I talked to Caitlin Greffly about how she learned to code, her tips for job hunters and what her day looks like as a junior developer. Caitlin lives in Portland, Oregon, and recently switched careers from brewery sales to working as a programmer. Enjoy the interview!
EDIT: Listen to an update from Caitlyn on the podcast
Hey, thanks a lot for doing the interview! Could you introduce yourself?
Absolutely! I am one month into my first job as a developer, living in Portland, Oregon. I recently made the switch to tech from the beer industry, where I worked for a fairly big craft brewery selling beer to regional chain restaurants and grocery stores. It was a job that certainly had its perks (travel and free beer), but ultimately I got burnt out on those perks and the industry in general.
What first got you interested in programming?
It kind of happened by chance. I knew I was ready to find a new career path, and I loved the data analytics I did as part of my sales role. I started researching data analysis programs, and actually got rejected from the first one I applied to because I didn’t have any coding knowledge. So that sent me down the path of coding, and it wasn’t long before I realized that the combination of logic and creativity was a perfect fit for me.
How did you learn to code?
I went into the Thinkful Full Stack program with basically zero previous knowledge. I had never written a line of code until about a week before I started the bootcamp, and this program was great for that. It was remote and flexible, which worked perfectly with the fact that I wanted to keep my full-time job for the first half of the program.
I had an overall very positive experience with my program, but sometimes it did feel like the coursework was moving quickly and I had to work extra hard to grasp it. That was what I signed up for though, and should not have been surprised that a 6-month path to a new career requiring technical skill would be challenging. There were moments when I turned to outside sources like Wes Bos for clarification, or to better grasp a topic.
Did you ever consider doing a degree in Computer Science?
When I was in high school, I performed really well in math, and actually liked it. Unfortunately, I only ever got pointed towards being a math teacher or an accountant. I know the Computer Science field has historically been male and I’m not sure if that had anything to do with it, but either way, I went on to get my degree in Psychology. At age 31, when I decided to change careers, going back for a second degree that would take 2+ years and cost 40k did not feel like an option. If bootcamps didn’t exist, I might have chosen a different career path.
Can you talk us through getting your first job as a web developer?
I really focused on networking as a way to approach the job hunt process. I’m an extrovert, so this came a little more naturally to me than it might to others. Coming out of a bootcamp, you know that you are going to be in a sea of people with similar experience competing for a handful of junior roles, and I think making a personal connection can be what really sets you apart.
I did the normal stuff like go to events and meetups, but I also had a targetted approach. I would find companies I was interested in working at (whether they had a job opening or not), and I would pinpoint someone (via LinkedIn) on their team that I would try to convince to grab coffee with me.
I usually only applied to jobs where I had some sort of connection, otherwise I knew my resume was likely to get lost in the pile. I applied for about 10 jobs and interviewed for three before I got my job offer, and I consider myself very lucky for having those low numbers.
Ultimately, I was connected to my current boss through my Program Manager at Thinkful. She sent a quick message to the two of us on Slack and told my now-manager to keep an eye out for my application. That definitely helped me get into the first interview.
How would you encourage someone who thinks coding is too hard?
Oof. It is hard! I would say you just have to learn to embrace the challenges of coding. If you have a mindset of looking at it like finding creative ways to solve problems and enjoy being challenged, then you will be fine. You really just have to take it one step at a time. You’ll be surprised how fast something that seemed impossibly hard in the beginning becomes second nature.
Has your lack of Computer Science degree ever been brought up when looking for jobs?
Honestly, no. I was upfront about my education and going through a bootcamp without a CS degree, so it became a non-issue. If an employer was looking for someone with a CS degree, they would know quickly I was not that person and we wouldn’t waste anyone’s time.
I think there are a lot of positive qualities I could bring to a company because of my varied background, and I would make sure to highlight those in interviews. I am a big believer in being proud of your path and I never tried to hide the fact that I came from a bootcamp.
Can you tell us what a typical day for you looks like just now?
I go into the office every day, from about 8:30-5. My team does stand up every morning, which is a great way to touch base with the team and keep myself on track. After that, it’s usually a combination of heads down time and meetings. One of the things that surprised me the most was how little code I actually write (for now at least).
When I pick up a ticket, there is usually a fair amount of research in the codebase and online before I even start writing. Then there’s troubleshooting, getting my PR approved by teammates (usually after making some tweaks based on feedback), QA, product manager approval, and finally pushing the code to production.
Other times I am in meetings where design or architecture are being discussed, or our team is planning or reviewing sprints. I also have the support of my team to spend time learning the new languages we are working in, and try and spend some time every week focusing on that. The days are always varied, and I love that.
Do you have any tips for people that are looking for their first job in web development?
Make personal connections with people. The odds that your resume will make it to the stack of a huge pile of other junior developers are much higher if someone knows to look for your name.
Don’t eliminate yourself from a job because the list of skills or experience is intimidating. If the employer really wants someone with all that experience, they can tell you no, but oftentimes they’ll end up hiring someone based on other qualities.
I was hired for a job where I didn’t know any of the languages because the company understood that as a junior one of your best qualities is learning. Become a pro and relating the qualities listed on the job posting to experiences in your life.
Can you tell us about any side projects you have and plans for the future?
Right now my next big goal is to get a shadowing program going in Portland for aspiring junior developers. I asked for the opportunity to shadow when I was going through my bootcamp, and the experience I got from that was invaluable. I want to pay forward that experience, and give other juniors the same opportunities. I also have a stretch goal of speaking at a conference in 2020, but we shall see!