Saron sits down with Stacey Graham, Software Engineer at a fintech company. Stacey grew up curious about computers since being introduced to them in the 7th grade. Although she didn't take the full plunge into code immediately, she constantly provided technical support in her previous roles. Hear Stacey talk more about her experience navigating her career transition while battling health troubles, how you can level up and network in the tech community, and where to look for communities while you are just starting out.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about going from an admin assistant to a software engineer amongst hard times with Stacey Graham, Software Engineer at a FinTech company.
[00:00:21] SG: It was that drive and motivation to help my family and to continue to provide for them. That kept me going to meet-ups, reaching out to people because I could see other career changers that did the same thing that I did. So that motivated me like, “Hey, if they can do it, I can.” [00:00:41] SY: On this episode, Stacey and I explore her coding journey and how critical community really is when you’re just starting on your path after this.
[00:00:56] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:58] SG: Thank you for having me.
[00:00:59] SY: So let’s start from the beginning. When did you first learn about code?
[00:01:03] SG: The first time I learned about code was actually in college. I wanted to go into management information systems. And so first I went to community college first and then transferred, and that’s where I had my first coding class. And first coding was like QuickBASIC, which I don’t think anybody really knows about. That was the first language I learned.
[00:01:26] SY: And when did you realize that you wanted to get into tech professionally?
[00:01:32] SG: I believe when I was first interested in computers in middle school, I was in like seventh grade and we had a computer class and I didn’t have a computer at home, so that was my first experience, like working with a computer. And so from there, I just continued to have interest and curiosity. And all the way up into high school, I still knew that I wanted to go into tech.
[00:01:59] SY: So you knew pretty early on that you were going to get into technology. Did you have a sense of what type of job you were going to have or what you were going to do when you got there?
[00:02:10] SG: Not when I was in middle school or high school, but when I went into college and learned a little bit more about tech and I wanted to go into being a network administrator. That was the first thing I thought.
[00:02:26] SY: Oh, interesting. Why was that? What got you excited about network administration?
[00:02:31] SG: When I was in college, I took a C++ class and I said I did not want to code.
[00:02:38] SY: Okay.
[00:02:39] SG: So I said I want to be...
[00:02:40] SY: It ruined it for you?
[00:02:41] SG: Yes, it ruined it. But I did want to still be in tech. So I started learning about different careers and I decided to go for network administration.
[00:02:55] SY: Got you. But then you ultimately did end up coding because now you’re a software engineer. So how did you get from no coding, not going to do that to where you are today? How’d you get started learning?
[00:04:21] SY: And so when you revisited coding during that time, what was going on in your life? Why did you want to get back into tech?
[00:04:31] SG: I had always wanted to get into tech, but as life happens, I had a lot of delays, things that happened in my life that I thought I would get into tech a little bit sooner than I did, and so I just wanted to continue going that path to have a better life for my family, to increase income and to also have something that I really enjoy because I was working as an administrative assistant for about, I would say 15 years or so, and I felt like I just knew how to be administrative assistant and I was ready for something new that was more exciting.
[00:05:13] SY: May I ask what some of those delays were?
[00:05:15] SG: So when I was in college, I was very close to finishing up. I had about maybe two more semesters before I graduated. And my son, I had a six-month old son and he passed away.
[00:05:30] SY: Oh, I’m so sorry.
[00:05:32] SG: Thank you. So he passed away from SIDS and I took a break from school. I actually ended up moving. I'm from Philadelphia, ended up moving to Atlanta. And eventually, I went back to finish up my degree. And then I was ready to look for work in the tech field and I found out that I had cancer.
[00:05:59] SY: Oh my goodness.
[00:06:00] SG: And so I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer and I did chemo for about six months. After I did chemo, I was cancer free. I’ve been cancer free now for about nine years.
[00:06:14] SY: Oh, wow! Congratulations!
[00:06:15] SG: Thank you.
[00:06:17] SY: That’s amazing.
