Inspired by the Coding Community, Sarah Heckman Enrolled in a Boot Camp—and Landed a Job as a Result
When Sarah Heckman decided to study biology in college, she always assumed the next step would be medical school. But as she moved into her final year, she knew the medical path wasn’t for her.
Around this same time in school, Sarah became friends with some computer science students. “Their approach to problem-solving was inspiring,” she said. “They were always so positive, and it seemed like there was no problem they couldn’t solve. I admired that mindset and methodology.”
Sarah was immediately drawn to computer science; however, with no technological education behind her, she ended up working a series of roles at various start-ups after graduation. They were interesting, but she was never satisfied—she wanted to be able to fill a tech-heavy position. She tried taking online coding classes, but the material never stuck.
She craved a classroom setting—and the chance to be surrounded by computer scientists again. Sarah quit her start-up job, picked up a part-time gig as a barista, and enrolled in the SMU Data Science Boot Camp.
Embracing the challenges of boot camp
When Sarah considered the tech world, data science just made sense to her. She had always been data-driven and analytical. But despite her strong scientific background, the steep learning curve was entirely new.
“The thing to keep in mind about any sort of data analytics boot camp is that you’re basically learning a new language,” she said. “Obviously, that’s not an easy task for anyone. It was exhausting at times, but it was great to be fully immersed in what we were learning—that’s what makes it so effective.”
The opportunity to learn alongside a community of people who shared the same challenges was a big part of what made the boot camp a positive experience for Sarah. The supportive environment—including the TAs, instructors, career directors, and fellow students—was integral to her success.
“Seeing how everyone was so competitive with themselves but so encouraging of each other was really important to me,” she said. “Everyone genuinely wanted to watch each other grow.”
Surrounding herself with real-life inspiration
Sarah had an unexpected approach to group work—and it completely paid off.
“For every group project, I made sure I was working with people smarter than me,” she said. “There were people in the class who had prior data experience, and surrounding myself with them was what made our projects go from pretty interesting to really exciting.”
Sarah’s final group project was a machine learning and natural language processing tool that could identify toxic comments made online. The toxicity analysis would identify and filter out toxic comments from the web, tracking where they came from. It could also predict toxic comments using a predictive model using sentiment analysis.
“It was amazing to watch my group members code,” said Sarah. “They were awesome, and no problem that was presented to them was unsolvable. They taught me to always break down a problem into its pieces. It’s easy to see errors and get frustrated, but they were able to turn that frustration into thinking power. They were motivated, and they didn’t get discouraged—so neither did I.”
Securing a new role in the data science field
With the help of her career director, Tracey Wilson, and a handful of recruiters who connected with her through LinkedIn, Sarah landed a job shortly after completing her program. Even when she would feel disheartened during the interview process, Tracey’s weekly emails and updates with open roles always reminded Sarah that there were more opportunities around the corner.
Sarah is currently a collections analyst at Cottonwood Financial, a financial services company. She’s on the decision science team, using skills she learned in the boot camp.
“I’m really glad I did the boot camp because the scope of data science is massive,” she said. “It can apply to any field, so it’s hard to just jump in and know what career path to take—but the program was a way to get my foot in the door.”