When Susanna first moved to the US from Finland, she started teaching herself to code while waiting for her green card. When she wasn’t advancing as fast as she wanted to, Susanna decided to enroll at Flatiron School in Washington DC. Susanna tells us about overcoming self-doubt while learning to code, working machine learning into her final project, and ultimately landing a job with an education startup from Flatiron School’s Hiring Day!
What’s your background before you decided to enroll at Flatiron School?
I'm from Finland and spent all of my professional career there. I started out as a journalist and really loved it. Later on, I started doing communications for a human rights organization as a digital content producer, managing our website, working with coders, and doing more tech work than I had done as a journalist. I liked working on the website – I felt really constrained, but also I was very interested in how it all worked. I tried to teach myself but I felt like I needed more time to study coding.
About a year ago, I moved from Finland to Tampa, Florida to be with my partner. When I was planning to move, I knew I would have to wait for my green card, and wouldn’t be allowed to work for some time. I decided to use that opportunity to start teaching myself coding full-time. So I started learning to code using online resources and going to meetups in Tampa. But I wasn’t advancing as fast as I wanted to, so I started looking into coding bootcamps.
It sounds like you had done quite a lot of study on your own. Did you consider another path to coding like learning online or going back to college?
Two or three years ago I took some online courses on my own, like massive open online courses (MOOCs) at universities, and I really liked them. They were super challenging. I started out struggling through Java courses – I actually ditched the course two times and then on the third time I finally got it through. Even when I was still in Finland, I did self-learning with online courses.
I absolutely did not want to go back to university because I had just finished my journalism degree at the end of last year.
So you were living in Tampa – how did you end up going to a coding bootcamp in Washington DC? And why Flatiron in particular?
When I was researching last spring, there were no bootcamps in Tampa (there is actually a bootcamp in Tampa now). I had visited DC and really liked it, so I started to look into bootcamps in DC. I read as many reviews as possible on Course Report for General Assembly, Coding Dojo, Thinkful, and Flatiron School in DC. Some of them seemed to be very self-paced or mostly online, but I wanted the classroom learning because that's what works best for me.
Flatiron School had really good reviews and an automatic $5000 scholarship for all underrepresented groups, including women, for their new DC campus. Last spring, they also had full scholarships available, which is very rare. I was living off my savings at this point, so the price was a big factor. Flatiron School was by far the most interesting to me. They were very responsive and helpful in their communications with me. Getting a full scholarship and realizing that I’d be able to attend the bootcamp was one of the best feelings ever.
I did all of the Flatiron pre-work through the online portal before I was accepted. That helped me solidify my decision because the online material was amazing – they have actual human support even before you've signed on or paid for anything. I could still ping someone on the Learn platform and they would get back to me within minutes. Flatiron School was actually a really obvious decision for me – I moved to DC in June 2018 to start the bootcamp.
What was the Flatiron School application and interview process like for you? Was it hard to get in?
The labs and technical tasks in the technical application were easy, because at that point I had already taught myself a few programming basics. The most challenging aspect was the technical interview where you pair up with one of their Technical Coaching Fellows, and they ask you questions about the problem, ask you to explain it, and then ask you to change one little thing about the code. That was surprisingly hard because I had never been required to code while someone was watching since I was just teaching myself.
Do you have advice for somebody who hasn't done the interview yet? What would you do differently next time?
I would practice talking out loud about your code. I did not practice for the technical interview other than by reading my code. Later on, I realized that there are different problem-solving methods that are extremely useful in coding, like pseudo-coding or making sure that you talk through your thought process out loud. I’d recommend getting familiar with talking through your code out loud to someone and reading through some good guidelines for interviewing.
You mentioned that Flatiron was working to encourage more diversity in the Washington DC campus – was your class diverse in terms of gender, race and career backgrounds?
In terms of career backgrounds, yes, definitely. We had very diverse backgrounds including recent college graduates, people from the engineering field, academic professionals, and musicians. There were very interesting backgrounds.
There were nine people in our cohort – it was very small because it was a new campus – and there were two or three women. I think the cohort that started three weeks after us had almost a 50-50 gender split. In terms of race, I would say our campus was not as diverse as could be, but there were students of all ethnicities or races.
Have you made any observations about diversity in the US tech industry at meetups or in your job compared with Finland?
I went to meetups a lot in Tampa, and definitely noticed how weird it is to be one of the few women at tech meetups. At first, it would really puzzle me because I come from a majority women field. I was suddenly weirdly aware of being a woman, which I was not used to. Luckily, I think that feeling has faded away now.
I still go to women-specific meetups like Women Who Code. In the beginning, I went to a lot of Girl Develop It meetups. I really love those organizations and it's so amazing that they exist. Almost everyone I have met, both men and women, feels very strongly that there should be more women coders and that we should encourage all underrepresented groups to enter the tech scene. So the environment felt very welcoming, very encouraging. Once you get past that initial shock of being the only woman at a meetup, you realize there's all this support out there and it's amazing. Especially as a self-learner, that support is so valuable.
What was your learning experience like at Flatiron School?
The teaching was amazing. It fit my learning style well. In the beginning, they offer a lot of direction and support. Then we would have three or more lectures per day. Towards the end of bootcamp, there were fewer lectures, less support and more emphasis on being independent. Usually after the lecture, it's either pair programming (coding together on an assignment), or you have individual time to complete the labs. As the day goes by, you probably won't complete all of those labs, so you can finish them at home.
