My Moment of Desperation

It’s been no secret that I’ve been struggling trying to find work.  Recently things started getting bad.  Personal issues, health issues, financial issues, pest issues (don’t ask), just issues.  I wasn’t ready to give up, but I was ready to do what I had to and put coding on the side.  I needed benefits, I needed money, I needed to start being able to support my family again.

So I stopped looking at developer jobs and started looking at where I could start working right away and get benefits.  I thought about going back to a collision shop, but that job would require 60 hours a week.  I thought about ways to possibly get back to Detroit, so that I could go work in a factory again, where I could just go in, do my 8 hours and get out.  Dallas is just too white collar and doesn’t even come close with manufacturing, but it does have an Amazon distribution center.  Turns out that Amazon offers benefits on DAY ONE.

I was about to apply to work at Amazon, not as a developer, but a warehouse worker making $12.00 an hour.  I’d at least have somewhat of an in at Amazon to move into development and most importantly, my family would have benefits, because right now, we’re one of the millions of un-insured Americans.

My plan was to just keep coding whenever I had time and continue working on my projects and side jobs.  Figuring that eventually I would flesh out my projects so much that there was no doubt whatsoever about what I could do.

I needed to try at least one last thing before I took that route though.  I’ve been on LinkedIn for some time slowly making connections.  I’ve heard of the power of LinkedIn and figured if there was ever a time to try, this was it.  So I wrote my final plea (see above image).

It wasn’t easy writing that, and I used every last character of the 1300 that LinkedIn allows on its posts.  I debated, hesitated, and almost didn’t hit that “POST” button, but I did.  Even though I figured it would only get a few dozen views at best, I had nothing to lose.  And there it was, out there for the world to see now, and I felt horrible.  I sat back in my chair, and broke down.  I tried to change my stars and fell flat on my face.  I failed myself, my family, and all those who’ve supported me.  Seeing it in print and announcing it to the world made it all real, and final.

But it wasn’t final, and the post got a little bit more than just a few dozen views.  It was gaining traction.  People from all over the country, complete strangers, were coming out to help me.  I tried to keep up and reply to everyone, but the response was overwhelming, and humbling.

People were sharing my post, asking for my resume, sharing my resume, commenting, liking, messaging me, calling me.  People on LinkedIn were calling out the city of Dallas to get me hired!

One person wrote a personal email to me.  A long, well thought out, and extremely helpful email.  An email that probably took at least an hour to write.  Written by someone I’ve never met, someone who’s successful and whose time is more valuable than I could ever dream of making in an hour.

Another person called me and spoke to me for at least a half an hour.  Spoke to me about ways he could help me, things I could do to get ahead.  This wasn’t a recruiter trying to place me, there was absolutely nothing in it for him at all, yet he offered to help me in several ways.  He even followed up with me several times and ended up getting me a couple leads through his connections.

A developer at a company I applied for contacted me, and later that evening spoke with me for almost an hour about different ways I could possibly work my way in to that company.  Again, a complete stranger, not a recruiter, not even a manager, just a developer on a team in a city 300 miles away from me.

I could keep going on and on.  Like one person commented, ‘People are overall pretty “good” and eager to help’.  Not just complete strangers, but strangers who I’m sure have different views, beliefs, etc., but none of that mattered.  I won’t get all political or anything here, but just when you think people no longer care about anyone but themselves, when everyone is so divided, they come out and surprise you.

And so the week went on.  I was getting phone interviews, screenings, taking assessments, coding challenges, meeting people, going to interviews, and was looking to have a very busy week this week.

But there was one person who contacted me and spoke with me on the phone late last week.  A person whose company was looking for developers.  A person who looked beyond degrees, beyond experience, and looked at what type of person someone is and what they’re capable of.

On Sunday, August 27th, I received an official offer from that person.  An offer for a position that just felt like it was meant to be, and on Monday, August 28th, I officially started working.

I’m not sure how he found my post.  I don’t think he was even within my 3rd degree of connections.  Someone shared or liked my post, that someone’s connection saw it, did the same, their connection saw it, maybe commented, another of their connections saw it, possibly shared it, and on and on for who knows how many connections, until it ended up on an electronic screen in front of a man in Florida who just changed my life.

I need to also talk about all the military veterans out there.  For a long time I didn’t consider myself a veteran.  I didn’t retire from the military, I’m not a protected veteran, I didn’t see combat, I didn’t even leave American soil, but I did serve honorably.  That was enough for those I consider the true veterans, as they came out in droves to look out for me.  2 of the stories above were veterans.  And the company I now work for is also a Veteran Owned Business.

So how much traction did that post get?  I took a snapshot of the numbers right after I received my offer.  After 5 days it got 45,660 views (and just passed 60,000 as I write this), which to me is basically viral.  61 people reshared the post.  I went from only 79 views of my LinkedIn profile in the past 90 days to 1,337 with a 9600% increase from the week before.  My connections grew from around 380 to finally surpassing the 500 mark.

To put that in perspective, this blog that you’re reading right now has only been viewed 6,142 times, ever! In just 5 days that one post got 39,518 more views than my entire blog has received since it went live exactly 19 MONTHS ago!

An interesting view into who was looking at my post

Finally I just want to express my deep gratitude to everyone on LinkedIn.  My life just took a drastic turn for the better because of ALL of you.  To everyone that took time out of your day to help me, everyone that set me up with interviews, everyone that looked at my resume, everyone that messaged me, everyone that shared, liked, or commented on my post. THANK YOU!!!!!  I hope to never have to seek help like this again.  And will do whatever I can to repay all the kindness shown to me and hope that maybe I can be the one offering my help to someone next time.

Am I Bitter About My Coding Bootcamp Experience?

And more specifically, Coding Dojo?

A reader messaged me last night stating how it seems my time at Coding Dojo wasn’t too ideal since I have yet to land a permanent, full-time DEV job.  And that I don’t seem bitter about it or expressed any regrets.  His main question … Why not?

That question hit me in a weird way, and made me stop and do some introspection.  It wasn’t something I could answer in a quick reply to an email, it deserved a deeper explanation, and I have a feeling others might possibly be wondering the same thing, so here I am.

The timing of it couldn’t be more perfect, since today is my birthday.  And on this day I turn the big 4-0.  Should I be bitter?  Maybe. Probably? Let’s take a quick snapshot.  Behind this computer screen, in front of my covered up camera, sits a 40 year old unemployed father and husband.  Let me tell you, writing that last bit out and seeing it hurts, and not just for myself, but for those who depend on me, and that’s what cuts deepest.  Even so, I’m not bitter towards Coding Dojo.  Besides, things could always be worse. #notDead!

But why not? That’s the real question.  Let’s talk about Coding Dojo first.  Yes, they advertise things like 94% job placement rate and $76k+ starting salary, but what do those numbers even mean? Where do they come from?  I never for one second put any stock in those numbers.  Just like I don’t believe all those weight loss pills that show a person going from Chris Farley to The Rock in 12 weeks. I mean $76k AVERAGE! I realize most of their locations are on the west coast where cost of living is insane, so that probably is a legit number in the land where you can make a 6 figure salary, and still barely be able to afford a small apartment with 5 roommates.  But Dallas? Not a chance, not even close.  Majority entry level positions I see around this area start around $55-60k.  Not to say $76k isn’t possible, I know at least 2 people who graduated Coding Dojo and started out right at that number here in Dallas (one of whom I actually helped teach!).

I never cared about those numbers.  Don’t forget, I’m 40! I’ve had a lot of experience with programs touting all sorts of numbers, I mean hey, who hasn’t at least tried one … or two … of those too good to be true get rich quick schemes or some magic pill!

What I did care about was what Coding Dojo offered, not the numbers, but the actual product they sell…education.  Because one of the reasons I got into this field is because you can make it based on what you can do.  I didn’t expect Coding Dojo to make the projects for me that would land me that dream job, but I did expect Coding Dojo to help teach me the skills I need to build those projects myself.  And in this regard they met or exceeded all expectations.

They really do have, in my humble opinion, one of the best curriculums for new coders out there.  So I can definitively answer one part of the original question right now.  I positively, absolutely, have ZERO regrets about going to Coding Dojo.  There’s no way I could have learned what I did in the amount of time I did had I not gone. I truly believe I’m at least 1 years worth of experience further along right now than I would have been without that education.

Now, do I have things I could be bitter about? Absolutely.  I mean the career services were pretty much nonexistent when I graduated over a year ago.  Although technically, I did actually fall into their job placement rate, since 2 and a half months after graduating I was hired on at Coding Dojo as an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader (ABL).  And yes, that was a full-time with benefits position, although it fell FAR short of that $76k!

If there were any bitterness, this would be it.  I thought I was doing great, I was supposed to move up the chain and become a full instructor, and I was getting awesome feedback from the students.  But then Seattle happened, and the people at the top made a bunch of cuts, letting me finish out what was originally a 6 month deal anyway in March.  Although I didn’t go down quietly!  Thanks to my last cohort who all fought for me and even sent personal messages to the CEO/Founder trying to convince him to keep me on.

I haven’t admitted this before, but yeah, I do feel slightly burnt by that one.  But not bitter.

