Jessica Dyer’s journey from research scientist to software engineer

While working as a public health research scientist at the University of Washington, Jessica Dyer didn’t expect to fall in love with programming. But she did – fast – and it changed everything.

In this Q&A, learn how Jessica’s initial experimentation with the programming language R led her to pursue software engineering. And find out how her time in our Beginner Full-Time Coding Bootcamp helped her land her current role as a Software Engineer at LevelTen Energy, a renewable energy company based in Seattle.

What drew you to software engineering initially?

Like many bootcamp grads, I didn’t come from a tech background. I was a public health professional working in global health. Prior to transitioning into software engineering, I was working in research and doing a lot of data analysis. At the time, everyone I worked with used a programming language called Stata, which is statistical analysis software. I quickly noticed there were a lot of limitations to it. I wasn’t able to do basic things, like easily export the results of a table. I couldn’t really do anything in it very easily. That led me to want to learn R, which is a programming language primarily used for statistical data analysis. I took a 10-course series in data science on Coursera and I taught myself how to program.

It opened so many doors and it made my last job so much easier. I had no idea that I loved programming until doing that course. No one had ever introduced me to it. I thought it was this thing that I wouldn’t understand and couldn’t learn until I had this real-world scenario, where I was learning how to program. My boyfriend is a software engineer and he did a lot of helping along the way with concepts and things that I didn’t understand. It was really nice to have someone to get me unstuck when things felt impossible. I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing. I can’t believe I didn’t know any of this before!’

How did you go from there to enrolling in a coding bootcamp?

At that last job, I developed a system for managing electronic medical record data that we were using for analysis and I automated everything. Building that system helped me realize that I really love software engineering. The data analysis can be really fun, but it’s less concrete than building a product.

I really love building things. So, in June of 2021, I was trying to decide, ‘Do I go the data science route or do I go the engineering route?’ And ultimately, I decided on engineering. That’s when I started looking into bootcamps in earnest.

And how did you decide on this beginner program specifically?

This program actually didn’t exist when I was looking things up initially. I did a ton of research and I applied to a few different bootcamps. And originally, because the beginner program didn’t exist, I was on track to do the Hack Reactor intermediate program. I went through the prep for that. I got through the technical assessment, and did all the precourse work – and just when I was finishing that, the beginner program popped up and I had to make a decision last minute. I was scheduled to start the intermediate program in January, and I was making this decision in December.

The thing that really cinched the decision for me was the pace of the beginner program, because I have a lot of other hobbies. I’m a climber and mountaineer outside of programming, so I didn’t want to have to sacrifice every weekend, even though it’s only a short amount of time. And I was in a privileged situation where I had saved a bunch of money, and I have a partner who was able to support me for a longer amount of time. So I started the beginner program in February 2022.

What did you get out of your time in this beginner program?

I’ve actually thought about this a lot because you technically can learn all of this on your own. And I had done a lot of learning on my own, prior. But the thing that this bootcamp really gave me was the bigger picture and the ability to put it all together. The bootcamp has the curriculum to guide you through putting it all together into a web app. I had built a few small apps on my own, but none were as robust as the projects I built in the bootcamp.

The bootcamp was being guided toward: ‘This is how you build a modern web app. These are the steps.’ It was about building toward being more independent. I think that’s really the main thing: the curriculum was great and guided you to a bigger picture of software engineering and building web apps.

What’s your role at LevelTen Energy, and what kinds of projects are you working on?

We’re doing a lot of fun things. I’m on the Data Services team. We have a web app team that works on our web platform, but I think, mainly because of my background in research and data analysis, I ended up on the data services team, which is a perfect fit for me because I really love making data neat and tidy! Our team is in charge of our company’s analytics.

We have several analytics pipelines that we run on data that’s pulled from the web platform. Right now, we’re porting the old system into a more scalable tech stack using the Google Cloud platform and Apache Beam to parallelize everything. What that looks like in practice is looking at old code and reorganizing and rewriting it. The whole team is working on it. We’re a team of about six engineers.

