A 22-Year-Old Engineer Reveals How to Break Into a Fashion Start-Up
In college, Alexandra Johnson was just like most of her peers—she had a love of learning and an even stronger love of fashion. So when it came time to nail down a career path, she simply married her two loves. The Carnegie Mellon computer science major rejected the dumb idea that all engineers had to wear hoodies and frayed jeans. Instead, she interned at Rent the Runway and Facebook, where her voracious appetite for coding and her sense of style would not only be appreciated, they’d be value added.
Now, she’s in her first year as a software engineer at Polyvore, where she works on both frontend and backend teams to transform the shopping site’s mobile and desktop experiences. Whether she’s rocking a short suit or her favorite new pineapple printed slip-ons, Johnson, 22, says it’s all about being able to “express herself through clothes and have fun.”
From one recent college grad to the thousands eyeing graduation in less than a year, here are Alexandra’s top tips for breaking into the fashion tech industry:
1. Network, network, network.
“There are lots of recruiting events throughout the year on any college campus. When I was in college, Facebook hosted an informal, chat-with-the-recruiter type of event on campus. It wasn’t very publicized, so it had lower attendance—giving those who did show up a chance to really be noticed. I spoke one-on-one with a recruiter and one of their engineers, and I think having a really good conversation with both of them helped me stand out when it came to the application process.”
2. Be persistent.
“When I was trying to get an internship at Polyvore after my junior year of college, I found one of the Polyvore co-founders on Quora. I simply asked, ‘Does Polyvore have internships for software engineers this summer?’ He responded and told me to send over my resume. It turned out that they weren’t taking on interns at the time, but he personally asked me to follow up with him when I was ready to apply for a full-time job. When I did, he connected me with the head of engineering, and here I am. So I’m really happy that I ended up following up!”
3. Do your research.
“If a company knows you’re specifically interested in them, that’s obviously something that helps you stand out. I would often go to companies with a lot of genuine questions about a product to show that I was determined to work there. I feel like that really helped lead to my role here at Polyvore.”
4. Build your support system.
“The stereotypical experience you hear is, ‘I was the only woman in one of my classes.’ That experience didn’t happen to me, thankfully. Carnegie Mellon had a great community of women in computer science that I very actively participated in. Here at Polyvore, women make up about 26 percent of our engineering department.”
5. Get real-time feedback.
“One thing that can be a little bit jarring when you leave school is that you never know how you’re doing in the real world. My advice would be don’t wait for a quarterly review to receive feedback. It’s a great chance to sit down with your manager and talk about goals and expectations. Or, for computer science majors, schedule a one-on-one with your product manager and your tech lead to talk about goals and expectations. They’re all there to help you and they all want to see you succeed.”
6. Stay sharp.
“Find ways to informally practice your skills. As for computer science, I really like this site called Project Euler, where you can solve math puzzles. You’re supposed to write a program that can solve a math puzzle in under a minute. That’s something that I actually find really fun, and I find that to be a great way to learn a new programming language.”