Learning to Code With A Baby On The Way: GitHub’s Alyson La Shares Her Experience

Alyson La is about to be a mom but being pregnant didn’t stop her from learning to code. As a new analyst on Github’s engineering team, Alyson decided to take Hackbright Academy’s Intro to Programming course so she could better communicate with the engineering team she worked with. 

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Me & my husband (and my bump) at Yosemite this summer.

What motivated you to learn to code and enroll in Intro to Programming?

I had been dabbling with code projects for the last couple years, however, in Feb ’15 I moved from an accounting position at GitHub, to a data analyst role on an engineering team.

Transferring to the new role gave me increased motivation to enroll in the course; my goal was to level up my code skills and build up my technical vocabulary to be able to better understand and participate in engineering conversations.

How many months pregnant were you while in the class?

I was in the summer course, so I was 5 to 6 months pregnant. Being pregnant was actually a big motivation for me to take the class, because I knew that soon I wouldn’t have nearly as much free time!

What did you learn in the class?

Lots! I learned the foundations that I had previously skipped. I’m kind of embarrassed to say it, but even though I had been learning to code for a bit of time, I was mostly following tutorials or copying and pasting code snippets; so I hadn’t really written much code myself.

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Alyson La went from being an accountant at GitHub to working with engineering teams as a data analyst.

In the class we learned how to write function definitions and conditional statements, then practiced those 25 different ways. We practiced concepts that I had heard of before but never used in real life. Like how to parse data in lists and dictionaries, import modules, and when to use a for loop vs. while loop.

We practiced concepts that I had heard of before but never used in real life.

How did you hear about the course?

I had known about Hackbright’s full-time fellowship program for a while but found out about the part-time summer session via a tweet and blog post by Melissa Fabros.

Is coding what you thought it would be like? 

I’d have to say it’s harder than I thought to figure out how to solve a problem from scratch. There were days I would leave class and my head would hurt – in a good way though!

Has taking the course helped you at your job?  

Yes, I feel more confident working alongside engineers in being able to read and contribute to the codebase and better understand what is happening in pull requests. Also, I’ve gotten to practice using conditionals in various forms to analyze data; and now with a foundation in Python, dabbled with some Python open source data projects.

I feel more confident working alongside engineers in being able to read and contribute to the codebase and better understand what is happening in pull requests.

allison laAny advice to others considering to learn to code?

Just do it. It’s challenging, but economically and intellectually empowering.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’m hoping to continue to level up as a Data Analyst while juggling this whole motherhood thing.

If you have a daughter, do you plan on doing anything to encourage her to pursue STEM? 

coding picture - niece of student
I’m having a son but yes, I definitely plan to teach him and any potential future children computer literacy in the form of problem solving using code and how fun it can be to build things! Also, whenever I visit my nine-year old nephew and eight-year old niece (Autumn, pictured right), I try to work on a code project with them. Most recently I taught them how to use the web inspector to hack website background colors and together we built an animated CSS robot.

Update: Alyson’s son Harrison Francis La was born on September 19, 2015 — Mom and baby are both happy and healthy!



Empower yourself and learn the fundamentals of coding!  Info Session for our upcoming Intro to Programming night courses is this Thursday, June 9th! Save your spot below.

Current Fellow Reveals Her First Impressions of Hackbright

Wendy Dherin

Current Hackbright engineering fellow Wendy Dherin is deep into her fifth week at Hackbright Academy, and she has been regularly documenting her Hackbright experience. This blog post provides insight into the very first week of her Hackbright journey and reveals some of her first impressions. Prior to Hackbright, Wendy worked in publishing after getting her degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

By Wendy Dherin (Hackbright Academy – Fall 2014 Class)

I’ve just finished my first week at Hackbright Academy. So far, it has frankly exceeded my expectations. I’m really happy and having so much fun and learning a lot and meeting impressive women and appreciating the teaching skills of the staff very, very much.

Just to give you some frame of reference, I’ve had my doubts about the program (“is it really worth all that money?” and ”is it was worth doing at all, since I’ve learned so much on my own already?”) and about myself (“what if I lose interest in programming, even though that seems impossible?” and “what if I’m wrong about thinking I’m actually pretty good at this?”).

I waited until the last possible moment to sign the Hackbright contract (I sat with it for several months), because I was so on the fence about having to pay the tuition. I knew that if I did Hackbright and felt disappointed by the outcome, I would have a hard time forgiving myself for spending that kind of money. I did a ton of research, talked to dozens of people, and in the end, I decided to take the leap and sign.

The great news is that so far, I think I’ve made a great decision. I feel a little starry-eyed about it, and I’m sure in time this will be tempered with some some frustrations and disappointments, because that’s the reality of trying to teach 40 women to be software engineers in 10 + 2 weeks.

But for now, I’m pretty damn happy.

Why It’s Well Done.

There are 40 of us. We are different. We have different learning styles, and we have different backgrounds. We have different strengths and different weaknesses. We have personalities. We have insecurities. We have had different amounts of exposure to programming already: some of us have been programmers before; some (like me), have already studied programming on their own for a while; some did the prework and that’s it. We have problems and issues and drama we’re dealing with outside of the fact that we’re here, trying to become software engineers in 12 freaking weeks.

This is one of the main things that worried me. I worried about how a challenge as complex and time-sensitive as this could possibly be dealt with a satisfactory way. I worried that I wouldn’t be happy with the pace or the depth of the material. I worried that I wouldn’t get enough one-on-one with the teachers. So far, I’ve been wrong. From everything I’ve seen, the instruction and exercises and attitudes are all designed to address the wide range in backgrounds and abilities.

