Making the Switch | Pt. 3 Nuts, Bolts, and Frameworks

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 and Part 2 here

If you’ve never heard the term “drinking from the firehose” it probably sounds pretty goofy, and you might get some mental images of a cartoon character with a hose in their mouth blowing up like a balloon. It’s ridiculous but it’s also an apt description of life at a coding bootcamp, especially the first two weeks.  At Coding Dojo it’s called “Web Fundamentals,” and while it’s only covering the simplest building blocks of web development (HTML, CSS, basic JavaScript) what it’s really doing is giving you the nuts and bolts that hold all of web development together.

I mentioned last time that Web Fun (the nickname for Web Fundamentals) kicked my butt.  Things have changed a little since I went through, but I found out on day 1 that we’d have a test on HTML and CSS at the end of the week, and they said it with a straight face.  You’re going to learn HTML and CSS in one week, and you’re going to learn it well enough that you can do a pixel perfect recreation of a website in 5 hours.  

This sort of shock can be demoralizing.  Several people quit in the first week thanks to the promise of such a hardcore test, and then a couple more directly after it.  I’m not telling you this to shock you, scare you, or brag about a high attrition rate.  It’s not a high attrition rate.  The majority of my classmates that I started day 1 with were with me on graduation day.  But some people are going to see a challenge like that, and they’re going to want to pack it in.  It can also shake the faith of people who really do want to give it a go. So, I wanted to say there’s only one real reason you should quit voluntarily, and that’s if you don’t like programming.  All of us have days where we can take it or leave it, or where we’re stuck and frustrated, but normally we love thinking about and writing code.  I dream about the stuff. It was that love that took me through the first tough portion of learning 2 new technologies in a week.

A piece of my Marine Corps training helped me through here, and that was “When in doubt, trust the program.”  I had no clue where to start since I had never so much as edited my Myspace page, so I leaned on the platform to get me started. Each day I was leaps and bounds ahead of the previous day, until finally we took the test on Friday.  I had come a long way from shifting colored blocks around, and I felt confident enough to go out and make websites right off the bat! That was just the first week. The next week was a little bit slower, while we went over basic JavaScript and SQL usages, and I wrote a goofy little fighting “game” that let two players run around and play-fight each other.  It wasn’t a complete game, but I did it with only HTML and CSS — and I felt unstoppable. 

There was, of course, a lot going on in the background of my life as well. I was sleeping in my car, taking showers at the truck stop when I could, talking to my wife every day, and had many other things to worry about. On the last day of week 2 (which was a graduation day for a different cohort), a torrential storm came and the parking lot began to flood at a truly alarming rate…and I lived through hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, I had to leave my car behind and it got a little bit flooded. Luckily, one of my new friends was kind enough to let me stay with him for the remainder of the bootcamp.

We had a two week break then for Christmas and New Years, and we came back to classes on January the 6th.  During the downtime I worked on some light CSS and HTML.  I also worked on game development since it was something I really enjoyed. My game development had already started to improve, even though it didn’t involve CSS and HTML at all.  When you learn other programming languages and pick up adjacent skills, your other skills improve across the board.  You’ll pick up new patterns that you wouldn’t have seen or thought of with just one kind of development.

The next three months have a sort of routine to them.  During the first three weeks you’re preparing for an exam, and then you make something in the technology stack you just learned.  Break that down further, and those three weeks tend to follow a pattern as well.  During week one you’ll be focusing on learning the language of your stack, during week two you’ll learn the framework. In week three, you’ll be adding in a few small pieces like password hashing and encryption, then practicing putting everything together until the day of the exam, where you’ll make a full stack application in 5 hours.

My first stack was Python, and my chance to make a solid schedule for myself. I would come in at 6 AM, and leave at 10 PM every day except Sunday. Sometimes during the day I would take a power nap then keep on working.  If given the opportunity, I would recommend you stay ahead of the class schedule, and do all of the extra assignments.  Time for me to brag a little bit, but I managed to ace all three of these exams.  If excelling at your studies is on the agenda, I recommend taking a deep dive into the platform and working on extra algorithms.  The platform will teach you the framework.  The algorithms will teach you how to solve problems creatively. 

I was putting in a number of hours that some would call extraordinary, but I was just trying to keep it balanced.  We would often take breaks to play a few rounds of a video game, or some ping pong, or just go for a walk in the area. Seattle is a great place, and the food is phenomenal. I had shawarma for the first time while I was there, and after that about 50% of my diet was shawarma.

To reiterate, I think the keys to success at a coding bootcamp are hard work, setting a schedule that works for you, and giving yourself some downtime.  When lost, lean on the platform, and when that fails you lean on your instructors and cohortmates. Ah, and I didn’t say this above, but stay hydrated and fed.  It’s uncommon but not unheard of for people to work so hard that they faint, so don’t be that guy/gal. In my next article I’ll be talking more in depth about the stacks, how the class structure worked for me, and my greatest challenges during the program. As always, if you have any questions please feel free to ask them in the comments.

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