March 20, 2020

Alumna Spotlight: Stacy Harrison, Tech Elevator

Stacy got her start in a variety of disciplines, from copywriting to marketing and design. While she loved the opportunity to keep learning new skills, she began to feel that her "jack-of-all-trades" background made it difficult to build a career she loved.

Intrigued by web development, she began taking free online courses and attended local tech events in Cleveland. Her newfound network ultimately gave her the push to pursue software engineering at Tech Elevator.

As Stacy explains: "By the time I considered attending Tech Elevator, I had built up a big supportive network of people to ask for help for that inevitable next time I would hit a coding wall."

We sat down with Stacy to learn more about her path to Tech Elevator, and her new role at CardinalCommerce.


Stacy, Tech Elevator Alumna

You came to Tech Elevator with extensive experience in marketing and design. Tell us about your previous roles.

I started my career as a graphic designer, working primarily in print. While working in a marketing department for a large company, I began transitioning more and more into digital design, and at the same time picked up marketing experience and refined my copywriting skills. I loved, and still love, learning a wide variety of skills to be the go-to person for the team. The trouble with knowing a little bit of everything meant that job hunting, especially as a designer, was difficult. Most places were hiring a digital designer or a print designer or a marketing associate, and weren't interested in one person who did a little bit of all that and more.

Frustrated with the job hunt, I realized freelancing would help me try out more roles and skills, and let me take control of my career. I worked with many women entrepreneurs for about a year and a half as a freelancer, which was a wonderful, yet challenging experience. It began stretching me a little too thin: freelancing is mentally trying, financially scary, and extremely isolating. So I considered my next steps, and chose to attend Tech Elevator for a well-rounded launch-pad to a programming career.

How did you get started in programming? What made you decide to pursue coding as a career?

In middle school, I used to play around with Photoshop (actually I used Paint Shop Pro) and building websites. Since then, I've been really comfortable with HTML and CSS. It wasn't until my early 20s when, dissatisfied at my day job, I would entertain the idea of becoming a front-end developer: blending together my design and existing HTML/CSS experience. But so much had changed in the web development landscape. I started teaching myself the modern techniques and tools with free online courses and resources. But every time I got frustrated, I had no one to ask for help. I would give up so quickly and not touch code for months at a time. Then, usually when I felt especially hopeless at work, I would pick it back up again until I hit another wall.

Around this time, I was starting to get more active in the tech community in Cleveland. I found that design events were isolating and felt like everyone had their guard up. At programming events, everyone was so welcoming and eagerly taught each other cool tips. It was night and day: design events felt stifling and foreign, while programming events felt fun and collaborative. I went to so many coding meetups, absorbing what everyone was saying even if I didn't understand anything. By the time I considered attending Tech Elevator, I had built up a big supportive network of people to ask for help for that inevitable next time I would hit a coding wall.

How did you decide to attend Tech Elevator? Considering you already had some Front-end experience under your belt, what were your goals for the program?

While I felt like I had a good foundation for front-end development (much of my freelance work included light web development projects), I didn't think I could actually go out and get a job doing it. I also really wanted to know more about the back-end, because it seemed like a whole different world. I didn't want to just get cornered into front-end development: if I was going to make this career change, I wanted to have as many opportunities available as possible. I also wanted to be able to work on my own side projects from front to back, which meant getting a good foundation for the back-end.

Looking at different bootcamps, what really stood out to me about Tech Elevator was how much they put their students first. All bootcamps say they care about their students' success, but at Tech Elevator I really believed it. As a marketer, it's easy to recognize different marketing tricks to get attention, and Tech Elevator wasn't playing games. They responded to feedback, they changed their approach to suit each individual student, and it was obvious they had built up a good team of staff to support each cohort.

Going into Tech Elevator, my goal was to learn as much as possible and network my way into a job. A couple weeks into Tech Elevator, though, I realized how much I needed Tech Elevator for so many other reasons. It gave me more confidence that I could ever dream of, as well as an extensive network of support.

For you, what were the pros and cons of attending a bootcamp?

