I'm an ambivert. Sometimes I move in the energy of extreme extroversion, sharing and relating to help others advance. Other times, I'd rather retreat to my inner thoughts.
When General Assembly approached me about sharing my bootcamp experience for a website redesign, I first met the choice with obvious reservation. After processing the shock of my actual face, circumstance, and experience being shared widely, I asked myself a few questions. Would I be okay being the spokesperson of sorts for not only the bootcamp, but for what it could mean for the careers and lives of those looking to move into software engineering? Do I have the energy to share the hardships and bumps in the road and also the light in taking a big risk to change your life? It was hard and a little scary to contemplate, but in the end I decided to show face and share my experiences at General Assembly's Web Development Immersive, to help others like me consider a bootcamp as a nontraditional path into a career in the tech industry.
Since showing my face on GA's website, I've received thousands of positive messages from aspiring engineers looking for answers to questions around my experience at General Assembly and in a bootcamp in general. While I haven't been able to get to all over the years, it's always been my intent to widely answer these questions in a way that's impacting, because it was for me when I asked and I hope to pay that energy forward. Since my start at General Assembly, I've been able to create a career as a front end engineer, speaker, and educator. I've worked with companies like LinkedIn and Cryptokitties to build UIs, front-facing products, and the developer communities around these products. I've taught with companies who work to provide access to tech like Hack the Hood and Flatiron School. I'm currently creating learning resources and sharing my love of coding to educate all through DigitalOcean. That first big leap into tech was the hardest, but my life has changed in wonderful ways since investing in myself and my career. I hope that by sharing my experiences, you feel empowered to take that leap, too.
With great visibility comes great responsibility. This is something I've learned through my career journey so far, and something that reverberates each time I see my face on a site or when endorsing a product or technology. I'm humbled to have my image and likeness often used on social media, but through each share I wonder and hope I'd share the information that helped me to succeed. In my journey to become a software engineer, it was a chat with a mentor or someone's career I aspired to emulate that kept me going through the hard parts. If I can be that help to others through sharing my experiences, I'm overjoyed to do so.
So without further ado, here's a quick and dirty of my personal experience at General Assembly and some general knowledge and wisdom about choosing a bootcamp vs more traditional options when changing your career.
I was born in Baltimore, MD, in a working-class household with my mama and stepdad. Growing up, I was always a nerd and naturally gravitated to tech and video games. By 14, I was teaching a little turtle how to maneuver with code. Later in my teens, I was making Myspace custom layouts for my friends. My interest in tech and building for the web grew over the years, and although I went to college for Community Studies, in 2007 I started freelancing as a web designer and marketing consultant. I customized Wordpress, Wix, and Weebly websites and helped small businesses with social media. In 2014, after 7 years of freelancing, I'd decided to 'get serious' and learn to code, as before I depended on contractors for help. I started with then Lynda.com, watching tutorials over and over until I understood what was being taught. After a year of self-teaching, I felt like I'd learned a lot, but none of it connected in a way that would help me consistently build solutions for my clients.
In 2015, I saw a post on Women Who Code's newsletter for General Assembly's Web Development Immersive and for a scholarship they were offering that was new at the time. I was a single mom of two at the time and really wanted to jump into software engineering as a career to benefit my family. I made a five year goal to work at a 'big company' as an engineer, applied for the scholarship and GA, and crossed my fingers. In a few weeks I received an acceptance letter, and I packed my bags and headed to Cali with my kids to jump out of what's comfortable to a new adventure and career.
Bootcamps are accelerated learning programs that help you to gain a career skill in a reduced amount of time, as compared to traditional trade or collegiate programs. People who are career changers or are looking to level up in their career are typically those who choose bootcamps as a way to gain skills fast, and many graduates go on to work at larger companies with their new knowledge. Before deciding on General Assembly as my bootcamp, I weighed a lot of options. I considered what sort of learning environment I would thrive in, what culture would be conducive to learning a lot in a short amount of time, and what sort of flexibility each bootcamp had in terms of timing and expectations. I chose General Assembly because of the 12-week schedule (I found it to be shorter than most other programs at the time), the languages I'd learn (I went for the full-stack immersive, which at the time taught Ruby, Rails, JS, JQuery, Angular, and React), and the events and networking that I could attend while on campus. In picking a bootcamp, it's important to consider these things and more to pick the style and environment that will best help you learn and grow.
I'm an auditory and visual learner, and need to hear the concept and see it in action before committing it to memory. I thrive in learning situations where I can see live coding, hear lectures, and take time to understand the 'why' of a concept. When considering a bootcamp, it's wise to understand how you learn. If you pick a bootcamp that focused on video lectures when physical learning best suits you, you may not find your experience to be as successful of others.
