Becoming the First Female Developer at Phrase

From stumbling on The Phrase Blog to making the move to Hamburg, Phrase has been the exciting and diverse work environment I was seeking and have come to love.

My name is Elizabeth and I’m from the United States. Aside from being a software engineer, I enjoy doing a variety of things. Outdoors, I like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing/bouldering, stargazing, playing soccer with my friends, and training for my next marathons. 🏃‍♀️ Indoors, I enjoy practicing jiu-jitsu, tinkering with my Raspberry Pi, translating Latin poetry, researching classical Rome, Greece, and Egypt, and preparing for my next archaeological digs. ⛏️

A large part of the reason I went into engineering is that mathematics has been my favorite subject since I was a little kid—one year, I even asked for an advanced math textbook for my birthday! Now, I have a degree in Software Engineering (and a minor in mathematics), and I’m happy to share my story of moving from the United States to Germany to kick off my career at Phrase.

How Phrase caught my attention

I was working on an AureliaJS project at the time and had run into an issue—I can’t remember what it exactly was—but I was googling the issue and came across an article on The Phrase Blog about Aurelia JS. I ended up solving the issue I was struggling with, and I thought, “Why not apply here?”

From curiosity to applying

I was extremely nervous during the hiring process because it was my first “real” job. I had done internships in the past, but they were more for the summer months, in-between academic years.

It was decided between Mariana, Head of HR at the time, and myself that this would be a six-month internship and part of it would take place during my junior year in university. For the first three months of the internship, I skyped into my college classes after a full workday at the Hamburg office.

The interview process

My first interview for the internship was with Mariana, herself, and I didn’t feel as nervous after a couple of minutes of talking with her. My next interview was with Manuel, who was the Head of Engineering at the time. It seemed intimidating, but he was also really great to talk with (and still is!).

The coding challenge

One of the last steps in the interview process was the coding challenge and sending Manuel some of my previous coding work. The coding challenge came in the form of an email from Manuel describing the task I needed to complete. I remember the initial part of the challenge was not so bad for me, but I was nervous – wondering if the coding standards and conventions that I had learned in university and put to practice in my own work were up to the standards of Phrase and their development team. I was also nervous that my experience and previous coding samples would not be sufficient or representative of what I could bring to the table.

I sent Manuel an email with the projects I was the proudest of in the languages I was the most comfortable with at the time. One of them was an SMTP simulator in Python (where I could send an email from inside a Python program), another had to do with geo-tracking and Node.js, there were a couple of others that I can’t remember, but I remember the final one I sent was actually written in Assembly (to this day, still my favorite language!).

I felt good about the hiring process

Still, though the process was a tad intimidating, I felt confident enough and had the impression this was going to be an exciting move for me. Overall, from talking with both Mariana and Manuel, I already had the feeling that the company culture at Phrase was one that I’d really enjoy working in.

The US to Germany—joining the Phrase team

For a long time, I knew that I wanted to immigrate to the European Union after graduating from university. I hadn’t previously lived in Europe before moving to Hamburg, so there was some initial anxiety about moving to a new continent—but I was ready to face the corresponding challenges head-on.

My approach to the move

After I signed the contract with Phrase, I knew there was still a lot to accomplish before I could actually go to Hamburg and start working. I had a brainstorming session trying to think of all the things I would need to do so that I could be all set up and make the process as painless as possible.

Having come up with some initial ideas, I made a Trello board, and, taking the Scrum approach, I triaged each task that I needed to accomplish and started working through them in one-week sprints. These tasks included things related to attaining my visa, renewing my passport, opening a German bank account, getting German health insurance, finding a place to live, etc.

A helping hand from Phrase

Every Monday I’d look back on the previous week and see what went well, and what didn’t. Much to my dismay, some things didn’t work out right away. But I knew I could always reach out to Phrase in these instances, and Mariana, Tina, and Jana—the HR team at the time—were more than willing to give a helping hand. That safety net was a huge comfort during the often complicated process.

I was very anxious during this whole process; I don’t know why, but I had gotten it into my head that, for some reason, the German Consulate wouldn’t approve my visa. I was a bundle of nerves walking into my appointment at the German Consulate General in Chicago. However, the whole process went incredibly smoothly at the Consulate and I had my work visa printed inside my passport and returned to me within the month.

Settling Into Germany

There were a couple of things I hadn’t anticipated before moving over, concepts that we just don’t have in the United States, at least if you’re already a citizen. For instance, I wasn’t aware that you needed to register with a city upon moving there and deregister when you moved apartments or moved away from the city.

Most of the things that I didn’t know about, I kind of stumbled into realizing, providing me with a wealth of funny (albeit mostly embarrassing) stories. Again, my coworkers at Phrase were always willing to give guidance when I came across these uncertainties and surprises.

After the first weeks of living in Germany and working at Phrase, I felt a sense of calm because all the chaos surrounding the move finally blew over. I had my visa, I had my apartment, and I had already started working—I felt like a whistling tea kettle being taken off the flame.

