Q&A with #InvestingInYou Scholarship Recipients (Part 1)


Last year, PDXWIT launched the #InvestingInYou scholarship program to help members with funding to attend conferences and workshops that build skills for their careers. Thanks to the tremendous generosity of the Folley Foundation, PDXWIT was able to launch a $10,000 fund. We had nearly 40 individuals apply and are thrilled to send four individuals to conferences in 2019.

We wanted to share a bit of their stories over the next few months. First up is Sarah Flynn, sharing her experiences in attending coding bootcamp, participating in her first hackathon, and reflecting on getting into the tech industry. Here’s the interview:

Amy King: Could you give me some background on your career in tech and how your interest in it came about? 

Sarah Flynn: For the past decade or so, prior to making this change in career direction, I’d mostly done non-profit work, such as community organizing and advocacy. I worked at Oregon Food Bank for about 6 years in their public policy department. I noticed that a lot of the tools that my team needed either didn’t exist or were at a price that was not remotely reachable for the organization. 

I was organizing these really logistically complex events where things changed up to the last minute. So, I started teaching myself to write Excel macros to better handle the massive amounts of data for these events. That's how my interest in coding started. 

From there I started to take some free online classes with Codeacademy and Treehouse. I was doing it just because I was interested in it at first, and then I heard about coding bootcamps for the first time. I realized that it may actually be possible for me to make a career change. I didn't do it right away as the time wasn’t really right in my life to take that type of risk, but it was in the back of my mind for 2 or 3 years. As my interest in coding continued to grow, I finally decided to take a leap and risk everything to transition to a new career path. 

I started seriously looking into bootcamps, with the intention of finding one and doing it, in the spring of 2018. I was looking at programs focused on groups of women learning to code together, which were often located in other cities. But in the end, I've lived in Portland for about 12 years and this is my permanent home. I didn't want to go to a bootcamp in another city since the network for hiring would mostly be in that city. I wanted to stay in Portland. 

So I decided to find a coding bootcamp here. I hadn’t initially considered Alchemy Code Lab as didn’t think it was the right fit for me, and I couldn’t really afford it. Things changed when I got three scholarships that covered part of the cost, one from Women Who Code, one from Alchemy Code Lab’s Diversity in Tech scholarship, and one from Reboot Northwest. These brought the price down to something more comparable to other bootcamps in the area. I was able to do it and I started the program in July 2018. It's a 6-month program, so I graduated at the end of December. 

The bootcamp was certainly a trial by fire and very challenging. The format of ‘stack modules’ meant that every single day, students learn new concepts and technologies and build a whole new app that was due the next morning at 8:59 AM. Then you sit down and do it all again when the next class starts at 9 AM. It goes like that for 6 months. So it was really intense, but it was also incredibly rewarding and I learned much more than I ever would have than if I tried to self-teach.

How did you select your boot camp? What were you looking at and what were you specifically looking to learn?

My initial interest was in wanting the ability to build applications that I saw were needed by myself or by others, from front to back. I knew that it was probably going to be web-based. So, I knew I wanted to do a full stack web developer program. I looked mostly on the west coast, like Seattle, California and Oregon. I was trying to figure out the most useful set of technologies I could learn. I looked at the depth of the curriculum- I knew I wanted to learn JavaScript and wasn’t sure if I wanted Ruby, Node or Express on the backend so I spent some time researching that. There are also three people in my family, including my dad, who after college and some work experience decided to become computer programmers. I got feedback from them about what technologies would be the most useful right now, so full stack JavaScript was the way I decided to go. 

I chose Alchemy because I think students have an opportunity to learn more in a shorter amount of time due to the number of technologies covered e course of that program.

Was it mainly by reputation that you picked Alchemy?

Yes, and I also went to Alchemy’s open house event. I saw that students are in the classroom with a live instructor teaching and live coding for half the day, and the other half of the day either solo or in pairs and teams coding in labs. This structure was what I wanted from a bootcamp. From my visit, it was clear that their instructors and TAs were in a good position to help with tricky problems.

Can you talk more about the scholarships? I had no idea those are even available. How did you find out about them?

I had initially crossed Alchemy off my list. I thought it looked like a great place with a great curriculum but it was so expensive that I couldn’t possibly afford it. So I crossed it off, but then I went to their open house and learned more about their program, and I realized I have to figure out a way to go there. 

Megan, the director at Alchemy, gave me a tour and talked to me about the program and I got to see it in action. I explained that I couldn't possibly afford it but I really wanted to go there. She said they have scholarships not just for women but also for racial diversity in tech. She thought I would qualify for the diversity scholarship and gave me an application. Actually, both of the scholarship that I received, the Diversity in Tech and the Women Who Code scholarships, were funded by the school itself. They are very committed to supporting diversity in tech. 

So I got a certain amount covered by scholarships from the program. The other scholarship I earned was a program through WorkSource. I had a period of time in my life when I was not working, and I learned through WorkSource that there are funds available through a program called Reboot Northwest to help people transition to careers in tech. I worked with a lovely woman there named Cindy Silverstone and she helped me apply for the scholarship.

What are your goals now that you're through the bootcamp and you've gone to the conference? Did you mention you got a contract? 

Yes, it's a contract position. Alchemy has a spin-off called App Lab where they get hired by companies or individuals to build apps for them. They currently have 2 permanent staff members who are senior developers, then they hire some of the Alchemy Labs graduates. Right now there are two of us from my graduating class who are working for App Lab. I knew I wanted to work there as soon as I found out it existed! 

