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Summer Rizzo
Summer Rizzo

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Summer to Summer: Making the conscious pivot to having job offers just shy of a year

Howdy, folks!

Last summer I committed to making a pivot in my career path from the film industry to software engineering. I received my first job offer a few weeks shy of the anniversary of that decision. I am but a single rat in the New York underground, but this is my story.

A Note on Privilege

** I added this after I first published this post. It's really something that should have been in the first edition and I apologize for that. **

It's imperative to recognize privilege, especially in situations that revolve around success in relation to candidacy. While I did put in a lot of hard work, there are a lot of aspects of my journey that worked in my favor.

Though I do have student loans from undergrad and now Flatiron, I was never at risk of severe financial danger. Some of that is because I worked and saved before attending. A lot of it is because if I were in a drastic situation, support is available from loved ones at an arm's reach.

Because I'm white, I'm on the receiving end of a lot of unconscious bias. This can play a part as early as the initial application and can carry through the duration of the interview process.

I'm able-bodied and remained physically healthy throughout the year. I do struggle with mental health issues, but they are manageable.

There are many deeper ways all of these aspects aided me along the way. I'm incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to pursue a new career path - that's not something everyone can do without giving up a lot more than I had to.

The Beginning

Programming wasn't completely foreign to me. I had two best friends growing up who were always interested in coding as I was likewise interested in photography and film. I stood on the sidelines through college, occasionally getting my paws wet, but never fully committing. In college, I took a few computer science courses, but I had my place and I had my life-long pursuit in visual media - considering a switch felt like an unsustainable love affair. I'm not sure how much I understood it at the time, but I had always viewed computer science as a boy's game; an unconsciously locked door I didn't realize I had the keys to.

During and after college, I got a taste of the film & media industry and it was bitter. My nagging dissonance got the best of me shortly after moving to New York in July of 2019. I didn't want to do it. Too many unpaid internships, too many long, grinding hours, too personal of a passion to turn into a career. I felt loss. I still had my best friends in software along with others, including my boyfriend, and over drinks one night we threw around the idea of software being path for me. It felt silly to have spent so much time and effort only to drop film and photography, but just considering it gave me a secure sense of hope, and it was enough.

I started teaching myself JavaScript and eventually applied to attend Flatiron School in Brooklyn through their Access Labs program. I prepared diligently, and it payed off - I began attending in early December of 2019.

The Bootcamp

When I first considered the pivot, I was close to adamant about not attending an immersive bootcamp. It smelled like a scam and I knew they were the target of a lot of criticism of experienced developers. However, though I was making progress on my own, I was working full-time and the progress wasn't fast enough. One of my regulars at the coffee shop I worked at, who co-founded a successful ed-tech start-up in the area, recommended Flatiron to me and connected me with an alumni. After getting some validation and learning more about their Access Labs program, I felt secure enough to commit to it.

It was a unique experience and I loved every second of it. I was lucky to have an incredible cohort by my side and equally incredible instructors. The community at Access Labs was supportive, strong and diverse. Perhaps it was the perfect storm, but I knew I had fallen into the right place.

I want to be clear about my experience there - it was a lot of work. I came in with a strong foundation in fundamentals thanks to my classes in college, which helped immensely. Determination and diligence drove my work and learning, and it showed. I'm lucky to have that kind of environment work for me and to have grasped the material as quickly as I did. The material comes fast and hard - and you have to be ready. Of course, there are doubts along the way - you have to account for some struggling. I had a fantastic support system at each step, which I'm also endlessly grateful for. I do think there are multiple outcomes to attending a bootcamp - it's possible to come out of it unprepared for a position, which is a valid criticism from several angles. There are a lot of contributing factors, some of which are in an attendee's control, some are in the institution, and some are in the community. I was fortunate for what I couldn't control, but I was also prepared for what I could.

I found myself as a software engineer at Flatiron. Unlike how I felt in film, I had confidence and I felt whole. Both situations had a foundation in passion, but this was a different kind. This was something I could do with fervor and it felt good. It was strange to feel this way after so many years of supposed certainty in my life path, but there was no mistaking the distinction.

The Job Search

This was what I had been eagerly awaiting for. I was ready. I was going to secure a job and I was going to do it with the same vigor that drove me at Flatiron. Pandemic be damned!

...and it was a sore reminder that I am by no means invincible. The search was quick to bruise me. It was hard. It was more difficult than all of the bootcamp combined. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do: networking, optimizing my resume with keywords, applying to many places every day. And to an extent, I was. But it still wasn't working.

The job search taught me that you can put in a lot of hard work and not get much out. You can do a lot of things for a long time but if it's off - even by just a few degrees - it may not work. I think this stumps a lot of people during their search; it's exhausting, emotionally taxing, and contradicts the world view many of us are taught that hard work pays off. It's easy to fall down and increasingly hard to get back up.

Days and weeks passed with little hope and little progress. Every so often, there'd come a code challenge or screening, enough fuel for the fire that only burned me in quick succession with a rejection.

I kept trying and I kept changing. I made tweaks to what I could control - changing little things about my cover letter, resume, or networking style - and eventually things started to work in harmony. Suddenly, I had several prospects in the pipeline. I continued to apply. Some prospects dropped quickly while others continued on; a consistent ebb and flow.

Eventually, I got to a point where I was deep in the phase of several technical interviews. For about 25 minutes of the half hour before my first one with a company that eventually gave me an offer, I cried from anxiety and insecurity. It was yet another hurdle to overcome, but I approached it similarly to my former challenges in the search - keep going and keep changing until I found what works for me. I studied algorithms and their approaches, did many mock interviews, and received a lot of advice. It was not without difficulty or anxiety, but it worked.

