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How I Got Here: Lillian Klasen studied public health. Now, she codes to help people live healthier lives

"It’s all magic and why my job excites me is that I like to solve problems," said the Benefits Data Trust software engineer. "You don’t have to be Albert Einstein or some wiz to do this."

Benefits Data Trust software engineer Lillian Klasen. (Courtesy photo)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

As a Temple University student majoring in public health, Lillian Klasen wasn’t quite sure what her career would be, but knew that she wanted to help people live healthier lives. In her current role as a software engineer at nonprofit Benefits Data Trust (BDT), she is still working with the public good in mind — just from a different vantage point.

Klasen’s career in tech began in BDT’s call center six years ago as a benefits outreach specialist. She helped potential benefits recipients across six states apply for programs such as SNAP and LIHEAP using Benefits Launch, an in-house Ruby on Rails application that consolidates each paper application into one screening. Benefits Launch assists older people or those in a rural area who may have trouble accessing applications.

“When I started in the call center six years ago I had no idea what a software engineer did,” she told “BDT really believes in promoting people from within, so I had the opportunity to join the tech team about five years ago in a role as a project coordinator. That opened my eyes to what a software engineer was.”

In her role as project coordinator, Klasen mostly worked on Benefits Launch. During her time in that role, BDT’s development team added two new states and several benefits to its software. Klasen also worked with internal stakeholders to translate business requirements into specifications that the developers could use.

As Klasen got more involved, she became more interested in the work. After a year and a half as a project coordinator, she considered entering Coding Dojo, a bootcamp that she knew a woman from her high school had attended the year before, in Dallas. This bootcamp grad told to Klasen that for any interest a person might have, there was a corresponding tech job. That appealed to her.

Klasen subsequently entered the bootcamp in 2017 and told BDT that she wanted to be a software engineer. She was prepared to have to leave her job to meet the demands of her bootcamp.

Life had other plans for her.

“[BDT] came back with an even better offer that they would help pay for [my bootcamp] tuition,” she said. “I chose that path, and in the last year another person has done the same thing” from the nonprofit.

After she graduated, BDT offered her a job as a software engineer. She now spends her days writing code for new features of the Benefits Launch platform with her team of seven engineers. Since starting this work three years ago, Klasen said the org still supports her and her colleagues by providing self-directed time that allows them to stay on top of the latest changes in technology.

“We’re constantly evolving and changing,” she said. “It keeps me on my toes.”

Klasen believes it is important for people from non-tech backgrounds to feel empowered in pursuing tech jobs. When she was younger, she felt insecure about her journey since she didn’t study computer science in college. She was also hard on herself at times for having not started coding when she was 10 years old like others, but computers didn’t interest her at the time. She eventually realized that there is no single mode or type of technologist — and that’s fine.

Today, Klasen is sometimes still in awe that she is a software engineer. But her nonlinear path has led to a rewarding occupation that combines her passion helping others with technical skills that would make her valuable in any work environment.

“It’s all magic and why my job excites me is that I like to solve problems,” she said. “You don’t have to be Albert Einstein or some wiz to do this.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Coding Dojo / Benefits Data Trust
Series: How I Got Here / Tech Career Paths Month 2021

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