So why not?  Let’s finally answer that one.  Because this is MY life.  I make my own decisions and I’m where I am today because of the choices I’ve made.  I can’t control everything that happens to me, but I can control what I do, and how I respond to those things.  I could make all sorts of excuses, or blame others, but in the end, I’m responsible for myself.  My successes are my own, as well as my failures.  Coding Dojo never promised me anything, nor did they ever say it was going to be easy.

Even in regards to when I was let go as an ABL.  Yes, the students fought for me, yes I was getting great feedback, yes I was told there was a place for me to move up.  But in the end, I was essentially laid off because I failed myself.  I didn’t make myself invaluable enough to keep me off the chopping blocks.

It’s something I’ve always done in every other job I’ve worked.   I never worried about layoffs, because I excelled at what I did to the point that letting me go would never be an option.  It’s why every place I’ve worked, they’ve fought for me not to leave.  It’s why some still contact me about going back.  And unfortunately, I didn’t do enough to get to that point with Coding Dojo, and that’s on me.

That wasn’t technically a dev job though, but still, it gave me way more experience than I had when I graduated.  It’s been 5 months since then.  Still no full-time job.  Still not bitter.  I don’t have the right to be bitter, I didn’t exactly pave an easy road for myself.

When I decided to get into coding, and more specifically, attend Coding Dojo, I knew I had a tough road ahead.  I’m older, I don’t have a college degree, I have responsibilities, I had no experience, and I knew there was a stigma about coding bootcamps.

We can have the whole college degree debate all day long, but the fact is, it’s my fault I don’t have one.  And it’s definitely hurt me.  Its been coming up more often and whether its right or not, has instantly taken me out of the running on several positions.  You see, I did actually attend Central Michigan University, and I was lucky.  I had a father that worked hard his entire life and made sure I would be taken care of, and that I never had to worry about how to cover tuition.  But I was stupid.  I took my situation for granted and did more partying than studying.

I tried to fix it, but my GPA was so low after the first semester that even though I finally started to apply myself the second, it wasn’t enough to bring up my GPA high enough to avoid academic suspension. My fault. I did however take things more seriously, after which I made it onto the Dean’s List at my local community college, reapplied to CMU and was accepted back in …. and then didn’t go back.  Instead I ended up joining the Air Force.

That was probably one of the best things I ever did, but even while there I made one very crucial stupid mistake, I opted out of the GI Bill.  Why? Because I was young and dumb and thought I was going to take over the world.  I had all sorts of ideas for what I was going to do after the military and they all ended up with me making so much money I wouldn’t need to go back to school.

I handicapped myself.  Added another obstacle for myself to face, as if I didn’t have enough already.  During my search this year, I’ve blanked out during a tech interview, blew a coding challenge, got overconfident, but most importantly, I haven’t put in as much time as I need to.  Job searching is a full-time job in itself.  Add in that I also need to keep studying, keep fresh, work on projects, build my portfolio up, and it’s more like having 2 full-time jobs.

That’s all much easier to do when you’re single, and I’m not.  I still won’t use that as an excuse though.  I’ve known too many people with less time than me make it happen.  Looking back I can see all sorts of ways I wasted time, and I’m not talking about time I spent with my family, because what’s the point of all of this if you can’t spend time with those who matter most.

To sum it all up, No, I’m not bitter nor do I have any regrets.  I’m the one responsible for being an unemployed 40 year old, not Coding Dojo.  I’m the reason I don’t have a degree, not Coding Dojo.  And one other thing I haven’t mentioned, I LOVE CODING!  I didn’t get into this because of some  salary number touted by a coding bootcamp, I didn’t expect this to be a get-rich quick scheme.  I started playing around in code when I was looking for what to do with my life at the age of 38 and fell in love with it. So if there’s any regret at all, it’s that I didn’t start coding back in the 90’s.

 

Hold on, back it up …. I lied, I am bitter about something. I’m bitter about The Last F-in Ninja!  This #$%@! game and the Tandy SL1000 are what made me shun computers for well over a decade!  One day I’ll find these on eBay and get my revenge….

last ninja game
Go ahead, stand there all smug with your crappy little sword…I’ll find you one day and will pwn you!

The Career Fair

career fairWhen you’re a newer developer, you need to take whatever avenue is available in order to break into the industry.  Go to meetups, create a LinkedIn profile, sign up to Dice, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc., get an online presence (i.e. portfolio with projects, github), search companies online, talk to recruiters, submit applications, stay in contact with friends and former class/cohort-mates, and the list goes on and on.

It’s a loooooong hard road full of ups and downs, obstacles, flat tires, break-downs and a lot of work.  And I do mean a LOT of work!  There’s no miracle pill here.  Hell, if there was a pill, it would sound like one of those prescription commercials….

Are you sick of your job? Want to do something you’ll love? Need to make more money? Well then ask your doctor about the new Webdevexis**! Just take one a day and you can see results as soon as 12 weeks.  Just ask Dave.  “Hi, I’m Dave, after being on webdevexis for 3 months I had a stack of offers on the table and tripled my old salary! Now I’m living the life I’ve always imagined!”*. Not sure if Webdevexis is for you?†  Ask your doctor for a free sample.

* Results not typical and average time for effectiveness is approximately 6 months but may take longer depending on the individual. Results not guaranteed.
** Possible side effects may include drowsiness, staring into the abyss, insomnia, nervousness, weight loss, hallucinations (some patients have reported seeing the Matrix), nausea, blurred vision, ulcers, hair loss, high blood pressure, changes in behavior, irritability, schizophrenia, depression, and possibly a nervous breakdown.
† Webdevexis isn’t for everyone. Always consult your family and friends prior to taking Webdevexis.

Back to that list though.  If you were paying attention then you know I left one thing off – career fairs.

Last week I went to my first ever career fair.  Yup, I’m just about to turn 40 and have never been to one.  Of course I never needed to go to one, I’ve never had problems finding work before, no matter the economic climate. So through Dice, I learned of the Technology, Security Clearance & Cyber Security Career Fair that was going on August 2nd in Plano, Texas.  On the list of companies attending were Lockheed Martin, Raytheon – IIS, L3 Mission Integration, Southwest Airlines, GM Financial, and Options Clearing Corporation (OCC).

I couldn’t pass this one up.  It was focused on technology, which was nice since I know a lot of career fairs tend to have a very wide variety of what they’re looking for.  Plus these were companies I would want to work for, especially Lockheed Martin since when I was in the Air Force, I worked on the F-117 – a Lockheed Martin Skunkworks project.  Unfortunately the security clearance I had has LONG since expired, but I know I’m still ‘clearable’.

I knew going in I would be a huge underdog.  I feel that companies like these are out recruiting at the best universities looking for the best of the best, and here I am without a degree, although I did attend one of the top universities in the country for a short time.  Well, top meaning it was often ranked as one of the top party schools!  That probably didn’t help much in trying to get a degree.  Instead of finishing up though I decided to go into the military, which would be my one big positive going into this career fair.

I’m not really sure what I expected going in.  Thinking career fairs are mostly for college students though I thought I was going to be one of the older people there amongst a sea of young 20 year olds.  Boy was I wrong.  The crowd of people spanned all ages, and fairly evenly too.

Even though I didn’t know what to expect, it wasn’t anything at all like what I expected.  I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but of all the scenarios I imagined, what I walked into wasn’t like any of them.

The fair started at 11:00 am and I got there at 11:30.  The crowd of people was insane, with lines of people stretching from wall to wall.  I walked into a large rectangular room and it was completely filled up with people.  You couldn’t even tell which lines were for what.  You had to ask the people standing in line which company they THOUGHT they were in line for.  I emphasize ‘thought’ because there actually were people who had no idea what they were in line for.  Some people planned on seeing all the companies anyway so they just got into whichever line they walked up to.

drawing
My rendition of the setup and lines – somewhat to scale!

I went through quite a range of emotions during this time.  You couldn’t help but feeling like cattle, and I was just one person out of hundreds, thousands?, trying to stand out and get the attention of the recruiters to land a job.  To be honest, the entire thing felt dehumanizing.

How do you stand out? Here I was, fresh haircut, nice new business casual clothes, and I pretty much looked like everyone else there.  I am 6’2 though so I did at least stand taller than most! I know you normally shouldn’t be looking for work dressed all grungy, but in this crowd I think that might actually be a positive thing.  Thinking back those are the people I remember most.  If I was a recruiter and they had the skills to back them up, I would have a hard time forgetting about them, and personally, I don’t think someone should be ruled out of a job just because of how they dress anyway.

Speaking of the recruiters, I have no idea how they can do what they do.  In the span of 4 hours they had to talk to hundreds if not thousands of people and relive the ‘elevator pitch’ over and over and over again.  Me? I spoke to 6 (not including the few people I spoke to whom I was next to in line).  That’s a tough thought to get out of your head.  How am I going to make a big enough impression in a matter of a couple minutes that this recruiter will somehow remember me out of everyone they’ve spoken to?

Let’s do a breakdown of how it went.  The first company I went to was Lockheed Martin.  The person I spoke to was super nice and friendly.  Unfortunately both her and the other Lockheed recruiter were in the aeronautics division and didn’t have anything to do with software developers.  She made some notes on my resume though and said she would pass it on the the development team and would email me. That was about 3 minutes.

Next I went to L3, which for some reason had the shortest lines.  This was a complete failure.  There were 3 recruiters there and none of them dealt with developers either.  The recruiter I spoke to pretty much brushed me off and told me that they get a lot of hires from online applications so I should go online and find a suitable role and apply.  That was maybe 1 minute.

