Words of wisdom from a graduate

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Mae Beale graduated from our first Ruby on Rails class in Durham and is now working as a developer at Topsail Technologies. She shares her wisdom, advice, and story for the benefit of prospective and future students.

First, her four messages for future students:

  1. PREPARE: Any amount of prework you do will help you during class.

  2. TAKE CARE: Bootcamps can be grueling (hence the name!). Plan to take extra care of yourself during the program. If you get scared or overwhelmed, work through it because you don’t have time not to be at your best.

  3. DON’T COMPARE: It doesn’t matter how well the other students are doing. All you need is one employer to hire *you*. Stay the course, trust the process and give it all you got!

  4. NETWORK EVERYWHERE: This industry is growing exponentially, yet there are few ways to validate competence. That adds up to the ubiquitous employer hunt for “fit.” People are more interested in what you are able to learn, rather than what you already know. So, order your business cards as soon as possible. Go to meet-ups, talk with friends and acquaintances and participate in discussion groups, blogs and other online formats. But don’t forget to spend time with your classmates! You all are going to be each others’ strongest supporters as you enter the workforce.

Now, for her story…

How did you get interested in programming?

I took a rather circuitous route to programming and though I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done, it sure took me a while to get where I’d been headed! I thought up my first robust business software solution almost 15 years ago and then worked with a developer seasonally for the next 5 years to refine the product. Since then, I’ve designed/architected several business solutions with multi-year rollouts.

Despite software development experience and database courses, without programming experience, I wasn’t qualified to make a career change. As a homeowner and mid-career professional, I wasn’t in a position to spend years completing a master’s program. Even if I had the time and money, I wanted to delve deeply into programming versus complete a degree where it was only one component. (Important note: I am still a staunch supporter of higher education! My dream is for code schools to partner with higher ed for mutual benefit.)

Why The Iron Yard?

I joined the Iron Yard for several reasons: immerse myself in the topic (that’s when I learn best), have a built-in accountability cycle, build a network of fellow learners, be supported in my job hunt(!!!) and save myself some time by learning about the most relevant skills/topics from the best instructor(s) possible. I played pool professionally years ago and purposefully travelled to pool rooms where there had been a national or world champion. Even if that player wasn’t there anymore, the level of play was noticeably higher. I was sure it was similar with programming, and after talking with graduates from other hacker schools, I’m convinced it held true. The Ruby on Rails instructor, Clinton, was well worth a 15-year wait!

Why Ruby on Rails vs Front End Engineering?  

I don’t know that I could have known in advance so clearly which track was right for me. Luckily, my interviewers spent time asking me questions about my interests to help me make the right choice. Programming is a lifelong investment in learning, so you really can’t go wrong. For those of you thinking about jumpstarting your career with a code school, I’d definitely advise maximizing pursuit of interest and avoidance of frustration! If you’re really not sure, spend 3 hours straight doing a front end online course, and then spend 3 hours straight doing a back end course from the same company. There’s no better way than to actually test the waters, and no matter what you’ll learn something.

Ultimately, my interest in and experience with databases seemed to outweigh my appreciation of aesthetics and UI/UX design, so I enrolled in the Rails course thinking I’d start there and hone the other skills later.

Any surprises?

My two biggest surprises were how challenging it would be, and how much impact fear had on my ability to learn.

I did a lot of research about code schools prior to enrolling in Durham’s first cohort. I’d read the blog of the former student who said they didn’t brush their teeth for a week(!), and talked with a student from another program who said they cried every day(!), so knew it’d be a major challenge on all levels. Since I’ve always been a quick learner, with aptitude and interest in math and science, I thought programming would be something I’d take to quite easilyand that I likely could maintain my hygiene and not freak out.

I wasn’t really prepared to struggle with basic concepts or with keeping pace, so that was a rather surprisingand unsettling — experience. The staff and my classmates were incredibly supportive, and I just kept at it and worked as hard as I possibly could. But, early on I was getting scared that I wouldn’t be able to learn the material in time. Under the lightning pace of a bootcamp, that fear had significant impact on my ability to learn until I was able to relax and trust the process

Camaraderie is something I seek, foster and enjoy. Our group was really tight-knit and supportive of one another, so that, coupled with being completely immersed in programming made for an amazing experience where I enjoyed most moments. I’d say my most rewarding moment happened as a result of an assignment where we each took on challenges, and many of them hadn’t been covered in class. The task I took on with a classmate required me to teach myself rake and regex in a weekend. Monday morning I got up in front of the class and imported 1,000 book titles from an online markdown file into our database using an importer I’d written that handled every edge case (and there were a lot of those). That was pretty amazing!

