Katya Dreyer-Oren: From Vocal Jazz Performer to Web Developer

“I see programming and music—especially jazz—as really similar pursuits. You have to learn a language that has a syntax, rules, and then whether you’re programming or you’re improvising, you’re building new things out of that language … If I’m writing a piece of code that has to connect to different parts of an app, it’s similar to writing a harmony that has to fit in with the other parts in a group.”

Music has always been front and center for Katya Dreyer-Oren. Both of her parents, musicians—father, jazz; mom, classical—constantly filled their home with the likes of artists that most other children wouldn’t have a clue about.

“I knew John Coltrane and Stravinsky before I knew about the Beatles,” Katya said, who has her Master’s degree in Vocal Jazz Performance. “I grew up listening to jazz all of the time.”

Katya said she joined an after-school choir in the third grade because she didn’t want to go to girl scouts anymore. Once she reached high school, the choral director helped her realize she could sing jazz like her idol Ella Fitzgerald.

When it came time to decide on an undergrad education, Katya chose Brandeis where she studied music and philosophy. Though she grew up around music, she didn’t want to go that route full-time yet.

“I wanted to see if there was something I wanted to do besides music, and at the time, the answer was no,” Katya explained. “After a couple of years of working, I went to New England Conservatory of Music, and realized halfway through I did not want to do music as a career.”

Katya was left at a crossroads, but there were many factors that primed her for a career in tech. When she was 12, her father—a software engineer—bought computer parts as a Hanukkah present and together, they built a dual-boot Linux and Windows machine appropriately named “Smeagol.” During grad school, she held a part-time job as an IT assistant at a nonprofit.

“It was far and away, the most fun job I’ve ever had … ,” she said. “It wasn’t anything serious—but it was definitely like, ‘OK, this is the thing that gets me excited.’ I hadn’t felt that way about other jobs.”

Katya stumbled upon coding by accident. She had just moved from Boston to New York to be with her now fiancé, and worked as an admin for a bank executive. That’s when she soon found herself with a lot of unexpected free time.

“About three months in, they fired the executive I was working for, but they did not fire me,” she explained. “So all of a sudden, I found myself with literally nothing to do, but I still had to come to work. I started to learn how to code because I don’t handle boredom well and it seemed like a good skill to have.’”

Katya started with Python—a language often used for data analysis and machine learning—using various online tools. It wasn’t until her next position as an office manager at a company called Karma—a startup which builds portable WiFi devices—that she discovered Startup Institute’s fundamental Ruby course simply by Googling, “evening coding classes.”

“Some of the engineers [at Karma] were really wonderful about helping me learn to code, and it felt really nice just to be in the tech world,” she said.

During her time at Karma, Katya was exposed to many facets of the startup process, and saw the company double in size while it remained in its seed stage. She just wasn’t ready to commit to a full-time coding bootcamp.

“One of the engineers started to give me weekly lessons on Rails, and I started building a reimbursement app for managing expense reports,” she said. “That was my very first Rails project.”

Knowing that coding only on nights and weekends wasn’t going to put Katya at the level she wanted to reach, she made the decision to enroll in Startup Institute’s full-time program.

Katya said she chose Startup Institute because of the partner project, which gives students the opportunity to solve a real business challenge for a company. The engineers at Karma stressed to her that the only thing that matters are your projects—real-world projects.

“The thing with a lot of other bootcamps is 40 people finish the program with the same six projects, and there’s not a lot to differentiate each person,” Katya said. “At Startup Institute you get to do a real, unique project for a real company.”

Attending Startup Institute paid off as she landed an internship as a software engineer at Teachable—an education and E-commerce platform startup—where her time has been invaluable.

“I got to work on projects at every level,” Katya said. “But the project I really owned was an app that connected APIs together for the customer care team. Customer care uses a platform to receive customer tickets, and the dev team uses Trello to store bugs, so I built a tool that connected them together, so each team wouldn’t have to constantly go back and forth between the apps.”

The app—named Revere after Paul Revere—is currently being used as Teachable’s first microservice, as it’s the base for building out connections to other APIs, Katya explained.

On top of that, Katya also built additional features for another app which manages all of Teachable’s user accounts, shipped a few customer-facing features, and built out numerous tests.

Katya hasn’t given up her passion for vocal performance and doesn’t regret pursuing her Master’s. She recently joined BLACKOUT, an a cappella group based in New York City, which was featured on The Today Show over the winter (she’s also the group’s webmaster). Prior to that, she sang for 5 years in Fermata Town, an a cappella group in Boston.

“[Tech] has always been a thing that I did, but it was always on the edge of whatever I was doing. It wasn’t the focus,” she said.

“Software engineering has given me what I found lacking with a musical career—financial stability—while indulging those same creative and analytical aspects that make music so addictive.”