Q+A: App Academy Alum Julianne Costa on Her Path from Warby Parker Retail to Drone Coder

Tech Career Hub
Written by:
Jose Fermoso
Published on:
September 6, 2018

Discover the journey of an alum who transitioned from a retail position at Warby Parker to becoming a proficient drone coder. Learn about the challenges and triumphs experienced during this unique career shift.

Early in her college career, Julianne Costa worked as one of the first retail employees for Warby Parker. The sunglass startup chain gave her a steady income and an opportunity to learn about business while she studied the subject at Fordham University, in New York. And she happily stayed with the company for years, opening stores across the country. But then she started to feel like she needed a challenge to further test her intelligence and drive, one that could also provide long-term financial security. That decision led her to App Academy and becoming a software developer.

Years later, Julianne sees that time as a key part of her life that set up a journey to her current job for a drone company, compiling coded imagery for industrial-level clients. It was a path laced with tough choices and self-doubt, but one that helped shape her in ways she didn’t anticipate.

We sat down with Julianne at App Academy’s San Francisco campus to talk about her career thus far, her experience at App Academy, and more.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Let’s get started by telling us about how you started to think about a programming career and did you ever see yourself in that type of role?

So you’re here in San Francisco trying to figure out what you’re gonna do. It’s a big tech area of the world. [But] I never knew what a software developer really did. I didn’t know what code was, what it looked like, I had not been in the terminal of my computer. [I was] very non-technical. Luckily my older brother has lived in this city and he went to a coding bootcamp, had a great experience, got his first software engineering job and just loved it. It sounded like gibberish to me, but I could tell he was passionate about what he was doing and sustaining life in San Francisco.

So that planted the seed for me. I just started exploring things I wanted out of my next career, trying to talk to as many people as I could. I actually reached out to some engineers on the Warby Parker team and I added their calendar to mine, schedule a 30-minute phone call with me. There was one female engineer on that team at the time [and] she really validated everything I was thinking software development would be for me. Through conversations I got the confidence to take the leap.

[Then] I was just dabbling in free online mini-courses…getting my hands a little bit dirty with code. [That] kind of ignited a spark. I’m like “I could really do this.” I think what excited me the most in the beginning was the challenge and the fact that it’s just going to open up so many more pathways to learning.

Why did you choose App Academy?

I’m a very academically competitive person. I always have been. It’s weird. But even when I was working at Warby Parker and going to school full-time, I just got in the zone, about grinding, about learning, getting good grades, making a good impression on my team, you know, it’ll help. So I knew I could handle a course [but to] initially even apply to a bootcamp is quite a rigorous process. You have to apply already having some coding experience and knowledge. Other schools I looked [included] hack reactor, [along with App Academy] because I heard these were the top bootcamps. Something that attracted me about App Academy was the deferred payment model. I knew these people would have to buy-in to me and to my success and I would get that extra support in that way.

Tell me about the conversation you had with a Warby Parker female engineer that sparked you interest in coding?

I guess for me like I didn’t know if my personality would mesh necessarily with the broader software engineering culture. I knew that I’d heard about all of these stereotypes and things that happen in the workplace to women, [where] their code reviews are  just scrutinized more. I wanted to really hear that [a female engineer’s] experience on her team was a positive and welcoming and supportive one. That’s first and foremost, and then that she didn’t feel like pressure to fit in with this bro culture I had in my mind about most software engineering teams. So she debunked that for me and gave me just a little window into to her team and it sounded really positive.

Tell me about why you think it was important to have a “tribe of supportive fellow students” while going through the course?

Looking back, it’s even more impactful to me that I was able to learn how to code alongside this group of people because lots of [other] people are self-taught and are able to truck through a lot of open-source material online and learn the things they need to. That’s so admirable. But for me, I really needed a tribe of people who are in it with me, who understood what I was going through, who I could eat lunch with [and] ask questions, to have late night study sessions with. It just helps keep your energy going when you have other people like that. I think that’s true in most situations in life. I still have [those] friends.

What was your experience like the first few weeks of the course? How are you feeling mentally, physically?

