What I Built: Codesmith, career changes, and cracking the code to job happiness

This is the first in a series of stories about the amazing products Codesmith grads have built during their time in the Immersive Program or in their roles as Software Engineers. 

One of the beauties of software engineering is that it is always there. Whenever, wherever we want, we can sit at a keyboard and learn to code – more, better, or for the first time. You can’t be too old (or too young) – and while some of us take it up early, many others discover it later on in their professional lives.

Samantha Wessel found a joy for JavaScript as her third career, and she credits Codesmith with unlocking a new path for her. It’s a perfect case of “third time lucky,” as she puts it: after working in the entertainment industry, both as a producer and a lawyer, she is now a software engineer – and absolutely loves it.

“If I’m super stuck on a bug, and then I solve it…I just have to have a mini dance party in my chair, blasting Britney Spears or something,” admits a beaming Samantha. It’s an experience that many of us can relate to – one of the pure joys of the job, that hit of cracking the code.  And Samantha is hooked on it.

Now working as a Full Stack Engineer for National Public Radio (NPR), she still feels that buzz, perhaps more so than ever. “You get a real high, a real burst of adrenaline,” she says with infectious enthusiasm. Choices of celebratory singalong may vary with each bug she solves, but the feeling is the same. 

And it was Codesmith that gave her the bug for coding, and helped her solve the puzzle to her dream job. “The decision to go to Codesmith quite literally changed my life, all for the better,” she says. 

The Codesmith experience: “intense but rewarding” 

Samantha graduated from Codesmith in summer 2019, after completing the 12-week, Full-Time Immersive program in LA. “It was an intense but rewarding experience. I adored Codesmith, but it was probably even more challenging than law school,” she admits.

“What I really enjoyed about it was going down to the root of things, getting ‘under the hood’ of the code,” Samantha says – talking about the lectures and classes, which (along with building an Open Source Product in teams) serve up the main content on a Codesmith course. And there is a lot of it!

“It was a bit like a firehose of information being fired at you. You might feel like you aren’t understanding or absorbing any of it, but you’ll be surprised how much you’re taking in,” Samantha remembers. “It can feel like an overload, and my brain was definitely tired, but you’ll learn so much.”

However, she knew what she was signing up for, and that challenge was what she wanted.

“I really liked the idea that you had to have an existing foundation of knowledge to get in,” Samantha says – referring to Codesmith’s application process, which includes a technical programming challenge as part of your submission. “Lots of other coding schools seemed to just be pay-to-play, and you can get in at any level – but I wanted to enter a program that was more advanced,” she explains.

Having researched many options, Samantha chose Codesmith based on its positive reviews. She applied, obviously got in, and embarked on the next stage of her career-changing journey.

Product building: learning skills and finding thrills

Building an Open Source Product is a key element of any Codesmith program, and serves up both the biggest challenges and learnings for any Codesmith resident. You may feel slightly overwhelmed and “thrown in at the deep end," but you will learn incredibly quickly because of it.

“I was concerned I’d always feel lost at times, not really knowing what I was doing,” admits Samantha. “But they say ‘sit with the struggle’ – which I learned how to do at Codesmith – so I did, and the pieces would eventually come together. I’d think ‘yes, I’m starting to get this!’”

In one of the early team projects, Samantha’s cohort had to create a tool to show tourist information – such as opening hours, tickets prices, etc – for destinations which didn’t typically have this available online; a slightly more niche version of Google Maps, essentially. The team had to dig into an API to build that information out, and shape it so it displayed properly for users. 

“Was it the most beautiful thing? No. Did it work exactly how we anticipated? Absolutely not. But it was still super fun!” she remembers. “It was rewarding to see it come together and have a function in real life – and to feel like ‘oh, now I can see how this would work in the real world’”.

A particularly large and testing project saw four of Samantha’s cohort having to break things down into an agile workflow, splitting it into manageable chunks to delegate across the team. But Samantha’s Codesmith mentor provided support and a guiding hand to help them through it.

