Alumni Stories

Flatiron Alum Jennifer Sardina On Tying the Knot with a Tech Career

Flatiron School / 30 June 2016
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This post originally appeared on Course Report.

Jennifer Sardina had a lot of interesting jobs, as a foreign language teacher, a chemistry lab technician, a health coach, and a full-time mom. But she wanted a career. She had never been interested in computers before, but when her brother gave her a programming book, she couldn’t put it down. Jennifer enrolled in Flatiron School’s Web Development program and is now a software engineer at XO Group for TheKnot.com. Jennifer tells us why she chose Flatiron School, how she juggled working full time with motherhood, and all about her exciting job.

What is your education background? Your last career path?

It’s ironic that I ended up in this field because I always knew I liked working with people and communications, but I did not want to work with computers.

I originally attended Stony Brook University to study chemical and tissue engineering. But as an animal rights advocate and a vegan, I decided I didn’t want to dissect animals, so I switched to literature. I studied Italian language and literature then went to Italy for some time. I came back and started working as a Spanish and Italian teacher, then became a health coach and worked as a chemistry lab technician. I had a lot of different jobs but I didn’t have a career.

So how did you get interested in programming?

My last job as a health coach was at a startup, and my job was mostly community outreach and working with patients. But I wore many hats, and often collaborated with a research team to track data. They were using excel spreadsheets, but it was frustrating because they didn’t have a real database. I would vent to my brother (a Flatiron School grad) and he suggested I might enjoy programming, because I’d be able to solve these problems with code. He shared Chris Pine’s book Learn to Program with me, which I secretly started reading and fell in love with. I quit my job a couple months later to go to Flatiron School full-time. It was the best decision of my life.

Did you consider teaching yourself?

No I didn’t. I was having a lot of “aha” moments and it felt like I was playing games all day. At the same time, I was working full-time, and I’m a full-time mom and wife. I felt like if I wanted to focus on it enough to actually become a programmer, I needed to devote 100% of my time to it. Otherwise, I was afraid it would just become a hobby.

Did you look at other coding bootcamps in NYC or just Flatiron School?

I did look at General Assembly and App Academy. App Academy sounded interesting because I wouldn’t have to pay upfront—they offer deferred tuition. But my brother interviewed with them and didn’t like the experience. I went to an open house at GA and heard alumni talking about their experiences, but it wasn’t as convincing as Flatiron School to me. My brother already went to Flatiron School and he loved it. So I applied, really liked the interviews, and I felt this positivity and excitement for code and that was really nice.

What was the Flatiron School application and interview process like for you?

I submitted the application, and I had a phone screening with a woman from the Admissions team. She looked like me, and she seemed interested in me, my experience, and why I got into programming. The human connection was a great first start.

After that, there was a code challenge. Flatiron School wasn’t looking for an answer; they were looking at my thought process and my ability to explain it. I liked the questions during the technical interview with Avi Flombaum. He didn’t just say “oh, this is working”; instead he asked me how I arrived at this answer, why this is important, and made me think about my implementation. Avi is also someone who naturally smiles, which made me comfortable.

How did you pay for Flatiron School?

I’m the sole provider in my household, so you can imagine that quitting my job completely and paying $15,000 upfront was impossible for me. Flatiron School offers a $1000 scholarship for women and minorities. I am a black, Hispanic, and a mom, so I did get some help there. After the two scholarships, I ended up paying $13,000 in total. My brother also helped me out, which was really nice of him, so I could focus on the bootcamp. Flatiron School does also offer financing options.

Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?

There were 18 to 20 people in the class, with a good number of women and different age ranges. There were other moms, there was one other Hispanic person, and one black person in the iOS class. And there was one instructor who looked like me.

Who were your instructors and how did they support your learning?

The main instructors were Ian, Rose, and Amanda initially, but then Amanda transferred to the other incoming class. They were awesome. I would bother them all the time and they were naturally so patient, and didn’t mind repeating the same thing over and over again with the same tone. They seemed like they were always having fun.

What was the learning experience like at Flatiron School?

Every day was different, but every morning you understood exactly what was going on. Our long list of tasks would be online already on the Learn platform. The intention for students is to never really be “finished” with the tasks; we always had to reach for more. First, we would do the Problem of the Day. Then we did group or solo activities, but we’re always encouraged to talk to other people at our table, and have study groups, so we could talk through the problem. One thing Flatiron School emphasized is explaining your thought process to others. And we did a lot of whiteboarding—every table was a dry erase surface, so you could draw out problems on the table. There were also two hours per day of lectures, and a lot of homework to do outside of class.

I was in the Flatiron classroom from 9am until 6pm, then I would run home to a three-year-old every evening. Some people stayed really late, and every morning people were there already. I think some people stayed overnight because they were open 24 hours a day—though I think that’s mainly because they were so enthralled with what they were learning.

