The Rockwell station.

You Have To Know What Scares You More

I graduated Dev Bootcamp in September, and got asked to come back on contract as a junior instructor, and that job became full-time official last month, and that meant I finally got to reunite my family in Chicago, so we’re together again and my career trajectory has changed in a huge way and 2014 was the most amazing year of my adult life.

But that’s not what’s important for today.

What’s important is that my family moved to Lincoln Square, right off the Rockwell Brown Line stop. That matters because the train is at street level at Rockwell, which means I get to see a drama play out every morning that reminds me of my work.

The Rockwell station is just west of its namesake street. A street level station means there’s no bridge over Rockwell, just a track embedded in the asphalt and four big lighted wooden arms that come down when a train’s about to cross; it’s a railroad crossing, and sometimes people get hit at crossings, so there are bells and flashing red every few minutes before Kimball-bound trains slow down into the station. Or before Loop-bound trains arrive at the station, load up, and then cross Rockwell heading east.

The timing matters for this analogy. Kimball trains come through the crossing faster, since they’re decelerating from speed. By contrast, you’ll see and hear the warnings for a Loop train before the train has arrived at the station, before it has slowed down to a stop before the closed crossing, before passengers have boarded.

And I say all this so maybe you’ll think differently about the kind of person who would ignore bells and flashing lights and duck under a descending wooden arm to make their train. Maybe they’re not ignoring a clear danger. Maybe they have enough context to know when there’s no danger at all.

For many DBC students, the beginning of Phase 1 is all loud warnings and descending arms. Day One hits and it’s FULL – intros given, overviews covered, rules communicated, and on top of that there are several code challenges to get through in what amounts to only a few hours of core coding time. It’s hard to get through everything on the first day, and if you don’t, the fullness of the day gives your ego an easy out: “surely tomorrow, when there’s more time to code, I’ll get through the challenges easier.”

And then comes Day Two and the pace actually increases and it’s really easy to feel like you’re already in danger of total challenge/day/program/career/life failure, depending on how loud your inner authoritarian can yell at you from inside your head.

Before Dev Bootcamp, you were really good at something, art or negotiation or electrical engineering or parenting or sales or being a full-time student, and a lot of your identity is wrapped up in that first expertise. Society messages to us that everyone’s supposed to get good at something and then make some money doing it, and we get nervous enough about the money part that we forget to challenge whether that “something” really needs to be singular for anyone. It’s not that you can’t take on a brand new skill as an adult (I’ve personally watched hundreds do it since last May), it’s that no one’s ever explicitly told you that it’s totally normal, it might even be the default path to happiness, so all you’re left with is the sense that you’re struggling and that you’re doing it alone, because who’s ever done anything this crazy before?

Well, your cohort’s doing it, so that makes you feel safer. And you’ve got instructors who did it, and that helps a lot. But inertia is powerful, and when your brain can’t get its daily expected dose of expertise dopamine, two days in a row, it can make you panic all the same.

I’ve seen a few people have to leave DBC. Sometimes the program just doesn’t fit a student’s learning pace, and it hurts to say goodbye, because you still know they’re going to go off and become great coders one day, but you won’t be there to see it. But sometimes a student just hits an emotional wall and shuts down, and it has nothing to do with their technical prowess, it’s all about their courage.

It goes something like this: “I know I’ve already repeated this phase, and I really need to buckle down these next three weeks if I want to pull through. But what if I summon a Herculean effort and I’m still not good enough in time? Maybe it would hurt a little less if I just tapped out now and failed on my own terms. At least then I could retain some sense of control.”

This morning, on my way in, I saw the gate start to come down, and three people took off running to beat it. Two ducked under, and the third decided at the last moment not to chance it.

If the train represents a perceived danger, and the wooden arms are the ego’s defenses against that danger, maybe the difference between those who go for it and those who hedge is in the context. Maybe Runner 3 didn’t know it was a Loop train and that there was plenty of time to duck even after the arm had dropped completely. And maybe the knowledge that DBC is a safe place to learn and make mistakes, the knowledge that you’re surrounded by students and mentors and teachers who have your back and will help you succeed, the knowledge that so many before you have found success here by trusting the process and bringing their whole selves into the struggle…maybe that knowledge will empower you to pick your moment, stare down the train and get yourself where you were trying to go.

However… what if the train represents a path to somewhere awesome, a path you can miss out on traveling if you hesitate for too long? If that’s the case, maybe the arms and bells and lights are the ego’s defenses against personal change, and maybe Runners 1 and 2 weren’t afraid to duck under them because they knew the ego is a vicious liar when it doesn’t want change, and in that context the warnings weren’t warnings at all, they were just excuses.

But that’s not right either. Coding (and, I’m slowly learning, life itself) isn’t about finding the right solutions, it’s about the best solutions available considering the specific situation and the tradeoffs involved. There’s no black and white, just pros and cons and a choice to be made.

And if that’s true, the train is both danger and opportunity. It’s not your death or your salvation, it’s a risk. It might crush you, or it might open its doors and let you change your scenery. But the tricky part is that when the bells start to go off and the lights start to flash, you will need to decide for yourself what the warning means, and you’ll need to act on that decision quickly.

It’s convenient that I ride toward the Loop way more often than I ride toward Kimball, because it gives the analogy another layer. When I hear the bells and see a train barreling westbound toward the tracks, I know ducking the arm would be a stupid risk, not because I’m more likely to get crushed by a westbound train, but because west is not even where I need to go. Hopefully, long before you started DBC, you got at least a kick out of writing code that works; if not, this might not be the right risk for you in the first place.

But that’s hindsight at this point. You’re here now, and you’re uncomfortably new at this, and the work is really hard, and your defensive brain is warning you that you might be in danger. And yet the train that’s endangering you, these challenges, this process, the uncertainty of what comes after, the uncertainty about yourself, is the very reason you left the house in the first place. At this point, you can hold yourself back or push yourself toward the risk.

I don’t know your tradeoffs, so I can’t speak for you. And it’s a scary choice no matter what side you land on. Scary like running through a railroad crossing is scary, because in both cases you’ve grown up being told to never ever chance it: “A career change? At YOUR age? But you’ve got such a good thing going…”

Still, I’ll bet money that while running through a railroad crossing is scary no matter what, one of those runners was more afraid of getting crushed, and two of those runners were more afraid of missing the train.

