For Jamie Kawahara, her career as a software engineer came as a “later-in-life” second career. Her path brought her to Ontra, where she works as a senior software engineer and organizes the company’s “Women in Tech” Q&A sessions.
In honor of Women in Engineering Day this June 23, Jamie talked to us about her path to Ontra, her work, forging a career as a woman in engineering, and more.
Jamie, how did you decide on a career in engineering, and how did you find your way to Ontra?
I started as … let’s stay, a struggling independent inventor. I developed a way to manufacture iridescent glass beads. So, I made a business out of that. But, after that initial work, it’s all about marketing to grow the business — and I’m not too fond of marketing.
At the same time, I started getting some ideas for applications, and I realized that I could be creative in the medium of code rather than a physical medium. One of the things that delayed me from getting into software was that I assumed you had to major in computer science to enter that field. A friend told me that wasn’t true and pointed me toward coding boot camps.
I started researching them and decided to go to the Turing School of Software and Design. They ran an intensive program; it’s six months long and highly immersive. They also boasted one of the higher job placement rates for their boot camp.
I got in, and it was as intense a program as I expected — but once I got through it, it was pretty easy to get my first job. It was based in Dallas. I eventually wanted to get back to California — where I’m from and where my husband was based — so I ultimately left that Dallas job and started applying to Silicon Valley companies. I applied to Ontra through AngelList; this was even before we had recruiters! I went to the tech on-site and had an interview with the director of product and the engineering team, and pretty soon after, they offered me a job.
You’ve been at Ontra for over four years now; how has the company changed?
It’s come a long way from when, as I said, we didn’t even have recruiters! Four years ago, you had to wear many hats. For example, we didn’t have a User Experience department, so I asked if I could spend a day a week immersed in that — even if I didn’t have a UX background, it was helpful for me to try to get in there and make my best guesses as to what attorneys might find helpful in the design.
Now we have a top-notch UX department and so much more. We have a great HR team now. We have a fantastic data department that created an environment with great visualization dashboards for managers. Chi also joined as VP of engineering, and he pushed to make us more competitive with other companies when it comes to job offers. We also have this helpful career matrix, laying out all the different engineering levels and skills needed to advance. It’s been tremendously beneficial to see how we can progress to the next stage of our careers.
What’s your day-to-day work like? What are you most proud of since you’ve been here?
Since we’re a remote-friendly company, every day starts with checking Slack messaging and then spending an hour of PAIR programming — it’s a very helpful technique where two people work on the same feature together. It’s ideal for onboarding new engineers, for example.
We’re hiring a ton, so we usually have a few interviews every week. Then we have meetings with the product team and coursework creation for junior developers. After that, I spend the rest of my time on programming.
As for the thing I’m most proud about here at Ontra, it would be starting the “Leading Women in Tech” Q&A sessions. For the last two quarters, we’ve brought in a leading woman or non-binary person in the tech industry to come in for an hour and answer any questions people might have. It helps to even out the playing field. We see so many male leaders, so we wanted to do something to increase the visibility of women leaders.
What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the engineering field? And, why should they consider a career at Ontra?
Women aspiring to enter the engineering field are either going through a boot camp or getting a CS degree. If they feel discouraged, I’d say to think back to your schooling and remember that some of the best students there are women. When I got to code school, the top person in my class was a woman who blew everyone away. Just remember when you look around you, and if you see a bunch of men, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better at this. It just means there’s something that happened in-between school and when they got the job.
Another thing: I think that many women, like me, might think that software engineering isn’t an option because of their background. That top person in my class? She was a former barista. I had other classmates with Ivy League degrees that had to repeat modules. Code school is a bit of an equalizer. You’re judged on your code, not your background.
Also, some advice for everyone — both men and women — looking for their first job is that the work environment and the colleagues around you matter a lot. It’s as important, if not more, than what the company does. For example, I was super into 3D printing at the time I was looking for a job, and the only jobs that were out there in 3D printing when I was looking were not very lucrative. Taking that wouldn’t have been good for my well-being, even if I did love everything 3D printing. So, instead of getting locked in on going into the specific industry you’re looking for, consider the environment, colleagues, and other elements before deciding. It’s much better in the long run.
And I think any engineer would like to work here. It’s one of those “forever” companies. You can progress your career here; it’s not a dead end. Ontra is very supportive of learning and development and is even open to changing teams and learning about something new. We offer flexible PTO, generous parental leave, and much more. As I detailed earlier, we’re also making plenty of efforts to reach out, spotlight, and advise women in engineering here at Ontra — like the Women in Tech Q&A sessions.
Finally, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I’ve been really into ikebana recently! It’s a Japanese art of flower arrangement. I found out about it when I went to a local festival, and a local ikebana chapter put on a display using ceramic vases of all different shapes. They’re very striking but very simple; you can make an arrangement out of two branches and one flower! I’ve just started working with a sensei here in the Seattle area, and I’m on the first of six textbooks learning about ikebana. It’s very fun.