The bootcamp is made up of five, three-week modules. For each module, it's two weeks of lectures, labs, pair programming, and individual homework, and then the last week we are in project mode. For the first four modules, we did our final projects together with a partner. Then for the final project at the end of the fifth module, we did an individual final project.
Compare that to your undergraduate and graduate degree programs – was it a similar classroom experience?
Totally different. Our cohort was so small and the amount of time I could get for my questions was really great. The available individual help was just totally different from any higher educational experience I remember. Also, they actually put effort into creating the best possible culture for us to learn as individuals, and together as a group. In the first week, we had lectures on how to communicate, how to give constructive feedback, and how to handle your emotions when you're trying to learn so much at once – because you're inevitably going to feel really slow and stupid. And actually, you don't have to feel that way. That was unlike anything I had experienced before and very helpful.
Those lectures focusing on culture, learning style, building your student community, how to interact in it, and how to view yourself as a developer, really helped set the tone for the rest of the bootcamp. I felt like we had an awesome cohort and a great learning environment.
Can you tell me about your final project?
I was very interested in machine learning, and got a chance to add some rudimentary machine learning with a Ruby gem called Classifier Reborn. That was a lot of fun for me and made the bots a lot smarter, because it allowed them to distinguish between two different categories. A user could say, “I want the bot to be able to recognize between this and that," and then provide the training data. They could save their trained bot, and come back later to train it more. I was really surprised at how doable machine learning was, even for a beginner.
What are you up to now you’ve graduated?
I'm now a Software Engineer at CommonLit, a DC-based nonprofit startup in the education sector. It's an online learning platform for teachers and students. We have a lot of free reading material that teachers can assign to their students. There are also assessment and analytics tools. It’s hard to compare to other production apps because this is the first one I've worked in, but I think it's a pretty large codebase. I've been there almost a month and it's been so much fun!
CommonLit uses the exact same stack that we learned at Flatiron, so I was super lucky to be able to fit straight into it.
How did you get connected with CommonLit? Were they at the Flatiron School hiring day?
Yes. I don't want to downplay my own hard work, but I got extremely lucky. We graduated on September 14th, then two weeks after that, Flatiron organized a four-day recruiting event. Flatiron’s employer partnerships team brought in companies that were already interested in hiring Flatiron School graduates. We each got paired with four different companies and did an interview with each of them.
Before the career fair, Flatiron had organized an event called Cocktails with Coders, where I had already met a couple of super nice CommonLit employees. I followed up with an email, then met them again at the career fair. So through Flatiron, I had already established somewhat of a relationship with them. All in all, it was a very painless process, and whenever I had questions or doubts, I could turn to my career advisor at Flatiron.
Had your green card come through by the time you were offered the job?
I still can't believe this happened, but I got my green card in the mail the same day I graduated.
Did you have to do a technical or whiteboarding interview to get your role at CommonLit?
Yes. I did a technical interview, which was actually different than I expected. It was verbal, so I got asked technical questions and I had to talk through my answers. I was expecting one of those live coding technical interviews. My interviewer was really nice and the interview experience was great.
Looking back to when you started teaching yourself to code, is this the type of software engineering job that you wanted when you started your journey?
That's a very good question. Honestly, this job exceeds my expectations and what I had in mind. When I started teaching myself, even though I had learned some Java and studied back end programming languages, I was expecting to end up in an exclusively front-end position because I felt, as a self-learner, that would be my way in. I was expecting to have to do jobs that wouldn't be full stack. I was also expecting to have to take on programming jobs I wouldn’t feel so interested in, just so that I’d get some job experience. So I feel very happy and lucky to be working in my current position as a software engineer.
My current work environment is amazing. We pair program a lot. We have a very rigorous code review process. I'm learning test-driven development all the time. It's a very healthy, good environment to be in. I'm enjoying myself so much, which I didn't know would be possible.
I thought programming would be way more isolated, and more banging my head against the wall because I’m a beginner, and not wanting coworkers to know what I don't know. But at CommonLit, it's a very encouraging, supportive environment and you can reach out for help. That has really boosted my learning.
What's been the biggest challenge or roadblock on the path to learning to code?
The biggest challenge might be self-doubt, because it made me less ambitious. Especially when I was learning myself, but even later on when I was thinking of final projects, there was always this thought that, “I can't do this, it's too difficult.”
I'm still trying to get more comfortable with challenging myself to do things that I don’t think I can do. I’m trying to be more brave, more ambitious, and more okay with failing.
What advice do you have for people who are going to make a career change and go through a coding bootcamp?
I know that not everyone can put their life on hold while they are studying something for three and a half months. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. I don't have kids or other big responsibilities. If you're a person who really wants to become a coder and go to coding bootcamp, there is no doubt that you can do it if you're motivated. But if you have a lot of other responsibilities that you're already committed to, that will make it very challenging.
So when you do decide to go to coding bootcamp, I suggest letting your community – your immediate close friends and family – know that unfortunately, you can't commit to anything else for three and a half months. Your first priority needs to be the bootcamp, and you should not feel guilty about committing most of your time on this bootcamp.