa’s advice about laying the Python foundations before applying to a bootcamp, the similarities between music and coding, and how to get the most support out of a remote bootcamp experience.
What inspired you to learn software engineering this year?
Music and technology has always fascinated me. I have a degree in classical piano performance, which I have creatively applied through composing and teaching. Post-college, I have been branching out into electronic music and the history of those instruments. I got into learning about software engineering because I create music with sensors and a drum machine. The drum machine originated from very early computers which inspired me to do some historical research, whereas the wearable ring sensor from Genkii Instruments uses bluetooth technology to controls sound. Both led me down this path to explore the fascinating history of computers and learn about the code behind them.
Why did you choose Hackbright Academy?
I was excited about having an opportunity to be in an all-women's environment. Most of my previous educational experiences were co-ed, and I had never been in an environment like the one offered by Hackbright Academy. The bootcamp environment was really empowering because software engineering is still pretty male-dominated.
The Hackbright Academy staff are fantastic people, too! Once the COVID-19 lockdown began, it was good to have the structure of the coding bootcamp.
Did you know how to code before applying to Hackbright Academy?
Before applying to the bootcamp, I started to teach myself Python through Udemy. I recommend learning as much about coding as you can before applying to Hackbright Academy. Having some knowledge of Python gave me a supportive foundation to complete the Hackbright Academy Prep Course, which mostly covers the fundamentals of Python. The prep course also gives you a sense of the way Hackbright Academy presents its content and curriculum, so I felt prepared for what to expect during the bootcamp.
Are there similarities between studying music and studying programming?
Absolutely! I was really surprised at how my music and coding experiences built on each other. With music, you need to practice a lot. For example, when studying piano, you have to practice three or four hours a day to maintain your technique. It's the same thing for coding. You have to maintain practice in a large variety of tools in order to have the mental and physical memory of building things.
What I found really interesting is how certain kinds of music are based on an algorithm. Similar to code, Baroque music is based on algorithms based on strict rules for harmony and melody dictated by music theory. In music theory, which dictates the structure of how music is written, there are plenty of algorithms, but you have to account for the different permutations to those rules and how they lend to musical expression.
A lot of what I do as a pianist is improvising. In order to improvise, I can't just play random things and call it a day. I actually improvise according to a set of rules, and that’s the same thing with code. If I’m solving a problem, I have to create my own structure and be able to solve it with certain tools. Both of those practices are very closely related to each other.
What was a typical day like in Hackbright Academy’s remote Software Engineering bootcamp?
The remote bootcamp went from 12pm-8pm CT Monday through Friday. I'd wake up at 8am to run for 5-6 miles to prioritize exercise and destress. Then I would take the hour before class began to look ahead and review the day’s assignments. For the next eight hours, there were lectures and labs with a break for lunch.
The first half of the day was lecture-based. In the morning, there would be lectures with student-teacher interaction with a lot of demos that students could participate in. After class each day, there was a short homework assignment. The second half of the day was lab-based. We would be given an assignment to practice pair-programming with a partner. At the end of the bootcamp, we focused on our capstone projects, and we still had the chance to work together and learn about Agile development and go through Scrum.
Did the teaching style match your learning style?
It did! Hackbright Academy makes sure there was always space for questions, which was great. I felt comfortable asking any question, knowing that if I ask something others would often follow suit.
Since you did this bootcamp remotely, how did you connect with your cohort and instructors?
We communicated in a Discord channel. We would have Friday get-togethers to talk about our experiences and check-in, which gave us a chance to get to know each other. Some of us already knew each other from previous prep courses. We also connected when we were pair programming, which enabled us to build friendships. Even though we have graduated, my cohort still chats with one another quite a bit. I feel like I met a lot of people despite not meeting them in-person. Hackbright Academy made me feel like I'm a part of a community and that felt really nice.
Hackbright Academy also supports very responsive communication with their teaching staff. They did this through 1:1 breakout rooms with teachers and TAs as well as separate channels where we could ask questions and respond to each other. Students helped answer each other’s questions as much as teachers, too!
What did you build for your capstone project?
For my capstone, I built a social media app that combined my favorite features from Facebook and Instagram. My project had a similar layout to Facebook, where a user has a profile, newsfeed, and the capacity to follow and unfollow people. The bulk of my focus was on creating a front end feature similar to an emoji toolbar with five emojis to respond in several ways. With this project, I also wanted to learn more about what it's like to upload media such as, photos, videos, and GIFs onto a website.
Once we were finished building our capstone projects, we presented them in a virtual demo day.
How has Hackbright Academy prepared you for the job hunt?
Hackbright Academy was extremely conscientious about preparing us for the job hunt. We had built-in lectures for interview prep and resume-building. They put in a lot of dedication to ensure we were well-prepared for interviews, both personally and technically.
Since graduating from the bootcamp, Hackbright Academy continues to help in the job search by sending graduates resources about potential employers. Graduates are also encouraged to reach out to the career services for personalized support.
What roles do you feel qualified to apply for since graduating from Hackbright Academy?
My experience at Hackbright Academy qualified me for several roles. I feel prepared for most Web Development roles and my personal preference has been looking at full stack developer roles.
What strategies are you currently using in your remote job search?
I have a personal weekly goal to apply for 5-10 jobs per week. It takes time to send quality applications, so I structure my time to ensure I’m putting my best foot forward every day.
Can you balance your music career and software engineering?
What I found really interesting during the bootcamp is that both of these practices build on each other quite a bit. As I was learning how to code at Hackbright Academy, I would make space for my music practice because it’s something I need for sanity. I make sure to carve out some time for myself to compose or spend time improvising and practicing. Fortunately for me, I found ways to make one practice build on another. By incorporating concepts and structures from code in improvisation I can solidify both my coding and musical skill. I have also found that when I code a lot, it changes how I compose. My music improvisation has become more structured and rhythmic.
Coding helps me practice my music in a really interesting, roundabout way, so I don't feel like any time is taken away from my compositional practice or that my music and software engineering are competing priorities. In fact, I feel like I'm building up both at the same time. I’m now expressing algorithms in two different mediums!
Is there anything you wish you had known before Hackbright Academy?
I knew this bootcamp experience would require 8-12 hours a day, but I encourage others to be well-prepared for that commitment ahead of time. Know basic coding beforehand. Practice coding and have good Python fundamentals.
It’s also important to emphasize that you should be able to maintain a good self-care routine. 2020 has been challenging for everyone in that respect, and I encourage others to understand what they need and prioritize their self-care.
Do you recommend Hackbright Academy to other musicians and performers considering a coding bootcamp?
If you are a musician that wants to get into tech, then I would absolutely recommend it. I’ve always had a fascination with how technology intersects with how we interact with others, so learning software engineering continues to fuel that interest.
What has been the biggest challenge in your journey to become a software engineer?
I think everyone struggles with a certain amount of self-comparison and imposter syndrome. Coming from a competitive music background, it's really easy for me to slip into that self-criticism. However, I felt fortunate enough to have the space with my cohort to discuss these feelings. I found that the more I opened up with my cohort, the more I learned. It was a matter of undoing that self-comparison part and being able to reach out and ask for help.
Looking back on this experience, was Hackbright Academy worth it for you?
My theme for 2020 was "go for it.” I don't regret going to Hackbright Academy at all! Attending the bootcamp was absolutely worth it for me. I learned so much and met a lot of fantastic women. I learned essential skills in many different departments. It was an amazing experience.
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