Written By Jess Feldman
After years in nursing and IT healthcare consulting across the US, Beverly Ukandu wanted to upskill again. She considered a CS degree, but Beverly ultimately decided to enroll in Hackbright Academy’s full-time Software Engineering Course in San Francisco. After graduation, she was accepted to Microsoft LEAP Apprenticeship Program and now Beverley has a full-time Software Engineer role at Microsoft! Find out how Beverly navigated her journey into tech, why an apprenticeship is a fantastic pathway into larger tech companies, and her advice for women of color who want to break into the tech industry now.
What were you up to before you went to Hackbright Academy?
I started at Johns Hopkins University as a pre-med student, majoring in Neuroscience, but I changed to pre-nursing on advice from a mentor. I was originally interested in IT, but since my parents were immigrants and didn’t know anything about computer science, they thought it would be best if I became a doctor.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2009, and then worked as a nurse on a neurosurgical/neurology unit for five years. After my first two years, I knew I wanted to work with data to improve healthcare, so I got a Master’s degree in Nursing Informatics. I transitioned from nursing to a full-time Systems Analyst, working with end-users to implement their clinical information system. When Johns Hopkins Hospital decided to switch their clinical information systems to Epic, I worked on a team that helped make that transition. I really enjoyed it! It helped me understand creating and improving workflows, the software development lifecycle, project management, and the terms and concepts. I was in that role for four years, but then I started to get bored and wanted more of a challenge.
When I was ready to leave the hospital and try something new, one of the consultants I worked with reached out to me – that's how I got my first healthcare IT consulting position. For four years, I traveled around the US and helped other hospitals with their clinical information systems and implementation and mentoring other analysts. It was during this time that I decided to pursue software development more seriously.
Did you consider getting a computer science degree instead of going to a coding bootcamp?
I was going to go back to school for a computer science degree, but I started looking into coding bootcamps and weighed the pros and cons. I decided it would make sense to take the risk on a three-month hiatus from consulting to do a bootcamp. Even if I didn't become a professional developer, I could use the skills I'd learn at bootcamp to be more marketable in the consulting world. I already knew Java from high school and college, had taught myself some Python, and was working with SQL during my consulting roles.
What stood out about Hackbright Academy? Since Hackbright Academy didn’t yet offer its remote bootcamp option at the time of your enrollment, why did you choose the in-person Hackbright Academy bootcamp?
I knew that I didn't need to start from square one, so I looked for coding bootcamps for people who already had background knowledge in programming. I wanted to use a backend language similar to Python, so that was an important consideration for me when choosing a bootcamp. I used Course Report to get an overview of the top bootcamps, and I ultimately narrowed it down to Hackbright Academy for a few reasons:
Hackbright Academy is all female. After working in IT for so many years, I had been surrounded by men and I wanted something different.
My friend had also attended Hackbright Academy. She came from the same health IT background as me and she now works at Slack!
I wanted to be away from the East Coast for a few months and live on the West Coast for a change.
How did you pay for the bootcamp tuition? Any creative tips?
Since I was self-employed and had an LLC, I used my business funds to pay for bootcamp. I spoke with my accountant so that the bootcamp tuition was an expense that I could write off.
You should always consider the price! Don't take out too many loans, and be prepared for six months to one year without a job. You’ll need to have a backup plan if you don't get a job right after bootcamp.
Obviously your cohort was all women, but what were the backgrounds of your classmates at Hackbright Academy? Did it feel diverse?
Technically, I was in two cohorts because there was a death in my family and I had to drop out and return for the next cohort. Hackbright Academy was very flexible with that, which I appreciated. In my first cohort, there were about 28 women, and everyone came from various backgrounds: healthcare, finance, photographers, and more. Some people had already worked as Data Analysts or Systems Analysts. The age range was on the younger side. When I joined my second cohort, the average age was 25-27 years old. At that time I was 31, and I was definitely one of the older people in the room. The youngest person had just finished undergrad.
As far as ethnicity, I was one of two black women in my second cohort, and the rest of the women were mostly Asian and White. I was surprised by that because in my first cohort there were a few more people who looked like me. I've worked in predominantly white, male environments, so while I'm pretty used to that, I definitely felt more encouraged when I saw people that looked like me in my cohort. Thankfully, Hackbright Academy supports anyone who feels like they're an outlier. There were some instances where my classmates were just not exposed to other races or people with different sexual preferences and Hackbright Academy did allow us to speak up about those things because the school nurtures diversity.