It’s really fun. I’m loving it. I’m writing in Python, so it was really helpful to have some familiarity with Python already.

What do you like most about your role? And have you run into any challenges so far?

As a female in tech, I was really worried about finding a good team that I would feel supported within. Honestly, I was worried about being in a toxic environment. But I’ve ended up on a really supportive team, and I really like the collaborative spirit of my team.

Most people are from other engineering disciplines, so they come from electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or aerospace engineering. Everyone has a different outlook on things, so I’ve been able to learn a ton from everyone. In general, it’s not as stressful or scary as I thought it would be. It’s been really good.

I think the biggest challenge for me is code reviews, because in my old job as a research scientist, I was the only one on my team who knew how to program, and no one was reviewing my code. I was reviewing my own code, and no one cared what my code looked like. Having other people review my code was really intimidating at first, but it’s gotten better and I can now anticipate responses and know what changes need to happen right away versus later on.

Are there any aspects of your background as a research scientist that you’re able to use as a software engineer?

Yes, for sure. I think overall, though, just having a career prior has helped me a lot, because I’m not coming in as junior as somebody that’s just out of college. I have a decade of work experience. I know how to work with other people. I know how to work on a team. I know how to facilitate meetings and pick up on the subtleties of a team.

I worked in global health, so I was doing a lot of cross-cultural work for many years, working with people from cultures very different from my own. I think that’s helped me a lot in terms of being able to read the team and focus on things like communication and relationship building.

I would say this is such a big part of being a career changer. It’s all of the experience you have coming in that makes you a strong candidate. All of that experience is so beneficial.

How did your job search go after the bootcamp?

My job search was not very typical. As part of the bootcamp, we were required to do a few informational interviews, and I knew I really wanted to work in renewable energy. I have a friend who works at LevelTen on the finance side. I asked him to connect me with one of the engineers for one of those informational interviews. I just wanted to hear from a software engineer about what it’s like working in the renewable space.

So he connected me with somebody who was on the team I’m currently on, and I talked to him. I told him, ‘This is an informational interview. I just want to know the kinds of things you work on,’ and so forth. We talked for 20 minutes and at the end, he said, ‘Well, you seem like you’d be a really good fit for this team, so I’m going to pass you on to the hiring manager.’

It just so happened that they were undergoing a lot of hiring at that time, so I ended up talking to the hiring manager a few times, and what he ended up doing – since I had no actual engineering experience at that time – was to create an internship for me after the bootcamp. It was basically a trial run to see how things would go. He set that up and then I had a technical interview with a panel of four engineers. I passed all that and then came to work here as an intern at the end of July. After a month, they hired me full-time. Overall, it ended up being a relatively low-stress way to get my first job.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the bootcamp on day one?

It’s what you make it. The amount of effort you put in will be a direct reflection of what you get out of the program. You could do very little and you could get by and you could pass, but it won’t set you up for success.

I think one of the biggest things that I really fell back on was having a growth mindset and going into things with the mentality of being okay with being bad at them. That skill – being ok with being bad at things – takes a lot of practice, because people get really stressed and embarrassed when they don’t know something, and that leads to not asking questions and not digging in.

But, as an engineer, the whole job is to approach a problem that you know nothing about, break it down into smaller chunks, and solve each smaller chunk as it comes. So having a growth mindset is imperative to being successful in both a bootcamp and an engineering role. So I’d say, just be as curious as you can be and don’t let not knowing things get in the way.

And last, I’ll just say that I want so many more people to consider this as a career path. For somebody like me, I was always good at math, but I was in high school in the late nineties, and no one was pushing me towards a career in tech. Maybe if I had known in college, in the early aughts, I could have pursued software engineering, but I didn’t even know this was a thing.

I just want so many more people, especially women, and people who were never encouraged to pursue a STEM field role, to consider software engineering. Because it’s so much fun. You get to solve puzzles every day, and they pay you good money!

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Want to read another student’s story? Learn about Yuki Yamamoto’s move from the art world to becoming a Software Engineer at Tesla after the Intermediate Coding Bootcamp.

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