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What I wish I knew: tips from software engineers

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Deciding to leave behind your old career and transition into a new one can feel a lot like jumping into the unknown. It’s intimidating, to say the least. Many aspiring engineers grapple with Imposter Syndrome, and at some point, almost everyone will ask themselves “do I belong here?” and “Is this right for me?”

Take comfort, because to have self doubt is totally natural! To help alleviate some of your concerns, we talked to three Hackbright alumnae – now software engineers – who share what they wish they knew going into their first roles in the industry.

What I Wish I Knew


Christine Urban, Software Developer at Omnivore Technologies

GitHub | Twitter | Website

What made you want to pursue a career in engineering?

I became bored in my last career in dietetics, and, to be honest, I never really got that excited about it. I thought I would have this wonderful feeling when I graduated college, but I felt nothing. I kept with it because I had come so far and thought maybe things would change, but they didn’t. And then the lightbulb went off in my head: I have to change. I always liked spending time on the computer, and I remember customizing the HTML in my MySpace page (mostly putting ♥ everywhere) and I thought, this is definitely not boring. Quite thrilling, actually!

Why did you choose a bootcamp over a traditional degree?

Going back to college in my thirties was not something I was willing to do. I wanted to learn the essentials and how to code, without all the fluff you are forced to learn in a traditional degree program. Plus I heard it wasn’t necessary (I heard right).

What advice do you have for a new engineer / bootcamp grad experiencing imposter syndrome?

I know it’s cliché but it’s totally normal to feel like a complete imposter. Spoiler alert: everyone feels that way. My advice would be to not be afraid to ask all the questions. In the beginning I didn’t want to look like an idiot so I wouldn’t speak up about things that I thought I should understand. It turns out some of the things were rightfully confusing, and with other things, I’m a junior, it’s expected! Use it to your advantage. Other engineers love to help.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I take a 10-second commute to my home office, and dial-in to a video conference at 10am for standup. I then either continue where I left off the day before or pick up a new task in Jira. Pair programming happens on the regular, and it’s as if I’m with my team all the time, which is great. I spend pretty much all of my time on the command line and coding front and back end components in Vim which makes me feel fantastically nerdy, I highly recommend it.

What do you wish you’d known in your first month of your first engineering job?

That the engineering section of my brain was going to expand exponentially from constant stack overflow, which was both overwhelming and energy-draining. But what you are building is this amazingly structured mind, and things start to make more and more sense every day. This also transfers to other areas of your life, and I now believe it’s one of the ultimate forms of self-development.

What’s the number one thing you wish someone had told you about pursuing a career change to engineering?

That a bootcamp is 100% worth it and to do it immediately! I tried learning on my own at first, then when that wasn’t enough, got a front end web development certificate, and I still didn’t “get” programming, or land a real engineering job until Hackbright. One of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, seriously. 💗


Jacqui Watts, Software Engineer, DevOps at Khan Academy

What made you want to pursue a career in engineering?

I almost fell into software engineering actually. At my previous role at IDEO.org, no one else on the team was interested in picking up some of the technical things that had to be done to manage our website, and I loved having to just figure things out, so I picked it up. Then when we needed to build a new learning platform, I found myself in a project management role facilitating the build of the new website. Our external engineering team was really welcoming of me asking lots of questions or sitting in on their code reviews, and my workplace was incredibly generous supporting me in taking a part-time Ruby on Rails class on the weekends.

These experiences sparked my love for engineering. It saw it as a field that could keep up with my curiosity and desire to know how everything works. I loved how quickly the field evolves and how willing everyone in the engineering community is to both continue learning themselves and encourage newcomers to learn as well. So at that point, after several years between project management and community management, I was ready to move away from just managing people and tasks and start actually building things myself.

Why did you choose a bootcamp over a traditional degree?

I am too impatient for a traditional degree. You have to plan so far in advance in order to get your application done and then, even once you find out about your acceptance, you don’t get to start your studies for so many months. When I decided it was a path I wanted to pursue, I was eager to get started immediately. Not to mention, almost ten years after completing undergrad, I had just finally paid off my school loans! I had no desire to go back into a bunch more debt again. For where bootcamps get you at the end, it felt it was a way cheaper option than a degree.

What advice do you have for a new engineer / bootcamp grad experiencing imposter syndrome?

It’s normal, but that doesn’t mean it needs to take over your life. Other people in different fields experience it too (men included!). So what I’ve learned to do about imposter syndrome, when it rears its ugly head, is just remind myself that I’m here for a reason. They chose to hire me, and they knew that I was new to the field of engineering not an engineer with two decades of experience. They have other roles to hire for those people. And luckily, I work in an incredibly supportive environment that values growth mindset, so even when I think I’m “not qualified” or “not good enough” at my work, I know that my team is confident that I’ll be able to learn it as I go. And I always do! …Maybe not always as fast as I’d like, but I always figure it out.

