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Software engineers do so much more than write code — they are leaders, problem solvers, and decision makers who drive company strategy. Codesmith prepares their graduates for this type of modern software engineering and leadership in the tech industry. We talked to Codesmith alums Kelsey Graner, Abby Chao, and Darryl Amour to discuss their journeys into software engineering, leadership in their roles, and how they are paying it forward to the next generation of aspiring engineers.
What prompted all of you to make a career change in tech?
Abby: I was always interested in technology, but I came at it from a business background. I co-founded a FinTech company but felt frustrated by my lack of understanding of the tech used in the business. So, I wanted to peel back the layers and actually understand what was going on with the tech.
Darryl: I’ve always been bitten by the technology bug. I got my bachelor's in computer information systems in 1998. My first job out of college was in consulting and it inspired an entrepreneurial spirit! After a decade, I started my own business in Los Angeles for 13 years and finally returned to my tech roots with Codesmith.
Kelsey: After nine years in a physically demanding nursing career, I felt stagnant and wanted a career that offered more sustainability and flexibility as I got older, that I could do from the comfort of my own home, and that would allow me to pursue other passions, like travel. I was also excited for a job that had more career growth and earning potential. I started learning to code as a hobby and I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to get paid to do it all day. I loved that I could turn something I really enjoyed doing everyday into a career!
When you were looking into coding programs and considering this pathway, what set Codesmith apart from the rest?
Kelsey: One of the main things that set Codesmith apart was how rigorous the program was. I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded individuals that were equally as passionate and driven as I was, since I knew that this wasn't going to be an easy transition. I believed that having the right people by my side would be key to making this transition a success. Also, the reported career outcomes showed what kinds of jobs Codesmith graduates were getting and being in my thirties in my second career, I was looking for a program that would set me up for a mid-level or above role and jumpstart my career in this field. I felt like Codesmith would set me up for the best chance of success for both of those things, and it did!
Abby: I approached Codesmith from the perspective of an entrepreneur and aspiring tech leader. My hope was that if I wanted to start a company again in the future, rather than going out and trying to find external funding, I could do the v1 project on my own. When I looked at the landscape, Codesmith was the one preparing students to build production-level products and complete applications through practical, real-world knowledge. I was happy with what I found, and by the end I could build a full application.
Obviously, there's still lots to learn after a program like Codesmith, but I got the full picture with room to go deeper. Initially I was only considering what I’d be able to produce, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Codesmith was way more than a transactional relationship — I was impressed to be surrounded by a culture that empowered me to learn much more than I thought I would. Right away from the free workshops at Codesmith — their passion and motivation was obvious!
Darryl: Having some experience in the technology field, I had high standards. If I wasn’t going to teach myself, I needed to find an authentic location that would meet my needs. I spent an entire month scrutinizing all the programs out there and Codesmith was one of the few programs that offered free sessions with actual instructors so you could gauge what you’d get out of the program. Other programs said their results — there were bullet points on the website but no evidence of success anywhere else. With other programs I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of the program and what kind of career path was possible. Codesmith delivered on their promises. Their authenticity excited me as I understood that someone smart would impart their knowledge to me in a supportive learning environment.
Kelsey, what were your career goals when you were thinking about making a career change into tech? Did you have specific aspirations?
My primary goal was to become a skilled software engineer that could contribute to the development of innovative solutions that have a positive impact on people's lives. I became a nurse to make a positive impact and wanted to leverage my experience in healthcare to make products that help people. I am trying to become a senior software engineer as soon as I can. I have a passion for mentorship and did a lot of that in my nursing career. I love sharing knowledge and I’m excited about the potential for growth in this field! In the eight months I’ve been working at my job, I've already made the necessary steps to move up to that next role in the near future.
Abby, were you envisioning eventually becoming a tech entrepreneur?
I was definitely thinking about that, and wanted to open up my options if I found an idea I was excited about. For me, in business, it was always frustrating that there was this “black box” that I didn’t really understand -— I could see the different colors on the screen and it looked like The Matrix, but I didn’t really know what was going on. After Codesmith, my goal was to understand the different pieces, how they fit together, what makes something easy or difficult, all of those processes — and I definitely got that!
Darryl, you have a college degree in Computer Information Systems then went into consulting. What were your career goals when you were enrolling at Codesmith?
I wasn’t quite sure where I would land when I enrolled at Codesmith. I knew that I knew a lot, but I had been out of the field for a decade. I was looking at Codesmith as a reentry point since technology had changed so much — I found that they over-prepared me! I was able to jump right in on my first day at PayPal, and I felt at home, like I had never left. I had imposter syndrome, but that’s part of what Codesmith prepares you for — it’s not just about the technology, but it’s also about the mindset. By the time I finished the program, I was well prepared to excel. And, my first promotion came about a year and a half after joining PayPal!