“Nick (my mentor) was really good at having the full picture of where we needed to go, and delegating tasks,” she explains. “So even when I felt lost, he would say ‘OK, well let’s try this now’. There was some panic at times, but it all came together in the end – and here we are!”

What you learn at Codesmith and why it matters

While product building makes up a large part of your time at Codesmith, it’s the learnings you take away from this that will define your time – and hopefully your career choices – afterwards. 

Whether it’s a new language, an engineering framework, or just a different way of doing things – it’s the acquisition of this knowledge that is the key outcome of any Immersive program. Or for some, it’s grasping how to acquire this knowledge going forward.

“I learned how to learn at Codesmith,” says Samantha. “Learning React there made it far easier to onboard AngularJS for my current job. It was like having a blueprint, and you build the new language on top of those foundations, making it far easier and quicker than the first time round”.

Samantha also learned SQL – which is part of her team’s tech stack, even though she doesn’t currently use it much in her front end-focused role – as well as Node and Express.js. NPR’s back end is actually in C#, but the languages she acquired at Codesmith have really helped her get a better grasp of it.

“There are enough similarities that I can basically read the code even though I can’t actually write it fluently just yet,” she says. “Codesmith and what I gained there gave me the building blocks to learn these new languages.”

Of course, there is more to being a good developer than technical wizardry. You can possess unrivaled fluency in a load of languages, but if you can’t use that in the workplace effectively – or communicate it clearly – then your potential is limited. As Samantha experienced in her Immersive program, Codesmith also helps you to hone these non-technical skills too. 

“I think there’s this idea out there that software engineers sit in a cubby with their headphones on and work alone in, like, a dark box all day,” she says, echoing a widely-held stereotype of us coders. “But actually, most of the time, there’s lots of teamwork and talking going on – like communicating goals, how we’re going to get there, collaborating amongst each other.”

Samantha says she learned how to “speak non-developer” at Codesmith too; to be the translator between tech and product people, and ensure she was using the right language – to be precise and accurate with other developers, but make sense of the code to those with less technical know-how.

“You get used to speaking this whole other language, but sometimes it’s super useful to get someone else’s perspective from outside of that,” she says. “That can make you think more about what the meaning of the code actually is, how it’s being used, and spot use cases you didn’t before.”

Meeting peers, mentors, and friends for life

Aside from acquiring skills – both technical and non-technical – Codesmith introduced Samantha to a whole new group of friends, mentors, and fellow coders who she is still fondly in touch with.

“Everyone was great at Codesmith. Our Lead Instructor was wonderful, patient, and kind. I’m very grateful to him, and our technical mentor too – who floated around the room, and gently guided us without pointing to the answer,” Samantha remembers. 

As all residents will find out in time, this approach to teaching is characteristic to Codesmith programs – proving both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

“They always said ‘sit with the struggle’” she says, reciting one of the Codesmith mottos once more. “The instructors won’t tell you the answer – which sounds terrible to start with, and I hated it at times” Samantha admits. “But in retrospect, it was really useful and helped us to learn how to find the answers for ourselves.”

Alongside learning from her helpful teachers and mentors, Samantha loved connecting with her Codesmith cohort. Here, she met a like-minded group of people who supported her through the experience, and made her smile too. Many have been trusted friends and advisors ever since, often sharing tips and tricks via WhatsApp, and meeting up for socials regularly.

“I felt like our cohort was really cohesive, and we all got along really well,” Samantha says with appreciation. “We had no disagreements, we bonded really quickly. I always felt supported by everyone and by the staff, we had such a great time. I found a community that not only helped me learn, but also to get through those bad days that we all have too!” she says honestly.

On one such ‘bad day’ – although it’s also one of her more amusing memories from her time at Codesmith – Samantha was introduced to the concept of ‘ghosts in the code’, which are not quite as sinister as they first sound.