[00:06:17] SG: Thank you. So after I was done, I got the okay to go back to work. I decided to get back into tech again. And started looking for jobs again, and it was very hard for me to get into tech. When I talked to a lot of recruiters, they were saying, “Oh, you should get a certification. But I felt like I took so long to get my degree. I thought that, “I didn’t want to do another certification.” I was kind of like done with school and like studying for tests.
[00:06:48] SY: Yeah. It had been so long since you were in a classroom again. Yeah.
[00:06:53] SG: Right. And so I just ended up going back to admin role, but it was interesting because the company hired me because of my technical background, because they didn’t have anybody in IT. They were in another location, and so I was kind of like the technical person, but also the administrative assistant. So if there was not an IT support specialist in the office, they would reach out to me or the IT specialist in the other city would reach out to me to do something. So I would be in the network closet, switching cables, or if they had a new employee, I would be setting up their computer and their system and everything. So it was kind of like I had like an admin/technical support position.
[00:07:44] SY: How’d you feel about that?
[00:07:46] SG: I liked it, but it was more of an administrative assistant position. So I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to use those technical skills that I had. So I took the time after I realized, after talking to actually a technical support specialist that worked at the company, after I realized there was no way for me to move into that role at that location, that’s when I started my job search again.
[00:08:14] SY: So you mentioned going to this workshop and them kind of reintroducing you to the world of coding in a different way, different tool set, different language. Tell me about that workshop. What was it? Where was it? How’d that go?
[00:08:54] SG: And afterwards, they gave us about free two weeks to go through the curriculum to decide if we wanted to move forward with the coding bootcamp. And I really enjoyed it and I actually ended up getting like a couple more weeks because there was some confusion about where I started. I think they switched my advisor at the time. So I actually got more time to learn through the curriculum for free.
[00:09:19] SY: Nice.
[00:09:20] SG: But once it came to the time to the financing, I didn’t really didn’t have the money to enroll and I was hoping I could get financing or some kind of scholarship and they didn’t have anything available for me.
[00:09:33] SY: So what did you decide at that point? You’re excited about this learning, you’re making some progress, but you know money’s tough. What did you do?
[00:09:39] SG: I decided to just learn on my own and I started finding different websites to learn how to code, freeCodeCamp, Codecademy. I was using those websites to learn and I just continued to do that, but I realized that it was hard for me to stick with it and be consistent on my own. So I kept looking for programs that I could get into because I was hearing so many programs. There was a lot of coding bootcamps popping up in the city. So I found out about this other program called Team Treehouse where you would learn for six months and then you would do a six-month internship. And so I enrolled in that program. And very close to the six months of us doing the training and learning, we found out that one of the companies pulled out of the internship.
[00:10:36] SY: Oh no!
[00:10:38] SG: So they said, “Hey, we’ll give you. You can continue to work through the curriculum on your own.” And a lot of the people that were in the cohort with me, and I think it was a small number, maybe five or six of us, a lot of them like gave up. We tried to continue to have a group to like go through it, but a lot of them, I didn’t hear anything from them about being in a group.
[00:11:02] SY: Yeah.
[00:11:03] SG: So I continued to go through the curriculum and I really enjoyed it because I liked how their platform was set up. But I realized, I was like, “I think I really need to get in like a classroom or like some kind of setting where I could have an instructor.” [00:11:20] SY: Some structure.
[00:11:21] SG: Yeah.
[00:11:21] SY: Yeah. Yeah. So what did you do? What happened next?
[00:11:24] SG: So next I heard about this other community where they were helping people get into bootcamps. It’s called Career Karma. So I went through their community, got in the community with other people who were learning how to code as well, and they were also trying to get into bootcamps, but I still applied for like maybe three or four bootcamps, and neither the schedule didn’t work for me because I was still working and some of them had full-time schedules and I couldn’t do that. I needed a program that was part-time. And I found a few, but it just didn’t fit like my schedule that I wanted. So I decided to just continue learning on my own. And then they had a couple of workshops where they were helping people get jobs, giving them interview, advice and tips and networking tips. So I decided, “Hey, maybe I can give me a job where I can learn on the job, how to code and get that support, but be in a technical role.” So I started looking for technical support roles. I decided to go and start reaching out to different people, just applying the jobs first and then trying to connect with recruiters or some people that worked at a company that could give me some advice about how to maybe get in the company. And I connected with a recruiter and had an interview, couple interviews and got a job offer for a technical support role.
