Gwen was a mechanical engineer working in aerospace before pivoting into software development. She chose to make the career change with Code Fellows four years ago because of their instructors and curriculum. Gwen shares why the pace and culture in tech suits her better than aerospace, and how she leveraged her past leadership experience to land senior-level roles right out of bootcamp. Just over three years after graduating from Code Fellows, Gwen is now a Senior Software Engineer at Microsoft – learn about her job today!
What were you up to before Code Fellows, Gwen?
I have a mechanical engineering background! I graduated from University of Texas in Austin and worked in a research lab. Then I worked for 11 years on a product development program at Boeing – specifically on the KC-46 aerial refueling tankers. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world; I absolutely loved it there. However, I reached a stalling point and needed to pivot. I stayed in aerospace for a bit at a VIP completions company, customizing jets for rich folks.
What inspired you to pivot from aerospace engineering to software engineering?
After a while, it became clear that I wanted to leave aerospace. There's a pace and a culture that doesn't really suit me. I tried moving within mechanical engineering, but in the Pacific Northwest, there really aren't a lot of other options for mechanical engineers. I desired more mobility, which I believed I could find in software engineering, so I decided to look into bootcamps!
Did you bet correctly? Do you find that the pace and culture in software engineering suits you better?
Yes, I am happy with the career change! Aerospace doesn’t allow for mobility, which is something I’m particularly pleased with about software. If I'm not happy at a specific company, I feel empowered and able to find an environment that suits me better.
Even though you had engineering experience, did you know any programming languages before Code Fellows?
I took a C class in college many years ago as a precursor to MatLab which I used as a student, but shockingly never used it when I was in the field of aerospace.
Did you research any other coding bootcamps?
There are a lot of options to choose from, which was a little overwhelming at first! I am an engineer in my heart and soul, so of course, I took an analytical approach to my research.
I am also very fortunate that my husband has been working in software engineering for a long time (he's just gotten his 30-year crystal at Microsoft!) so I had close guidance from him.
I looked at Grace Hopper Academy, Ada Developers Academy, and a few others. I’ve heard fantastic outcomes from Ada and my husband has talked about several Ada interns who have come through his organizations and how successful they have been. I really considered Ada because of their internship, but the timing didn’t work out for me.
Why did you ultimately choose Code Fellows?
Once I attended the one-day Learn to Code workshop, I instantly fell in love. Amanda Iverson instructed that session and was a major catalyst for choosing Code Fellows. She handled my questions during that session really well. She was transparent about what I should and should not expect from Code Fellows, she was approachable and clearly a problem solver, which made me feel like I could learn in that environment. Ultimately it was down to Code Fellows and Ada and I chose Code Fellows after that initial session with Amanda. Luckily, Amanda turned out to be my .NET instructor!
I also had a bit of time and space to be able to think about what I really wanted to do, which I do not take for granted. I know that most people going through bootcamps do not have these opportunities available to them, and it's a real privilege and luxury.
Had I not had an engineering background, I probably would have more strongly considered a more traditional option like another degree, but the cost and time commitment necessary to do that are also an impediment. It's a compromise.
What did you actually learn while you were at Code Fellows?
I completed Code Fellows courses 201, 301, and 401! If you just do 201 and 301, I do not view this experience as adequate to make you job-ready – you really need the 401 course or some other extensive follow-on learning. I know some people choose to try to make it without that, but 401 is where the real magic happens.
In 201 (Foundations of Software Engineering) and 301 (Intermediate Software Development), you learn basic fundamentals and building blocks. In 401 is where everything comes together.
In 401 (Advanced Software Development), we learned:
Amanda Iverson ran my 401 class and I loved it! She is closely connected with the .NET folks at Microsoft and leveraged that relationship to actively maintain her curriculum, so everything was very current. It made the curriculum such that, if it's fully absorbed, the students should be on the leading edge of what .NET looks like today.
Learning the most current curriculum is really valuable, especially because web development's always about: What's happening today? Tomorrow is gonna be entirely different. You don't wanna learn what was done three years ago because it's no longer relevant.
What were the key takeaways you got from the Code Fellows 401 class?
What was the community like at Code Fellows? Have you stayed in touch with your network?
I'm connected to a lot of people on LinkedIn but I don't know where everyone landed. I do see when peers from my cohort provide updates on their profiles with new jobs and milestones. I did make one very close friend who was a personal trainer before bootcamp, and we supported each other.
Oddly enough, I’ve kept in closer contact with my instructors than my peers. In addition to Amanda, Rachel Burke was the Campus Director while I was there and she ran the professional development piece of the curriculum. She was so inspiring and just an absolute delight to talk to and work with. She has since moved on to do a little bit more career development mentoring.
How did you land a senior-level job right after graduating from a coding bootcamp?
I landed into some Senior roles right out of bootcamp because my past history as a formal people manager creates an upward vacuum. Organizations really like the idea of having people with leadership experience in the dev areas, but then they want to put them into leadership roles, where you are pulled away from the product. I was adamant that I'm new enough to software and I have a lot I want to learn. I just wanted to keep performing as an individual contributor (IC) for a while longer.
