Erika Russi was working as an accountant at a bank when she got laid off in 2018. But to hear her tell it, losing her job may be one of the best things that has ever happened to her. Without that experience, she wouldn't be where she is today: a data scientist at IBM.
Russi’s role at the bank required being a liaison to various IT teams, which put her in contact with people using the programming language Python, sparking her interest in data science.
“I started taking Coursera classes on Python and machine learning while I was still at the bank, but I wasn’t sure if data science was something I wanted to commit to,” Russi recalls. “The push finally happened when I was laid off. I was fortunate enough to get a decent severance package, and realized I had the time and money to invest in a different degree or education.”
Enter Flatiron School, which offers intensive programs in software engineering, data science, cybersecurity analytics, and UX/UI design, both online and at campuses around the U.S. and in London. Flatiron School appealed to Russi because as a student, she would get to work with a career coach—and she chose the data science course so she could attend classes in person on the New York campus.
For the next three months, Russi’s days consisted of class from 9 AM to 6 PM and homework at night and on weekends. “The coursework was really challenging, but going through the process with other people who were also struggling in some shape or form was super helpful,” she says. “I also loved having access to the teacher and assistants when I needed to ask questions. Plus, you get used to the technology you’ll hopefully be using on a day-to-day basis after the program.”
From Student to Job Seeker—With a Coach
After Russi finished the program in February 2019, her new job search began—and she found a lot of support working with Matylda Czarnecka, her Flatiron School career coach. “Students are matched with coaches when they're about 75% of the way through the curriculum to get their job search materials in order,” Czarnecka explains. “This way, when they graduate, they’re ready to go right out of the gate.”
To start, coaches review the student’s resume and LinkedIn profiles—something that’s especially helpful for career changers like Russi. “I have my CPA license and I wanted to show that off, but Matylda made me realize that I needed to present my resume as a programmer or data scientist, and not as a CPA whose resume was accidentally placed in the wrong pile,” she says.
After the first career fair Russi attended, hosted by Flatiron School, she got a handful of interviews. Unfortunately, none of those positions panned out—but Czarnecka was right there to assist with what she considers the best way to get a job offer: networking.
“The vast majority of roles available are never posted online, so I focus on accessing the hidden job market,” Czarnecka says. “And Erika was so great to work with because she had a natural intuition for how to compose emails and communicate with people she didn’t know, despite being an introvert. I really admired her for stepping outside of her comfort zone.”
For her part, Russi appreciated that she could lean on Czarnecka for support. “I’d been working in accounting for 10 years and have a decent network, but never thought to leverage my contacts in the ways Matylda suggested,” she says. “She made me realize that networking is really just about connecting with other humans, and was able to help me make contact with people in a way that didn’t sound disingenuous.”
Russi’s networking paid off when she found herself with not one, but two job offers—including one for a position at IBM, which she had heard about through a Flatiron School classmate. “This is a fantastic problem to have, and the decision is a very personal one,” Czarnecka says. “We weighed the pros and cons and dug into what aligned with what she was looking for. There’s a temptation to take what pays the most, but long-term job satisfaction is about so much more, including company culture, growth opportunity, and learning and development.”
A New Company, A New Career
“Had you told me a year ago I would be working at IBM, I would have said ‘no way,’”says Russi, who began her new career in June. “It’s super professional and progressive at the same time. And there are two female VPs in my department, which is so different from where I came from in banking, which had barely any women directors.”
She’s spent the last few months working in Python to track internal sites and collecting and analyzing data. But this is just the beginning: Her department is growing, which means her role will continue to evolve.
“Each day is different, and I’m learning something every day—whether it’s a new product or a new technology in Python. I love that there’s a constant exchange of knowledge and resources,” she says. “I’m also in a liaison role again, figuring out what certain product holders need and what data they want to track. It’s great to be able to use my previous experience as a liaison to my advantage.”
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Other Lessons Learned
One of the things that Russi struggled with most throughout her job search was feeling like an imposter—a common side effect when you're giving up one career identity for another. It’s something that Czarnecka comes across often in her coaching.
“Career changers need to develop an inner confidence, which can be challenging in the midst of a job search,” she says. “Erika was always able to dust herself off and when faced with rejection, see it as an opportunity to improve. I think that helped her in the long term.”
Russi learned to cope with imposter syndrome by owning the fact that she still had a lot to learn about data science. “It’s important to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is hard—especially for women,” she says. “In this field, it’s impossible to go in and say that you know everything. Leaning into that discomfort and approaching it from a positive perspective and a place of curiosity made such a difference.”
For those looking to transition into data science, Russi also suggests embracing the ambiguity of the field and using it to your advantage. “Data science is still being defined, and even within an organization, what one data scientist is doing can be different from what another one is doing,” she says. “There are so many things that touch data science, so as long as you’re flexible, you should be able to find a role that’s related to machine learning or business intelligence.”
Her last piece of advice: Make sure you master the basics, including statistics, probability, and machine learning. There are many blogs and free resources online, and Flatiron School even offers free introductory courses on various subjects—one of which Russi took before beginning her program. And, if you have the resources, she can’t recommend the school’s data science program enough—not only because she came away with such a strong base of knowledge, but also because of the support she received during her job search.
“Flatiron School was so good at getting my foot in the door, which is the hardest part, especially when transitioning careers,” she says. “And it was so helpful to have Matylda’s perspective. I honestly didn’t realize how involved the coaching would be, and it was such a pleasant surprise.”