[00:13:14] SY: Wow! Very nice! So was the idea you would get in this technical support role level up your technical skills and then hopefully apply to more of a coding specific role as the next step? Is that the way you were strategizing this?
[00:13:30] SG: Yes, because when I would have the interviews, I would ask them about, “Hey, would it be an opportunity for me to move into software developer role and this particular job set?” It was. And so that’s what I was asking when I would have interviews to find out if it was a good company to be able to move up.
[00:13:53] SY: Very strategic. That makes a lot of sense. And how many of the companies you interviewed at gave you that opportunity and said, “There is some movement available. There is an opportunity to move into a different department.” How many people responded positively to that?
[00:14:10] SG: I would say about three companies really stick out that were good with that.
[00:14:15] SY: Okay. So it wasn’t super common. Three out of roughly how many companies?
[00:14:19] SG: Oh, that is hard to say because…
[00:14:22] SY: A lot?
[00:14:22] SG: I applied for a lot of jobs.
[00:14:25] SY: Okay. Okay.
[00:14:26] SG: And talked to a lot of recruiters.
[00:14:27] SY: Yes. Okay. So most companies really wanted you to just choose technical support, but you got a couple who were open and supportive of you moving into a different type of role? Is that right?
[00:14:37] SG: Yes.
[00:14:38] SY: Okay. So what was it like to interview for a technical support role? I imagine it’s pretty different from a software developer role. What kinds of questions were asked and how did you prepare and level up for those interviews?
[00:14:50] SG: So for most of those interviews, I tried to make sure that I was showing how it was customer facing and how I was willing to help users that were struggling. Some of those interviews, you’ll get those questions where they say, “How would you deal with a customer that was upset with something that was going on in the computer system or for some reason?” And so you had to be able to show that you had compassion and you would remain calm in the situation because some users could be really upset. And so I was able to display a lot of those characteristics because of my background in the administrative assistant, because I was always supporting customers or people in the office so I could be able to show those transferrable skills when I was in the interview.
[00:15:48] SY: So you got the technical support role. How did you move from that to becoming a software engineer?
[00:15:55] SG: Well, I left my administrative assistant role. Of course, I accepted the job offer, and that was right when the pandemic happened. So that was March of 2020. I lost a job offer because they ended up furloughing employees.
[00:16:13] SY: Oh, wow! Yeah.
[00:16:14] SG: So I was like, “Oh no.” And I finally got a more technical role now. I had to figure out what was next. And so what I did was I said, “Okay, I’m going to go back to learning on my own.” But then found out about this program in Atlanta called WorkSource Atlanta.
[00:16:34] SY: Okay.
[00:16:35] SG: And through that program, if you’re underemployed or unemployed, you can get $7,000 towards training program. So I applied, I looked at the training providers that they had on the website. And a lot of them were colleges, but I was like, “I really want to do a coding bootcamp,” because I felt like they gave you the skills that you needed for a current role. And so I found one coding bootcamp and it was actually one that I was familiar with, I heard about, I talked to some people that went to the coding bootcamp. So I applied and got accepted into that coding bootcamp program.
[00:17:19] SY: Very nice. Tell me about your decision to do a coding bootcamp versus some type of college program. You mentioned that you trusted that they would be able to teach you the skills that you needed. Tell me more about that decision that you’ve made.
[00:17:34] SG: So as I was searching for programs and talking to a few people, a lot of people talked about how technology moves so fast. And that coding bootcamps, they were teaching you the latest technologies and skills that you needed. And sometimes they mention how some colleges may teach you outdated technologies. But the other part of it was if you do go to a college, you’re putting out money for another degree and then some colleges have so many classes and some of them are like extra classes. Like I remember when I was in college and I was looking at computer science and they would have these theory classes and all these other classes where it wasn’t giving you like their real world experience, and it just seemed like a filler class, like that wasn’t really necessary. And I wanted like more hands-on experience. So that’s why I went for it. I thought a coding bootcamp would’ve been the best option for me.