At this point I had been there for probably an hour and was considering calling it a day.  Hope was fading fast and the lines were still crazy.  I had nothing to lose though and you never know what might happen unless you try, so I stayed.

I decided to hit up Raytheon next, as that’s another company I’m familiar with and would love to work at.  They had the LONGEST line though.  So long that it spanned all the way across the room AND BACK! (see drawing above)  To pass the time there was a lot of eavesdropping and people watching.  When I was close to the recruiter tables I would try and listen to other people’s pitches.  I paid attention to how long a person might be talking to a recruiter.  I tried to play a guessing game at how well people did.  Most of these companies had some small giveaways – pens, cups, stress balls, etc., but no where near enough to give to everyone.  So I looked for who had a water bottle, a cup, thinking they did well.  And I did notice that when someone was talking to a recruiter for longer than usual, they almost always were given something, so I took that as a sign.

After what seemed like 2 hours I finally spoke to the Raytheon recruiter.  I had a rough start, but it actually went pretty good.  She was asking me questions and seemed interested.  The degree issue came up but I think I overcame that, plus she admitted that the military experience helps out a lot with that.  She didn’t have any roles locally for my skill set but there was a need for Python developers in Colorado.  She told me to follow up with her the following week and she would pass along my resume to that team.  And before I left….she pointed over to the table and told me to take anything I wanted.  So I grabbed a pen and said I would love to have a football rocket stress ball thing for my daughter.  It was a much needed small victory!

Raytheon Rocket

Next up was GM Financial.  For those who know me, you may be asking why?  I’m a die-hard Mopar guy.  I only drive Dodges and I live by the motto “Mopar or No Car”.  Growing up, GM and Ford were my sworn enemies, but hey, work is work and my family doesn’t give a crap about my car allegiances.  So I thought I would try and be funny, say something to stand out, even though I knew what I was thinking was stupid, and I shouldn’t have said it, but I did anyway.  “Hi, I’m Chris and I’m imported from Detroit”.  Yeah, I said it, and owned up to it right away.  For those who don’t know, “Imported from Detroit” was Chrysler’s tagline.  I got the weirdest look from her.  She took my resume though and said to look online for appropriate roles since yet again, neither recruiter handled developer positions.

After that debacle came Southwest Airlines.   This went better, but they were a Java shop.  She said they just opened up a position for a front-end UI  person and asked if the HTML, CSS and JavaScript on my resume was related to that.  Then told me the recruiter handling that position wasn’t there that day and I should go online and apply for it.

Finally was OCC.  It was basically a repeat of the others.  They’re expanding to a new location in the Dallas area and are going to be needing a bunch of tech people working with data and cloud computing.  But I would need to go online, find suitable roles and apply.  Although he did say to reference his name and email in the applications.

So that was it.  I walked out at 2:30, which meant it took me 3 full hours just to speak to 6 people for a total time of about 12 minutes.  With most of them telling me to just apply online.

This was my first, and in all likelihood, my last career fair.  I can’t see myself going to one of those again.  I still have to follow up with Raytheon, and I’m not forgetting about Lockheed Martin either.  In the meantime my job search continues…..

Some final tips for anyone planning on going to a career fair:

  • Make sure you have a tight resume.  The recruiters look at stacks of these and peruse through it really quick in front of you so you’ll want to make sure the high points stand out. And bring enough copies too.
  • Practice your elevator pitch!  This one can’t be stressed enough.  Be ready to talk.  The recruiters rarely started the conversation and if you didn’t have your pitch ready there would be some awkward silence as they wait for you to speak.  With all the people they’re seeing you have to sell them on you, not the other way around, so don’t expect them to guide you through the conversation.
  • Wear comfortable shoes!
  • If you’re near the recruiter tables, pay attention and listen in to what’s being said.  You could get some valuable intel that could help you with your own pitch.  This also includes paying attention to the recruiters body language and anything else that might clue you in to what impresses them, what doesn’t, and what they’re looking for.
  • Go ahead and talk to other people around you.  So what if they might be your competition, you never know who you might be talking to, or even who else is around listening.  You could gain a connection or at worst, pass the time if you’re in a long line.  By the way, I’ll admit I’m not very good at this part.
  • Stay positive!  This is tough if things aren’t going well and you’re just standing around for long periods of time, but when you walk up to that recruiter the last thing you want to do is come across as depressing or boring.

 

My 1st Year Post Coding Bootcamp

It’s now been an entire year since I graduated from Coding Dojo, which means it’s time for the year in review!  If you’ve followed along, or are just finding my blog now, and you’re someone wondering about what really happens after going to a coding bootcamp, then this post is for you!

Not only do you get my story, but also one of my cohort-mates.  Hopefully you’re already following her, and if not, you should be.  For those who kept up, you should already be familiar with Tiffany.  She was in my cohort and one of the co-founders of First Hack Dallas.  Besides her blog, she also creates some awesome YouTube videos and actually beat me to the punch in getting a year-in-review post up.  Go check it out here.

To say it’s been a rough year is an understatement.  The web development business can be bipolar as hell.  It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before in my life.  The highs and lows, ups and down are intense.  One minute you feel invincible like the whole world is in your hands, and the next you question every decision you’ve made in life to get to this point.  So let’s take it month by month.

July 2016 – Graduating on the 1st day of the month, I was pumped up and thought I’d be able to find work by August.  I took a mini-vacation over a long weekend since I was away from my family for so much during the bootcamp.  Otherwise the month was spent working on my resume, portfolio, continuing projects, etc.

August 2016 – Having not found work yet, it was a bit of a struggle without the hardcore structure of the bootcamp.  Plus with a family and a toddler at home it wasn’t always easy finding time to do everything I needed to do.  This was the month I put everything into trying to get into Gearbox Software while working out of Nerdvana Coffee in Frisco.  That never panned out and while I’d still love to work there, I’m over my borderline obsession.

September 2016 – 2 months with no work had me worrying.  I knew there was an open door for me at Coding Dojo so I applied for the Apprentice Bootcamp Leader position.  The pay wasn’t that great to start (well below the industry average), but it was full-time with benefits.  Not to mention the fact that it would allow me to continue my education and gain additional skills as well as experience.  So on September 16, I started working.

October 2016 – This is the month I learned Python.  I was assigned to assist with the Python cohort and literally had to learn it at the same time as helping to teach it.  I even took the belt exam with all the same restrictions as a student and earned my 4th black belt.  It was this situation that really showed me the benefit of having learned 3 stacks during the bootcamp.  Picking up a 4th after all that was a breeze!

November 2016 – My first hackathon!  Not as a participant, but as a co-founder and co-organizer!  After 2 months of planning and hard work, our hackathon was a huge success.  So much so that we still want to do it again.

December 2016 – My longest break from coding happened during this time.  One of the best perks of working at Coding Dojo was having 2 weeks off at the end of the year, and I hit the road and went back home to Detroit for the first time in years.

January 2017 – New year and things were looking good.  My first raise at Coding Dojo kicked in and they were ready to start making me the lead instructor of a cohort, although that didn’t get to happen this month.

February 2017 – I’m cruising along and everything was set in motion for me to get promoted to full-on instructor at Coding Dojo.  I even take on a cohort of my own and lead instruction for the web fundamentals portion of the bootcamp which teaches HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, API’s and AJAX.

March 2017 – The hammer drops.  Things at Coding Dojo as a company got shaky, the founder steps back in as CEO and starts making cuts to turn it around.  Being low-man on the totem pole I knew I was in trouble, and it didn’t take long to confirm my fears.  Exactly 6 months after I started, and since the Apprentice Bootcamp Leader position is a 6 month deal anyway, I had to part ways with Coding Dojo.  But at least I got to go out with a bang thanks to Grim Repo!

April 2017 – Things could have been bad.  Everyone at the Dallas Coding Dojo has been great and doing everything they could to help me find work.  What happened in March was out of their control and they supported me in whatever ways they could.  The career advisor was connecting me with everyone she knew and the captain of the Dallas ship has always made himself available for me.  Nothing was coming to fruition though.  Had it not been for the support of some family members, I would have been homeless, literally.  I had to sell my house and with 2 weeks before closing I had no idea where I was going to be living.

May 2017 – I would have thought finding work would have been easier this time around compared to the previous summer.  But my added experience actually teaching at Coding Dojo didn’t translate into anything in the eyes of the recruiters and hiring managers out there.  They viewed me no different than they did when I had just graduated.  Luckily though, since I left in March, I was able to make some extra money privately tutoring current Coding Dojo students.  So even though I may not of had full-time work, I was officially a freelancer.

June 2017 – Still actively looking for full-time work, I finally get an opportunity to prove myself….and fail.  I’ve been applying, interviewing, going to meetups, etc., but nothing was coming out of it.  This is where the ups and downs get intense.  One interview I had (it might of been in May actually) went so great that it lasted 2 and a half hours and they were starting to sell me on why I should work there, then crickets.  No callbacks, no emails, no replies to my follow-up, nothing, talk about going through a roller coaster.  But then at the very end of June I finally got a break….

