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How They Got There: Transitioning to Software Engineering Bootcamp Edition

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Welcome to the How They Got There series! 

Not everyone's journey into engineering or software development is linear. In this series, we look at the different paths, career pivots, challenges and successes of women, non-binary and allies in the tech industry. Follow along with The Zebra's engineering team as they share everything from self-promotion and interviewing tips to bootcamps and other educational opportunities that have led them to where they are today. Software Engineers Ofelia Rodriguez and Sarah Goldgar surveyed current employees at The Zebra for this series.

In this first post, we're covering all things bootcamps. Do they actually prepare you for a career? What is the experience like? And what advice would our engineers give to people just starting out?" Former bootcamp grads and current Zebra software engineers Ali Ebner, Devyn Holman, Caryn Ligon and the series curators weigh in on their experiences. 

About The Panelists How They Got There: BootcampWill a bootcamp give me all the training I need to land a job as a developer?

A bootcamp will give you resources to learn and expose you to those resources for a short period of time. While they will train you in specific technologies, you’re often learning just enough to get an interview. Passing the interview and being successful in your first job go beyond the minimal experience and practice you encounter in your short time at your bootcamp. You will need to put in additional time to have a better chance at landing — and excelling at — your first job. 

  • “Like any course you take, it will give you the tools and blocks of knowledge that you need to do work as a software engineer, but there are many more factors that go into landing a job like networking, practicing coding challenges, resume building and interview practice.” - Sarah

  • “Be sure to choose a good program and then take advantage of all the resources available to you during it. That includes using any extra time for tutoring or with instructors as well as spending time digging into what you are learning and investing in your projects.” - Ali

  • “Most bootcamps are only a few months and they cover so much information, so just attending and soaking up that information isn’t enough. A lot of discipline is required outside of class to practice what you're learning. You’ll have to be comfortable with being confused and push through that to try and understand.” - Caryn


What were the biggest barriers to transitioning to a career in engineering?

Bootcamps are an investment in time, money and yourself, so you may face some barriers along the way. The first hurdle is committing to the change and taking on the risk. 

  • “My biggest barrier was committing to the transition. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you want to try something new, especially because you can fail. It is even scarier to say it out loud.” - Ofelia

  • “One of my biggest barriers to overcome was imposter syndrome and lack of belief in myself. It took me so long to convince myself to go to bootcamp and even longer to feel like I belonged at my first job as a developer. Don't be afraid to be confident and believe that you are smart enough to do this job.”  - Ali


Once you are committed to attending a bootcamp, you may think “how will I find time to attend” or “how will I pay for a bootcamp”? While you are researching bootcamps, keep an eye out for ones that provide scholarships or part time options. If you are currently employed, you may also see if your company is able to sponsor your education (or cover a portion of the costs). 

  • “If you end up going to a bootcamp it's likely that it will be a large financial investment and an investment of your evenings or full days for the next months” - Sarah


It can help to talk about your plans with your friends and family or any support group you can find, including networks for women/non-binary/allies in tech or others already working in software engineering. Many of these communities also have Slack channels for easy communication/a place to ask for advice. While you are going through this process and the job search after, be kind to yourself and lean into your support network.

  • “…[T]here are a ton of great and supportive networks you can join like Women Who Code and ChickTech to make the transition easier.” - Sarah

  • “Surround yourself with people who encourage you, voice your opinion, ask for help and feedback when you need it.” - Ali

  • “It's also important to take care of yourself and try not to stress too much while you are applying. Don't give up.” - Devyn


What was your bootcamp experience like and do you feel it prepared you for your first job as a developer?

Bootcamps provide the foundation, but the preparation and studying really comes down to you. The concepts you learn in a bootcamp require reinforcement through studying on your own time, practicing writing solutions and outside supplemental learning — especially if a topic doesn’t click the first time you learn it. 

  • “I think one of the most important things to learn in [a] bootcamp is how to go about finding answers or tackling a new problem or technology with which you are unfamiliar because that will be a much bigger part of your job as a developer than you realize.”  - Ali


The main preparation that bootcamps provide are a built-in support network of people going through the same transition, access to instructors for specific questions and ideally introduction to technologies that are currently sought after in the job market.

  • “I feel that being in a bootcamp environment and learning a relevant tech stack to what was on job postings helped prepare me for my first job where I continued to learn.” - Ofelia

  • “[My bootcamp] was all focused on HTML, CSS, JavaScript and React. I really appreciate that focus on strictly frontend looking back on it. I feel like it gave me a really good foundation and [I] was able to not feel clueless looking at code at my first job which was nice.” - Caryn


A bootcamp will give you a stepping stone to your first job, but it is just one part of a longer journey that you will go through.

