Alumni Spotlight: Alex Merced of General Assembly

After Alex Merced spent 10 years in the finance industry, he decided it was time for a remote tech job. After struggling to learn online by himself, he joined General Assembly’s Software Engineering Immersive Remote bootcamp. And with his strong work ethic and new JavaScript skills, Alex landed a job as a remote developer at Crossfield Digital! See Alex’s advice for learning from home with Zoom, the online job search, and making the most of your online coding bootcamp. 

What were you doing before attending General Assembly Remote?

I graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with a degree in popular culture studies, even though I was originally a computer science major for a semester. After college, I was working in finance for a decade. I worked for Greico Financial, training people who were applying for their financial licenses. When I decided to relocate in 2019, remote work wasn’t possible, so I began thinking about a career change. 

Did you try teaching yourself to code at all before committing to a remote bootcamp? 

I learned C++ and networking when I was in high school, but when I wanted to make a career change, I started teaching myself Python through videos on Udemy and Skillshare. After that, I started using this app called Sololearn which has primer courses on several different languages and I completed all of them. The problem was that I was learning a lot of frameworks and basics on my own, but as soon as I learned the basics I would move on. I never built the fundamentals or applied those skills. Without structure, I didn't know how to turn what I was learning into a new career. That's when I started looking into coding bootcamps. 

What’s the difference between free online resources like Udemy and an online bootcamp like General Assembly?

It's all about discipline and guidance. General Assembly forced me to slow down and build on what I had started learning in a stronger way. That helped me become a much better developer, and it helped me develop the discipline to actually learn. The guidance for your career is also huge! You can watch videos on how to apply for a job or create a portfolio, but there are plenty of times where personal guidance makes a big difference. 

Learning on my own was definitely useful, and I still recommend spending a significant amount of time preparing if you're considering a bootcamp. After all, developers need to keep learning forever! But the structure that I had in General Assembly allowed me to succeed. 

What was the application process like for the Software Engineering Immersive Remote course at General Assembly?

There were several steps. I spoke on the phone with their admissions office to make sure it was the right fit for me. Once that was established, General Assembly asked me to complete their Dash courses, which covers the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Anyone can use Dash and it’s free, so if you want to try to code to see if you like it, try Dash! Then there was prework that helped get the whole cohort on the same level before the course starts. The prework taught me some JavaScript topics that I hadn't dealt with yet. After prework, I had about a month before the class started, and I spent that time studying and preparing for the class. Turns out on day one that I was much further ahead than I needed to be! 

How did you pay for the remote coding bootcamp?

I used General Assembly’s Income Share Agreement (ISA), which is a program that allows you to pay for bootcamp after you graduate, so General Assembly takes a percentage of your income for 48 months. I had to do a benchmark test for that during the application process that showed my skills before the prework. After finishing the prework, you take the assessment again and if you score on par with their standard, you can qualify for the ISA. 

What did the typical day look like in an online General Assembly course?

We always started out with a morning exercise to get us coding and building practical experience. We did a couple of hours of lessons to learn something new. After that, we had a lab where we practiced and applied what we learned. Then there was a lunch break. 

In the afternoon, we did a homework review and then a couple more hours of lessons and an afternoon lab. Everyone gets homework at the end of the day, and it takes about 3-5 hours to complete. Homework forced us to repeat what we'd learned over and over again. It was more fun than I expected. The assignments referred to pop culture and fun topics, and that made these long days go by faster. 

How did you interact with your cohort during the remote General Assembly course?

We used Zoom and Slack. I built solid relationships with my fellow cohort students. Because I was a bit more advanced at the time, I became the go-to guy for help in a lot of labs. I got to know everybody in my cohort that way! There's a general Slack room during prework that includes all General Assembly students who enroll around the same time as you. I made an effort to connect with people from other cohorts there. 

