During the senior year of her Creative Writing degree, Natalie Villasana took a computer science course and loved it, but felt it was too late to switch her focus. After graduating, she decided to move home to Atlanta and enroll at DigitalCrafts coding bootcamp. Now Natalie is a Software Engineer at a decentralized cloud storage company called Storj! Natalie tells us about her newfound interest in Blockchain, how she ramped up and learned new programming languages at Storj, and why it’s important to encourage more women into tech.
To make a career in technology more accessible, DigitalCrafts offers automatic scholarships for women entering the full-time and flex bootcamps.
Tell me about your career and education background and how your path led you to DigitalCrafts.
I actually did DigitalCrafts right after graduating from Oberlin College, where I majored in creative writing. I was also in a research program that was grooming me for a PhD, but I realized that I didn’t want to do academic writing or write for publications after college.
At the time, I was also making art and abstract videos and I felt computer science was a very different world. But video mixing got me more interested in coding. I wanted to learn how to process audio and video without a graphical user interface (GUI), as I had been using Max/MSP up to that point. I’d been a little intimidated by computer science and math courses, but in my last semester of college I took an intro computer science course. I immediately thought, "Oh, no, I really like computer science but it's too late to change my major!" I found out about coding bootcamps and started learning more about them. And before I graduated college, I applied to DigitalCrafts.
What made you decide that a bootcamp like DigitalCrafts was the right option for you rather than switching your major to Computer Science or teaching yourself?
At that point I had done four years of college and completed all of the degree requirements, so it wasn't even a possibility for me to stay longer to do a computer science major or do another BA or BS. DigitalCrafts was definitely expensive – a little over $10,000 for the bootcamp tuition – but it definitely paid off in the end. It seemed crazy at the time to pay for more school right after finishing college, but I'm glad I made that choice to do DigitalCrafts
I was also considering community college courses in computer science. But I started to realize that computer science programs teach more conceptual topics, which is different from the practical web development applications that a lot of bootcamps teach.
I asked a computer science professor if I could learn web development on my own, and he said, "You could, but you would need a lot of self-direction." Coding bootcamps seemed really appealing because they laid the whole curriculum out with career preparation. Looking back, if I had taught myself, then I definitely don’t think I would be working as a Software Engineer at Storj today – it would have taken me a year or more to get a job in tech.
Did you consider any other coding bootcamps?
I considered Thinkful (an online bootcamp) General Assembly, The Iron Yard (now closed), and Georgia Tech Coding Bootcamp. I actually strongly considered the Georgia Tech Coding Bootcamp, but the price and the small cohort sizes at DigitalCrafts made me choose them. I also just had a very positive experience talking to the people working at DigitalCrafts when I was applying.
What was the DigitalCrafts application and interview process like? Was it hard to get in?
After I applied to DigitalCrafts, I did my interview via web conference because I was in my final semester of college. I talked to Max and Jake, who were really informative and didn't sound like car salesmen, which I did feel when talking to some other bootcamps. I took a fairly straightforward, 10-question, online coding challenge – I was really stressed about it before, but it turned out to not be any worse than the homework I'd done in my computer science class.
Once you got to Digital Crafts, what was that learning experience like?
The full-time course was 9am to 4pm. The structure and teaching style was a mix of lectures, demonstrations, and explanations of certain principles, concepts, technologies, or framework, and then exercises. Towards the middle of the program, we did group projects with 3-5 people per group. I was used to college, so I adjusted to the flow of DigitalCrafts fairly quickly.
In terms of the group demographics, I was on the younger end. The majority of people were late 20s or early to mid-30s. There weren’t as many women as men. We started with 17 or 18 students, and by the end, we had 13 students, so the class size was super small.
What was your favorite project that you built at Digital Crafts?
Great idea! How did DigitalCrafts prepare you for job hunting? What kind of career advice or assistance did you get?
We had a career week and there was a Career Services team specifically dedicated to helping us with our portfolios, resumes, GitHub repositories and LinkedIn. So I definitely felt the support. Toward the end of the bootcamp, we had to juggle applying to jobs, as well as continuing to learn React or Redux in the curriculum, polishing our group project, writing cover letters, etc.
Congratulations on your new job! How did you find it?
Thank you! I was super fortunate. DigitalCrafts is in the same building as Storj, where I work now. I ran into one of the Storj co-founders at a lunch place across the street. We went to high school together and I didn't realize he was the co-founder. He was really friendly and I told him that I was learning to code and was interested in learning more about the company.
Storj is a cloud storage startup and was immediately compelling to me. I didn't really get what blockchain was at the time but everyone was like, “It's cool and trendy,” so I wanted to find out what the deal was.
I visited the Storj offices, talked to developers there, and learned more about distributed systems. Storj functions like Google Drive, but your data is encrypted and dispersed across different users’ computers, instead of mined for profits. Instead of storing data in big data centers like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Amazon Web Services do, data hosted on Storj is actually stored on different people's computers around the world. Some people liken it to Airbnb for your computer – you host other people’s files.
