How I Successfully Changed Careers to Software Engineering with a Coding Bootcamp
I recently began my career in tech as an OpenShift Engineer Intern at Red Hat, a position I never would have gotten had I not quit my job in public health and signed up for a coding bootcamp. When I posted about it on LinkedIn and Twitter, I was suddenly flooded with followers and notifications and far too many questions in my inbox asking me “how did you do it?”
If you’re only interested in hearing my advice then please scroll down to the section titled “Frequently Asked Questions”, I’ll try not to take it personally.
Before I begin, I’d like to state that this is about my experience in a specific bootcamp, and I cannot speak to the quality or experience of other bootcamps. I also do not want to get this idea in your head that if you enroll in a bootcamp you’ll automatically end up with a job at a big name in tech like Google or Facebook. It’s not totally unheard of, but expect it to not happen (at least not at first) and be okay with that. I’m also fortunate enough to have a boyfriend that is a software engineer, which definitely helped when I first began learning how to code. My last disclaimer is that I admit that my life is fairly privileged; I was able to afford my bootcamp because my mother and boyfriend offered to loan me the money and help me pay for things like rent and groceries while I job searched. I was able to take this financial risk because of them and I realize others might not be so fortunate, so before choosing a bootcamp please consider your options and prepare to be broke for a while just in case (pro-tip: get good at making upgraded ramen noodles).
So, with that being said, let’s start at the beginning: what lead me to wanting to change careers in the first place…
As I stated above, my original career path was one in the field of public health. I graduated from UMass Amherst in 2017 as a Public Health Sciences major, a degree path I chose because I enjoyed learning about social determinants of health and helping people become their best selves. My first job out of college was as an environmental technician working mostly with hazardous material monitoring... Let’s just say that sitting on construction sites for most of the day collecting air samples was not my calling and it didn’t feel like I was helping anybody (even if maybe I was potentially saving them from a little asbestos). I only stayed there for about a year and then ran.
After that, I got a job as a community coordinator and it finally felt like I was putting my public health degree to use. I was helping residents in Section-8 housing with getting connected to resources and organizing programs for them. Despite liking the nature of the job, I felt run down, unmotivated, disconnected from my team and the company, and I was still getting paid barely enough to get by in Boston. I was starting to get a quarter-life crisis (that’s a thing, right?) and I realized that I just didn’t want to continue with public health for the rest of my life.
I did some research on bootcamps in Boston and immediately found General Assembly’s (hereby simply referred to as GA) 12-week Software Engineering Immersive. The location was easy enough for me to get to, and most importantly it seemed like it had great prospects for employment afterwards. The only downside was the cost (it was certainly more on the expensive side for bootcamp options) but it seemed like I would be attending a quality program. Plus, for the pay difference between what I was making at my current job and what I could make as a software engineer, I would be able to make up the cost in about a year. After going to speak with an admissions counselor and seeing the space, I decided to lock it down and take the leap. I dyed my hair purple (because I’m still in the middle of my quarter-life crisis, remember?) and I never looked back.
My life during my 3-month bootcamp went by fast. It was a blur of projects, late nights, and a sudden addiction to Stardew Valley (how else to better escape the stresses of life than a game about being a simple farm girl?). I won’t go too in depth about much of the program itself since you can just google it more if you’re interested, but I’ll tell you the main points.
Our first project (one of four, and the only one I’ll go into detail about), was to build a simple tic-tac-toe game that would connect to a third-party Ruby backend to store our user and game data. Simple enough, right? After all, tic-tac-toe is a child’s game for christ’s sake. But trying to complete this project’s criteria in the 5 days we were provided basically became the “make or break” moment for most of our class, and I have to admit that after having a very successful day 1, I hit a wall on day 2 and almost quit right then and there. But the teachers at GA were absolutely amazing (and probably very used to tic-tac-toe meltdowns by then). Trying to simulate what managers are like as much as they can, the instructors gave each of us just enough help to get us to be able to move forward and make progress again on our own. After that, the rest of the projects really weren’t too bad in comparison to our first one, especially since at that point we had all figured out about StackOverflow.
Another critical element of our GA bootcamp was the career coaching, known as Outcomes. Every week we would have a presentation covering some aspect of the job search, such as resume and cover letter writing, LinkedIn presence, both personality and technical interview questions, how to literally just search for jobs (who knew it could be so hard??), and even salary negotiation. We would have homework based on these presentations each week that we were required to complete if we wanted to continue getting career help post-graduation, and overall it proved vital to our success in the job search.
Overall, I thought that GA ran an amazing bootcamp. I felt supported and encouraged every step of the way; the teachers and staff made me feel like I was a part of a real community and not just a cog in a machine to make money and pump out software engineers. Everyone was genuinely invested in my success, but would also come over to ask me “what’s wrong?” when they could tell I was upset.
