You’re excited and anxious and completely in the dark. Phase 0 is coming up, and you think you might be prepared enough, but there’s not much time left and you wish you had a better lay of the land. You’re curious about the entire Dev Bootcamp experience and wondering why you haven’t heard more about the nine weeks that lead up to the on-campus Phase 1. You’re trying to make your transition into web development the best it can be, and you’re hungry for all the information you can get.
If one of those people is you, this post is for you.
For the last eight and a half weeks, I’ve been frantically learning how to code. Soon, I’ll head to Chicago’s Dev Bootcamp campus, where the pace and the pressure will reach a fever pitch. Graduating boots tell tales of 100-hour workweeks, ridiculously high expectations, deep self-discovery, profound emotional growth. For nine weeks, my life will be eat-sleep-code-improve, and they say I’ll be dreaming about code during the sleep part.
Sounds like fun!
During this final week of Phase 0, as I review what I’ve learned so far and get ready for what’s next, I’ve realized how far Dev Bootcamp has helped me push myself beyond my comfort zone. I want to give a little something back by paying forward a piece of the guidance I’ve received and demystifying some of the Phase 0 process.
Without further ado, here’s what I think you can expect from your Phase 0. Keep in mind that DBC changes their curriculum based on triweekly student feedback, so the older this post is, the less accurate it may become. To avoid that, I’ll try to stick to the broadest concepts. Let’s get started.
1) Expect a time commitment.
It wasn’t until the middle of my fifth week that I realized a lot of boots don’t work during Phase 0. I’ve been juggling work, family, and coding this whole time. It’s not easy. Each week means a new set of assignments to complete by Sunday at midnight. And it’s not like you can just burn midnight oil to power through them, since you’ll have to pair up with a peer at least twice a week and work together. That means frequent email exchanges, rain checks, and frantic “please someone pair with me I need HELP!” posts on your cohort’s private Google+ community page. Oh, and you’ll be coordinating your pairing sessions across at least three time zones, since not everyone headed to your DBC city lives in your state. You’ll need to master your own schedule in order to manage the workload.
Not working is probably the easiest way to free up the time you need. For me, that wasn’t an option. On a typical day, I worked from 9-5 and tried to cram in an assignment during lunch. Then I enjoyed dinner with my family and hung out with my daughter until her bedtime, after which I did Phase 0 stuff until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend 15-20 hours on a week’s work. That’s more than I was told to expect at the beginning, but everyone’s experience is different and people catch on to some things easier than others. By the time I was on my third week of Ruby, I was blazing through the challenges and managed to finish up in about 10 hours. During the HTML/CSS introduction, my decidedly non-visual brain stalled frequently and I needed upwards of 25 hours to get my head around things. Every week will bring a new set of obstacles and you won’t know how you’ll handle them until you dive in, so don’t fall behind and never let a Monday pass without at least glancing at the week’s syllabus. You can submit an extension form if you need a little more time to get something done, but it’s really hard to be an effective helper in a peer pairing session if you’re not up to speed on the concepts, so maintaining momentum is key.
2) Expect to set stuff up.
I think one of the main purposes of Phase 0 is to avoid or minimize the stress of 20 new boots on campus wondering why they can’t get their command lines to cooperate. Most of my Phase 0 weeks introduced a new language, site, or tool. Before I could get started solving problems, I had to make sure my machine was ready for the work. One week, I had to learn how version control works and get started working with GitHub from the Terminal. Another week, half my cohort stalled for a day when there seemed to be no crystal-clear instructions for updating SQLite3 anywhere on the web. I’m glad I slogged through some pre-Phase 0 command line and Sublime tutorials; they helped me get confident with learning more about my laptop before that learning became a weekly requirement.
I’d say setup, installation, updating, and tiptoeing around unfamiliar software accounted for a full 25% of the time I spent on Phase 0. Every week, the assignments were like two kinds of challenge rolled into one. The end goal was always to finish the tasks and submit the work for review, but it was impossible to start the tasks without the right environment set up. I compare it to a chef who must cook a dish in a kitchen with dirty pots and a disorganized pantry. The cooking is the easy part, once the kitchen is clean.
Side note: About 85% of my fellow chefs are using Mac kitchens, with Linux coming in second. Windows machines can get the job done, but they’re not recommended. One person in my cohort worked through half the phase on a PC before retreating to Craigslist for a used MacBook. I can’t speak on how hard it is to go the PC route, but I hear it’s pretty hard.
