After working in education as a math teacher for years, Aaron Chung decided to try programming again and his research led him to programming bootcamps and Coding Dojo. Now graduated and with a new job at TouchCommerce, we sat down with Aaron to talk about learning three full technology stacks at Coding Dojo, how he passed the “Belt Tests,” and how his residency at Coding Dojo helped him find his job.
Tell me what you were up to before you started at Coding Dojo.
In my undergrad, I was a prospective engineering student, but I ended up jumping majors a lot. Eventually, I ended up as a cognitive science major, which has CS elements in it. Our most difficult course happened to be an upper-division artificial intelligence course, which is really tough if you haven’t had a lot of a CS background.
My last real step before Coding Dojo was as a math teacher in middle school and high school. I taught for about 3 years and, eventually, I realized that I loved teaching but it wasn’t for me.
Some of my friends from college suggested I give programming another shot and introduced me to coding bootcamps.
Before you applied to Coding Dojo, did you do Codecademy or other self-guided learning?
What was your goal or motivation for doing a bootcamp?
In my case, I just wanted to get a professional career in tech, and I didn’t know what exactly that would look like. Some of my cohort had clear ideas – that they wanted to start a business or get a job at a certain startup; I didn’t have any of those ideas.
Did you look at other bootcamps in your research?
I looked at Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor and App Academy, because they seemed to be the most stringent – they were certainly the most expensive – so I wanted to see what they offered.
Who were your instructors in Mountain View?
We had two instructors. The head instructor was Trey Villafane, and our cohort-specific instructor was India Meisner. India took care of us during the first half of the curriculum, and she handed us off to Trey for the second half.
What was their teaching style like and how did it work with your learning style?
India was very accommodating. She’s very gentle and really good about explaining things in a way we could understand. We had a short lesson in the morning and another in the afternoon, which gave us additional guidance through the curriculum. The curriculum was presented through videos and informative text via their online learning platform. The rest of the time, we worked on project-based learning assignments, building pieces of web apps with what we had learned.
Did you like that format of watching videos instead of live lectures?
There are definitely drawbacks, but there are also several advantages. One is that if I miss something, I can immediately pause and rewind. There was written material on the platform as well. What I usually did was watch the video once or twice, which would walk me through the topic, and I wouldn’t have to learn it by reading. Then I could use the text as a way to quickly refresh my memory or find a key piece that I needed afterwards.
Did it feel like your cohort was diverse in terms of age, gender, race?
Yes and no. Coding Dojo runs two cohorts simultaneously, and they stagger them, with the new cohort starting when the senior cohort is halfway through their program. The senior cohort can give help to the junior students when they get stuck, and they help perpetuate the Coding Dojo culture. Overall, we had 20+ people in there.
What I noticed is that it is very diverse in terms of cultural background, previous experiences, and age; however it’s socioeconomic diversity seems to be a little lacking as students who choose to pay for a pricey bootcamp are usually from similar economic backgrounds.
How did you pay for it?
I saved up, and then I borrowed from my family. If I didn’t have my family, I would have probably looked for private loans. Even then it’s difficult because you don’t qualify for student loans.
Coding Dojo is interesting because they teach three full technology stacks. Did you feel you were able to do them all in 12 weeks or did you feel that there was one you liked the most?
This is an allegory I use – when we learn a language and we learn to speak it fluently, or at least reasonably well, we probably only use about 10% of what’s out there. 10% of the language is used 90% of the time, and the rest of it is for obscure situations, like if you’re greeting a visiting dignitary or something like that; then you use more floral terms.
The idea is, if we can get the big picture of the structure, we know where all the pieces are and we can fill in the gaps later. They gave us the knowledge of the structure, they gave us the pieces. It was still very difficult, but it was doable.
What was the first technology you learned?
That was the LAMP stack and the PHP coding language. We used CodeIgniter as our framework, but LAMP can be used with several different frameworks.
Then we hit the MEAN stack, and we hit Node.js. It’s totally different in so many ways, but knowing how MVC frameworks worked made the MEAN stack easier to handle.
Lastly, we learned Ruby on Rails, and Rails works very differently. With the other frameworks, I code every piece. Rails is a tool that does everything for you, but you have to learn to use it their way.
Do you think that your background in teaching math ever helped you learn to program?
My previous programming experience helped me teach because I take complex processes and abstract them into just one idea, which is the lesson’s learning objective. That is just like how we write functions (abstracting complex behaviors in a singular idea), so that was easy in a way. Teaching experience helped because I could break down my own learning process, which helped me to better teach myself difficult skills.
It also helped me to help other people in my cohort – we would trade a lot of ideas.
Tell us about your experience with the Belt Tests at Coding Dojo.
I did very well on all of the Belt Tests, but frankly they were incredibly hard. We had four hours to build a web application according to a description that was provided. I spent the entire four hours for every single one of my tests. Almost always, halfway through the test, I would look at my work and then look at the time and think, “There’s no way I’m going to finish this.”
At that point, you can either give up or power through and use the experience as a learning opportunity. So I would power through. Then right about the three-hour mark, I realized that things were accelerating. I was able to pull it off each time and scored pretty well. But even if we didn’t pass, we’d have another opportunity. We have up to four separate tests we can attempt on our own time.
To be honest, I don’t think the number of tests are the limiting factor; it’s our belief in ourselves. If I fail three times, do I still have the fortitude to say, “I’m going to put myself through another 4-hour test? Do I believe I can really do this?”
Did all 11 people you were in the class with graduate with you or was there attrition?
Well, I started with that cohort but I didn’t finish with them because I’d moved to the Seattle campus. But I kept in touch. Our group struggled a little bit.
One of the people in our cohort moved to an online version so he worked at home. One of our other members didn’t get past week two and another went home early for family situations.
What was the process of getting into the Coding Dojo residency?
Basically near the end of our camp, we all had a one-on-one session, kind of like a debriefing with our instructor. At that point I was in Seattle, and Michael suggested that I would benefit from continuing as a Resident and working on more projects for my portfolio.
In the meantime, I served as a TA for the incoming cohort. I ended up staying 14 weeks.
Were you paid during that time?
No. I almost felt bad because I was using resources from the school! Michael was happy to say, “You’re pulling your own weight for sure, acting as a TA.”
What are you up to now? Did you get a job as a developer?
I got a job at a company called TouchCommerce. I’m in the product management department, so we’re not necessarily building new products. Instead, we’re introducing new features into existing products.
I’m a technical product manager, so I’m still programming, but I’m not doing web development specifically. Our company makes web-based products, so I’m applying the skills that I learned.
Did you get that job through your own networking or Coding Dojo connections?
It was a recruiter. In the Southern California market, you end up talking to a lot of recruiting firms.
When you are working in a technical role at work do you feel like you are supported by your company?
Yeah, definitely. Our team is small but everyone else on the team are seniors and leads, so they’re all help me. They report directly to the CTO, so in terms of hierarchy, our department is not very deep. We have a lot of access and direct interaction with the decision-makers.
Do you think that Coding Dojo was worth the money?
Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty amazing how Coding Dojo presents material and how effectively they can teach. It’s not for everyone, but I think the main determinant is how much fortitude, determination, and drive we bring.
People who just show up and go through the motions and think they’re going to make it are not going to do well. But people who come and work super hard and focus on their future will succeed, both at Coding Dojo and in other aspects of life.