“Learning how to code and becoming a software engineer gave me a kind of freedom and confidence that I never had before,” said Yan Fan, co-founder of Code Chrysalis, a Tokyo-based coding boot camp with roots in Silicon Valley. “If I didn’t like where I was working, or if I took a risk and tried something new, it gave me the confidence to know I’d be okay. I would always have something to fall back on.”
Fan knows a thing or two about mid-career change, and switching from a non-technical field to a technical one. In 2014, she made the leap from a comfortable job in finance to one in software development—and did so within months.
Three years later, she joined forces with engineer and business executive Kani Munidasa to establish Code Chrysalis.
With Fan as chief technology officer and Munidasa as chief executive officer, Code Chrysalis is transforming the tech industry in Tokyo.
In the two years since it was founded, the school has seen some 150 students graduate from its programs, many entering high-paying tech jobs in the capital.
For Fan, that is justification enough for the long hours, late nights, and six-day weeks that marked their first year of operations. “We’re really flattered that people take our course, and that they feel it empowers them to shift their career in a certain direction. “We want to show them that it is absolutely possible to move from where they are, and that they are well prepared for the future.”
Pursuing a career in technology was not something that Fan ever imagined—despite harboring ambitions, dating back to high school, of starting her own company.
Goal-oriented and ambitious from an early age, Fan was born in Xiamen, a city in Fujian Province, in southeastern China. When she was three years old, her family relocated to the United Sates and settled in Seattle, WA.
Initially, she charted a fairly traditional course for someone so driven: Ivy League for university followed by the finance industry for work.
Fan attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she majored in economics and Arabic, with a minor in Chinese literature. Soon after graduation, she worked as a commodities analyst at Bunge Limited, an agribusiness company established in the 19th century and based in White Plains, NY.
However, not long after she began working in commodities trading, her commitment to the road well-traveled begin to wane. This was in part because her economics degree, which was highly theoretical and generalized, bore little resemblance to the work she did as an analyst, which was mostly practical and industry-specific.
By the end of her first year at Bunge Limited, Fan felt uninspired. It seemed that she was treading water and losing her motivation. Her childhood dream of creating a company returned with a vengeance, leading her to daydream about what could be. “All of my ideas were about apps, but I didn’t know any tech. So, I thought that I’d try to learn how to code,” she said.
Back to School
When Fan’s job review rolled around in early 2014, the writing was on the wall. During the meeting, she told her manager she was quitting. Two weeks later, she took her first tentative steps toward software engineering.
To learn coding, Fan initially relied on online self-learning video courses offered by the Codecademy, a non-profit provider of free educational tools. At that time, she wanted to learn just enough to hire someone else to make her app-based ideas a reality.
“That soon became a bit of a joke, because you can’t just learn to code on the side and then suddenly know who’s an expert and who’s not,” she said.
By March 2014, Fan’s interest in coding had deepened to such an extent that she hired a tutor to help her navigate the learning process.
Was having a tutor important? Fan thinks so. Not only did it help her learn to become more consistent, but having lessons—and paying for them—made her more accountable. “I knew that, if I had a session with my tutor at the end of the week, I had to get my act together—and not waste my hundred bucks.”
Fan’s period of self-study began with Ruby on Rails, a web-application framework used for creating databases and web pages.
It was in the same period that she became aware of coding boot camps—a relatively new concept in 2014. But even she, with her limited coding knowledge, had her doubts about their efficacy “Initially, I was very skeptical. I thought, ‘How can a three-month program turn you into a software engineer?’”
But when she delved deeper, and saw for herself the results of such programs, she became a believer.
Accountability and Empowerment
From late 2014 to spring 2015, Fan was enrolled in the full-time program at Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp based in San Francisco. The school is renowned for being selective, but she considered that a challenge too good to refuse.
“I thought that, if I’m going to give up my stable job in finance, it should be for a program that’s the hardest to get into. So, I decided to go for it.”
In May, shortly after graduation, she landed her first job as a software developer in a Silicon Valley-based startup, where she helped to develop an app for enterprises.
It all sounds so seamless. But was the transition from finance to software engineering easy? That’s not quite the right word, she said.
While Fan admits that she was not the best-performing student at the boot camp—and that she “felt overwhelmed at times”—her overall experience was one of relief and a feeling of having been challenged.
Indeed, what she liked most about learning to program was that it held her to account in a way that her experience of finance did not. She felt revitalized.
“The nice thing about engineering is that there’s a lot of accountability in it, because we have Git—a distributed version-control system to track changes when coding. If you did work, Git allows you to see it. And if anyone questions whether you were working, even if you work remotely, you can point to your history of tasks.”
This stood in stark contrast to her life in finance, where being physically present in the office was prioritized, even to the detriment of actual productivity.
Start Up Japan
Working as a developer in Silicon Valley was enlivening, Fan said. She went to work late and left early. She enjoyed working with colleagues. And yet, she also admits, it took some time before she felt confident enough to deploy her newly learned skills.
“I think there were like two weeks at the beginning where I was really unsure what to do. I didn’t know what I could or could not do, nor where I’d fit in.”
One consequence of her moment of self-doubt was being scared to actually produce code. When she eventually settled down and made her first feature, it was a lot of fun—and was a breakthrough moment.
“I realized that the only thing holding me back was my nerves. But I kind of just go over it.”
Fan spent almost two years at the company, but even in the first year her skill as a developer had grown to the extent that she was teaching programming as a side gig.
“Because I left work at 5:00 p.m., I was able to teach a beginner’s nighttime class at Hack Reactor, my former coding boot camp.”
When the opportunity came for her to help establish a coding school and use her Arabic language skills, she did so at ReBookKamp, a school based in Amman, Jordan. Fan supported its development remotely from Silicon Valley.
Five months later, she was introduced to Code Chrysalis co-founder Munidasa, who was also based in Silicon Valley. As it turned out, Munidasa had himself completed the boot camp at Hack Reactor.
“Kani had not only completed the boot camp, he also worked there as a counselor and saw how the sausage was made. And he always wanted to start a school in Japan.”
Bright Side of Life
Fan and Munidasa met while living and working in Silicon Valley. So why did they choose Tokyo as the city in which to establish their coding boot camp? “It’s because our impact here is so much greater. There are already so many coding schools in the United States and other places, but I think Japan needs it.”
Code Chrysalis was launched with five students in one program. Today, it has dozens of students learning to code in four programs, including a part-time course for beginners and a three-month intensive course for those who already have some programming experience.
The school also offers an intensive English communication course for non-native speakers, and a course on blockchain development was recently added to the curriculum.
And that’s not to mention programs designed for enterprises. Code Chrysalis provides software engineers to help in-house developers upgrade their skills and also organizes tech events.
Learners at Code Chrysalis hail from a variety of fields, split roughly into three groups:
- Software engineers
- Other kinds of engineers
- Non-technical people
“We have a ballet dancer in one of our classes, which is super cool.”
Women, too, are attending the boot camp in ever-greater numbers. The part-time beginner’s course recently had an 8:2 female-to-male ratio.
“But, if there is one thing that ties them all together, it’s ambition. They’re all really driven and bold, and they feel empowered.”
Interestingly, that same sense of empowerment occurred to Fan herself when she first took up the coding challenge. “It’s taught me how to persevere. I get less frustrated when I have to learn new things now. You really learn to always look on the bright side of things.”
Do coding boot camps work? The proof is in the numbers. Fan’s story is one case in point, but her company’s 100 percent success rate leaves no doubt. Of Code Chrysalis graduates who want a software engineering job in Tokyo, 100 percent find work within three months.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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