Do you have any advice for women of color who are considering breaking into tech?
Yes! Here is my advice:
Don't be afraid to talk to people! If you need help with your resume or someone just to talk to about making this career change feel free to reach out to me!
Make sure you find either a mentor or a group of people who understand you. They don't have to be other women of color, but people who will be supportive of you and your career. I joined the Facebook group Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech a few months ago that has completely changed my thinking. When I was applying to Microsoft, members of that group flooded my inbox with messages of support!
Be an advocate for yourself. If people don't understand you, just talk to them. A lot of people get on the defense when they're the only one in the room. Educate the people around you about who you are and your background. This advice goes for everyone, not just women of color. For example, I know I need to help people understand that coming from a non-traditional background means I am just as hard-working, just as smart, and can learn just as fast as someone from a traditional computer science background.
What was the learning experience like at Hackbright?
Every day, we had lectures in the morning and lab in the afternoon. Each week, we would plan and work on our goals for our minimum viable product (MVP). During labs, we did mini projects and we were able to commit that and show on GitHub what we worked on. A lot of employers were surprised that I already had a lot of experience with GitHub! It was definitely a plus to be able to show them the code that I had worked on and the projects I had been able to push to a repository. During the last month, we started our final projects and also had career talks.
Tell us about your favorite projects that you worked on during bootcamp!
I mainly worked on my final project, which was called Patient Prime. It was a one-stop shop for patients to look for a doctor and see subjective and objective reviews and health care information about doctors. I pulled from RateMD and wanted to later optimize my project by adding information from similar review sites like Yelp and HealthGrades. I wanted to visualize the data to help patients make the best choice about their care. As a nurse, I learned that there is a lot of information about doctors that the general public doesn't know is available to them and I wanted to expose more of that. For example, Patient Prime included information like how many of a doctor’s patients have gotten infections and other statistical information. People also don't realize that the hospital that the doctor works at makes a difference. It’s not just the doctor taking care of the patient; it’s the nurses, patient care technicians, care coordinators that all see the patient too.
Hackbright Academy recommends working on a second project during the bootcamp, but instead of doing a second project, I chose to focus on whiteboarding and algorithms. Since I've already worked in IT, I have plenty of projects that I can speak about, and I knew I needed more whiteboarding and algorithm experience to help with critical thinking during interviews.
What kinds of career services did Hackbright Academy offer?
Hackbright Academy helped me with negotiation, revising my resume, getting my LinkedIn profile up to par, and understanding what employers are looking for in interviews. They also taught us about informational interviews and how to reach out to companies. Microsoft and a lot of those larger companies look closely at your LinkedIn, so if you don't have a strong LinkedIn profile, they may skip over you. I enjoyed our whiteboard discussions the most. I followed what Hackbright Academy taught me and every interviewer has commented that they like my thought process even if I didn't get the solution. It sounds so simple, but what I've learned at Hackbright Academy was super effective when put into action.
Did you find a mentor at Hackbright Academy?
My mentors were the number one thing that prepared me to find a job. I actually had two mentors: one mentor worked at Reddit and the other worked at Trulia (Zillow). My Reddit mentor worked on back end development, and he was a great help to me when I was building my final project. My Trulia mentor helped me on the front end. I put the front end portion of my project off until the very end because front end work is my least favorite part of working on projects, but she sat down with me for almost three hours and helped me clean it up! She taught me how to beautify my projects through the front end. She taught me that usability and human factors play a huge role in any project.
How did you get into the Microsoft LEAP Apprenticeship Program? Was the admissions process competitive for LEAP?
Even before I graduated from Hackbright Academy, the Microsoft LEAP Apprenticeship Program was already on my radar. Hackbright Academy lets us know about job openings and apprenticeships in our Slack group, and the LEAP Apprenticeship was one of the things they shared with us. The Microsoft team was familiar with Hackbright Academy and said that the Hackbright Academy graduates often do well with Microsoft LEAP. I thought that was cool!
Microsoft uses the same questions on the LEAP application every time, so I studied up on those. Also you have to get your resume ready beforehand, format it in Markdown, and send it via a GitHub Gist.
