Zapproved’s Engineering Foundation Program Pioneers Success

Shaping junior software developers, and Zapproved, for a smarter future 

By Kyle Galbraith, Senior Software Engineer

Zapproved’s Engineering Foundation cohort program was created as a way to rapidly onboard associate software engineers who are just entering the software development world. The interview process consists of a phone screen with one of our recruiters. If that goes well, we then assign candidates  a coding exercise to complete within two days. We intentionally let the candidate use whatever resources they have to solve the problems in their unique way. They are assigned a Senior Engineer who helps answer questions — without giving away the answer of course.

Once candidates are finalized, we comprise a cohort of 4 or 6 people. The even number is important as we pair people up each week at the beginning so they can help one another learn. This pairing also makes it easy for team members to connect and build confidence as they learn our process, tools and stacks.

We bring in hungry, passionate and eager individuals and mentor them through Zapproved’s best practices, culture and mission. This process allows  us to tap into the fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking of associates to pinpoint new ways of evolving Zapproved’s products. A given cohort lasts for one to three months depending on how quickly individuals graduate into product teams. Associate engineers work on real-time products off the same backlog that our product teams use. In the early weeks we designate items in the backlog that are easy wins for associate engineers to work on that will greatly benefit our customers. After about a month we move associate engineers into pilot projects where they can try out for a given product team. If accepted onto a product team, these engineers have a chance at being hired full-time.

At Zapproved, we firmly believe that teaching and mentoring others early on in their career is the most productive way to move the needle forward in  product development. This concept is not new, but it reflects the entire engineering culture at Zapproved. The cohort program is a natural extension of this philosophy. Together, we are empowering new software developers to grow while simultaneously keeping Zapproved’s technology at the leading edge of innovation.

Q&A with Engineering Foundation Program Cohort #1

What better way to highlight a great engineering program than by featuring the cohorts in a Q&A interview session! Get to know three members of Zapproved’s first Engineering Foundation program cohort, who are now full-time employees.

Introducing Rikki Swetzof, Software Engineer DCP

Rikki Swetzof, Software Engineer DCP at Zapproved

Tell us about your background.

I’m originally from Oregon, but have spent most of my life in Alaska. I recently returned “home” to be nearer family, finish my degree and (maybe most importantly) enjoy the warmer weather.

How’d you get into software engineering?

I returned to college as a non-traditional student, having spent a long time working in the public sector (local government, public utilities, etc), as well as a short stint as a realtor. What I found was that in every role I assumed, the path always led me in a certain direction: helping people do their jobs better by refining and automating processes. For example, things relating to designing and implementing databases to replacing legacy or manual systems. With the encouragement of my family, I finally realized I should go back to school and officially pursue this path. What I originally thought would be an associate’s degree morphed into four years in college and a bachelor’s in computer science.

What’s tough about landing a junior developer role without any prior industry experience?

Many of the job postings for entry level developers actually have much higher requirements than someone new to the profession would actually have, such as a specified number of years of professional experience or specific product experience. While they might be willing to overlook a deficiency for the right candidate, it can be difficult to navigate the job market without that knowledge/experience.

How do you think this program is pioneering the tech community in PDX?

It gives new developers a place to learn and grow in a supportive environment while being able to actually contribute to a product almost immediately/directly. I made a conscious choice to join Zapproved over other employers because I felt that this concept was the most conducive to both my short-term and long-term development.

How has this program helped you grow as a developer?

It has pushed me to be more confident in my abilities and to not be afraid of failure, which despite how cliché it sounds, has helped me tremendously.  When I first started at Zapproved, I was worried about what I didn’t know. Now I’m able to look at something I don’t know as an opportunity to grow and learn something new.

Describe the leadership style of your cohort mentors?

Kyle was great at adjusting his leadership style as the weeks progressed. In the first few weeks, he was very hands on and nearby for any of our questions. He then transitioned to pushing us to expand our circle outside of the cohort. Finally, near the end, he shoved us out of the nest while reinforcing that he is our advocate and available if we needed him. He really did an excellent job of pacing his level of involvement, all while remaining supportive.

When I transitioned onto the DCP [Data Collect Pro] team, I found the same level of supportiveness and pace with Paul, who was at first very involved in my day-to-day coding and questions, and has since allowed me to grow and explore more on my own.

How can one succeed in this program?

Approach the program with an open mind, a lot of questions and the desire to learn.

What’s your favorite thing to do in PDX?

Since I’ve recently moved to the area, I’m still figuring that out. So far I’m enjoying just exploring what’s going on, like the Saturday Market or finding parks in my neighborhood.

Introducing Leah Nelson, Software Engineer LHP

Leah Nelson, Software Engineer LHP at Zapproved

Tell us about your background.

I’m from Seattle. My background is in violin performance. I’ve played for 20 years, though not so much since I started programming. I went to school at Cleveland Institute of Music and Rice University.

How’d you get into software engineering?