“I got really stuck on a ‘no SQL’ problem, and I couldn’t work out why my query wasn’t returning anything. I was literally just copying and pasting it from that week’s lesson,” she explains. “My mentor suggested just restarting the server… and it worked! I learned that ‘ghosts’ can end up in the code, and you have to scare them away,” says the Software-Engineer-turned-Ghost-Buster.

But soon – as with all good things – Samantha’s language-learning, code-cracking, ghost-busting Codesmith experience had to come to an end. Graduating was only the first step to finding a fulfilling new career though, as she soon discovered once she entered the job market.

Life after Codesmith and finding your perfect job

Trading LA for Washington, DC after finishing Codesmith, Samantha started with NPR in March 2020 – and while the timing of that would turn out to be far from ideal (due to the onset of the global pandemic), her last two years have proved very eye-opening and fulfilling.

“I love my job, it’s the best one I’ve ever had,” she says. “I’m at NPR, where I wanted to work forever. It’s been a completely new career, and I’m earning more money than I ever have done before.” And while money may not be the ‘be all and end all,’ everyone always wants to have a job that is both enjoyable and well paid – a winning combo in the careers game.

Samantha was very set on what kind of job she wanted coming out of Codesmith, and wasn’t shy about choosing her dream job and aiming for that top prize. She realized this might make her search longer and harder, but thought that risk was worth it to land the ideal role.

“I didn’t want to go to a big tech company, that wasn’t something that I aspired to do,” Samantha says. “I’d also been in the entertainment industry, and didn’t have a good attachment to that time in my life. I wanted to be somewhere that I could make a difference and do something good.”

Having been a fan of NPR for over a decade, and applying for other jobs at the organization before (albeit pre-Codesmith, so non-engineering roles), Samantha got hired on her third bite at the apple – with her newfound software skills helping her achieve a lifetime career goal.

“It’s really nice to work for an organization that I feel passionate about, and was a fan of to start with,” she smiles. “I also feel passionate about our mission and serving the public. In this world of chaos, we’re doing our best to give the facts and make it a little less chaotic,” Samantha says.

However, it wasn’t completely plain sailing post-Codesmith. Samantha had lots of interviews, which required plenty of preparation, before she took the opportunity at NPR. But thankfully, as she found out, Codesmith also provides lifelong career support and advice to graduates on the job hunt.

“Codesmith was great about helping me prepare for the interviews. I’d go back maybe once, twice a week as my mentor was still there as an Engineering Fellow, so I’d talk to her and go through trickier questions that I might get asked – such as my algorithms, which are a weak point,” she says.

This was also a crucial point where her Codesmith cohort friends came in handy too, helping her to fill any knowledge gaps before interviews, and answer any particularly tricky queries she had – and anything she’d misremembered.

“I remember messaging someone saying ‘I forgot a basic JavaScript thing, can you help me!’” Samantha recollects. “It’s a real support network, and still a near-daily part of my life in many ways like that.” 

Samantha is happier than she’s ever been with her job, and credits Codesmith for encouraging her to find the impetus and gain the skills to attain it. 

“It’s great to see your work out there in the real world, being used by people,” she says with pride. “Sometimes an NPR presenter will have their screen up, and you’ll see Newsflex [the app Samantha works on] on there and think: ‘I built that, that’s cool!’” she beams. 

Samantha is especially proud of the strong values all 1,000+ NPR staff adhere to, and the way her work contributes to a wider context and mission at the organization – giving her a higher sense of purpose and fulfillment, one that she didn’t find in previous jobs before Codesmith.

“We’re working on things in Newsflex, contributing to larger diversity and inclusion initiatives within NPR, which is really fulfilling too. Is it going to solve all the problems in the world? No. But it’s a cool tool for people to have to work towards those goals, and it’s nice to be a part of that.”

And who doesn’t want to feel like their work is meaningful and makes a difference. Plus, as an NPR employee, Samantha also gets tickets for their supremely popular, star-studded Tiny Desk concert series – so what’s not to like?

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