When you reflect on your overall Immersive experience, how did Codesmith prepare you for the job and leadership in your field?
Abby: Codesmith prepared me with tech skills and insight on the field, which translated easily to my actual work on teams in the real world, but they also instilled a growth mindset. It sounds basic, but one of the biggest takeaways I got from Codesmith was the confidence that I could learn. When people talk about esoteric technical concepts that seem intimidating, I now know I can unpack it, do some self study, and be curious about it. That mindset has empowered leadership beyond what Codesmith actually teaches. I learned how to learn, how to be curious, and that I don’t have to succumb to imposter syndrome — instead, I can lean into it now.
Kelsey: Codesmith prepared me for my current role in so many ways. From my very first sprint on my team as a software engineer at Fusion, I was able to pick up challenging tickets and contribute meaningful work and I didn’t feel a huge learning curve in my first tech role after graduating. I have grown exponentially as a software engineer because Codesmith helped lay this critical foundation for me to build off of. You can learn how to code from YouTube, but Codesmith taught me how to be a software engineer and how to problem solve, not just how to code. Tech changes so rapidly that it's not useful to only learn a specific language or framework. Codesmith prepared me to be a leader by teaching me how to solve hard problems and lay a solid foundation for how to be a software engineer. I also learned skills, like collaboration, project management, and how to be an effective mentor. It all started at Codesmith and I've been able to expand on those skills ever since.
Darryl: By the time I got to Codesmith, the language and conversation had changed a lot! Waterfall methodology was the “in” thing at the time, but after graduating from Codesmith I knew Agile methodology, tweaking what I already knew. They then put us in team projects to exercise that muscle. We had tech sessions where we’d learn about a topic, write a paper on it, and present it to our peers. There were so many different small activities that boosted my confidence. Regardless of your leadership style, confidence is important in being your authentic self. I learned how to be a better leader by being present, aware, and prepared in the right conversations, so that when I showed up, I was just having fun! People feel comfortable talking to me and that’s a tribute to the safe learning environment I reflect from Codesmith.
Abby, what does leadership look like to you now as a CEO of a tech company?
While I'm not as close to products being built day-to-day anymore, I am involved with the build in a different way. There are two big things: strategy and team. On the strategy side, it's about making sure everybody on the team is pointed in the right direction and that we're focused on the right things. Once you have a group of really capable people together, they’ll get excited about doing more. On the team side, a huge part of leadership is making sure you're cultivating the different members of your team to unlock everybody's individual potential and create an environment where people can thrive. I spend a lot of my time making sure folks feel supported, that they can take risks in their role, be creative in expressing themselves and coming up with new ideas, and bring their full selves to work and unlock all of that with the other members of the team!
Darryl, what does your leadership look like as a Software Engineering Manager at PayPal?
I emulate servant-style leadership, so I'm really excited about “growing” others. I’ve been told that if you want to learn something, teach someone. That can be scary in the work environment, because it feels like you’re working yourself out of a job. But if you are talented, focused, and have a servant's heart, that's your job. Your job is to work yourself out of the job; to make sure that anyone that works with you is able to grow and blossom. Leadership looks like understanding humanity. PayPal largely focuses on diversity, inclusion, and equity. When I was first getting back into tech with Codesmith, I came in with my nose in the air a bit, thinking that I was probably a bit smarter than other folks in my cohort, but everyone is so diverse. I had a team member who was a mountaineer and musician, and he showed me how he viewed the technology through his lens, and it made me realize the shortcomings I had. The environment itself allowed me to grow way beyond technology, understanding that a corporate environment includes people from all walks of life that are chasing technology because they love it and want to be part of it. When people are excited about something, it’s easy to have a conversation that elevates everyone in the party — sharing what you know and building upon what others know.
Kelsey, has your leadership changed now that you’re almost a year into your software engineering career?
I’ve used my leadership skills more than I expected to at this level of my career! I'm not in a formal leadership position at this time, but I've been able to contribute to leadership opportunities. My proficiency has improved in various technologies and I’ve been able to serve as a subject matter expert on different parts of the tech stack, which has then allowed me to provide mentorship to other developers on my team and other teams. I’ve also expanded in project ownership. I've proven to be a leader on my team, and they've entrusted me with more significant responsibilities and I’ve even been able to take on architecting a whole front-end microservice! I’m taking baby steps in project ownership and leadership. My communication skills have improved. Now I can effectively convey technical concepts, share ideas, and provide guidance to my peers. Clear and concise communication is a key aspect to leadership.
Abby, how are you inspiring others at your company to take on leadership roles?
We are all leaders and it’s more about ensuring that people aren't encumbered or feeling limited than trying to create something that's not already there. Everyone has creative, interesting ideas and we want people to feel empowered to share them.
Darryl, for those software engineers who would rather be Individual Contributors (ICs) versus managers, how can they still take on leadership roles within a team?