I graduated Dev Bootcamp in September, and got asked to come back on contract as a junior instructor, and that job became full-time official last month, and that meant I finally got to reunite my family in Chicago, so we’re together again and my career trajectory has changed in a huge way and 2014 was the most amazing year of my adult life.

For me, putting my head down and going for it was the right move.


Dev Bootcamp Rap Recap: Week 6

I did it! I got through Phase 2 in one go, and I was so happy and proud of the effort I put in. Then Phase 3 hit, and the pace didn’t change. I feel like I’m hitting my stride, gaining more stamina when it comes to long coding sessions and grinding through the work in spite of feeling stuck on new problems. In the flurry of activity, I lost my hold on my blogging routine, but hopefully I’ll rediscover my balance this week. In the meantime, enjoy this rap recap. It’s a week late, and I’m trying to explain why in the lyrics. Read along below the video.

I know it’s a little late to ship this,
I know that I slipped out of existence,
cause I was turning my focus to JavaScript,
working and hoping that I could commit enough to live 6th week only one time,
and speed through the crunch time,
my social presence went from a feast to a lunch line.
I never guessed that I’d lose the heat from the sunshine; 
I was hidden and living at the peak of a CRUD grind. 

I kept reaching for a punchline only to grab lines of code from my troubled mind,
and catching up was the name of the game
my frantic pace was insane, I couldn’t even try to bust rhymes.
My priority shift was quite enormous: I quit from nightly blogging and missed shots to talk to my kid.
I had to sacrifice a lot for my wish to reach the Phase three spot but I did,
by dropping off of the grid.

I guess I did what I had to, banging on the door of potential until I passed through.
I’m hard-headed but finally understand dudes saying doing more than just coding can be a bad move.

And that’s true but I honestly think it’s worth it to try,
that’s why my rapping is returning to life,
I might not do it perfect – I’m uncertain and shy,
I might get down on myself and feel nervous at times, but that’s all of us!
Any programmer can lose confidence,
breaking links can make you think you’re an impostor but,
if you can weather the lows you can get back in the flow; 
I happen to know that it feels like an awesome rush.
So try not to play it safe –
test limits and get driven to win it working crazy late.
And let the struggle be your saving grace,
cause this emotional roller coaster is crazy but it makes you great.

Ten Things to Expect from Dev Bootcamp’s Phase 1

I made it out of Phase 1 in one piece, and now all I want to do is look back. That’s probably not the healthiest impulse, considering the likelihood that next week’s pace will make my last three seem like warmups. In the interest of moving forward, I’m going to pack my entire phase into one retrospective post so curious readers can see what it’s like at the beginning of Dev Bootcamp.

Word to the wise – your mileage may vary! Every cohort is different, and instructors group off in different ways each phase. And you are unique; you’ll bring to this experience a particular set of skills and expectations that will determine what you get out of your first phase on campus. I’ll try to stick with the big concepts in a way that doesn’t spoil any cool surprises. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here, something to help make you into a better coder someday, or at least help you make a decision about how you’ll be spending the next six months of your life.

Here’s what you should expect from the first three weeks at DBC.

Expect the first week to kick your ass. It’s a system shock akin to being thrown into Lake Michigan in May. While you’re asleep. And mostly naked. You’ll hit the ground running on your first day, bouncing between welcome meals and things-you-need-to-know lectures and personal introductions and code. Yes, there will be code. And it likely won’t be code you enjoy writing. The first week is basically about building algorithms, the little script machines that work under the program’s hood to manipulate data and generate results. It’s a lot of math-y stuff, like telling a computer to look at a list of integers and spit out only those that are evenly divisible by 17, or figuring out how to take a number and convert it into a different type of notation.

There are also a lot of activities that deal with string manipulation, and you’ll even dip your toes into regular expressions, which are basically chunks of gibberish that isolate relevant patterns with the precision of a Google search. When you hear about regexp’s, you’ll be scared and want to avoid them. Do that if you want, but it will cost you a ton of time and energy better spent learning the new tool, and eventually you’ll learn it anyway. This cycle – fear, intentional ignorance, reluctant engagement, begrudging acceptance, and then habitual usage – is at the core of the DBC process. Get used to it, and try to skip ahead to the reluctant engagement part as soon as you can.

By the time you’re done with the first week’s challenges, you’ll have gained a new appreciation for some of the more powerful methods in the Ruby arsenal. To put it another way, you don’t really love your staple remover until the day someone makes you pull out a hundred staples with your fingernails. A lot of boots say the first week of Phase 1 is one of the hardest weeks overall because the material is dry and largely unrelated to the work you’ll actually end up doing as a web developer. But it’s there for a good reason, and you’ll have to learn it if you want to be solid during the rest of the phase, so strap in and hold on tight. You can make it. Even through Sudoku, you can make it.

Expect to stay classy. There’s this thing called object-oriented programming, and it’s all about getting parts of your program to play nicely with one another. That means making sure each part does exactly one thing and doesn’t spend too much time prying into the business of the other parts. After you get past the algorithms from the first week, your focus will shift to OO design practices almost immediately. This will make you dizzy. You’ll be trying to keep track of a class you created, what its variables are, what it inherits from, how to call methods from it, and then all of a sudden you’ll hear, “Oh, make sure you don’t put that there. It’ll work just fine now, but your program will be really hard to upgrade later if you do it like that.” If this was an English course, you’d be learning the basics of nouns and verbs while trying to match rhyme and meter. It’s daunting stuff.

And once you get the hang of it, it’s also the most rewarding stuff so far. Harness the power of Ruby objects, and you’ll be able to build facsimiles of real world systems in code, which is mindblowingly cool. You can make a Band object that contains a bunch of Musician objects and then call something like awesomesauce.kick_out(narcissistic_lead_singer) to make your group sound better. You can make a Congressperson class that inherits from the LazyBully class and add a lot of unfortunate dependencies to it. As I type these words, I notice that each of my arms happens to be an instance of the Gun class. 

The point of all this is to stop thinking of programs as singular things that run in a set order, and start thinking of them as groups of objects that talk to each other in specific ways. This mindset shift is at the core of the OO movement, and it can be hard to wrap your mind around if you come from another school of thought. Don’t worry. You’ll get plenty of practice learning design by making real-ish things and then realizing why they’re not working right (hint: you didn’t whiteboard enough).

