Key Change: a journey from classical musician to frontend engineer

August 07, 2019

This blog post was written for the Manifold blog in January of 2018. You can view the original post here.

Coding bootcamp graduates tend to be shy about their backgrounds: from the time they enroll, to the job search, or even when they’re just chatting amongst peers, it’s common for them to feel hesitant about bringing up their bootcamp experience. It’s a very polarizing topic: in tech, we either love bootcamps or we hate them — it seems like there’s no in-between. I’d like to provide a brief history of my career journey, from classical musician, to assistant bank manager, through a rigorous coding bootcamp at App Academy, and ultimately, to my job here at Manifold. I hope this will shed some light on the merits of a bootcamp education.

First, a bit about me: I am a late-twenties frontend engineer living in New York state. I have a diverse educational and professional background, which began when I earned my bachelor’s degree in Classical Music Performance. When I was in college, my hope was to become a member of a professional ensemble, and teach some private lessons on the side. A few years into my post-college life, I became stressed by the competitive nature of the classical music world and the relatively inconsistent flow of gigs and students. I decided to take a “steady” job working as an assistant manager for a large bank. While I liked the security of my job, I longed for a career that would challenge me — one that consistently provided different tasks from day to day, and an opportunity to be both creative and analytical at the same time.

Five years into my banking career, I was suddenly exposed to the world of software engineering. I had just moved in with my boyfriend, who worked as a data engineer for a small company in Manhattan. He would often bring home his laptop to finish a piece of code or show me one of his recent projects. I marveled at the long bursts of problem-solving he would do each day, and the intelligent conversations he had with his coworkers.

I approached my boyfriend sheepishly one day, after seeing a Facebook ad for the bootcamp I would ultimately attend, App Academy. I felt like I would be insulting his years of hard work by asking if he thought that a three-month course could teach me enough engineering fundamentals to land a job in his field. However, the reaction I got was far from what I imagined. “Of course you can,” he said. My boyfriend is entirely self-taught, and has learned his craft over the course of many years. He understands that the path to a career in tech doesn’t always start with a degree in Computer Science, and his reply was the inspiration I needed to start working toward my goal.

I started to pore over the materials App Academy provided for their admissions interview. They made it known that they were very selective and that the interview process was hard. I found that to be absolutely true. And it makes sense — if you want to make a quick career change (in this case, in a few months), you have to be absolutely committed to the grind: the difficulty, the frustrations, the doubts, and the long hours.

After a month and a half of studying, I passed my interview in February of 2016, and signed on to join my cohort that April. I was excited but nervous. I was quitting my job, abandoning a five-year-long career and committing to depleting my savings in order to cover my living expenses. I was lucky the course had a deferred tuition plan that allowed me to pay a large part of the cost after I’d gotten a job — I probably wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. I had never in my life taken such a big risk, and to say it made me nervous is an understatement.

Bootcamp life was, somehow, more difficult than I imagined it to be. I knew I was committing to 60-hour weeks and weekends of studying. Yet, somehow, I don’t think I had a concept of the level of dedication this would require, or the other challenges that attending a bootcamp would present. Class days were exhausting; a full 9-to-5 day of lectures, pairing, and projects, followed by an evening of homework — in the form of reading, video tutorials, and practice exercises — which introduced the next day’s material. Weekends were spent working on projects and studying for our weekly Monday assessments. The latter were probably the greatest source of stress for me, as they were a measure of whether or not you were falling behind. Any student who failed more than one of these exams was asked to leave the program.

Information was thrown at us at an extremely fast pace, and it was often hard to keep up. I found that concepts would sometimes sink in several days after they had been introduced. Additionally, my classmates were some of the most intelligent people I’d ever met, and I often felt that I wasn’t performing anywhere near their level. In retrospect, however, I can see it was mostly in my head, but it was still a challenge to overcome those feelings and push on day after day.

At the end of the core curriculum, we faced another seemingly impossible challenge: finding our first jobs as developers. This involved creating detailed LinkedIn profiles, crafting our resumes, and networking. In addition, we were putting the finishing touches on projects we had created during the final weeks of the App Academy curriculum. This was the stage where my doubts really began to creep in. I often thought to myself, “I’ve learned so much, but is anyone really going to hire me?”

taught us how to find job postings that were a good fit (and how to be okay with the idea that we might not check every single box in the list of qualifications), how to handle phone screens and whiteboard interviews, and most importantly, taught us that we’d have to apply to a ton of jobs — roughly ten per day — before we could find the right one.

As I slogged through long weeks of interviews, I found some companies were really open to the idea of bootcamp graduates; others, not so much. I was welcomed warmly by some recruiters. Another hung up on me mid-conversation when I revealed I didn’t have two years of experience. During a phone screen, one recruiter said, “Let’s not spend time talking about your history as a developer, since you don’t have any.” He wasn’t wrong, but it was still hard to hear.

