Alex was interested in coding throughout college but initially dismissed it, thinking that coding just wasn’t for her. But seeing the potential of technology while working for nonprofits, she decided to revisit software engineering, and loved it. Alex won the Edie Windsor Lesbians Who Tech Scholarship to attend Codesmith coding bootcamp in New York City, and now works on a team that values diversity. Alex tells us about her experience learning in Codesmith’s supportive environment, how she landed her new role as a Software Engineer, and why she’s happy to be increasing the visibility of women in tech.
Tell me about your career and education background – how did your path lead you to Codesmith?
My interest in engineering started when I was an undergrad studying Linguistics and International Studies. As part of my linguistics major, I worked on a project which involved building a website to document indigenous languages in the Oaxacan region of Mexico. That's where I learned that technology can be used in all these interesting ways, and there are all these interesting problems to solve.
After college, I had a hodgepodge of jobs, including jobs at nonprofits. In every job I had, I found ways to do engineering challenges, whether it be building small scripts and applications for a startup, or working with different content management systems.
I moved to New York and was feeling unfulfilled in my career, so I really decided to focus on software engineering. I was mostly self-taught at that point – I had only taken a couple of computer science classes in undergraduate, so I started teaching myself via online courses. I was just having so much fun with it.
How did you decide to go to Codesmith?
I started going to the workshops every week, and then I decided to apply to Codesmith’s immersive program and spend three months of my life devoted to learning. It ended up being one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Did you consider other options like other bootcamps, or going back to college?
I did, actually. I considered going back to college for a Master’s in Computational Linguistics. I also considered and tried some of the online learning platforms. But in terms of the learning environment that I wanted to be in, I know I learn better with people in a classroom or group environment, as opposed to learning online on the side with other jobs, or in the evenings. So I knew I wanted an immersive experience.
I did a paid, week-long prep course at one of the other bootcamps in New York. I liked it and doing that helped me decide that this path was right for me, instead of getting a Masters which is really expensive. Bootcamp programs aren't cheap, but compared to a two-year program, the bang for your buck in three months versus two years is pretty amazing.
When I went to Codesmith’s free workshops, I found the level of instruction was equal, if not at a higher level than the course I paid for. And so, I thought, "This is a no brainer, I'm definitely going to Codesmith." Also, I met such wonderful people at the meetups, and I was really impressed by Codesmith staff. It just felt right.
When you decided to go to Codesmith's bootcamp, what was your goal? Did you have a specific role or job or company in mind?
During the program, I was drawn to back end development. I'm not a very visual design-oriented person. I don't want to decide what a website should look like – I want to build it. Maybe I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't gone to Codesmith. Getting the chance to try out different parts of programming was really helpful for someone like me who was new to the professional side of the industry.
Congratulations on landing the Edie Windsor scholarship! Can you tell me about what the process was like to apply for that?
The Edie Windsor scholarship is a scholarship given by the Lesbians Who Tech organization, an organization which helps LGBT people, women, and underrepresented voices get into tech. They offer a really amazing scholarship which covers 50% off bootcamp tuition. For the application, I wrote two 500-word essays, then they sent me an email to say I was a finalist. The final email said, "Congrats, we've chosen you." So the process was really simple.
The scholarship is only one part of the work that Lesbians Who Tech does. They paid for my registration for the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco, which was really exciting. I'd been to tech meetups, but it was my first full-blown tech conference and it was amazing. They do such incredible things for LGBT people and for women in tech. It's an awesome organization, and I feel incredibly grateful to not only have received the scholarship but also to be in this community of people. They have a Slack group, volunteer events – it's an incredibly impressive organization that I feel really grateful to have stumbled into.
Can you tell me about the Codesmith application and interview process?
It was not easy. It was definitely a little nerve-wracking. But the staff, the instructors, and Will Sentance, the CEO, were always incredibly supportive. That's a theme of Codesmith; everyone's incredibly supportive and is really rooting for you. It feels like a really positive space and energy.
