Jenn Ma was looking for a career that would be relevant, with room to grow – she decided to make the change from real estate underwriting to web development with Rithm School. One year later, Jenn says she wouldn’t trade her career change for anything. Learn more about Jenn’s career transformation through Rithm School, the benefits of doing an internship, and how her networking skills helped her land a job as a Software Engineer at Curology.
What were you doing before launching your tech career at Rithm School?
I graduated from USC with a degree in Business and a minor in Real Estate Development. I worked for about three and a half years at Bank of the West as an underwriter in the commercial real estate sector. I really enjoyed the real estate aspect but felt like something was missing. I knew that I wanted a career that I could grow in; one with longevity that would always challenge me to be better.
I considered my potential career paths and made a decision that I needed transferable skills that would be industry agnostic. I decided that pursuing a coding bootcamp would allow me to achieve this goal. My career change started off as more of a practical move, but as I began coding, I came to realize that I enjoyed the problem-solving and strategy involved with programming. At that point, I was fascinated with this new journey and very excited to start forging my path.
There are so many coding bootcamps now. What made Rithm School stand out?
When I decided to change careers, I moved to San Francisco to apply and enroll in a bootcamp there. Prior to applying, a Rithm School representative actually invited me on-campus for a free tutoring session, which I accepted. I noticed that Rithm School was a lot smaller than the other bootcamps in the area in terms of class-size. I really liked the school’s student to teacher ratio. There were 17 people in my cohort and we had three instructors, which made it a very personalized experience.
How did you pay for Rithm School? Any creative tips for our readers?
As I was assessing my career move, I made sure to budget. I had a decent amount saved up and was able to pay the tuition up-front. I also qualified for a small scholarship because I paid in full.
I would recommend that anyone interested in this path take their financial situation into account before making the career switch. If you are not able to pay in full at the beginning and sustain yourself until you get a job, make sure you do your research beforehand. Look into whether the school offers an Income Share Agreement (ISA) to defer tuition or if there are options for financial aid in the form of scholarships or loans.
What was the Rithm School application and interview process like? Did you have to complete any prework?
First, they gave me 50 coding exercises to complete and offered in-person tutoring sessions twice-a-week for two weeks to support applicants with these exercises. Then I did a whiteboarding interview, which was different from other bootcamps that I looked at. It is easy to have an editor auto-complete variable names and highlight syntax errors with a linter, but you do not get any of these luxuries when writing code on a whiteboard. In order for me to get accustomed to this style of interviewing, I bought a whiteboard to practice on at home. The same thing can be accomplished by doing coding problems with a pen and a notebook.
Once you started at Rithm School, what was the bootcamp experience like?
It was a full-time bootcamp, so the schedule was Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. On a typical day, there was a lecture and lab in the morning and the afternoon. You get hands-on experience right away. As soon as you learn a concept in lecture, you go into lab and start hammering out exercises. We also had sprints, which were labs that took a few days and often involved building a big project utilizing multiple topics we learned. For the majority of the bootcamp, we pair-programmed for our exercises.
On the weekends, we received an assessment that mirrored a real take-home from a company. Usually the take-home assessment involved conceptual questions, vocabulary, trivia, coding problems, and building an app. The assessments generally took about four to six hours to complete. We were scored on our weekend homework, and that indicated how well we understood the concepts that were taught that week.
In the second half of bootcamp, students do an internship with one of the startups that the school partners with. The last couple of weeks of the course were dedicated to preparing us for the job search. This included workshops catered to writing cover letters and resumes, networking, speaker panels, and anything that was related to acquiring employment opportunities.
What coding languages did Rithm School teach?
Tell us about your internship!
During the second half of bootcamp, you do an internship with a startup. Rithm School partners with startups and splits up the cohort between these companies. I was partnered with Jump Off Campus, a university student housing finder. The main components of the Jump Off Campus site are a map and the listings panel, which is searchable and filterable according to user selections. My team and I had to upgrade the backend to Ruby on Rails 5.0 from 2.0. I also worked on refactoring the front end to React and integrated the Google Maps API into the app. Overall, this was pretty cool to work on and a great learning experience.
How did Rithm School’s career services help you in your own job search?
At Rithm School, we had a career coach named Zach that we met with one-on-one on a regular basis. He helped prepare us for the job search by putting on workshops for writing tailored cover letters and resumes, networking, and salary negotiation. There were also guest speakers, who were all industry professionals, that came to share their knowledge with us. As part of our job search preparation, we also had at least one mock phone interview and one mock video interview. Both sessions were recorded so that we could go back and review our own footage and see how we behaved.
My cohort graduated around Thanksgiving, which was not an ideal time. The job market was dead and my applications seemed to go nowhere. I decided that this was the perfect time to network — I attended one to five in-person meetups per week! I did this on top of doing informational interviews with engineers and managers on the phone or in-person through coffee or lunch. Focusing on networking increased the amount of personal connections I made, so I did not have to do much cold outreach. Getting job referrals through warm connections was the way to go!