  • “Outside of learning git...I don’t think bootcamp prepared me for what it’s actually like to work on an engineering team and what a normal life cycle of a project looks like. However, I think those more process-related skills are learned easily on the job.” - Caryn

  • “Let's say you wanted to become a gymnast and had an opportunity to spend a 1-hour session with Simone Biles. She might explain how to get started, what exercises to do to build strength and how to stick your landing... By the end of [the] session, you will have a better idea of what it is like to be a gymnast, but you won't know everything and you will have to do most of the work yourself. You will have to refer to your notes to study the tips and exercises you were taught so you can work out to build strength and balance. You will also have to practice every day. A bootcamp is like the 1-hour session. It is fast-paced learning and it gives you guidance as to what you will need to learn.” - Devyn

 

What was the first big lesson you learned in your first job that you did not know going into bootcamp?

The first job post-bootcamp is usually a huge learning experience in and of itself. Bootcamp grads can be surprised by the amount of effort required to stay up-to-date in an ever-changing industry. They may also discover that coding isn’t the biggest aspect of software engineering roles. You’re often spending more time researching, collaborating and talking about approaches than you are writing code. 

  • “I think I was afraid I would mess something up in the code when I first started. I asked a lot of questions that I probably could have solved myself had I been willing to explore and experiment a little more early on.” - Devyn 

  • “This job is more about continuous learning and seeking out answers or solutions to new problems than it is about knowing the answer. You are hired to figure things out, not to know things when you get there.“ - Ali 

  • “You can't be an expert in everything engineering-related, no one has that kind of time. But I love that because it means we all have different strengths and have to be intentional about building teams. It just forces us to be collaborative.” - Caryn

 

What were key skills that set you up for success as a developer? 

It is important to learn the technologies needed to do your job, but often the differentiating skills are more “soft skills” or generally applicable skills like communication, research, problem-solving and collaboration.

  • “I think that my best skills are more "general" — knowing how to research, how to think through a problem to solution (and knowing when to ask for help), and how to communicate with different groups of people... This has been a huge part of every software engineering job I've had so far...” - Sarah

  • “My background is in customer service and I grew my communication skills for that role. I think those skills now allow me to be an effective leader on our engineering team and an advocate for our needs. I was in that customer-centric mindset for a long time so it’s easy for me to understand our product and be able to come up with solutions.” - Caryn


Regardless of whether you are currently in a bootcamp, currently searching for a job, or are further along in your career it can be helpful to continue to take notes, network, try new things (like testing!) and practice good communication and collaboration.

  • “Network and find a community you can learn from and contribute to.” - Devyn

  • “[Ask] questions about what you're trying to achieve, [be] really good at testing, [collaborate] well with stakeholders and [practice] good communication with your teammates.” - Ofelia


Any practical advice for people starting out or making a career transition, anything you’d have done differently? 

Figure out what areas of software engineering you like and do not like. There are a lot of free resources and courses to help guide your journey. Once you have an idea for what you like, spend more time learning that. When you’re ready for the next step, you’ll know what direction to move in. Also, tell everyone! Create a great network of people to who you can ask questions, guide you, and provide relevant feedback. This can help with job hunting and getting introduced to a company. Do not be afraid of asking for what you need. More often than not, people are willing to help and assist you on your journey. Many of us were in your shoes before. 

  • “If you are new to coding and are considering a bootcamp, complete an online coding course from a site like Udemy or Wes Bos before the boot camp starts. This will help give you a jumpstart with getting used to the terminology, tools and syntax developers need to know.” - Devyn 

  • “Talk about your goals out loud and ask others to help keep you accountable for your progression. It is really easy to give up when you feel like no one else cares about your progress.” - Ofelia 

  • “[I asked people] what they liked about their jobs or what advice they had for someone making a career change and got a lot of useful information and encouragement. Those conversations helped me build connections, many of which led to interview opportunities and job offers after bootcamp.” - Ali 


RESOURCES 

We’ve compiled a list of resources we recommend to people looking to start or expand on their current knowledge. Most resources (if not free) take student discounts, so be sure to check if the resource you’re interested in has that offer!

Apart from learning on your own time, we highly recommend networking and participating in the engineering community. Most of us have benefited from networking and have often received job interviews through our networks. While it doesn’t guarantee you will get a job, networking can help you get a foot in the door with an interview or introductory call. Below are some organizations that the contributors have participated in.


WRAPPING UP

We’ve all benefited from our bootcamp experiences. If you’re wondering if a bootcamp is the only way, it is most definitely not. Ultimately, you need to choose an option that works for you and allows you to thrive in whatever environment is best.  While we may look for the “right” path, remember, there isn’t one. This can be a stressful and uncertain time as you transition to your new career, but our hope is that this article helps you see that you are not alone in this process and that many of us have had the same struggles. Remember to give yourself space to learn, fail and grow and to find support where you can!


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