How This Self-Taught Coder Carved Out a New Career Path at One of Berlin's Hottest Startups
In a short space of time Kathryn Lawrence transitioned from marketing intern to part-time team member to full-time Content Manager, before making a leap into the world of coding. Now she’s a Junior Frontend Developer with a whole new career path in front of her. This is how she did it.
When I came to Berlin to start a master's program in Communications Design, I was eager to find a job as a Working Student. That summer, I applied to 68 positions (yes, I kept a detailed spreadsheet), received 44 rejections, 14 non-responses, and sent 10 skill tests or portfolio submissions. After two months, I accepted a Marketing Intern position at a startup called Grover.
At the time, Grover was less than 20 people working out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. Three years later, the team has grown to more than 80 people spread across two floors of an office building on Holzmarkt Straße and the company has raised a total of €100 million in financing. In this period, my role also developed and grew.
After a three-month internship writing blog posts and social media content, I progressed to a part-time contract position in marketing. I was involved in producing every kind of content you can imagine: videos, graphics, podcasts, events, print, and copywriting.
After two years of working part-time and finishing my master's degree, I became a full-time Content Manager and Copywriter. While I enjoyed working in marketing and content, I had also been teaching myself to code and loved the challenge of engineering, so I decided to see if I could push my Grover career in this direction. Ten months later, I’ve fully transitioned to a Junior Frontend Developer position.
Here are a few of the steps I took that anyone looking to transition from a non-technical background to a career as an engineer can learn from:
1. I figured out what I didn't know
Mastering the tools that are already available to you before diving into new technologies and programming languages is a great way to figure out what you need to learn. I started using the advanced features of our content management services like Contentful and Wordpress to deepen my knowledge of front-end development.
If you use Wordpress for a blog or content management and are interested in front end development, you can try using the text editor instead of the visual editor to add your own HTML and CSS code directly into your blog posts. Learning to use anchor tags for links, or understanding how to use iframes to embed videos, can help enrich your work and give you insight into how content is transformed from what you write in your text box to what shows up on the website.
2. I solved existing problems to make learning more relevant and fun
It's hard to be motivated to learn something new in a vacuum, and I don't think that quitting your job to do an intensive bootcamp is the best way to learn to code. One of the best pieces of advice I've received about programming is to teach yourself by solving an existing problem that you have.
3. I pushed my limits
Being able to wear many hats is an invaluable skill in a startup, and I really pushed the limits of what someone in marketing should or could do. If you have the time and gumption to expand what you think you can accomplish in your role, just go for it.
As an example, for one April Fools’ Day, we wanted to pull a PR stunt about offering cats for rent (because Grover actually rents tech products). Without a lot of time or resources for a one-off, one-day stunt, it was going to be a headache for the engineering team to integrate phony products with our e-commerce platform.
So, we faked it. I used my knowledge of HTML and CSS to replicate a product page with cats on it instead of tech products. The social media engagement it generated made it extremely worthwhile for my team, and we even heard that some of our investors got a laugh out of the page.
If you can go out on a limb to create something, despite not having all the skills or support to do it by the book, it doesn't hurt to try.
4. I put myself out there
As a woman trying to break into engineering, one of the most common things that you hear is that you need more confidence and to advocate for yourself. In my case, I reached a point where I felt that the skills I was learning and using could serve our product team as well as the marketing team.
What I did was write an email to the product and marketing managers explaining exactly what I wanted to contribute, and pitching myself as a cross-departmental collaborator. This email had three main parts:
The first part stated my goal and identified the use cases for my work. In particular, I was interested in building beautiful landing pages for our customers and business partners - still technically a marketing department and brand communication goal, but putting my coding skills to work.
The second part was explaining why they should add me to a particular team. I listed the projects I had worked on up to that point that I developed and used coding skills for, and clearly stated my own abilities. This is the part that some minorities in engineering can find hard – to not downplay or underestimate your own skills.
The third part was a concrete plan for moving forward while taking my existing responsibilities into account. I wasn't proposing an immediate job change as I still liked my work in marketing and I didn’t want to leave the content team high and dry. I wasn't fed up or dissatisfied with my role, just learning and growing in a new direction.
After three months of working across both teams, I became a fully-fledged Junior Frontend Developer and it felt like a natural evolution of my work. I've only scratched the surface of what's possible for me to build going forward, and I hope that my story inspires and encourages anyone else looking to make the leap from content to coding.
Photo by Lucas E. Pinheiro
Kathryn is an American living in Germany since the summer of 2016. She joined Berlin-based startup Grover as a marketing student while acquiring an M.A. in Communications Design from HMKW, and now works as a frontend developer. She also makes internet-based artwork with artificial intelligence and neural networks, and is deeply invested in exploring our technological future.
Website: kathrynisabelle.com | Linkedin