What’s your networking advice to bootcamp graduates on the job search right now?
Your mentality makes a big difference when networking. I go into a meetup thinking, “I'm just here for free food, to make friends, and learn something new!” The more you can be yourself, the more genuine you will come across and succeed in making a new connection. Networking can be a grind, but I always focus on the positives. Even if I didn’t make any connections at a meetup, at least I got free food! Focusing on those little things will make networking feel less daunting. The important thing is to keep trying because you never know who you will meet. Every outlet could turn into a potential referral or interview!
In regards to networking remotely, the same rules can be applied (minus the free food part)! When I reach out to someone for a quick informational phone call, I focus on the “make friends and learn something new” aspect of networking. Shifting your perspective by having the right mentality makes a world of difference!
Tell us about your new job at Curology!
I’m a full stack software engineer at Curology. Curology is dedicated to providing affordable, personalized, and prescription-strength skincare to its patients. I work on the product team and we cover everything from when the patient creates an account to shipping out an order. We build out all the apps needed to make sure our processes run efficiently and effectively. My current role allows me to gain insight and experience in both the front end and back end.
I landed my job at Curology through my networking efforts! I went to a remote engineer panel with several startups in San Francisco, and that’s where I met my now manager. After the panel, I followed up with my Curology contact for an informational phone call. We spoke about his background and what he does at the company. From there, he introduced me to one of his engineers who was also a bootcamp graduate. I had such a good impression of the team that I decided to apply to the software engineer position with the referral.
Do you have any tips for doing a successful online interview?
Be aware of body language cues, and be sure you have a good internet connection. Soft skills apply in both an in-person and online interview setting. It's beyond the technical. Pay attention to your interviewer’s body language and avoid doing things that may be distracting, like touching your hair a lot. As for the technical portion, the experience online and in-person is essentially the same — you share your screen while you code or have access to a shared code editor.
What has Curology’s remote onboarding process been like for you?
Curology has an onboarding template that helps them cater to each person’s onboarding needs. I have a whole checklist of things that they recommend I go through in order to be acquainted with different services they use. I’m also encouraged to schedule one-on-ones with people on my team as well as other departments. Now that I'm almost done with onboarding, I can begin learning the codebase and start on my first task.
Have you felt prepared to work remotely in your first software engineer job, even though you learned to code at Rithm School in-person?
Yes, because with software engineering you just need a laptop to work. It would be nice to turn around and tap someone on the shoulder, but being able to ping someone on Slack works just as well. I also have an onboarding mentor who is always available to help me.
How did your internship help you get your first job as a Software Engineer?
Doing the internship has definitely helped me with my job. In my new job, I have to use Laravel, which is a popular PHP framework. I didn't know anything about PHP, but Ruby on Rails is similar to Laravel and because of these similarities I’m having an easier time understanding the flow of information in our apps.
Working at an internship is great for experience, but the quicker you can get a full-time job, the better. What matters most is that you look for a company that has robust onboarding, is great for junior developers, and provides support for you as you progress through your career.
How is giving back to the tech community helping you grow as a software engineer?
I highly recommend getting involved with the community by volunteering your time to help others grow and succeed in their careers. With that being said, I only encourage this for those who genuinely want to volunteer and have the time to do so. In addition to being able to give back, the networking aspect within such organizations is invaluable.
Do you think this is a good time to change careers into tech?
Normally, I would say yes. However, with this recession you have to look at your own situation and whether you have the financial cushion and mental capacity to take on something like this. Some people still have to work full-time while attending bootcamp, which can be very draining. If you have the ability to go for it without much restriction, then I encourage you to do so. Many companies are also empathetic at this time, and several platforms have made their portals free, so it's a great time to learn something new.
How has your past career in real estate and banking helped you in your new career as a Software Engineer?
My job in real estate was analytical. No two deals were alike and there were always risks involved with every transaction. Therefore, it was imperative for me to understand the risks and mitigants for each scenario in order to determine the best way to proceed. This skillset is helpful in software engineering because there will be times where I will have to analyze tradeoffs for using different frameworks and technologies.
What has been your biggest challenge in this journey to become a Software Engineer?
Imposter syndrome. I was my own worst enemy and biggest critic. When I did something that didn't work, I felt bad and incapable. During the job hunt, my mentality suffered because of the lack of results from the effort I put in. This entire process is definitely a grind and it got my morale down, so I had to figure out ways to uplift myself. I made it a point to interact with my cohort since we were good at bringing each other up and encouraging one another to keep pushing forward. I felt fortunate to have friends and family around to remind me that I was capable of succeeding in this field.
Are you happy that you became a Software Engineer and went this route?
It's been about a year now since I quit my job as an underwriter. This entire career-change has been so beneficial and transformative, not just for my skills, but for my mentality as well. I had a lot of downtime during the job hunt. This gave me a chance to shift my mindset and tackle imposter syndrome as a junior developer. I am so glad to have made this change and I wouldn't trade it for anything.