So I applied, went through the interview process and was super lucky to be hired before my cohort ended.
What do you work on at Storj?
I started as a Junior Developer, but have been promoted to Software Engineer. There were about 13 employees when I joined in October 2017, and it’s since grown to around 40. Right now I’m working on something called the pointer database, which keeps track of which file segments are on different storage nodes in the network. It's keeping track of the addresses of where those segments are.
What was the learning curve like when you first joined Storj? Did you have to learn a lot of new languages, or did you feel like DigitalCrafts had prepared you pretty well?
DigitalCrafts prepared me pretty well for my job. When I started at Storj, the codebase was written in Node.js, which I'd learned at DigitalCrafts. About five months in, I had to learn Go, but the majority of the other Storj developers had to learn it too, which was nice. One of my coworkers told me he was surprised that I knew so much coming out of a bootcamp (he'd done a different bootcamp a few years ago)!
As a developer, I think you're always supposed to feel like there's something else to learn. You're never 100% completely sure of your code because contexts and intentions change, different people will read it and work on it (or should) so that it stays useful. I think I've grown most in realizing things don't have to be perfect or engraved in stone. You just have to make it work.
Has your background in creative writing been useful as a Software Engineer?
In general, there is a lot of writing in my role as a developer. At Storj we have our code on GitHub – one of our goals is to have friendly documentation so that non-internal people know what's going on at Storj.
I also understand the importance of the review process because of my background in creative writing. In coding, when your team is working on different parts of the codebase, you should be able to explain how those parts fit together; that goes for both writing and programming.
I didn’t realize this going in, but some software developers don't like writing documentation. It becomes a chore for some developers, after they’ve already written their part of the code. But documentation is so important – it explains your intentions and how your code fits into the larger project. For me, proactively documenting is super important and has been a handy skill to have.
How have you grown in the world of Blockchain?
I'm actually speaking at a Blockchain Conference in September! I am giving a presentation with a coworker, Alex Leitner, about a project that he wrote called Robinhood Coin, and about how to use certain tools for developing on Ethereum blockchain, writing your own smart contracts with Solidity, and creating apps that can interact with the Ethereum ecosystem in the browser. I don’t actually work on blockchain technology for my role at Storj – it’s more of a hobby.
The blockchain community has an interesting culture that I didn't really know about before joining Storj. Some people get excited about the distributed system aspect of Storj, and other people get excited about blockchain, but there are so many different people in the community.
Has anything stood out to you as a woman starting your career in tech?
When I first joined Storj, I was the only woman in the Atlanta office and even though my coworkers were friendly and inclusive, it was still a little lonely. There were other women in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, but I was the only one in Atlanta. I know there are much worse circumstances than that out there in tech jobs for women, so I'm lucky for that. But I definitely think it's important to have more women creating technology.
For example, there have been issues with the iPhones’ facial recognition software unable to tell some Asian people apart (despite people in Shenzhen assembling the majority of iPhones), or where an automatic soap dispenser dispenses soap to white people’s hands, but not black people’s hands, because it couldn’t detect darker skin colors. I know this isn’t necessarily related to web development, but I think it shows what happens when technology is designed for certain people by certain people and not others – at an extremely large scale. I think the same effect happens when predominantly cis-men have control over programming and designing software. When we exclude women or trans people – there’s a deep cultural and economic exclusion that happens.
DigitalCrafts actually encouraged blogging while I was doing the coding bootcamp, and Code Like a Girl asked if they could publish one of my posts. I wrote a piece about how I first learned what coding was!
I'm also glad that DigitalCrafts is offering scholarships for more women. Recently, another female DigitalCrafts grad from my cohort joined Storj. So I was super excited about that!
What advice do you have for other people who are thinking about making a career change by going through a coding bootcamp?
Understand and plan for the fact that a coding bootcamp is a major commitment. At DigitalCrafts, some people who joined at the beginning had other life events going on, or weren't able to commit full-time. I was super lucky that I was able to live with my parents and have that external support. I know that not everyone has that, but it’s super important to have a plan to take care of yourself while you're doing the bootcamp.
One thing I recommend: contribute to open source projects! There are lists of open source repos on GitHub that you can contribute to – sometimes there are even issues tagged as ‘newbie friendly’ to get started on. Showing that you can work on other people's code and that other people can read your code is important. I would also highly recommend getting involved in local meetups and hackathons. Women Who Code ATL is super welcoming and always hosts amazing events and workshops! I do know stories of people who are self-taught and got tech jobs, but for me, DigitalCrafts definitely sped up the process.
There’s a misconception that you have to be a genius to code – this is a gatekeeping aspect of tech culture. But you really don’t! Coding is much more about learning, iterating, and editing. No one's output is perfect. Coding can be super creative, fun and visual. I would especially tell women to not get discouraged – instead, find communities and resources online and offline that are extra supportive for people who don't fit the “tech bro” mold.