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Alumni Spotlight: Sandy Cao

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Rithm School

Oct 10, 2019

With a background in fine art, proudly toting her senior superlative of “Most Artistic”, Sandy Cao didn’t consider herself the typical candidate for a coding bootcamp. She hadn’t worked a full-time job in nearly 3 years (as a business analyst at a fintech startup in New Jersey) before joining us as a student at Rithm School. However, during her time with that job, she taught herself SQL and the thrill of completing code stuck with her. Sandy took some time to discuss her job search, her experience at Rithm, and her wisdom for other women looking to break into the tech scene.

What got you interested in coding and deciding to pursue a career as a Software Engineer?

As a former fine artist, urban planner, business analyst and marketer, I’m not the typical applicant for most software engineering roles.Basically, I fell into it, rather than feeling a strong pull towards it. I discovered software engineering as a career option when I became a business analyst at a fintech company. While working with developers on a product using JavaScript and .NET, I fell in love with both the logic and creativity of programming, and couldn’t wait to learn more.

Sandy Cao Headshot

It all started with teaching myself SQL. Our client, a large life insurance company, needed detailed reports from our database. At the time, none of the other analysts knew how to write queries beyond basic select statements. I could sense the bottleneck around waiting for a developer to assist us, so I went online and figured out the exact syntax we needed to deliver the information.It was a thrill to hit submit and see my 20+ line query return useful information. Soon, I became the go-to analyst for quick information retrieval.

Although I wanted to transition to an engineering role at the time, unfortunately my company did not have the resources to do so. But I didn’t give up. Determined to explore this new career path, I joined an online JavaScript class and poured through the course material everyday after work. I found myself entrenched in documentation online, taking extensive notes, and attending every meetup I could find. After months of self-studying, I wanted to support my growth so I decided to join a coding bootcamp.

Tell us about the environment and curriculum at Rithm School. What made it the right fit for you?

What really sold me on Rithm was attending one of the free evening classes. It was called “JavaScript, the Tricky Parts” and it was taught by Elie (who would later become my instructor and friend). In two hours he was able to teach me more than I could have taught myself in two months. I knew that I was making the right choice to go into a program that focused on small class sizes, where instructors can cold call on you when you’re starting to nod off. (Obviously that never happened to me).

Sandy Cao Whiteboard

Do you have a favorite learning memory from your time here?

My favorite learning memory was working on my first PR (pull request) during the company projects portion of the curriculum.My task was to integrate Slack with a student information system app built with Django. The app was being used by the bootcamp to track different cohorts and the lessons, exercises, and events that took place each day. Normally, instructors would have to manually copy over links to the lessons and exercises twice a day for the Slack channel. This was tedious, and oftentimes instructors would post the information too late for students to print out notes in time for class.

I started by researching how to make a SlackBot for the Slack group, and have a script from Django trigger it to write a post saying “hello world” in a particular channel. Afterwards, I researched different ways of scheduling tasks in Django. I was fortunate to have my instructor be a former Apple Engineer with decades of experience and also my instructorI learned about the various options with Joel (my instructor and tech lead), we chose to go with a custom management command that is triggered by a cronjob.This took me down an afternoon of studying how cronjobs work, and how I could set up the job in the production environment. I was captivated by everything I was learning, and with each new article I read, I came up with 3 more questions to ask.

When I saw the Slack messages get sent for the first time, I remember having a big grin across my face. Even though Python wasn’t my strongest language at the time, I enjoyed learning about how to solve problems with it. Learning a new language allows me to compare and contrast its advantages and disadvantages. Similarly, learning a new backend framework like Django allowed me to come to really appreciate the abstraction and OO design in highly opinionated frameworks. These are all concepts that I had no idea about just a week prior to pushing my feature into production. I felt proud that my work was actually helping people!

What company are you working at now, and what do you do there?

I’m currently working at Twitter on the Embed Web Client Team. We work on Twitter for websites! Here’s an example of an embedded Tweet.

Sandy Cao Twitter

Tell me about the process of briefly being unemployed while job searching, and how that process went.

My post-bootcamp process is a bit different than the normal “hit the ground running” approach. I knew I’d be mentally exhausted from my bootcamp journey so I scheduled a 2.5 week cross country roadtrip to help me give my brain a break. Originally, I thought I’d use the long hours on the road to study my flashcards, but I found it a lot more helpful to use that time to scream Taylor Swift for hours into the long open road.

Something that I did not account for which I think is very important to consider is giving yourself emotional space as well as mental space. To me, this looked like binging all three Seasons of Stranger Things in one week to really feel like I was scratching an itch I needed to be introverted and recharged.

After a full month off of coding, I finally hit the books again. And I will say, the secret to my success is physically going to the people and places where you study the best. For me, this was actually with Rithm 11 who was freshly out of the gates at Rithm. Their insatiable energy for doing leetcode problems and regular schedule of studying every day was helpful for me to have both enthusiasm and structure.

Most importantly, I wish someone normalized this for me – but there is no one right way to do the job-hunting process. Do whatever is right for you, and you are the only person who knows that.

As a woman, do you feel you have faced any adversity? Do you have any advice for other women looking to break into tech?

My advice? The only way I could have landed this engineering role at Twitter was because one year ago, I took a bet on myself. I decided to not put the fate of my career into the hands of employers who I’d hope would see my technical savviness. It was up to me to carve out that path for myself. It was scary as hell and I often doubted myself, but I am so glad I did it.

I think the single most damaging thing that a woman can face in tech (or in general) is disbelief. When the world doesn’t believe you can do it, it can be very hard to believe in yourself. I’ve been working in the tech industry on the business and marketing side for almost my entire professional career and it’s rare to see a woman engineer. Because of these unfortunate biases that we really don’t want to acknowledge exist, women who have an interest in technology can often get looked over for opportunities.

Something that helped me a lot through the process (because it will get lonely!) is reaching out to women who completed the same career-switch into engineering on Linkedin. Even though I was blasting out cold outreach DM’s to these ladies, the feedback was tremendous. In one week I was able to line up 6 different coffee/phone conversations. And out of that, I got the strong sense that it IS possible to be a woman, be a career changer, and get a job!

What advice do you have for people who are interested in attending a bootcamp?

“Jump and the net will appear” is a motto of mine that I’ve been following. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly helped me step outside of the analysis paralysis that has kept me ho-humming around the future of my career. I decided to aim for a reach-goal of mine, and just go for it.

Was attending a bootcamp the most logical next step to my career? No. Was it the safest financial gamble? No. Was it the absolute right choice for me because it was where I wanted to take my career? Hell yes.

Don’t worry, you’re going to be clueless about a lot of things. It’s normal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that even the most impossible challenges are “figureoutable”. Learning new languages and tackling problems, staying calm when I run into nasty bugs, and communicating to others when I need help. Oh and trust me, you’ll need help.

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