So here I am, 4 days past my 1 year anniversary of graduating from Coding Dojo, and I have a promising freelance gig at a local startup.  It was a little over a week ago I was contacted by the CEO on LinkedIn, met late last week, and was brought on to update, maintain, and  work on their site.  So that is what I’m working on right now, well actually I’m writing this blog post right now but you know what I mean.  I’m excited about this and will be doing everything I can to absolutely rock this position.  It’s still early in it so I won’t be giving any details now, but rest assured I’ll keep you all up to date as I continue on through it.

So that’s my year in review.  In case you’re wondering what happened with everyone else from my cohort, well you should already know about Tiffany.  Then there’s our mysterious guest writer who wrote a couple posts on this blog last year.  He had a developer job straight out of the bootcamp but I don’t know what’s been going on since his last post.  One person became an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader at Coding Dojo like me, except he started right after graduating instead of waiting like I did.  He’s now a permanent instructor at the Dojo, and a great one too!  Another blogger from my cohort was nodefs.  I’m not exactly sure what he’s been up to but I know he’s continued his studies and I believe has learned C#/.NET and iOS/Swift since then.  Then there’s my DART buddy who has taken on a role as a Rails developer several months ago.  3 others I honestly have no idea what happened.  One went back to Seattle, one I haven’t seen since a meetup last fall, and the last one has decided to ignore all contact from any of us.

Like I said, it’s been one crazy year.  I wish it could have been nothing but positivity and sunshine and rainbows, but that’s not real life.  Just about anything worth something though is going to have a rough start.  What matters is not letting that rough start stop you from going after what you want.  That’s the stuff that makes you who you are and if you can get through it……well, you get the drift, I’m not trying to be Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar here.

On that note though I leave you with a video that was shared by one of my Coding Dojo instructors and former boss that is worth the time to watch…

 

The Coding Challenge

I finally got what I’ve been asking for, an opportunity to bypass all the crap I’ve complained about, an opportunity to show a potential employer what I can actually do, an opportunity to show what I’m capable of, an opportunity that may not present itself again …. and I fucked it up.  Yeah, you know it’s serious when I use that kind of language.

First let’s go back to my last post, one I’m not exactly proud of, but this blog is about my journey, the good and the bad.  In that mess of negativity and whining, I mentioned one company I applied for whose CEO was quoted as saying that he only cares about what a person is capable of and not they’re background.

In that application I was given an assessment.  One of those aptitude tests that have absolutely nothing to do with programming followed by a personality test.  You know the one, where you’re asked things like “have you ever stolen something” and then asked that same question 5 more times but reworded to try and trip you up.  Well, I never made it past that. I know I KILLED the aptitude portion, which means there was something in my personality assessment they didn’t like.  Man, talk about feeling rejected.  It’s different when it’s personal like that.

So about a month ago I was at a local React meetup and met a person who was working with someone who filled in most of their senior and mid level developers and were about to start on filling in with juniors.  Fast forward almost 2 weeks and I got a call from this person.  He started to talk about the position and I recognized it right away.  He told me the company name and I smiled.  It was the same one I had already been rejected from because of the assessment tests.

I go on to tell him about it and he agreed that those assessments are a ‘crock of shit’ and that even the director at the company was opposed to it, but it was an HR thing.  Well, it just so happened that they figured out a work-around, and he needed people quick.  I’m getting pretty excited at this point, I already know what the company does and would love to be a part of it, and as a bigger bonus, their office is literally less than 2 miles from my home!  In so many ways this was the perfect role for me, and finally, the stars were starting to align!

All I needed to do was take their coding challenge, completely bypassing all the initial crap.  I even felt like the person I was speaking to was rooting for me.  He told me if I knocked it out of the park that I would be ‘golden’ and it would be a big ‘F U’ to that stupid assessment.  I can’t even begin to describe the level of excitement going across the phone.

I get the challenge e-mailed to me, and start digging in to it.  This is going to be fun, I get to finally prove myself, and dive into a topic I haven’t had a chance to before, cryptography!

The challenge provided 3 files, 2 of which were encrypted and a regular plain text file.  At a minimum, I had to write an algorithm that would decrypt the easier of the 2 encrypted files using the plain text file as a base.  As an added bonus, and to really impress, I would of had to also decrypt the harder version, and could create an API and/or a Single Page App (SPA).

So where do I begin? I had no clue, other than the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin from ‘A Christmas Story’ and having recently watched the movie ‘The Imitation Game’ about Alan Turing, I knew absolutely NOTHING about cryptography.  It’s always seemed an interesting field and from what I knew you could spend years trying to master it.

Not knowing anything, I go to a developers best friend, google. I start reading up on some basics of cryptography and really just barely scratch the surface with the different types of ciphers that can be used in a ‘simple substitution’ encryption.  Think ‘A Christmas Story’ here where you simply substitute a letter with another one.  The simple part is that the substitute letter never changes.

At this point I figure the easy encrypted version has to be one of these simpler substitutions.  Especially after looking at the text patterns I could just tell that these letters weren’t changing.

But how do I use the plain text?  The instructions said to use it as a base, but I had no clue what that meant, and didn’t find anything anywhere that talked about ‘using plain text as a base’.  I ended up assuming that the encrypted text was from some part of this plain portion (which was over 5 million characters long).  And since all the spacing, punctuation, and capitalization was preserved, I decided to try and find where the word letter count, spacing, punctuation, etc. matched between the two versions.  Once I found that, I started writing out the letter substitutions.  Things were coming together and I noticed a pattern, which I could instantly see matched a couple of the types of ciphers I read about earlier.

Once I knew the type of cipher used, I was able to write up an algorithm to find it on it’s own.  One requirement of the challenge was to not ‘brute force’ the solution as the cipher could change anytime.  While the algorithm I created could figure out the cipher no matter what the substitutions were, it did have to know what TYPE of cipher is used to work, and in this case one specific type.  So not technically brute force.  Plus I was explained ‘brute force’ meant not hardcoding the cipher as in ‘A’ is always ‘F’, ‘B’ is always ‘C’, etc., and my solution definitely wasn’t that.  The letters could have been substituted with anything and still worked.

With that part done, I decided to start on some sort of SPA.  I decided to write it up using the MEAN stack, leaving out the M since I didn’t need a database for anything.  So it’s all JavaScript built on Node.js with Express.js and Angular.  I was trying to make something that would hopefully impress so I used Angular 1.x since the majority of my experience is with that version.  I didn’t want to waste time trying to use something I had to learn at the same time.

During this time, I got a follow-up call from the person who got me this chance to see how I was coming along.  I had told him and he seemed excited about my progress.

I didn’t have any time limit but it was coming close to a week and I figured I had to get something turned in.  Of course I had a bunch of other things going on so I didn’t actually have all of that time to dedicate to this challenge.  I knew I wasn’t going to have my SPA where I wanted it in the time I allowed myself so I took on the harder encrypted challenge.

My algorithm wasn’t even close to working on this one, which I expected.  And unlike the easy version, whatever this translated to, it wasn’t going to be found within the plain text.  So now I had to rack my brain trying to figure out what to do.  I began searching google for other types of substitution ciphers (even though this was harder it still looked to me like a simple substitution), and stumbled upon a short article about frequency analysis.  Basically what this does is just use the most commonly found letters, words, etc. and starts substituting them.  Based on the odds, this could get you something to work with.

First I started with one letter words, which there are really only 2, ‘I’ and ‘A’.  I found all of the one letter occurrences and started my cipher.  These are actually easy to find because ‘I’ is always capitalized when used, versus ‘A’ which can be either.  This time, I was hard coding, a.k.a ‘brute forcing’, the cipher and using my previous decryption algorithm to start decrypting the text, leaving spaces for the letters I haven’t figured out yet.  Then I looked at 3-letter words, specifically ‘and’ and ‘the’, which are the most common of all of them. I already had the ‘a’ figured out so I could tell which one was which and added those letters to my cipher.  Decrypt again and things were looking good.  Next I looked for twin letters.  There’s not many of those either and ‘LL’ is the most common.  Added that to my cipher, decrypted, and things were starting to look up.  I started looking at other more common things, like after an apostrophe you normally see either a ‘t’ or ‘s’.  I already had the ‘t’ so the ‘s’ was easy to figure out.  Decrypt again and now it became a game of Wheel of Fortune.  Words were coming together and I was feeling just like young Ralphie, licking my lips with excitement and anticipation of figuring out the encryption.

Finally I figured it out, except there was a problem.  Looking at the cipher, there was absolutely no pattern at all to the substitutions.  Nothing to tell me what type of cipher was being used or how it was made.

My personal time limit was nearing an end.  The hard encryption was a bonus anyway so I said I had to brute force it but at least I figured it out on my own.  All the code was up on github and I told him he could submit it.  I was having a lot of fun with this though and told him that I would keep working on it anyway and would be updating github as I continued.

That was a couple weeks ago, and I haven’t heard anything since.  But I kept working on it.  I even got my SPA somewhat presentable and went ahead and deployed it live via AWS EC2.  As soon as I did that I called him up and left him a message to get an update and tell him about my new progress.  I emailed him as well and included the IP address.  That was about a week ago, again, still haven’t heard anything back.

At this point it’s safe to say what I had wasn’t good enough, this job just isn’t going to happen.  I had my chance, the one chance I’ve been begging for, and I blew it.  I didn’t crush this challenge like I believed I could.

