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How I Got Here: From a chocolate factory to a software firm, Nicole Zonnenberg kept building coding skills

For the Fearless software engineer, a love of building on the web started early. Here's how taking on tech tasks at "a colorful collage of jobs" and a coding bootcamp led to a career.

Nicole Zonnenberg. (Courtesy photo)

This guest post is a part of Tech Career Paths Month of's editorial calendar.

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

I didn’t consider tech as a viable path to a job until about my fifth attempt at starting a career.

My interest in building with technology, however, started early. In sixth grade, I began creating websites as a hobby, using the family computer in my dad’s den. My first web project was made up of HTML and CSS files that I wrote in Notepad, with a handful of ‘90s anime images.

Throughout middle school, I broke down premade layouts downloaded from different websites, and rebuilt them to my specifications. I learned about the web console, and how to access a site’s existing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

I dove into any webpage that I thought was aesthetically pleasing — dissecting the code, breaking it down, and putting it back together. I even learned to add fun little JavaScript animations, which were more annoying than functional, and used them to help all of my friends customize their Myspace pages.

I never took an official computer or engineering class in school. In 2013, I graduated from college with a BA in history and criticism of art, with minors in Chinese and Italian, intending to pursue a career in museums and art curating.

Life after college led me in a very different direction. I found myself in a number of different jobs, from packer in a chocolate factory, to waitress, to art assistant. My first few years out of college were a colorful collage of jobs, but I found room in most of them for what I considered my hobby. I helped the chocolate factory update its internet store, improving both its inventory and its functionality. I started a website for an artist who wanted to show their artwork online. I helped a medical student create an informational website for prospective kidney donors for their dissertation.

Those web tasks were my favorite part of every job. When I found myself at another crossroads, that knowledge drove my decision to find a coding bootcamp. For the same reason that I did not want to pursue a master’s in art history, the idea of going back to school for another two to four years was neither realistic nor appealing to me.

I could, however, put my head down for a few months and dedicate myself to learning the full breadth of web development. I wanted hands-on experience in building full-stack web applications in different languages and frameworks, with formal instruction and experts to answer my questions. After all, there is only so much you can learn by yourself with what you find on the internet.

For three months, I commuted from Baltimore to D.C. — a full 2+ hour round-trip commute — to attend eight hours of coding instruction from General Assembly. Some nights, I was so overwhelmed that I could not even listen to music on the return trip. Instead, I would listen to static on the train to settle my mind before stumbling home.

I graduated and hit the ground running, applying to any job that I felt reasonably qualified for (and also some that I felt under-qualified for). Overall, I probably applied to upwards of 30 or 40 jobs, getting only a handful of interviews. Most of them ended in polite “no”s. But, I got one “yes,” which became my first full-time developer job. Unfortunately, my first job as an engineer was not a good fit, and I started job hunting again toward the end of 2019.

Even when I was not actively pursuing a career in tech, I continued to learn to code.

Now, I am a software engineer at Baltimore digital services agency Fearless, with a much shorter commute and many opportunities to pay forward all of the help that I received in code reviews, interview prep and project setup. I participate in events, like Baltimore Code and Coffee, that are free and open to whomever is interested in code and engineering.

Reading through my story, it might be easy to see a logical chain of events that got me to where I am today. However, I want to impress that until I made the decision to go to the coding bootcamp, the path was never obvious to me. When I was younger, I saw coding as a hobby; I could never picture myself pursuing engineering as a career. Even as I used the same skills in my work, it wasn’t apparent that there was a possible bridge to a job in tech. These moments are only obvious when I look back and connect the dots.

Here’s the truth about why I am where I am: Even when I was not actively pursuing a career in tech, I continued to learn to code. I’ve always enjoyed the creativity and problem-solving of building functional websites and applications. Luckily, I found the helpers that wanted to see me succeed along the way.

Companies: Fearless
Series: How I Got Here / Tech Career Paths Month 2021

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