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From musician to bootcamp grad to instructor

Hack Reactor

From musician to bootcamp grad to instructor

By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor

It’s tough to think of a more disparate career change than from musician to coder, at least on the surface, but in 2016, Kimberly Kost took that jump and today she’s a Program Lead and Software Engineering Instructor at Hack Reactor’s coding bootcamp in the Austin, TX campus. 

With her contagious smile and relaxed, relatable demeanor, and a wall full of pictures of pandas (a passion she speaks about in her classes), speaking with Kost felt more like catching up with an old friend than interviewing a software engineer whom I had never met. Yet it was clear from early on in our interaction that she is highly skilled and able to convey principles of coding with authority and expertise. 

Kost and I (virtually) sat down to discuss her background, the future of Galvanize and the software industry, as well as some of the struggles women face as they pursue careers in coding.

What is your background? 

I have a Bachelor’s in Music Education and am currently working on a Bachelor’s of Computer Science. I attended Hack Reactor in early 2016 before working in the industry as a full-stack and front-end developer for a few years. I am quite passionate about education, teaching, and mentorship, and I happened to grab dinner with the Program Lead of the Austin SEI program, and she was looking for a technical instructor. The fates aligned, and I started teaching at HR-ATX  (Hack Reactor - Austin) in 2019.

Your degree is in music education. How is writing software like writing music, if it is?

I am actually quite poor at writing music, so I’m not sure I can make that comparison.

However, I enjoy writing code in the same way I enjoy creating music (at a performance level) because of the creativity involved. In my experience, in both areas, you are trying to get some sort of information across to someone else, be it some sort of technical information or some sort of emotion or story, and I’ve enjoyed the communication aspect of both.

What made you make the jump from music to software?

I had always been interested in computers and technology, and I was looking for a change from interfacing with parents and fighting for music education in public schools. My dad is a project manager, and he recommended I look into software development, so I started to research different opportunities and settled on a bootcamp and, more specifically, Hack Reactor. 

Do you still play/write music?

I occasionally still play music, but not in a full band or orchestra (just on my own).

What are your instruments of choice?

My primary instrument in college was the bassoon, and I still play it sometimes. I also play the piano!

One of my current COVID-projects has been considering purchasing a French horn, just for fun, but we’ll see!

The more I write about tech and coding, the more I learn that there is creativity in coding. Do you agree and do you feel your background makes you uniquely able to tap into that?

Yes! It’s really about creativity for me. There is no right way to write code, other than there’s a certain syntax you need, but to solve a problem there are so many different approaches. For me, that feels very similar to music because there is no right way to “perform,” if you will. There are a lot of different interpretations and I enjoy listening to them.

Also, music, especially at younger levels, teaches problem-solving skills through a really fun medium. Coding can also teach problem-solving and debugging, which are applicable anywhere in your life. 

Kim has a great instinct for meeting the intellectual and emotional needs of her students. She recognizes the difficulty in scope, pacing, and subject matter being taught and knows what kind of encouragement and feedback students need. She’s a great listener who is also good at receiving and implementing feedback herself.

- Andrew Blinkard, Hack Reactor alumnus and Associate Full Stack Software Engineer, ShipEngine

What brought you to Galvanize and teaching?

I loved working for the Program Lead of HR-ATX previously when I was a software engineer in residence (SEIR), and she had an instructor position open and asked if I would be interested in applying. I missed teaching and was, again, looking for a career change, so I decided to take the jump. I had always been interested in teaching and education -- I knew I wanted to be an educator when I was 12! I’ve always loved seeing the “ah-ha” moment with students, I taught private piano lessons in high school and college, and I wanted to get back into more directed teaching.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles for women in STEM fields, and specifically in technology, and how do you believe tech can become more inclusive?

I believe a big part of the issue is just getting more women interested in STEM fields and confident that they can succeed. I think people already in tech can do more to make the industry more welcoming and friendly by partnering with companies/schools to start exposing more students to tech from a young age.

Are there other challenges you’ve noted, and what can be done to address them?

One challenge I’ve noted is the potential for bias against bootcamp-grads in favor of CS grads. I think the more we can help our students graduate well and prove themselves, the more we can start to turn the conversation around.

