How I Taught Myself to Code and Got a Job During Lockdown
I recently got a job as a software engineer at Accenture. Soon thereafter, I started to get questions from everyone about my journey – so I decided to write it down so people can benefit from my experience.
I want to inspire others to believe in themselves and continue their web development journeys. I hope my story gives them the inspiration to persist until they achieve their own dreams.
A quick note before I start: my success has been built on the many activities I did before the pandemic. I was trying to achieve my dream, but the pandemic actually made the process faster for me.
I say this, because without the pandemic, maybe it would have taken me longer to decide to move forward and feel prepared to take the next step in my career.
A little background about me and my passion for software development
I was born in Romania, and in High School I started to work as a journalist in Radio and TV for about 5 years.
After 2 years at University in Computer Science, I moved to Italy where I lived for 12 years. At first I worked as a translator, and then as a Web Developer and Designer. And I also worked as a journalist for a magazine for 5 years in my free time.
My teenage dream to move to the USA finally came true in 2013. Shortly after the move, I started to volunteer as a translator and IT Department. Then continued to work as a Web Developer and Designer for a company. I became a US citizen in 2018 and started my career as a Remote Freelancer Full Stack Developer.
This was the first step to getting more involved with women in coding events and meetups.
The School of Life
The world of software development, and technology in general, moves so fast. So it is not easy to be on the top unless you are willing to upskill all the time.
My biggest issue was my technical English proficiency, which made it difficult for me to explain what I needed to say during job interviews.
Even though I had studied some Computer Science at University, I decided to leave it behind and find my way in the world. I blamed myself for years for my decision to give up on my dream of graduating.
But looking back now I feel better, because I achieved much more than if I had only lived in one country. I had the opportunity to live in different places and change continents. Along with that, I had the opportunity to learn new languages. I enjoyed traveling the world, making new friends, pursuing different interesting jobs, and so on.
It was not easy, though – and many times I just wanted to give up on everything. It was challenging every day. I thought I would never make it, that I’d never be able to learn to speak any other language because in school I was so bad at learning foreign languages. But I did it.
My first experience with Web Development and Design
During my career I’ve held all sorts of IT positions and have had all kinds of roles from hardware to software, depending on what was available.
I discovered over the years that I most enjoyed Web Development and Design, a fact which weighed heavily in my final decision.
I got to get my hands dirty with Web Development and Design for the first time during my job in Italy.
The company had a monthly magazine that they printed out. I was able to transform it into a digital format and distribute it on the private area of the website that I created for their associates.
I was able to develop the website from a static 5 pages to a fully functional website with daily updates and a private area. I then continued by building a new website dedicated to the magazine itself.
I had to learn everything from scratch by googling when I needed to figure something out.
The American Dream come true
I also got involved updating the company’s brochures, posters, flyers, catalogs, logos (Adobe Creative Suite) and Adobe PDF forms.
After working with them for four years, I was looking to start my own business. I started reading books about Freelancing and found out more about it. I even joined the Union Freelancers in 2018 which offers services and consultancy to freelancers.
Building up a portfolio
Having prior experience helped me start Freelancing in late 2018 as a Web Developer and Designer.
It also made it easier for me to create my own website with a portfolio. There I display my professional projects that I worked on and the ones I studied from FreeCodeCamp, AlbanyCanCode, Hack Upstate/CareersInCode, and Practicum.
I really enjoyed being a freelancer. The only part I started to dislike was dealing with all the paperwork such as contracts, health insurance, taxes and so on – all things that used English that I wasn’t familiar with.
That’s when I started to think about applying for jobs at big companies again. I would have career growth opportunities, and I wouldn’t have to deal with stuff I don’t like such as bureaucracy forms and contracts.
My freeCodeCamp Experience
I’m a self-taught Web Developer and Designer, and in 2016 I started learning new coding languages like ES6, React, NodeJS on freeCodeCamp. I got four out of five certifications (now there are even more) and built most of the projects that come with the certifications, about 16 in total.
