Starting Down the Dev Path

Developer bootcamps are popping up all over the U.S., and Portland is no exception. We have no less than five code schools, including one focused on online courses. With so many options and opportunities, how do you know what’s right for you? And when it comes to committing your time and money, how do you make sure that you take a viable path?

Career or Curiosity?

I didn’t start out as a developer—my background is in education. Until I enrolled in a JavaScript immersion course, I taught a wonderful cohort of preschool kids in North Portland.

I loved the creativity and challenge of teaching, and helping my kids develop their hearts and minds. But for various reasons, I realized that I needed a change—a different kind of challenge.

My husband Josh, a UX designer, used to joke that I would make a good front-end developer because I have an eye for design, but I also love rules. As I began to look at other careers, I considered development. Because of Josh, I’d met a lot of people in tech, and really appreciated the friendliness and creativity of the community as a whole. Plus, I always like learning new things (this will be important later), and coding seemed like it would offer the creative challenge that I wanted in a career.

I started with Treehouse’s Front-End Dev track—and I liked it a lot. I began looking into my options for learning code, and found Portland Code School’s Hack + Help. I signed up and went to the next meetup, where I talked with Al, the instructor for their Web Foundations course, and Stacy, a recent graduate of their evening JavaScript course. I ultimately signed up for Web Foundations, a seven-week evening course which covered HTML, CSS, and some JavaScript and jQuery.

By the end of the seven weeks, I was hooked! I enjoyed the collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and the challenge of learning new things every day. I had decided—I wanted to be a developer. Now I needed to figure out how to make that happen.

Choosing a School

Most of the code schools in town have scheduled open houses, and I would definitely encourage potential students to go. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, follow the schools’ accounts for information on classes or meetups. When you do meet with instructors or staff from a code school, ask about internship possibilities, or job placement. I’d also recommend going to local tech meetups, like PDX Women In Tech or Women Who Code—you’re almost certain to meet current or former code school students, and it’s a great opportunity to get feedback from a recent graduate.

Another factor is choosing a coding language—JavaScript, Ruby, Python?

Some schools, like PDX Code Guild and Portland Code School, offer single-language courses, whereas Epicodus covers three in its JavaScript-focused courses. Look at job postings, talk to the schools, find out what skills are in demand. If you want to learn more about a language before committing to a course, take a workshop or short course on Treehouse first to get familiar.

Since I had already taken the Web Foundation course there, I started looking into Portland Code School’s JavaScript Immersion course. I talked to students who had taken the course, and with one of the directors about the experience.

I also met with instructors from PDX Code Guild and went to an open house at Epicodus, where I met with instructors and students.

In researching the different code schools, I had three main considerations: class format, cost, and job placement. I liked the smaller class sizes offered at Portland Code School and PDX Code Guild, compared to the larger classes at Epicodus. I was leaning toward JavaScript for my coding foundation, which put Epicodus and Portland Code School at the top of my list. Epicodus won out in cost, but the smaller class size at Portland Code School was ideal for my learning style.

The Code School Experience

Remember how I said that learning new things was important? As a developer-in-training, you will be learning new things every day.

Every. Single. Day.

Maybe that reminds you of your time in school, where you learned new stuff all the time, right? This is different.

For one thing, the average bootcamp student has been out of school for a few years, which means you’ve lost all those good study habits. Secondly, you’re not just working your way through the times table. Almost every day of the course, you are learning a completely unfamiliar concept, and applying it to completely unfamiliar work. You’re learning a new language, new logic, and a totally new way to think. And you’re expected to create with this knowledge at the same time you’re trying to learn it. We called it “drinking from the JavaScript firehose.”

It’s really hard. You’re going to work your butt off, and it won’t be easy. You’ll feel frustrated, and like you just don’t get it. The frustration? Get used to it. Frustration means you’re learning something new, and that will never go away. As a developer, you are always trying new things, iterating on how you work, finding different tools or frameworks to use. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s really important to let it motivate you to learn, rather than block you.

Feeling like you’re falling behind while everyone else moves forward? That’s imposter syndrome, and everyone that I’ve talked to in the tech community has dealt with it. I’m sure that it exists in every career field, but it’s a constant topic of conversation in the tech scene. The good news is, since everyone has experienced imposter syndrome, people are also willing to help out when they see someone else going through it.

Because bootcamps are so fast-paced, you probably won’t have time to finish every project that you start in class—I strongly urge you to continue the projects on your time, in the evening or on weekends.

There are two benefits. The first is more time with the code. It’s always good to get more practice in, and to have some time where you have to do it on your own. This builds your resourcefulness—knowing where and how to find the answers.

The second benefit is that you’ll have finished code to look back on for future lessons and projects. To this end, you should always comment your code! Commenting your code is another way to make sure you understand what your code is doing, and helps you build the ability to explain it to someone else.

Final Thoughts

If you’re interested in learning to code, a bootcamp can be a great choice. They take a relatively short amount of time, especially considering other options for a career change. But a lot of it is up to you—to do the research, and to commit all of your time and energy to learning these new skills. If you’re not sure about a career as a coder, try out some evening intro classes or online courses. Never be afraid to ask questions. Ask about the school and the curriculum; ask former students what they liked or didn’t like about their experience; and always ask for help when you need it.

The tech community is big, and there are so many possibilities out there—take the time and figure out what’s right for you.

RESOURCES

Code Schools

Meetups

Jobs

This article was originally published for Mathys + Potestio.

Written on August 24, 2015