The interview process was eye-opening: it became clear to me that most companies had already formed an opinion about bootcamp graduates based on experiences they’d had with them in the past. If they had interviewed a bootcamp graduate who had performed well in their interviews, or hired one who was very successful on the job, they were much more open to talking to me. If they’d been exposed to graduates who had struggled in interviews, or had gone to a bootcamp with a weak curriculum, they seemed to frown upon the idea entirely. I was glad I was able to list a well-known bootcamp like App Academy on my resume — the school’s top reputation helped me get my foot through the door and land a few phone screens and replies from recruiters on LinkedIn.

I found a job pretty quickly — while the average job search can be around three months, I received an offer within a month of my cohort’s final day of class. This was partly because I felt well-prepared for my interviews, and partly because I happened to find and apply to the right job opportunity early on. I was lucky to be interviewed, and ultimately hired, by a team of experienced developers who recognized not only the knowledge and skills I had honed during my time at App Academy, but my ability to learn quickly. They were eager to act as mentors, and felt I would add value to the team despite of my lack of professional development experience.

Starting work as a developer presented a new challenge altogether. I felt confident in the skills I’d learned, but as any developer knows, there’s never a shortage of new things to master, whether it be a new language, framework, or concept. I had become accustomed to frequent pairing and building projects from scratch; now, I was working largely on my own, adding features and debugging problems in an absolutely monolithic code base. Holes in my knowledge became apparent pretty quickly — one example that comes to mind right away is Git — sure, I’d used it, but not on a team of fifteen developers who were trying to make weekly releases of a customer-facing product.

Fortunately, the most important thing I took away from App Academy was how to learn —the course taught me what resources were likely to be valuable when trying to solve a problem, how to read documentation, debug issues, and how to take risks and try out new ideas, even when I wasn’t certain they would work. Of course, I had a network of people I could reach out to, including my coworkers, but I tried not to become dependent on outside help. I wanted to make a real effort to solve things on my own, make mistakes, and continue learning.

My experience at my first job was, overall, extremely positive. While I felt the pains of impostor syndrome very deeply, I was supported by leadership and the engineering team, and pushed myself as hard and as often as I could. A few months after I was hired, all the frontend developers on my team left the company, one by one, to pursue other opportunities. I was tasked with holding down the fort by myself for about two months. Of course, it was hard — I had no choice but to take on more difficult challenges, knowing I didn’t have anyone to fall back on. I was pleasantly surprised and proud of my ability to take on the amount and variety of tasks assigned to me, and my company was very impressed with my work.

So, how did I end up where I am now? When I started to look for another position, I was able to be a bit more selective in my job search: I wanted to work for an exciting and forward-thinking company, with knowledgeable and supportive leadership, and, of course, to leave my 2.5-hour commute (each way!) in the past. The professional experiences I had after App Academy strengthened my skills, and more importantly, my confidence. As a result, I looked at jobs with a more discerning eye. Still, the lessons of my first job search stayed with me: develop a schedule, prepare for whiteboarding and interview “homework,” research each opportunity thoroughly, and apply to as many positions as possible. I felt very prepared going into my job search, and I know I have App Academy to thank for it.

Additionally, the folks at Manifold were so supportive of my background and experience. I’ve learned not to hide that I went to a bootcamp, as it comes up in every interview process, and instead, show pride in my accomplishments. One of the things I can confidently say in interviews, having attended App Academy, is I know I can learn fast and work extremely hard. I was amazed by the positive reactions my now-coworkers had when we had a chance to discuss my journey from music school, to bank manager, to bootcamp, and everything that followed — they viewed me as determined and driven, not inexperienced.

Of course, I still don’t know everything, and I’m not convinced I ever will. Frontend technology moves so fast, and it’s often a struggle to keep up. At Manifold, I’m grateful to have coworkers who love their craft and are eager to share knowledge. I’ve also been given time to participate in our awesome mentorship program — right now, I’m learning more about DevOps. I also have opportunities to leverage my existing skills and develop new ones. In addition to writing tons of code, I’m acting as the Agile coach for our Developer Experience team, and leading the way (with some help) toward improving our frontend testing practices and code coverage.

I have to admit I’m somewhat reluctant to share my story because of the critical eye that is often cast upon bootcamp graduates. However, while I value education — in the form of a bootcamp, CS degree, or self-teaching — I know a person’s passion, work ethic, and desire to learn is what ultimately makes them successful. I am consistently amazed by the accomplishments of my fellow bootcamp graduates, and I believe we have the potential to change the tech community’s view of coding bootcamps.