After reading about the immersive on General Assembly's website and checking a couple of reviews and experiences from past students, I understood that the style of learning that they shared complimented mine. I also took time to understand their bootcamp's mission and culture, as being in a learning environment that was flexible and inclusive was important to me. General Assembly promotes events from all facets of tech, and has a calm, chill vibe that resonated with me as a learning environment that I could thrive in. I met students from all across the world and walks of life, and most were cooperative and willing to help you learn.
My first weeks were hell. After the sometimes tedious task of getting a new Mac and installing all the necessary software, getting used to working full time remotely and attending a full time bootcamp was a chore. Managing two small children in the process was also no small feat, so amid the orientation talks and learning about how the internet works and why learning Ruby is important, getting a handle of my schedule was paramount. After easing into a schedule that worked for me with plenty of study time baked in (I suggest at least 15 hours), I found that learning the material flowed well. We started with some front end languages that I was familiar with, so I felt comfortable to approach some of our first lessons with ease.
I went to the San Francisco campus for the immersive, and the community was nothing short of supportive, ensuring that each student had what they needed to be successful. There were plenty of complimentary drinks and treats to stave off the afternoon sleepies, lots of talks on the soft skills necessary to thrive in the industry, and plenty of opportunity to connect with the local tech community with regular events that happened on campus. I chose to attend a couple a month and made connections with professionals that helped me throughout my career.
Success is going to look differently for each person in bootcamp based on their goals and reasons for attending. For me, I set the goal to learn how to build websites from scratch and apps that might be helpful for my current small business clients. Not only did my experience learning full-stack development help me meet this goal, it opened my eyes to possibilities for my career trajectory. I think when considering success for yourself and personal situation, make achievable goals that fall in line with a bootcamp's style of teaching and sharing.
During bootcamp, we were encouraged to dive in and focus on the material before starting to think about applying for jobs. While I did that for the first six weeks, my focus shifted slightly to include job hunting tasks like resume building, LinkedIn revisions, and coffee chats with potential employers and peers in the latter part of my bootcamp experience. Because I understood that employers needed to see projects and things I've built, I spend a large portion of my time building projects based on subjects we learned in bootcamp. While we have three big projects that we build within the immersive program, by the end of bootcamp I had 15. I used those in my initial interviews, and by the end of my 12-week bootcamp, I was employed as an engineering instructor for Hack the Hood, a non-profit that teaches diverse kids to code.
My experience is not typical- many of my peers took a few months and even a few years to find the work that suited them, and as I kept up with my classmates over the years, many are still seeking their true paths. Although you do have career assistance through GA's bootcamp, be open to how your career can change and move as you take in new knowledge and keep your choices open in terms of where you could go. What started as a goal of being a software engineer transformed into motivating the industry to change through tech access initiatives and education. I wouldn't have imagined that my first position as instructor out of bootcamp would take my career to such wonderful and joy filled places.
I went to college and never truly vibed with the pace and content I was learning. It felt as if I was studying a bunch of information that I'd tangentially recall when working on nuanced problems in my actual career, and not was not a practical choice for me at the time. With the bootcamp, I was able to learn quickly and immediately apply this learning to a career which invoked everything I previously learned. The convenience of being able to ask and answer questions with an engaged community, the opportunities to network with those right in your industry, and the fast pace of the learning experience were all things that sold me on considering a bootcamp over some other traditional learning models.
After having taught at and prepared students of all levels for various bootcamp or accelerated learning programs, I've learned that your bootcamp experience is entirely what you make of it, and confidence is key. If you start the bootcamp with the intent to focus on what you're learning, practice as much as you can, and refine your knowledge for a position as an engineer, you'll drive with that intent and make the necessary life and schedule changes and exceptions to be successful. If you're at all hesitant about the learning style, environment, or pace of the program, you might find yourself preoccupied with those things and lose focus of learning. Having a set of goals that drive your learning at a bootcamp and checking your expectation about what the bootcamp will give you vs. what you'll put into it is also a healthy way of preparing for a bootcamp.
I had two little ones counting on their Mommy to be successful, so for me, the drive was to be an example for not only them, but other diverse young nerds who will decide on a career and take the risk to go for it. Whatever drives you innately is what will help you pull through the nights of no sleep and code dreams, the times when that one bug won't fix itself, and the seemingly endless practice and coding you'll do while pushing yourself to learn more each day during your program. Keep the energy of you own success around you, and you'll see the success you deserve.
So, that's my journey, experience, and why I don't mind my face being on GA's website. If my experience can give you the confidence to know that you, too, have what it takes to be successful as a bootcamp graduate within tech, I'm happy to share.
Go out and pick the bootcamp or learning experience that's right for you!