Career Change

From Customer Operations to Software Engineer: How I Took My Career Into My Own Hands

Alexandra Hjert, a software data engineer at Squarespace
Alexandra Hjert, a software data engineer at Squarespace

To say that Alexandra Hjert took her career into her own hands is an understatement. Her first job at Squarespace was helping customers via email and live chat, but when she discovered her passion for engineering, she did everything she could to prepare herself for a pivot. And the hard work—including taking the same coding classes multiple times—paid off.

After holding multiple different roles at Squarespace, Hjert is still working for the website building company—but today, she’s a database software engineer. Her team’s primary vision is to “build upon a dependable, available, and performant platform for persisting and accessing data,” she says. “Our team curates the technology choices used at Squarespace, including persistent relational datastores, non-relational datastores, messaging systems, and in-memory caching technologies.”

Here, Hjert shares the biggest challenge she’s faced in her job, how Squarespace empowers employees, and advice for other women considering careers in engineering.

Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Squarespace.

I wanted a career that would better people’s lives. When beginning my studies in geography and film, my goal was to build sustainable resources for communities while creating documentaries of the events. As my geographic information system (GIS) and video editing skills sharpened, I became fascinated with the “magic” of each application. Tinkering with any hardware and software I could get my hands on, my hunger for technology grew. After completing my undergraduate degree and moving to Oregon, I broadened my scope of work and applied to Squarespace. I had been following the company for some time—their values aligned with my ambition to help others across the globe, while also being technologically driven.

What attracted you to work at Squarespace, and what has kept you at the company?

Squarespace empowers the individual by giving them the tools and freedom to build an online presence they desire. That’s extremely powerful, and something I truly believe in. It’s refreshing to be a part of a company that supports DIY and cultivates a culture of learning. Squarespace breathes these initiatives internally by encouraging employees to voice their opinions and build opportunities to grow themselves. This is the driving force behind why I’ve stayed at Squarespace for six years. Over the years, teams have advocated for me to test my strengths and expand my knowledge, leading me to develop four new roles at the company. It’s rare to find a business that elevates a consumer’s passions while also supporting its employees’ dreams.

What inspired you to pivot your career and become an engineer?

When I joined Squarespace, I started in the customer operations department as an advisor, responding to customer inquiries in email and live chat. Within the first few weeks, I was eager for more challenges and found myself teaching colleagues how to handle complex issues. This role evolved into being an expert of the Squarespace product, and eventually led to being a liaison between engineering and customer operations during platform disruptions.

A fire ignited in me unlike anything before when witnessing the conversations between engineers. My thirst for knowledge grew exponentially, and I thrived when something broken needed to be fixed. I realized I had found my true passion in life and began taking online coding classes immediately. Taking online coding classes inspired me to take my learning a step further professionally. I teamed up with a few colleagues internally to pilot a mini coding bootcamp, where those interested in learning how to code could be mentored by other software engineers at the company. The experience was truly an unforgettable milestone in my career!

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

Transitioning older technologies over to the next generation is a constant battle in tech, and one that many people find to be a trying process. However, I find it to be very fun! You learn a lot more about the underlying mechanics of both new and old services, and that knowledge comes in handy for almost every project moving forward.

Recently, I’ve moved some of our oldest services over to the cloud, and now I’m able to better automate these processes and teach others how to do the same. Possibly the most inspiring aspect of my work is passing my knowledge onto others, and helping them see their talents come to life. We’re only given a small fraction of time with one another, so why not make each moment count?

What is the biggest challenge you have faced since you’ve been at Squarespace? How did you overcome it?

Learning how to code was a daunting endeavor, but a challenge I’ll forever be grateful for. While I built a less-than-fruitful website at 12 years old with good ol’ GeoCities, I didn’t know [how to use the] command line or any scripting language when starting at Squarespace. To determine what would be the best beginning language for myself, I took JavaScript and Python classes over and over and over again. This was the key to learning how to code: repetition. To this day, consistent reiteration still allows me to absorb new concepts when I am ready, whether it is the first or fourth time I have reviewed it.

What do you like best about the company culture at Squarespace?

Squarespace embraces the unusual, and our 2015 Super Bowl campaign with Jeff Bridges sums up a lot of what I love about our culture: Everyone has a different flavor and adds a unique spice to life. Squarespace gives those voices a platform to stand on, allowing inspiration and creativity to emerge without restrictions. This is true within the company's community and outreach initiatives, as well as to our team outings and global meetings. If you haven’t checked out the Sleeping Tapes album, I suggest you do!

What advice do you have for others who are thinking about changing the course of their career the way you did?

It takes time, so be patient with yourself. Having enthusiasm for problem solving is a must, so go in knowing what your personal values are. And make sure to experiment, ask questions, and take the leap! Don’t wait until you reach the invisible line you’ve set for yourself. You’ll continue to grow as you move into new roles. Finally, seek out mentors and advocates, and give back to them. Success is built by standing together.

And what advice do you have for other women who are considering careers as engineers?

Believe in yourself and be fearless. With the lack of female representation in engineering, self-doubt can swoop in and take over quickly. Keep moving forward, as this is a career worth fighting for. Find and create a support system of women in your company, and attend women empowerment conferences and meetups outside of work. It makes a world of a difference to meet those who have traveled the same journey you’re navigating.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The Grace Hopper conference is the world's largest gathering of women technologists, where I heard the best advice: “Redefine being uncomfortable. Because every time you’re uncomfortable and survive it, you’re growing.”