[00:18:44] SY: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah.
[00:19:01] SY: So coding through and trying to level up navigate the coding career process, the journey can be really difficult in general, let alone doing it through health concerns. I’m sure that was extremely difficult. I’m wondering for folks who might be fighting a similar battle, trying to make it across the tech finish line, while also dealing with personal difficulties and hardships, what advice do you have for them?
[00:19:25] SG: I would say if you have a strong support system, I feel like that’s very helpful. Like I’m a wife, a mom, I have three girls. My husband was really supportive. My girls were really supportive and that’s really important to keep you motivated and keep you going. And I also think having a community of people or peers that are maybe going through the same process as you trying to learn how to code or get into some technical field I think is really helpful as well. And so I think that’s really good to keep you going and keep you motivated.
[00:20:09] SY: And even if you’re not dealing with any particular hardships or difficulties, I mean, just being a mom of three and let alone a mom of three, I’m sure it took up a lot of time and energy. How did you manage juggling the family with reaching your aspirations and learning how to code?
[00:20:27] SG: It was a lot. It was a struggle sometimes.
[00:20:29] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:29] SG: I was getting up five or six o’clock in the morning before I had to go to work to learn how to code. And sometimes I was up at night, but as I was doing it at night, I kind of realized that, “Hey, I think I’m going to have to do it in the morning. It’s going to make it easier.” And so I would be up in the morning coding and then next thing I know, I’m getting my kids ready for school, getting myself ready and out the door.
[00:20:56] SY: So a lot of time management.
[00:20:57] SG: Yes, definitely.
[00:20:59] SY: So I want to get into some of the nitty-gritty of the financing of bootcamps and financing of education. Tell me about how you were able to navigate that. We talked about how that first bootcamp, you weren’t able to get the financing together. They could be pretty expensive.
[00:21:15] SG: Right.
[00:21:16] SY: How were you able to navigate grants and financing options for bootcamps when you decided to do one?
[00:21:24] SG: So as far as when I first was trying to get into the bootcamps, they would have financing, like they had some of them where you would pay back money once you got the job or you could apply for a loan. And my credit was not the best at the time. So I got denied every time I applied. So that’s why when I got into that program that I mentioned, the WorkSource Atlanta, I was able to get that grant, which was really helpful. And I had to find some money and I ended up using some money that I got from a retirement account. That was the only way I was able to do it and I knew that it was the best thing for me at the time. And so that’s what I did.
[00:22:15] SY: Did you come across any information on grants? I know some bootcamps have scholarships, that sort of thing?
[00:22:22] SG: I did. Actually, through the bootcamp that I enrolled in, they did have a grant for women and I believe it was $1,000. So I did get additional grant as well. And I did see that often, like especially for women that were getting into tech. I know it was a big push for that during that time. And so I did see a lot of programs giving grants to women.
[00:22:45] SY: Is that a common thing? For people who are listening who might be looking out for bootcamp opportunities and other programs like that, is it reasonable to try to get a grant or scholarship to these programs?
[00:22:57] SG: I think so. And there’s so many programs coming out now, like I see so many free programs as well. So there’s a lot of programs out there. I know it can be overwhelming, but there’s definitely some out there. A lot of them have grants now, and a lot of them, I’m seeing now, companies are partnering either with the coding bootcamp to hire employees once they graduate or they have like some kind of apprenticeship program where you get a chance to learn and then you move into the role.
[00:23:35] SY: I want to talk about networking. You mentioned when you were doing your job search that you were networking with recruiters, which I think is fantastic. I think more people need to do that, but it can also be kind of intimidating. How do you do that? What do you say to a recruiter? How do you reach out? How do you start those conversations? Tell me a little bit more about how you were able to navigate that process.
