Since graduating in International Relations, Krista had been to many places abroad either studying, researching her thesis or teaching English to an immigrant community. With her interest in computers and being in the flow when facing problem-solving challenges, Krista realised how much she wanted to switch a career into the tech sector. This interview will give you some insight on how she prepared for job interviews, which strategies she used applying for Microsoft Leap Apprenticeship Program. Enjoy!

Please introduce yourself

Hi, I’m Krista! My pronouns are she/her, I currently live in the Greater Seattle Area, and right now I am a software engineering apprentice in the Microsoft Leap Apprenticeship Program. This program is part of a diversity hiring initiative to develop unconventional talent for success in the tech industry, so it aligns well with my more recent transition into the field.

In my current role, I work on a team of about 10 engineers building Azure Certificate Service. My project involves the design and development of an end-to-end cloud-based test platform that leverages Microsoft’s internal tools to actively monitor and generate telemetry for our service. I’m automating the deployment and release pipelines as well as porting existing runners and behavioral verification tests to run in a more modern, sustainable, and faster environment.

What was your background before learning to code?

I grew up in a big family, with 5 siblings who are my dear friends. I liked to read, draw, go camping, and eat lots of ice cream (and I still love all those things!) As kids, my parents moved us to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, which meant moving a lot! For middle school and high school, I had a fairly typical American experience in the Seattle area, and ended up at Pomona College in Southern California with no clue what to do with my life.

I have always had a “multipotentialite” tendency to pursue many interests. In college I studied International Relations and focused on European and Middle Eastern politics and languages. I studied abroad in Germany and Turkey, researched my thesis abroad, and taught English as a Fulbright scholar in an immigrant community in Berlin. When I returned to the Seattle area, I worked for a few years at an interior redesign company, and though I enjoyed the project-based work style and camaraderie of a small company, the seasonal shifts in hours and the lack of growth opportunities pushed me to look at other options.

What got you interested in coding and how did you learn?

I have always had an affinity for international travel and communities, and early on in my academic and professional career, that led me to focus on the study of international issues. However, most of the related jobs I found were beyond my experience and education level, or had vague responsibilities, or were short term fellowships. Eventually, I concluded that an important part of a job is not just the field or industry, but the actual tasks and day-to-day structure of work.

Throughout my experiences, I found great pleasure in using computers, technology, and the internet. I often spend hours using software to create digital art, and grew up adding scripts to my Tumblr blog to customize it to be just right. I remember that programming games in my introductory computer science course in college was the most fun I’d ever have doing homework. As a notorious procrastinator, coding was one place where the problems ignited such interest that I didn’t feel the need to put them off.

I was also lucky to grow up with a computer engineer in my own home: my dad learned to code in the 80s and always pushed us kids to write that first Hello World program. So with these experiences in mind, I realized that being able to enter a “flow state” and have creative, collaborative, and problem-solving aspects in my daily work was something that would motivate and fulfill me in my role.

On the practical side, once I started leaning towards making the switch to tech and researching my options, I realized that I wasn’t pivoting away from my dreams, but just approaching them from a different angle. Every organization in the world now needs to be able to use technology, so every non-profit, every government, and every business is adjacent to the “tech industry.” Going even further, I realized that a career in engineering can still take me to almost any city in the world that I want to live in, and that the more stable wage prospects would make it more accessible to me.

The majority of my learning happened at my 6 month web/mobile development bootcamp, Epicodus. I won’t discount the value of my college CS class or the self-teaching that I did leading up to the bootcamp, but having a cohort of fellow learners and a structured curriculum was ideal for me as I consumed an absurd amount of new information and created way too many GitHub repos to practice my skills. I would highly recommend a structured approach like this. I also considered university programs as an option, but couldn’t justify the cost after not making much of my Bachelor’s Degree in the first place.

How did you get your first job in tech?

My first job is actually this apprenticeship! Ultimately, I had to play to my strengths. I knew that academic writing is one thing that would make me stand out in a sea of bootcamp grads, so I took the application to Leap as a chance to showcase my thoughtfulness, communication skills, and well-rounded background because the program valued those things more than many other jobs. I wasn’t standing out for having the flashiest portfolio, or a name-brand internship, or technical wizardry. I wasn’t getting hired through referral programs. Getting my first role meant seriously maximizing the applications where I could have the highest impact and draw hiring manager attention as a culture fit.