Pros:

  • A bootcamp enabled myself to dedicate all of my attention to learning the how and why behind new and old concepts.
  • If/When I got stuck, I had several experienced teachers to ask for him, in addition to all my classmates.
  • It set a clear timeline and path to getting a good-paying job.
  • Career coaching and established connections with companies through bootcamp staff.
  • I had the emotional support of my boyfriend, friends, and family, who all understood the time and stress that would be demanded of me.

Cons:

  • It was a big risk to fire all my freelance clients and sign up for a loan.
Luckily, I had enough programming experience to know I would enjoy it, otherwise that would add to the risk of signing up for a bootcamp.

What was most helpful about the environment and teaching style at Tech Elevator?

What really wowed me was how quickly my instructor picked up on my preferred learning style. I think was within the first week, my instructor said off-hand that he knows when I ask for help I'm looking for a hint, not an answer. I didn't even realize that about myself, but it was completely true. He picked up on exactly what made me learn best and tailored his teaching approach for one-on-one instruction.

Another thing that impressed me was that the staff was constantly asking for feedback on how to improve for not only our cohort, but all future cohorts. Our feedback and suggestions weren't just going into a black void, they were immediately acted upon and acknowledged. When something wasn't working for me, I raised my voice and my concerns were addressed before the end of the day. That's rare.

Where are you working now? What is your day-to-day role like?

I'm currently working as a software developer at CardinalCommerce, a company owned by Visa that writes software to help process online credit card transactions and help reduce fraud. I work on a team of about a dozen people (a mix of front-end, back-end, and database developers, as well as product owners) that oversees about four or five software applications. While my role is considered front-end, it's a healthy mix of HTML, CSS, Javascript, and ASP .NET.

I'm working on one or two tasks at a time, and I get through two or three tasks per day depending on how quick they are. It can be something as simple as fixing colors to be more consistent with our branding, or figuring out why a form isn't submitting information to the database correctly. Whenever I'm stumped, I can ask anyone on my team for help and they'll drop whatever they're doing and pair program with me, which I really appreciate. At the end of every day, we have stand-ups as a team to talk about what we're working on and if we have any roadblocks in getting our tasks completed.

How did Tech Elevator prepare you for life as a Software Engineer?

Tech Elevator taught me the problem-solving skills that are required in working in code day-in and day-out. Understanding what's happening behind the scenes in code is critical, something I didn't realize I needed to know until I started at my current job. There are a million different ways to solve a problem, but it's key to know why your solution is working and how efficient it is. It also helps to understand the bigger picture when you're picking up new languages or tools.

Tech Elevator also helped me get comfortable asking for help. It doesn't help anyone to spin your wheels on a problem, when asking for help can lead to understanding the solution in a simple conversation.

What challenges did you overcome to get to where you are?

Honestly, my biggest challenge was getting extremely sick about two-thirds of the way through Tech Elevator. I daily battled dizziness, extreme fatigue, muscle weakness, and joint pain that started just before the interviewing stage of Tech Elevator, and has lasted since then. My instructor and the rest of the staff were extremely understanding and helped me take breaks as needed. I've also recently found a lot of people in tech living with a variety of chronic illnesses and chronic pain conditions.

What are your goals and plans for the next 5 years?

Because mentorship is so important to me, I'm excited to help mentor the next batch of junior developers at my job within the next five years. Outside of my job, I plan on speaking at more conferences (first one under my belt as of last week!) and organizing more events for a local meetup, Akron Women in Tech. I plan on staying active with Tech Elevator students and alum, though I feel like I can never fully pay back all that Tech Elevator has done for me!

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

Build up your skills starting right now! There are so many free resources online to get a good start, but it's a great way to make sure you like what you're doing. Get active in the community and find people you're comfortable asking to help you on your next side project. Volunteer your time to help non-profits with their websites. Start a side project and make sure you always have something you're working on that's just for you, not for money or a client or your boss, because it'll help keep the passion and curiosity alive. And before you start a bootcamp, know that it's intense for a reason: it's your launchpad into a great career, and hard work pays off.

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