Expect to stretch. I have some bad news for you: you have no idea what you’re capable of. Luckily, Dev Bootcamp is here to help you fix that. To unlock your maximum learning potential, they will do everything they can to shake things up and keep you on the outer edge of something called the stretch zone.

Picture a slice of cake, because cakes are circular and delicious. At the tip of the slice, the center of the circle, is your comfort zone. You know exactly what’s going to happen when you take your first bite. It won’t fall off the fork and you won’t bite off more than you can chew because that first part of the slice is so darn thin. In the comfort zone, results are utterly predictable, contentment is totally guaranteed, and growth is absolutely impossible. You don’t want that. Everyone will know you as the person who only takes the first bites of cake slices, which is kind of weird and more than a little pathetic.

At the other extreme is the panic zone, the outer edge of the cake that’s basically all frosting. Have you ever noticed how cloyingly bitter cake frosting can be all by itself? It’s terrible. Once again, you’re not eating cake, but you’re probably thinking all about it, wishing you could go back to a better cake/frosting balance, even if it means being the “first bites only” weirdo. When you’re panicking from overwork and lack of understanding, your brain shuts down and seeks comfort. But you didn’t pay 12 grand for a cake to nibble at frosting and skinny slice tips. You’re trying to eat some cake here!

So Dev Bootcamp sets you up in the sweet spot, that outer-middle ring of cake where the batter isn’t undercooked and the frosting is just starting to get deliciously thick. That’s the stretch zone, where you’re getting the most calories per fork-bending bite. Except instead of calories, it’s aha moments and hours of focused practice and opportunities to grow in groups. Less delicious, but ultimately more fulfilling. DBC wants you to be safe while you’re here, but safe isn’t the same as comfortable. There will come a day in your first phase when you’ll feel like there’s too much work to do and you’ll never get it done, and you’ll reach out for something, anything you can understand. And then you’ll look at your hand and see that you’ve grabbed on to the thing that made you this afraid yesterday, because in 24 hours your phobia morphed into your security blanket. That quick learning turnaround can only happen when you’re living in the stretch zone.

Expect to stretch. That’s not a typo. You’re going to do some yoga. It’s only five sessions over the first three weeks, but it’s still exercise, and it’s morning exercise, and it will probably make you sweat. You’ll want to bring a change of clothes unless you’re some kind of fitness monster. The practice itself is invigorating and relaxing. Lots of stretching, focusing on the lower back and shoulders (where programmers hold a lot of stress), and core exercises for balance and…organ health, I guess? I’m not totally sure why they have us do this.

Ok, that’s a lie, I think I’m pretty sure. Yoga teaches mindfulness through focus on the breath, grounding practitioners in a present moment that resurrects itself with each new inhale. You’ll want a good handle on mindfulness practice because it helps you recognize your thoughts and emotions while you’re having them. That’s an invaluable skill when you’re working at a fast pace and starting to get stuck. Mindful programmers debug faster because they can catch their poor assumptions as they speak their expectations to themselves. They code cleaner because they have the stillness of spirit necessary to sit back and write good pseudocode before leaping into class creation. And they work better with others because they don’t let their emotions dominate them during times of conflict.

Also, we’re more than just brains in jars. Most of the students here like to work really hard. That’s expected and encouraged. What gets lost in translation is the distinction between hard work and self harm. There is no nobility in skipping meals or depriving yourself of sleep or exercise in order to spend more time coding. You’ll end up burning out somewhere down the line, and it will cost you double the time you thought you’d been saving. Take care of yourself. Remember that your brain is attached to a body. And if you forget, there will be yoga to remind you of how painstakingly connected your brain and your body really are.

Expect pizza on Tuesdays. And expect the deep self-analysis that comes right before it. Engineering Empathy will ground you in reality and encourage you to speak your truth. These are closed-door group sessions where emotions can get raw and people can get uncomfortable. It’s OK. You can handle it. Just come prepared to be honest with yourself and your cohort-mates about how things make you feel. It may seem corny or unnecessary, but consider the companies where you’ll eventually apply. They interview a lot of people who know how to code, probably a lot of people who can code better than you’ll be able to after 9-15 weeks. When they consider you for employment, they’ll be margining how you’ll add to the culture. Are you a positive and welcoming person? Do other people do better work when you’re on the team? Can you look deep enough inward to detect and address your emotions as they shift, or are you constantly flying off the handle and needing to apologize for getting scared or frustrated or pissed off? Can you address a client with empathy and help them feel like their experience and knowledge is valid and valuable?

There’s not enough time to explicitly ready you for all these situations, but you’ll have a fair shot at learning some of the basics of emotional self-regulation and empathy, fundamentals that will allow an apprentice to contribute to a company’s culture long before they’re able to contribute to that company’s code. That’s value that pays dividends, and you’ll want to be able to provide it, so embrace the discomfort (at DBC, ALWAYS embrace the discomfort) and give each 90 minutes your best shot. 

A counselor, who helps facilitate the EE groups, is also available for half-hour private sessions funded by DBC. It’s up to you to sign yourself up if you feel you’d benefit from the space to get away and be totally honest with someone who will never look at your code. Personally, I think everyone should give it a chance at least once. I check in with the counselor once a week just to make sure I’m processing everything in a healthy way. There is so much to learn, so many personalities to get used to, so many expectations that get tested and torn down and rebuilt every day. You don’t need to go it alone. Use the first phase to reach out and seize every resource available to you. Especially the ones that take a minute to ask you how you feel and if they can help.

Expect to work with others. If you already know Rails and Angular and Node and Swift, and you only have experience working on projects alone, I’d still recommend that you try Dev Bootcamp. The relationships alone are worth the price of admission. Anyone can conceivably sit at a computer and teach themselves how to code, but DBC ups the ante by making you code next to a peer for more than two thirds of the time you spend on campus. This has benefits and drawbacks, and why the heck would you want to learn what they are in an environment where struggling with interpersonal issues could cost you a job? It’s safe here, so get used to it here. 