That marketing line on the Iron Yard website about ”learning how to learn” is actually true.

The Final Project:

I’ve been part of a community of people who put on the various GrassRoots Festivals of Music & Dance (Shakori Hills, Finger Lakes, Virginia Key) for a long time now. Since most of the work for these nonprofit events is completed by volunteers and limited staff, I partly went to code school because I wanted to build a solution that would save coordinators time and frustration (so they could spend more time on the mission and less time on application and check-in logistics) and improve the experience for festival-goers. I really wanted my coursework to benefit a real organization, and since I already had something in mind, it seemed the perfect time to get started.

So, I pitched the idea to my cohort, and was able to recruit 10+ people to join my team (6 for the demo day push and some to join after the program ended). The plan was to get something ready for demo day that hopefully could help us with getting jobs, then to continue to develop after class as a way to sharpen our skills and stay in community and get closer to a salable product. Right now, I’m hoping we can refine it enough to start shopping it in 2015.

Festiv.it’s core offers a dynamic, online application, organizer dashboard, custom data importers and a mobile-optimized event check-in. So, for event hosts it solved four pain points in the following ways.

  1. Snail mail and/or email applications replaced with an online form

  2. Time-consuming application review & manual follow-up now simplified with a dashboard and automated communications

  3. Disparate data sources that needed to be merged (online sales data, Google docs, spreadsheets, etc) now all in one database

  4. Paper check-in that required a manual post-fest audit now mobile-optimized with live tallying

When we started programming, we couldn’t find any other program that covered the life-cycle of event planningonly segments of each. (Btw, if any of festiv.it sounds like it could be of use to your organization or you have feedback about event management systems, definitely contact me!)

Refining and launching a product is a ridiculous amount of work! Our team shifted some after the program and until our launch at the October festival (An adventure that I’ll have to comment on separately. Overall it went really well, but it sure was a wild ride!), and I expect it will shift some more as not everyone is going to be able to stay as committed as needed. I continue to learn more and more about what it takes to get a product sale-ready.

Check out our final project presentation

Getting hired: 

I was really worried about not only getting hired, but being of use to my future employer, because I didn’t consider myself as competent as some of my fellow classmates. I got hired at Topsail Technologies within a month of demo day, and was able to contribute on the first day on the job! That was not only incredibly relieving, but very validating.

Topsail met my dream dev job requirements and more: strong mentorship and supportive environment for a beginning programmer, collaborative atmosphere, focus on databases/back end, some public health/health work, varied projects, and opportunities to work remotely. It’s a small shop, and my colleagues are just incredible peoplereally kind, patient, supportive of my learning — and they actually care about their clients. I love it.

Not only is Topsail a great place to work, but it’s located right on the American Tobacco Campus (ATC) in Durham, NC (and upstairs from the code school). As you likely know, the ATC is amazing, and is a hotspot for tech entrepreneurship and innovation. And it’s only growing stronger as it attracts more talent to the campus and to the region. Kudos to the Goodmon family and all the others who’ve worked to revitalize this part of Durham. The first time I walked in the Crowe Building for code school I thought “I want to work right here!,” and now I do!

Final words:

I’m just blown away by all that’s happened in just a few months! And incredibly grateful. Some random final comments not addressed above:

  • As a recipient of the program’s Women in Technology scholarship, I’m especially committed to talking with women who are interested in programming, helping to change the demographics of tech, and creating more opportunities for female developers. So, ladies, get ahold of me if you’re thinking about joining tech. If you’re an employer who’d like help figuring out how to increase the number of applications you receive from women or to make your workplace more female-friendly, I’d be happy to make some recommendations.

  • If anyone has any more questions about the code school experience in general or The Iron Yard powered by Smashing Boxes in particular, share them! Most of what I have to say will be complementary, but I’d be happy to answer your questions fully and honestly.

  • If you’re thinking about a career in programming. Go for it! Life is too short. Do things that inspire you!

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The Iron Yard exists to create exceptional growth and mentorship for people, their companies and their ideas through code education and startup accelerators.