It took me about two years to go through the curriculum and build the projects. It was my foundation for my newly updated coding skills.
While going through the freeCodeCamp curriculum I was also working as a Web Developer and Designer as my full time job. But I was not always able to practice what I was learning in my daily work because I was using different programming languages and different environments.
My Experience with AlbanyCanCode and CareersInCode/HackUpstate
For graduation, we worked on two individual projects: a Trello board and a Good Reads app. We also worked on two team projects (a Graduate Portal and Data Visualization) using Agile/Scum methodology.
I also received an honorary diploma as a Full Stack Developer from CareersInCode. It’s a Hack Upstate Bootcamp where I helped students with Assignments and Capstone projects.
Next up: Practicum by Yandex
This year, due to the Coronavirus lockdown, I decided to accept an invitation form Women Who Code to become a beta-tester of the Practicum by Yandex platform. So I joined their Web Developer Professional Certificate Program.
To my surprise, I got overwhelmed by things I thought I was good at before, like CSS. It’s true – I never knew about things like BEM, which blew my mind and at a certain point got me confused. It was hard and frustrating.
Code reusability is the main focus of the Bootcamp. And the Practicum curriculum made me a better Developer and Designer by augmenting my knowledge with the latest accessibility and Web standards.
Practicum’s curriculum is specially designed that after you go through the mostly theory-based lectures, you’re dropped right into code-based challenges. This means that you have to find solutions that mirror real world experiences.
In addition to these challenges, the sprints also provided space for students to work on projects independently and as small groups.
The curriculum is geared toward helping you build your portfolio. You complete 15 projects by following the original mockup design files and adding functionality as instructed on each project.
You also collaborate through GitHub using a professional developer’s workflow which will help you in your future developer job.
The program was 10 months long, and the review process and projects were designed to give participants real world work experience. Its goal is to prepare you to be ready to join any company’s developer team at any time.
But it wasn’t easy. I felt like quitting every Sprint when I was working on the projects. I felt like I couldn’t make it to the end and I was so afraid of failing. I could’ve taken an academic leave to catch up, but I fought hard and stayed with my initial cohort.
Going through Practicum was an amazing experience. I learned so much in such a short time, and had the opportunity to put my skills to the test with sprints and bi-weekly projects. The experience is pretty tough, yet incredibly valuable.
Practicum also uses GitHub Pages to deploy the projects we created, which made it easier for me to display them publicly. This definitely helped me out, not only in showing my GitHub activity but also when displaying my final projects (which potential employers could see with just one click).
And Then the Coronavirus Pandemic Hit
I realized that I needed a career change once the lockdown happened. Many people lost jobs and we learned how painful change can be. So I decided that now was the time for a career change, and it was time to level up my skills.
We already knew before the pandemic hit that everyone had to go digital. An online presence is a must nowadays, and data and the cloud are the future (and the present).
The lockdown just made the transition happen more quickly. And I knew that I needed to skill up continuously to stay on top of things. I needed to adapt rapidly and forget the conventional way, to think outside the box, be creative and inventive.
Look at Amazon and Uber, to name a few – and how much disruption they have created to the conventional way of doing things. This is the right time to make your move. Everything is available at your fingertips. Put in the time and make sacrifices and it will pay off soon.
I was a freelancer before the pandemic hit. I was lucky enough to get my clients from contacts and companies I met at GDG Meetups and from AlbanyCanCode. My business started to grow and I felt really proud of it.
But then of course the pandemic changed everything. And I learned that we truly are in this together.
What I Did During Lockdown
That’s when I started to assess the situation. I decided to take the time to invest in myself. I used the lockdown to reflect on what I needed to do to build up my skills.
I needed to hold myself accountable and stay motivated. That’s where the developer community played a big role in my lockdown journey.