So to sum up my GA experience, I’m incredibly happy I decided to enroll and I would recommend the Boston program to anyone.
The Post-Bootcamp Job Search
I graduated from GA on December 9th, 2019. After GA, it was a really rough period for me. I hadn’t not had a job since the age of 17 and the weight of my debt to both my boyfriend and my mother was psychologically crushing me more and more each day. Some days I would force myself to wake up early and catch a bus to go downtown to work on my job search in the GA space, but most days I would sleep in until noon, scroll LinkedIn and apply to a few jobs here and there and then wonder why I couldn’t get anybody to even respond to my applications. I also graduated in early December, which wasn’t a super great time to enter the job market because companies generally aren’t hiring people right before everyone’s leaving for holiday break (bad news for me).
At the start of the new year, I decided that I would try to kick it into gear and really ramp up my job search. I started taking applying more seriously, and I tried to do at least one coding interview practice problem a day. I also made a goal to try to push at least one thing to my Github each day (mostly because I get instant serotonin when I see my white square for the day turn to green), and I started working out again. It was also around this time when I started taking networking more seriously, and I signed up for way too many events on MeetUp like a crazy person.
One of the many great events I found on MeetUp was TechTogether Boston, a free 3-day hackathon for women and non-binary folks happening at BU’s Agganis Arena from January 31st- February 2nd. I had never been to a hackathon before so I had no idea what it was like, but I figured that I could use the networking and listen to some interesting seminars. Plus, they gave you free food and swag (honestly what won’t I do for a free t-shirt and stickers?). Even though I still felt like a pretty novice coder, I joined a group with some other hackathon first-timers and we tried to plan out a project to do together.
Right before this, after I told you how I kicked my butt into gear, I got into the running for a full-time job at Grubhub in Boston. I had worked with someone in college that was an employee there, so I reached out to her and she offered to give me a recommendation. I couldn’t believe it when they gave me a phone interview, and then I couldn’t believe it even more when they gave me a virtual coding challenge, and then a final onsite interview oh my god. I thought I had it in the bag, and then I figured out that one of my classmates from my cohort had also gotten to the final interview stage, and it was only me and her against each other for the job. I knew right away she was going to get it (she was honestly a much stronger coder) and I still gave it my best in the interview, but it hurt when I got that final email saying I didn’t get the job. I felt like I was starting back at square one and had nothing to show for it.
TechTogether Boston Hackathon to the Rescue
Flash forward to, oh, about 5 minutes after my crushing Grubhub rejection walking into the hackathon I had signed up for weeks beforehand with hundreds of smart, successful, enthusiastic people and tech recruiters from companies like Facebook, Capital One, Wayfair, IBM, etc all around me… I felt so fragile walking in there and definitely not ready to get my hopes up again by giving my resume to recruiters. But I had already spent the money on the uber to get there and I would be damned if I wasn’t leaving without grabbing as much swag as I could (and you should have seen my haul afterwards, it was truly impressive).
One of the first tables I went up to at the networking portion of this hackathon was Red Hat. At the time to be quite honest, I had heard of them, but I couldn’t have told you what they did if I tried. I spoke to a woman who was so kind and helpful, and she didn’t mind that I was from a coding bootcamp instead of a college. Although they were looking for summer interns and I was looking for something more immediate (and I knew that I wouldn’t stand much of a chance against students in a degree program on top of that), I gave them my resume anyway. They had actually put me in such a good mood just by talking with me that I found enough strength to continue on with the hackathon. From there I stayed up for two straight days and was able to demo my group project on the last day, which was an app to discreetly send a text to you pretending to be a friend in trouble, thus giving you an excuse to leave a dangerous or uncomfortable date (if only I had that in college).
The Interview Process
A few weeks later I got an email from Red Hat Early Talent Acquisition inviting me to video interviews for not one but two different internship positions. I was truly so shocked that I screamed. I tried to not let myself get too excited about the possibility of working there and I kept repeating “I’m just happy for the opportunity to get interview experience” to myself in my head over and over again.
My interviews were on a Friday and a following Monday. My first interview (with my now current manager) was one of the best interviews I ever had. She was so friendly and personable that I was actually smiling from being happy and not that “I’m smiling so much my cheeks hurt because you hold my life in your hands” smile. She mostly had me talk about my past projects and my experience at my bootcamp, and then she told me more about Red Hat and OpenShift. There were no actual coding questions involved. My second interview with a different manager was also great and we seemed to get along fairly well; I also was not given any technical questions in this interview, but I was asked a non-programming question just to see how I would approach solving a problem.
That was it. After that, I accepted my fate and moved on with my life. I applied to more jobs and finally got to a final onsite at a small web consulting company a little bit outside of the city. They gave me an offer, and even though the salary was a little on the lower side and I would have to commute fairly far away 3 days a week to their client’s office, I was just so done with the job search that I was fully prepared to accept. I asked them for a few more days just to think it over.
