Written By Liz Eggleston
Caitlyn Greffly was feeling burnt out in her job in beer sales. Her favorite aspect of the job – data analysis – lead her to coding bootcamps. She embarked on a career change with Thinkful’s part-time online Engineering Flex bootcamp and actually found a job before she graduated! Caitlyn shares her tips on starting a bootcamp as a complete beginner, balancing bootcamp with a full-time job, and what she’s learning in her third week on the job as an Associate Software Engineer at Zapproved.
What were you up to before Thinkful’s Engineering Flex Bootcamp?
I got my Bachelor's degree in Psychology and I went on to not use it by working in sales in the beer industry for about seven years. I was on the road almost every week doing chain sales at grocery stores and restaurants. That lifestyle of being on the road burnt me out and that's when I decided I needed to make a change.
Had you tried any coding at all before?
Not a single line. I was making an educated guess that I would enjoy it. My favorite part of my sales job was that there was some data analytics involved in it. My original thought was that I should go into data analytics. I started looking into that path and I even applied for a data analytics bootcamp but I got rejected because I didn't have any coding background. That surprised me because I didn't even know that you needed to know coding to do data analytics.
I didn't know anything about coding and I wasn't tech-savvy before Thinkful. I started doing research and looking through all the bootcamps on Course Report. I started to read more about what that career path was like. There are so many job opportunities in this field – especially for women – right now. I started messing around on Codecademy, had fun with it and decided this career could work.
How did you decide between an in-person and an online bootcamp?
I live in Portland, Oregon and there are some good in-person bootcamp options here. For me, it ultimately became a financial decision. I decided I wasn't really comfortable with debt at this point in my life. I'm trying to save up for a house and I didn't want to put myself in a stressful financial situation.
I decided that I would do Thinkful but keep my full-time job for three months and then quit my job to focus on the job transition for the last three months. That was my ideal situation. Because I traveled for work so much, I couldn't do an in-person bootcamp.
How did you afford Thinkful? Did you consider using an ISA?
Thinkful was one of the more affordable options and compared to the in-person bootcamps, it felt more doable. I paid $9,000, including a Women in Tech scholarship. I paid fully upfront. I didn't want to have to think about money or an ISA while the course was going on.
What was the application process like when you applied to Thinkful?
I had a 'fit' interview but it never felt like I was being interviewed. I shared my goals, why I was transitioning into the field, told them about my interest in data analytics, and I was upfront with them with the fact that I didn't know how to code yet. I didn't get the feeling that you needed to know how to code to do this program. They were totally on board with me being a beginner.
What was the online learning experience like at Thinkful?
There wasn't exactly a cohort, meaning there wasn't anyone else going through the program at the exact same time and pace as I was. There was a Slack channel, though, and I did meet up with other Thinkful students who lived near Portland.
I had meetings with my mentor twice a week. I was matched with one mentor for the front end and another mentor for the back end. I don't think I would have gotten through the course without mentors. I would definitely have gotten stuck at certain points. It can be hard without background experience to figure out how to get unstuck. There comes a point where you've spent three days on an issue and you need someone to help.
Ultimately, the independent learning style has its pros and cons. Thinkful teaches via reading materials and trial and error. There wasn’t any video material, which worked well for me because I learn best by reading. This style of bootcamp definitely puts pressure on you to manage your time correctly, though. Thinkful gives you a spreadsheet at the beginning that tells you when you should be finishing each module and how long each one should take. But in between those suggested deadlines, it’s up to you to manage how you finish all of the chapters and work through the projects.
Did that independent learning style help you in your career?
Thinkful taught me the skill of being able to work independently. I'm comfortable diving into a problem, getting stuck for a while, and problem-solving my way through it. However, I did have to make sure that I also learned how to work as part of a team because I knew I was ultimately looking for work on a team.
How did you find that team experience?
I met someone at a local Meetup who happened to be interested in mentoring Junior Developers in an agile environment. I ended up being a part of the first cohort of Collab Lab. Four of us got to work together through an eight-week group project. That taught me how to handle merge conflicts, make sure my code is readable and understandable by others. Finding that group was so valuable and was a great compliment to the Thinkful course.
Did you ever go to any Thinkful Meetup groups?
Thinkful offers monthly dinners in Portland and I went to as many as I could. I love meeting people and getting to share our stories. Coding bootcamps are hard! So having people who understand that is comforting. I have friends from those Thinkful dinners that I'm still in touch with. We talked about the modules we were on, things we were struggling with in the course, and gave each other moral support. My sales background made networking easier for me.
How did you balance working full-time and doing Thinkful?
I had to be strict about my routine. I gave up most of my other hobbies and interests during my career change.
One thing I realized was that the course itself was going to take me more time as it got more intense. The HTML module would be the easiest and the backend module would be the hard part. Plus, I would be networking and trying to get a job while I was working on learning backend development.
Luckily, I was working remotely in my last job, I was able to schedule my day around Thinkful. I became an efficient machine at my job and finished by 3pm and then I would put 3-4 hours into Thinkful after I finished my work. While I was still working, I was aiming to put in 20-25 hours a week for Thinkful. That would usually mean a couple of hours after work in the evening and then as much of the day Sunday as I could.
Did you finish the bootcamp in 6 months like you had set out to do?
I never actually graduated Thinkful because I got a job before I finished the bootcamp! I made the decision to spend more time job-searching and honing my front end skills, so my progress in the program kind of slowed down at the end. I spent just over 6-months in Thinkful.
When you finish Thinkful, you get a paper certificate but no employers in a job interview ever harped on the fact that I hadn't finished bootcamp. The point of bootcamp is learning the skills you need to get a job and showcasing them in a portfolio, not getting a certificate.
Were your mentors professionals from the field?
