A Farewell to Phase 1

I’m moving on to Phase 2, and that means a lot of things.

It means I’ll be leaving a quarter of my cohort behind. Several of us will benefit from a repeat, and you can already feel this invisible line forming, separating what had been a cohesive unit into two distinct groups. Once I knew that one particular person was repeating, it was easy to spot the others around him, all clustered together at the far end of the space, digging into Ruby tutorials, reviewing code samples, decompressing, venting, commiserating.

It’s a weird energy to sit with, as someone who can only attempt to empathize. We learned about the difference between sympathy (“at least you can learn even more now”) and empathy (“sounds like you’re having a really difficult afternoon; I’m here to listen if it helps”) in our first Engineering Empathy session. But when the chips were down, I kept spouting sympathy instead of taking the dangerous dive into a shared emotional funk. I wish I had chosen kinder words. More than that, I wish I had spent more time pairing with struggling people in my cohort. Maybe if I and my quicker peers had invested the pairing hours, more of us would have been ready to move on today. I’ll never know for sure, but I’ll probably wonder about it right up until Phase 2 slaps me in the face.

That’s another thing about passing. It’s technically the fifth day of Week 3, but the curriculum thinks it’s the second day of Week 4. Assessment takes a lot out of me, and I struggled to get much coding done in the afternoon following my code review. That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do. We’re plummeting into ActiveRecord now, which means digging through file trees in search of the right programming object, tracking tricky variables through multiple parts of interconnected systems, and holding on to enough Ruby and SQL knowledge to debug and test every line of code we touch. And this weekend-long taste of ActiveRecord won’t hold a candle to our first three days in the next phase. It’s going to get very hard very fast, and I’m hearing that we should plan to add an hour or two to our work day in order to keep up.

As this new challenge takes shape in the distance, the first instinct is to get a better look at it by asking people who just conquered it. And that raises a different issue, because the Salamanders ahead of me have at least three among their number who passed their phase but would have preferred a repeat. Even the people who are smart enough don’t feel like their smart enough. One guy explained the dilemma in real world terms:

“Why are we here, right? We’re not here to pass assessments and do core challenges. That’s what we do here, but it’s not why we came here. We’re looking for a new kind of career, and we took a huge risk to find it. We all spent twelve grand to come to this place where we won’t receive a degree or official certification. Once we finish, we’ll be competing against CS grads and people with years of industry experience. The interviewer won’t care about whether we spent three weeks or six learning the real web app stuff. All we’ll be able to bring to the interview is what we’ve learned and the app we made in Phase 3. I want to be able to collaborate on a bomb-ass app, and I don’t think my skills are there yet. So I’d rather repeat and get my skills up on that level before I commit to a final project.”

I’m excited to be entering a phase that ignites such a deep passion for excellence. I’m looking forward to working on stuff that exists beyond the memory required to run a disconnected Ruby app. We’re about to start building things that will live on the web, and that means there will be layers of complexity and frustration caked around every little morsel of achievement. It’s going to take a deeper level of commitment, to the material and to each other as a cohort, for us to pull through this next three weeks. Our number will decrease as we leave some people behind, and it will swell again on Monday as we join the repeating Salamanders on a steeper path. And through all this flux, there’s a graduation tonight for the Phase 3 people who actually built bomb-ass apps, people who were agonizing over bugs and presentation plans and elevator speeches for prospective employers while the rest of us were blissfully splashing around in the shallow end by comparison.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the ecstasy of self-improvement and forget that there will be a scary job search at the end of the rainbow. Every transition brings the reality into full relief, and with it a bunch of new work that will help prepare us for it. So passing isn’t really a celebration, and the weekend after isn’t really a breather. It’s the inhale before a deadlift, the gasp before a skin dive, the puffing up before blowing out dripping candles and making a wish.

Right now, I’m wishing for stamina. This next step will be ridiculously tough.

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