Why Sarah Pivoted From Teaching To Engineering with General Assembly

Even with 20 years teaching experience, Sarah Panaligan hit a roadblock when her music teaching positions kept getting cut out of school budgets. Sarah decided that there couldn’t be a better time to change careers and enroll in General Assembly’s Remote Software Engineering Immersive. Find out how General Assembly helped Sarah land a Junior IT Engineer position at Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, Sarah’s tips on how networking can boost your job search (even as an introvert), and how to set up your workspace to be a great remote developer!

Read more information about General Assembly's alumni outcomes and career services. Plus, General Assembly recently released their 2019 Outcomes Report!

Sarah, what were you doing before attending General Assembly?

I have 20 years of teaching experience – I started as an adjunct university professor for music. It was my dream job, but my priorities changed when I had a family. At the same time, adjunct professors at universities were making less and less, and my hours were cut. I then became certified to teach in public school, but the music program kept being cut at every school I taught. In seven years as a public school music teacher, I was in seven different elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

I began taking free code courses while I was interviewing for new music teaching positions. I started researching bootcamps, but to be honest, I was afraid, especially at my age and that far into my teaching career. I did not want to abandon my credentials and experience for a gamble. When I got my last pink slip because my music teaching position had been cut again, I thought, “if I'm going to change careers, there’s never been a better time.”

If you were already teaching yourself to code, why did you need a coding bootcamp?

I took a whole summer and basically created my own coding bootcamp. One of my friends is a Senior Developer, and he pushed me to try FreeCodeCamp and Coursera. I started with front end, HTML, CSS, and a little bit of JavaScript, then flew through their responsive design course. I took two Python courses and PHP with Coursera. The more I got into it, the more I thought, “This is really cool, this really speaks to me.” At the end of that summer, I knew how to read and write code, but I didn't know if I was using best practices. I had done a good amount of self-learning, but I got to a point where I needed some feedback. 

There are so many online bootcamps now — why did you choose General Assembly?

I did a lot of research! I looked at General Assembly, Flatiron School, Coding Dojo, and some university coding bootcamps. I compiled my own data set with all of the bootcamps’ ratings and student feedback. Because I'm in Chicago, I originally wanted to do an in-person bootcamp, but since I was unemployed, I needed to start immediately. I chose General Assembly because their graduates felt they received the best value, education, and job support, plus their online course started immediately. Ultimately, the online bootcamp wasn’t different from an in-person bootcamp because we used Zoom and breakout rooms. 

Any tips for paying General Assembly tuition?

Finances were a big challenge and General Assembly was the most expensive bootcamp I looked at, but they had good financing options. I received their Women in Tech Discount and was accepted into their Catalyst Program, which is a full tuition loan that allows you to pay in monthly installments once you’ve landed a job. 

What was the General Assembly application and interview process like for you? Did you have to do any prework before starting the bootcamp?

I had two interviews with General Assembly. They gave me a few days to complete a coding challenge that included HTML, CSS, and some Javascript. General Assembly accepted me after my follow-up interview. All students were encouraged to complete the prework before beginning the course, but since I was part of the Catalyst Program, I had 40 hours of prework to complete a week before the bootcamp. This was just to make sure I was invested. 

What was a typical day like in General Assembly’s Remote Software Engineering Immersive?

Since it was an immersive, we were learning online from 10am to 6pm EST. We had a morning exercise every day, and the instructors would supply us with a mockup picture of a website and the files we needed to create it. We had 45 minutes to an hour to create what we saw. After this, we had a morning lecture and lab. In the afternoon, we completed a code challenge followed by an afternoon lab which tied in what we did in the morning. Sometimes there was an additional afternoon lecture, and then we always had homework.

Did General Assembly’s teaching style match your learning style?

Yes, because we had more than one teacher teaching us. There were two Lead Teachers and two Teaching Assistants. One of the Lead Teachers was an incredible teacher, and I could really relate to her way of teaching. The other Lead Teacher was new to teaching but he was an amazing programmer. When there were times when I thought, "I don't understand this,” but then the next day, we would be taught by a different teacher, and I would understand it. 

What projects did you work on while at General Assembly’s coding bootcamp?

Four weeks into the program, we had our first individual project – a front end project where we had to create a game using HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Our second project was also done independently, and it incorporated elements of CSS. The third project was a group project. It was a complex project that had a double deployment, API back end, and React front end. We had a week to build it and we ran it like a real development team. One of my group’s members was nominated to be our Scrum Master, and I helped handle some of the merge conflicts. We had daily standups. I learned a lot during that project time. The final project was also full stack, with a double deployment situation, but we were on our own.

How did General Assembly prepare you for the job hunt? 

Each week we had an Outcomes Class where we met with our Career Coach. Our Career Coach taught resume-building, cover letter-writing, and how to get noticed. We spent a whole day on LinkedIn, learning how to get our LinkedIn correctly set up. We were also given links to job boards. When we graduated, everyone was eligible for the official Outcomes Program. I had to have my resume, portfolio, and cover letter approved to get in. There was a minimum weekly requirement of submitting at least ten job applications, attending one in-person networking event, and engaging in a 1:1 discussion with someone (client, potential hiring manager, senior development specialist). 

What skill do you think helped you the most in your job search?

