Different Strokes: Justworks Engineers with Non-traditional Backgrounds

Posted March 29, 2019 by Justworks in Engineering
What does it take to switch careers and become a software engineer? Here, four Justworks engineers share the steps they took.

Justworks’ engineering organization is made up of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some even came from other careers and transitioned into engineering.

What does it take to switch to a career as a software engineer? We asked a few folks to share the steps they took, the challenges they faced, and how they came to work for Justworks.

Chris Armstrong

What were you doing before you became an engineer?

Many things! But mostly I was an accountant. I graduated with a BS in Accounting and later went on to get my CPA license. After I realized accounting wasn't for me, I tried a variety of things from sales to app development (I hired programmers for that because I didn't yet know how to code).

What made you decide to go into engineering?

One commonality I eventually noticed across all my jobs was my tendency to want to automate and streamline things. Even in sales, I was much more drawn to hacking Salesforce then I was to doing the actual job of selling. This realization led me to learn Python on my own, and it was definitely love at first sight (keystroke?).

What was the process like for you? What steps did you take?

When I started learning to code, bootcamps weren't really a thing yet. So instead I spent time using platforms like Codecademy to get started. Once I got the fundamentals, I followed the pattern of thinking of an idea that was exciting to me, and then coding up a solution. This ranged from scraping fantasy baseball sites, automating music curation, and even landing an apartment via mass email generation. Learning how to program is tough, especially if you only follow online courses or textbooks, so having projects that solve real problems was a great way to stay motivated.

What was the hardest part about transitioning to a new career in engineering?

For me, the most difficult parts were learning how to create "production quality" code (included testing, which was a foreign concept to me). I also struggled with understanding the deployment process and using git, since up until then my code had always ran either on my personal devbox or on my laptop, and I had only the faintest grasp of how to use git.

What made you want to join Justworks?

The biggest draw for joining Justworks was the mission statement. I came from AdTech, so the idea of working for a company that actually had a real impact on people was very appealing.

What's your favorite part about the engineering organization here?

Everyone is absurdly nice and collaborative. Like it shouldn't be statistically possible, but it somehow is.

John Nieves

What were you doing before you became an engineer?

Before college, it was a mix of generic retail jobs and IT desktop support. After college, I did sales for a year, was pretty terrible at it, and eventually landed as a recruiter specializing in IT and software engineering roles.

What made you decide to go into engineering?

What eventually pushed me into it was recruiting. I like to try and learn as much as I can about what I'm doing, and as a result of research over time, I came to appreciate how much the web was changing, growing, and generally lowering the barrier of entry to learning how to code. It also helped that I was getting a bit frustrated with recruiting, and really wanted to shift careers.

What was the process like for you? What steps did you take?

It was like jumping into a bunch of rabbit holes everywhere. I started with JavaScript, going through Codecademy, and then finally figuring I should try to learn Ruby, and then Python, and then back. I eventually realized I was spreading myself a bit too thin, and needed to focus on one area.

About a year later, I decided to take the plunge and do a bootcamp. I'd been connecting with engineers at the office and over LinkedIn who'd made similar career transitions to learn about how it went for them. Everything seemed pretty positive, so I made the attempt to get into a bootcamp. I eventually settled on one that allowed me to work full-time, while attending nights and weekends.

What was the hardest part about transitioning to a new career in engineering?

Too many sleepless nights spent either debugging code or trying to learn some new concept.

What made you want to join Justworks?

The last two companies I was at both used Justworks, and the transition was pretty much seamless. Having used some of the alternatives, I thought the Justworks platform was pretty amazing since using it was frustration-free.

What's your favorite part about the engineering organization here?

Everyone is pretty easy to get along with, and there is a lot of respect for others’ opinions and knowledge. The work-life balance is also very nice. The flexibility actually took me some getting used to!

Rose Weixel

What were you doing before you became an engineer?

Before I became an engineer I taught in NYC public schools.

What made you decide to go into engineering?

After teaching for about seven years, I felt like I was becoming stagnant in my career, and I was not finding myself presented with the types of creative and intellectual challenges that I enjoy. I was fascinated with how the internet works and wanted to learn how websites are built, and I felt really excited by the idea that I could take an idea and create it from the ground up and share it with people anywhere in the world.

What was the process like for you? What steps did you take?

I started teaching myself HTML and CSS and worked on a personal project during evenings and weekends. The best resource I found for this was a Skillshare course that guided me through building a basic HTML and CSS website from scratch. I was having so much fun with it that no matter how tired I was after work, I would always want to work on it when I came home.

Once my first static website was done, I looked at it and thought, this is pretty boring, it doesn’t do anything! That’s when I decided I wanted to learn how to program. I taught myself Python using Zed Shaw’s Learn Python The Hard Way, and then did an online introductory programming course through MIT. Once I finished those, I finally had the confidence to say for sure that I wanted to spend as much time as possible writing code, and that I could see myself succeeding in a career change.

