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An Engineer’s Advice for Success and Fulfillment in Tech

Brikend Behrami
Brikend Behrami
Published: Jun. 24, 2020

Shortly after completing a web development bootcamp in New York, I was thrilled to learn that I’d received an offer to join Simulmedia full-time as a software engineer. I felt a sense of achievement knowing that the long and grueling months spent studying various programming languages and their respective frameworks had paid off. I felt a sense of relief knowing that I didn’t have to spend seemingly endless weeks studying for assessments anymore. Perhaps most of all, I was excited to take the next step and actually use the skills I’d learned – this time as a working professional rather than a student.

Yet, as I’d soon come to realize, those two aren’t mutually exclusive. The nature of software engineering indeed proves otherwise; in such a massive and quickly evolving industry, you never really stop studying. You never really stop being a student. And it’s one of the reasons why my passion for the field only grows. Finishing school and beginning work as an engineer didn’t mean the days of research and studying had come to an end. It meant that they had just begun.

My first week at Simulmedia was a busy one. Day one began with meetings with various departments within the company to get an understanding of how Simulmedia manages targeted TV advertising, which was quickly followed by a demonstration of what my day-to-day would look like. By the second day, I had already pushed code to production – adding pagination to a list component in one of our Ember UIs.

Surely, coding in an entirely new tech stack in an industry unfamiliar to me would be enough to keep me busy. But there was more: “I want to organize another hackathon,” my manager said to me on my third day. We were headed back to the office from a one-on-one meeting over lunch. “We’ve had several hackathons in the past; they’re a chance to show off your skills as an engineer - some hackathon projects even become part of our tech stack.” The fast-paced environment typical to startups like Simulmedia was made apparent, and I realized how much I had to learn.

As the first engineering hire at Simulmedia without a traditional computer science degree, I wondered how my abilities to pick up the job quickly and contribute might be perceived. The freedom and, as a result, ambiguity associated with the hackathon made me weary about if I could successfully participate; I wondered if everything I’d done to prepare myself was enough - not just enough to participate in Simulmedia’s fast paced startup culture, but enough to actively contribute to it.

We’d been warned about imposter syndrome - it’s the fear of incompetence, rooted in the lack of significant real-world experience that comes with acquiring a new skill. It’s a bit more prevalent among us bootcampers, particularly because most of us don’t have a typical four-year computer science degree, which is still considered by many to be the absolute minimum in terms of required experience. To add fuel to the fire, the coding bootcamp itself is a relatively new concept - the first bootcamps were founded in 2011, and graduates of these programs still comprise just a small fraction of the larger pool of engineers. Some more traditional companies continue to prefer engineers with conventional backgrounds, and a few don’t consider bootcamp graduates at all.

However, their popularity continues to increase. The relatively short-term curriculum and tuition model has both been a magnet to students and has inspired other educators to follow suit. Since the first few bootcamps, dozens more have opened their doors to students. More recently, traditional educational institutions such as Ivy League universities have opened their very own bootcamps in an effort to capture a share of the market. In fact, the demand for software engineers is projected to increase 21% by 2028, whereas other industries are projected to increase at only 5%.

Yet the overwhelming demand for engineers is not the only reason bootcamps have been largely successful in recent years. Many of the students who graduate from these programs are skilled and prepared enough to meet job requirements and hit the ground running - and Simulmedia isn’t the only company seeking us out. Apple, Google, Facebook and others have removed bachelor’s degrees in computer science from their application requirements altogether. In fact, here at Simulmedia, almost all of our new engineering hires are now from coding bootcamps.

This is partly due to the intensity of their programs, and the valuable skills that engineers pick up as they progress through the programs. Despite the lack of forced physical activity, using the term ‘bootcamp’ to describe them is no dramatization. App Academy, like others, is extremely rigorous (students at App Academy who fail more than one of the weekly assessments are asked to leave the program.) And it’s incredibly fast-paced.

The 12-week curriculum begins with programming language fundamentals in Ruby but escalates very quickly. By the end of day one, students have begun to practice writing algorithms and by the end of the week are taught more advanced concepts like Big-O notation, recursion, object-oriented programming (OOP), and relational database architecture.