When I did my onsite interview, I went through two whiteboarding interviews in one day. There is no informational or cultural fit interview, so you have to make sure you're putting your whole self into your application. During my first interview, I got through a majority of the problem, demonstrating my psuedocode, but didn’t get to finish coding out the problem. The Microsoft manager interviewing me gave me feedback about my thought process and told me where I'd spent too much time. During the second interview, I made sure to take that feedback into account and I did much better. One of the people who interviewed me did ask about why I wanted to get into Software Engineering and my background, and I was also asked for my elevator pitch. Microsoft chose only 8 people for our Sunnyvale cohort, and I was psyched when I was chosen! My Microsoft manager told me afterward that I did really well.
If someone doesn't get into Microsoft LEAP on their first try, is it worth applying again?
The program managers who run the program say that if you don't get in the first time you should definitely try again. I agree – it’s all about what the team managers are looking for at that time. They may have to choose from five people and one person has the skill set they need on their team. Not getting a spot in the program doesn't mean that you're not a great candidate!
Having graduated from Hackbright Academy, did you feel prepared for this apprenticeship?
Once you get into Microsoft LEAP, you have a month of training in the classroom and then you're assigned to a team. I was assigned to an Azure-networking team of six people. My manager was super supportive and I learned so much. There was a lot of self-learning, where I’d be given a project and have to figure it out, but I always had support. For my first project, my manager said to me, "No one on the team knows how to work with this so this is yours." I felt prepared for this situation because of Hackbright Academy – our teaching assistants would help us, but they would also push us to try new things. Hackbright Academy expects you to use your resources, ask your peers, refer to Stack Overflow, or use the rubber duck method, which is literally just talking through your thought process to an actual rubber duck.
What languages did you use during your LEAP apprenticeship?
We used .NET and C#. I was on an Azure team so we did a lot of work with Azure tools. I also used PowerShell to create virtual machines (VMs). Since my final project at Hackbright Academy was geared toward data, I think that's a big reason why I got assigned to the Microsoft networking team.
How did you spin your apprenticeship into a full-time job at Microsoft?
As a Microsoft LEAP apprentice, you are essentially a paid contractor of Microsoft, not a full-time employee, for four months with the possibility of extension. Being a LEAP apprentice gives you an advantage but doesn’t guarantee a full-time job at Microsoft, so you do have to re-interview for a full-time job there. As an apprentice, you don't get all the perks of full-time employees, but you can start connecting with other managers and other people within Microsoft. I used that opportunity to start understanding what it takes to have the Microsoft "growth mindset" and being “customer-obsessed.” They're big on that and a few other values in their company culture. I reached out to other Microsoft employees to ask how they got to where they are.
Did you interview with other companies besides Microsoft?
I did! The week after I finished my apprenticeship, I updated my resume and began sending it out. In the end, I scheduled final onsite interviews at Google, Microsoft, and two small health IT startups. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, my interviews for Google and one of the health IT startups would have to be virtual, so I postponed them indefinitely. Microsoft and one of the health IT startups gave me job offers. While the LEAP apprenticeship gave me an advantage with Microsoft, my previous background as a Systems Analyst also helped me land this position. The Microsoft hiring team was impressed by my explanation of how I could apply my previous experience to software engineering. I ultimately chose Microsoft because of their mission, the opportunity to learn an abundance of new technologies, and the opportunity to explore different areas.
Tell us about your new job at Microsoft!
I am now a Software Engineer on the Azure Compute's Host Agent group. My team works with managing the lifecycle of virtual machines as a service. It’s all pretty new for me but I'll be learning so much! My team has C and C++ as their main languages, which I'm super excited to learn. I know I'm going to have a huge learning curve, but I want to go in with the basics under my belt.
I’m specifically working with improving their testing infrastructure environment, monitoring billing issues in the cloud computing area, and optimizing reports sent to the team for monitoring machines. Onboarding has been a little slower than usual due to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic but it’s still a wonderful experience so far. A little overwhelming at times, but my team is pretty large (28 software engineers), so there’s always someone there to answer a question via Microsoft Teams.
What’s your advice for bootcamp graduates who are on the job hunt?
I tell everybody – if you have a strength or an established background, start there when applying for jobs. I know that you might not want to go back into your previous industry, but you need to start applying somewhere. Once you get your foot in the door, everything opens up for you. I also don’t recommend that people overload themselves with back-to-back interviews! It can be overwhelming and you’ll want time to prepare and decompress between interviews.
Jess Feldman is an accomplished writer and the Content Manager at Course Report, the leading platform for career changers who are exploring coding bootcamps.
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