After studying languages, and working as a translator in Turkey, Jacqlene Sifre started working for a tech company and saw the potential of software engineering. She wanted to learn to code, but didn’t want to quit her job, so she enrolled in Flatiron School’s Online Software Engineering Program. Jacqlene tells us about balancing her full-time job with coding bootcamp, how learning to code is similar to learning syntax for a new spoken language, and how she landed an engineering apprenticeship at LinkedIn!
Tell me about your career and educational background?
I received my bachelors in psychology from Northeastern University in Boston, then moved to New York to work in fashion. I kept thinking about my science background, so I enrolled in Columbia University’s pre-med program. While there, I discovered their linguistics program, which I ended up loving, and started learning Turkish and other languages. I moved to Turkey to continue learning the language, did a masters program in literary translation specializing in Turkish, Arabic, Ancient Greek, and Italian, then spent three years there working in translation and teaching!
When I returned to the US, I started working as a project coordinator in the New York office of the San Francisco-based tech company OpenTable. The role eventually evolved into an onboarding specialist, where I would onboard new restaurants onto our platform. That’s how I got introduced to coding. After six years of consulting with restaurants, and configuring our systems for them, I started to think how great it would be, if instead of configuring the system, I was building it with the engineers.
Did you ever consider going back to college or taking the self-taught route?
I did. While I was still at OpenTable, I started reading HTML and CSS for Dummies. Once I realized I enjoyed reading those books and enjoyed doing some basic coding, I decided to enroll in school. I took a course in front end HTML and CSS, and a back end course in Java. After the semester, I had to decide whether to go back to school for four years or take something more intensive. Ultimately, it came down to time. I couldn’t quit work. I had to be able to work full-time and study in my free time. If I continued on the university route, it would take me four years to complete. I didn’t want to wait that long to move into my new career. That’s when I started looking into coding bootcamps.
I had the discipline to teach myself, but I think I would have been overwhelmed had I tried to do so. The world of programming can be really daunting. It’s hard to know where to begin when you don’t know what you need to learn. So, I decided to choose a program that checked all the boxes, and was a full stack program that allowed me to learn both front end and back end.
What made you choose Flatiron School’s online coding bootcamp, as opposed to another coding bootcamp?
It was important for me to enroll in a bootcamp with a presence in New York City. I was attracted to Flatiron because it was the most flexible. Since I needed to work full-time, I was looking for a program I could take remotely on weekends, or at night. At the time, Flatiron was one of the only ones in New York City that was offering that. Most people do it full-time and can finish in about six months. Since I was doing it part-time, it took me longer – about 14 months. It depends on how much time you can devote to the program each week. I spoke with a counselor, and, based on my schedule, we figured out approximately how long it would take me to complete.
I also wanted an online bootcamp which had an option to go on site, so I could feel like I had a place to pop by, go to study, connect with other students, and feel more loyal to the program itself. Basically, I wanted to have an anchor in New York, even if showing up was optional.
What was the Flatiron School application and interview process like?
I had to submit an application and answer a few questions. Then I had a 30-minute video interview with one of their admissions officers where I talked about my studies and educational background, and he told me about the program. I’d completed their Ruby prep course, and based on that, and my educational background, he told me he thought I had a pretty good chance of being accepted. The next week, I found out I’d been accepted.
Can you tell me about Flatiron School’s remote learning experience? What was a typical day like?
It’s a little bit different being a remote student. It’s completely self-paced. I had to set a pretty strict schedule for myself to log on from 6:30pm to 9:30pm four days a week, and then for five hours one day during the weekend. I was spending 19 hours a week working on the course.
It was done completely through a site called Learn.co. You progress through the classes in a sequential manner. It involved a lot of reading mixed with labs. After every reading section or two, you would have a different lab to work on. You had to finish and successfully pass those labs in order to move to the next section.
Did you have access to instructors if you were stuck on a lab?
I was on Slack and on Learn.co there was a constant live chat called “Ask a Question.” When I was stuck, I was able to ping an expert and receive a 30-minute one-on-one session. It was an amazing resource and helped me when the material started to get pretty difficult. I would chat with an expert almost every day, if not more. For each 30-minute session, I would come up with a list of questions, then try to get through as many of them as I could. I would recommend that approach, as opposed to pinging them every time you have a question.
Additionally, they have a Slack channel where you can talk to fellow students. You could see if other students had the same question as you did, and if they did, you might not need to talk with an expert. So, there were a couple of different ways to get answers to your questions.
Did you get to know other students? How diverse was the online student population?
Flatiron School’s Slack channel is super active and includes both past and present students, as well as people who are thinking about joining the program. It’s a really nice community where people can ask questions when they’re stuck and get answers. Even though I was remote, there was definitely a community. I was able to meet people virtually, and in person, as well.
I found the student body to be very diverse. In fact, all the people I ended up meeting in person were aspiring female engineers. I was not alone in terms of being a minority. It was nice to feel like I wasn’t alone in a sea of non-minorities.
Did you ever work on projects with other students?
