Engineering Interview Prep: Zignal Labs Developer on Building a Career After Teaching Community College

Tech Career Hub
Written by:
App Academy
Published on:
December 11, 2018

Explore the process and opportunities for building a successful career after teaching at a community college. Discover the various paths and strategies to transition smoothly into new professional roles.

Brian Jenney was deeply entrenched in his career as a community college teacher only a few years ago. He enjoyed his career and his work with students but his connection to the material was getting a bit stale. Then he was tasked with updating some of the school’s websites and got caught up in a task that quickly came to fascinate him: coding.

“It was the most fun part of the day,” he told us in a sit-down interview.

As he got more and more into the technical aspect of websites, Jenney got an idea. Maybe he would be more happy if he did these types of tasks for a living. Additionally, it would potentially provide him with a more substantial financial package, something he definitely had to consider as a providing young dad and husband.

“After that, I was like, “I want to learn how to do this,” because I thought it was really interesting to be able to write code. I was already 30 years old at that point. So I reached out to a buddy of mine, a senior developer and [he helped me]. I was hoping to get into front-end development and then through a lot of self-study and a front-end boot camp and studied myself into a full-stack job a year later.”

Jenney would end up attending a coding bootcamp, and a couple of years later, to boost his work prospects as experienced engineer, took App Academy’s Engineering Interview Prep accelerator course. We talked to him at length about his journey and what he’s learned.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were you doing after that bootcamp?

I got my first job at Grocery Outlet as a web developer and that was my first full-stack introduction. Didn’t know C#, SQL, AngularJS, or .NET. I knew very rudimentary JavaScript at that point. Didn’t even understand relational databases. So it just was a constant cycle of study, study, study, study, go to work, figure things out, ask people, study, pair program. So I think my first year or two of the job was kinda like [another] bootcamp.

Then I went to a small startup called Terminal 49, about five-to-eight of us. That was a real kicker for me because it was a bunch of incredibly bright people using [JavaScript] ES7 and ES8 versions and I had no experience with because of an older technology stack. I had no introduction or testing experience. And so I was working with a guy that wrote the testing library for Ember.js and he made me step up my game in general and taught me test-driven development. It also forced me to take on different roles. I got to be more involved in product, worked more across the stack. That was another experience that leveled me up.

And what were the most interesting challenges you faced at those jobs?

Probably testing. There was a high learning curve since I went to a place where I didn’t know Rails, or Ember.js, or testing, and with no real on-boarding I kinda felt like it was sink or swim. So the first few months I was like, “Man, am I going to just get fired for the first time?” But I guess the most challenging thing in that job was being thrown in the water with a framework I didn’t know and a whole testing paradigm I’d never been introduced to. There was a lot of catching up quickly.

Around that time, as experienced engineer, you start thinking about moving up. What’s your mindset and when did you decide to do something about it by attending Engineering Interview Prep?

So this is December last year when I started thinking about it and I kept feeling like this startup isn’t the right place for me. I want to go somewhere else. I like aspects of this, like working with these really bright people who’ve shown me a lot of really great techniques and ways of thinking about development in general but I don’t want to work at a five-person start-up.

My process then is, “I want to get another job with smart people,” so I better start studying. And I want to get to a good place so I know I need to learn how to study and be able to do all the challenges I knew would happen in most interviews. I went to a few interviews during this time and always got interviews. I had no problem getting [them]. But I had problem landing another interviews afterwards, usually because I’d get stuck on the algorithms and on phone screens. That would trip me up because I was pretty good at my job. And I felt like I did well on take-home tests where they say “build this thing.” But as soon as I got some algorithms question, I’d bomb and that’s when I knew I needed extra help to win these games.

Did you ask for feedback about why you didn’t get those jobs?

I didn’t really hear much. I kind of knew my algorithm game was pretty weak and that I was not performing well on these tests. Also I had no idea what Big O notation was. So when they’d say, “What’s the run-time complexity of this algorithm?” I would have no clue. I thought I’d better study and was doing trial-and-error finding out what I didn’t know. I had done a little bit of code-fights online, gamified algorithm style questions, on my own, but it just wasn’t enough to get where I wanted to be.