It’s been a wonderful experience. It's a 30 hour per week contract position and I'm using React, React-Redux, Firebase, and Cordova with a small team. We’re building a Chinese language learning app for Yoyo Chinese. We’re using JavaScript with Cordova to make mobile apps for iOS and Android.

They've allowed me to jump in and do a lot of real work in the project really quickly. We've got the kanban board up with all of our tasks, moving it through the process from “In Progress” to “In Review” to “Done”. I'm knocking things off and doing at least a few pull requests a day from that list, and it feels really good. It also feels great that I have senior developers to review my code or provide advice about the approach, and help me become a better developer as I'm doing the work.

Did you go through a job interview type of process for this opportunity?

I didn't go through a job interview process for this because it's run by the same people who run the school. Mark, the director, taught almost my entire boot camp track so he knew all of us pretty well. There wasn't much of an interview process because they knew what we could do and what we were like by the time we graduated.

Do you have any goals about your new career or are you taking it one day at a time?

Oh, I very much have goals. What I'm doing right now is a great opportunity to continue learning but I am looking for a full-time developer role, preferably doing full stack work with React or React-Redux. I took a little time off after graduating to take a break and get back to loving coding again. I have started my job search in earnest fairly recently. I'm applying for positions right now and my goal is to find a position that will give me the opportunity to grow into the kind of developer I want to be, which is somebody who is very capable of consistent, solid contributions to the project. I also want to be able to give back through open source. 

I started out studying physics and astronomy in college, then I switched to writing, then advocacy work. My ultimate dream would be to incorporate all three parts of myself in a job. Coding is incredibly creative; you get to make so many decisions. There's this artistic part of it and then there's this analytical, logical part of it. I would love to be working for an organization or cause that I deeply believe in.

One of the things I wanted to say is that the experience of receiving this scholarship and career development opportunity because of PDXWIT made me really want to give back. For the Give Guide campaign PDXWIT did at the end of the year, I made a small contribution. My hope is that in the future that I will give back more through volunteering and through supporting others to have this kind of opportunity as well.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience at Developer Week?

It was a great experience. They actually had a JavaScript track, so there were sessions related to my strongest interests happening often that weren't conflicting with each other. That was great—I got to learn about some interesting new technologies. Some of it went over my head but some of it landed. :)

I really enjoyed the hackathon that happened after the conference ended, from Saturday to Sunday. I was a bit nervous going into a room full of hundreds of people, not knowing what project I will work on, or who I will work with. Having the opportunity to talk with people, learn about their projects, find a team, and make something in just a little over 24 hours… that was really cool.

What did you build for your project?

We had a big idea that we (partially) realized. There are all these different companies that were sponsoring the hackathon, with prizes for different requirements. My team decided to use TomTom’s GPS technology, specifically the geofencing API that they were unveiling at this hackathon. We used the geofencing API to build an app that could be paired with a tracking device to put on electric scooters, bicycles, or skateboards that will alert the user when their equipment was moved outside of the geofenced area. This is mainly to prevent theft. If we had time to build it out more, it would also provide tracking capabilities in the case the items were stolen.

Have you experienced any challenges moving into a tech field?

Yes, I have. I'm still learning how to work through some of them, to be honest. 

Most people have been very supportive of my decision to make this move. But, when I first learned I was receiving the scholarships, as I was excited and talking to people about it, I had a conversation with someone I know fairly well. He asked what the scholarships were for. I said they were for diversity and women in tech, and that I thought diversity is very important because companies are making products for the world, for everyone. He got really angry...really angry, and disagreed. He thought that it was sort of a bad thing, and that it was okay that men were better at some things and women were better at others. 

That was a pretty stark experience, but I've had a few of these little experiences so I'm a little wary about talking about the scholarships with people at this point. Some people bristle that the reason I was eligible for scholarships was because of diversity initiatives. 

The other thing that has been an issue for me is learning how to communicate in a way that is both authentic to who I am and also comes across as more confident. In the process of networking and talking to potential employers, I'm realizing that I actually have some really solid, valuable skills. But there are ways that I am accustomed to speaking, with what I feel like is more humility, that are sometimes seen as lacking confidence that perhaps indicates a lack of skills. I'm really having to work on how to express myself in a way that is both authentic but also doesn't undercut what I can offer as a developer.

Are these challenges gendered in a way? 

I have not received any negative comments about scholarships from women, to date. 

The second issue I mentioned, in how I present myself, affects me whether I am speaking to a woman or a man. What feels to me like speaking with honesty, like “I have these abilities to do lots of things, and these are examples of how I’ve used it”, but “I still have a lot to learn and these are various areas where I can improve,” may come across as a lack of confidence. So I'm working on speaking confidently about my skill set. 

Do you have any tips for anybody who might be feeling the same way, or for women who are looking to make the jump but feel hesitant for whatever reason?

First, I would say that the few people who responded negatively to my scholarships or to my decision to move into this field that felt gendered to me, did have some effect but they did not actually discourage me from pursuing this path. So I would definitely say that there are a lot of people out there who have your back and support you. You should also be mindful of supporting yourself and being confident to pursue what you want to do. 

On the topic of confident but authentic expression, I don't know if I’ve actually figured that one out. I think that as I gain experience and grow in confidence as a developer and also attend things like Developer Week and the Hackathon, I can see how my code compares to other people’s code. I’m realizing, oh I belong here, I can do this! That's been really helpful for me. 

Those are great words to live by! Any last thoughts before we wrap up? 

I'm so grateful to PDXWIT and the donors and organizers who made the scholarship possible. It was really a huge boost for me to receive a scholarship at the end of the boot camp program. It gave me something to look forward to after graduating, and the experience of going there was wonderful.