Zhi Juan Tang could see herself doing one of two things in the future: nurse, or supermarket cashier. The year was 2017, and her options were not exactly abundant: she had just moved to Germany from China, she did not speak the language, the man she thought would be the love of her life had just parted ways with her, she had no job, no nearby family to support her, and most pressing of all – one newborn child to take care of.
“After my relationship ended, I needed to find a way to be independent,” she says today. “I started taking German classes, but my progress was so, so slow. I absolutely needed to find something where I could get by with bad German, or even with no German at all.”
Zhi already boasted quite a few skills and work experience. In China she had studied English literature as well as international business and trade, then taught these things in university. In 2012 she had created her own company, an agency that connected photo models and foreign-language teachers with businesses in need of their services.
In Berlin, however, the language barrier stopped her from doing any of these things. Hence the dilemma she found herself pondering: should I become a nurse, or a supermarket cashier?
It was while she weighed out these doubts that the seeds of what would become a whole new career for Zhi were planted. One of her classmates as she studied German was a programmer from Brazil, and, when she voiced some of her concerns in his presence, he simply smiled. You know, he suggested, not knowing what would come of those words, you could always learn to code.
“I didn’t even take him seriously at first,” Zhi remembers, “I simply laughed and said no, I’m not capable of that. And he said, yes you are, and I repeated, no I can’t. But the truth was that he had put an interesting prospect before me. In the programming industry, it’s possible to work in English even while living in Germany. And the salaries were great – certainly a lot more than I would have made working in a supermarket.”
Over the coming weeks, Zhi would go on to have many conversations with herself. She recalled some of the programmers she had worked with back when she’d managed her own company, how they turned out to be not at all like the stereotype of the ‘nerdy IT guy’, but were in fact fun, chilled people. She wondered what it would be like to look at a page of computer code, and actually understand what it meant.
“The tipping point came when my Brazilian friend told me that his ex, who used to work as a model, was now taking a coding bootcamp. I realized that this type of radical career change was possible, and I said to myself, if I have learned enough to create and run a company, then who says I can’t learn to code?”
What happened next was, in her own words, “like destiny”.“The very day after I committed for good to learning to code, I received an email from a friend. At the bottom of the email was an ad with a link to a coding bootcamp. I remember that I didn’t even read my friend’s email – but I did read the page in the link.”
Zhi did not sign up for that course immediately, however. Instead, she underwent a painstaking process of research first.
“I needed a bootcamp that was fast, but at the same time that would equip me with a wide, versatile set of skills. I looked at several curricula and in 2021 I ended up choosing WBS CODING SCHOOL’s Full-Stack Web & App Development bootcamp, because it offered me just that. I was going to get into tech by the fastest route – but I knew it would also be the most difficult.”
On the difficulty, she was right – the learning curve was more like a learning cliff. “When I started the first few classes, I found myself actually doubting my intelligence. I felt like I was too stupid for this, and it took a while for me to overcome the obstacles and realise I could do this. I guess this is what it’s like when you cram into a few months the learning that others accumulate in years.”
Perhaps surprisingly, being a single mum was not as much of an impediment as it was a booster. “If anything, my son Yang was an extra motivation for me – I needed to improve my financial outlook for him as much as for myself. Fortunately, by the time I started the bootcamp, Yang was going to kindergarten, and his German grandparents were helping out as well. I had all day to learn.”
The bootcamp made for 15 weeks of gruelling study, culminating in her final project. Zhi had her eyes on finding a job before the course was even over.
“Others created projects that were more playful, but I designed a website for commercial applications – I really wanted to improve my odds of getting hired. I crafted my CV very carefully, getting help from the school’s Career Services. What came after took time – I think I sent out some 200 applications, and got interviews from 7-8 companies.”
Her first few interviews went poorly, but she learned from every single one. Meanwhile she created her own website to promote herself, took care of her GitHub, kept sending applications every day. “I did”, she says pointedly, “everything.”
And her efforts paid off. Zhi was contacted by Lufthansa, the German airline, who invited her to a technical interview. When she passed it, they offered her a position as Software Developer. It was the ‘take off’ of her career.
“The difficulties should not be underestimated,” she says at the end of our interview. “I wasn’t quite prepared for how hard it would be to learn so many new concepts, and so quickly. But as long as you believe in it and don’t give up, it will change your life. And your child’s life, if you have one.”
Said by someone who thought she would become a supermarket cashier and is now working as a software developer, the message rings twice as true.
Zhi Juan Tang graduated from the WBS CODING SCHOOL Full-Stack Web & App Development bootcamp in January 2022. She is currently employed as Software Developer at Lufthansa Industry Solutions.