I was literally only sleeping 4-5 hours a night and took every course I could find online. These courses were usually paid courses, but during lockdown many course providers made their material free online.
Being a Google Developer Group Lead and Women Techmakers Ambassador for the Capital Region, I learned about training opportunities with Google and other important training providers. So I shared these opportunities with the Meetup community all over the world. This helped everyone do the same and we were skilling up together!
I organized lots of GDG Capital Region online events via Google Meet and YouTube
I started organizing a bunch of joint online events with world wide GDG Leads. These let attendees from all over the world get together and share our desire to learn.
We got awesome speakers from Google and elsewhere to join us and spread their knowledge with our always “hungry” community members. Sponsors offered amazing digital prizes that attendees gained tons of new skills.
We got to offer so many great perks, like:
- free Udemy and Pluralsight subscriptions
- free O’Reilly books and subscriptions
- ROI Training vouchers
- free Qwiklabs and other free Google Cloud resources for certifications
- Practicum scholarships for everyone, and some dedicated to veterans, the Black tech community
- DevelopHer program for Women in tech, and
- free online access to the whole Coursera library through a college.
It was a win-win situation for all of us!
I leveraged my online social networks, like LinkedIn and Twitter
By sharing all of these activities online I saw a large increase in activity on my social networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter. And I started getting the attention of the hiring managers who began contacting me (and still are) about available positions.
This made it easier for me to apply for more targeted jobs where I knew my resume would be considered and I’d be able to get job interviews due to the exposure.
Helping others has definitely helped me. I’m not a person who likes to post in social networks, but if I’m posting with purpose then I’m always willing to do it.
This not only helped me, but helped our community as well. When I saw the LinkedIn testimonials of our community members who were celebrating passing their Google Cloud Engineer Certifications with the free online resources we shared, I felt so happy for their achievements.
As you can see, I am very active in the online tech community and I love helping others succeed. I’m always trying to spread whatever opportunities are available online.
I try to help with coding questions, and give career advice when I can. Sometimes I get more questions than I can handle and I have to defer some of them. And sometimes I have to prioritize and choose what I can do. We all have only 24 hours in a day – but I am a person who doesn’t like to say NO and that makes it difficult for me.
So I started to make choices based on the time I have available to dedicate to the community. This has helped me avoid burnout and getting overly stressed out over my own deadlines.
I like to help everyone out, but at the same time I get stressed when I need to meet my own deadlines in a short period of time. I had to learn the hard way that I am a human and I can do so much. Now that I’ve learned this, I can still be an active volunteer in the community and beyond.
During the lockdown I was presented with another great opportunity. I got to participate in Google’s <Elevate> Community Training program. Elevate is a 3-month program that provides training in areas like leadership, communication, critical thinking, and teamwork.
The program provided resources and content to help participants add to their skillset with applied skills sessions/workshops to help them take their professional careers to the next level.
This helped me identify ways to customize my LinkedIn profile to filter my job search. This way potential employers would see in my profile that I was open only for remote positions.
It also helped me improve my interviewing skills and polish up my resume, cover letters, and job search approach in general.
I joined Google Cloud’s Learning Workshop
I also joined a Google Cloud Workshop for 9 weeks to get ready for my Cloud certification. I got all the material I needed to get ready for the exam. For our final project before graduation, we worked on teams to build a Google Cloud solution as a project. And I did it!
All these programs and curricula – FreeCodeCamp, Practicum, AlbanyCanCode, HackUpstate, GDG Meetups, Google training (and the list goes on) – played an integral role in getting me where I am today.
When is it the right time to apply for jobs and remote jobs in general?
This is the right moment for remote work – period! There are so many positions available that are not filled. The job market has changed and we need to adapt.
These sorts of changes have happened many times throughout history and our ability to change with them has played a big role in our success.
During my life, I’ve had dreams, big and small. I’ve always had a vision of everything in my mind and I write down my goals. I take action on those goals by completing small tasks and steps that help me accomplish my dreams.
