My CFGdegree Experience: Alexandra Cook
Alexandra Cook has had a fantastic journey alongside CFG, starting as one of our MOOC students and eventually graduating as part of our Autumn ‘21 Cohort! Today, she is a multi-award-winning engineer and works as a Front-End Developer, whilst continuing to share her coding journey on Instagram @CoderCook.
How did you first hear about Code First Girls?
“Free coding course for women worth £10k+ leading to a certified CFGdegree and tech job opportunities”.
Interested? I definitely was!
After stumbling across a Code First Girls Instagram ad for a completely free coding course, I decided to check it out (shoutout to the CFG marketing team for kick-starting my tech career 😉). At the time, I had recently graduated from university and was enjoying a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Following further research, I recognised that the CFGdegree offered a unique opportunity for me to develop skills, pursue a new challenge and break into tech – to date, CFG has provided over £75 million worth of free technology education and helped more than 120,000 women learn to code… and I wanted to get involved! I really resonated with CFG’s vision and found it empowering to see this amazing organisation on a mission to close the tech gender gap. I found comfort that, like me, 89% of the CFG community had no previous tech experience and 84% came from a non-computer science background. I began completing free online coding courses, including several of the CFG MOOCs, which helped me to pass the CFGdegree technical assessment and subsequently be accepted into their Autumn 2021 cohort.
How hard is the tech assessment, and what did you do beforehand to prepare accordingly?
To pass the tech assessment, you should already have a fundamental understanding of the core coding concepts required for your chosen stream, rather than being a complete beginner. Although the CFGdegree will start with the basics to ensure everyone’s at a similar technical baseline, knowing these fundamentals is essential for passing the assessment. For the Software stream assessment, which predominantly focused on Python, I made sure I knew my core basics (lists, strings, operators, functions, loops etc.) and practised these until I was confident.
The exam is mostly all multiple-choice and includes tasks like spotting code errors and providing definitions. The pass rate is 50%, and even if you score between 40-49%, you get another attempt. It’s challenging, but if you know your basics, you’ll be well prepared to tackle the questions 🙂
What did you imagine working in tech would be like, and has it matched your expectations?
Thankfully, working in tech is just as fun and exciting as I thought it would be 🙂I find being a software engineer varied, challenging and interesting, and I love the always-learning aspect of the role.
I did, however, have several misconceptions before I worked in tech:
- I will probably never be as good as someone who has an actual Computer Science degree
- As a beginner, I won’t be able to make much impact as I’ll just be learning all the time
- I’ll spend all of my time writing code, with no time for much else
A year on, I have a much better view on all of this! Firstly, some of the very best engineers I work with have also joined the industry via bootcamps and other more unconventional routes – a non-tech background is actually a lot more common than you think! Although technical ability is of course important, ‘soft skills’ e.g. communication and teamwork play an equally large part in being a good engineer. It’s often those people who have joined armed with transferable skills, the ability to work in a team and a fresh insight from other roles that make them a more well-rounded developer.
Secondly, even though I do spend ~70% of my time writing code, I find I have lots of variety in my role with other technical duties, such as designing architecture, debugging, testing code and mentoring junior engineers. I have also been involved in organising hackathons, supporting tech events and conferences, as well as upskilling in certifications, and I enjoy the diversity this brings to my role.
Finally, being a beginner won’t ever be too much of a drawback if you’re willing to counteract this with proactivity – I have found that you have the freedom to make as much impact as you want. Early on, I was only able to support with smaller tasks, spending lots of my time pair-programming with more senior developers. To provide more value to my team, I proactively supported in other ways, such as writing developer best practice documentation, running SCRUM ceremonies and delivering coding 101 sessions, until I gained more confidence and experience. This just takes time, so ensuring I gave myself the space to grow and learn without being self-critical was key.
What was the highlight of the CFGdegree?
The amazing graduation ceremony that followed was also of course a highlight. It was fantastic to meet other students from my cohort and celebrate all our success – plus, CFG really knows how to throw a party!
What passions do you have outside of coding, and do they help you in your role at all?
Being a software engineer requires lots and lots of brain power every single day! This makes it extra important to construct a good daily routine, ensure I step away from the screen and spend my personal time completely unwinding. I balance upskilling in my career with lots of downtime pursuing my passions. I absolutely love running (having completed my first marathon very recently!), being outside and spending time actively. It helps me decompress, feel amazing and stay sharp when it’s time to focus.
“I particularly enjoyed designing and building frontend systems, as it felt like a strong hybrid between being technical and logical, but also being creative.”
“I have gone from having zero technical experience and working in a completely different industry, to being a multi-award-winning engineer and CFG Ambassador in just under two years,”
We often get questions from potential students who aren’t sure which of the coding pathways to take, especially as we now offer four streams in Data, Software Engineering, Full-Stack & Product Management! Why did you select the stream that you did?
By completing a variety of coding courses, I realised the thing I loved most was being hands-on and solving problems with code. I particularly enjoyed designing and building front-end systems, as it felt like a strong hybrid between being technical and logical, but also being creative. At the time I was applying, the Full-stack Stream was not yet available, so I chose the Software Engineering stream as this would allow me to keep doing the type of coding I enjoyed and set me up for the role I hoped to have (and now work as!) – a Front-End Developer.
The CFG website gives a fantastic breakdown of which roles you can expect to pursue following each of the streams. It’s a good idea to think ahead to the sort of role you’d like first, to help you narrow down which stream to choose. If you’re not quite sure yet, why not consider the following as a starting point:
- Interested in analysing and solving problems with data, data science or machine learning > Data stream
- Interested in solving problems with code, developing mobile apps, cloud engineering or DevOps > Software stream
- Interested in the end-to-end development of applications and systems, and both frontend and backend development > Full-stack stream
- Interested in managing a technical development team, product development and research > Product Management stream
I’d then cross-reference this information with the sponsoring companies, and apply to the opportunities that best align with these career goals and interests.
What one piece of advice would you give someone considering doing the CFGdegree?
Take the leap! Coming from a non-Computer Science background, I almost let imposter syndrome take hold and talk myself out of applying; Would it be too challenging? Do I have the right skills? Isn’t coding really hard?
I almost didn’t apply for these very reasons, and I certainly would not be enjoying a career in tech if I hadn’t. To put this into perspective, I have gone from having zero technical experience and working in a completely different industry, to being a multi-award-winning engineer and CFG Ambassador in just under two years, all springboarded from the life-changing opportunity that is the CFGdegree…so take this as your sign to not let imposter syndrome or a lack of technical experience prevent you from applying! You will likely have many transferable skills from other jobs, roles and projects, so use these to your advantage and showcase your skills in other ways. See your unique, personal background as a positive opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the industry.
The CFG website contains a bunch of information, alumni stories and more as part of their trailblazing to get more women into tech. It’s not only CFGdegrees on offer, with a load of completely free courses to choose from. So whether it’s data, software, full-stack or product that takes your fancy, get involved – there’s something for everyone!
Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without a nod to my own Instagram @CoderCook where I have *loads* of CFGdegree top tips, the inside scoop on working in tech and lots more advice, motivation and support for breaking into the tech industry. If you see this post and have any questions, feel free to drop me a DM!