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Software Engineering Immersive

Alistair Gray

To say that Alistair Gray has had a colorful career is an understatement. To date, Alistair had been a UX designer and researcher, an event manager, an agile consultant, and even a book author. Yet with his numerous experiences, he eventually found his calling in coding. To pursue this, he joined General Assembly and enrolled in its Software Engineering Immersive program.

Since then, he has started a career as a junior software engineer for Gradient Consulting. Read on to learn about Alistair’s fascinating career journey so far.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing before attending the program?

I was a business generalist with a background in UX and agile consulting. Just before the program, I attempted to start an aerospace organization in Geelong, Australia, which failed due to the events of COVID-19. Around that time, I also wrote and published a self-help book to help others going through significant change.

What motivated you to explore a new career or upskill in your existing field, and why did you decide to pick this program?

I had always enjoyed programming but never saw an opportunity to switch careers. In addition, Australian employers are wary of entry-level career changers, but  Software Engineering Immersive program.  program included an entire outcomes component to help make the transition possible. I found this was an attractive option, and with the timing of COVID-19, I did not believe there would be another opportunity.

What did you like about the program? Are there any highlights that stood out to you?

I enjoyed the exposure to multiple programming languages and frameworks. What stood out for me was the instructor’s ability, along with the course content, to teach you how to learn quickly and smartly. It created scenarios where we learned React in three days. By the end of the week, we were creating fully functional React websites. For my current role, I had to learn Python in a similar timeframe, and the way the course was taught allowed me to do this.

How did you fit the program into your schedule?

My program was a [full-time] bootcamp-style training, so I focused on it for the better part of three months. I was fortunate enough to have my loving partner support me through the journey, and I doubt I would have completed it had it not been for her.

Can you give us any examples of projects that you worked on during the program?

My final project was a React and NodeJS application that aided [people] in networking conversations. It used IBM Watson’s API plugin to utilize a semantic analyzer to rate the user’s conversation topics. Many people do not know how to network, and the goal of this project was to create a safe space for them to practice.

Do you have any advice for someone considering this program?

The most important advice I can give is that you must have an interest in programming and have practiced it before the course. No exceptions. It is highly demanding. My course was 480 hours, and learning all the essential information required significant discipline.

How did the program support you in finding a job?

I had a career coach that gave practical advice and feedback throughout and after the course. She also recommended my colleagues and me to companies where some of us would be invited for interviews.

Was the job search process different from what you expected?

It was the hardest job search process that I’ve ever been part of. The main reason was the challenging job market in Australia for many job seekers during COVID-19, which was even more challenging for those looking for their first job or those going through a career transition.

How many companies did you interview at? How did you choose which one to work with?

Over 30 companies. I had a colleague who had become a mentor during my time at General Assembly, and I was attending meetings relating to an idea he had involving IBM Watson. I was not having success in the standard job market, but my final project impressed my colleague, so he recommended me for a consultant-style role at an Australian company that he had just started working with.

How are the skills you gained from the course useful in your current career?

The skills I gained during the course were immediately put into action for my current career because the role involves the significant use of IBM Watson and JavaScript. As I mentioned earlier, I also had to learn new frameworks and languages, such as Python.

The other thing that new entrants to programming may not realize is that learning becomes the norm every day. There are always new problems to solve and continuous improvements to the framework. The course teaches you how to learn effectively and efficiently, which was the most valuable aspect for me.

What do you think is different about your life now versus before the program? 

I think learning programming skills is a very freeing thing to do. The skills I received allowed me to think about an idea and then implement it. No matter how creative or absurd the idea may be, everything suddenly becomes possible. Because of COVID-19, many roles are remote or hybrid, so as a software engineer I can work from home or even from another country.

What do you find fulfilling about your current line of work?

Working on something about which I have a limited grasp, educating myself, and trying new ideas that frequently fail is the most rewarding thing for me. And then, at the end of all this, the solution presents itself, and I’ve learned something new. This is a highly gratifying process, which requires a great deal of focus.

What do you enjoy about working at your current company, are there any specific perks you enjoy?

I am still new at my career, but the one thing that keeps me going is the people I get to work with. Having like-minded colleagues is, in my mind, what life is all about. The pay is naturally great for software engineers, but I am glad to be part of a team that cares about what they do.

Do you have any job search advice for someone considering a career in your field?

  1. Know yourself and what you’re interested in today. This will help you find the right companies that you want to work for. 
  2. Be prepared to fail and work out some ways to learn from failing while still staying focused.
  3. Invest heavily in your network but keep conversations about what you can do for the other person, not what they can do for you.
  4. Focus on knowing your favorite language and framework from the foundations, and don’t skip ahead to implementing passion projects until you feel comfortable. Invest your time in programming challenges, as this will help you in your role and the coming coding interviews.
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