Get used to being the slow pair. Get used to asking tons of questions and admitting when you don’t understand the answers. Get used to feeling sad that you didn’t know more today and letting it drive you toward pushing harder tomorrow. Get used to watching someone better than you do something well, and get used to practicing their tricks and shortcuts on your own time while the lessons are still fresh. Get used to expecting their normal to become your normal someday. Get used to raising your expectations each time you code with someone strong. Get used to navigating, explaining your understanding of the code out loud and pulling up docs on your laptop to support the driver with researched answers to questions that come up. Get used to driving, plodding along as fast as your slow fingers will let you while your more experienced friend helps you make the most efficient decisions possible. In short, get used to something like being an apprentice in the real world.

And get used to being the fast pair. Get used to having your knowledge checked by a barrage of questions, finding new and painful humility each time your answers don’t quite match up. Get used to feeling sad that you went slower than your optimal pace today and letting it drive you toward pushing harder tomorrow. Get used to putting your methods where your mouth is and showing another person all your secrets, doing your best to lead by example without screwing up too badly. Get used to practicing your shortcuts and tricks on your own time before your workflow is under scrutiny and you share responsibility for someone else’s progress. Get used to being upset when your pair didn’t learn as much as you hoped they would, and asking yourself how you could have been a better leader. Get used to the art of teaching by asking questions, tracing back your own learning to guide someone else along until they arrive at the same understanding. Get used to driving, showing your pair how you do things and taking frequent breaks to make sure they understand why you did them that way. Get used to navigating, patiently (so patiently!) easing your teammate through the process you understood in minutes, even if it takes hours. Get used to getting the most out of your friend in a way that makes them feel like they matter, like they can contribute, like they made the right choice to be here. In short, get used to something like being a team leader in the real world.

Expect to work weekends. The atmosphere is different in here on Saturdays and Sundays, and you won’t want to miss it. Everyone’s laid back, but everyone’s focused. There’s a lot of joking and YouTube video sharing, and there’s also a lot of shop talk and review of the week’s material. It’s likely that you’ll enter your first few weekends with some unfinished core challenges from the week before. The weekend is your time to catch up or get ahead. You’ll have some weekend challenges to dig into, and your instructors will highlight the stuff from the past week that they think deserves the most attention. Redo lots of challenges. Build lots of toys and break them and rebuild them. Pair up with someone (or if you’re really feeling feisty, try grouping up) and work through a project from start to finish. Don’t skip the whiteboarding step, because the weekend is the best time to check your fundamentals.

During Week 2, my cohort had to build an app that generated winners and losers at random. Did we put our names into it and see who was the best one Saturday afternoon? You bet we did. Did we put real money down on the game and get really jealous of the winner? No comment. Rest assured that the weekends are awesome and you’ll want to be here to soak in that awesomeness. You’re trying to immerse yourself in code, why would you take a day off? if you want to relax at Dev Bootcamp, I think you’re better off timeboxing your day and finding a couple hours to work out or read or (ahem) blog multiple times throughout the week, rather than working like a fiend for five days and only having time to sleep and do laundry after the gong rings on Friday afternoon. 

Expect to ask for help. The pace is fast. The language is foreign. But you’re smart, right? Always the quickest kid in class, the best speaker in the meetings, the comfortable master of whatever past domain you lorded over, perched atop whatever throne you used to claim. Yeah, um, get ready to get blood all over your crown. Everyone here was the smart kid. Everyone. Chances are, you’re in for a rude awakening if you expect to coast on your own awesomeness. You’re going to struggle to keep up here, and you’ll struggle a lot less if you admit that you’re struggling. So just admit it and get some help.

There will be instructors, junior instructors, TAs, boots from the advanced phases, and brilliant peers all around you at all times. All that’s asked of you is that you raise your hand and expose your ignorance. People think the secret to success at DBC is an insane work ethic and ungodly hours, but that’s mostly true for those who would rather bang their head against a problem from 2 hours than ask an ignorance-exposing question and get help in 5 minutes. Your time is valuable and your money is valuable, and you’re trying to spend a lot of the latter to save a lot of the former, so why waste minutes being stuck when there are so many unstickers handy? 

I can’t stress enough how much my work improved after I started asking for help. My first week, I burned out in three days by trying to prove to myself that I was smart enough for this, as if I had signed up to know things rather than to learn them. My second week, I asked so many questions and signed up for so many mentoring sessions that I pissed off my pairs and got a warning message from an instructor telling me not to be a help hog. Week 3, I found my happy medium and I’ve never felt so relaxed about getting so much done in my life. The discomfort’s still there (are you seeing a pattern yet?), but now it’s more like a petulant but good-hearted roommate, and I get to enjoy this process way more than I did when I was killing myself trying to solve things better than my instructors. I’m not that guy. You’re not that person. Save time and a headache and be the one who asks for assistance when they need it.

About those mentor slots: there’s this great thing called Pairing is Caring, where coders in the community, many of them DBC grads, stop by for a few hours and help people understand things better. You’ll be able to schedule an appointment with someone dedicated to working on what you need to work on, and that 60-90 minutes will help you accelerate your learning in the best way possible. Imagine pairing with someone way faster than you who isn’t impatient and wants you to drive the whole time. It’s such an awesome way to gain understanding. You might even come away feeling really strong about something you thought you sucked at, like I did when I sat down to work at a challenge with a mentor and realized that all my initial instincts were the right ones for the project.

If you miss out on PIC mentors, take advantage of the weekend pairing board, where students from Phases 2 and 3 write their names and available weekend time slots. Take an hour on a Saturday (because you’re already here, right? Right???) and link up with someone who recently finished that nasty challenge you’re stuck on. Not only do they know one possible solution right off the bat, they probably remember their thought process and can help you along the same road. There are so many ways mentoring goes right and so precious few ways it can go wrong. Take the plunge. Get a mentor. You won’t regret it.

Expect to make friends. I came to Dev Bootcamp thinking about the things I’d need to learn and worrying about whether I’d have time to learn them all. I’ll leave Dev Bootcamp thinking about the people I’ve met and worrying about whether we’ll keep in touch. At tonight’s graduation party for the exiting Coyotes, a few of us started talking about how hard it normally was to meet new people, especially new people who weren’t like the people we already knew. And yet here we are, with our vastly different ages and backgrounds and experiences, and we’re all becoming really good friends. This place is not normal.