That’s when I started applying to coding bootcamps, and when I got accepted to Flatiron School I quit my job and devoted myself to prepping for that full-time. Flatiron School was super intense - it was three months of 70-100 hours per week spent in lectures, doing hands-on programming exercises, and finally a project phase, which is when I actually built my first web apps. It was a whirlwind experience and I couldn’t believe what I was able to build at the end of it. I would honestly say that going through that process was one of the most transformative and empowering things I ever did.

What was the hardest part about transitioning to a new career in engineering?

The hardest part was just believing that I could do it. Engineering was never a thing that was on my radar as a career choice, and I had it in my head that it was something you needed to be a math genius to do, or that it would be impossible to learn without a formal background in computer science. Getting over those mental blockers was by far the biggest hurdle. The rest of it was just a matter of putting in the work.

What made you want to join Justworks?

I found out about Justworks because I was working at a very small startup that was a Justworks customer. It was a very mission-driven company that had less than ten employees and no budget for an HR department. When that startup sadly had to close its doors, the idea of working at the place that enabled it, along with thousands of other small businesses, to focus on their mission sounded like something I wanted to be a part of. When I came in for the interview I was also really struck by how nice everybody was, and how welcomed I felt from the moment I stepped into the office. Especially as a female in what tends to be a very male-dominated field, I didn’t feel that way all the time when I interviewed at other places. The combination of the inspiring mission and friendly culture is what made me want to work here.

What's your favorite part about the engineering organization here?

First of all, everyone I work with here is a genuinely nice person. It’s really important that you can say that about the people you spend eight hours of every day with. People here are very team- and mission-driven and are always happy to help each other out. Secondly, it’s really motivating and gratifying to work on building things that make people’s lives easier and better in very concrete ways. At the end of the day it’s great to know that the code we are writing really matters.

Justin McKee

What were you doing before you became an engineer?

I earned a master's degree in international relations of the Middle East, but when I graduated, the State Department was in an indefinite hiring freeze. Long story short, I ended up as the first employee at a Silicon Valley startup in a nontechnical role.

What made you decide to go into engineering?

I've always enjoyed math, science, and philosophy (think about all the conditionals involved in coding and tell me it's not applied logic). But the immediate precipitating factor was that my support and operations teams at the startup were doing a lot of manual work that felt like it should be possible to automate. All our engineering resources were focused on developing, launching, and supporting the customer-facing product, so there was no one to work on internal tools for my teams. My mentality was, "Buttons that do x, y, and z would save us 20 hours a week each, I'll just build them myself, how hard could it be?"

What was the process like for you? What steps did you take?

Needless to say, it was much harder than I naïvely anticipated. I started with some online tutorials, but one of the most valuable things I did was read the source code for our application. I had an in-depth knowledge of our how product worked from the user side (what different elements did when you clicked them, etc.) so studying the underlying code helped me see how all the pieces fit together.

Our "internal tools" code was a separate app with its own repo and server, so I had the luxury to be able to deploy production code without the changes affecting anyone but myself and my team sitting right next to me. It was a lot of trial and error, but as I learned and grew more confident, the development cycles got a lot shorter. The tools I was building saved so much time for the ops crew that we were able to go home earlier in the evenings. Being able to see the real life impact on people I cared about was hugely motivating, and probably the main reason I stuck with it in the frustrating beginnings.

What was the hardest part about transitioning to a new career in engineering?

Software engineering involves a vast amount of shared knowledge that might be taken for granted by someone who has been studying or working in it for a long time. Certainly things like basic data structures (all of our talk about "strings" can sound funny to outsiders), but also concepts like design patterns and so many acronyms. In my first week of standups, I asked what "wet" code was, and everyone just looked at me blankly. I clarified, "every day you're talking about DRYing up your code," and that got a big laugh at my expense.

What made you want to join Justworks?

I saw one of the subway ads in early 2016 and liked both the tone and the premise of Justworks. My previous experience with PEOs and payroll companies was universally frustrating, and I often thought to myself that someone not stuck in the early 1990's should do this better. Lo and behold, someone was!

The other factor was the interview process. It was very humane, everyone was understanding, kind, and helpful. They felt right away like the kind of coworkers I'd be happy to have.

What's your favorite part about the engineering organization here?

To reiterate, my colleagues here are awesome. Everyone I work with is nice, smart, helpful, and fun. And I'm not just saying that because they're reading this! Additionally, I work on meaningful projects that provide people things they use all the time, like regular pay and access to healthcare.

Interested in pursuing your own engineering career at Justworks? Check out our open positions.