The first half of the curriculum culminates in building a reddit-like blog app using Ruby on Rails, and the second half immediately begins with Javascript fundamentals. Ultimately, students are expected to build a fully functional web app - such as Facebook, Instagram, or Robinhood (my personal choice) - using everything learned in the curriculum: Ruby on Rails as the backend and a React frontend, with Redux as the state manager. Essentially, we were provided the tools to think for ourselves, react on our feet, then prove what we know through frameworks and projects.

Within a matter of months, participants go from knowing little to nothing about web development, to building a full-stack web application from scratch. Ironically, I actually found this fact to be a source of self doubt, fueling sentiments related to the imposter syndrome mentioned earlier. How could I possibly perform successfully as an engineer, I thought at times, when just months prior I knew close to nothing about software development? Well, the first step was to stop thinking that way. Reframing my point of view on the situation, it turns out, was half the battle. Rather than focusing on what I didn’t know before, and discrediting myself because of it, I focused on how much I had learned in those short months and let this anchor my thoughts whenever feelings of uncertainty resurfaced. If anything, being able to learn such a vast amount of material in a relatively short amount of time serves as a testament to my abilities - and how much I could contribute to Simulmedia in a similar amount of time.

A Word of Advice for Fellow Bootcamp Graduates

1. Embrace your diversity

As bootcamp graduates, perhaps our strongest advantage is our diversity – in all senses of the word. The tech industry in its current form significantly lacks racial and gender diversity, but this is beginning to change. As we continue to enter the workforce en masse, and as experienced bootcampers continue to move up in their positions, we are beginning to quite literally change the face of the tech industry. As an example, nearly 35% of bootcampers are women, compared to only 19% in traditional undergraduate computer science degrees. We’re also diverse from a professional perspective. The engineer that sits to my left at our NYC office, a fellow bootcamp graduate, was once a drummer. The engineer across from me comes from a background in law, while I myself come from a background in finance. This is all to say that you can - and should - bring your diverse set of skills to the workplace so that they may benefit you. Don’t let your background make you feel illegitimate or incompetent. Know that with diversity comes a list of advantages and talents that you can tap into to propel yourself forward. You’ll find that not only is your diversity beneficial to you personally, but your team as well.

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

“Normal people believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet.” -Scott Adams

As engineers, it is our nature to be curious, inquisitive, and eager to build. Sometimes, a little too eager; it’s natural that there will be bugs and errors along the way. Don’t be discouraged by this; there is no shame in overcoming hurdles. Instead, see it as part of becoming a better engineer. The best of the best will err, and you are no exception. If you expect to grow as an engineer without making mistakes along the way, you will quickly be humbled. Understand that pride is not the remedy for shame, it is its source. It is with humbleness and humility that one overcomes the shame (wrongly) associated with ignorance. Look at uncertainty or lack of knowledge on a subject as an opportunity to learn.

3. Accept your destiny as a perpetual student

Remember that as an engineer, you will continue to learn as your career progresses. You must, in order to keep up with the rapidly evolving industry. But you should also want to, so that you can better yourself. A versatile engineer is more valuable than one whose knowledge is limited to a few areas. One of the best ways to expand your skill set is by learning a tech stack that you’re not yet familiar with. Certainly do not be discouraged by foreign tech stacks; though I was trained in Ruby on Rails and React + Redux, I currently work primarily with Ember.js and Roda.

While bootcamps teach you the skills you need to begin work as an engineer, they don't teach you everything. Notably, container platforms such as Docker are often left out of the curriculum, usually because there’s no better teacher for this than the actual engineers using it on the job; container platforms and deployment systems are notoriously difficult to teach to beginners due to the specificity in implementation.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that you should never discredit yourself for having a non-traditional background. Regardless of what industry you may be in, we’ve seen that talent can come from unexpected places. Stay focused, and with time you will improve.

One year after joining Simulmedia, a hackathon finally took place. Only this time, I wasn’t thinking about if I'd be able to perform. Rather, I was thinking about how I might challenge myself to excel. I chose to work with a team on a project that was heavily data science based, which is something I likely wouldn’t have considered a year prior. In this brief moment, I realized how much I’d grown. In retrospect, any doubts about my abilities because of my background were silly. I was hired because of my background, not in spite of it.

Brikend Behrami is a Software Engineer in Simulmedia’s New York City office. You can get in touch with him at bbehrami@simulmedia.com.