3) Expect to write things down.
Here’s one of the biggest questions I had going into Dev Bootcamp: Given a culture that seems so insistent on regular blogging, why is it so freaking hard to find information about Dev Bootcamp on boot blogs? During my research, I looked at dozens of blogs that had started out strong and fizzled after a couple weeks’ worth of posts, never to be updated again. Now I think I know why boots aren’t blogging. It’s because we are.
Ok, let me explain that.
Each week, boots must research and write two blog posts, one technical and one cultural. In a given week, I found myself studying problems in the tech industry or conflict resolution styles, intricacies of Ruby syntax or CSS layout tips, and then crafting blog posts to share with my cohort. My WordPress presence has diminished during Phase 0 because I’ve got two other weekly blogging assignments to complete and submit to my GitHub repository, and that doesn’t leave much time or energy free for personal blogging. I imagine the same is true for others.
The writing doesn’t stop with blogs. We write questions on the community page when we get hung up on a tough step of an exercise. We write detailed reflections on our work after each exercise we complete. We write feedback for one another after pairing to solve coding problems or do research. This approach is great for me, since I’m a verbal thinker and I write by transcribing the little running narration in my head. You might wish you could spend the time coding. But the writing helps process and solidify new concepts before moving on to the next thing, and it’s probably excellent practice for a team workplace, where good communication habits are at least as important as solid coding chops.
4) Expect to connect with people.
Your peers will be your most valuable resource during Phase 0. DBC staff took a hands-off approach to most of my questions during the phase, gently reminding me that I could find the answers I needed if I asked a friend for help. It was frustrating at first, but I came to appreciate the nudge after finding a few answers by drawing from someone else’s expertise. Some of the people in my cohort have extensive SQL experience, some are phenomenal at CSS, and some are total neophytes with a knack for Googling the perfect solution. Between all of us, there’s more than enough knowledge and persistence to handle the phase’s toughest coding challenges with ease.
I had to learn to get over myself, to stop needing to have every solution to every problem right away and all on my own. A few times, I hammered away at a piece of code, checking the Google+ community page in desperation after hours of fruitless agony, only to see that my exact question had been answered before I’d gotten started. My easiest weeks were the ones when I had the most time to pair up.
Pairing involves meeting up with someone in a video chat to collaborate on code and learn new concepts through experimentation. I’ve learned so much faster during my pairing sessions that I shudder to think how long I might have spent getting some of these new concepts into my brain. Apparently pairing is catching on as a popular way to code in the real world, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to practice early, even before I can be sitting next to my pair in person.
There are weekly solo challenges too, to keep everyone honest and make sure each boot has a decent grasp of concepts all on their own. But the solo challenges are really the exceptions that prove the rule. You’re not supposed to go through Phase 0 alone. Don’t lone wolf it. It’s way easier, more fun, and more effective if you follow DBC’s recommendation to pair up regularly.
5) Expect to learn a test-driven workflow.
If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you already know something about what to expect from Phase 0. Think of that stickler piano teacher telling you to arch your fingers and play slower at first to get into the right muscle habit. Think of your RA telling you to eliminate the buzz from each guitar chord you finger before moving on to the next one, even if it means you’ll take 20 minutes to get through Moonshadow. Think of your choir director insisting you warm up at the beginning of each rehearsal. There’s a process behind the craft, and good craftsmen respect the process. Dev Bootcamp starts teaching good processes from the start.
I got a firsthand lesson after one of my guided pairing sessions (four appointments where an instructor sits in and offers tips, guidance, and instant feedback). I had spent the entire pairing hour trying to drive the code to the next step, insisting that we get through as much as possible in our limited time, writing big chunks of code that failed miserably and having to go back and fix what felt like a million things. I was rushed and anxious and completely ineffective. My instructor left me this feedback: “There’s a saying that you only get to write one line of code between tests for each year you’ve been coding. So slow down and make sure each thing you write works before going on to the next thing.”
TDD, or test-driven development, is a process where you start by writing a test that fails and then write the code that passes that test. So if you wanted to write a program that printed “Hello world!” you might first write a statement asserting that the output of the program was equal to “Hello world!” The first time you ran the program, that statement would be false, since you had only written the test and there was no program to compare to the desired output. So then you’d have to write the program, and the key here is that you’d only have to write just enough to make it pass that one test. Then you move on to the next feature, write the test for it, check that it fails, and move on to the actual coding. What looks like a 30-minute challenge at the outset can end up taking an hour or more if you’re testing as often as you should be.