[00:23:53] SG: So when it came to recruiters, I actually did a search for like staffing agencies or recruiting agencies in Atlanta, and I had a whole list of them in Excel Spreadsheet. And I would just reach out to them, I would call them, ask them about what roles they had available. And sometimes I would email them as well. And they were really good at contacting me back. But I know one thing with recruiters, because they have so many applicants that they’re looking at, you have to do really well at following up. So if they tell you that they have a role, you definitely should follow up the next day or two days later and find out what the status on the role is or what the status on interviews because I found when I was going through that process that sometimes I might have delayed and reaching out to them. And the next thing, I either couldn’t get in contact with them or they would tell me, “Oh, I’m sorry. There was someone else that was in the last stages of the interview and they got the position.” So following up is key when it comes to recruiters.
[00:25:08] SY: And what about networking with other folks? How do you approach networking in general?
[00:25:14] SG: So when I was networking with other people, the big thing for me was going to meetups. So there was a lot of meetups, tech meetups in the city, and I would attend those meetups, connect with people that were already in the roles at the company. I also utilized length and heavy when I was in my coding bootcamp to reach out to people. And it was interesting because it was during a pandemic. So everybody’s home. And it was interesting because I would actually get contact, get back from people, and I would reach out to them and say, “Hey, are you willing to chat for 15 or 20 minutes to share with me your tech journey?” And I would also do a search sometimes to see if they graduated from a coding bootcamp because I felt like they would understand where I was and they would understand that whole process and they would be more willing to talk to me.
[00:26:12] SY: That makes a lot of sense. I know that networking can be harder for introverts and people who are just a little self-conscious, maybe don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there and are worried about rejection. I feel like, yeah, I don’t know what’s worse when you reach out to someone and they say they don’t want to meet with you or when they just don’t respond at all. But either way it can be pretty nerve-wracking. How do you get over the nerves? How do you get over the fear, the anxiety that comes from cold outreach and cold email?
[00:26:41] SG: In my situation that I was in, like really wanting to be in a career that I enjoyed and also realizing, “Hey, to help my family and to continue to provide for them, I need more income.” And so it was that drive and motivation that kept me going to meetups, reaching out to people because I could see other people that were in those roles, and some of them I knew from talking to other people or from listening to podcasts sometimes. I would hear people that were career changers that did the same thing that I did or was doing. So that motivated me like, “Hey, if they can do it, I can.” So I just kept reaching out to people and I’m an introvert, so I would just get the nerve up to reach out, and most of them were very receptive and willing to speak to me.
[00:27:46] SY: Coming up next, Stacey talks about what groups and communities are out there to help you break into the industry after this.
[00:28:02] SY: So you have really used so many different resources and tools at your disposal, workshops, bootcamps, online communities, free resources. For folks looking to find that community, and it sounds like community was a big part of your journey, what are some good communities or groups that people can join to make their networking more effective and to be able to get to that finish line a little bit faster?
[00:28:25] SG: That’s a great question. There are so many communities out there. There’s great open source projects and those are ways to connect with the community and also learn. I would say the first thing to do if you’re looking for a community is do a Google search. Try Meetup.com. That was like my go-to. I would go to Meetup.com, search for my city, put in tech or web development or programming language, and I would get a bunch of events coming up. And once I found those communities, I would just sign up and I would get emails about when they had a meetup and then I would attend. And so that’s one way to find out. There’s a lot of Slack groups out there as well for communities, and people are willing to help and ask questions. Discord is another way that I connect with different communities. And Women Who Code, that was a big community for me. Women Who Code, that organization was very instrumental for me for getting my first role. Because during a pandemic they had a tech conference and I attended that and that’s how I got contacted by the recruiter for the role that I’m in now. So definitely tech conferences are really good for going to as well and meeting people. Sometimes if you volunteer you can get to go to a tech conference for free, because I know the cost is an issue for some people as well, because that was what I did. I wanted to continue to meet people and continue to network to hear about others’ journey and their experience and their roles and tech conferences was another way that I did that.
[00:30:04] SY: And now that you are a software engineer, it seems like many years in the making, but you finally did it all the way from that first course where you said you didn’t want to do coding. Now you’re a sophomore engineer. Is it what you thought it was going to be?
[00:30:18] SG: It definitely is. I’ve really enjoy it. I enjoy coding. I feel like I’m really supported in my role by the people on my team. I enjoy like the flexibility of it as well.