What was your favorite project? Did you get to use your own ideas?

My favorite project was our final project, which was a heatmap of ethnic food in New York. I worked with two classmates, Jason and Jeremy. If a user searches for Indian food, they’ll get a heat map showing where in NYC the most Indian restaurants are. I thought that was really fun, partly because it was a single page app—we used Rails, and we practiced a lot of Ajax which was really cool because we hadn’t had much experience with that. We also got to use the Google Maps API and the Foursquare API. That project was a good combo of back end and front end work in a very short period of time.

How did Flatiron School prepare you for finding a job after you graduated?

Flatiron School definitely helped me make connections, and I met my current supervisor at the Flatiron Science Fair. They gave me confidence in talking about my technical background, which at that point was very limited. We focused a lot on our elevator pitch and finding the right words when presenting yourself to a potential employer. I tend to talk a lot, and it was good to learn how to choose specific words and stick to a one-minute pitch. Lastly, when it came to job offers, I had two job offers at once, and they were very supportive in helping me choose the right job for me.

Which job offer did you take? Where are you working now?

I ended up taking the second job offer because I really wanted to work at XO Group. I started as an associate software engineer at XO Group on June 1, 2015, about four weeks after I graduated from Flatiron School. The other initial offer was from a nonprofit organization with interesting problems and technologies, but I didn’t see any women! It was all men dressed in suits and very quiet. When I got the XO Group offer, the atmosphere at the office helped me make my decision.

Tell us about XO Group—where have we seen your work around the internet?

XO Group runs the websites The Knot, The Bump, and The Nest. We support couples through their most important life changes. When you’re getting married you can create a wedding website, registries, and manage your guest list on The Knot. You can use The Bump when you’re pregnant and about to start a family, and then use The Nest when you’re raising kids. I work specifically for The Knot in the wedding websites guest services team, maintaining the wedding websites and guests manager.

What does your day-to-day look like as a web developer?

At 10am we have standups, where everyone updates their team on what they are working on, if they have any blockers, and generally maintains situational awareness. Then we get started on work. Sometimes I work solo on stories or chores, sometimes I pair with other developers. For the first few months, I was the only full-time developer on my team, but it was great because I got to learn a lot. Now the team is growing and there’s a lot of room for pairing and learning.

We also have time to review code requests, when someone else looks at your code and gives you feedback, which is another great opportunity to learn. My team is 4 or 5 people including myself, and we’re all actively working on the same products.

Are you still using Ruby on Rails? How are you keeping up to date with new tech?

I do use Ruby on Rails, and we are also using Backbone, JavaScript, Marionette, and CoffeeScript. XO also has hackathons where you get to experiment with other technologies. I recently looked at Meteor JS with the React components and MongoDB. We also have 10% every Friday, which is where you work on product features until 1pm, then after that you can work on anything you want to work on, which is a good opportunity to learn new technologies and present your learnings to other members of the team. For example, I’m interested in graph databases, so I used one Friday to learn Neo4j.

I feel like Flatiron School equipped me with a good foundation in programming with specific tools, languages and frameworks. I do sometimes think about getting a CS degree when my daughters are a little older, to learn more about big architectural problems and algorithms.

When you started at Flatiron School, did you know that your goal after graduating was to get a job as a junior developer?

I did want to get a job as a developer because I wanted to be able to focus on programming full-time. When I started at Flatiron, I didn’t know what kind of company I wanted to work for. I was just leaving a nonprofit organization with a very small team of just five women. I thought about working for a small startup, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to have a life. I didn’t know I wanted to work for a large company until I went to XO and fell in love with it. The people are just so happy all the time.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your new job as a developer?

My biggest challenge is communicating technical thoughts confidently. Sometimes I feel like I know exactly what I’m talking about and I know it’s the correct answer or best implementation, but sounding confident and representing myself in the technical world has been a challenge. To combat this, I’ve tried writing blog posts and doing presentations. I challenge myself to do presentations at work, I presented at the NYCRB, and at the NYC Camp last year at the UN. Those things are helping, but it’s still a big challenge getting beyond that point.

What advice do you have for people making a career change after bootcamp?

My older brother once told me that if you want to find your dream job, find the job you would do for free. Before making a decision, make sure that programming is something you would do for free. I thought that was beautiful advice.

Programming is a field where you don’t stop learning. If you want to be competitive, you have to read every day and learn new technologies and continue developing. Don’t pay attention to how other people are doing, just look at the progress you’ve made as an individual. The marathon is not against other people but against yourself.


 

Ready to begin your own journey to a career in tech? Head to Learn.co to get started with our free Intro to Programming track.

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