The stereotypical coder is aloof and somewhat of a loner. Is that still true?

While you do still find people like that, in my experience, things now are a lot more collaborative. I try to dispel that notion, especially with students, because I want them to be prepared for the fact that they are going to have to talk to other people.

Does that stereotype prevent people who are potentially very talented from entering the field?

I have seen some of that with our students. People that knew they really enjoy working with other people and having that community question whether they are going to have to find that and be proactive in making those connections happen. When we have conversations with them, they feel a little more relieved.

What is your favorite programming language and why?

I enjoy JavaScript because of the flexibility it affords. It’s relatively easy to pick up, and I know some people hate how unopinionated JavaScript can be, but I do enjoy it!

What are some of the best and worst things coders have done?

I’m pretty excited about the healthcare and education spaces, especially because with technology and software, students can still have high-caliber education, even remotely. In the healthcare space, traditionally, everything has been paper-based. Digitization makes everything more accessible and makes it so that you can have integrations between EMTs and ambulance companies with hospitals, so they can have your information before you arrive at the hospital. I find it amazing because it literally changes lives and saves lives. 

As for the negative, privacy concerns are what come to mind for me. How easy it is for people to take all your information. People don’t realize they’re giving away their information. I also worry about AI a little bit, and machine learning. 

Stephen Hawking predicted that AI would lead to the destruction of humanity.

I’m not sure I feel that doomsday about it. The advent of the internet with everything being so connected, and having that in the hands of people who don’t necessarily know what it means to be connected or how to protect themselves, so you hear all the horror stories about baby monitors that are hacked by people or Ring gets taken over.

What is one thing every computer user should know?

I think every computer user should know about basic personal security! Don’t use the same password for every login, don’t use generic passwords, know how to identify phishing/spam attempts, etc.

What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

Any time one of my students gets a job! I always love when they tell me, and I get to yell a “congratulations” at them. It’s such an amazing moment to see a student succeed and truly believe in themselves and “make it” in the industry! Love cheering them on. Love it.

What are some great projects your students are working on?

Our students always do a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) where they create an app from scratch in two days. It’s always amazing to see the things that they come up with. Usually, it’s things they’re passionate about, like a healthcare app, or tracking workouts -- pretty simple concepts. Then there are projects like working with a Phillips light bulb and saying things like “I miss this person,” so they turn their lightbulb on just to let them know they’re thinking about them.

Do you keep in touch with your students?

I do, with some! There are some students from my very first full cohort as an instructor that I still keep in touch with that come to mind! I really enjoy hearing them talk about their jobs and what they’ve learned, as well as watching them grow and succeed and crush it.

What project are you working on right now?

It’s not that exciting, but I’m working on a way to take really objective notes on the students. That way we can compare notes on the students from all the different staff members. 

What is your definition of success, vis-à-vis your students?

My general definition of success is that students are able to make goals and meet them. Within SEI, the goal is usually: they want to get a job in the software industry. One of the people that comes to mind would be Whitney Lee. She was in my first full cohort as an instructor, and she became a SEIR (Software Engineering Immersive Resident) after graduation. She received a job offer very quickly, successfully negotiated for something like 20k over the original salary, and is doing so well in her job. She even has some training videos and such out with her company!

Do you believe everyone should learn to code?

I think everyone should at least learn to use computers, which isn’t the same thing as code. With how technology is so integral to everything, people do need to have some basic computer skills, such as emailing and looking things up on the internet. 

I wonder about the logistics of teaching coding everywhere. Having computers and the available access to them is obviously an issue. Eventually, though, it would be really cool, but maybe not the highest priority right now.

Prediction time:

Changes in software development and/or the computer industry in 10 years

I think more companies will be remote or at least a hybrid. I’m not sure what else I would predict, other than I think technologies will come and go, and new ones will be thought of as the “new best thing” and a lot of people will argue about it.

Changes in Galvanize’s curriculum over the next 5 years

Well, in some ways, not much has changed in the curriculum since I was a student, but I would also like to think the current staff are really trying to update the curriculum to be more modern. I think we’ll have better standards and expectations, as well, and I think the curriculum will only improve and support students even better.