Karen Le is the subject of our Best Coding Bootcamps’ #EngineeringSuccess interview series focusing on recent coding bootcamp grads. This series provides an inside look at the bootcamp experience from the student perspective. At the time of our interview, Karen worked as a front end developer for The Winston Project, a higher education marketing agency based in New York City. \
Best Coding Bootcamps (BCB): Karen, this is exciting for us because you’re the first student in our interview series. Tell us a little about yourself.
Karen Le (KL): I’m currently the front end developer for The Winston Project. I recently graduated from Hunter College with a degree in biology. With a career switch in the past year, I'm mainly focused on coding. I recently graduated from the Grace Hopper [NYC] coding boot camp and now I code 24/7. Not because I have to, because -- I love it.
Best Coding Bootcamps: You went from biology to code? Quite a jump. How did you make the decision? Was there a key decision point, when you said “I want to attend the coding boot camp and sort of transition into something new?”
KL: So what was crazy was my sister, her boyfriend and I were all getting towards some medical fields. And, you know, like, the second we were stuck in quarantine, we just felt like we couldn't occupy ourselves with all this biology stuff and studying for class. And I guess the interest just really died out. And for me, I’m built on spontaneity. I love random ideas and just working towards it. So at one point, I was like, “what if I just made a pizza game?”
BCB: That’s great context. Walk us through a day in your life after being accepted.
KL: So once I was accepted, we had a short month for the freshmen/sophomore phase. And (These phases are broken up freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.)
The first month is you working by yourself and this is online instructions through the website and they have assignments for you to do, practice, and study and a ton of videos to watch. But when it was time for junior phase, all the students were in the class and we had Zoom every day from nine o'clock to six o'clock. So a typical morning would be “wake up at eight, have breakfast, get ready for the day” and at nine o'clock, you're immediately on Zoom. And at 9am, you're just learning all the code. And depending on the day, they would split us up into groups to work with partners. So I think that was a great experience. We did pair programming a lot.
Every day, we had different partners in our class that we got to meet and code with. It was good in the sense to learn from different people each day. After our morning session, we have a lunch break. There were team meetings, sometimes with fellows that were assigned to us, and they’d have a little icebreaker to the classmates. And after that we're back in class and then at 6pm, we finish for the day.
BCB: You were saying that, you know, you were really into coding and you code all the time. The class ends at six, but were you really done at six?
KL: [laughing] I guess that was one of the main points that the students found out during this boot camp was, you know, they say after six, we should rest. But we also have assignments. After six o'clock, sometimes we would even find ourselves coding until 12am and talking to each other on Slack. We know we have to do this project, we have to get it done. So coding never really stopped at six.
BCB: Can you talk a little bit about during your first month of solo coding? What was the feedback process? Did you feel there was a lot of hands-on feedback from the instructors?
KL: In terms of the first month - if I can remember correctly - we had checklists. We were given a set of lessons on this on their full stack web site. And each course had a checkpoint at the end, where it would be sort of an exam that I believe you do once or twice. In order to pass into the junior phase, you need to pass the majority of their freshmen/sophomore phase assessments. The good news is that there’s a fair amount of lenience in terms of how they would allow us to either retake or get into the junior phase if we failed only a certain number of exams.
BCB: What was a very unexpected benefit of attending Grace Hopper, and what was one of the unexpected challenges that took you by surprise?
KL: One of the unexpected challenges was that I discovered everybody had their own style of code. And I think this is when you start realizing what your style is through attending a coding bootcamp like Grace Hopper.
I noticed I had a problem that when I was stuck on a question, I would just sit there for hours trying to figure it out. But one of the instructors said “Log off for 10 minutes, play a video game, and then come back, and then you could, you could probably be better.”
And I've started doing that. Where I would just pause, take like a breather, and then come back. And then the solution would be more clear in my head.
In terms of the benefits that I got from Grace Hopper, I honestly loved the experience. I think when you first go into a bootcamp for coding, you're thinking “You know, I'm just going to learn basic code, HTML, and website development.” But after learning the process of coding through Grace Hopper, I feel like I understand how to approach solving different tasks in other, less obvious ways. For example, with AWS and cloud, there's a lot of similarities.. I feel like through going to Grace Hopper, it was easier for me to navigate different languages and learn different frameworks a lot faster.
BCB: Wait, what video games were you playing when you needed to distract yourself?
KL: Overwatch. Lots of Overwatch.
BCB: Are there people in your cohort who you would say were inspirations to you? What made you gravitate toward them?
KL: My favorite person is one who I'm still in contact with now -- she's actually doing an apprenticeship for a major tech company at the moment. Her name’s Dinalisse Felicione and so we call her, “DL.“
She was my pairing partner on the first day. And after that, we just clicked so much that we just kept contacting each other afterwards. She’s great -- she created a discord for the entire cohort. I really liked the interaction with my classmates, I think that was a big part of it.
BCB: You took a coding job after sort of completing the course. What was the application process like? Not only for The Winston Project, but also for other places you applied? What should other bootcamp grads expect?
KL: A lot of people in my cohort were nervous about the technical interviews that we were supposed to have. So I think a lot of us were trying to figure out whether we should do 100% job searching or whether we should work on coding projects, study algorithms, etc. But with the help of our career coaches - and I'll give a shout out to Betsy Miller - we got a better idea of what to focus on in terms of our own direction.
The majority of my classmates got a job and many of us didn’t even have to do a technical interview. We showed our fluency by preparing a side project. That means we were assigned a project involving the code base for the hiring company (I did this at The Winston Project), to assess whether we can get the hang of it. Continually practicing my code after graduating and building projects, as well as updating LinkedIn was how I sort of approached my search. That worked!
BCB: It’s really encouraging to see the combination of student and career coach drive you toward your first coding job. Grace Hopper is also a more unique experience because of their mission to provide a strong coding education to women specifically. Describe the camaraderie I would say that you felt, you know, working with an all-female cohort at Grace Hopper.
KL: You know, it was great working with an all-female cohort. We know we work in a field where more men take up more space than women do. In that vein, we did work a lot on camaraderie and just making sure that every person in your team is heard. It felt really nice and relatable to be with the group of capable female software engineers and we all just related in that way. Everybody seemed to have the same drive to give the tech field more female representation and it was just an incredible experience.
Karen Le is a front end developer living in New York City. You can check out what projects she’s working on in her portfolio.