But I’ve made a lot of sacrifices and it was not always easy. I always knew inside me that one day I would make it. If I find myself in a place or with people that are not what I was looking for, I just adjust my direction.
It’s just like walking in the woods with your compass – you take it out of your pocket to check it and adjust your trajectory every now and then so you arrive at your desired destination.
How to prepare for interviews
So how much you have to prepare before you start applying for jobs? Well, my answer is to just start applying right now. You will prepare for your job interviews by interviewing.
Nobody gets better at driving just by reading books and watching videos – you need to start to drive! It’s the same with interviewing. You need to start the process, first with companies that may not be your first choice, and then with those you’d love to work for.
This way you can test your skills and see how many calls you get back, how many interviews you get, and this will help you train for your dream job.
Keep in mind that you can also apply to your dream job company to get a feeling for their interview process. If you don’t get the offer the first time, you can prepare more thoroughly, level up your skills, and apply again later.
During the process, you’ll get to know more about the company and the people and if you would like to work with them.
There were companies that I interviewed with that were on my dream list – but after the interview process I was disappointed and decided I actually didn’t want to work with them. So I didn’t reapply.
Really, interviewing is like dating: you don’t want to spend 8 hours a day in a toxic place with toxic people who will only destroy your life. You need to work in a place you like with people that you will enjoy being around.
Interviews with large companies
It was my dream to work at a large company like Google, Facebook, or Amazon – that’s why I always applied to all of them. And I got to go through the job interview process, too.
I didn’t make it to the end of all of them, but I got experience with the big company’s interview processes. I got to test my resume to see if it passed the automatic scan process and reached a human. I also went through initial phone screens, and got to practice technical interviews (which were the scariest part for me).
And ultimately, I got to practice interviewing with those companies where I aspired to work. This prepared me for eventual success.
Instead of testing my resume with online tools, I got the real experience. I also crafted thank you letters when I didn’t get the job and sent them to the interviewers that took the time to train me for success.
Most importantly (and very fortunately), I didn’t have strict time constraints to find a job quickly so I didn’t have to accept any offer that came my way. I had the choice to choose what was best for me. I had been working as a freelancer since 2018 and I was always preparing to hit the jackpot.
My Journey to Accenture
I found out about a position at Accenture from AlbanyCanCode last year when I took a course at SUNY.
AlbanyCanCode was always by my side, helping me get clients when I started remote freelancing work as a Web Developer and Designer. I learned about the position right after our graduation last year, but after a few rounds of interviewing with Accenture unfortunately I didn’t make it.
This year, as usual, AlbanyCanCode continued forwarding me opportunities that were available. Well, I followed through, went through the interview process again, and here I am.
The Accenture interview process
The Accenture interview process, as you might suspect, was a very long one. It’s typical for large companies to take around 2-3 months to interview and find the right candidate.
You start with two HR interviews and tips to prepare for the technical interviews. The HR Managers and Recruiters are your biggest allies – and you should ask as many questions as you can so they can help you succeed.
Of course, you have to put in a ton of effort to get the role. For me, the Technical interviews were always the scariest part, and I used freeCodeCamp, Practicum, Hacker Rank, or Code Wars to prepare for the Algorithms and Data Structures parts.
Aside from actual interview prep, work on your portfolio projects and make sure you’re active on GitHub. The technical interviewers are going to look for those things, and you will get questions about them.
One of the technical interviews will be focused on your coding and analytical thinking skills, and the other will be more centered on your problem-solving and soft skills.
Life at Accenture after I got the job
So I got the job! And I recently joined Accenture as a Software Engineer. At the moment we are in training, and we started with Orientation in mid-September.
The second week we worked in teams on projects, learning the Accenture method of working and bringing value to clients.
After that, we started training on the project we are assigned to work on. Because Accenture works with clients such as Fortune 100 companies, Government agencies, and other high-profile clients, I can’t give you many details about my role. But I can give an idea of what is on my plate.