What was the decision process then, to apply to Engineering Interview Prep?

When I was working at UC Berkeley extension, I was a TA at a web development class and there was a student there that went to App Academy. We had a very brief introduction to algorithms in the class and he was flying by and I was really impressed. So I thought they must produce pretty bright people out of there and seemed to have a really good command of concepts I wasn’t exposed to. And when I did some online research, I [realized] I don’t need a complete new camp. I needed to supplement my lack of computer science degree with computer science degree fundamentals. Not just algorithms and data structures.

People seem to be pleased with Engineering Interview Prep. I was like, “this curriculum seems pretty solid.” So I thought it would be a good choice. And there was a class starting in a week and I thought that’s cutting it close, I got three kids at home and a wife. But thought I better do it now.

Tell me what happens the first few days of the course.

I felt pretty much out of my league. [Though] I felt good the students knew probably a lot more than I did. Especially with things they took for granted. I was like, well, I need like more than a refresher. I need to learn this in general. So the first couple days, it was mathematical concepts that I wasn’t pretty familiar with but I did enjoy. The one thing I did feel good about was the first day we started paired whiteboarding. I felt like I learned a lot. Eventually I felt better, I started to understand the material better. I used supplemental readings to continue to study after class. And some of the materials were easier to grasp and others. So it just started feeling more like okay, this is right, I’m feeling more confident that I could walk into a room and explain my thought process on more advanced concepts and whiteboard solutions.

What was unexpected for you that you thought was useful about the course?

It was actually the career coaching. We had a really great guy, Iyad, and he taught us LinkedIn hacks, ways to make your LinkedIn pop. Negotiating was [also] something I always had been really afraid of doing. It was a great experience doing that. I feel like I learned a lot, like how to approach interviews and negotiating and how to stand out to recruiters.

On LinkedIn, having consistency across your job [is important]. If you’re putting full stack in your headline, having short, succinct job descriptions. Headline titles that are appealing, not too long but draw-in people. Writing articles, liking the same types of articles, adding certificates. I thought I knew LinkedIn well since I worked at the career center. So I thought I’d know more than most of the class but he definitely made me go back and redo it. I got a few people reach out to me through Linkedin for jobs.

Anything you found beneficial?

Technically, things like algorithms. I got an on-site at Google, which I was shocked by, and the only reason I felt like I was even able to [handle it] was because of a marathon interview session we had at Engineering Interview Prep. It was the same really difficult style of algorithms that Google had and it wasn’t so much like hey, here’s a bunch of algorithms and let’s memorize them. It’s more like “here’s a way to approach this type of problem.” And we saw a lot of the same types of problems at App Academy and Engineering Interview Prep that actually were even more difficult. For example, Dijkstra’s algorithm. That was one of the most challenging we went over even though, I won’t lie, I still don’t completely implement it now. But working through some of those really difficult ones made all my other interviews seem, in comparison, much easier.

How many interviews did you get immediately coming out of Engineering Interview Prep?

Oh, I’m going to say less than 10 and more than five. I could have kept racking them up but I got a job directly after the program ended.

What changed after that time, in terms of your programmer responsibilities, in your next job?

I feel like I came and I said, “Hey, I’m interested in going in towards more of a leadership role.” I think there’s a pathway to do that now and my manager is aware of that and wants to set me up for team leadership-type roles. It’s not something I expected at other jobs, so that’s the biggest change. Other than that, my main day-to-day as a software engineer is not so different, but it’s more the pathway to becoming more of a lead, which had not been there before.

Did you have an idea of how to understand what that pathway was before Engineering Interview Prep?

I was dealing with a lot of people that don’t have a traditional background, so imposter syndrome. I felt kind of like, oh, I’m just lucky to be here. I wasn’t vocal at other jobs and I wish I had been. So that’s one of the things the course gave me the most: confidence. I got to say the negotiation factor was also a big one too in the job process because I was getting offers from other places. I was having people validate me through the interview process. So by that time I went through five interviews and I felt pretty validated. “I’m doing well at these interviews, I deserve to be this place” and also know I can negotiate because I want to make sure I’m happy and in a good spot going forward.

