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Introducing The Faces of Algolia: our brand new series connecting you to the people who make magic happen. As we build our team across multiple continents, five cities, and countless cultures and backgrounds, we’re excited to give you a behind-the-scenes peek into our world.
Today’s post features Marie-Laure Sin, a software engineer on our Intelligence Squad, who began her career in marketing in the Big Apple, and made the big leap to a life in engineering. Hear her story!
Like many of us, I was one of those people who never really knew for sure what they wanted to do. Sure, I knew I liked being part of an interesting project, organizing things, preferably in a challenging environment, but it was not a calling like some of my friends had. So I kept trying: a few months in a luxury brand as a press attaché, an apprenticeship in a big French corporation in the international marketing department. Then, when I graduated, I had this opportunity to join a tech startup in New York.
I was in charge of the events’ strategy coordination. Being a tech startup, attending events to demo the product was one of the main sources of leads for the sales team. The first few months were intense: settling down in a new country, working with very different and smart people. The change with the big bank I just left was brutal: instead of waiting for several rounds of approvals, I was in charge of half a dozen events, handling things from negotiation, to marketing collateral, last minute issues with the booth and all the suppliers but also all the logistics around manning our booths. I had to constantly be on top of everything, while travelling most of the time. I liked the fact that it was a very hands-on job which was impactful, that was a nice change from the comfortable environment of the bank.
However, after a few months, the adrenaline started fading away: the startup was doing great, and we had committed to sponsor a lot of events. It started to be a bit repetitive and I started to get a bit bored: all the events would be the same, and I had no prospects to do something else.
I still liked spending time with engineers. Engineers intrigued me; although I didn’t understand everything they were talking about, they all seemed to be very excited and proud of their work. They would always chat very enthusiastically about a new technology, and then they would debate over the way to use it, or help each other, quoting articles that they had read or liked.
They seemed very passionate about their work, and what I really liked was how they would help each other out when something wasn’t working. Of course, they would sometimes get stuck on something, but one of them once told me: “sometimes, I don’t know the answer and I can spend hours or even days working on something, but it is like a police investigation where you’re trying to find the culprit, and at the end of the day, I would always learn something new”. Some of them were really encouraging, telling me about how anyone could become a developer with some motivation and a lot of hard work.
I really wanted to do something that challenged me intellectually, so, in my free time, I took a bootcamp about Computer Sciences: the CS50 by Harvard (which I really recommend!). That bootcamp was a game changer: it manages to make Computer Sciences entertaining and teaches you concepts ranging from algorithms to data structure, security, web development and much more! I started to see things differently and even caught myself asking how certain things worked behind the scenes: it really opened a whole new perspective!
At that point, I knew I wanted to pursue this path, so I quit my job and took a 5-month full-time coding bootcamp in Paris. Starting all over again wasn’t easy: there were so many concepts that I’ve had never heard of, each one of them implying a lot of other (also unknown) concepts, but the feeling you experience when the thing you’ve been working on for hours is finally working is incredible!
Sometimes, you can get lost along the way, or you can feel lonely. I decided to join a bootcamp called ‘Women On Rails’, where we would meet every week and get teamed up with a mentor. From time to time they would do a session on a particular topic (“the basics of Git” for instance), otherwise, we could follow their track, or work on our own project. The mentors are very supportive and friendly and it has helped me tremendously! Being able to share my experience with people who were in the same place, but also people who’ve been through that always gave me a motivation boost.
I had a pretty clear idea of what I was looking for:
A few disappointing interviews in, one of the mentors at Women On Rails told us about this job offer for a junior developer for a startup that “really seems committed to source a real junior developer”. At that point, I had read hundreds of job offers, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. But when I read it, I understood. Where everybody else was listing all the technologies that I needed to master, how frequently I had to ship brilliant code, this job posting was focusing on motivation, making each other grow.
Sure, at this point it could have been only good advertising, but it was already a good start. Interestingly enough, it turned out that Algolia was hosting a Women On Rails meetup a couple of weeks later, so I was going to be able to see for myself how it was! And I wasn’t disappointed: as soon as I walked in, somebody welcomed me, sat with me and asked me what I was doing and told me how happy she was about this special meetup. I could see people talking openly and exchanging ideas in a very open and constructive way. There is a special feeling that is hard to describe, but something resembling genuine friendliness, and I instantly felt at ease. That’s when I knew I had to apply!
A non-negligible number of interviews later, I finally got the answer I was hoping for: I was going to be a member of Algolia’s InstantSearch team!
I remember being very impressed with the on-boarding process: everything is done to make you feel comfortable (I cannot recall how many times people have checked on me to make sure everything was going smoothly). During the first couple of weeks, I had an overview planned with a member of every team in the company! While it seems like a lot, it is definitely a great way to learn how Algolia works and really helps getting to know everybody.
I began working with Marie, a well seasoned developer who was then in charge of the React InstantSearch library. The on-boarding went smoothly since it was gradual: first of all we did an overview of how the project was built (something as simple as: where to find this or that). Then I did my first project that consisted of doing a demo with pretty much all of the widgets from the React InstantSearch library.
Then we took on the project of developing my first feature: the breadcrumb. I first sat down with Marie and we defined the different steps of the process. From one time to the other, I would know exactly what I had to do (that is to say, what I should achieve in terms of output/results) and I always had some time to look into it and sometimes get a bit lost.
Every step of the way, Marie was there if I had any questions, or even checking on me regularly. Every other day, we would meet to define new goals. Sometimes we would even work together an entire afternoon on a more difficult part.
It was great in terms of motivation but also very interesting since I would learn a lot (debugging skills, how to find info) etc.
At the same time, Marie suggested to do a Kata (it is a short exercise which helps programmers hone their skills through practice and repetition) twice a week. We would usually choose a theme (manipulating arrays, learning regex). The idea is to work on a concept isolated from a big project, proving useful because then I’d feel more comfortable working on it “in real life” since I’ve already done that. Upon discovering the exercise (that usually come with handy things such as tests that you need to make pass), the goal is to get the job done regardless of any style/optimization. Then we would see what could be improved. During the next session, we would do them again until it becomes natural.
I really liked those exercises, since the complicated side of getting to know how a project is articulated goes away. And during one hour, I can focus and I would always learn something new…it’s also a great way to mingle and do team building!
Looking back, one of the first things that comes to mind is that in just over a year, I’ve come a long way! If someone had told me I would have contributed to our InstantSearch libraries with not only small improvement but also features, and done support for the company, I wouldn’t have believed it!
After a few months, I got the opportunity to switch teams. I am now part of the internal tools team. Our mission is to help people within the company be more efficient. The work is very different from what I was doing in the InstantSearch team: we focus on aggregating data from various sources, but also automating things. For instance, the team built a Slack bot that reminds people when they have interviews, then they will be pinged to send in their feedback, etc. It is very rewarding to be able to help solve our team’s day-to-day problems, and also get their feedback right away in order to improve our tools!
The team is comprised of senior and talented developers, so we have to learn how to work together and it can take time to adjust (and we are still learning). It is not always easy, but I am lucky to be learning in a supportive environment, where it is okay to not know something and to voice your concerns, and other people will care and try to help you.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring: sometimes the learning process can be overwhelming and frustrating. But no matter how hard it is, there is something that I am certain of: at the end of the day, I’ve learnt a thing or two…and that feeling is just priceless!
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