[00:30:38] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Stacey, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:30:45] SG: Yes, I’m ready.
[00:30:46] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:30:50] SG: The worst advice I ever received was don’t switch over to tech because the turnover rate is high.
[00:30:57] SY: Oh, wow! I’ve never heard of that one before. Tell me more about that.
[00:31:00] SG: Yeah. So I remember having like the annual review with my manager and he knew, I told him that I wanted to get into tech. So he knew that. And he told me, of course, I’ve been doing a great job. And he was like, “I know you want to get into tech, but the turnover rate is really high.” And so I was sitting there thinking, I was like, “I don’t know about that.” But I was like, “I really want to get into tech. I’m going to continue to pursue it.” And I think he was thinking of it as far as our company, because I did notice that.
[00:31:37] SY: Oh, okay. Yeah.
[00:31:39] SG: So I think that’s why he had said that.
[00:31:41] SY: Okay, got you. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:31:45] SG: The best advice I ever received. So I had a neighbor that was reviewing. He offered to review my resume because he knew I was looking for work. And there was a period where I homeschooled my kids and I didn’t know if I should put that on my resume or not. And he was saying that I should put it on there because it shows some transferrable skills.
[00:32:10] SY: Oh yeah.
[00:32:10] SG: That would be helpful for jobs. And so he helped me word in a certain way for particular jobs. And it actually was really helpful because it’s interesting that first, that job that I got the job offer for that I lost.
[00:32:28] SY: Yeah.
[00:32:29] SG: Actually doing one of my interviews with one of the managers, he asked me about homeschooling because he homeschooled his kids. And then I found out that the CEO, his family, they homeschooled their kids. So it was something interesting.
[00:32:44] SY: Interesting. Something in common. Yeah.
[00:32:45] SG: Right. So we had that.
[00:32:47] SY: That’s cool.
[00:32:48] SG: That thing in common. So it actually was helpful. I thought it would not be a great thing to put on there. Because I was thinking, “Oh, I need some actual work experience.” [00:32:57] SY: Right. No, you’re working. You’re teaching those kids. That’s work. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:33:04] SG: So my first coding project that got me really excited and I felt like, “Oh, I really do know something,” was I created this random quote generator project where just a random quote would show up once you click the button. And that was the first project I did, and I got really excited. That kept me motivated to keep going. It’s funny because I actually put a quote on air from you.
[00:33:31] SY: Oh yeah?
[00:33:32] SG: Yeah.
[00:33:33] SY: Oh boy. What’d I say? What’d I say? I swear, I don’t know half the things I say in my life. I swear. What’d I say?
[00:33:38] SG: It was a quote that you said about the best way to learn is with the community that are all passionate about coding.
[00:33:47] SY: Yep. Absolutely. Makes things so much easier. So much easier. I just feel like when you can share both the highs and the lows with a group of people, it just makes the journey so much more bearable. And then the high is so much more enjoyable, being able to share, “Look what I did, look what I made,” and having people congratulate you and give you a high five, virtual high five is a great feeling.
[00:34:09] SG: Yes. Definitely.
[00:34:10] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:34:14] SG: So that brings me back to community, the thing that I wish I knew. When I first started, I was trying to learn on my own and I wasn’t thinking about being in a community. But then when I first joined that community, Career Karma, it kept me motivated hearing other people’s stories and why they were looking to get into tech. And some of us would meet sometimes to kind of go through different coding exercises and things like that. So that was really helpful. I saw why community and learning with other people was so big. And that’s why I continued to like stay connected with other communities. And there’s one community that I really love right now, Y&A group.
[00:35:00] SY: what does that stand for?
[00:35:01] SG: It stands for Young & Ambitious.
[00:35:02] SY: Oh, okay, cool.
[00:35:04] SG: And it’s a community. We have like an open source project that we’re working through right now. It’s actually up, but we’re continuing to update it and add new features. So I’m really enjoying it. It’s a great community of people that have changed careers. So I think it’s really awesome.
[00:35:21] SY: Very, very neat. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Stacey.
[00:35:24] SG: Thank you so much, Saron. I really appreciate it.
[00:35:29] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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