I’m not saying I’ve forged a deep bond with every single person in my cohort, but we’re all connected nonetheless, and there are already at least 10 people I’d make plans to hang out with even if we had to connect over something other than code. They say the acceptance process is so selective because DBC is looking for certain types of people they think will flourish in this strange environment. I believe that theory 100%. To a person, all my fellow Bobolinks have a strong drive to learn and succeed, coupled with this deep-seated optimism and openness to try new things. The whole space is like a resonating chamber for positive human energy, and it’s helped us form the kind of bonds that don’t happen by accident. Simply working together for three weeks doesn’t explain our level of camaraderie. This is something deeper, and it’s really special, and I’m grateful to be a part of it. Learning code alone gives you a sense of accomplishment. Learning code at Dev Bootcamp gives you that plus a sense of belonging. Get ready to sink into it, and stay wide awake so you can enjoy every second. Get everybody’s phone number in the first three days and create a DBC group full of the best buddies you don’t know you have yet.

tweet TWEET! #JustBobolinksThings

Expect to succeed. Always, always, always expect this. You wouldn’t have signed on for this journey if you didn’t believe in your potential or the program’s, so trust your initial thinking and see it through. Work every single day. Get done with every challenge you can and try to venture into the stretch challenges too. Stay late enough to finish what you started each day, and get home early enough to give yourself a real shot at a fresh start in the morning. And trust the process. You are good enough for this, and you’re ready enough for this, and all that’s left is for you to get started and see how much fun you can have while being awesome.

Repeating is not failure. Not knowing something is not failure. Screwing up on a challenge or assessment is not failure. Being the slow one in the pair is not failure. Failure is quitting, and it’s nothing else. And if you were planning on quitting, we wouldn’t be having this hypothetical one-way conversation right now.

So if you’re scouring the web trying to get more ready for this thing, I’m here to tell you that completing Phase 0 means you ready right now. Anticipating more outcomes feels safe, but safety isn’t where your growth zone is. You won’t get hurt by trusting the process and jumping right in. Just keep it simple. Pat yourself on the back for getting your submissions done, show up on time on Day One, and come expecting the ride of your life.


Today was all about communication. When my group was good at it, I was having a blast. When we weren’t, I was only able to keep from crying by concentrating on not throwing up. Total emotional roller coaster today.

This will be a shorter post because I am exhausted. Week 1 kicked my butt with boots on, and I’m glad it’s technically over. I say technically because I still plan to spend eight hours onsite tomorrow.

But that’s tomorrow. This is today. And today I learned that if I can’t write a program in plain English, I damn sure can’t code it. I was at a mental standstill until I took a step back and plotted my course. Once I did that, I started working out the solutions to my problems at a good clip, no problems, no stress.

They call it pseudocode. It’s a hybrid between saying what you want a program to do and actually coding it. Line by line, you work through the steps of your program until all you have to do is convert your instructions into syntax. It’s a great habit to get into because it makes it possible to implement a solution in a variety of different languages. I think. Right now I’m only just getting comfortable with the one.

But Ruby is a lot like plain English, so the transition from pseudo to code is quicker. As an example, let’s say I wanted to write code that displays a basic greeting. The idea is to say hi to a person by name. Here’s one way I might pseudocode it:

Define a method called greet_by_name that takes a string as an argument.
Create a variable called name that stores the value of the string.
If the value of the name variable is the same as “Duke Greene,”
Display a greeting that says hello to the value of the name variable and asks how the blogging is going.
Otherwise, display the same greeting and ask how the blog lurking is going.
Close the method.

Call the greet_by_name method on “Duke Greene”.
Call the greet_by_name method on “Jamie McBloglurker”.

At this point, my work is cut out for me. Line by line, I can read through my instructions and translate them directly. If I get stuck, I probably just have to take another look at my pseudo and rewrite it. So my greeting example might code out like this:

def greet_by_name(string)
name = string
if name == "Duke Greene"
puts "Hello, #{name}. How's the blogging going?"
puts "Hello, #{name}. How's the lurking going? You know you can comment, right?"

greet_by_name("Duke Greene")
greet_by_name ("Jamie McBloglurker")

That’s going to return

Hello, Duke Greene. How's the blogging going?
Hello, Jamie McBloglurker. How's the lurking going? You know you can comment, right?

just like I expected it to.

The hardest part about solving today’s challenge wasn’t getting along with the computer. It was getting along with each other. Everyone had their own solution idea and it was a real struggle to agree on one implementation. To make matters worse, we didn’t write any pseudocode until after 5pm. Oops. We could have saved so much time if we hadn’t just plunged in without a map.

Lesson learned. It’s late and I’m tired. Phase 0 boots, they’re not playing when they tell you to pseudocode. Practice the skill now because you’ll definitely need it later.

How to Fail at Dev Bootcamp (and How to Succeed)

When you do nothing but code at top speed for four days straight, you learn a lot about yourself very quickly. Even though I’m still in my first week, I’ve already been through enough ups and downs to offer some advice to anyone willing to listen. Including my stubborn self. This whole post could probably be summed up as “don’t be stubborn,” but I haven’t written it yet, so I don’t know. Let’s find out together.

How to fail: Panic on your own. Picture a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle. You now understand nested loops. Kidding! The inner circle is your comfort zone, where you feel good and everything is safe and you never grow. The outer circle is your panic zone, where you feel terrified and nothing is safe and you never grow because you keep running back to the comfort circle. In the middle is a whole lot of discomfort, and you’ll be living on the outer edge of that at Dev Bootcamp. The easiest way to slide out of the sweet spot and into panic is to isolate yourself from your many supports here. Stubbornness says “I got myself into this mess, I can get myself out of it…” and then it’s been three hours since you’ve looked away from the screen and you’ve written zero new lines of workable code and you start to wonder about the percentage of boots that get sent home and whether you’re one of them. You don’t want that.
How to succeed: Struggle with a friend. You’ll have counselors, speakers, instructors, mentors, and fellow boots to lean on. Get ready to lean a whole lot. There are signup boards for one-on-one instruction. There are sticky notes you can put on your monitor whenever you have a question. And there are your cohort-mates, who are in the same boat as you and equally invested in paddling forward. There is no shame in pairing up on a difficult challenge, and I’ll say it again because there is no shame in pairing up on a difficult challenge. Thursdays tend to be solo days here, but that’s just a suggestion, and it’s a terrible excuse to cheat yourself out of hours of progress because you were too proud to look around for a buddy to code with. When you have a friend by your side, it’s very hard for both of you to panic at the same time. At least one of you will be pulling the average back toward discomfort, and you want discomfort a whole lot.