Last January, I spent some time in New York City after a seven-month international musical tour of Beauty and the Beast. I was dispirited returning to “real life,” and the post-travel blues were compounded by the feeling that I’d hit a wall in my music career. I happened to be staying with a houseful of programmers who encouraged me to try some coding tutorials. Starting with Codecademy’s Python course, I worked my way through the basics of several languages and was hooked by the required combination of logic and creativity. I decided this was something I wanted to pursue, so I moved to Portland to attend a code school May to November 2016. I started in the first Zapproved cohort in February, graduated from the program, and have been working on LHP [Legal Hold Pro] full-time since March.

What’s tough about landing a junior developer role without any prior industry experience?

From my experience in Portland, there are very few companies who are willing or able to give an industry newcomer their first chance. Many “junior” positions require one to three years of experience. It can be very discouraging. When I was applying for jobs it felt like I was sending applications into a void. It didn’t help that it was the slow holiday season, and the market was flooded with code school grads vying for the same few openings.

How do you think this program is pioneering the tech community in PDX?

I think it’s a unique, effective and efficient way to grow engineering teams, as 4-6 people are being trained at once. Because of the extra investment Zapproved is making into the early part of our careers, they are instilling best practices and knowledge of product/process from the ground up, and building loyalty on a personal level. The system is mutually beneficial for the company and the new engineers who are eager to learn and succeed.

How has this program helped you grow as a developer?

I’ve been able to develop my skills in areas I already had some experience with, as well as learn completely new technologies. I’m encouraged to work on any story that looks interesting to me, and help is always available if needed. I learn something new every day, mostly through experience, but also opportunities like “whiteboard sessions” — informal technical talks (yep, in front of a whiteboard) about relevant subjects, such as testing, security, design principles, etc.

Describe the leadership style of your cohort mentors?

Since we had a dedicated mentor he was able to be attuned to our progress, but not in a helicopter-managing way. He was readily available to provide help and support, then as the weeks went by we were encouraged to branch out to other engineers to become more integrated with the main product teams. We also had weekly check-ins where we could exchange honest feedback, both positive and constructive. This was immensely helpful to stay on the same page, know what to improve on, build confidence and determine the direction of my career at Zapproved.

How can one succeed in this program?

Take advantage of the experience! Be open to learning anything, own your work and get it done —but also know when to ask for help

Introducing Aaron Bini, Software Engineer LHP

Aaron Bini, Software Engineer LHP at Zapproved

Tell us about your background?

I have a master’s degree in glacial geology, spent six years as a vegetable farmer, and two years working as an electrician. So, it varied to say the least.

How’d you get into software engineering?

I started learning web development a couple of years ago in my free time, and accelerated the process last year by attending Code Fellows, a full-stack JavaScript code school here in Portland.

What’s tough about landing a junior developer role without any prior industry experience?

A lot of companies, understandably, want to hire experienced, capable senior-level developers. While these people obviously exist, I don’t think there are as many out there in the job market as companies expect. I’ve heard that a lot of companies have a difficult time filling their engineering ranks with highly experienced developers.

Most companies don’t seem willing to commit time and resources to mentoring and training junior developers. During the job hunting process, I didn’t encounter a lot of companies saying, “We’re really excited to hire junior devs and train them to work with our tech stack and grow with our company.” I believe that this is short-sighted, and it was certainly a barrier to breaking into this field for me.

How do you think this program is pioneering the tech community in PDX?

I don’t know of any company in Portland doing anything like this. This program gave me, someone without a formal educational background in computer science, the opportunity to break into the software field. It also gave me the opportunity to contribute almost from day one, in a structured environment with a dedicated, experienced mentor available to assist at all times. I would say that in the long run Zapproved will benefit a lot from this decision. In contrast, companies that take a more short-sighted approach and are unwilling to commit to mentorship and training will miss out on a group of smart, motivated developers who are only lacking in industry experience.

How has this program helped you grow as a developer?

I get to work on interesting, challenging problems everyday, and I’ve learned a lot about developing high-quality software. I’ve gotten the chance to work with modern web technologies, participate in the scrum development process, and be involved in all phases of the software development life cycle. I think even in the short time I’ve been with Zapproved, I’ve already grown a lot as a developer.

Describe the leadership style of your cohort mentors?

Kyle did a great job of understanding how to mentor at different stages of the program. Early on, he took a more hands-on approach and walked us through things step by step. As we progressed, he slowly stepped back and allowed us to work on problems in a more independent fashion, and let us come to him when we were blocked rather than the other way around. It helped as well that Kyle is a seasoned veteran of Zapproved and knows the tech stack and code bases really well.

How can one succeed in this program?

I believe that anyone who really loves developing software, is highly motivated, and is committed to continued learning can be successful in this program. Obviously some experience with the technologies is important as well, but above anything, it’s about being committed and motivated.

What’s your favorite thing to do in PDX?

I like to get outside, explore and build things.

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