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Amber Shand
Amber Shand

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Landing my first role as a self-taught developer

Originally posted on my blog

At the time of writing this, I’m working as a Junior Software Engineer at American Express, a content creator on Code Her Journey, which is a platform sharing the latest and greatest JavaScript challenges on Instagram and Twitter, and I’m also an instructor and ambassador for Code First Girls.

Although in the title of the blog I refer to myself as a self-taught developer, I’m definitely more of a community-taught developer. I’ve had so many amazing people and opportunities to support me on my journey in learning how to code and landing my first role and I probably couldn’t have done it without all the support!

So, what inspired me to learn more about tech?

It all started in 2018, I was doing a Mergers and Acquisitions internship in Madrid. I had big ambitions about working at the Big 4 (PwC, KPMG, EY, and Deloitte) once I had graduated but had an alarming wake-up call when my mentor told me that I’d have to do financial exams while working and if I didn’t pass, then I would be fired!

I had absolutely no idea, and to this day I’m so grateful that I sought out a mentor in the industry that helped me realise that this route definitely wasn’t for me.

I’m one who likes to plan and work towards goals, so I started to look into the effects of automation on jobs and the best skills to learn to be marketable in the future and that’s when I became interested in looking at a role in tech and possibly learning how to code.

Finding Code First Girls

I can’t remember for the life of me the story of how I found out about Code First Girls but knowing me, I would have typed something like ‘free coding courses london’ into Google – I’m so grateful to have found them!

This was back in 2018 when they had two levels – level one, which was their Introduction to Web Development course, and level two which was their Web Application course where we used Python 2 and worked with APIs.

Both courses were one evening a week for 8 weeks and at the time were done in person. During the Introduction to Web Development course, they covered HTML, CSS, UX design, jQuery, and Bootstrap. I really enjoyed the course, it was at PA Consulting in Victoria, the instructors were amazing and I felt so supported throughout.

After the course, I started looking into Front End internships and was shocked at how much they wanted us to know and mostly that job adverts for the roles required applicants to have a Computer Science degree.

Tech was a whole other ball game. To land finance roles, you didn’t have to say that you have a portfolio of balanced accounts to prove you can do the job. I figured I could do an introductory course and learn on the job, but boy was I wrong!

Nonetheless, I also went on to do their Web Application course and I found it so challenging. I was confused about working with Python and when doing extra coding outside of lessons, I wasn’t sure whether to do a Python 3 course or continue just learning Python 2.

I was overthinking a lot, but also asking a lot of questions but couldn’t really shake off that feeling of being stuck. By the seventh week, I was doubting that we would be able to build anything! It felt like a very overwhelming time, but again, I had great instructors, a great teammate who lived super close to me and we created a great app by the end of it!

Doing the courses helped me to stand out when applying for internships (even non-tech-related ones) – they seemed to be impressed that I was stepping out of my comfort zone by learning a new skill. I would say it definitely gave me a great foundation and instilled so much confidence in pursuing the brand new direction that I wanted to take in terms of my career.

Trying to find focus

This was the hardest part – because I genuinely didn’t know what I was interested in. When I went back to university in 2019 to complete my final year, I thought I would have all the time in the world to do my studies and coding at the same time but I simply didn’t.

At first, I went back to basics and decided to focus on HTML and CSS to build up some projects. This was back in September 2019 when I decided I would apply for Software Engineering and Product Management graduate schemes. When undertaking the application process, this is actually when I first came across coding tests – and quickly came to learn that HTML and CSS were not going to help me with that.

I was toggling with learning Python or JavaScript, and didn’t know which one to pick – my thoughts were that I could get up to grips with Python faster to at least past coding tests, but JavaScript seemed very in demand especially if I wanted to be a Web Developer.

During the application process, I went to my university careers centre to get my CV spruced up, and to understand what I really need to do to land my first role. Everyone said different things! Focus on Python, learn JavaScript, learn C#, do Java – it was too much while also juggling my final year so I decided to put a pause on coding and said I would possibly pick it up after graduating.

But of course, lockdown happened in 2020 – I focused on passing my exams (which were online) and figured this would be the perfect time to begin a new coding journey. I was still pretty confident with HTML, CSS, and a bit of JavaScript – so I decided to challenge myself by volunteering to teach the Introduction to Web Development course with Code First Girls in August 2020.

I was nervous about teaching and that I wouldn’t be able to answer questions, or what if I don’t explain things well – so I did what I do best: planned and practiced.

I was with 3 other instructors so organised time for us all to virtually meet and planned who would be teaching what. Thankfully, two were very well versed with JavaScript, so I was mainly focused on teaching HTML and CSS and because I wasn’t working at the time, I spent a fair bit of time doing research before teaching and practicing the slides beforehand. It went well and it was an amazing experience!