I will be working on a financial project for a 401K/retirement plan product, and I will be on the design team. Perhaps by the time I actually finish training and join my team I will be reassigned to a new project, who knows?
This is what I know I can expect at any moment while working with Accenture. I will not be bored, that’s for sure. Again, I just need to be able to embrace change and adapt quickly.
How and why I got the job
I think that the strongest contributing factor to getting hired was my persistence preparing every day to deliver the best I could offer. It was not easy, and it took a lot of time and effort to do that much preparation constantly.
Also helpful was my ability to communicate even though I have gaps in my English. My problem solving skills and my determination are certainly some of my most valuable skills. Being able to ask questions to get clarification was very helpful.
And being able to think outside the box, seeing things differently and from every perspective, definitely gave me an advantage.
Finally, my experience living in different countries allowed me to see and learn things that otherwise I would not have been able to do if I had lived in the same place all my life.
The fact that I believed in myself, I worked hard to skill up, and that I stayed motivated and persisted all paid off in the end.
The Benefits of Working Remotely
Even though I moved a lot and worked around the world, I reached a point in my life that remote work was a must to get more exposure.
I am married to an artist that uses aluminum for his creations. He needs big machinery to transform the aluminum in art. We had already moved once a few years ago for one of my previous jobs, and it was pretty tough to move those heavy tools.
Although I got an interview with Google in 2018 for a UX/UI position it required me to move to NYC – which was impossible.
But I also like my small town. I lived in Rome for 7 years, a real metropolis (which is pretty much like NYC as far as traffic and chaos goes). And now I find that I rather prefer and really enjoy my quiet life in New York state.
But what about going into the office? Well, I worked on premises and I liked the experience overall. I learned a lot from being around people, and I was able to ask questions and get my answers right away. And it would certainly be more difficult to create such an environment remotely.
On the other hand, working remotely as a freelancer and now for Accenture makes me more productive. I get to use the time I was spending driving to work or chatting with people around the company in a more productive way.
I also get the chance to disconnect from everything when I need it and just focus on my current project.
Luckily, this is easy in an environment like the one Accenture cultivates that is based on networking with more than half a million employees from around the world. If you need help with something you can just post a question on internal portals. You’ll find so many of your colleagues willing to help you, answering your questions as soon as they can.
Being able to work in my own environment not only makes me more productive but at the same time even more creative. Seeing the sun, the rain or the snow from my window without having to go outside when the weather is bad doesn’t have a price. I can also choose to work from my terrace in the backyard and enjoy the beautiful weather.
And by working remotely I get to spend more time with my husband and our pets. I get to continue to skill up by using Accenture’s training programs and technical books available on the Business English and on the Cloud.
So What’s Next?
My professional focus for next year will be on growing with my team and delivering valuable contributions to the projects I’m working on.
At Accenture there are a lot of opportunities for professional growth, and that is what I’m looking for. I’m working on my skills and looking forward to new adventures – but first I have to deliver trust, value, and credibility, and create roots in the company. Then I’ll just start to grow, like a tree.
I can tell that this has been a big change in my life – and it was my dream come true. I’m really excited about what the future holds.
At the same time there is a lot of learning I still have to do, and I have to live by the day and go one step at the time. My English is still in progress and I have to overcome my language gaps sometimes. Luckily working around people from all over the world makes it easier for me to learn and gain confidence.
Living my dream is a great motivator to keep getting better. I worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get here, and now I have to put in even more effort to keep going.
Happiness is not just reaching our goals but the journey to reach those goals. Getting the job I love makes me feel that it is not a job – it is my passion.
I am a dreamer, and that makes me want to grow in my career, get better at what I’m doing, and move forward. I like challenges and am looking forward to many more of them. I’m looking to grow every day and become a better version of me. This is just the beginning of a great story in my life!