Babbel Neos: The first year of a junior developer

Gábor Török, the former Program Lead for our engineering mentoring program – named Babbel Neos – follows up with the trainees to see where they are, how the program helped them, and where they see themselves going in the future.
Neos year one

One year ago Babbel hired 8 junior developers who completed a 6-month in-house software engineering training program called Babbel Neos. To date, 7 out of 8 are still working at the company in various teams from data infrastructure to payments to product development. Creating an opportunity for early-career developers wasn’t new at Babbel, but allocating specific bandwidth to invite 8 applicants to a dedicated training program was a new initiative at the time.

I was responsible for managing the program and giving first-hand guidance to the trainees and mentors involved. Although I’m not employed by Babbel anymore, I was eager to know how the first Neos cohort was doing and how they saw the first year of their new career in engineering in retrospect. This article was born out of my passion and curiosity about this group’s journey.

I was looking for answers to the following questions:

  • What attracted them to software engineering
  • How their picture of what it means to be a software engineer changed
  • What helped them succeed in joining a new industry
  • How their different motivations might have influenced their journeys

I interviewed 5 out of 8 of the former Neos.

The story of Karen (from Spain)

I wanna be someone who knows the code inside out.

Karen is a career changer. She had a senior position in Customer Success at a technology company. She felt that the only way she could have progressed in her career was taking on management roles. She wished she could stay as an individual contributor but still grow. She even considered going back to university to do a Masters to challenge herself. Out of curiosity, she attended a tech meetup. There she discovered a one-day coding workshop that she decided to join. She was impressed by how much you could achieve with computer literacy. She encountered people with many different cultural and professional backgrounds, and that was attractive to her. She took the challenge and signed up for a 9-week paid developer bootcamp. It was clear from that moment that software development was going to be her next adventure.

Many get inspired by the power of technology yet they struggle to take their first steps. While never before has there been such a wealth of resources available for self-education, understanding what to focus on and receiving feedback on one’s progress is what makes a difference. Before joining the bootcamp, Karen signed up for a bunch of online courses but got easily sidetracked. The bootcamp’s strict curriculum and dedicated mentorship helped her kickstart her career in tech. Eventually, it enabled her to secure a trainee position later on in Babbel Neos.

Why would someone want to become a software engineer? Engineers work isolated on their computers, are often stressed as sprints come to an end, have long working hours, and have not much of a social life anyway. At least this is the stereotypical picture many have outside of the industry. Becoming a junior developer proved this wrong. Karen was astonished by how much software developers at Babbel were involved in product development and how many times they sat together to talk about programming code. It was far more than lonely typing. She closely collaborates with the engineers in her team and receives support from them. For certain domains, other departments like Marketing would directly seek her help. Explaining to her mother what she does daily is still difficult though. “As someone working in Payments, we take care of some critical systems that you don’t see but fuel the website experience. I tell to my mother that we are the ones making sure that the money gets to the right place when she buys something online. Honestly, I think she still wonders what I’m doing here,” she laughs.

Changing roles wasn’t the only challenge for Karen. Her life changed overnight. She went from being a senior professional to being a student striving to become a junior developer. And everyone around her was more senior. It can feel intimidating. Karen pointed out that having a dedicated mentor throughout the Neos training program – and eventually joining her mentor’s team – gave her the support she needed. It helped her find her footing at the company. She had the chance to partake in real-life projects. She had someone always accessible to her to ask questions. Last but not least, she made new friends. By the time the training was over and the company decided to hire her, the whole team was clear about her background and skills. She had her desk and felt welcome.

Karen decided to change her career because she wanted to challenge herself and find a position to keep growing professionally. In retrospect, she is completely satisfied with her decision. She sees herself in the future as a very knowledgeable developer. “My goal is clear. I want to be like Pooja. Someone who knows the code inside out and can mentor others.” And she’s fully on it. For almost a year now, Karen has been also working as a volunteer at the ReDi School, a Berlin-based coding program to mentor career changers. While one might think that you need to be a senior to effectively mentor others, Karen’s recent experience of becoming an engineer enabled her to speak the language of her mentees. While this might sound like an unusual concept, it’s a key pedagogical approach at Le Wagon, the coding bootcamp from which Karen graduated. Teachers at Le Wagon are graduates of previous batches.

Finally, I was curious about Karen’s experience of being a woman in tech. “Honestly, I never encountered a situation at Babbel when I felt treated differently because I was a woman. Neither way. However, people sometimes use the male vocabulary. It’s something that needs to be changed. During conference visits, I felt this was more of an issue. Some are still surprised when a woman gives a talk or even wonder what we are doing at tech conferences. At the same time, I receive job offers because companies want to have more women on board. I take that as a positive sign.”