How to fail: Explore every rabbit hole. Let’s break down a typical day. You get in at 8 in the morning. You code for an hour. You sit in lecture for an hour. You code for an hour and a half. You eat lunch. You code for an hour. You attend an afternoon lecture or activity. You code for two hours. Now it’s 5:00. You can either try to squeeze in a few more hours or call it a day and start fresh. If you head home at 5, that’s less than six hours of coding, and I’ve faced an average of seven challenges each day here so far. Do the math. If you decide to get cute or fancy or clever or insatiably curious and run off chasing an edge case (“Yeah, but what about if the user has a Chinese keyboard?”) or a strange solution (“I’ll do the whole thing with nothing but bracket operators!”), you will run out of time. I know this because I do this and I keep running out of time. I’m not the only one, but there are a lot of people who manage to get through every core challenge by the official end of the day, and they do things differently.
How to succeed: hop like a bunny. The people who finish by 5 block out their days in small chunks and set deliberate intentions for each slice of time. If they only have an hour to get a challenge done, that’s a great motivator to ask for help the instant they hit a snag in their process. These code bunnies are always hopping, from challenge to challenge, from Sublime to Google, from their desk to the kitchen for coffee, from their own work to a struggling friend for a quick head-clearing help break. The point is not necessarily to understand everything 100% before moving on; sometimes you just have to grit your teeth, accept that the last 25% will take 3 hours that you don’t have, get the challenge done the best way you know how and come back to ask about it later on.

How to fail: Blaze your own trail. There is a lot of honor in finding a brand new way to do everything there is to do at Dev Bootcamp. There is also a lot of regret and heartache and heartburn and loneliness. But forget about that gloomy stuff. You paid a lot of money for this particular wheel, and no one can tell you not to reinvent it. Who cares if people think you’re stubborn? They don’t know what’s best for you. You do. You’re going to do things your own way even if it kills you. Well, here’s a spoiler alert. It will kill you.
How to succeed: Read the map. Dev Bootcamp works because it keeps getting better. The mentors keep hearing and answering new questions, the curriculum keeps getting tweaked for clarity and concision, the boots’ cumulative knowledge keeps growing as cohorts keep passing the sum of the previous knowledge on to the next cohort, and now you understand recursion. Kidding! But seriously, they know what they’re doing around here. And unless you’re running the Coca-Cola of coding bootcamps in your country of origin, they know it better than you. Trust the process, do what they say in the order they say to do it, and listen really close when some senior boot suggests that you ask for help if you’re stuck for more than 10 minutes.

How to fail: Be a machine. This is it. Your big chance. All these weeks to do exactly the thing you love to do and nothing else. No one to distract you from your passion. Naturally, you’ll want to code all day and all night. You can handle it. You’re wired for this stuff. There’s plenty of coffee in the kitchen. Neo could study for 12 hours straight, and you’re the hero of your own movie, so you can probably rock 13 no sweat. Which is fine until diminishing returns start to kick in. Your head hurts from thinking hard all day, but stubbornness tells you to keep going instead of taking a nap. Now you’re making stupid syntax mistakes and drifting off every few minutes. Your code starts to suck. But machines power through. Machines soldier on. So you keep on going, even though there’s a way to do the same work in way less time by simply stepping back and rethinking your approach, and now you understand the difference between linear and binary searches. Kidding! But you don’t understand kidding, because you are the warrior robot, and warrior robots have no use for humor.
How to succeed: Maintain your machine. Not your computer. Your body. Even warrior robots need oil. You’ll want to compromise sleep. Don’t. You’ll want to skip meals. Don’t. Your brain needs sleep and food, and your code needs your brain, and your success needs your code, and now you understand how the Ruby require method. Kidding? I’m not sure. See, I’ve been fading fast all day and it’s because I’ve been skipping meals and naps. As much as you may wish you could just be a disembodied mind that only has to engage with code and ideas, you have a body too. Respect it enough to take decent care of it while you’re here.

How to fail: Beat yourself up. Ok, so today kind of sucked and you’re stressing about it. Maybe now is a good time to dissect each moment of your workflow and examine all the ways it’s bad. That will fix things. At least it should, but for some reason you can’t move past the recognition of your negatives and into the implementation of your solutions. You were on the verge of panicking earlier because you made some mistakes, so now it’s time to retreat to the comfort of self-pity. Make no mistake, wallowing in despair is definitely more comfortable than pushing past it into action. But how can you act when all you can think about is how incompetent you are?
How to succeed: Lift others up. The best way to stop thinking bad thoughts about yourself is to think good thoughts about someone else. When you’re floundering in the deep waters of a tricky problem, the counterintuitive solution is usually a good one: stop working on it for a while and go help someone else with their problem instead. If you can offer good help, it will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Plus, you’ll build up a sense of mastery that will renew your confidence when you return to the challenge you were working on before. Sometimes the best way to lean on someone else is to let them lean on you. Put yourself in the position to remind yourself that you’re not alone in this, that everyone else is terrified just like you, that most people feel like impostors at some point in the curriculum.

For me, that point happened this afternoon, and I realized I needed to break after the Thursday evening DBCx talk (XSS vulnerabilities, fascinating and relevant stuff from Phil Corliss) for Vietnamese takeout and some serious decompression time at home. Technically, I’ll start tomorrow behind half a day of challenges; last night, my instinct would have been to lose sleep, neglect meals, and power through them alone in my room, all the while taking detours down esoteric paths that had nothing to do with the craft at hand. Today, I followed that instinct and it made me doubt my potential for the first time since I started Phase 1. It’s an awful feeling. I don’t recommend it.

Don’t be stubborn. Take this advice and succeed when you get here. If all goes well, maybe one day I’ll be standing over your shoulder, keeping you honest and focused and not letting you get away with not asking questions.

On that day, feel free to lean on me.

Ten Things to Expect from Dev Bootcamp’s Phase 0

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.

Those blog posts I had to write on my technical and cultural topics? They exist online because I had to write the HTML and CSS that brought them to life. I made a (very) basic JavaScript game during my third week. Most of the Ruby we write creates apps that serve some useful purpose, be it mathematical or practical. There is required and recommended reading accompanying every week of study, but the reading is secondary to the experimentation and exploration we do. I’ve had a lot of fun with the pure coding challenges, which combine the guidance of a clear workflow process (study, write the program in plain English, test-code-repeat, refactor to improve performance) with the adventure of a blank canvas.