The Offers

One of my interview processes had finally come to a close and I received my first verbal offer. I won't forget that feeling; everything felt surreal and it felt like I had electricity running through my veins. Of course, it wasn't over at that point - there was another company I was in final rounds with that I wouldn't know the outcome of for several weeks. I accelerated that process with the recruiter while keeping my diligence in technical interview prep, taking other interviews along the way to be safe and sharp. It would be a difficult interview, but I made it through and came out with an offer from them, too. From here, I'll refer to the former company as "Co. A" and the latter as "Co. B"

I had a difficult decision to make, and I had to make it before I had even completed all of the rounds for Co. B, as I had a decision deadline. Co. A was across the country at a promising, well-funded healthcare startup in the Valley. It was exciting and my work would surely be exciting and impactful there. It was also a start-up, which often comes with risk and, from the information I could gather, there was little diversity for under-represented groups in the engineering department. On the other hand, Co. B was large tech firm in my current city, New York, and though my work might be as exciting and my career may go just as far, there was a risk of being stunted or leaving my passion and vigor at the door - or at least some of it.

I ended up going with Co. B for several reasons - it felt like a better fit and I felt like I would be better supported early in my career. I start in 10 days and I could not be more thrilled and proud of myself.

The Takeaways

I feel as though my few months of job search have aged me several years. It was a lot of things to juggle at once, sometimes with little space in between. I'll condense a few of my meatiest takeaways here:

  • The job search is unpleasant.

I was really, really excited for the job search portion of my journey. However, from preparing the resume, being active on LinkedIn, writing cover letters, technical interviewing and even negotiating offers - it was anything but fun. I had a lot of anxiety each step of the way and a lot of depression, too. It was exhausting for my mental health and it took a lot out of me. It's incredibly easy to tie your self worth to your career and how the job search is playing out. Putting myself up there to perform and be judged for my strength as a candidate was scary and hard, especially coming in from a non-traditional background early in my career.

There were a lot of things that I didn't realize would hollow me out as much as they did. Hours spent on code challenges and interviews only for feedback-less rejection. Hundreds of applications with no response at all. Moving through many stages only to be told they were looking for someone with more experience. It is an immense amount of work and investment with no guarantees.

  • Hard work only pays off if it's the right work and you're fortunate.

I'll re-iterate a point I made earlier in the post - you can do a lot of work for a long time, but it might be the wrong work. Likewise, I'd like to say that you can even do it all right and still face rejection each step of the way. There are a lot of factors and unfortunately luck is one of them.

  • Find your voice and stick to it.

It's hard to figure out what works for you. In my experience, it's incredibly nuanced. I believe I had the most success once I created a consistent, unique personal narrative in all presentations of myself - the introduction email, my portfolio website, my posts on LinkedIn, my resume, my blogs, and so on. I think this is what it means to have a "personal brand" (though I've always been averse to that idea, for some reason).

There are a few reasons why I think this yielded success. First, it's rare that another applicant will have your nuanced voice that you've developed and presented. By nature, this will make you stand out. Another factor that I think plays a part in this is the efficiency of presenting yourself. This is important to optimize because if an interviewer or hiring manager can suss out who you are and what you’re about in very little time, it's much easier for them to give you attention and retain it. If they have to try to mentally put the pieces together to create a perception of you (which may or may not be accurate), it’s gonna be easier and faster for them to look the other way or simply forget. Please keep in mind that I am not a hiring manager, nor have I ever formally interviewed someone for a position - this is just what I assume.

  • Remember your well-being - you have worth and you deserve happiness.

You are so much more than your candidacy for a position. Please don't forget that!

If you are asked to spend more than 2 hours on a take home challenge, especially in the early stages, ask about being compensated. I made that mistake several times. Your time is worth it. Don't work for free - it's emotionally taxing and in my experience, I only ever received automated rejections with no feedback from companies who asked me for them.

Ghosting and automated rejections are inevitable. Follow up if you can - people do get busy, and especially with an ongoing pandemic, it's hard to keep track of everything. But, try not to take it personally in any case. There are so many factors in why you may not make the grade. Sometimes it's because someone performed better than you or had more experience. Sometimes it's a more arbitrary reason. All you can do is ask for feedback and try to keep going.

If you feel beat down, take a break. I had a very bad stretch of weeks after a lot of automated rejections, ghosting, and the dreaded "we are only looking for people with experience right now." (big oof to that one). Sometimes I had to take a day in my jammies with 8+ hours of television and internet feeling sorry for myself in a black hole of depression. It happens. If support is an option - from loved ones, therapy or other job seekers - try to reach out to them during these times. You can talk to me even if you never have before. It helps. In any case, try your best to get back up, and try not to feel bad for feeling bad - the job search is hard and your exhaustion is valid.

The Resources

Here are a few resources I used to help me

This was of massive help to me. I don't think I would have been able to perform nearly as well as I did without his videos. I studied them every day many times over. They truly helped me understand certain approaches and how to identify problem types.

A free mock interviewing resource. It's bi-directional, so you interview someone as well. Practicing your communication skills in problem-solving is really important and this is a great tool for that.

I love, love, love this channel. A lot of the content surrounds creative coding, but Dan has some great algorithm-focused videos as well. He's enthusiastic and friendly and overall a joy to watch.

I joined this community a few months into my search and they were massively supportive. It's more of a social community than a professional networking one and I've gained some meaningful relationships there. For good measure, here is their statement on who is welcome to join:

You are welcome to join Women in Tech chat if you identify as a woman in any way that’s meaningful to you.

Good news - you're already here! I love this platform and community. It's a wonderful space to be in for any level of experience.

The End

Best of luck to anyone in the job search right now. I hope my story was in some way of aid to you.

With <3, happy coding!

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