Writing a good test accomplishes a few things. First, it ensures that you know enough about the code you want to write that you can express the result in terms of a test that could be failed. It’s like the scientific method applied to programming. Sometimes the hardest part of comprehending the concept is writing a testable hypothesis. Second, good TDD turns the whole coding process into a sort of game, where each test is like a level to complete. It breaks the work up into manageable chunks and allows you to take breaks without losing your place. Finally, testing gives you twice the practice on each concept you dive into, since you are manipulating variables and checking syntax in two places for each test you write, once in the test and once in the code.
Looking back, I don’t think I’ve gained any deep knowledge on any one language so far. But I do have the beginnings of a good habit in my work technique. If all DBC was trying to accomplish for Phase 0 was to set some best practices and let us get to practicing them early, the phase still wouldn’t be a waste. But as a piece of a larger, group learning model, the TDD requirement is like the consistency icing on the learning cake.
6) Expect to make things.
I like to tinker with stuff, and Phase 0 has felt like a lot of tinkering, playing around with things in my text editor and then running them in the command line to see if/how/why they totally/don’t/sometimes-but-not-really work. It’s a lot like how it feels to navigate in a new town. You start by figuring out one route to each place you need to visit, and then you start connecting the routes, and then you start looking for detours, and over time you begin to feel like a local.
7) Expect to get stuck.
It’s going to happen. You’ll be breezing through an exercise and suddenly you’ll run up against something you don’t understand at all. Whether it’s an error message you’ve never seen before, a chunk of HTML that just won’t display right, or a stubbornly goofy line of code, there will be something that trips you up and refuses to get out of your way. Few hours are more frustrating than the ones you’ll spend blankly typing in something over and over, utterly clueless as to why your insane repetition keeps producing the same bad result.
I hear real programming is no stranger to these bleak hours, and DBC is trying to get boots ready to face them bravely. So don’t be surprised when one exercise in a week’s batch has a staggering difficulty spike, an innocuous step that turns out to break all your work until you learn more about the mechanism behind it’s implementation. Apparently that’s normal. And why shouldn’t it be? Overcoming unforeseen obstacles is kind of what life’s all about. Example: I wrote this whole blog post last week, 2000+ words, and lost it to a phone glitch. It was infuriating. Oh well. This draft’s better.
Back to the point. These crazy geniuses want you getting stuck and feeling overwhelmed a lot during Phase 0, because guess what you’ll be doing once Phase 1 starts? This brand of education sees stuck-ness not as a display of weakness, but as a necessary precursor to rapid growth. No lesson sticks quite as hard as the one that comes with a few bruises from banging your head against the wall. And you’ll be doing some of that damage to yourself too. If you like this coding stuff, you’ll be curious about it. Your questions will eventually venture beyond the presented material and you’ll go and try to get them answered. Inevitably, you will end up going far enough down the rabbit hole to find yourself hopelessly out of your depth. I swear this will be a good thing no matter how you handle it. Either you’ll go above and beyond and dig up the answers you seek (or, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll find a pair and go digging together), or you’ll put a pin in the topic and have a great question to ask a mentor later.
The important thing is not to wallow in self-pity when you get stuck, because that’s a quick way to turn a perfectly normal hiccup into an existential crisis. Who has the time for those? Better to acknowledge that you’re not perfect, step away from the problem for a while (DBC often recommends sleeping on the trickiest puzzles) and find something else you can do to stay productive in the present. You’ll always have enough extra to turn your attention to, and this phase is more about introduction and exploration than execution and perfection, so there’s no need to panic.
Right now some of you are still hoping you’ll be special and avoid getting stuck because, all your life, you’ve been really smart. Keep hoping, special. Everyone who gets into DBC is really smart. That’s not what this is about. Now is a perfect time to start reframing temporary failure as a necessary step to long-lasting success. Take it from a former perfect person: you won’t feel perfect for long here, and you’ll actually feel freed and healthier once you set aside that exacting self-image and let yourself grow beyond your can’t-miss comfort zone.
I’d say /rant, but I didn’t open the tag, so I’d be wasting keystrokes.
8) Expect empathy
I’ve never felt less safe than I have this spring and summer. Everything is brand new and I’m never great at it right off the bat. I’m stepping out of the office, stepping away from my family, stepping into the unknown. There’s no guarantee of a good job when I’m done, and my stomach often churns at the thought of floundering after taking such a huge risk. I’ve never felt less safe than I do now, and I’ve never felt happier, because I’ve never felt more supported.