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.

Dev Bootcamp gave me tons of destinations and no maps. I had to Google proper syntax, collaborate with other boots, read documentation, and mostly muddle around before I found myself where I wanted to go. And then it was time to get to the next destination somehow. Learning this way has a compound effect, and the DBC curriculum ramps up logically, so you can use mastered concepts to solve small parts of new problems. Meanwhile, you’re always learning new “roads” and plugging them into your existing map of knowledge. Now that I’m in review, I’m facing the interesting task of rewriting in JavaScript some Ruby code I’ve already built. The idea of that would have scared me silly in April, but now I shrug and hop into the work, knowing that I’ll surely find some way through whatever snags I encounter. You can plan to fall in love with the learning process in a way you haven’t done since elementary school. Getting your hands dirty is the aphrodisiac.

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.

Every week during Phase 0, I found myself learning something new. Weeks 1 and 2 brought HTML and CSS into my world. Week 3 flashed just enough JavaScript to pique my interest. Weeks 4 – 6 urged me deeper into Ruby, covering math, arrays, methods and classes. Week 7 threw some SQL at me to see what would stick (not a ton, but enough to make stupid jokes FROM top_of_my_head WHERE punchline = awful). And then it all wrapped up with comprehensive review. Through the whole process I was building a progressively better looking blog, pairing up, leaving feedback and submitting exercises. It took a lot of my time, but it wasn’t grueling. Like a brisk uphill walk, Phase 0 made me break a sweat but did more to wake me up than wear me out. I think anyone can do this work as long as they get a kick out of programming itself and invest enough time in the exercises.

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.

Follow-Up: The Scoop on Dev Bootcamp

Ok, maybe not “the” scoop. But it’s my scoop. After connecting with several DBC grads via email, Facebook, and Twitter, I know what to expect from Dev Bootcamp. At least I think I do.

This post marks the gripping conclusion of the search I started in this other post. Check the comments in that one for answers, too. Dave Hoover, who runs the Chicago DBC, stopped by to provide some helpful numbers and guidance.

To get my information, I tapped family networks for knowledgeable contacts, talked to people who have hired (and rejected) applicants with a Dev Bootcamp pedigree, asked DBC admissions staff to introduce me to boots, scoured the blogosphere for grads with current contact info, pestered Twitter users with DBC credentials in their profiles, and used an app called BootieTracker, created by a team of boots, to locate Chicago-area students and message them on Facebook with my questions.

I asked a ton of questions.

I wanted to know if the life-changing experience touted on the website was for real, if I would get help when I needed it, if the journey would be worth the effort.

I wanted to know whether people really went from 0 to 60 with no prior programming experience, whether a lot of people were getting kicked out to inflate graduation rates, whether DBC’s stats – 85% hired at $75K per year on average – were accurate.

I wanted to know how people handled the grueling pace of the program, how they felt about pair programming, how they struggled and overcame their setbacks, how they fared after graduation.

I wanted to know what boots wished they had known going in, what the program looked and felt like, what tech companies thought of Dev Bootcamp graduates, what grads took away from the experience as a whole.

I wanted to know everything. That’s what I generally tend to want. And I never get it. But I can get close. And I feel like I got close with this round of research. Close enough that I’ll be plunking down my deposit this week and focusing all my energy on Phase 0 prep. Let’s go over the info that cemented my decision.