It was one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, and also one of the most rewarding. But the first week was brutal. I was so sleep-deprived, exhausted. The best metaphor for me is that consuming this material is like drinking through a firehose. So it is utterly overwhelming and trying to absorb as much as you can and forgive yourself for the things you’re not able to learn at that moment. That’s a challenge in the beginning because most people who come to App Academy are used to excelling in academic settings and it breaks you a little bit. I was here 85 to 95 hours a week. But it was cool because so is everybody else and we’re all drinking a lot of coffee and having a really good time getting to know each other.

Tell me about the level of support from instructors, including during your worst period of anxiety and stress?

One time definitely stands out. I was studying for an assessment and my anxiety got the best of me probably because I wasn’t exercising. I had let my meditation practice go. I wasn’t taking care of my mental health because I was coding all the time. It caught up to me and wasn’t able to sleep for three nights in a row. By the third night, I literally felt like I was going crazy.

So in the morning, I wrote one of the TAs and said “I just can’t come in today. I really have to take a nap and destress.” It was the first day of the JavaScript portion of the course. I missed a chunk of important material. Came back the next day, felt totally lost, and overwhelmed. Went up to the same TA and said listen, I’m really struggling today, I feel like I’m falling behind.” Right away, they linked me up with the best JavaScript TA at the time and went into a room for two hours and broke it down. I didn’t leave that room until I felt confident I had this material down pat and that one-on-one attention was unbelievable in a class of 70. It was unheard of [and showed] they cared for me learning the material but also for my mental health.

What was your favorite memory of learning at App Academy?

I’ll pick a time that stands out when I was pair programming. So every day you come in and pair with another student in the course and this one day I was paired with somebody who has a computer science background, unlike me, and we made it quite far in our project for the day and side note — didn’t really complete any projects at the Academy. It’s just designed that way. But this project we got to build a game in JavaScript, Tower of Hanoi. It’s a visual game where you just stack different pieces to create a tower. Since we got pretty far, we played around with CSS and grabbed a TA’s face, Kelly, and [put him in the game]. Gave him a little shirt, little pants, and we made Towers of Kelly. It was a hit.

What can you tell me about the process of going through brief unemployment and debt before landing your current job?

It’s no secret this field is very attractive to people because of the sheer demand for software engineers. You know that manifests in pretty high salaries for entry-level positions, especially in the Bay Area. [But if you only] want to become a software developer to get a fat paycheck it’s not going to work out for you because it’s hard.

I had the privilege of being able to study full-time to get into App Academy in the first place. I commend a lot of people who work full-time and study at night. You can still get in if that’s your case for sure. In the beginning, I considered, like “Okay for these three months, I’ll be unemployed.” I had some money saved and I had the support of my family. Not many people have those things. I didn’t think about the fact I’d be looking for a job for the next couple months. I wrapped up more debt than expected but was it worth it? Hell, yeah. Now I’m employed. I’m paying back App Academy. I have money to live on paying off debt and I feel I don’t feel like I’m drowning at all. It’s definitely worth it.

How did you experience the course’s job search curriculum?

My experience was interesting because the first job I applied to I got a phone interview. That does not usually happen. So because it’s a small company, it’s with the CTO directly. He liked what I had to say, gave me a small coding challenge [and I] did well. They gave me a bigger challenge, I submitted that, and he gave me great feedback. Had that gone well, I would have been on-site for an interview and hopefully hired. Because the chances of being hired after going inside get a lot higher. But he was looking for a deeper knowledge of Ruby on Rails, like broader architectures than I displayed in my coding challenge so he stopped the process. I was like, “Oh, that could have been so easy.” But after going through the job search for three months I learned so much more. I built up so much more knowledge studying for interviews that I realized, “Now when I get hired, I’m going to go in way more prepared and confident in my coding abilities.”

