Community highlight: A Q&A with Yusuf Corr on transitioning from biology focused work to software development

7 minute read

Written by: Lauren Wolfe -

This week the Coop Blog is excited to highlight Yusuf Corr, a previous Fred Hutch intern. We are often asked at the Coop how to go about learning to code outside of a traditional classroom setting and Yusuf is a shining example of someone who was able to build meaningful connections and persevere towards their goal. Yusuf came to the Hutch as a recent graduate with a B.S. in Biology and an interest in education. During his time at the Hutch, he was able to build relationships and find mentorship that allowed him to successfully pick up the coding skills he needed to pivot his career to software development. Yusuf was kind enough to chat with me and answer a few questions about his journey, you can see his answers below.

Describe your background and what brought you to the Hutch.

I was soon to graduate the University of Washington Bothell, and my goal was to get into a lab and/or continue working in some education based capacity at the time. Fred Hutch was on my radar for the potential to join a lab as well as the SEP (Science Education Partnership). There was an opening for someone to work in SEP and I jumped on the opportunity (thanks to Sara Cole).

Describe your internship with the Science Education Partnership. What did you do there?

It was a nice introduction to what it means to work for a large company, that’s for sure. The internship was centered around working to support the main staff on their efforts to provide curriculum and kits to teachers. My daily tasks were to pack the kits, test the quality of them, ect. In the later part of my internship however, I was more interested in doing actual science and obtained a role elsewhere in Fred Hutch as a lab aide.

It was during this internship that you decided to learn to code. What prompted you to start learning to code?

I would say it was the lack of intellectual intensity. I didn’t really know how much I’d miss it until I had left university. That’s probably why I started in the first place. That and I had a really close friend who believed that I’d be really good at it. So I went for it and it just stuck with me, it felt like the right fit.

I think a lot of folks get stuck early on in the process of learning to code. There are so many different languages and tools available it can be hard to figure out where to start. Did you ever feel overwhelmed when you first started coding? What did you do to keep up your momentum?

I think the hard part of coding is the learning curve. Many people end up just feeling they will never get it or that it’s not for them. I initially tried to teach myself using Free Code Camp and had a terrible experience. The game changer was taking a bioinformatics course in college that had only 3 of us. The teacher could sit and make sure we really got it before moving on. Also, I found an interactive course for free that was also really helpful (RuneStone Academy).

To keep up momentum, once I learned how to code I found ways to apply it. Get involved in an open source project, make your own projects, find a mentor, set goals that push your abilities and allow you to practice your coding. I actually had a research project that I did using Python which solidified my interest and also increased my abilities exponentially.

What resources did you take advantage of to improve your coding skills?

It would have to be RuneStone Academy. One of the best, free, online courses out there with a big database of content.

From our conversation it sounds like you found mentorship through your connections at the Hutch. What steps did you take to find a mentor? How did you develop that relationship?

I had met Kairsten by attending a Friday Beer Hour. She told me about the Coop and Dane Gallerup, who worked in a dry lab. I set up an informational interview and after that he began seeing me more regularly, teaching me various things. I learned a lot from him on Git flow, more advanced python, and more about the command line. Fred Hutch personnel are generally receptive to meeting and connecting others. I would recommend everyone there to network and find a mentor with a similar passion or goal to learn from.

You left the Hutch just over a year ago to pursue coding full time. What was your thought process leading up to this? How did you know when you were ready to take this step?

Well I would have liked to stay a little longer but I was going through some unfortunate events at the time that led me to see that there really wasn’t any time but the present to take a leap. I knew that I had the drive, and that I would do anything it would take to enter tech. After I left I went to work as a tutor for Bellevue College and tutored kids on how to code, and I was planning on going back to school if nothing worked out. I also committed myself to self study, about 5 hours per day learning Computer Science using Python and RuneStone Academy. I began applying to Software Engineering type roles as well, and though I failed a lot of interviews, it taught me about the process of interviewing.

You completed a six month internship at Microsoft through the LEAP internship program. Tell us how you found out about LEAP and what drew you to the program.

I had a friend who recommended I apply and I did. It was for people who had some programming experience but not yet any work experience. Since I was self taught, I didn’t think I’d make it but I ended up being able to be on par with those coming from a boot camp. That’s one of the hard parts of self teaching, not knowing what you might be missing. But overall I covered most of the ground that they were looking for.

Describe your internship at Microsoft. What did you work on? How did you make the most of this time?

LEAP is quite unique. I had 1 month of training using C# as well as being in a mock scrum, then they match you with a real team. There, I worked on Bugs and began to work on my assigned project. That portion of the internship is centered around researching the product and building what was assigned to you to build. So it’s a mix of research, asking questions, trial and error, and of course coding.

Once you completed your internship you were hired on at Microsoft as a software engineer. Congrats! What have you been working on at Microsoft? Do you incorporate any of your biology background into your work?

I have been working on Administrative Security and Management. It’s a very interesting space, and you can learn more about that here.

No biology for miles but I might return to a Computational Biology role in the future.

Reflecting back on your journey from biologist to software engineer what do you believe has been the most important to get you to where you are today? Is there anything that you would have done differently?

I would say being able to build relationships with people as well as perseverance through the hard times. My network was more personal and close to me, so when it came down to reaching out, it really worked for me. I mean, the whole reason I went to LEAP was a connection of mine. Also it’s been really tough. Going from low-income to where I am now, not many people make it with my background. I had to dig deep and ground myself sometimes to remind myself of my goals.

What I would have done differently would be build out better “back doors” and what that means is when you want to do a career change, it’s better to have a couple of steps in that direction already that just leaving to go pursue a different career goal. I would have stayed at the Hutch, and slowly, would have started to put together a portfolio I could use to then find a new position or learning opportunity.

Lastly, what is next for you Yusuf?

Well outside of work I want to find a way to inspire and connect with people, kind of in the way I am doing now. So more of this!

Thank you Yusuf for your time in answering these questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!