Most lectures are well thought out in advance and presented in a thoughtful manner. In the lectures, we are given the core information: not too much detail, not too superficial either. For example, even if I’ve already studied the given topic pretty well, I come out of the lecture having learned something deeper and having gained some important details I’d missed on my own. Questions are encouraged and addressed with clarity, consciousness, and a sense of humor. The hours of exercises that follow require us to research and think more deeply about what was covered in the lecture. Each piece builds on the last and prepares us for the next.

And then, of course, there’s pair programming.

Pair Programming: The Great Equalizer

Each day, we pair with a new partner who almost certainly has a different knowledge set than our own. This is one of the many reasons why pair programming is so brilliant, especially in the context of a classroom: If Partner A knows more than Partner B, she’s forced to slow down and explain things to Partner B, and help Partner B work through the concepts. Even if Partner A knows the topic well, she must now explain it to Partner B, which may end up challenging her superficial assumptions about the topic. So Partner A wins because she now understands the topic even more deeply, and Partner B wins because she just got a great one-on-one tutorial on the topic.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. If one or both of the partners don’t communicate freely or clearly, the whole thing can fall apart. So, in addition to the aforementioned benefits, pair programming provides us the opportunity to improve upon social skills and communication. Shy women must learn to speak up if they’re not being listened to. Dominant personalities must learn to be more aware of others’ needs. Impatient women must learn to be patient.

In other words, there is a lot going on.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, but each day of pair programming has been phenomenal. I haven’t yet programmed with a woman who has a larger knowledge set than I do, and I’d like to have that experience, but on the days when I had a larger knowledge set, I’ve gotten a ton out of it.

Sure, I can code something up much faster if I don’t have to hash everything out with another person. But here’s the thing. Pair programming puts speed bumps down in spots where I’ve been cruising through. It’s forcing me to slow down and notice the nuances and deeper significance of the concepts I thought I knew about. Now that I’m having to explain these things, I can clearly see where my grasp is slippery and where it’s not.

Pair programming is a beautiful thing.


This post was originally posted at Wendy Dherin’s blog. You can follow her current Hackbright journey there. 

Application deadline for Hackbright Academy’s engineering fellowship this winter is November 14, 2014 – We’re only a few weeks away so be sure to apply now!

Learning To Code: Front-End Web Development By Night At Hackbright Academy

By Freya Rajeshwar (Summer 2014 – Front-End Web Development Student, Hackbright Academy)

The past 10 weeks have been some of the busiest, craziest, and most fulfilling times of my life. In a few months, I went from having minimal coding experience to confidently using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build my own websites. Looking back, I can honestly say that enrolling in Hackbright’s Front-End Web Development Course was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Why Hackbright?

As a product manager at a video platform company, I spend a lot of time designing new features or product enhancements. Until recently, however, I needed to work with our engineering teams to implement even the simplest ideas that I proposed. A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to be more self-sufficient, and started to look at how I could learn to code on my own.

I tried out a few online tutorials and researched full-time coding bootcamps, but neither approach seemed like a good fit for me. I wanted to learn in a more hands-on environment, but also didn’t want to take a leave of absence from work for 10 or 12 weeks. When I found Hackbright’s part-time Front End Web Development course, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Ready, Set, Go!

I showed up on the first day of class not knowing what to expect. After a few minutes of class introductions, however, I felt completely at ease.

“The women in the class were a diverse and refreshing group: we had product managers, UX designers, visual artists, and more — from a wide variety of industries.”

Some of my classmates wanted to make a career switch to software development and were trying the course out as a first step; others wanted to implement their own UX designs without depending on a web developer. The one thing we all had in common was that we were there to learn and excited to get started.

The next 10 weeks seemed to fly by. Looking back, I feel like I learned so much in such a short amount of time. I attribute a lot of this to the accessibility and flexibility of the course’s teaching style. Each class was a good mix of hands-on teaching (mini “breakout” sessions on particular topics) and self-paced exercises, especially in the beginning as we learned the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Three-hour class sessions had seemed a bit daunting when I registered for the course, but I often was surprised to realize that it was already 9:30 p.m. at the end of each evening class.

Putting it Together:

After a few weeks, we’d successfully worked through the basics of web development as a group. From then on, the lessons focused on building the course’s final project, which could take the form of any type of website. Since I work for a video platform company, I knew that I wanted to make a Netflix-style video site. I found that the first half of the course had given me the fundamentals necessary to undertake the project with a good degree of confidence.

During the next few weeks, I learned even more than I had during the beginning of the class. The learning process became more organic as well — I addressed parts of my project one at a time and learned how to implement specific features. And I definitely didn’t have to figure these things out myself — there were weekly office hours, Q&A sessions during class, and the professors were accessible via email to help as well. Also, I found that many of my classmates were going through similar experiences on their projects, or had already solved the problem that I was currently working on. On several occasions, trying to explain something to a classmate helped me understand the concept more thoroughly myself.

Our final class session wrapped up with a student open house where everyone showcased their final projects. Though I’d seen my classmates developing their sites over the past few weeks, it was amazing to see the final result of everyone’s hard work. As a class, we’d built personal blogs, business websites, and online art galleries – just to name a few.

What’s Next?

Our course wrapped up a few weeks ago, but I’ve been busy since then. I picked up some new ideas during our final open house session, which I’m currently adding to my site (just for fun). I’m also trying some Ruby on my own as a next step, and definitely want to stay involved in Hackbright by attending events and meet-ups. Most importantly, I’m confident that coding is something I want to continue doing long-term, and am excited to keep learning.