Bullet points? Bullet points…

  • Most boots graduate. Everyone I spoke with reinforced Dev Bootcamp’s claim that the overwhelming majority of boots complete the program. Though a few do get asked to leave, and others drop out, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. In general, if Dev Bootcamp thinks you’re passionate enough to get accepted, you’ll be passionate enough to see things through. (This only applies to Phases 1-3, which take place onsite. The in-home Phase 0 might have a higher drop rate, but the nature of my search made it impossible for me to figure that out. And I was less interested in doing so, because losing steam at the start isn’t too costly; if you drop within the first three weeks of the intro phase, you get all your tuition back except for the deposit.)
  • Apprentices get paid, too. When I first looked at DBC, the path to becoming a junior developer sounded like this: 1) Apply. 2) Get in. 3) Work hard. 4) Poof! 5) You’re a junior developer. Nope. Not even close. The reality is more like this: 1) Apply. 2) Get in, start learning. 3) Work as hard as you can. 4) Learn as much as you can on your own time. 5) Get a job where you can keep learning on the clock. 6) Learn at work, after work, and on weekends for several months. 7) Somewhere in there, you become a junior developer. For a lot of graduates, step 5 means starting out as an apprentice, someone who does very basic stuff for the company while learning more complex stuff for themselves over 3 to 6 months, after which they either say goodbye (repeat step 5) or stick around as a real developer (step 7 completed, now do step 6 for the rest of your life). The good news is that apprentices in Chicago still make a living wage, anywhere from $40,000-$55,000 a year. Not a bad gig for a fresh-faced boot.
  • Repeating phases is a thing. Buried beneath the “Intensive 9-Week Program” branding is a deep desire to see boots succeed. Students invest a lot in DBC, and it looks like the investment is mutual. These guys really don’t want you to fail. So if you’re faltering at the end of a phase, you can retake it one more time to lock it in. Boots repeat Phase 2 the most. Phase 3 can’t be repeated, because it’s the final project and career planning phase, less about pure learning and more about applying principles in real-world terms. Some boots recommended that I budget extra time and money in case I need to rerun a phase or two. I’m glad I got this information before I settled on a rent arrangement for my stay in Chicago!
  • The command line is your best frienemy. When grads gave me advice about how to prep for Phase 0, learning the command line (Terminal on my MacBook) was the most emphatic recommendation. I need to practice navigating and managing folders and files, calling up help screens and manuals, and learning shortcuts to streamline my time. Since this work is all about the code, and the code is running in the command line, I must choose to befriend it or fight it every step of the way. Those I spoke with couldn’t stress it enough to me; I can’t stress it enough to anyone reading this for help.
  • Less HTML, more JavaScript. Dev Bootcamp primarily teaches Ruby, Rails, Javascript, and basic HTML/CSS. Of the four, HTML/CSS seems to be stressed the least. One graduate said I should refresh myself on the bare-bones basics and then get back to the Ruby and JavaScript stuff. Still, I shouldn’t beat myself over the head with JS, though, since DBC does a good job of teaching everything at the right time, and Ruby comes first. I was told to get the Code Academy JavaScript track done and leave it at that.
  • Pair programming can help…and hurt. Working in tandem is a great way to accelerate your growth, if you and your partner have similar proficiency and learning styles. If not, the imbalance can be a hurdle. Working with someone who leaves you in the dust could inspire you to push yourself that much harder. But it could be discouraging, and someone used to functioning at a faster pace may not take the time to reach back and help you get on their level. Working with someone much slower than you might feel like a drag on your time and energy, though teaching a concept is often the best way to learn it. However you feel about pair programming, it’s going to happen, so be prepared to work empathetically with other human beings. And remember to speak up if you feel yourself floundering, because…
  • Asking for help is good. And necessary. Dev Bootcamp says this, current students say this, graduates say this, employers say this. Knowing when you’re stuck, and looking outside yourself to get unstuck, is a crucial habit to develop. Use Google, Stack Overflow, GitHub, teachers, mentors, peers, whatever you have at your disposal. The students who knew how to swallow pride and ask for help grasped concepts faster and got more done each day. Being humble is always better than staying in the dark.
  • Experience matters less than passion. Some of the people I talked to had walked away from computer science majors. Some came from business or teaching backgrounds and had spent a couple years learning to code in order to solve work-specific problems. Some hadn’t touched code before they started at Dev Bootcamp. But every single grad I talked to was passionate about programming. It’s passion, not knowledge or expertise, that keeps someone on campus for 14 hours a day during the week and 10 on weekends. Dev Bootcamp gives people the tools they need to become “world-class beginners;” you don’t need to bring many tools of your own. But sharpening them takes a lot of time and effort, and passion makes the effort worth it. By the end of the three phases, those who showed the most hunger and drive were the ones who thrived.
  • Success is in the struggle. I had to take some time with this one. I asked several grads, “What were some habits of successful students compared to students who struggled with the material?” One answer: “…Well, what do you mean by success vs. struggle?” Another: “Dude, success comes from the struggle. You’re thinking about it wrong.” My bad. I hadn’t let it sink in that every single person at DBC faces an uphill battle. Strike that, we’re talking mountains to climb. And the successful people are the ones who get in there and strengthen their climbing muscles, the ones who learn by slipping how to grip better, the ones who aren’t satisfied with climbing only the mountains they know they’ll scale on the first try. If I’m ready to feel helpless, hopeless, and afraid, I’m ready to push through that and get to the wisdom that lies beyond.
  • You have to find your own cheese. More about the learning environment: This isn’t a classroom where you listen to lectures about mazes and cheese all day, poring over maze theory and case studies of dairy farms, and then take a test on paper with a closed book and multiple-choice questions. It’s a place where they throw a ton of information at you at the beginning of the day and then say, “We’re dropping you into a labyrinth. There’s some cheese in there. Go get it.” On some days, you’ll find it in an hour and spend the rest of the day teaching others how to find it or building a new labyrinth of your own. On others, you won’t find the cheese at all. The DBC curriculum is designed to reward experimentation and prepare students for a career where they’ll fail at things the first time, all the time. This flies in the face of an academic culture that rewards keeping your mouth shut and not opening it unless you know you know the right answer.
  • If you want the work, do the work. Employers stress that successful DBC hires are self-motivated and willing to push themselves outside their comfort zone. The grads that don’t get hired are the ones who stop learning once the program ends. Dev Bootcamp gives people a blueprint for self-instruction; if a person refuses to learn Java to get their dream job at a Java shop, that’s on them. Some of the graduates I talked to spent months sending out hundreds of applications and doing dozens of interviews. The word “hustle” came up several times. In essence, if you’re the type of person who can push themselves through a 100 hour a week commitment, you can push yourself into the workplace too. But you have to keep pushing, expanding your skillset and fleshing out your understanding by creating real projects on your own time and posting them to places like GitHub.
  • Learning never stops. If you want to be a programmer, there is never a point where you’re “done” educating yourself. Everyone I talked to said they spent big chunk of their free time attending programming events, tinkering with code, learning new languages, and so on. Senior-level programmers are the hot commodity in the web development world, and if you want to get there, you must several years of focus and dedication to take in all the information required to function at that level. Dev Bootcamp functions as a learning accelerator, and that function is twofold: in the coming months, I should expect to learn things faster than I ever have before, and I should expect to learn enough about how I learn to be able to teach myself new concepts as quickly as possible.
  • The rewards are real. Dev Bootcamp claims that 85% of grads get hired and that most of them are making upwards of $70,000 a year. Is this true? Yes and no. Check in with someone a couple months out of school and they’re probably apprenticing somewhere, building up their coding chops. Or they’re still searching for work while attending hackathons and making apps. Wait a year and check in again, and they’re likely working a job they love for pay that skews way closer to the advertised median. It’s all about who you ask, and when. Again, significant work is required to get significant results, but the results are easily achievable. It’s worth mentioning that people also felt their experiences represented those of their cohorts. There’s not a lot of variation in the stories I was told, which leads me to believe that no one’s BSing here.

Whew. That pretty much sums up what I’ve learned from my search. I’ll have plenty of firsthand information to share in due time, but you’ll have to settle for secondhand until I actually start my phases. The lessons I learned are pretty high-level; take away the first six points and this isn’t just advice about Dev Bootcamp. It’s about life. Which is why I’m so excited about it. Everyone I talked to said DBC changed their lives for the better. And no one had lost their passion for learning; if anything, passion intensified once boots graduated.

I love to learn. If I could choose any superpower, I’d want this one right here. If Dev Bootcamp can help me get a tiny bit closer to that level, then I’m in. Let’s do this.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wrap my mind around recursion. Time to struggle.

April O’Neil, out.*

tl;dr It’s for real, it’s super difficult, and it’s worth every penny of the $12K tuition if you’re willing to invest the time as well as the money. But only if you love programming. If it’s all about the financial upside for you, get out while you still can.

*Don’t ever do a Google Image search for April O’Neil. Please trust me on this, and enjoy the default post image for now.