Stories

Being Upfront About Your Abilities When You Pivot To Tech

Software Engineers are often behind the scenes actors in the creation of a product. In this article, we put the spotlight on them as Stef and Sara share their experience working as Software Engineers on Co.Lab’s Sarabot team.

Tiwatayo Kunle
May 25, 2022

DIFFERENT ROUTES, SAME DESTINATION

Stef started coding essentially, because of the pandemic. As her husband’s company navigated the pandemic, they made some lay-offs and her husband was one of those who lost their job. Stef and her husband had to relocate to a different city and so she left her job. Leaving the job wasn’t a difficult decision because she was not enthusiastic about working as a retail manager and so she quickly began searching for alternatives. At about the same time, she participated in #100Devs, a free online web development Bootcamp. Stef tried it and found that she enjoyed coding. More than that, she found a community of peers that wanted to help her grow professionally and for that reason, she kept going back to the program throughout the years of the pandemic.

Sara started coding out of curiosity. She had many interests and was searching for which of them to focus on and make a career out of. Her interest in programming began when she made an unrequired mock website for a school project. Sara really enjoyed the feeling that came with presenting the website to her teachers so a couple of years later, when she stumbled across an online coding program, she was intrigued enough to enrol. That’s when she discovered just how much she enjoyed creating various apps and websites with code and why she decided to make a career out of it.

Side by side photos of Software engineers Sara Paranuk and Stef Baughman who worked as the Developers on the Slack bot 'Sarabot' at Co.lab

Both Stef and Sara received some preliminary programming training. Yet, for Sara, advancing in her career meant putting herself out there in the tech environment. “Up to that point, all my programming experience consisted of following tutorials, making small solo assignments and other solo projects”. For Stef, there was a need to “challenge myself further and solidify my skill set” so they both joined Co.Lab.

The way that Co.Lab is structured introduced Sara to a mode of software development training that required her to work with a team on a project that wasn’t pre-thought out by an instructor and laid out step-by-step. She had to learn to do her own research and sift through third-party documentation to create something unique.

Similarly, Co.Lab was Stef’s first experience working on a multicultural team consisting of a Product Manager, a Product Designer, and another Software Engineer. To build an end-to-end MVP, she had to apply Agile practices which she had never done before. “I also found that the software development mentorship further encouraged my transition to tech and helped me to know it was a realistic goal.”  Ultimately, the entire experience was largely new to both Software Engineers and they really had to put in the work.

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SO WHAT EXACT ROLE DID SARA AND STEF PLAY IN BUILDING THE MVP? 

First, the team had to decide on what product they were going to build. They had originally planned on doing a cross between Slack and Facebook. While this was an impressive idea, after group discussions they found it to be a bit out of scope, and unrealistic for the deadline, especially since both Sara and Stef were Junior Software Engineers with minimal experience; so they pointed this out to the rest of the team. 

Sara says: “I believe that because we were honest about it, we were able to narrow down the goal that the Product Manager envisioned for the product.” The goal was to build something to help remote workers connect more authentically to one another. Keeping both the goal and the scope in mind, and with the help of their mentors Elyse Clement and Mallika Trivedi, the team landed on Sarabot, a Slackbot Social Assistant to help remote workers connect, as their final decision.

Their role as Software Engineers involved going through the Slack documentation and figuring out what would and wouldn’t be possible for the bot to do and what would be necessary to make it work. This research phase stretched into the development phase as well, as they worked out different functions for their bot.

They split the software development work between themselves so Stef handled the Backend while Sara handed the Frontend. They programmed the bot, reviewed their codes, explained the code to non-Software Engineers on the team, made the project repo and the website.

The entire team shared the role of brainstorming and decision-making meaning that Sara and Stef were given room to offer their opinions and professional insight. The team was amazing and Sara remembers ‘feeling involved and heard’ when she suggested ideas of what might work based on her knowledge of Slack bots.

FROM WORKING IN A TEAM, I LEARNED…

Sara learned to collaborate with the team as they all worked to make the best possible product using all they had in terms of time and knowledge. She figured out how to estimate the time needed for various features and how to complete tasks using the Agile philosophy.

She cultivated patience and discovered that sometimes, the solution to a problem you’ve been staring at for hours is to take a long shower.

The four teammates that make up the Sarabot team

Very importantly, she also learned that technically anything is possible, “but sometimes you have to adjust your goal to what is possible for you.” It’s very wise for one to know their capabilities and to be honest with teammates about this so that expectations are managed and things can move ahead swiftly. At the same time, one must try as much as possible to underestimate oneself. The line between the two is quite thin.

Stef’s learnings are perfectly summarized by the words of Simon Sinek: “A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.”

THE VALUE OF TRANSFERABLE SKILLS

Skills that they picked up while working as Software Engineers at Co.Lab have come in handy at their current jobs. The first thing Sara took to her job was the list of shortcut commands that make the programming process easier. Additionally, she says: “Research is still a big part of my day-to-day as is communication with my team. While I’m not a part of the decision-making in my current project at work, it’s still important that the ideas are communicated very clearly between us.”

Working on Slackbot at Co.Lab was a great introduction for Sara to the art of balancing how long to attempt working on something all by herself before asking for help. At her current job, she now works at perfecting this lesson.

Most of all, she resumed her new role with the can-do attitude to learning that she picked up at Co.Lab. “it might take a bit of time, but if I commit to something, I’ll definitely figure it out.”

Stef is grateful to have learned how to incorporate Project Manager expectations, design aesthetics and hone her Software Engineer skills to allow her successfully complete the MVP. These lessons are assets that have now made her invaluable at her job. Further, the incorporation of more than just development logic has been crucial knowledge post Co.Lab.

When moving to a new career, it’s always of great help if one is aware of the skills they possess. To say – “these are the things I can do at an expert level” or “these are the things that I need to work on”. This is not an excuse to rest on your oars but to help monitor where you need to divert more time and energy and to track your growth in this new career. Frankly, it also helps to save the time of your teammates as it allows the team to decide on a product that, as much as possible, plays to everyone’s strength and then the team can execute the project perfectly.

For more information on how you can gain real hands-on experience working on tech teams, visit our website or our LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter Pages.

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