Alumni Interview: Abby Howell



Meet Abby Howell. Abby first became interested in computer programming while working with Deaf children and using Scratch, a visual programming language for kids developed at MIT. Here’s her story.

What were you doing before you came to GA?

I was a teacher of Deaf children with special needs. I taught for five years at the middle school level and one year of elementary school. I was teaching my students to use Scratch to make little games and was struck by the creative potential and started using Scratch for my own projects. I used Scratch to build teacher tools, interactive science simulations, self-grading quizzes, vocabulary practice games, all kinds of things. I started using Scratch to solve Project Euler problems on the weekends. I bought books about programming and started teaching myself JavaScript. I wanted to learn a real programming language but I didn’t know where to start. I knew a lot of software developers but they had all taught themselves programming when they were kids, and none of them seemed to know how to teach programming or how I could go about learning it.

What brought you to GA? Why did you choose to take WDI?

I decided to take a break from teaching at the end of this past school year, and I was looking for another career that would give me more flexibility, autonomy, and respect. I considered doing sign language interpreting, doing a PhD in linguistics, but I decided that I should take the opportunity to study computer programming. A friend sent me a link to a coding boot camp in Austin, Texas. I had never heard of this phenomenon before and it didn’t occur to me that there might be more than one program like it until I did a phone interview with the school in Austin. I started to research and found out that there are many programs like it, and when I found that GA had a program in Boston, I applied.

I chose General Assembly over the other programs like it because they are big enough to have people whose job it is to think about curriculum design and what to teach, and because they are established enough to have a track record and could tell me statistics about how many of their graduates go on to become software developers. It’s hard to compare these things in a meaningful way, but General Assembly impressed me because they seemed to have actually developed a curriculum that was effectively turning non-programmers into programmers.

I didn’t realize this then, but another thing that sets General Assembly apart from other schools like it is that GA is the only coding boot camp that doesn’t charge companies a fee when they hire its graduates. My boss at my first job after I graduated from WDI told me that he has to pay a recruiter fee if he wants to hire alumni of the other schools in the area. I’m happy, as a job hunter with a resume that shows me to be a very qualified middle school teacher but a “very junior” developer, to not have the additional hurdle of convincing a company to not only hire me but also pay my school for the privilege.

What was the best thing you got out of your course?

Learning programming has been very empowering for me. It’s such a powerful creative tool; I feel like I could use these skills to build anything I can imagine. A lot of the software engineers I know were skeptical of my goals; they didn’t think it was possible to teach someone so much in so short a period of time and hadn’t ever met anyone who had learned to program as an adult. But it was possible; my teachers were patient and respectful and answered all of my hundred zillion questions, and I learned how to build websites from them. Step by step, one concept after another, I learned about databases and servers and http requests and ajax and communicating with APIs and how to fit everything together to build web apps. There’s so much more I have to learn, but they’ve given me the tools I needed to get an entry-level job in the field and to contribute meaningfully to a team of developers, and the skills to teach myself everything else I need to know.

Tell us about your new job!

After graduating from WDI, I spent a month working on short-term contract at Localytics, doing back-end Rails development with Redis, Sidekiq, and I finished that project, and have accepted a full-time offer as a JavaScript developer at Cengage, which is a textbook publishing company that makes interactive digital textbooks.

Since graduating from the program, how have you gotten involved with the developer community in Boston?

Once a teacher, always a teacher – I volunteered with RailsBridge to help them redesign their curriculum to focus more on skills and accommodate different levels of prior knowledge and different paces of learning. I worked with the organizers to rethink what they wanted to teach and what the goals of the program are, and helped TA the January RailsBridge workshop. The students I worked with were beginner programmers, and they all made cool projects like a silly nickname generator, a dice-roller program that prints ascii dice to the screen, an RPG-character generator, and a madlibs program.

I also spoke at, a conference for college students, where I gave a live demo about Ruby on Rails for students who are interested in getting to know more about the technology involved in the startup scene.

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