The story of Rufael (from Sweden)

I wanted to be able to build my ideas.

During his Interaction Design studies, Rufael had the chance to try coding at university. He enjoyed being able to build his design ideas. For a few years, he tried different ways to get a grasp on programming, but it turned out to be quite difficult. There was so much to learn and it wasn’t clear what to focus on in order to get a job. “I wished for some guidance. I didn’t feel I was making much progress. I almost gave up on it when I bumped into the Neos training program. I guess I wasn’t aware of coding bootcamps at that time.”

Rufael worked with programmers as a designer before, so the industry wasn’t completely new to him. Yet the fact that Babbel was calling for software engineer trainees sounded a bit scary for him. Engineers are very educated people and make no mistakes; how can a junior live up to that expectation? While his experience of working with developers was quite smooth, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Encountering Babbel’s engineering culture first-hand answered his questions. There was plenty of room to make mistakes. He found the fact that he could “improve by doing” to be appealing; his mistakes were chances to learn.

Joining the Neos program gave him the guidance he was lacking. It was a safe space for trial and error, yet with a clear direction and feedback on his progress. It eventually opened up an opportunity to join Babbel as a junior developer; exactly what he wished for. “I liked that the company was very clear from the beginning that they were willing to potentially hire everyone from the group.” It was a mutual interest for both parts to do their best.

Rufael currently works on Babbel’s online learning experience. His team’s goal is to win customers back to the product. Although he’s still a junior developer, he’s already been able to contribute to the product. He finds it a special opportunity and it feels rewarding for him. Having dedicated mentors and pairing up with senior engineers enabled him to catch up quickly with the necessary knowledge, he says. He receives feedback regularly from his peers and manager that helps him identify areas for further development. “I learned how to work with others, how to ask the right questions and figure out things myself. I gained much more than technical expertise.” He was primarily focusing on frontend technologies, but lately, he’s started to learn more about backend services and infrastructure. He has now a much deeper understanding of general programming principles and he likes the logical challenges of the backend stack.

“I remember for some trainees it was difficult that the Neos training program didn’t have a very strict structure. For me, it was a great opportunity to learn how to be more independent and responsible for my career.” When I asked him if he had a specific learning goal besides his everyday tasks, he said his role in his current team already required learning many new things. It would distract him if the learning goal wasn’t directly connected to what he was working on.

Finally, he mentions that he’s still in contact with most of the former Neos trainees. He finds these connections very valuable. It helped him to arrive at the company and have people in the same boat with whom he could exchange experiences.

The story of Masha (from Russia)

Being an engineer is very social.

Masha was looking for a job in Germany. She didn’t speak German at the time and she realized that without fluent German, she wasn’t able to secure a job she wanted. She discovered that many people like her changed careers and became web developers abroad in international companies. It wasn’t a secret either that there was a high demand for software engineers in the market. This gave her enough inspiration to give it a try.

She subscribed to an online Udacity course and she had a programmer friend that helped her take the first steps. In the meantime, she learned that the German State would sponsor paid courses for job seekers. She evaluated various options and decided to sign up for a 12-week coding bootcamp in Berlin. It had a steep learning curve. While it helped her establish her feet in the world of web development, she wasn’t sure if she gained enough knowledge to apply for a job. When she heard about the Neos training program, she thought it was the right next step for her. It gave her a chance to further develop the technical skills she believed she was lacking. At the same time, as she never worked in a tech company before, the training program provided her a proper introduction to the industry as well. She understood how the product and engineering organizations worked, what the everyday rituals for agile teams were, and what the expectations for software developers were in general.

Before joining Neos, Masha’s view of being an engineer was the following: people work on complex challenges, the job is sometimes boring, it requires lots of concentration, and it isn’t social at all. Being in the job for about a year now, her view has changed. It’s complex and it needs concentration indeed. Yet it’s very social as well. “I didn’t think I would collaborate so much with my colleagues. We do lots of pair programming and we have regular discussions about the projects and tasks with the whole team.”

Masha has a dedicated mentor in the team and she finds this crucial. “As a junior, I’m not able to solve all the tasks alone. My mentor helps me understand the tasks and we pick stories from the backlog together. I’m not very self-confident. To have a check-in with my mentor every day is reassuring for me.” While having high expectations for yourself can boost your growth, being surrounded by many seniors can unfold a risk; you start comparing yourself to others and that’s not healthy. It makes you feel you don’t achieve much and pushes you to work even harder. It might lead to burnout early on, a common syndrome in the industry, that has been openly discussed in the recent years. Masha’s mentor provides timely feedback on her progress so that she sees what to improve. This creates space to celebrate her achievements too. “The bootcamp and then the traineeship were very intense and stressful. I pushed myself too much,” she added. “I needed to understand my limits and find a sustainable pace for growth.”