Flatiron gives you the option to do that. In order to graduate, you have to complete five portfolio projects throughout the course. Each project is meant to be a cumulation of a major section, and you must complete it before you can move on to the next major section. For each project, you can choose whether you want to do it as a pair, or do it on your own. I chose to do my projects on my own just because of my hours. I noticed that a lot of students go all in and just focus on Flatiron School. They’re not going to work during the day, so I was in the minority in that respect.
What was your favorite project to work on?
In order to graduate, you had to do a final project which encapsulated everything that you’ve learned and put it all together. I went through a lot of sweat and tears working on that. There were a lot of ups and downs.
My project played off my experience at OpenTable. I’d heard about the amount of food waste there is, and how much food gets thrown out simply because it looks “ugly.” That inspired me to build a web app where producers, like grocery stores, that have imperfect products could sell those products either to individuals, who would buy them at a discount, or to food banks, schools, or other institutions. So, for my final project I created the kind of shell of what I imagined the app would look like if I wanted to build it out.
Then every student project had to be approved. I went through one review, and the mentor told me to add some more stuff to it. So I had to go back and do it again. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a great experience. But actually, it’s what helped me through all of my job interviews – being able to show off my personal project!
What kind of career advice or guidance did Flatiron provide?
Flatiron has a very cool career assistance program. When you’re about 75 percent towards graduating, you can take a second course on finding a job as a software engineer. Then, when you graduate, you are paired with a career counselor. They’re invaluable. You can decide how often you want to touch base with your counselor. They’re there to give you assistance on everything from resume review, to providing feedback on your LinkedIn page, to handling situations that may arise during your job search.
Also, they’re constantly letting you know when certain jobs have opened up. They’d say, “Hey, such and such company is looking for a junior engineer. Would you be interested in throwing your hat in the ring?” I loved working with my career counselor. I highly recommend it to anyone.
How did you land your current job at LinkedIn?
I actually found out about it through my career coach who sent an email letting us know that LinkedIn had a program called the REACH Apprenticeship program, and that their application period was opening up soon. So, I went over to the site and checked it out and was super interested. I was like, “I need to apply to this.”
What was the application process for REACH?
I had to write three essays. One, explaining how I became a software engineer, and a little bit about my background, then two which showcased my tech skills. As soon as the application process opened up, I submitted my essays.
I heard back from them in November 2018. I remember receiving an email from a LinkedIn recruiter saying they wanted to talk to me a bit more. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited! At first, I thought it was a joke or something. I spoke with one of their HR reps in California and she told me how the rest of the application process would go. I ended up getting a role in Sunnyvale, California. So, in addition to getting the position, I also relocated from New York. My last day at my old company was February 1, and I moved to Sunnyvale that night and started at LinkedIn on February 4, 2019.
Can you tell me about your role as an apprentice at LinkedIn?
I’m an apprentice in LinkedIn’s international engineering department. My job is to assist the team with anything they need – whether it’s front end or back end. It’s great because I’m getting different experiences.
One of the really cool things about being an apprentice is that you get what’s called 20 percent time. What that means is that you can devote 20 percent of your working time to learn and grow. I love my 20 percent time. You have the freedom to decide what you want to learn. I could spend my 20 percent time studying machine learning, for example, even if that isn’t part of my current role. On top of that, LinkedIn always offers internal tech talks.
The length of the program itself varies per person, but I was told I’d be an apprentice for about a year. It’s not guaranteed I’ll be a software engineer in year two, but they’ll assess how I’ve been doing, and hopefully at that point I’ll move out of the apprenticeship and into a regular software engineering role.
How has your background, both in languages and working at OpenTable, been useful in becoming a software engineer?
I’d say my background in languages got me interested in coding in the first place. To me, it was just like learning another language – a language that I found fascinating. When I was first taking HTML and CSS classes, it was like learning rules the same way you would learn about syntax in other languages. I love languages, in general, and for me it was like picking up another one.
Also, I underestimated the amount of communication you need to be a software engineer. I think it’s a common misconception. You picture someone in front of a computer with headphones on. It’s actually the complete opposite. You’re constantly communicating with your team, and hashing out problems together. You really need to be a good communicator to be a successful software engineer. My experience working at OpenTable helped me with that. I was constantly working with new clients, personalities, and restaurants on a daily basis.
When you look back at your decision to learn to code, and your journey to becoming a software engineer, what stands out?
What I love about this industry is that you’re never bored. You’ll never stop learning. And the more you learn, the more you realize how much there’s still left to learn. Just accept the fact that you’re not going to know everything. And embrace it. Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t get it right away – you’re going to have your ups and downs. Just remember what got you there in the first place.
It’s also important to have a support structure in place to keep you accountable, and to remind you of your goal when you’re feeling down.
As a woman software engineer, do you have any advice for other women who want to get into tech?
Never let the fact that you want to enter an industry where most people don’t look like you, scare you. If it’s something you’re really passionate about, go for it. Don’t think that because there aren’t people that look like you preclude you from doing it. Don’t let that stop you. I did it while working full-time. If I can do it, anybody can.