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Posted on • Originally published at Medium

From camp counselor to coder

I sit before my laptop, staring at my monitors, one showing GitHub open in my browser, the other displaying VSCode in a high-contrast theme. My body is humming with caffeine and my mind full of code. What to create today? I ask myself. I worry about reinventing the wheel. The whistle of the kettle on the stove breaks me out of my reverie. Time for more tea!

I came into software development by a non-traditional route. I have both a Bachelors and Masters degree in unrelated fields, and I spent my summer breaks from school working as a camp counselor in the verdant hills of Vermont. There were various part-time jobs during the academic year. My undergrad years bled right into graduate school.

After completing my Masters, I worked for a small non-profit homeless shelter network for several years as evening/overnight staff. The work was fulfilling and meshed well with the night owl status that had served me so well in school. I transitioned to two other non-profits via AmeriCorps in order to build computers. I found my long-dormant fascination with technology taking hold once again. When you’ve spent so much time in the halls of academia, you don’t really have time to get your hands on the latest, greatest tech, or figure out what you can do with legacy hardware. After the AmeriCorps placement ended, life hit me hard. Medical issues sidelined me significantly for years.

When I was actively building computers (and getting calloused hands) I often thought about how software is developed, considering that I interacted with it every day at home or in the workshop. I watched dozens of YouTube videos, read innumerable articles and blog posts, and accumulated hundreds of bookmarks in my browser. However, much of that knowledge remained stagnant. In the late spring of 2019, that all changed.

I came across an EventBrite link for a free workshop being offered by Burlington Code Academy. While I could not attend that particular workshop — because I did not yet own a laptop — I was intrigued, and looked for more information about the company and what they offered. Now, those were pre-pandemic times, so workshops and classes were still held in-person. I saw they also offered a 12-week software development bootcamp, though the pace seemed too fast for me back then. Instead, after a friend loaned me his laptop, I took their 10-week evening course: an introduction to JavaScript, HTML5, and CSS3. I fell in love with coding right then and there. I wanted more.

Burlington Code Academy’s 12-week software development bootcamp is one of the most affordable in the United States and, like so many businesses and industries during the pandemic, they made the leap from working in-person to doing things online via Zoom and Slack. I felt good about the fact I had taken the introductory course the previous autumn. If you’ve never attended a software development bootcamp, brace yourself. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before. I’d been out of the classroom for over a decade, and now I was thrust into the role of student once again.

Despite reading the course syllabus religiously, doing copious amounts of research on the pros and cons of bootcamping, grinding through the suggested tutorials on FreeCodeCamp, and having several phone conversations with the company’s founders, nothing really prepared me for day one. Think back to your first day of junior high school. You were idealistic, hopeful, a bit scared, and surrounded by people just like you feeling those same feelings. You sucked up your fear, cracked your knuckles, and stepped forward into the abyss.

The weeks that followed were some of the most intense, stressful, and challenging I’ve ever experienced. Class was 9:00am-5:00pm Monday through Friday. My evenings were occupied with study sessions, homework, being tutored, and trying to find a little time away from screens before I went to bed bleary-eyed and exhausted. Weekends were for working on assigned projects, getting help from the instructor or the TAs, and collaborating with classmates over Zoom and Slack. I learned many of the same lessons every new coder does. Along with everything else, I was taught to think like a developer should. As the weeks progressed, we went from “Hello, World!” to creating full-stack applications that actually did something.

The final month is spent working as part of an assigned team on your capstone project. This is a real project, proposed by a real company that has a problem requiring a functional software solution. This is where team collaboration via Zoom, Slack, and GitHub really gets put to the test. Creativity blossoms, code breaks, tempers flare, realization dawns, and at the end, you and your team have created a minimum viable software product of which you can be proud.

Did I struggle during bootcamp? Absolutely! I really began to see the common pitfalls and idiosyncrasies inherent to seriously learning to code. There were many late nights and early mornings full of self-doubt. When I got feedback and grades on my weekly assignments, I felt both proud and challenged: How do I improve the readability and functionality of my code? What’s the best way to avoid merge conflicts in Git? How do I avoid getting stuck in tutorial hell? Oof … this documentation is terrible!

The weeks were long, and I had to refine both my approach to time management as well as my sleep schedule. Re-prioritizing how I spent time on household chores, going to the laundromat, or making a trip to the grocery store became just as crucial.

Now that bootcamp is over, I face new questions: How do I create more projects by myself to expand my GitHub portfolio and polish my skills? What the heck can I code that offers a solution or solves a problem? Am I really good enough to get my foot in the door as a newly-minted coder? I also have fresh awareness: I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Code at least an hour each day, because bootcamp simply provided me a foundation. It’s up to me to build upon that foundation. I’ll tell you this: impostor syndrome is real. However, it’s also a very common thing to experience when acquiring new education or skills, regardless of the discipline.

I’m still a green developer. Wet behind the ears, as the old saying goes. However, in the weeks since the bootcamp ended, I keep in touch regularly with fellow students from my cohort. We talk about new things we’re working on, whether it’s 50 lines of code or 400. We swap book and article recommendations, and might even share a drink over Zoom to celebrate the end of a long week or the completion of a challenging new project. I don’t have a junior developer job yet, though I look forward to the challenges that starting the next big chapter in my career brings. Just like that first day of junior high: suck up your fear, crack your knuckles, and step forward into the abyss.

Thanks for reading. While my experiences as a bootcamp-educated software developer certainly aren’t unique, I hope the insights shared here might have made you exclaim “Hey! Me too!” Reach out to your network. Attend virtual workshops and conferences. Read and research. Hug your pets and significant others. Most importantly: keep writing code.

Top comments (1)

themfon profile image

Reading this feels like listen to J. Cole rap. This is lovely and inspiring. You should have improved greatly by the time you read this.

Thank you for sharing.