The next two-to-three months were very challenging. You’re working just as hard, maybe harder, than when you’re in the course because the nature of the material at that level gets a lot more complex. You’re studying data structures and algorithms and trying to do well in interviews. Which means practicing whiteboarding, talking about technically complicated concepts in a way people understand. And it’s a lot of pressure. And it’s hard to perform under that pressure. You’re also applying to a ton of jobs in a room full of a bunch of other people competing for those jobs. And lots of people are coming out of bootcamps.

I do think App Academy has a reputation where if you reach out to somebody who went to App Academy now working in the field, [alums] will get back to you. They’ll hop on a phone call, maybe drop a referral at their company because they know if you made it through App Academy, then you could probably code. I went on LinkedIn, found second- and third-degree connections of people from non-traditional backgrounds who went to a bootcamp, reached out and said, “Hey, do you have five minutes to talk to me?” And that is what led to my current job and all my on-site interviews.

It’s an arduous process. It’s a lot about who you know. But you don’t have to know anybody [right away]. People meet through the App Academy community, through going to Meetups, and conferences, whether it’s online or in-person on topics that interest you. I’ve found interest in cybersecurity since graduating at the Academy from going to a talk at the Internet Archive [where] I heard Chelsea Manning speak. It was also a day celebrating Aaron Schwartz, who did a lot for open-source and making resources available for free online as they should be. Exploring the path you can take from software development shows your potential employers how serious you are about a career in tech. And it keeps you going because a lot of processes around job search can suck.

You also taught for a time at the bootcamp. What was that like?

So being a teacher assistant for me was awesome because I got to go through the course again, from a teaching perspective, which is how I learn best. And it was also fun to not be under pressure so I can take a step back and actually help students lighten up a little bit, maybe like alleviate some stress and help them understand that each individual project isn’t so serious, right? It’s not the end of the world. You’re really just learning how to learn. You’re making Impressions on your brain that are going to help you solve complex problems going forward. I think I gained that understanding through my instructor experience.

My favorite aspect of all that was going over to students that are completely frazzled because there’s a bug and they don’t know how to fix it. It’s really fun to help them follow the breadcrumb trail. “Let’s break down the error message. Where we should look in the code, okay, let’s look there and do a little investigating.” You feel like a detective. And then they make a change, run the code again, and get a different error message and they throw their hands up. They’re like, “Oh my God. This is never gonna end.” I get to be the one that’s like, “No, this is awesome. We got another clue.” Really slowing down and methodically thinking through what’s going on.

Tell me about the company you’re working at and what you do there?

I work at a company called Kespry. They manufacture drones for industrial use cases. An example use case of our drone is insurance…An insurance inspector [now] goes to houses to physically climb up onto the roof and take an assessment of hail damage on a roof. That way they can do like three roofs a day. Whereas with Kespry you can fly this drone and you don’t need to know how to do it because it’s autonomous — you just map out the path [and can use an] iPad. The drone takes a bunch of pictures and we get all of this awesome data we help visualize through a web application.

I’m on the drone imagery team, turning it into something useful for our customers. I never imagined myself in the Drone space. It’s a highly-technical company, [with] hardware, firmware teams, flight test engineers, machine learning engineers, a platform team, a web application team (that I’m on), support engineers. We’re iterating this product trying to figure out what our customers want to see from their data and it’s been super interesting.

We use Ruby on Rails on the backend, which is what’s taught [at App Academy]. That’s awesome for me. React on the front-end. Obviously HTML, CSS, and then we have micro services in different languages [like] Python and Node. The cool thing is if you know how to read JavaScript code, Node is written in JavaScript. And if you know how to read and write Ruby code, Python is super similar. So I found I’m able to dive into these repositories and actually understand what’s going on, never having learned Python. I’m considered a full-stack engineer because I’m just doing the whole gamut.

A lot of the stories we work on traverse the backend, front-end and also include some DevOps we’re working with like Amazon S3. Right now, I’m working on configuring our whole authentication flow for our application. I’ve [brought] thermal imagery into the cloud and helped visualize thermal drone photos, to work with visualizing data through different charts using lots of JavaScript libraries, like 3JS to do 3D modeling.