There are guides here who have struggled with perfectionism and can offer encouragement to people like me who freeze up when victory is less than certain. There are instructors who pierce through difficult pairing sessions with sharp insight and warm understanding. There are peers who are all in this together, each careful not to squash anyone else’s aspirations or monopolize pairing sessions. At Dev Bootcamp, everybody wants everybody to win, and it shows.
I really struggled midway through Phase 0. I fell far behind and kept telling myself that I’d never make it, that I would be a failure once again, that I was stupid for even trying. But each time I mustered the courage to reach out for help, I felt heard and respected and even loved. My shepherd, a DBC grad, shook m out of my funk by checking in regularly and reminding me that my work, when I finally completed it, was good enough. I paired with peers who graciously walked me through the previous week’s material so I could get caught up. And every time I took a break from coding to check @devbootcamp on Twitter, there was someone lifting up a boot, helping them get connected in the workplace, patting them on the back when they found success.
And then the strangest thing started to happen. I started getting my own empathy back.
Dev Bootcamp founder Shereef Bishay uses the example of a restaurant to highlight how DBC empowers and motivates people to lift one another up. In a restaurant, he says, there are people who sit at the table and people who work in the kitchen. I went into DBC with a table mindset. I wanted to sit down, pay my tuition, dine for nine weeks, and walk out with a full belly and a tech job. After being at this for a couple months, I’m sliding slowly toward a kitchen mindset, where I find joy in making something with others, something that can serve people and make their lives better. One of these mindsets creates the kind of enthusiastic cooks restaurants love to hire. The other produces the kind of demanding patrons servers love to complain about.
I got to help someone make their code less repetitive last week, and it felt fantastic, and I learned something new. The week before that, I got to show a pair how to improve their workflow in the Sublime text editor, and it solidified my knowledge of the feature, and I got better at using it. As I write this (hopefully) helpful blog post, I find myself more and more inspired to finish up and dive back into my work, where I’ll get better as a natural result of focused practice.
Caring about others is how you get better at whatever it is you’re doing, and DBC is fostering an environment where it’s really easy to care.
9) Expect to succeed.
I’ve heard that the occasional boot doesn’t make it past. Phase 0, that not even the available deferment program is enough to keep some people intact in the hectic lead-up to the real thing. I’m not saying that’s not true. But I will say that if you love coding, you will get through Phase 0 without too many problems. This is a phase more about habit building than career readiness, and you’re not going to face anything too intensely complex here. What you will face are the kind of barriers you’ll be able to break through with ease…if you know how to ask for help.
This phase is all about ramping up and getting things in order. If you follow the instructions you’re given, and admit when you don’t understand something, you will never be too far from the next step you need to take.
10) Expect to change your expectations.
I have never learned this way before. There are no grades, no quizzes, no answer keys. I’m not done learning when I master enough of a concept to parrot the bullet points back. When I’m stuck on something, the teacher’s job is not to help but to point me toward tools I can use to help myself. It’s the opposite of a competitive college environment; there’s a spirit of proactive cooperation that runs through everything we do.
I was expecting a lot more guided direction, but at the beginning of each week you’re given your exercises and then left to your own devices to work through them. It’s a really cool teaching and learning style that lets me work at my own pace and on my own schedule.
Most importantly, I’m more confident now than I would have thought possible. And it’s not because I have all this mastery so early. I barely know anything yet, and the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. But that has nothing to do with my growing knowledge that I can figure out any new information put in front of me if I have some decent waypoints and space to attack the challenge my way. It’s a really empowering feeling, one I hoped I’d experience after hearing so many people gush about how Dev Bootcamp made them better learners. Though I’d heard the stories, I had remained skeptical until I started to see the changes myself.
My attitude is better now. I can contemplate more work before feeling overwhelmed. I’m less reluctant to work in a pair or a group. I’m more aware of my positive and negative character traits and I have become a more reliable communicator. These changes came about because I committed to working through Phase 0 as instructed. I can’t imagine what life was like before this prep period existed. Thanks to these nine weeks, I’ll be able to walk onto campus on Monday with a few concrete questions and a working knowledge of enough coding languages to start at a very fast pace. It’s been a long and difficult journey from April to now. But I’m still standing. And I haven’t seen anything yet.
Phase 1, here I come.