I wasn’t lying though about enjoying this challenge, so I kept working on it, trying to figure out how to get a computer to figure out what I did on my own.  Then one night, as I was half asleep, it hit me like a Mack Truck.  Using the plain text as a base didn’t mean it contained the encrypted message (even though it actually did for the easy version).  It was all about the ‘frequency analysis’ I did myself, and what I should have done, is created an algorithm to parse through the plain text and determine the frequency of letters, words, patterns, etc.  Then using those frequencies, have the computer figure out what to start replacing the same way I did.  Then it was a matter of getting the computer to play ‘Wheel of Fortune’ to fill in the gaps.

And now we come to today.  I’m currently working on getting the algorithm to work.  I’m partially there, but it’s a bit ugly with a lot of conditionals.  For the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ part, I plan to use a word or dictionary API to cross-reference the words.  One issue I know is going to come up is made up names, names that aren’t going to be like any word in a dictionary.  But one step at a time for now.

This challenge has turned into a full-blown project for me, one that is going to be on my portfolio.  I have a vision for it and once I make it a reality, it’s going to be impressive.  It might be too late for the original position I was vying for, but I’m going to make sure it helps me with the next.

Before I end this post, I have one last thing I want to say:

He okpe ms lpytw dskp Sjcvmyte!

In case you can’t figure it out, just go to the ‘decrypt your text’ section of my app and use the keyword ‘challenge’.  It’s still in its early stages of development so don’t expect anything too amazing….yet!

Cryptography and Ciphers

The Search for a Web Development Job

It’s now been 2 months since I started looking for work again, 8 whole weeks since the Coding Dojo bomb dropped and 7 weeks since my last day there, and I’m still searching, still ain’t got no job, but plenty of shit to do.

I’ve been applying, I’ve been interviewing, I’ve been networking. And let me tell you, it’s HARD! No other job hunt process throughout my entire life has been this difficult, this tedious, this demoralizing, this bipolar, this political. And in my opinion, and in the words of the demigod Maui, in this business ….

… (hey, I have a toddler at home, Moana’s been playing practically non-stop for the past few months).

There’s no sugarcoating it, if you’re about to go through a coding bootcamp, you have your work cut out for you. I’m not just a recent bootcamp grad anymore either, that was last year, and since then I was working full-time teaching coding, which apparently means absolutely nothing. In fact, throughout all my interviews, it was apparent that everyone kept thinking I was just hanging around Coding Dojo just helping out for free. I had some odd reactions when they realized I was actually a full-time employee with full-time benefits.

Part of the problem is that the hiring procedures are either outdated, or just flat out looking for the wrong thing. I understand that this is a highly technical skill and position to fill, and you have to prove you know what you’re doing. So why not look at a person’s actual code? The things they’ve actually done? Ask me about that. Give me a coding challenge, a small app to build. I’d honestly love to do that, and I know I’d knock it out of the park!

Instead questions are asked that have nothing to do with what you’re being hired for (and don’t really add substance to the whole “let’s see how you think”). I was asked one technical question that I honestly blanked on in the moment, but I’ve done that one thing a hundred times, hell, I even have a youtube video demonstrating it, but no, because I blanked at the wrong time I get told no. Most people don’t remember every single thing they need to do at all times, sometimes you need a reminder, and in the real world, it would have literally taken me less than 5 seconds to just glance at what I was blanking on and be able to run with it. A senior dev I was talking to said the same thing. I won’t even go into the part where I had questions about languages that weren’t even what the position called for (like a Ruby on Rails question in an interview for a Python role).

It’s not just about what you know at that moment in time though, especially not in an industry that is constantly changing. For example, the CEO of one of the positions I applied for was quoted saying “I don’t really care about your background, I care about what you’re capable of”. That quote was in context with his hiring philosophy, unfortunately it’s not something that his hiring managers believe. If it’s about what I’m capable of, well I can show example after example of that.

But let’s talk about background some more, I’ve made it no secret that I don’t have a CS degree, or any degree at all. It didn’t seem to be much of an issue with most places (although I have no idea how many times I was instantly passed up because of it either), but there have been a few that it has come up. The worst was when I got a call from a recruiter. Second question he asked was that. As soon as I said ‘no’, he told me they refuse to hire anyone without a degree (not even a CS degree mind you), and that was the end of it. To be honest, I don’t know how a degree in underwater basket-weaving that I got 20 years ago could possibly help me in a developing job! I’ve heard people say, “having a degree shows you don’t give up”, kooky-dooks! I can tell you numerous stories of people without degrees who are some of the most dedicated, persistent, stubborn people I know who break their backs, literally, before giving up on something. But maybe there were other circumstances that prevented them from finishing a degree, circumstances out of their control. Let’s not forget that I was in the military. I joined the United States Air Force and signed my life away to the government, but in the end a piece of paper that says ‘honorable discharge’ doesn’t hold a candle to one that says ‘bachelor of arts’.

I need to rein myself in a bit here, there’s more than one side to that debate and that’s not the main point of this post. What I want to get back to is capableness. Most of the jobs I’ve had in my life I was under-qualified for, and in many cases, flat-out had ZERO experience in. But somehow I managed to get those jobs, and then excel in them. I won’t get too crazy in showing off my accomplishments, I did enough of that back in my Gearbox post from last year.

I do want to bring up one company in particular here though, Geico. Yes, the auto insurance company that has more mascots than college football. Here’s a company that is on the right track with how they hire. Their philosophy truly is about finding people based on what they’re capable of, and not what they know. They believe that it’s about the people, and no matter how technical something may be, hard skills like that can be taught. That’s why the company is so strong, it’s why they’re everywhere, it’s why they continue to grow in a business that’s already saturated. I knew nothing about insurance when I applied there, but they didn’t care. They saw who I was, what I was capable of. So much so that they had to get upper management to sign off on a few issues I had. Insurance companies are just financial ones really, so they normally don’t like to hire people with credit issues like the ones that cough I had cough.

And guess what, I excelled. I moved up. I eventually went on to be an auto damage adjuster, where they continued their hiring philosophy. Oh yeah, and I didn’t have a degree, hmm, seems odd doesn’t it? Sounds like I should try and find a job again with Geico huh? This time I actually do have some experience, and you know they have a big development department. Honestly I did think about it, and looked it up, but unfortunately their entire development team is in the D.C. area and there’s no way I can move out there.

I’ve done the hiring at places before, and maybe one day I will for my own company. If that time comes I will look at the person, I’ll look at how they performed at what they’ve done before, regardless of what industry it was in. I’ll look at what others think of them. It’s like the movie, A Knight’s Tale. Here’s a guy without a pedegree, a peasant, who tries to become something that his background says he shouldn’t be. But he does it anyway, becomes great at it, and earns the loyalty of his friends along the way, to the point that they stood by him when he was found out. My favorite part of that entire movie is when he’s in the stockade, and Prince Edward comes up to him and just before ordering his release he says “…your men love you. If I knew nothing else about you, that would be enough…”

That’s how I felt when I wrote my last post. Coding Dojo had thrown me into the stockade where recruiters and hiring managers were throwing rocks at me. Meanwhile the cohort I led at the end, Grim Repo, along with others I’ve helped teach over the past several months, all stood by me, throwing the rocks back in the form of emails and surveys to managers and ceo’s. Unfortunately life isn’t the movies though, and that isn’t enough to be given a chance to prove myself as a developer. Awesome movie though!

Now we come full-circle, I’m still looking for work, still putting my family’s livelihood in the hands of strangers, strangers that with one word, can alter the future of me and my family. That’s a lot of power I’m not comfortable with being in someone else’s hands. Yes, I know, I determine my own future, blah blah blah, but think about that for a moment.

I’m willing to bet there are some of you reading this that are just thinking, ‘oh great, another whiny post about someone who didn’t get the job’, and I admit that much of it does come off that way. I was debating whether or not to even write this post, but this entire blog is about my odyssey, and it would be wrong of me to leave out the bad stuff. And I’ve accepted the fact that I’m terrible with rejection, always have been and always will be. But one day maybe I can look back at this post and tell myself what a fool I was, but it still doesn’t make it not true.

In the meantime I’m doing some private tutoring to other coding bootcamp students and looking for freelance work. I’m continuing my education in developing, trying to learn something new everyday. I’m even working on making some Amazon Alexa Skills right now! I have a couple static sites I need to work on that I’m being paid for and for family/friends that need one for their business. Plus I have my own projects, ones that I’ve started and a bunch that’s still in the imagination phase. I’m sure one of them is going to be ‘the big one’ haha. Then of course is the continued job search. My family didn’t go away, and they need me. I’ll keep applying, I’ll keep interviewing, and eventually something good will happen, because even though I don’t have a degree, I’m not a quitter.

One thing I refuse to do however, is to not be myself. I refuse to go into an interview trying to be someone I’m not. I refuse to answer questions with what I think someone might WANT to hear. One thing I am is honest, even if that honesty might work against me. So what if my answer might be cliché, there’s a reason things become cliché, because they’re true quite often, and if I’m saying it, you can be assured I mean it. If you ask me if I like to work, of course I’m going to say no, I don’t know of many people that would say yes to that, and I’m not going to make up something that I think you want to hear, but just because that might be a no doesn’t mean I won’t be bad ass at my job. Hell, even after the whole Coding Dojo thing guess what I did more than a month after I no longer worked there? I helped them setup for an event! Why? Because I was there and that’s just what I do. Besides, coding hasn’t been like work to me so that question doesn’t even apply!