I actually didn't pass my first technical interview. I was incredibly nervous because I hadn't taken a test since I was in college. I was being evaluated and it was really nerve-wracking, so I think I froze. They gave me feedback and let me come back for another interview a week later and I did a bit better. By that time, it felt more comfortable, and luckily they let me in! I got a call from the CEO, Will, who's a fantastic guy. He said I was ready to start in the April cohort, but I actually deferred to the June cohort, because I was so overwhelmed, and felt I needed to practice more. It was a good experience all around. Nerve-wracking, but ended up being good.
What was your Codesmith cohort like? How many people were there, and was it diverse in terms of gender, and race, age, and backgrounds?
It was definitely really diverse in a lot of different ways. There were 12 of us in my cohort. Four of us were women, which was great. It could have been better, but in the tech world, we take what we can get at the moment!
In terms of experience, there were some people who had been to a bootcamp previously, who decided to come to Codesmith because it was like the next level up. There were people who had never worked in the engineering industry, people who had worked in design or done some programming, people who had been going to hackathons for years, and others like me who had tinkered but never dived super deep into things. It was a great mix of people, which was really helpful because we were able to draw on each other's experiences. I met some of my best friends there!
How does that compare to the diversity at your job today?
I'm really lucky to work at a company that is trying to close the gender gap in their engineering team. The engineering team is about 30 people. Inside of that team, I’m in a group of four developers, two designers, a product owner, and a scrum master. I'm the only woman developer in my group, but we have at least 10 women developers in the whole team. But I can see the difference at this company, compared to places I interviewed where I would have been either the only woman engineer. So I feel really lucky to work for a company that is really committed to having an inclusive and diverse workspace.
Can you tell me about the learning experience at Codesmith?
There's a Junior Phase and a Senior Phase. During a typical day during your Junior Phase, you start with a daily warm-up exercise. Each learning module was organized in two-day sprints. So during the first day of a learning module, you have an intro lecture about a topic such as Node, React, or data structures. Then a big chunk of the day would be spent working on a problem set. On the second day of the module, you go over the answers to the problem sets with an instructor. Everything you do in your junior phase is with a pair programming partner, which I think is an awesome hallmark of Codesmith. It shows how much they invest in technical communication, to make sure that you're not just understanding the concepts, but you're also understanding them well enough to explain them to someone else.
The Senior Phase is the project portion when you build a developer tool. You're taking what you learned in your junior phase, and applying it to something that you think will be helpful to the developer community. People in my cohort built things like a Lambda orchestrator, a dev tool to help with GraphQL. I built an AWS metric visualizer, which was really cool.
How did Codesmith prepare you for the job hunt? What sort of career guidance did they give you?
The second part of the Senior Phase is the hiring phase. You work on your resume and do practice interviews. It's a whole other skill to learn and it's nerve-wracking, but definitely fun. You're working with people collaboratively, practicing out loud, doing mock interviews with your cohort-mates and alums. Then there's a hiring day where Codesmith brings in companies that really want to hire people. It's almost like speed dating. About 10 or 12 companies came to our hiring day, and we got to choose who we wanted to talk to. Then if they're interested, we could continue in their interview process. It's an amazing way to start to understand what kind of jobs are available and what people are looking for.
Can you tell me about your post-Codesmith experience and how you landed your current job?
I really hit the ground running after I graduated in September 2018. I spent about two and a half months applying for jobs nonstop. It was putting in the time and effort to follow up with the employers that I met on hiring day, reaching out to companies I was interested in, digging into my network, seeing who I could talk to, and going to networking events. My whole process lasted about two and a half months, where pretty much 9am to 5pm I was applying and interviewing.
What were your job interviews like? How did you do in the code challenges?
The interview process generally was a phone screen then a coding challenge with one of the company’s engineers. Then, depending on the company, there might be another coding challenge, or an onsite interview, where you would do a coding challenge, a culture interview, and meet different people who would be on your team.
It was a pretty grueling process. But I found it a lot of fun because I was also still trying to figure out what position would fit me best. So I really felt like I was interviewing them as much as they are interviewing me – and got to treat it as a fun conversation. My process with the company that I'm currently with included a phone screen, a technical interview, and an on-site interview. Then luckily, I was offered a job!