Funnily enough, it helped me to land a role as a Data Analyst in September 2020! I had experience with my degree working with Excel, R, and STATA at university and emphasised my willingness to learn during the interview for the role. That’s when I decided to focus on Python and I really enjoyed it!

However, I still knew that I wanted to be a Software Engineer – so I was looking into roles and landed a place on Sky’s Get into Tech scheme in January 2021.

The scheme was amazing – I joined because I needed a community again of like-minded women learning how to code. It’s a 14-week part-time course with the first week being the immersive week (Monday-Friday 9-5), then after that, it’s two evenings per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays).

I can genuinely say that I met the most amazing, hardworking, and inspiring women on the scheme. They have all gone on to achieve great things and it’s amazing seeing us all in tech. We were in it for the long run, we picked each other up when we were low, they have helped me through so much and I’ll always remember that.

Because we focused on Python, and the course accelerated my learning by so much, in April 2020, I was eager to start teaching with Code First Girls again!

I was accepted onto the Code First Girls Fellowship for 8 weeks. I’d highly recommend teaching if you have the time, it was so rewarding seeing the women succeed and also very validating when I was able to answer technical questions.

I was also attending codebar workshops, where they match you with a technical mentor and you can go through things together – so I used this to help with concepts I found confusing and Code Wars exercises.

Resources I used to learn how to code

My all-time favourite resource has to be Codecademy. I bought the pro version because the Python3 course isn’t available for free. I did a mixture of Python, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and React using Codecademy.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Andrei Naegoie’s Python Developer Zero to Mastery course.

Non-coding wise, I believe mentors are extremely helpful in learning more about the industry, the role you want to undertake, helping with technical challenges plus it’s great getting to learn more about them and how they landed their roles in tech too.

I’ve been part of several mentorship schemes such as Black Valley, Coding Black Females, and the Mentor Circle. I would highly recommend looking for a mentor through either a scheme dedicated to matching mentees to mentors or reaching out to people on LinkedIn.

The application process at American Express

The role was extremely competitive, with over 1,500 applicants. I found the role on the Coding Black Females job page and applied via email! This included my CV, and a personalised cover letter explaining why I was suitable for the role and why I wanted to work for American Express – they actually got back to me and said they closed applications to London cohort early but would still proceed with my application!

The next stage was a phone interview which was essentially me speaking about why tech, why American Express. Then it was a coding test – the test was straightforward and I completed it in Python.

After that, I had an hour-long interview with my Placement leader – it was super friendly and relaxed, she was absolutely amazing and it was genuinely just getting to know more about me. I was nervous beforehand, I figured it would be a super strict “tell me a time when” kind of vibe – but it was a fabulous experience.

The final stage was the assessment day – my interview was a getting to know me interview, the second was talking through my coding test answers and was more of a technical interview (again, nothing scary! Everyone was genuinely super friendly). Then the next day, I get a call saying I landed the role! I was buzzing.

My first three months in the role

The first week was more of an onboarding week at AMEX, plus a lot of mandatory training to do – the perks of working for a bank! Haha. Then we had a 5 week coding bootcamp where I was introduced to Java, Spring Boot, and a whole load of new technology I had never worked with.

The bootcamp was INTENSE – I did wish that I had done some Java beforehand because it was just a lot! I made sure to ask for help from the instructors, plus it was great pairing with others too – it made a huge difference. There were certainly a lot of ups and downs, I enjoyed working with APIs a lot in Java, but at some points, it literally felt like I was drowning and just didn’t know what to do.

I’m now in the Travel and Lifestyle Services team – which is a front-end team! I joined during the IP sprint (innovation and planning iteration), so it’s been the team working on a new feature for improving AMEX’s travel website, and also making new tickets to plan for what we’ll be working on in the upcoming months. It’s been great to pair programme and learn so much in such a short space of time!

My advice for aspiring developers

  1. Do research into the kind of job you want to pursue e.g. Web Development, Product Management, Backend Engineer, Data Anaysis etc
  2. Have a look into job adverts and look at what skills/languages they are looking for
  3. Join a course/community to learn that language and see whether you can see yourself doing it as a career
  4. Reach out to people who are in the career that you’re looking for
  5. Get yourself a mentor!
  6. Engage in a community (the communities I’m heavily involved in are Coding Black Females, Code First Girls and Black Valley)
  7. Start applying for roles even if you don’t feel ready – the feedback you get will be super helpful in landing your first role

Thank you for reading! I hope this can help someone looking for some guidance.

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