P.S. Looking back, I wish I blogged in more detail throughout all my interviews like I did going through the bootcamp, but it’s too late now. What I will do though is create a new resource page where I’ll start adding some of the various questions I’ve been asked at these interviews.

Beware The Grim Repo

Drawn by one of our own

I’m back!  It’s been so long and there’s so much that’s been going on.  Perhaps you thought the Grim Repo actually did get me, but in truth, it didn’t get me until a few weeks ago, and not the way you’re thinking, but by the heart.  Yeah, that’s right, I might be getting a little mushy in this post.

So who is this Grim Repo?  Only the greatest cohort to ever come through the doors of Coding Dojo!  Sorry Cobra Kai, although you were definitely at the same level and will always hold a special place with me. And don’t think I forgot about all of you in Mega-Cohort either, you guys killed it, especially at the hackathon.  Greater even than the O.G.’s, the very first cohort to come through Dallas, yes, MY cohort that started an entire year ago.

Since September I’ve been working at Coding Dojo as an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader (ABL), an assistant Instructor in layman’s terms.  But Coding Dojo had plans, big plans, and I was a part of it.  The Dallas Dojo Captain, who I have the utmost respect for and hope to one day be as good a programmer, made it clear he wanted to keep me on and move me up the chain to full-on Instructor.

So on Tuesday, February 21st, a brand new cohort started, and I was their lead instructor.  My only help being a TA, who ended up getting a great job offer and was only with me the first week.  To make it even more interesting, I had one less day to teach them than normal due to that Monday being President’s Day.  So in less than 2 weeks I had to teach them HTML, CSS, jQuery, JavaScript basics, AJAX/API’s, Git and GitHub.

Was I nervous? Um, hell yeah I was nervous.  I didn’t want to look like an idiot, or for them to write one of those course report reviews about how their instructor was just a bootcamp grad themselves and had no clue what they were doing.  Most importantly though, I didn’t want to fail them.  I didn’t want for them to get through those first 2 weeks without gaining the knowledge they needed to help them be successful throughout the rest of the bootcamp and into their professional careers afterward.  I admit there’s a little bit of selfishness to that.  If they succeed, then I can say I was a part of that, but if they fail, then I failed.

I did whatever I could to be at my best for them.  I planned out the lectures, went over the material, wrote notes, went through the lectures/demos in my head as I was driving in to the dojo.  Anything I could do to prepare.  I didn’t want to just help them with the material at hand, I wanted to also be prepared for any questions they came up with or any errors they got.

There were some tough questions and problems too.  This cohort is smart, really smart, some of them were engineers and one had a computer engineering degree.  Talk about intimidating.  There was a moment that first week where I was talking to someone from another cohort and he was asking me how my “first cohort” was going.  I remember just replying to him to not say that so loud because I didn’t want them to hear that they were my first lead.

At the end of the first 2 weeks it was time for them to decide on a cohort name.  By then this cohort was already becoming a really tight group, and everyone at the dojo was noticing, even the rest of the staff made note of it.  They had a whiteboard filled up with all sorts of names, as soon as I saw ‘Grim Repo’ I loved it, but another name they had up there took me by surprise… ‘Team Ulanowicz’.  Of course I had them take that off the table.  They voted and ‘Grim Repo’ it was.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

The next two weeks were a whirlwind, but what Grim Repo did for me is something that I’ll never forget.

To kick it off, all the staff learned that the Coding Dojo founder was stepping back in to the company, and anytime the founder of a company comes back in, you know things are going to get shook up (think Apple, Starbucks, etc.).  Coding Dojo tried to grow way too fast and couldn’t keep up (I actually voiced some concerns about this back when I was a student myself and I think I may have mentioned it in my posts).  I knew right away my position was in trouble, I was the low man on the totem pole in Dallas.  The next day I learned that my fears were not unfounded, and I was out.  Since the ABL position was technically a 6 month deal, and my 6 month date was March 15th, they let me stay on until then.

News started leaking out slowly.  Geekwire even picked up on it and wrote this article about it, although they’re missing a few details.  An email was sent out to all the students by Michael Choi, the founder, noting some changes that’ll be taking place including a reduction in staff.  One student messaged me directly with concern, asking if I was staying.  That’s when I told them all what was going on.  Their reaction was not a good one.

The next day, our Captain was sitting near me, and put his computer in front of me.  On it was a message that was sent directly to him by one of my students.  Although I wish I had a copy of it, I don’t really need one because what I read still keeps running through my head.  All the fears I had about taking the lead in teaching them were gone.  I was speechless at the moment.  I handed the computer back and had to get up and just walk to hold back the tears… …told you I was gonna get mushy, but I’m fine with it, I mean hey, it was a pretty bad week.  It wasn’t just the what, but also the who.  The person that wrote this is someone I was admittedly intimidated a bit by, someone that many in the cohort would agree is one of the strongest and smartest (also one of the engineers I mentioned).

Then later that day, the whole cohort came together, started their own private Slack channel (which no other cohort has ever done that I’m aware of), and decided to all write letters to Michael Choi directly.  I couldn’t believe what was going on.  One by one they were confirming having sent an email.  While I never saw most of these, they did tell me about some of the things they wrote about.

Unfortunately, they’ve all expressed their disappointment in the fact that he never responded to a single one of their messages, but they’re pretty confident that if he didn’t know who I was before, he definitely knows my name now.  The amount of support I received from this group was completely unexpected.  To think that after only a few weeks, I was able to make that kind of impression on them, and have such a positive effect on them and their education, that they would band together like that for me without me ever asking….I honestly can’t even put it into words how that makes me feel.

Grim Repo weren’t the only ones.  The rest of the staff at the Dallas Dojo had my back.  They did everything they could for me, and still do whatever they can to help me.  They let me leave during the day for interviews, and the career advisor has and still is doing everything she can to help me find work.  I’ll go so far as to say that she’s the best career advisor in the country! (not sure if they’d want me putting their names out there or not so I’m playing it safe).

Back to Grim Repo though because they weren’t done yet.  On Wednesday, March 15th, my last day working at Coding Dojo, they all decided to take me out.  Before they did though, they put together a little package for me…

…wings, jerky and beer!  Now I know I’m a guy and not supposed to care about cards, but this one means a lot, and I’m going to hold on to it, and if at any time I start feeling like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I’ll just open it up and read it.  Oh, and they made me carry the bucket around downtown Dallas too.  They took me out to the dojo’s favorite spot…WingBucket for food and drinks, and then later in the evening, we ended up at another bar and let’s just say I was feeling pretty damn good.  Keep in mind this is a Wednesday, they had all just started learning django in python, which can be pretty rough, but instead of working on that, they spent the evening with me.

Grim Repo with me at WingBucket for my last day – sadly missing a few members that couldn’t be there for this pic

-personal note to Grim Repo

     In the short time you have been together you’ve become one of the tightest, closest-knit cohorts I’ve seen.  You’ve become like a family and included me in it.  I am extremely proud to say that I was the one that started you off on your new journey and know that all of you will go on to do great things.  I may not work for Coding Dojo anymore, but I still work for you.  I’ll continue to track your progress and help out whenever I can and can’t wait to be at your graduation where I was already told that I would be allowed to hand you all your certificates myself.

– And so this odyssey of mine continues…who knows where this coder will end up next, but wherever that may be, rest assured that you’ll find out all about it.

Becoming a polyglot programmer

A few months ago, I honestly never even heard of the term polyglot.  It was during career services week at Coding Dojo when a fellow former student (who used to be a spanish teacher) used the term when giving his elevator pitch.  It was originally meant for spoken languages, but can apply to programming languages as well.  The way I understand it, it’s not enough to just know multiple languages, but you also need the ability to jump between languages on the fly.

That last part is what’s really difficult.  I’ve known both Polish and English my entire life, and even took 3 years of Spanish in high school (as well as learning more of it whenever I can now that I live in Texas).  For the most part I haven’t had any issues jumping between those languages.  But there are times I’ve mixed them up.  Even so, it’s definitely easier to do when you’ve known something for a LONG time.

But what about when you haven’t known something for your entire life?  What about when you’re trying to learn multiple things at the same time? Imagine only knowing English, with almost no exposure to other languages, and then in less than a year’s time try to become proficient in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and just for the hell of it throw in Japanese and maybe a little Russian, because, well, why not?  Meanwhile also learn some basics in the structure of those languages that gives you some exposure to Latin, possibly even some hieroglyphics.

This is what it’s felt like for me this past year.  Oh, and those first languages I brought up?  They’re so similar that it’s really easy to mix up. Take Polish and Czech, 2 different languages, but so similar that I’ve literally had conversations with czech people where I was speaking polish and they were speaking czech.

Enough about spoken languages, this is about programming.  A year ago I barely knew any coding at all.  I could use the web and I knew how to view a page’s source, but it may as well have been kryptonian.  I dabbled in a little html about 14 years ago or so but that’s it.

In december of last year I took an Intro to Java course on Udacity.  I only got about halfway through it though.  Then in the beginning of this year, having decided to go to Coding Dojo, I started using the algorithm app that Coding Dojo has on their site.  This was my first intro to Javascript, but I quickly got lost and had no idea what I was doing.