The onboarding process

My onboarding was a bit different than I had expected, truth to tell. I was expecting to be in a room with HR all day, filling out tax forms and other various paperwork. Instead, I got a chance to become acclimated with my new coworkers and work environment, which was a very valuable experience for me.

My first day

In the first few days, I got a little interactive tour of the whole company and how it operates. The other newly hired employees and I were given our new hardware and keys. After logging into our new emails, we were invited to a series of meetings where we got to learn about who is in each circle of the company and what they do on a daily basis—the tools they use, the people they interact with, and how their work impacts the company. In between these meetings, I was able to set up my local environment on my laptop and start pulling repositories and looking around the codebase.

The “Newbies’ Dinner”

The last onboarding event I attended (after receiving all the parrot-themed spiritwear I could hold in my arms) was the “newbies’ dinner”. It was a fun gathering for all the new people at the company to get to know each other.

We were a diverse group, coming from a myriad of different cultures and backgrounds, so we all brought different foods from our respective cultures to share. I remember I brought some homemade macaroni and cheese, as well as some apple pie for dessert. It was a great way to get to meet each other and feel more connected and comfortable. Overall, it was a very well-thought-out onboarding process, in my opinion.

Being an intern vs. a full-time engineer

I wouldn’t say there’s a very big distinction between the majority of my internship and my permanent position now. At the start of my internship, when I had less familiarity with the codebase, I was certainly given easier projects and tasks.

But that bit of a divide began to melt away because soon I was working on projects similar to the other full-time developers—and I found this very empowering as an intern. To know that I had a voice and an impact even as an intern, it helped me to start using that voice to make an even bigger impact within the company.

The beginning: my internship

In my first couple of days, I got to observe and pair-program with some of my new engineering coworkers to get a feel for where things are in the codebase and where to look for certain features. After a few days, I started to become more familiar with the code in the main repository and some of the third-party tools we use, and I even began taking some smaller tickets of my own.

I gained more experience and a higher comfort level with the codebase later in my internship and that’s when I started to receive projects that held a bit of gravity to them. I really enjoyed my internships prior to Phrase, but at the same time, there was a clear distinction between intern projects and regular developer projects. Working as an intern at Phrase, I was able to build up a level of trust with the rest of the engineering team, allowing me to take on these projects with a higher level of ownership.

The now: my permanent contract

Now, returning as a full-time engineer, I am able to retain that trust that I had built, which I think is the crux of the similarity between my two experiences. In my permanent position, I’m happy to still be working on projects that I think have a deep impact on the product.

What motivated me to sign my permanent contract with Phrase was, ultimately, how much I loved working here. At the end of every workday, I felt a sense of ownership for what I had accomplished and provided to the team, a sense of community and mutual respect from the entirety of the Phrase team, from the CEO to the other interns, like myself, and, finally, I felt a sense of excitement around being a part of a startup in such an intriguing industry.

A work-life balance

One of the things I admire about the workforce in the EU over that in the US is the standard of work-life balance here. I think so much of this quality of life and work-life balance is reflected in the Phrase culture and part of what makes it so enjoyable and rewarding. When we work—we work hard, but when we aren’t working—we enjoy the other facets of life.

An atmosphere of friendliness

I didn’t really know anyone in Hamburg when I first came here. If you go to a country or place where you don’t know anyone, then your coworkers will most likely be your first friends there, so it’s nice to choose a company where the atmosphere reflects friendliness. I worked a lot at the start with one of my coworkers who was very kind, friendly, and helpful and it really eased the nerves about being somewhere where I was, for the most part, alone.

I was lucky enough to slowly meet the rest of the Phrase team and was so wonderfully surprised that every single person who worked at Phrase radiated this aura of friendliness, openness, and warmth. I remember sometime after meeting the majority of the company, having the stark thought, “I’m really glad I decided to come here.”

Among friends…and older brothers

I was the only woman on the engineering team for quite a while, but all the men on the engineering team have been nothing but extremely respectful and friendly. Half of them feel like close friends, while the other half feel like big brothers. They are truly some of the nicest, most resourceful, interesting, funniest, friendliest, and overall delightful, meme-loving people in the world.

I’m grateful every day that I get to work with them. They make getting up at 6:30 am on a Monday and trudging to the office—Franzbroetchen in hand—not so bad because they always brighten the day. I’m a software engineer both in my career and at heart, so I love what I do! But finding a team that enhances that love of what you do makes all the difference – and I’m happy to say I’ve found this at Phrase.

If you’re looking to take a job abroad…

To me, the most important thing when trying to find a job abroad was finding somewhere where I felt welcomed and involved and a company with a fun and relaxed culture. That’s one of the things I liked the most about Phrase when I first started, and one of the things I love the most about Phrase to this day. We take pride in our cultural diversity and celebrate our differences—so I’ve never felt like an outsider or an interloper, but rather part of a little community.

If you’re interested in becoming a developer for Phrase, check out the current openings or, if you’re interested in a different position, you can apply now.

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