Literally the very next day I got an email from Red Hat offering me a position as an intern on the OpenShift Engineering team. It felt like some surreal dream having TWO offers to choose between. It wasn’t a hard decision for me to make (well, okay for my wallet it was hard since the internship didn’t start right away). I figured Red Hat would be better for my long-term career even if it was only an internship with an end date, and my boyfriend graciously agreed to continue to loan me rent in the meantime. I gave Red Hat my offer acceptance email and respectfully turned down the other place.
In total, I applied for about 80 jobs from December 16th to February 20th. I only heard back from 9 of them. Of those 9, only 4 gave me on-site interviews, and 2 gave me job offers.
I feel extremely fortunate to have ended up with my internship at Red Hat. I don’t think I did anything special to get this position, I only did what my career coaches told me to do and did my best. I hope to be able to continue with Red Hat after my internship, but to reach that goal I will have to continue to work hard and improve my skills. I provide my story in hopes that you can better see yourself successfully changing careers if you’re considering it, or in hopes that you find encouragement and hope if you’re struggling with your own job search right now. Take it from me, I’m no prodigy. I’m just a normal person who put in the effort. If I can do it, then chances are that you probably can too.
Frequently Asked Questions
“What advice can you give me as a job seeker in tech?”
Well first I would say “google it”. I can’t tell you how to live your life exactly, but if you’re already doing basic things like writing quality cover letters and have worked on your resume (and have gotten it critiqued by friends, family, professionals), then maybe these 4 tips might help you go further:
- If you couldn’t tell from my experience, GO TO HACKATHONS! It was amazing experience (not to mention all the free swag) and if you can’t go to one then I encourage you to make your own hackathon by setting aside a couple days of solid work and a lot of snacks and see what you can accomplish.
- Have a portfolio to showcase your work to employers that describes each project you’ve work on, as well as a tailored LinkedIn profile.
- Go on meetup and join a coding group like your local chapter of Code for America or sign up for an networking or informational event. (At the time of writing this, the COVID pandemic has decreased the number of these events, but many of them are still happening virtually!)
- Start working on your next project. Either have it be a personal project or find a group to collaborate with, but you should always be working on something to keep your skills sharp and so you have something current to talk about during an interview.
“Would you recommend General Assembly?”
HECK YES (the Boston location at least).
As I said before, I know nothing about other GA locations. They each have different curriculum, teachers, and staff. If you’re looking at a GA location besides Boston, I would recommend visiting them and checking out the space and curriculum for yourself, as well as asking about how GA experience is viewed in that location’s job market. That being said, I have no reason to believe that other locations are not excellent, I just do not claim to know that they are for sure.
Without the teachers and staff at GA Boston, I do not think I ever could have made such a successful career transition. (Okay, maybe not ever, but I sure as hell couldn’t have done it in under a year.)
“I’m considering a bootcamp… is it right for me?”
There are a lot of options to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to enroll in a bootcamp. One big consideration is finances: is it worth it for you spend the money on the bootcamp, and how much do you think your salary is going to change in order to offset that cost? For me, the increase in salary over the course of one year would be enough to cover the cost, so in my case the cost of the bootcamp seemed justified. Also consider if a bootcamp cost is something your company will cover if you’re already in a similar industry, or if your company will hire you back in a different position if you complete the course.
Another major factor is your overall happiness. Look into why you’ve considered tech in the first place… is it something you actually like or are you just doing it for the salary and perks? If you can’t stand getting frustrated by bugs or don’t enjoy learning new things all the time, then maybe you need to reconsider. Really make sure that this is something you like to do, or at the very least can tolerate it so that you’re not miserable. If you’re already in a technical role, such as mechanical engineering, then maybe software engineering won’t be that much of a leap for you. If you have no technical background (like me, hello), then I suggest you really make sure you try out a good amount of online learning for a while before you quit your job and drop a ton of money on a career change.
“Can I get a job in software without going to a bootcamp?”
Of course! Lots of people do. But you have to have a lot of self-discipline, time, and patience. One of the things I love most about coding is that you can learn almost everything online somewhere for free if you search for it. It’s insanely more accessible than most fields, and can be a great hobby too if you’re just looking to try it out and gain some additional skills.
“Am I smart enough to be a software engineer?”
I don’t know you, but you probably are. The majority of people in my ~30 person cohort figured everything out and finished hard projects; you can too. I do not consider myself a traditionally “smart” person, meaning I don’t usually see something and just get it or remember it, but I do work hard and I’m passionate about learning.
Women in particular ask themselves this question a lot, and I admit that I did too at first (jk, I still do some days). Girls at a young age are often conditioned by society to think that they should be automatically good at everything, so when they try something new and aren’t great at it, they typically just give up and move on (or even worse, they just don’t try at all). It’s because of that early conditioning that we see so many less women in technical roles. One of my greatest realizations with changing careers to software engineering is that it’s okay to be wrong. That’s what error codes are for. You go back, try different things, and see what works.
