So You Want To Be A Programmer?

As you’ve probably heard, a lot of people are using the internet these days.

You may have also heard about the web bootcamps that are popping up in many cities around the world to accommodate the need for more programmers to build websites. I attended one of those. I receive a lot of questions about my experience, so maybe this post can help you out if you’re considering enrolling in one.

The program I attended was not out of the ordinary as far as length and curriculum for an immersive web bootcamp: 12 weeks and designed to give you enough knowledge to put “web developer”, “full-stack developer”, or some variation thereof on your resume. It was called General Assembly.

The program was intense. Like 70+/- hours a week intense. Or at least that’s the way I treated it. I was, after all, enrolled for the purpose of a career change into a field I hoped to like. I knew the more I put into it, the more I’d get out of it. And while not altogether surprising, I was happy to find most of my classmates treated it the same way.

My classmates were from pretty diverse professional backgrounds. There was an attorney. There were people that had worked for a publishing agency. There was a fellow that organized running events for a living. There were a few recent college grads, including one who’d majored in computer science (spoiler alert: he was the best student in the class). And then there was me, former accounting/HR/etc. person.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the employer I departed from to attend the web bootcamp was Doejo. If you’ve been following along up to this point, the old hamster wheel upstairs is probably turning right now and you’re thinking, “So he left Doejo and now he’s posting on their blog?” The answer is yes.

Despite having worked physically alongside with room full of web designers and developers for some time, when I left Doejo to attend the bootcamp, my only experience in either was a few online Codecademy ruby lessons. It was more fundamental computer-sciency sort of stuff, and as I trudged through it, I wondered how it could translate to a making a website. I’d heard things about “back end” and “front end”, but at that point, everything felt so esoteric and distant that I couldn’t make much of a connection between the two. The lonely line of html I’d written in 2006 to put an image on my myspace page had long since been forgotten.

Back then, at Doejo, I remember looking at screens full of code, having little to no idea what any given line of it meant. I did, however, know a couple things about it:

  1. It was part of what ultimately resulted in a website
  2. The people writing the code seemed to not only enjoy their work, but seemed deeply engaged in it, going so far as to write code outside of work for fun.

Coming from an accounting and HR role, you weren’t going to see me reconciling a bank statement or checking PTO reports for fun. I worked hard and I worked A LOT, but I didn’t feel the connection to my work that I saw from the employees in different roles… you know, the ones organizing hackathons and making sites just because they enjoyed it. Of course, small business accounting and HR has its moments. You learn about the various aspects of the business and once you gain an understanding, you can try to make improvements. This problem solving aspect, along with the knowledge that you’re fulfilling a role necessary to keep things functioning, is somewhat rewarding in its own way.

Still it often felt like I was working in a vacuum surrounded by a fort made of deceased trees. While the designers and developers were collaborating and learning from each other, I was just trying to keep up with mounds of paperwork, emails, or spreadsheets. Even though I was working with great people, it still felt felt like a very solitary environment.

So there you have it. My exposure to the passionate people and sense of teamwork at Doejo was actually my inspiration to leave Doejo. In a bizarre twist of fate, I applied for the first “cohort” (fancy code school nomenclature for “class”) General Assembly was to offer in Chicago, before they even had a space picked out to teach the class, and shortly thereafter, they signed a lease at SPACE, a Doejo sponsored coworking office in River North. So even after leaving my job and going to school, I was still able to see many of my old coworkers on a somewhat regular basis.

After several really grueling months of “internet college” and the downtime after during which I put together a portfolio and tried to find gainful employment again, I was given the opportunity to return to Doejo. I’ve been back for several months now, working as a developer on client websites. On every day up through today, I would say I learned something new. There are too many adjectives and phrases to describe the whirlwind of education that has been the last year of my life, but if I had to sum it up, I’d just call it something like “Learning at someone else’s pace. And that someone is Doogie Howser.”

I suppose I’ve rambled long enough now, and should probably start talking about things you should know about going to a code school. So here’s some real talk:

  1. Before you start on the javascript or ruby lessons that most, if not all, programs tell you to do in preparation for a bootcamp… hell, before you even apply to a coding bootcamp, do a few HTML and CSS lessons and just make sure you like it. There are numerous online tutorials for this. To that end, you’ll likely have to present projects in your class. If you’re the kind of person that would be easily embarrassed showing a room full of people a fugly webpage you made, it will behoove you to have a decent knowledge of CSS in your back pocket. I don’t think most full stack bootcamps include much semantic markup (proper HTML), nor do they place heavy emphasis on css in their curriculum for whatever reason, so it’s likely on you to learn it some other way.
  2. Be prepared to be out of work for 6 months. Unless you have a job you can devote under 10 hours a week to, you probably won’t be able to make any money for a while. I say 6 months and not 3 because it seemed like it took around 3 months for most people to find a job after my cohort ended – some more, some less. This is not only financially stressful, but after your class ends and it’s taking what seems like forever to get a job, it makes you question whether you made a good decision to do this in the first place. If you like programming though, you’ll ultimately realize it was a good decision. You’ll probably spend a very large percentage of your life working. You may as well do something you enjoy in an industry that’s constantly evolving, even if it requires some sacrifices to get there. Many programs do offer financing options or will work with you on payment terms.
  3. Do your own research on entry level developer salaries in your area of the country. Do not rely on what you may hear on TV, at info sessions, etc. Many people in my cohort (the ones that didn’t previously do the payroll at a local dev shop) seemed to be under the mistaken impression a new dev with no experience would make the kind of money you read about engineers at google making. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t get into this field for the money at all. If you like your job though, you’ll probably do well at it, and the money will follow.
  4. You will not walk out of a 12 week code bootcamp knowing everything about programming (or anywhere close to it). Programming is a constant learning process, and in a bootcamp, you will be learning in a controlled environment. Indeed, one of the most important concepts at your bootcamp will be “learning how to learn”. Even if you are lucky enough to walk out of your cohort feeling comfortable with one particular concept, once you see how other programmers in the outside world leverage the same technology you previously felt good about, you’ll probably have an “oh shit, I thought I knew this” moment, when you realize you barely scratched the surface. So leave the cockiness at home and be prepared to be humbled by others’ knowledge for a long time.

Well, that should do it for chapter 1. Check back next week for chapter 2: what energy drink to consume at code bootcamp!

Edit: they’ve decided not to publish chapter 2.

Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have: