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Amber shares with us her story of how she broke into tech coming from a non-technical background and how she’s using her time to encourage and empower more women into the field.

Hi Amber! Thanks for catching up with us and sharing your story to inspire others 😃 Take the floor and introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background?

Hey, thank you so much for having me! I’m Amber, a Junior Software Engineer at American Express, an Advisory Board member at GirlDreamer, and an Instructor & Ambassador with Code First Girls! Coming from a non-technical degree in Economics and Accounting, I am passionate about getting more women to learn how to code and to break into tech. 

 

Coming from a degree in economics and accounting, how did you first get interested in software development and learning the skill? ⚒️

I love this question – it all started in 2018 when I did 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 of manual jobs and the best skills to learn to be marketable in the future and that’s when I became interested at looking at a role in tech and possibly learning how to code. 

 

How did you first hear about Code First Girls? What courses did you do and how do you think they benefitted you starting your journey?

I don’t know for sure how I managed to find 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 where 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.

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. 

 

How did you initially decide what technologies to focus on learning? What do you want to learn next?

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 and 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 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). To my surprise, we focused on Python – I grew a lot of confidence with Python and was eager to start teaching with Code First Girls again! So I did their Fellowship in April 2020 and taught the Python course. 

 

What other online tools, either paid for or free, do you use to keep up with your knowledge?

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 how React using Codecademy. 

I also throughly enjoyed Andrei Naegoie’s Python Developer Zero to Mastery course. (https://www.udemy.com/course/complete-python-developer-zero-to-mastery/).

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. 

 

We have lots of users on Haystack looking for their first role in software development. Can you tell us what the process was like for landing your role at American Express?

Absolutely! 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 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. 

 

How has your first three months as a full-time software developer gone, has it been any different to how you first anticipated it?

So 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 only very recently joined, and I’ve been welcomed with open arms. 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! 

 

You get involved a lot outside of work in the community, including being an instructor yourself for Code Girls First and you’ve recently started a role as an advisory board member for GirlDreamer, could you tell us a bit about what they do as an organisation and your role there?

GirlDreamer is a non-profit organisation that supports the personal and professional development of young women of colour to tackle social inequality and pursue their dreams. Being an advisory board member, we are set with topics to discuss during the meeting based on a product (can’t say too much  👀) that GirlDreamer will be releasing soon! It’s been incredible connecting with the other women on the programme, and feeling like I’m making a positive impact on society! 

What advice would you give other young aspiring software developers who potentially don’t know where to start or if they should give it a go?

  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 and Code First Girls)
  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

 

What do you think companies, schools, or society, in general, should do to encourage more young people, particularly women into fields like software development?

I believe two of the greatest problems are the tech job applications (ridiculously challenging coding tests) and lack of training! Similar to what Sky and PA Consulting have been doing, they are providing free coding courses for women to learn how to code and offer guidance on how to apply for their graduate roles. Also, Code First Girls offer a Nanodegree – it has a Data stream and a Software Engineering stream, it’s a 16 week evening course (Monday-Thursday evenings)  where all positions on the course are sponsored by partner companies, several of whom are set to be offered jobs at the end of the course.

Software development can be seen as a “boys club”, especially with the gatekeeper tech bros on Twitter 😷. It’s important we introduce young girls and women to coding from a young age and show them that there’s women who look like them in the industry!

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