So I decided to get a a book, But how do it know?, to learn how computers work at the lowest levels, thinking it would help me visualize what was going on.  And it did, so around February/March I went back to the algorithm app and was able to complete it.

Then in late March I officially started Coding Dojo, where I would go on to learn HTML, CSS, Javascript, LAMP (PHP), MEAN (JavaScript), and Ruby on Rails.

Also, to enhance my knowledge of the basics, I’ve been going through the CS50 lectures put out by Harvard whenever I had the chance.  They use C throughout the course so I get to learn a little bit of that language there.

In late August, while still searching for a position somewhere, I had the opportunity to become an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader at Coding Dojo.  But I had to fulfill some requirements, which included being able to do several assignments from the course of the bootcamp within a very short time limit, going through a typical interview process with whiteboard challenges, and finally a coding challenge.

My coding challenge had to do with Binary Search Trees (BST).  Although I was coding in Javascript, throughout the process of learning about BST’s, I was finding code in C++ as well as C# that I needed to figure out so that I could decipher the answer to my questions.

Of course starting in September, I officially became an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader, where I get to assist the instructors and help students throughout the day.  But the Dallas dojo location no longer teaches the LAMP stack, but instead in its place they teach Python as a first stack.  I’ll give you one guess as to which cohort I was assigned to for my 1st full month (after helping with web fundamentals for 2 weeks).

So there was no ‘dabbling’ this time, I had to fully learn Python, AT THE SAME TIME that I was assisting with the October Python cohort!  Doing this really opened my eyes up.  Learning Python as a 4th stack is worlds apart from learning it as your 1st stack.  It was actually easy!  And I’m not trying to be boastful here, I say this in regards to anyone.  Once you’ve learned 3 different stacks, picking up a 4th is a breeze. The concepts are all there, your mindset is there, and all it becomes is learning the different syntax and some of the intricacies that make it different from, say, Ruby.

Now a disclaimer, this blog is mine, and has nothing to do with Coding Dojo, other than my perspective having been a student and obviously my ties to it now working there.  My goal is to keep this blog separate and unbiased.  I’m not going to just blindly throw out recommendations or boast about how great Coding Dojo is.  That’s not what I want this blog to be about or become.

That being said, here’s my plug for Coding Dojo.  People tend to have mixed reactions to finding out they teach 3 stacks in 14 weeks.  Many people ask why not just try and master 1.  My Python experience is exactly why.  I’m willing to bet that, all things being equal, a person that has learned 3 stacks will pick up a new language quicker than someone who only learned 1.  Reinforcing this idea is the fact that I know several Dojo alumni who’ve been hired on at companies that use languages other than what Coding Dojo taught them.  Not only were they able to easily pickup whatever new language they needed to learn for their job quickly, they were able to do it on their own, whether it was C#/.NET, PHP, or Swift.

Moving on, so yeah, Python.  I learned it, using both Flask and Django, and conquered it, becoming the Dallas dojo’s 1st Quadruple Black Belt!  I even got to add another sticker to my laptop!

Back on topic, trying to be a polyglot is HARD, especially for a newer developer.  Recently I’ve been given a project that I need to develop for Coding Dojo in addition to my other duties.  This project is going to be in PHP, which I know, using Laravel, which I don’t (or didn’t since I’ve already went through the awesome Laracasts and ramped up since that time).

In the span of less than a week late last month, I was literally working in PHP, Python, JavaScript, and Ruby at the same time using various frameworks including Laravel, CodeIgniter, Rails, Django, and Flask.

I can’t even count the number of times I mixed up brackets/braces/parenthesis, % vs. ?, $ vs. @, ./+/->/=>/:, exit vs. ctrl c, and since I hadn’t touched PHP in a while before this I think I forgot the semi-colon about 30 times in just one day alone.  But I’m getting a LOT better at it.

Currently the cohort I’m with is learning Ruby on Rails.  Luckily, Laravel is extremely similar to Rails.  In fact, some things are actually identical, and that makes it easier going between them.  At the same time there are some things that are just slightly different enough that it makes it tougher not to miss them.  Then of course there’s the Ruby/PHP differences, which are easier to manage since those are more substantial.

So what’s next? Eventually, once I finish this project, I plan on tackling iOS/Swift.  That clear section surrounded by black belts is bugging the hell out of me.  In the meantime I’ll keep bouncing around between Ruby, PHP, and JavaScript with a little Python mixed in.  Then next month I’ll be swapping Ruby for MEAN, except that I still need to also squeeze in some work on the First Hack Dallas site, which is built with Ruby on Rails.  So many projects, so little time.

Inaugural First Hack Dallas Success Story

It’s now been a week since our first hackathon, so yes, this post is a bit overdue, but I can say the actual event was a success!  I won’t go too much into the beginnings of it though, since I went over that in a previous post called ‘First Hack Dallas – A Hackathon for Newbies‘.

In the time between that post and the day of the event, we added a few sponsors, held a ‘rehearsal’ a couple days prior, figured out IP/liability waivers, and scrambled to figure out how to pay for enough food to feed everyone with the limited funds we had available.

I think it’s safe to say we all had some jitters the night before.  I was especially feeling it as I stayed late at Coding Dojo to clean up the place and prep it as much as possible for the next day.  All that was left to do was to re-arrange all the tables/monitors and setup the registration desk. We all agreed to be there by 7 am at the latest to get a start on the day.

Saturday morning comes, and I wake up to my phone vibrating to a google calendar alert for First Hack Dallas … at 7:30 AM!!!!!!! Not a great way for an organizer to start the day of an event that officially begins at 8 AM.  Especially when said organizer lives 43 miles away! I don’t think I’ve ever jumped out of bed, taken a shower and got out the door as fast as I did that morning, well, maybe except for when I was in bootcamp for the US Air Force.  So what happened? I did set my alarm the night before, BUT, it’s the same alarm I use during the week and I completely forgot to add Saturday to it!  I called up Terry in a panic to tell him I’m trying to get there as fast as I can.  Luckily, he was able to calm me down saying that everything was being handled and going smoothly at that point and that it wasn’t an issue.  I walked through the door into the Dojo at 8:24 am.

Being our first hackathon ever (not just in organizing but attending as well), I was worried I was going to miss the start of it.  Turns out I didn’t miss anything at all.  Participants were still coming in and we ended up delaying the start of the hackathon to allow for more people to show up.

Registration Desk in the front lobby of Coding Dojo
Registration Desk in the front lobby of Coding Dojo

To help welcome everyone, High Brew Coffee setup in front with samples and enough cans of cold-brew coffee to last almost the entire day.  Through our website, we had 70 participants signed up along with a waiting list of about 10 people.  We had been getting some cancellations that week  and expected more so we went ahead and notified the people on the wait list to just come in.

In the end we ended up with 44 hackers, making up 9 teams.  3 of the teams were actually current Coding Dojo students.  Some of the other teams had people from other bootcamps, University of Texas – Arlington, University of Texas – Dallas, TCU, as well as other schools and a bunch of self-learning code newbies.  I think there was even someone who drove up  from Austin!  Hey, we ‘hacked’ together this little hackathon so to us, someone driving from over 3 hours away to come to it is a big deal.

Just after 8:30 am we decide to kick off the day.  Ryan, who handled most of the presentations that day, started by telling everyone about who we were, why we came together and some general info for the day.  Then he passed it off to me, where I talked about social media, raffle drawings, and   that I would be tweeting throughout the day with announcements.  I think I’ve said this before, I am NOT an extrovert!  I’m getting better at talking in front of large groups but it’s not always easy.  Plus, how did the anti-social shy kid end up being in charge of social media?  By the way, you can go to the First Hack Dallas twitter account and scroll back to that day and see what else went on.

Ryan Culpepper kicking off  the inaugural First Hack Dallas
Ryan Culpepper kicking off the inaugural First Hack Dallas

Then it went back to Ryan, who introduced Brent with RedRibbon.us.  RedRibbon.us is the organization we partnered with to be the focus of the project for the day.  He put things in perspective for everyone and started with an emotional scenario, role-playing getting a phone call from a friend who just learned he has HIV.  He went on to all the questions and thoughts that would be going through that person’s mind.  What do I do now? Where do I go? What will people think? What do I tell my employer? Where can I get help?  This hackathon wasn’t just about us, the organizers, networking, the hackers learning, or just building some website, this was about something bigger, something that could make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.  It was a somber moment, but a necessary one.

It then moved on to Cody Williams, who presented the scope of the project along with some guidelines.  RedRibbon.us currently only has a very minimal static site.  What we were trying to build was a complete application that allowed users to register, create a profile, and access a database full of resources and services tailored to their own specific needs and criteria.  We wanted to give everyone a general guideline but also wanted everyone to have creative freedom.  As I was listening to Cody present the scope (which had a LOT in it), I was actually starting to feel a bit intimidated, and imagined how a new developer would feel.  This was something we set out to NOT do to the participants.  So I talked to Ryan about this and felt we needed to bring it up.

Ryan capped it off by going over the rules, judging, and bringing up the possible intimidation factor.  He did a great job of relaying to everyone that they shouldn’t worry about not doing enough or getting every single sought after feature done.  This day was about the experience, about learning, and helping out a great cause.  We also extended the event a little and decided to have everyone submit their projects at 8pm for judging since we had a late start.