Congratulations! Can you tell me about your role and the projects you're working on?
My parents have no idea what I do, but I can tell them, "Go to that website, and click that button – I did that!" So that's kind of the fun side of web development. But then I'm also working with database queries, and different server-side problems, which has been really fun.
What’s been your biggest challenge or roadblock in your career change?
All things considered, things are going very well. But I think I do struggle with imposter syndrome. It's not that I didn't like math or consider myself interested in science or STEM topics in college. I put coding to the side as something that just wasn't for me a little too early on. Then I started to realize that coding is more about problem solving, finding patterns, and learning a new language. I wish that had stuck with me a little earlier. I'm glad I eventually got there. But I think the challenge has been my own confidence in myself, and thinking that "This stuff isn't for me, I haven't been doing this since I was 10 years old." And that's just not true.
While I'm definitely confident in my abilities, sometimes it can be really intimidating when an experienced colleague gets his tickets done much faster than I do, because he knows the code base better. There are days where I get frustrated with myself or frustrated that it's taking me longer to work out a problem. At the same time, I feel I'm able to hold my own in terms of learning new things. Luckily, I'm in a workspace where questions and collaboration are really encouraged. So I don't think I've ever felt like I couldn't ask someone if I get stuck. One of the best parts of my job is getting to work with my coworkers. This is an industry and a job where I'm constantly learning something new every day.
What is it like being a woman in tech now that you've graduated?
I'm still learning what it means to be a woman in tech. Again, I'm really lucky that the company I work for is cognizant and intentional about hiring women and diverse candidates. But it's always in the back of my mind, “Am I not speaking up because men are talking too much? Am I not speaking up because I need to learn a bit more?” I’m always thinking about the different power structures in the room and what effect that is having on me. I've made a conscious effort to speak at least once in every meeting to practice, so when I have something really important to say, I'll be used to speaking up.
Also, I'm part of a Women in Tech group at my company. It's about creating community, supporting people, and being visible. I'm really inspired, not only by some of the women in my company who've been there for a little bit longer, but also by the tech community in general. I'm always really excited when I see a woman speaking at an event. Visibility and representation are really important in all aspects for inclusion and diversity in tech.
Have your background and your college degree been useful in becoming a software developer?
The more relevant degree to coding is linguistics. Often when I say I studied linguistics, people will say, "Oh, that makes sense that you're a software engineer now,” because linguistics is focused on syntax, breaking down language into its smallest parts, and seeing how it fits together. And that's a lot of what coding is – logic, syntax, and how things fit together. So it makes sense that I found my way here because I enjoyed looking at and learning new languages.
But also, in the work that I did in the nonprofit world and the startup world, I learned how important communication is and how important it is to see the big picture. I'm really grateful for those experiences because that was where I learned how to work on a team, and communicate problems to people who might not be technical. I feel really grateful for having that experience, even if it wasn't directly engineering work.
Have you stayed involved with Codesmith?
Unfortunately, my job took me to a different city. I don't live in New York anymore, which is a bummer because I really miss all my friends from Codesmith in New York! But we do have group chats and there is an active alumni Slack channel – there’s a vast alumni network.
Anytime there's a call for grads to do mock interviews with current students, I like to do that because I remember how fun it was to talk to grads who returned to Codesmith. Anytime anyone is interested in talking to someone with a background like me, or interested in the Lesbians Who Tech scholarship, I'm happy to talk to people. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the Codesmith community and know that there are smart, exciting, amazing people who are willing to help me and I'm willing to help them.
What advice do you have for other people, especially women, who are thinking about making a career change through a bootcamp like Codesmith?
You can do it. If you're waiting for someone to give you permission, here it is. Do it. It's hard to over exaggerate how much Codesmith changed my life. I never thought I'd be making as much money as I'm making now. I just never thought of myself as an engineer, even if I was doing things that were related. I met amazing people. It was really hard, it was really challenging, but it is the best thing that's ever happened to me. So if you want to do it, do it.
Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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