At my four-month mark, I did something I highly recommend new engineers do — looked back at all my commits and wrote a quick journal of all I’ve done since I’ve started. And it wowed me because I’ve done a lot and didn’t know any of this before I started.

What is the most challenging part of being a programmer?

For me, it’s feeling like an imposter and having to battle that feeling every day. Even after making it to my first software developer role. Before I came to App Academy, I thought it would be the hours, the sheer amount of time. [But if you] just do it, you get into the zone and that stuff starts to feel really good, takes you out of your own head if you’re somebody like me who’s in their head a lot. Coding rips you right out because you don’t have time to think. You have time to learn and do over and over.

But the imposter thing is real because the material is really hard, and you’re entering an industry where the nature of the problems, no matter the workplace, are really intricate, complex, and you’re working alongside people who from the outside looking in seem, like, really brilliant and have so much experience and they’re successful software engineers and you feel like just a baby. You come out of App Academy and you’re still very much a novice. You’re being formed into a good developer. You have a lot of potential, you have the tools to get the job done and know how to grind it out. Now you just need the work and practice. I think it’s putting in the work that continually proves to yourself that you can do this. When I approach a task now, I look at it and I’m like, okay, I have absolutely no idea about the tech this entails or how this is connected to XYZ or you know, how I’m going to approach this problem.

And then you just start reading, start researching and after a while, you work on it and eventually you solve the problem and you get to look back and realize whoa, I just went from zero to 100 in terms of my understanding of that and that feels really cool. It gives you the confidence that you can approach anything you don’t know and learn it, do it, and achieve it. So that crushes imposter syndrome.

What have you learned about who can be a programmer in the technology industry?

I think for the most part all personalities [are] welcome. I think there are traits that can really hinder your success when you’re trying to learn this stuff and apply it in the workplace.

First of all, people have to want to work with you. Because when you’re working on an engineering team, you’re dealing with really difficult problems and frustration is real and you need to be able to communicate with other people, and hold your own, and be really patient working toward a solution. And be patient with your fellow developers. Even when you’re at the Academy, you have to be patient with your pairs. You have to know when to take a step back and respect the other person’s learning and growth. I think we’re all kind of like “go, go, go,” consume as much material as possible. But the more effective way to learn is to let it marinate, play with what you just learned, try and disprove what the content is telling you and that’s the way you really own the material. But it’s a difficult skill.

The personality trait you cannot have is arrogance. You can’t come into a bootcamp and act like you know. Even if you have coded in Python or Ruby before. Arrogance is going to hurt you because it shuts your brain off to considering the fact it doesn’t know everything. It stifles your learning and makes people around you not want to learn from you or with you. It could be isolating and it just doesn’t fly in the App Academy environment. [You] have to be humble, open to learning new things, [and] be curious like a kid.

Staying humble is the number one trait respected in the industry. When you go into an interview, for example, if you try and act like you know everything, they’re gonna tear you apart because they know that you don’t know everything.

So, In interviews, I would openly say like “Hmm. I don’t know that, or I’ve never even heard of that, but I’m curious to learn about it. Sounds interesting.” People respect that more.

What was the most important thing you’ve taken away from App Academy?

I think it’s mostly the striving for a deep and thorough understanding. Sitting with things that I don’t know, appreciating them for being as complicated as they are, but really trying to understand them from every angle that I can, knowing that If I just take the easy way out [like] take something off Stack Overflow and I don’t really know how the code works…that is really not productive toward molding and sculpting your brain to be able to code long-term and really grow as an engineer. So it’s slowing down with the material, really taking ownership over the things I know, and the things I don’t know.

At App Academy I was always the person in my class to raise my hand during lecture. [One] lecture started off and the person’s talking about target APIs…for five minutes. I finally raised my hand and I’m like, “Uh, what’s an API?” and the whole rest of my class kind of like laughed in agreement with m — nobody had an idea what an API was. But just owning up to the things you don’t know and respecting yourself and your process enough to ask questions and fight that feeling of, “this is embarrassing” or “I’m supposed to know this.” I think that’s poison in developers’ mind. I think throwing that away is an important skill I learned here.

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