Throughout the day we were all kept busy, bouncing around the Dojo, dealing with issues that popped up, like participants showing up late or not having registered prior, handling ‘bathroom issues’ (trust me, you don’t want me to get into those details), making announcements, working with mentors, getting the meals, etc.  We even helped as mentors ourselves at times.

Mentor Kyle Taylor of DrawAttention giving some advice to Team Specters of the Earth
Mentor Kyle Taylor of DrawAttention giving some advice to Team Specters of the Earth

Speaking of mentors, this was probably one of the highlights of the event. Since everyone there were students or new developers, they routinely ran into various roadblocks, either having installation issues, database issues, not being able to get code to run the way they want, or even just wanting to understand why something they did actually works.  This is where the mentors stepped in.  We didn’t want hackers to spend 2 hours trying to fix some bug.  As a new developer this can get really frustrating, so we made mentors available to help whenever they were needed.  This doesn’t mean they wrote any code for them, but merely either guided them in the right direction or removed obstacles.

Mentor Greg Yut helping out Team Coding Mojo
Mentor Greg Yut helping out Team Coding Mojo

I want to go ahead and acknowledge our mentors who came out and volunteered part of their Saturday to help.  Kyle Taylor, Marshal Culpepper, Austin Akers, Daniel Miller, Greg Yut, Greg Spagnola, Brent Wiethoff, Jeeves Betigeri, Jared Farrish, and Chris Tran.

By the way, Chris Tran was an unexpected surprise.  For 5 of us organizers he was our original instructor at Coding Dojo who left after a couple months.  To say he made an impact on us in that short amount of time would be an understatement.  None of us had heard from him since then so seeing him walk in unannounced was one of the best parts of the day.

Then there were the prizes!  At several parts of the day we gave away various prizes by raffle.  Since we’re all developers, instead of using raffle tickets, Cody just wrote a short function that randomly chose the winners from the database of registrants.  Unfortunately the database had the registrants that didn’t show up too so there were a few times we had to go through a few names before getting to someone that was actually there. (something we’ll fix the next time).

Winner of an Amazon Gift Card courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas
Winner of an Amazon Gift Card courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas
Winner of a DrawAttention laptop whiteboard sticker
Winner of a DrawAttention laptop whiteboard sticker
Winner of a month membership at Fort Work (coworking space)
Winner of a month membership at Fort Work (coworking space)
Winner of a Raspberry Pi Kit courtesy of Odyssey Information Services
Winner of a Raspberry Pi Kit courtesy of Odyssey Information Services

Prizes included a dozen DrawAttention laptop whiteboard/blackboard stickers, Amazon Gift Cards from Women Who Code Dallas, Month-long memberships at Fort Work and The DEC, and a Raspberry Pi Ultimate Starter Kit from Odyssey Information Services.

This would be a great time to thank all of our sponsors who provided prizes, financial support, services and even mentor support.  This hackathon would never have been possible without them.  Coding Dojo not only hosted the event (which included all the extra monitors that hackers were very appreciative of), but also the dinner meal and part of the Grand Prize.  Other prizes were courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas, DrawAttention, Fort Work, The DEC (Dallas Entrepreneur Center), and Odyssey Information Services.  High Brew Coffee brought in cases of their canned cold-brew that fueled the hackers throughout the day. Financial support came from Boost Stream, Modern Message, and Minecraft U.  Last but not least is Dialogs Software who provided the cash Grand Prize and also brought a couple mentors.

sponsor logos

Now we’re towards the end of the day.  It’s getting to be crunch time, and at 7:30 pm there’s a team all packed up and halfway out the door.  We go over to them to see what’s going on.  They were building a web API and were having issues connecting to it, so they figured what they had wasn’t good enough and wanted to leave.  It took some convincing but we persuaded them to stay to the end and at least submit what they had.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Now it’s getting close to 8 pm and we make a last minute change.  Originally we were just going to have one person on each team have their project loaded up while everyone went around looking at them.  We realized this wasn’t going to work out that well given the number of people and time available.  So we told the teams that we would have each of them hook up to the projector and present what they had to everyone.  Don’t forget, this was our first hackathon so we knew there were going to be some lessons learned, this was one of them.

I wish I had some good pictures of the presentations, but none of us had a good camera and the pictures came out where either you could see the presenters but the projector screen was super bright white or you could see the screen good but everything around it was super dark. Another lesson learned for the next time, have a good camera on hand.

So the presentations went on.  Before hand, the projects were submitted to our Github repo, that way the technical judge was able to look at the code while the teams were presenting.  Regarding the judging, we made up a rubric for the judges but other than that we stayed out of it.  We didn’t want there to be any question about bias, especially since we’re all Coding Dojo alum and there were a few teams made up of Dojo students.  One of the judges was also a board member of RedRibbon.us.  We also had the participants vote for their favorite project which counted as 25% of the final score.

It was interesting to see what everyone came up with in less than 12 hours.  Some teams focused a bit more on the front-end, while others kept most of their focus on the back-end and database.  Projects were built with Ruby on Rails, Python, Node.js/ES6, and C#/.NET along with a mix of other technologies.  There were full-fledged web applications, a web API and even a Facebook bot.

Back to the team that was packed up and almost scooted out early.  They’re the ones that built the web API and while they didn’t end up winning, they easily had the most votes from their peers.  After tallying up the judges scores they actually came in an extremely close 2nd place.  I don’t really want to bring up imposter syndrome, but this is a great example of why you should never discount your work and that you’re usually better than what you give yourself credit for.  This project was a huge undertaking for new developers, especially given the short timeframe, and no one was expecting perfection.  Moral of the story is, never cut yourself short.

And the winners were….Team Name Here!  They had a really good presentation and were the ones that built a Facebook bot.  By winning they took home the grand prize of $500 cash, some Coding Dojo swag, and a $2000 scholarship towards enrollment at Coding Dojo for each team member.  Hopefully they also gained some knowledge and a good experience!

Winners of the Inaugural First Hack Dallas - Team Name Here! with Shiraz Sultan of Coding Dojo in the back and Ryan Culpepper presenting the grand prize.
Winners of the Inaugural First Hack Dallas – Team Name Here! with Shiraz Sultan of Coding Dojo in the back and Ryan Culpepper presenting the grand prize.

Wow was that a loooooong day! The winning team wasn’t announced until around 9pm and we were EXHAUSTED.  After some cleaning up, we left the Dojo about 10:30pm and even as tired as we were, we all agreed previously to go hang out afterward and enjoy some beer.  All except one of us at least, but that person was literally passing out near the end already anyway and there was no convincing no matter how hard we tried.

Overall it was a great success.  We got some excellent feedback from the participants as well as the sponsors and mentors.  One mentor who was exceptionally impressed didn’t believe us at first when we told him that none of us had ever been to a hackathon before.  He had been to a few and he told us ours was one of the smoothest working ones he’s been to.  That was honestly one of my biggest worries.  I was scared that someone that may have already been to a hackathon showed up at ours and would be disappointed and think “What an utter cluster…. this was”. But that didn’t happen.

So, was it all worth it?  Absolutely.  No, we didn’t make any money off of this, and so far no one that we’re aware of has a new job because of it.  But we all made some new connections, found new friends, opened up some doors, gave back to the community and hopefully helped some students and new developers ‘level up’.  Most importantly though, we grew our own friendship and bond that started when we were students ourselves going through the rigors and trials of a coding bootcamp.  Often times people go through school, bootcamp, etc. and afterward part ways never to see each other again, but that’s not us.

L to R: Farhan S, Oscar Cortazar-Luebbert, Ryan Culpepper, Terry Thomas, Cody Williams, Chris Ulanowicz, Tiffany Thompson
L to R: Farhan S, Oscar Cortazar-Luebbert, Ryan Culpepper, Terry Thomas, Cody Williams, Chris Ulanowicz, Tiffany Thompson

 

Guest Post – Continuing thoughts from the job

Hey guys, it’s me again (your favorite anonymous contributor). So I figured that I’d write something up again regarding my thoughts on how your knowledge of programming comes into play on the job.

As I may have mentioned earlier, my job is a web dev, focusing on php, html, css, and javascript, and as an intro here are the general things that i need to know how to do for my position.

  • on the client side, build out the html and css as needed
  • use javascript and jquery to do any interactive magic
  • handle requests from the php side
  • make queries to database if need be

If you know how to do these things, congrats, you can essentially replace me at my job.

During your time at the dojo, you are constantly having new bits of information crammed down your brain, trying to learn everything you might need to get a development job. At the time, I was really quite overwhelmed, staring into the abyss of constantly changing technologies, language nuances, and sheer volume of information to learn. I figured that i would have to learn everything there is to know about a language to be a successful developer, and that the volume of information on the language is so vast that it would take years to fully master it.

Although there is some merit to that statement, don’t let yourself be frozen by that mode of thought. Turns out that, as with any spoken language, there are really only a handful of terms and grammatical structures that you need to know to be productive as a developer. Certainly, knowing the nuances and intricacies of the language makes you a more powerful developer, just as is true with learning new words in your spoken language. But in the same vein, there are still many words that I don’t know in the English language, but I can communicate well enough to get my point across.

Aim to do the same with your development skills. Understand that having a good foundation will allow you to do a vast majority of work that you will be tasked to do, and that the foundation will enable you to learn the nuances of the language that you will be working in, and pertinent terms and skills will come to you as you need them.