All of my mentors were super knowledgeable. They had successful careers in the industry and brought the point of view about how things might be in the workforce. They were good at challenging me but also being helpful when I needed it and giving me feedback on my projects. They were my support system while I was in the program.
Do you have any plans to become a mentor yourself?
I taught at Coding with Kids for 18 hours a week over the summer after I quit my full-time job. It was a fun experience. I feel like I was given a lot of support and opportunities along my journey and I'm already thinking about how I can pay that forward and help other people change careers in the future.
Are you happy with your decision to leave bootcamp without finishing the program?
I liked bootcamp because it gave me a direction, but at the end of the day, you're selling your portfolio and your skills. As I was nearing the end of my bootcamp, I realized that I had a good portfolio that I was proud of and I knew what direction I wanted to go in. Bootcamps are interesting because you can go a self-taught route to change careers. That takes a lot of will-power and knowing what direction to go in and I needed Thinkful to push me off on the right path.
So tell us about your new job at Zapproved!
I’m an Associate Software Engineer at Zapproved – I’ve been working in their Portland office for three weeks now!
What have the first three weeks at your new job been like?
It's great! The engineering department is almost 60 people, and the team has been supportive. A lot of people at Zapproved came from coding bootcamps or career changes. They understand what it's like to join a new team. I haven’t been afraid at all to turn to someone in my area to ask a question about something that is confusing me. Everyone has been happy to come over and take time out of what they're working on to help and never made me feel like I'm wasting their time.
Did you feel like you were ready for this job on your first day?
Less than a year ago I had never written a line of code! On my first day, I told myself that I had to feel prepared. It's hard to feel prepared for a new career, though. I definitely felt the imposter syndrome, but I convinced myself that I worked hard to make this career change. Someone obviously believes that I should be here, and I'm happy to be here. I have to feel optimistic that I'm in the right place.
I focused on knowing how to ask questions and knowing how long to work through a problem before reaching out for help. This is how I approached the technical interviews too. You can't control the code that your interviewers give you and whether or not you're going to know the answer. But you can control how you react to stress, not knowing something, or frustration. I went into the job with a similar mindset: focusing on the things that I can control and being ready to problem-solve.
How did you land that job at Zapproved?
Even though I wasn't in the career hunting section of the Thinkful curriculum, I connected with the program manager of the Thinkful Engineering Flex course because she was also living in Portland. We stayed connected over social media and she saw this job at Zapproved and introduced me to my now-manager via Slack. She basically just said, "Hey, I think Caitlyn would be a good fit for this! Look out for her application." I honestly never would have applied for this job because it's technology that I had no experience in. I thought I would never get the job. But I had a warm introduction and I appreciated that so I went for it. I went through interview after interview and I was surprised when I got a call back that I got the job!
Plus, mentors weren't only there to help with the curriculum. When I had job interviews, I'd let my mentor know that I wanted help prepping for the interview. He would bring questions, quiz me, and talk about coding challenges with me. I also went to an in-person Thinkful event where professionals come in to review your resumé and portfolio. That event encouraged me to get those materials together a little bit earlier than I might have otherwise.
Do you have any advice to someone else who is applying for a job that requires languages they don't know yet?
Don't eliminate yourself from a job. If you apply for a job and they really want someone with specific experience, that's fine, but let them tell you that. Ultimately, jobs, especially for Junior Developers, are hiring you based on your ability to learn. If you've put yourself through an intensive six-month bootcamp, then employers see that you're excited to learn and you're in that mindset of taking in a lot of information.
All of the languages and frameworks that you might see on a job description can be intimidating. People in the tech community feel strongly about particular frameworks and languages. You'll hear someone say, "React is the best," or "I hate Angular” so it can seem like they’re all very different languages. Until I did Thinkful, I didn’t realize how similar most of these languages really are. It is a lot easier for me to understand Angular now that I've worked in React because I know the logic behind similar framework.
Are you happy with the career change? Was Thinkful worth it?
Career changes can be such a scary thing but I am so glad I did it. I am much happier than I was seven months ago before I started this whole thing. I feel like I finally have a work-life balance. It's amazing that a six-month program for $9,000 could help me make such a solid career change. As far as the program went, it prepared me as best as it could and the rest of that preparation is in my mindset.
You mentioned work-life balance – how are you finding the culture in tech?
I feel like I am a part of an open and supportive atmosphere, versus coming from the bro culture of the beer industry. I'm sure that bro culture also exists in tech, but I’m coming from the beer industry to a tolerant and open work community. We just had a three-hour workshop about being a better ally to your coworkers and making a safe workplace. Zapproved makes it a comfortable place to ask questions and to be yourself and to fail.
One of the reasons I knew I'd be okay in tech was because I came from an industry where I was already surrounded by men. I didn't even realize the issues that the beer industry had until I came to Zapproved and saw how this company was actively working toward being more accepting as a company culture. This isn’t how all tech companies are, but they're definitely out there.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about doing a bootcamp?
Don't just do the bootcamp; make sure you're getting involved with your community as well. The bootcamp is part of your career transition and it's going to teach you the technical skills and interview skills that you need. But you have to also take responsibility for your own career change – do things like networking (even though I know that can be hard for some people).
You don't have to go to big networking events; you can find someone to go to coffee with and get one-on-one interactions instead. Networking makes the time you’re spending applying for jobs more valuable. You're not blindly sending out resumés – sending your resume to someone who knows your name and your face is more likely to get you that first interview. I know people who apply for hundreds of jobs and that can be so taxing. My boss told me that there were 200 applicants for my job. Without the warm introduction, my resumé in a stack of 200 probably would have gotten lost. Making connections one-on-one with people is important.
Liz Eggleston is co-founder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students choosing a coding bootcamp.
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