And I thought, what do I really want going forward? It was one of the exercises at Engineering Interview Prep. Like what do you really want? I thought well, “I love programming, it’s fun. Five, twenty-five years years down the line I want to be in a leadership role.” And I feel I’m pretty good at talking to people. At my next company, I want to make sure they know that so I don’t have to keep changing companies every two years. I want to stay somewhere and grow into a leadership position.

How much has your salary grown between these workplaces?

With this job it went up 10% but I was already making around $120,000. The thing was that I actually had a job offer for even more but this was the job I knew would be the right one for me. I could have had a job offer for a little bit more than that, but had to make a decision which I thought would be best for me mentally and for the long-term.

You have a family and now have a little more money. How does that feel?

Great. I mean sometimes it’s a trip to me because I think, just a few years ago, I was making less than half of what I’m making right now, which is insane. It’s crazy, I’ll be able to buy a house. Just recently making the leap from being in Engineering Interview Prep into this new position. I feel like I’m in a different mind-state. I feel like I am more confident than I’ve ever felt at a new job, especially in programming. I feel like I know what I’m doing and feel confident enough to assert myself and be more independent and to set myself up to be in a leadership position. So that’s that’s the biggest change, mentally. I’m just happier. It feels good…

Do you feel like you’ve lost the imposter syndrome?

Not quite, definitely not. It comes and goes. I think people probably deal with that in certain days, it’s bigger than other [days] but I think is a lot less. I don’t feel like “Oh my God, I don’t I don’t know this thing…I’m the one guy without a computer science degree. Maybe I shouldn’t be in this room.” I don’t have that nagging feeling in the back of my head as much anymore.

What was your favorite part of the course at Engineering Interview Prep?

All the algorithm things I had never been exposed to. Especially things like graph theory but also the computer architecture. Just the exposure to these algorithms was a lot of fun. I enjoy problem solving in general, I guess most programmers do, but getting exposed to those was a lot of fun because it made me it made me dig a little deeper than just writing code to really understand a little more theory behind concepts and different ways to approach problems. It also gave me a love of LeetCode which I never thought I’d like. It’s also helped me [stay on] vigilant mode, always being prepared and influenced me to take another math course, linear algebra, because I was lacking in it.

What are the big challenges that you hear about from your colleagues that are already in the industry, especially in regards to jobs?

[Depends on the] different stages… Once you’re a developer, a junior and want to be a senior, you follow these three buckets [that] determine your salary and where you stand in the company. So you go in interviews and they peg you from some assessment. “Hey, this guy’s a junior or a senior” and that affects your trajectory. The few hours you spend in a room determines the title they give you and you want that label to be decent when you walk out. So if you’re trying to break into a mid- or senior-level position when you don’t have a job, getting that first role is [important.]

Was there something else that you were interested in terms of the types of companies that you were looking at other than the maybe the leadership angle?

Company culture was super important. I realized that from working in a five-person startup where there’s not a lot of culture because you’re too busy working…Grocery Outlet had a really great company culture, so I was looking for somewhere that was like that. I knew that would be just as important as the money. And technology is also a big factor. I wanted somewhere that would have a variety of technological challenges. That would allow me to grow there. So for example, [my current company] has a lot data scientists and there’s billions of points of data they can transform each month. That was very important [because] I wanted to place where I could learn from other people in different fields and disciplines.

Where are you in your company today and what’s the next step?

I just started this job. So it’s a little hard to know exactly what I’ll be doing. Our company is a big data analytics company that looks at your social media standing in real time by munging tons of data from the internet, like Twitter news feeds and Instagram. So it takes all your social media, says, “Hey, here’s some points of data that might be really important to you.” So you can get ahead of things like hashtags, like #DeleteUber.

Right now I’m on the full-stack team making the widgets that interact with Twitter [where something like] total mentions depend on certain criteria. I’m still learning a lot. It’s a lot of different moving pieces to this company and five years from now, if I stay at the same company, I’d love to be a team lead on the full-stack team. I’d also would love to be involved with more of the data science aspect because we have research and data scientists that helped make these really impressive visualizations and projections of the data.

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