As an experienced recruiter, Ceren Nomer knows how to get coding bootcampers in the door at tech companies, and she brings that perspective to her students as Head of Career Success at Fullstack Academy. We sat down with Ceren to find out how the Careers Team prepares Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program students for technical interviews, develops soft skills to impress employers, and helps navigate salary negotiation. Plus, Ceren tells us the 3 worst mistakes that coding bootcamp grads make in interviews (and how to stop making them)!
What career services experience are you bringing to Fullstack Academy?
I started in a recruiting agency, then transitioned to internal tech recruiting for startups. Over the past six years, I've focused predominantly on tech. After working in startups, growing teams from 35 to 150 employees, and doing career coaching on the side, I realized that I wanted to tackle something new. I didn’t want to keep moving from startup to startup. At Fullstack Academy, I’m able to give students insight into what recruiters and hiring managers are really thinking but won’t say to them.
What makes you excited to work with Fullstack Academy to get their graduates jobs as developers?
I had always done career coaching on the side. I helped friends of friends and co-workers or significant others who were looking for advice. I had really bad experiences with college career counselors, and it’s a space where I see a lot of room for improvement. Getting students at Fullstack and Grace Hopper ready for their first careers in tech takes everything I love and pulls it into one job!
Also, as a recruiter, I talked to a lot of coding bootcamp graduates and saw the other side. They said all the wrong things, so I knew there was a lot I could bring to the table.
When does the career services team start working with students? The first day? The last day?
My work starts during Senior Phase, which is halfway through the program. We definitely don’t want to wait until the end because I think you want to be prepared before you start the job search. In the first week of Senior Phase, we do one-on-one discussions with each student to talk about the kind of industry they’re interested in, the size of companies they're thinking about, and the roles they want. Then throughout Senior Phase, we do prep work on LinkedIn, resumes, lectures on how to interview, how to negotiate salary. It’s a lot of lectures, one-on-one mock interviews, and coaching.
Do all of your students know the job they want?
A lot of the time, students aren't totally sure yet. We tell them to think about the products that they like, their own passions, their backgrounds, and what will make them stand out to companies. We start the discussions with students.
As a former recruiter, what’s the biggest mistake you see bootcamp grads making?
In the past, I’ve seen two main issues, and both are more soft skills than technical skills. First, bootcamp grads didn't seem like they were passionate about the company they were interviewing for. I would hear (and still hear in mock interviews) a candidate say that they’re “just ready to learn and grow” instead of showing that they were passionate about the company.
The second reason I wouldn’t move forward as a recruiter was because they were being coached to ask for $125,000 salaries as a junior level engineer. That’s not market value! In New York, the market value for that role is $85,000. And you need to be ready to talk about compensation in the first conversation.
Third, I noticed bootcamp grads who didn’t know what they wanted. How do I know that you want to do this front-end role if you say “Oh, I’ll take anything.” What if you get into that front-end role and you realize very quickly that you want to work on the back end or do product management? As a recruiter, I don't have time to deal with that. The biggest stigma that employers have about bootcamp grads is that they’re career switchers and they won’t know if they enjoy this new job. You need to show that you’re focused and know what you want in the next five years. Does your five-year plan change? Of course, it does. But if you don't have something like that, how can a recruiter trust that you're going to stay in this role for a year?
How has the Hiring Day and Demo Day changed over time and what does it look like for students?
Previously, we held a one-day event that lasted about 2.5 hours. We invited employers, students did demonstrations of their final projects, and then employers did 10-minute interviews with students. As the size of our cohorts has grown, demo days have changed. More students mean more demos, and it was becoming less engaging. Because demos got longer, interviews got shorter. Our students were only speaking to one or two employers, and it just didn’t make sense.
Now we host a separate Demo Day, three days before our Hiring Day and every student in our whole program contributes. Everybody is involved, from our Chicago campus to Grace Hopper students to the Remote Immersive students. A lot of engineers also love to learn about what’s going on in the industry and what other developers are working on, so it’s becoming a cool community event. It brings everybody together. We're ramping up marketing on that event, and it’s even a Facebook Live event now.
Hiring Day is a separate event, and allows students to interview with every company. They’re also able to network, which is really important when there are 60 students graduating. We wanted to make it as serious as possible, so we open up the networking hour, which gives both employers and students a chance to talk to whomever they would like.
Since Chicago is still a fairly small cohort, they still use the previous format.
Why do you think that Capstone Projects are important to getting a job?
Students spend two to three weeks on the capstone project and there are two reasons that those are important. First, you need to be able to talk in-depth about the technical aspects of a project you’ve built. For example, there are CS grads who come to Grace Hopper because they haven’t built their own project and say that they don’t know what to talk about in interviews. They don’t have examples to bring up because they haven’t built anything. When you’re asked a question in an interview, you can relate it back to real world experience.
Secondly, students work in groups of 4 on their capstone projects, so you’re able to work on a part of the project that really interests you. You can show that you’re passionate about a specific industry or technology that matches well with employers. For example, I’ve seen groups who are really interested in music, so they build a unique and technically challenging composition app. Or a student who likes the front end will own the front end of the project, and can then talk about that in interviews.
It’s important for us to leave capstones, hackathons and all the other projects very much up to the student. They should build what they want to build, and start thinking like an engineer. An engineer isn’t just building things to build things; they’re solving problems, and making things more efficient. That's the mindset we're trying to encourage in our students.
How are you getting students ready for their first technical interviews?
We do both mock behavioral and mock technical interviews, and I think those are helpful. We share a lot of resources with our students, including a list of common questions you’ll be asked, and what concepts to review before an interview. I've definitely heard a lot of students say, "Thank God I reviewed that list because I was asked the first question on it and I wouldn't have known the answer otherwise."
Another resource is our student community. We encourage all of our students to share knowledge via Slack and email. We have alumni groups who sit down with students once a week to do REACTO problems, or share the toughest technical interview question you’ve heard.
You mentioned REACTO- how does that help students get ready for whiteboarding in an interview?
REACTO stands for Repeat, Examples, Approaches, Code, Test, Optimization. During Senior Phase, students come in at 9:30am and we do paired whiteboarding exercises every day for 6 weeks. I've had so many students say, "I just went to an interview and I'm not going to lie, one of the REACTO problems came up and I was less nervous because I knew the question." So that's a big help.
Do you have advice or thoughts for future employers who are interviewing Fullstack graduates?
I don’t think employers should tailor interviews to a bootcamp graduate. Our standards are high, so our graduates are getting into companies that aren’t dumbing anything down: Google, Facebook, Amazon. The fact that our graduates are getting through those technical interviews means something to me. However, there are certain questions that a Computer Science graduate will do better on than a bootcamp grad. Coding bootcamp grads actually have hands on experience, but CS grads have more fundamental algorithm and database background.
That being said, in this environment, we can tell when a student is falling short in a certain area, and we have the curriculum, articles, and books for them to get there. We also offer CS Saturdays, which is an additional day when students learn more about computer science topics.
How do you help your students choose a company best for their first jobs?
It definitely depends on the person. One piece of advice is that you can’t be the first developer. And it's not because you can't do it. It's because you can't properly manage expectations. Knowing how long a project will take to build just comes with experience. That’s a big “no.”
The other thing I tell students is to understand the difference between mentorship and the opportunity to learn and grow. There are companies that have formal mentorship programs like Stack Overflow, and you will know they a have a mentorship program because they will advertise it as a perk.
If the company doesn't have a formal mentorship program though, that doesn't mean right off the bat that you're not going to get support. Look at their dev team’s profiles on LinkedIn and figure out how senior their developers are. If there are ten engineers and eight of them are senior, then you know you're going to get the initial hand-holding experience and mentorship.
Pro-tip: there is also a stigma around this! If you walk into a startup and say, "I want mentorship," then that signifies that you need a lot of hand-holding and you don't feel comfortable deploying code. So we spend time with our students talking through how to seek out mentorship without using the buzzword that could take you out of the running for the job.
How do you help students approach compensation and negotiation in their first jobs?
Salary negotiation and compensation ends up being one of our longest lectures because I get the most questions!
First of all, you need to have a salary range in mind. The number one mistake in an interview is to say you want “market value” or “whatever you see fit.” Keep that ball on your side of the court because the second you give it to someone else, you’re letting them value you. This should be a salary range to show that you’re flexible.
Remember that compensation is going to change depending on the company that you’re interviewing for, whether that’s a startup or a medium-sized company, or a huge tech company. If you really love and want to work at a specific startup, they may be able to offer you less, and you’ll have to change your range depending on that. Our students have resources like Glassdoor, PayScale, Salary.com, and PaySa to make that decision.
Students always tell me that they weren’t prepared for the salary question. You have to understand that compensation will come up in the first conversation, especially if you’re talking to a recruiter.
Do you notice differences when working with new women developers from Grace Hopper?
The biggest difference is confidence. For example, I worked with an amazing Grace Hopper student who had a development background already so I knew right away that she would be in demand. She was going to on-site interviews at companies that she was overqualified for, and she wasn’t getting the job. One of my team members pointed out that what she lacked was confidence. I had a sit-down chat with her about showing confidence in interviews. If you don't believe in yourself, how can somebody else believe in you? After we had that conversation, she got two offers and now she's working at Facebook. One little tweak made a world of difference.
How has the Fullstack Academy employer network grown over the last few years?
Our hiring network has doubled if not tripled in the past year. One of the biggest takeaways (which I love) is that anyone who hires a Fullstack Academy grad comes back to hire more.
Even when our graduates move jobs, they’ll expand the hiring network to their new employer. I recently had someone reach out to connect their last manager with their new company.
What do employers say they like about Fullstack Academy + Grace Hopper graduates?
Secondly, our grads know what they want and can communicate that well. They know that they want to work in a specific role or a particular environment, so they do well once they go to those jobs, and will stay in that company.
What types of jobs are they getting?
As an employer, you can come to a hiring day and find your next developer, product manager, front end, or UX, UI designer.