In the Spring of 2018 I was ready to make some big changes. I had come to the decision that I needed a new job. I wanted something that paid better and felt like a better use of my brain than answering emails all day. This revelation let to a discussion with a friend of mine who is a programmer. She mentioned in passing that at least she and her fiance didn’t worry about money. Just like that, I had the thought "I could do that." The following week I googled coding boot camps.
I wish I could say I did a lot of research. If I had, I might have been more careful about picking a program which qualified for a scholarship. The Edie Windsor scholarship, I learned too late, is intended for queer and non-binary women pursuing education in tech and will cover up to half your tuition. I might have also considered a school like HackReactor, which doesn’t charge until after you secure a new job.
Instead, I rushed in headlong like the Gryffindor I am. I saw a boot camp offered by Georgia Tech and sent them an email inquiry that day. By Saturday, I had enrolled in a Full Stack Web Development Boot Camp and paid $2,500 down.
Part of admissions was a vetting process. There was a short written test, which I barely remember. Then, I had to schedule an interview of sorts. This interview was a web call in which I was asked to write some basic html. I did horribly. Even though I knew some HTML and CSS from my job, I couldn’t remember anything off the top of my head, but I stayed calm and went to w3 school to look up everything. I got poor marks for prior knowledge, but my ability to talk through what I was doing, look for resources, and listen to my interviewer turned out to be more important. In hindsight, it makes sense. Tech is constantly changing. You will never know everything. You will always have to be willing and able to pick up new skills, so it is more important that you can handle that requirement than that you remember every little thing.
After I signed up, I became aware of the fact that the majority of the infrastructure for the boot camp was handled by a third party company called Trilogy. They provide the website you use for attendance and submitting assignments. They provide the content. They even provide the instructors and TA’s, though the University has the final say on approving instructional staff.
As part of my orientation, I got a link to some prep materials, designed to take people who had virtually zero experience and get them ready for the first day of class. There was some HTML and CSS practice, some short videos and reading assignments, and even a short assignment to make a simple game on Scratch. Scratch, if you’ve never heard of it, is a free platform created by MIT which allows you to code using a visual interface with block based logic.That assignment taught me my first important lesson as a developer: never be too proud to listen.
As it happens, Scratch is mostly for children. When I struggled to figure out the exact logic blocks to use, I turned to YouTube videos. I started with one by an adult programmer, but his goal wasn’t quite the same as mine and his methods were convoluted. It wasn’t quite the right solution. So, I clicked on another popular video, and a 12 year old began showing me quickly how to fix my problem. Not only was his video more to the point, his solution was more elegant. It was like the difference between a native and non-native speaker.There are a lot of great coding resources online and the best teachers aren’t always who you’d expect.
The Boot Camp
Your instructor is a huge part of your experience, and, unfortunately, there’s really no way to know what they’re like before you start. A huge percentage of people in tech are from India and neighboring countries, so you may very well have an instructor with a strong accent or a very different cultural approach to the classroom. At least for Trilogy, however, of the several instructors I have met I can say that they all share a genuine desire to see their students succeed. I loved my instructor, who was based out of New Jersey. He couldn’t have been more than 35, his adorable cat often inserted herself into the lesson, and he built a genuine rapport with his class. Most importantly, he was passionate about his subject matter.
Importantly, I was taking my boot camp at half the speed of the in person courses. Most in person courses are just 3 short months. The days are longer, but you have less time to complete projects and less time to let new material sink in. Unless you’re very lucky, you will probably also still be juggling those courses with some kind of job. I was employed full time during my boot camp, but I worked from home. I am a night owl by nature, so I would work my 9 to 5, and on class days quickly reheat food or drink a meal replacement shake and jump online for class for 3 hours. Then I would take a brief break and go back to coding from 11pm until 1 or 2 in the morning. If I had an impending deadline, I might stay up until 3 or 4.
For 6 months I sat in front of a computer for 12 to 15 hours a day. I was so busy in the evenings that I switched to eating a big lunch and small dinner and actually lost 15 lbs. Everything about my life shifted. When I signed up for the program, I was in a relationship. By the time I started, I was single. I dated occasionally, but struggled more than normal to grow connections. I warned all of my friends not to expect to see me. I barely made it out to celebrate birthdays, including my own. I have no idea how my classmates with families managed.
Despite my hard work and dedication, I began to struggle when the material became less familiar. Databases and frameworks nearly broke me. I would sometimes lay face down on my bed during breaks in class and scream into my pillows. I started turning in assignments late, because I realized there was no penalty as long as it got done. Four months in and several of our classmates had mysteriously disappeared. I felt like I was drowning, but I had finished paying that $10,000 and I couldn’t afford to fail that big.
I leaned heavily on my fantastic instructor, who would answer messages at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, as well as our TAs who would stay behind and walk through my code for an hour after class. My student success manager reached out to me to ask what I needed. To their credit, Trilogy made every effort to make sure I would be able to complete enough assignments to graduate, but at the end of the day I was the only one who could do the work. I watched YouTube videos. I re-watched recordings of my classes. I consulted Stack Overflow and Medium articles. I didn’t sleep much. Over the winter holidays, things started sinking in for me and when it was time for my final project I felt like I had finally caught up.
One thing that is difficult to account for in all of this is technological problems. Often we would download a new tool for class and spend the next 45 minutes figuring out why it only worked for half of the class. When I did my final project, my teammate selected a password encrypting tool that worked perfectly on Mac but required hours of digging through stack Overflow and multiple configurations to run on my PC.
Any boot camp worth its salt will also involve a good deal of group work, which means you will get to see first hand what happens when your teammates disregard proper version control and either can’t contribute directly to your project or overwrite your own work. The soft skills of explaining your code, explaining your problems, and remaining professional are things you won’t be taught explicitly but will have to learn under pressure. I learned an incredible amount in 6 months, but I was acutely aware of all of the things I didn’t know. Like, for example, how to deploy a finished website to a server.
After I graduated from boot camp, I started job hunting immediately. It was just as grueling and fruitless as every job hunt before it. Trilogy provided career counselling but, even with that help, finding a job was a challenge. I did not have success getting a web developer job with just the boot camp as my experience. I would get calls from recruiters, but often they didn’t seem satisfied with my experience and sometimes didn’t want to pay what I thought I was worth (about 50k). Speaking with a friend who was interviewing new hires, he said someone from my same boot camp had applied but he had rejected him for lack of real world experience.
Ultimately, I didn’t get a job until I applied for a Java-specific boot camp sponsored by a company that was hoping to hire all 25 of us. They ended up only hiring 19 people, after three even more grueling months of full time courses with daily homework, weekly projects, monthly tests, and a final interview.
That second boot camp was also offered through Trilogy, the same company that had facilitated my original boot camp, and was held at the Georgia Tech campus. They sent out an invitation to apply to previous students. I had to take a much more difficult written test and do two phone interviews before I was accepted.
I feel good about what I do. I feel proud to tell people I am a Software Engineer. It took 19 months for me from signing up for my first boot camp until I got a job offer, and I still feel like there was a certain amount of luck involved. I’m glad I did it, but your mileage may vary.