Joyce Ma discusses the joy of problem-solving on the job

Before she found her way to coding and software engineering, bootcamp graduate Joyce Ma studied biology and physiology and envisioned herself becoming a veterinarian. But once she started down that professional path, she realized it wasn’t the right fit for her. A friend recommended she try coding, and she hasn’t looked back since.

In this Q&A, read about Joyce’s journey through the bootcamp and how it helped her gain confidence and realize how much she loves the feeling of solving problems alongside others. She carries that into her role as a Software Engineer at Twilio, a company specializing in programmable communication tools using its web service APIs.

What initially drew you to software engineering?

Initially, it wasn’t something I was looking into. I was looking into veterinary schools and preparing to study to get in. I had hopes of becoming a doctor, or– dogtor. 🙂 It was the path I always thought I would get into.

I have a degree in biology with a concentration in physiology, and I worked at a (human) hospital for a bit, moving into disease ecology research. Then, after some actual experience in the veterinary space, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I began to express some anguish after working in the industry. One of my closest friends, who is a software engineer, asked me the golden question: “Why don’t you learn to code?” I was always a bit envious of how relaxed his work seemed. But it always felt like something that wasn’t achievable because, well, I’m not my friend, I’m just me (hello imposter syndrome!).

So it was with a lot of initial reluctance that I first started learning how to code. But I quickly learned to love the challenges that came my way, relishing in the little victories in figuring something out, and meeting awesome people along the way. I live for the challenge and the meaningful conversations that come from solving challenges with another person or party.

What led you to enroll in the Hack Reactor program specifically? 

That same friend I mentioned recommended I look into Hack Reactor. He shared some of his coworkers’ success stories, too, because he knew some of them were also from non-traditional backgrounds. So I did! I enrolled in 2019 based out of San Francisco and did the program in person.

What did you get out of your time in the bootcamp? 

This is a question I love answering! Personally, when I first approached Hack Reactor, I just thought I’d get in and get out (hopefully, if I didn’t fail), then get a job. But to my surprise, I got so much more than I bargained for. I got a wonderful instructional team, cohort mates, and also learned how to code and problem-solve like an engineer. I did not expect to fall in love with the culture at Hack Reactor. I felt like everyone I met and worked with contributed to my personal growth. I came in not believing in myself, but everyone there believed in me. The only person that was holding me back was myself, really. I learned how to lean on my classmates and staff and to surround myself with positive energy.

What is your role at Twilio? What kinds of projects or tasks are you working on regularly?

My role at Twilio is Software Engineer! I’m currently working on the frontend (yay JavaScript), and the best way to describe my kind of work is the little door between two rooms. It’s a frontend role, but I don’t work on a user interface (UI) often. I think of it sort of like a gray space in between the frontend to the backend. I work with a technology known as WebRTC, which applications such as Slack, Discord, Google Hangouts utilize in order for folks to video chat with one another. I work on a product called the Video SDK. On a daily basis, I’m frequently debugging, learning more about WebRTC, working with various browser technologies (or lack thereof), maintaining our applications, or working on developing features!

What do you like about your role? 

I love how quickly our team moves in terms of iterating on our product. We do our best to put on the customer’s shoes to understand what they need and want in order to quickly develop features for them, on top of balancing maintenance work with a strict testing regimen. I feel like I’m working within a strong engineering culture here at Twilio, where all of those things we learned in the bootcamp have come to life, and matter. Nothing is a part of tech debt, quality and consistency are at the forefront of our minds, and maintenance is ingrained as part of our daily work to ensure things don’t break.

And what challenges have you faced so far?

I think some of the biggest technical challenges I’ve come to face are trying to get all of the browsers to agree with each other. Because we want to allow folks using various browsers to run their apps, this can sometimes mean that various browsers simply don’t agree with each other. For example, a browser could have a feature we’d like to use, but another browser may not have implemented that feature yet.

Another more internal and mental challenge is that, for a very long time, I was under the impression that “frontend” developer solely meant that you were working on the app or a UI. I struggled with finding the words to describe my work, and to this day, it’s something I don’t know if I can convey to others.

But I feel that my work is so wildly different in terms of frontend work. I find challenges in that space because we aren’t infrastructure, but we aren’t working on an attached UI, either. It’s all very confusing, so coming to terms and grappling with that idea and mentality – and approaching problems differently than I normally would – was one of the biggest mental blocks I’ve had to face.

What’s your work environment like? Do you work on-site? Remotely? 

I’m so fortunate to say that I was part of the last cohort to have had the pleasure of working in the office. But since COVID has thwarted all of that, I now work remotely with the option to be able to go into the office. Initially, the change of moving to remote work long-term was very difficult. I constantly found myself unable to stop working because the ritual of “closing-the-laptop-and-commuting-home” stopped happening. This meant I was working well into the late-night hours, especially when I was deep into a problem and I wasn’t able to solve it earlier that day. So earlier on during that transition, I was struggling with burnout because I worked long hours.

But since then, I’ve been able to apply an “off” switch to my days, where I just turn off work at a certain time. Setting mental boundaries was probably one of the best things I’ve done for myself!

Aside from that, my team was already partially remote and so the transition to working remotely was very smooth. Our meetings were always online anyway, and so the only thing on-site folks were missing out on was the snacks! We all know how important those are.

Lastly, do you have any advice for someone who’s about to start their first day of the bootcamp? How can they get the most out of their experience? 

Absolutely. First of all, you’re doing fantastic. It is not an easy feat to learn how to code in the first place, especially if you’ve never done anything like it previously, and you made it this far already! Therefore, don’t be so hard on yourself.

Secondly, silent suffering, more often than not, tends to be a silent killer. Going at things alone is never the way, especially because once you’re in this industry, you’re often expected to perform with and on a team. Not asking questions, and not being upfront when you don’t know or understand something usually lends itself to learning slower, and I’ve seen that it holds folks back.

If you’re doing the program I did, the 12-week bootcamp, you have three months, which seems like a long time and it might feel like a long time, but it really isn’t. So do your best to absorb all that you can in the program. Ask all your questions. Rely on those around you, which includes the wonderful staff and your classmates. Everyone is there for you and don’t let it go to waste. We’re all cheering you on! Then, when you finish the program, all of the previous graduates will be there cheering you on during the job search, as well. Rely on us and your network! We’re all in this together!! (Cue the High School Musical soundtrack here.)