Networking is the most important piece of the job search, hands down! You can apply to a hundred jobs and never hear anything — that’s like throwing your resume into a black pit. Or you can have fifty conversations and be remembered by fifty people at fifty different companies. Networking will take four times the amount of work on your part, but the rewards are so much better. With networking, you open yourself to more opportunities, and also collect contacts for the future! 

What are your tips for introverts who are on the job hunt and feeling overwhelmed by networking?

I love the networking events and engaging with people on LinkedIn and Twitter, but even for an extrovert like me, being in a room with 150 strangers was out of my comfort zone. If you’re an introvert or an ambivert, I laid out a few strategies in a LinkedIn post Surviving the Job Hunt and also formulated the following process:

  • The big thing is to not get overwhelmed. One of our goals at General Assembly was to make at least 500 connections on LinkedIn. I started with about 160 contacts, and I made little goals to reach that 500. As I approached 500, a light switch went off. That's when my network changed. After that, I didn’t have to work so hard to make great conversations; people were coming to me. Internal recruiters for companies were coming to me, too, which is a coveted thing. 

  • Don’t blanket-send applications. I would research the company, reach out to the Hiring Manager, the person who I thought might be my boss, and/or the person who had the position I would be hired for. I did this for every job I applied for. This is how I built my network. I never asked for a job or an interview. Instead, I asked for advice. 

  • When you graduate from bootcamp, you just want a job, but take time to narrow down your wants. As time went on in my own job search, I started applying for much more specific things. I went from "I know full stack so I can do everything" to "I really like Python, and that’s my language of choice."

  • If you’re at an in-person event, talk to the person next to you, even if they aren’t in your industry. Then maybe move on to the person sitting on either side of you or those at your table and expand from there. My strategy was to find people with my background, any lines that were education-based, and from there, I branched out. I'm grateful that I was able to do some in-person networking because it made a difference for me. In-person networking catapulted me into a place where more people could find me.

  • There are no shortcuts! Be ready to work hard. I was probably putting 60 hours a week into my job search. I took it as seriously as I take my job now. I worked at it everyday, tirelessly.

Tell us about your new job! How did you land a remote developer job? 

I’m now a Junior IT Engineer at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, but technically it's a contract position that I acquired through a technical recruiter. It took me about three months to get the position. A TEKsystems recruiter found me, and they had me do an assessment in HTML, CSS, front end, and Python. I scored really high on all of them. After that, TEKsystems lined me up with this interview with the Federal Home Loan Bank, and within five days I was hired. It was a whirlwind! 

What does your day look like as a Junior IT Engineer, especially now that you are working remotely? 

My team is small — I'm one of five engineers. I had two full weeks in the office for onboarding before our company went remote due to COVID-19. Working remotely hasn’t been much different from working onsite. We have our regular scheduled meetings and a daily standup. I'm in meetings at least 3 hours of my 8 hour day, sometimes more than that. Between meetings, I'm working on code. 

These last few weeks, I've been building production code using Python inside an AWS Lambda, and I've done ample testing there. I designed a program that shoots into an AWS API, creates an Excel file and sends the information to SysOps. That project had all of these parameters because it's an existing process they are upgrading to a cloud native design. After just 2 months on the job, I already have code being considered for production which is super exciting!

Did the General Assembly online immersive prepare you to work remotely? What’s your advice to developers and engineers going from in-person to remote work? 

Yes! Doing the General Assembly online bootcamp helped me a lot because my office was already set up. For some of my colleagues, it's been a lot harder to transition to remote work. For those transitioning to remote work, I recommend creating a designated work area and having at least two monitors. You should keep up a routine, too. I have a hard deadline at the end of the day, and when I'm done, I'm done. I turn off the screen and walk away.

In your job now, are you using the programming languages you learned at General Assembly?

I’m using Python and VS Code Studio, both of which I explicitly learned in my General Assembly bootcamp. I’m now using AWS, and that’s new for me. When I accepted my current job, I negotiated for my employer to pay for my AWS certification and training. Overall, General Assembly prepared me for the steep learning curve that you need when you begin a new job. When I started at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, I was expected to learn all of their stacks and technology as fast as I could. I attribute my training at General Assembly with my ability to hit the ground running, and to also feel comfortable asking for help. This really impressed the team I’m working with now.  

How did your past career as a Music Teacher help you in your career as a Software Engineer?

Early on, I recognized the parallels between being a developer and being a musician. When I needed to learn a new piece as a pianist, I would play through it for the big picture and then work on the little parts. When you're working on all the little parts, you still keep the big picture in mind, and eventually, you put all the pieces together. Developing is really similar. Get each part working and they will work together as a wonderful program! 

Do you have any advice for someone considering a coding bootcamp?

For someone who is out of work right now, this is a great time to take a negative situation and put a positive spin on it. Do something for yourself. Invest in yourself. You're never going to have more time than you have right now. I suggest first exhausting the free coding resources to help you narrow down the bootcamp that suits their needs. Take a little time to explore what you want to do, what you want to get out of it. You either go all in or don't go in at all.

 Find out more and read General Assembly reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with General Assembly.

About The Author

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Jess is the Content Manager for Course Report as well as a writer and poet. As a lifelong learner, Jess is passionate about education, and loves learning and sharing content about tech bootcamps. Jess received a M.F.A. in Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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