Mark

@logicmason

Four years after my coding bootcamp

In 2012, I moved back to the US after spending most my adult life in Taiwan and then Beijing. It was a brutal adjustment.

San Francisco

I earned well less than $10k that year. Living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I was able to rent for just $500 per month, but I was still seeing my savings dwindle as I tried to turn myself into more of a coder than running a WP blog for years had made me. I learned what I could online with Code School, and looked for offline meetups that taught coding. Unfortunately, most were aimed at people who were far more advanced than I was (and probably funded by companies who wanted to recruit the attendees). The meetups I found that were aimed at beginners were generally limited to specific demographics that I wasn’t a part of. Still, I was able to meet some very friendly people at some meetups and while it didn’t to a great deal of learning, it was motivating.

I looked everywhere for entry level jobs. Little did I realize that “entry level” in San Francisco was more like solidly mid-level in Beijing, especially for people who weren’t fresh grads on an internship program.

So I went out and offered to improve websites of brick and mortar businesses. The rate was very low and sometimes it was hard to get clients to pay, but since I was living in that cheap room in Chinatown, it was just enough.

Learning about bootcamps

When I first heard of bootcamps, they sounded amazing! There was this “Starter League” out in Chicago and DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails, was helping teach people! There was no way I wanted to spend years getting another college degree, but this path sounded like a viable alternative for motivated life-long learners.

Then I heard there was a school “Dev Bootcamp” in San Francisco! It was fully booked for longer than I could afford to wait, but there was another school called App Academy that had just started teaching its first class of students. They were kind enough to let me watch some of the instruction. It was top notch. The students were amazing too. I had never seen such a group I’d felt so much in common with that was doing exactly what I wanted to do.

Trying to get in

I put everything I had into trying to get into their second class. At the same time, I learned of another school called “Catalyst Class” on Hacker News and applied to it, too. Unlike App Academy, Catalyst Class didn’t have a “pay only if you’re hired and then pay a percentage of your salary” model. They would only accept cash, and at $18,000 there was no way I could afford it. Still, their interview process was amazing. On of their instructors, Shawn, actually taught me what JavaScript prototypes were as part of the interview. Even if I were rejected or accepted but couldn’t afford it, it was still a great use of my time.

I made it to App Academy’s final interview!

Then they rejected me. Strangely, their question was literally just fizzbuzz, which I knew well. It’s possible I was rejected due to the fact that I couldn’t pay a deposit they charged students to make sure they stick with the program, but I’m truly not sure what the real reason was. They were kind enough to tell me that they knew the owners of Catalyst Class and that whatever program they were making would be top notch, though.

Soon after that, Catalyst Class called up to tell me I was accepted into their second class and that they could defer some of my tuition!

I was still thousands short, but I knew this was an amazing opportunity so I looked far and wide for loans. I went into bank after bank asking both for educational and personal loans. My current bank, cut me off from the one of my two credit cards that had no balance on it. I got some help A/B testing and optimizing every part of my pitch from some friends who were far more into the arts of sales and persuasion than I ever have been.

It took a lot of uncomfortable asks, but in the end I was barely able to scrape enough money to join the class.

Hack Reactor

Nobody had graduated from the school yet. I literally spent thousands of dollars I didn’t yet have to get in. The school even changed its name from Catalyst Class to Hack Reactor in the first few weeks of my time there. Some evenings when I got back up the hills to my room at Stockton and Clay, I felt like I’d taken a ridiculous leap to try to move to San Francisco to become a “real” programmer. Usually, I just fell asleep.

Classes were intense and I spent at least 11 and a half hours a day at the school. Sometimes it was more like 17 hours. But the quality was top notch. I’m sure the curriculum has changed considerably since that time given that JavaScript is barely the same language it was then, but I recorded it in detail as I was going through it.

When I finished the program, Hack Reactor had no brand value and its network of alumni was just the class that overlapped mine and finished 6 weeks earlier. But that didn’t matter.

There was a point where suddenly I went from companies all telling me no as they had been for a year already to where suddenly I was getting interest from Google, Japanese game companies, start-ups and consultancies. I was completely broke not having earned anything for the past four months and getting stiffed by my final website client from before starting the bootcamp, so I had to go with a company that was willing to move quickly.

Groupon

That company ended up being Groupon. They had seen me at a meetup showing off a project I did during Hack Reactor that I’d built with CoffeeScript and Backbone.js. They were also using CoffeeScript and Backbone.js and after doing well on a phone screen I got the opportunity to go to a brutal 5 hour on-site interview.

Each hour involved a different person coming into the room and asking me to explain how I’d solve technical problems and then write their answers on the whiteboard. I felt like I did well with all but one of the interviewers but had bombed on the other, so I was overjoyed when I received an email from them making me an offer. Months later, I learned they had a practice borrowed from Amazon that they called “bar raiser” interviewers. I.e., one of the hours was supposed to be brutal.

https://youtu.be/fG716T3wIUw

Working life

I learned a lot at Groupon and worked with great people. My team was full of Chileans and Argentinians from a start-up Groupon had bought. While I was easily the most junior dev on my team, I was able to start contributing very quickly and I really liked the inclusive, quirky company culture. I had little passion for the company’s mission, though I guess I do like bargains as much as the next person, but it was a great place for learning and growing. The learning wasn’t as rapid as while I was at Hack Reactor but it was far better than any job I’d had before.

I also earned more in my signing bonus than I had in the entire previous year. I could finally afford to live in Silicon Valley.

Thoughts about bootcamps

I don’t think that bootcamps are the ideal solution for everyone. This may be part of why their grads have done less well as they’ve grown over the years. However, I also don’t agree with much of the hatred I’ve seen directed at bootcamps on HN, Reddit and other forums. Years of seat time is an awful metric of how much someone learns. Four year degrees involve a lot of time studying things that aren’t related to programming. Yes it’s true that not all of what’s covered in a CS degree can be covered in a 12 week program, even if over 900 hours of work are packed into those 12 weeks. However, there’s also a lot that bootcamps cover that aren’t in most universities. They tend to focus on more cutting edge things and on things that the market currently wants.

It’s not a good thing if everyone is studying exactly the same things and picking up the same set of skills.

In any functioning economy, a huge supply of people with identical skillsets will simply drive down the value of those skills. This is part of why bootcamp grads have often had better pricing power in the market than fresh university grads even though they don’t have same coverage of CS fundamentals.

In the long term, fundamentals are valuable. Anyone who does a bootcamp, learns a lot for a few months, graduates and immediately quits learning is going to be in for a world of pain. This knowledge drove me to spend hundreds of hours going through MOOCs, and then later branch out of engineering entirely to learn more about online marketing and even go through some business school reading lists.

Not everything was perfect at Hack Reactor, of course. There were hiccups, especially being such a new school. I also could have learned everything they taught on my own. But it would have taken me years longer without them.

I consider that $18k and 13 weeks to be one of the best life investments I’ve ever made.

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