“How do I split up my time during the job search?”
It’s going to depend a lot on your own schedule, responsibilities, and needs, but I can tell you what worked for me.
- 40% continued learning: working on projects, online courses and coding challenges for interviews on sites like leetcode or codewars.
- 30% applying for jobs: searching for openings, completing applications, writing quality (I’ll say it again for all you copy-and-pasters, QUALITY) cover letters. Make sure you keep a spreadsheet of everywhere you’re applying and try to shoot for about 10 quality applications a week, not just that 1-click apply button.
- 20% networking: going to events either virtually or in person (when that finally becomes a thing again) and reaching out to people in your network to have a coffee or a quick chat about their career or company.
- 10% self care: the job search is long and tedious, and you can easily wear yourself down in only a couple weeks. I make sure I do at least one thing for self care every day that ranges from 10 minutes to 1 hour, such as reading outside, grabbing a coffee, going for a walk, exercising, putting on a face mask, or trying out a new recipe to cook. In addition to this, something that the career coaches stressed to us was “respect the weekend”, which I did do most of the time (honestly it can be hard to know it’s even the weekend when all your days are the same).
Treat the job search like a full-time job. That means 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week.
“I’m not having any luck finding a job, what should I be doing differently? Should I give up?”
I get it. Maybe it’s been a month into the job search and you haven’t heard back from anyone and you’re ready to throw in the towel. But hang in there and just know that the job search takes time. Our career coaches at GA told us that it’s very rare to get a job right out of the bootcamp, and it usually takes on average around 4 months for most people to get jobs. Be prepared for longer just in case, especially since we are in uncharted waters with the coronavirus pandemic. The job search is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and you need to pace yourself accordingly to get through it. If you’re not finding any success with what you’re doing, do some research online and try to modify what you’re doing to see if something else works.
If you find yourself in a tricky situation because of finances in a job search that is seemingly endless, I suggest trying to get a part-time job to help pay some bills and keep you busy. Many people find that having the extra responsibility of a part-time job provides more structure and they’re less likely to waste time because they can’t afford to anymore. However, be aware that not treating the job search as a full-time job may lead to an extended job search in the long run.
“What is the interview process like?”
It really depends on the company! For my Red Hat internship, the decision was based on a video call and I only had to answer soft technical questions about some of my projects, no actual coding was involved. For most of my other interviews at different companies I had to do coding challenges either in the form of a take-home challenge or whiteboarding if it was in person. Most of the coding questions, especially whiteboard problems, were problems that would be considered to be at the “easy” level on leetcode.
The general format for the job interview processes I went through were a phone screening first, followed by a take-home challenge, and then an on-site interview, but there are a lot of variations.
“How do I prepare for interviews?”
I also watched a lot of YouTube interview practice videos, but I found that this didn’t help me as much as actually trying out these problems on my own did. What I did do sometimes was I would start a YouTube video, wait to see what the interview problem was, try to answer it myself, and then if I got stuck I would go through and only watch it until I was able to get to the next step of the problem. When I was finished solving the problem I would then watch the rest of the video to see how they went about solving it and see how mine differed.
In addition to “hard” technical interview questions, you could also be asked “soft” technical questions (“explain what happens when you google something?”).
Lastly, do not neglect the personality interview questions. Have personal stories prepared in your head that recalls a time when you worked on a team, or when you were asked to do something you didn’t agree with.. those kind of questions. Make sure you practice them too so you don’t stumble over words or forgot important pieces because you’re nervous.
“Do I need a portfolio?”
Maybe not if you have a college degree backing you up, but it can’t hurt to have one. However, if you’re a career changer like me without that coveted computer science diploma, then I strongly encourage you to make a portfolio (here’s mine for an example).
Unless you’re great at user experience and design, I would suggest you use a template like I did. I purchased mine for only $13, which is about the cost of a fairly average drink at a bar in Boston and a lot more useful. There are also a lot of free templates you can use that are just as good.
Thank you for taking the time to read any amount of this article. I never imagined that I would be writing about my experience; I hope that my journey inspires you to take the leap or encourages you to keep trying.
In the coming months as I continue on with my internship, I will most likely be writing a second article on whether or not I feel my bootcamp has actually prepared me for working in the field or not, so please follow me on social media and keep an eye out for that if you’re interested. As of right now, it’s a little too early to tell, but so far so good!
Outside of coding, I love video games and I’m a huge nerd. I consider myself a part of many fandoms, but none more than Star Wars. I also love makeup artistry, watching anime, and going on runs. Unfortunately I have no pets because my landlord said no, but I do live with my pretty cool boyfriend and some plants.