Finally, I also asked her about her experience as a woman in tech. “I didn’t face any issues at Babbel. I’m glad that the company is aware of gender issues and takes action to resolve them. For instance, our Femgineering forum is an important initiative to support female engineers at the company.”

The story of Hari (from India)

I wanted to become a big data engineer.

Hari has more of the traditional profile that one would expect from a software engineer. His elder brother studied computer science and currently works as a business analyst. Hari was always interested in what his brother was working on and decided to have a similar career. He studied civil engineering in India and then moved to Germany to do a Master’s in Computational Sciences. He wrote his first program in Matlab. It inspired and reassured him that he wanted to become a programmer. “Programming seemed so powerful,” he says. He got to know Python and signed up for a Udacity course. He wanted to show what he was capable of so he started to learn the basics of website development as well.

“In Germany, I was working beside my Master’s study to finance myself. I wished I could find a full-time junior developer job but I only encountered internships.” He wasn’t hiding how excited he became when he stumbled upon the call for applications for the Neos training program. “It was exactly what I wished for! I’m very grateful for this opportunity.” Joining a 6-month paid training enabled Hari to dedicate his attention to coding without financial worries. Furthermore, receiving dedicated guidance and having a chance to work in a professional context gave him a big career boost.

Since his brother worked in software technology, Hari had a pretty realistic picture of what it means to be a developer. “Flexible working hours and being frustrated by hunting down software bugs,” he laughs. From early on, it was clear that he wanted to become a software developer and work with data. Today Hari is part of Babbel’s data engineering team. He has recently completed his Master’s thesis about a project that improved Babbel’s data infrastructure. “I want to become a big data engineer. I spend one hour at the end of each day learning something new.” His next career goal is to earn an Amazon big data specialist certification that the company offered to sponsor.

The story of Ana (from Peru)

I want to be a professor at university.

Ana’s story with software engineering dates back when she was part of an NGO to empower women in tech in Peru. She saw how technology can bring a positive impact on people’s lives. She wanted to be involved and become a role model for others. The organization helped her get started with programming. She attended online courses and local meetups wherever she traveled. She wanted to educate herself and make connections with people in the industry. To give herself a chance to secure a job in software engineering, she decided to sign up for a 12-week coding bootcamp in Germany that she was eligible to do with her visa. During this time, she heard about Babbel Neos and eventually got selected for the training program.

“Before becoming a software developer, I thought engineers had a nerdy life, were extremely intelligent, and were men. I never met a woman engineer before,” she says of her prior view of the tech scene. “You can still find the stereotype but the industry is changing and I’m an example of that. I see many young people with diverse cultural and professional backgrounds becoming developers.”

Ana started her career at Babbel’s backend team and later switched to another company. She’s grateful for her journey at Babbel. She learned a lot about team dynamics and she studied computer science concepts about which she had no prior education. Her experience at Babbel taught her what type of support she was looking for and she could articulate this already in the next job interviews.

Although the switch to another company was challenging for her, she’s glad she made the change. When Ana joined her new company, the manager made it clear that it was the whole team’s responsibility to set up her for success. “It’s a journey for both the mentor and mentee. The whole team needs to invest in it. I’m a blocker many times for others and that’s okay,” she says firmly. Her team baked in processes in their everyday life that made sure Ana was never left out; everyone is interested in her development.

Completing the Neos training program and having a junior developer job at Babbel opened many doors to Ana. She found her next job much easier, and she got invited to public events to talk about her experience both as a career changer and a woman in tech. She’s also a volunteer mentor at the ReDI School along with Karen. When I asked her about her plans, it turns out that she applied to the BSc Computer Science course at the University of London and she’s starting her studies already this October. “I want to be a professor at university,” she explains.

While the market demand for software engineers is high, companies tend to overlook the group of highly motivated professionals who are willing to enter the industry if the required support is given. Universities and coding bootcamps alone can’t bridge the gap. Babbel invested resources in providing dedicated training for 8 people and creating an opportunity for existing engineers to level up their mentoring skills.

“Schools and coding bootcamps in Berlin are graduating many early-career engineers monthly. With the Neos program, Babbel was able to select from this pool providing a fast way for them to be productive in teams,” concludes Nehal Shah, Director of Engineering at Babbel. “Given the competition for talent in Berlin, Babbel was able to create a pipeline of engineering talent to scale out our teams. Furthermore, the company gave opportunities to traditionally under-represented groups like women and minorities and created more diversity in our engineering department that is essential for developing a language learning product for a diverse customer base.”

Babbel Neos was recognized by Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards 2019 in the education category.

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