It’s important to understand your area of reach. When you start off as a junior engineer, you're mainly making sure your code stylistically works well. As you mature, leadership becomes a way to magnify beyond yourself and consider how your code is affecting your team, cross functional dependencies, and the enterprise. The reach of your words, actions, and deeds are powerful. It goes back to servant leadership: helping those in your team to understand and overcome not just the technology, but their growth mindset. Teach people how to be learners. You're a great leader if people feel comfortable approaching you with a problem and know you’ll take the time to discuss it without degrading them, and will offer solutions. Leadership is about being available to others and showing them the best of yourself.
Kelsey, is leadership on a tech team any different from leadership within a medical team?
There are a lot of similarities!
Abby, as a tech employer, what skill sets would you advise software engineers to lean into to grow as leaders in technology?
You have to know the technology, but there are more skills about how you show up to work than what you can or can't code:
Codesmith emphasizes “technical communication” and “empathetic engineering” (as in explaining technical concepts intuitively to others). How do you draw on that now in your current position?
Kelsey: We have refinement, feasibility, and planning meetings where I have to explain to either fellow developers, product, or even non-technical stakeholders why something is or isn't going to work, possible alternative solutions, or why there is this bug and why it's causing issues. I have to be able to reach different audiences with different backgrounds — a skill I pull a lot from my career as a nurse, which is all about empathetic communication. This skill is so crucial to working in teams, understanding user needs, and conveying technical information to both technical and non-technical people. It’s similar in the healthcare field, where you have to communicate with coworkers and patients of various backgrounds and abilities to understand and comprehend different messages you're trying to convey. You have to treat each audience differently, which is similar to talking to different teams and stakeholders in the tech field.
Darryl: Sharing the skills with the team on a whole. PayPal considers itself to be a matrix organization in the sense that there's not a hierarchy. There is obviously an organizational structure, but everyone should exercise extreme ownership. Part of being an effective leader is to use clear communication and connect the dots between enterprise goals and your team's goals. Something I drill into my teams is: anytime there's confusion, stop. Let's get clear. Oftentimes, the confusion is clarified through empathetic engineering by explaining it in your own words. This is especially important when working with people who are fluent in many languages. When people have the freedom to express what they mean easily, we stay unified as a team.
Abby: Empathetic engineering is essential across levels. As a CEO, when I'm talking to my engineering leader, I'm depending on that person to translate what's going on at a day-to-day level. Obviously he's getting in the weeds with his team members about what the specific challenges are, but when we're in our leadership team and he's explaining what's going on, he can't use the same technical language that he was using with engineers to translate information to the Head of Sales, Head of Customer Experience, or me. I also speak differently about certain engineering challenges when I talk to my Head of Engineering versus when I talk to my board or a customer. Empathetic engineering is an essential skill.
How are you now helping the next generation of aspiring engineers succeed?
Abby: I'm so passionate about what Codesmith is doing and allowing more people to access these awesome careers that we're seeing here today! Within my company, we’re always looking for a diverse set of candidates for different roles and helping advance individuals' careers by taking an individual approach. I have mentored multiple Codesmith grads or folks in the process. Codesmith was such a phenomenal educational experience for me and I want to pay it forward as much as I can.
Kelsey: We're not hiring many junior engineers at this time, but I'm excited for that in the future! I love onboarding and showing everyone the process of how we do things and sharing my knowledge with them. It’s not happening as much as I'd like right now, but there are still opportunities. We have other developers on other teams that are changing their code base to React, so I've had opportunities to mentor them in that process. Additionally, I'm still very close with my cohort. My whole graduating class has a Discord that we stay in touch through where we provide support and learning opportunities, like experiences in the interview process, job search, or what's happening at work that others should consider. At the end of Codesmith, I worked on an open source product with three others as a close team. To this day, we still talk almost daily! Over these past 10 months, we motivated and helped each other prepare for the job hunt and now we are all working in the field! The friendships we built were crucial to being successful after graduating from Codesmith and making the transition into software engineering.
Darryl: I am a part of employee resource groups at PayPal that amplify diversity and representation in engineering. Mentorship means reaching back into your community to support them how they need. I also stay available to Codesmith grads. Most people just need confidence. Codesmith gives you a plan after graduation of how to prepare, how to have your interviews, and how to learn from those interviews until you actually get what you're looking for. I advise people to follow the plan. I also help them have an elevator pitch, so they’re always ready to communicate and network when the time arises. If you're not ready to communicate and network, you're shrinking. If you're not growing, you're shrinking. I say. Each One Teach One, be open, and stay excited about whatever you're doing.
Jess Feldman is an accomplished writer and the Content Manager at Course Report, the leading platform for career changers who are exploring coding bootcamps. With a background in writing, teaching, and social media management, Jess plays a pivotal role in helping Course Report readers make informed decisions about their educational journey.
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