My first job was at Slalom and they did offer me a senior role walking in the door. I asked them not to, to let me be a newbie! I was assured that there would be no expectations at first and that I could just learn. I got promoted to Senior pretty quickly before moving to Wizards, where I was also a Senior Engineer. The work that I did was a bit departed from my title, because of the structure there, which is pretty loose with lots of gaps that need filling. I did what the team needed in that role.
I’m also now a Senior Engineer at Microsoft now – where I've only been working for five months since January. The team structure is more typical or traditional, in that I have a Lead, an Architect that our engineering team supports, and I'm a Senior among a handful of Seniors and SDE's.
What did you learn about the software job landscape from your past three jobs?
At Slalom, the culture was amazing. They truly pride themselves on talent. I worked with them on a single project for 18 months. By the time I was ready for something new, Wizards reached out to me.
I really enjoyed the people at Wizards. They are not a tech company, rather a card publisher that incorporates tech, so they don't promote and support the technology to my preference. It works for some people, but for me – I really want to work in a tech company.
Microsoft is a tech company, rather, more like a thousand tiny companies. So if something isn't perfect where you're currently at, you can either make it perfect or go work for the neighboring team, with low friction.
I’ve learned that it’s important for me to work for a tech company because I have this background in high-level leadership. I understand how the business works and I orient my goals around that and the customer, much more so than the average developer is equipped to do. I've seen behind the curtain and I can't unsee it, so working as an individual contributor can be more difficult for me now because I stepped back from those leadership roles. Leaving that to other people to manage can be difficult for me at times.
I’m trained to see the connection between high-level business decisions and a low-level implementation and the customer impact. In a tech company, the high-level business decisions are always around the technology and how it impacts customers. In a non-technology company, the technology is a support piece and doesn't get invested in in the same way, either in money, resources, time, or even processes. So it feels different as a developer working in a non-tech company.
You’re now a Senior Software Engineer at Microsoft! Was Microsoft interested in your bootcamp experience?
They were interested in my time at Code Fellows but since I already had experience in the field, they were more interested in my completed projects.
What kinds of projects are you working on at Microsoft? What is Signal Quality?
I work with Azure, which is a competitor to AWS. Azure is known for bespoke solutions to large customer problems. This results in integration gaps between some of our services. We work to offer a more cohesive package.
Signal quality is tasked right now with creating clarity around what the metrics data is telling our service providers. For instance, the service storage account service is always producing metrics with everything the customers are experiencing, and we're collecting all of those metrics, and they should tell us something about the customers’ lived experiences.
The projects I'm working on right now are really all DevOps, more specifically DevSecOps, which is not where my specialty was before. I'm really a back-end engineer. DevOps is a little bit more back-end than a standard back-end role.
When I arrived at Microsoft, the service we’re building didn't exist yet, so I was tasked with building up the service infrastructure and the deployment pipelines, so that we have tools for the developers to be able to use to deploy new ML algorithms.
Now that you’ve been in the industry for a couple of years, is there anything that you would have liked to learn at Code Fellows?
It’s always worth spending more time on Cloud concepts. If you are a successful web developer, it's because you are very comfortable moving around any large cloud platform. The foundational Cloud concepts are super important because those are what move with you.
The other thing is security. DevSecOps is a really under-populated area and it's super important! Every lawsuit or exposure notification is because there's a hole somewhere in your DevSecOps approach. If it's not built, it's largely because it's an isolated sort of skill set and it's not in line with the day-to-day of the average web developer. I think GIT and MVC should be foundational.
You’ve worked on Agile teams since graduating. Did Code Fellows prepare you for Agile?
I was introduced to Agile methodology at Code Fellows. In all three classes, we occasionally did development sprints. We would do a big project with other people, and in those cases, we would do something like a development sprint, it would be a one-week sprint for the 201 and 301 and a two or three-week sprint for the 401.
We also did daily stand-ups. The idea of sprint boards and story refinement were introduced, but I really learned the deep, gory details of Agile at Slalom, where it is built into the DNA. They follow Agile there more closely than I've seen at other companies where I've worked.
Looking back on the past 4 years, was attending Code Fellows worth it for you?
It was absolutely worth it to go to Code Fellows. A caveat for me in particular that made it worth it was that I was well-positioned to take advantage of it. I already have an engineering background, I'm able to leverage that pretty easily in interviews, offering more options to me.
The one shortfall for most bootcamps (not all) is that there is no common accreditation authority (like you’d typically see in a traditional university program), so it's hard for employers to be able to trust what they're getting when they hire a bootcamp graduate. There's a huge barrier to entry for bootcamp grads to get into even non-technology companies where they can go prove themselves. It’s hard for a lot of grads to land software jobs because of the tech interviews. The Microsoft-LEAP program is a fantastic example of an apprenticeship. Look for a company that's put real time, resources, and effort into taking bootcamp grads and evaluating them for that company.
Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!
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