What does your day-to-day look like?

Some days, I can sit down behind my monitor and really spend the whole day focusing on a particular project that’s been scoped for that two-week sprint. Other days, I need to context switch a lot between a handful of smaller tasks, or be on-call (what Khan Academy calls dev-support). Dev support means two things: you’re the one notified if there is any downtime or critical performance issues with the site and you’re also there to support all of Khan Academy’s engineers if they run into trouble with their deploys or local dev environment. At first that role was terrifying, but I’m reminded constantly, just because you’re on call doesn’t mean you’re the one who needs to fix it! You just need to make sure it’s being fixed by someone and that the right people are notified. Now almost a year into my role, I almost welcome the challenge of helping devs troubleshoot their deploys.

Overall, we have quite a bit of autonomy to scope tasks and projects — Khan Academy has built an “anyone can fix anything” culture, and so it’s truly encouraged to add things to the backlog when you notice stuff you want to improve or experiment with.

What do you wish you’d known in your first month of your first engineering job?

I wish I had known that it’s totally fine to ask just about any question about my dev setup and workflow. For so many questions at the beginning — often pertaining to git, phabricator (our code review platform), or our deploy system — I was nervous that these were details I should already know and that my questions would betray me as an amateur. But now after seeing so many other people start (and fielding many of their questions during dev-support!) I realize that every workplace has its own unique best practices and engineers come onboard with all different backgrounds in terms of what tools and workflows they’re familiar with and which they are not. It’s not expected that you know Khan Academy’s before you work there!

What’s the number one thing you wish someone had told you about pursuing a career change to engineering?

That it doesn’t happen overnight! Even after finishing Hackbright and starting at Khan Academy, I think I had unrealistic expectations of myself on how quickly I would be able to get up to speed. I didn’t expect that so much of the learning curve was still going to happen on the job. I work next to some people who have been in the industry for a decade or longer, and at first it felt really demoralizing to see how much slower I was at my work than they were. But, I remind myself that as I continue to build my career in engineering I will get to that place as well. But it takes time.


Leah Yukelson, Software Engineer at Human Interest

GitHub

What made you want to pursue a career in engineering?

I tried my hand at computer science when I was in college and fell in love with it. After graduation, I went into a career in marketing but did not feel as fulfilled as when I had been taking those computer science classes. I decided to make the switch so that I could use my logical thinking skills to make products that can positively impact people’s lives.

Why did you choose a bootcamp over a traditional degree?

I had dabbled in traditional classes and after taking five computer science classes, I could write programs on the command line but never full web projects. I was excited by the prospect of learning tools that are actually being used by the tech companies that I was surrounded by. Bootcamp allowed me to learn practical skills in a short amount of time so that I could start my career more quickly and become a software engineer.

What advice do you have for a new engineer / bootcamp grad experiencing imposter syndrome?

Everyone starts somewhere and this is your start! There is nothing to be ashamed of in your quest to learn and get better. The best approach is to own that you’re on a journey and don’t let yourself get in your own way. (Is that enough clichés? I truly mean it!)

What does your day-to-day look like?

I get into work every day around 9 and start looking over what work I left off yesterday and check to see whether I have any pull requests to review on Github. At 10am, my team has a standup where we go around and discuss the status of what we’re working on. The rest of the day is typically mine to accomplish the tickets that I’m working on. There are projects that I have been put in a pair for in which case I would be pair programming with my partner all day. If I’m on a solo project, I take time to figure out what needs to be done that day and figure out any tests I need to write. I spend a lot of my time asking my fellow teammates questions about the code and how things work. By 5:30pm, I’m out the door and heading to my workout class!

What do you wish you’d known in your first month of your first engineering job?

No engineer starts knowing everything already so don’t feel embarrassed to ask questions. I started by giving myself more time to struggle before asking someone a question because I found that I often learned a lot by trying to discover an answer. In time, I figured out how to identify when I was at a roadblock and to ask for help sooner. Use any resources given to you to become better at what you do; it’s in your team’s’ best interest to make you a stronger engineer. Also get comfortable with the tools that you are using: your text editor, shortcuts, etc. because they will make you so much more efficient.

What’s the number one thing you wish someone had told you about pursuing a career change to engineering?

Like most activities, becoming an engineer is what you put into it. For many, engineering does not come easily and is a completely different way of thinking than most other domains. This means that switching careers from what you were doing before (where you felt comfortable) is going to be hard (but also rewarding and exciting). The more time and effort you can spend learning, the better you will become. The learning does not end when the bootcamp ends; in fact, those short three months are only setting you up for more and more learning which will continue throughout your whole career. If you like being comfortable, this may not be the career for you. But if you like a challenge and constantly thinking through new problems, then you will feel fulfilled and excited by every day!


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