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.
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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.