It of course was critical to have experience as an intern post-bootcamp and a participant in a Co.Lab cohort. Although unpaid roles, I would not have qualified for Leap if I didn’t have at least 6 months of experience on other projects. Taking every opportunity that comes and creating opportunities that position you uniquely were strategies that helped me get that first job.

How did you prepare for an interview?

I committed to weekly mock interviews with my mentor to get up to speed on data structures, algorithms, and the theoretical concepts that are often present in interviews but overlooked at many bootcamps. I think we did interviews almost every week for 4 or 5 months, and it was definitely a big time commitment. I had gone back to my previous job while searching, and would take a day off for this interview session every week, and to continue building personal projects.

In preparation for these mocks, I took a Udemy course called JavaScript Algorithms and Data Structures masterclass. I was gifted the full Interview Cake course, and I used that as a guide for how to solve problems. Overstated though it may be, I bought Cracking the Coding Interview and read the early chapters on technical whiteboarding. I used multiple books like Grokking Algorithms and Head First Design Patterns, which do feel a bit dated, but helped when connecting to older interviewers that haven’t changed their approach in decades. I did use CodeSignal and LeetCode to do practice problems as well, but not every week.

What I did NOT do was learn new technologies. I think it would have been valuable to get some more cloud computing experience if I’d known I would end up applying for jobs in Azure, but I’m so glad I didn’t spread myself thin by trying to add Python or Ruby to my repertoire. I had already learned JS and C# (and knew a little Java) from my bootcamp, so it was really about practicing what I knew already in a simulated-pressure environment.

Any obstacles that you have to overcome in learning or getting a job in tech?

Between finishing my bootcamp and being accepted into Leap, I applied for a hundred plus jobs and didn’t get any interviews. This was discouraging and demotivating, which was a dangerous place for me to be when my success depended on being able to solidify my skills by putting them into practice. My lack of proven experience was the number one thing preventing me from getting interviews during this time, but I know that the competitiveness of the market during the first year of the pandemic was also a factor.

Fortunately, I specifically chose a bootcamp with a guaranteed internship experience. I cannot stress enough how valuable it was to get real experience on a real engineering team to increase the fruitfulness of the job search. Right after my bootcamp, I began work at a small remote startup called EchoEcho. It was tiny, which means no name recognition, but it also meant that my manager had more attention for me as one of very few employees. It also meant that I could ramp up on tasks, start making PRs right away, and ask for as many new projects as I wanted. My manager gave me a great balance of guidance and flexibility in building out our front-end application, and he ended up becoming a mentor throughout the job search.

We pooled our networks to reach out for as many coffee chats as I could schedule, and had weekly mock interviews that motivated me to stay on top of things. While I still wasn’t getting the chance to put those interview skills to the test in real interviews, I decided to add more experience and hopefully, a shipped product to my portfolio. I joined Co.Lab, a 5 week micro-bootcamp in its early stages, so that I could get back into a community that was lively and excited about code.

Tips for newbies?

Engineering is not UX. At bootcamp, you had to be your own PM and designer.

At Microsoft, and in many engineering-centric businesses, you have a pretty small slice of the pie to own. It can be more isolating or more engaging, depending on your needs and personality.

I would say that from the other side of the job hunt, people really do want roles and hires to be a good fit. There is a sense of desperation and willingness to take any job you can when it’s your first job in the new industry. There’s also a sense of excitement and joy about technology itself. I deeply relate to this, and understand that you don’t always have a choice to be picky when you need work, and that enthusiasm feels like it should be enough.

However, use this knowledge to your advantage. If someone sees you as a calm, confident, and competent individual on a personal level, they will do a lot to help you in your career. Enthusiasm doesn’t always convey the reliability and soft skills needed to be successful. Conversely, it is rare that your interests would be absolutely perfectly aligned to a role, so being able to relate to a team/interviewer without minimizing your real personality and interests is a very useful tool.

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