Making the Switch | Pt. 2: Journey to the West

Editor’s note: Making the Switch is an ongoing series written by recent Bellevue Dojo graduate Zach Jones. It highlights his career change from truck driver to developer with insights, anecdotes, and advice along the way. You can read Part 1 here. 

If I were to ask someone to describe my education, background or even programming style, I’d probably get the answer, “unconventional.” In my last article, we talked about the fact that I was a trucker — both in the USMC and as a civilian — and that I struggled with learning programming on my own.  That said, I wanted to get ready for Coding Dojo and I signed up for the December 2019 cohort many months in advance. 

It seemed like most students had signed up at the last minute, or one week out.  As far as the precourse work goes, I recommend you do all of it — no matter which school you decide to go to. You’re only going to get as much out of it as you put in, kind of like working out. I don’t have the body I had back in the Marine Corps but the discipline is alive and well, maybe even better.  It was August when I signed up and I was still driving trucks, but I was ready to get back to programming after my brief stint as an unsuccessful freelancer.

The Coding Dojo precourse work involved practicing algorithms, similar to the ones you can find on websites like Codewars and HackerRank, which they call the Basic 13 algorithms.  I liked it so much that when I started learning C++ I used them as a starting point to make sure I had the key concepts down. After that is some basics of web technology like HTML, CSS and Javascript.  These projects are things like creating a simplified Pac-Man clone, moving objects on the screen, and changing object colors.  That’s without the challenges.  The challenges ranged from average (resetting an object’s position once it moves far enough down the screen) to absolutely brutal (making procedurally-generated levels in Pac-Man, and making the enemies actively chase your character). They got me in the habit of learning difficult concepts by myself, and asking for help in chat rooms and Stack Overflow.

If you haven’t heard of Stack Overflow, don’t worry. It will be your best friend soon enough. 

I handled most of the lessons in a couple of weeks, and had finished the hardest challenges by the end of the month. That left me with three more months before I could run off to the west to my promised land of programming. 

Then, things got tough.  Without a stable income, I was trying to last just a little longer, to pull off one last big paycheck so I could afford to temporarily move to Seattle. My programming tapered off, and my nerve began to fail, as each week without a paycheck made it harder and harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I saw the number I had set for myself, and instead of steady progress saving for it, I saw myself getting further away.  

By the time November came around, I was two months behind on rent, barely able to buy food for myself and my wife back home.  We were relying heavily on my mother-in-law for basic necessities, and I was ready to give up on my dream of attending a coding bootcamp. 

After a couple of really busy 100+ hour weeks, I had a mountain of paperwork to get through. I decided to do a little programming and made a program to fill out paperwork for me instead of me spending a whole bunch of time on it.  I realized that I enjoyed making that program more than I did driving or securing freight to a flatbed, and that I had to make it up to Seattle no matter what.

My wife supported me in this. I turned in my truck for what it was worth (which wasn’t much at that point), got current with my bills, put together just enough money to pay for the gasoline to get up there, and bought enough canned goods to survive for a month.  I had 2,500+ miles to go, but this time I was flying free.  I would have a place to sleep until I figured out something better, because I was going to stay in the car.

I got there in three days, stopping at rest areas to sleep whenever I got tired, eating canned raviolis and spinach from the can, and stopping for one good meal in South Dakota, at a little diner I found in Spear Fish. I had a couple of showers left on my rewards cards for the trip, and I shaved at a truck stop bathroom the morning before I got there.  I didn’t think of this sort of living as hard and imagine a lot of blue collar workers probably agree that they’ve been through worse. 

Day one of the bootcamp went by in a blur. The whole thing was surreal to me, especially as someone who had never seen so many programmers in a single place before.  I could write an entire story about making it to the parking lot at 5 in the morning and watching to see when people went in..  There were no cubicles but rather open desks and floor plans made for collaboration.  I didn’t know it yet, but I had found my people.

Those of you who read my last article probably think I’ve got something against big brain nerds with white-collar jobs, but I’ve gotta set the record straight. That was good natured ribbing. My cohortmates came from every sort of background, and buddy, they did WORK.  If you were settling for 70 hours a week of practice, you were the slacker. They were smart, competitive, friendly, and more helpful than your average trucker.  Our struggles were different, but we were all cut from the same stuff as far as grit goes.

The first two weeks were the hardest, which is funny because it’s the portion I’m going to spend the least amount of time talking about.  First, you have to get used to the sudden workload, coupled with being in an unfamiliar place.  Then there’s the new concepts that you have to absorb. We use the term, “drinking from the firehose” a lot in the military, and this was just like that.  Mix that with everything else going on for me at the time, and it may be a wonder I finished at all.  My new cohortmates and I pulled through, and became solid friends in the process. 

Next time, I’ll be talking about the bootcamp itself, starting with more information on those first two weeks (called Web Fundamentals) and going on to describe the general structure of the bootcamp. There’ll be stories about goofing off after hours, a Mississippi boy’s impressions of Seattle, how to survive a flood at a coding school, and some best practices for your time at a coding bootcamp.  As always, feel free to leave comments, questions and concerns in the section below.

Read Part 3 Now

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