Zoom was great. It felt like I could bring everyone into my living room in two seconds with Zoom! When you're in the classroom, other students might be on the other side of the room, but in a remote course, everyone is right in front of your face. When we do the labs, we're in breakout rooms of three or four students. They're constantly shuffling who's in the breakout rooms. Often you're asking other students for help in the labs and sharing your screens to figure things out together. 

How did General Assembly’s remote teaching fit your learning style? 

The General Assembly course was like a revelation for me. It showed me that you can train people online and make it interesting and interactive. It was the little things, like every time we learned something new, the instructor would check that we all responded on Slack to make sure we were all on the same page. This made the program more engaging. Plus the ability to share my screen made it easier. I can't imagine being an instructor in a room of 10 or more students and having to look over each student’s shoulder to check their code. I'm glad I did the remote course. Plus, not having to commute meant I could get some sleep. 

What projects did you work on during the course for your portfolio? 

The curriculum is divided into four units. We also do homework assignments daily. The homework assignments didn't always have to be a fully completed application, but I went out of my way to create a complete thing for my homework so that I had more to add to my portfolio. Homework projects were things like tic tac toe or a space invaders game

The first project gets you used to the front end and Ajax, and I built a pet adoption app where a user could type in their zip code to bring up all the adoptable pets within 20 miles. For the second project, I made an event volunteer coordinator that allows users to add volunteers, track them, and assign them to events. Individuals had their own user accounts. It was a full stack application with a database and a server, and it started to incorporate the back end. 

My final project consisted of one application made up of many mini-applications using different technologies such as React, Typescript, Express, AWS Lambda, Serverless Framework, GO/Buffalo, Angular, Vue, Svelte, Ruby on Rails, Stencil, and GraphQL. I went a little overboard and introduced myself to almost 20 different technologies that we didn't cover during the course!

Were there any group projects? How did you work as a group even though you were online?

The third and fourth projects were group projects. We'd parse out the tasks and then work in a Zoom room while we did them so we could help each other out. In one of these projects, my group created an app called BetterBoxD, which mimicked a movie website we all liked. It allowed users to comment on different movies under their account, and make a list of favorite movies. We used AngularJS which was cool because it made the UI experience better. 

How did General Assembly prepare you for the tech job hunt?

Every week, you meet with your Career Coach. You go through preparing your LinkedIn, resume, interviews, and whiteboarding. They taught me the job search technique that I used to get my current job, which included showing me what to talk about and how. You need that one person to take a chance on you and then after that everyone is willing to take a chance on you! I learned that what would get me a job wasn't a specific thing that I knew, but it was my ability to learn. 

Where are you working now?

I submitted a lot of job applications and I ended up with two, full-time remote jobs after graduating from bootcamp! I now work remotely as a Full Stack Developer at a small agency that helps startups called Crossfield Digital. Crossfield Digital needed someone who did GraphQL when I applied. There aren’t a lot of people who work in GraphQL, so once proved to them that I could learn GraphQL, the job was mine.

I also became an instructor for the Software Engineering Immersive Remote bootcamp at General Assembly! One of the things I did to help myself learn and build my reputation was start a Youtube channel. My Youtube channel and helping other students in class made me a standout candidate for the role. 

Did being a student at an online bootcamp prepare you for being a remote developer?

It did! The bootcamp helped me get used to working with others remotely. Even though you’re paying to be in the bootcamp, you're essentially working remotely. You learn all of the tools like Trello and Asana. For bootcamp, I would look up what my assignments were for the day and get them done, and now for my jobs, I look at my tickets for the day and get them done. It's quite similar which made for an easy transition. 

I always wanted a remote role, but I never imagined that my first role would be remote. I'm not going to lie, I'm living the dream right now. It does take discipline to be a remote worker because no one is sitting over your shoulder making sure you do what you need to do. But if you're disciplined and willing to do the work, General Assembly definitely gives you a strong starting place. 

What languages are you currently using at Crossfield Digital?

I'm working with GraphQL, JavaScript, and Typescript these days. This job has allowed me to work with the newest, most modern technologies, creating new applications. It's exactly where I wanted to end up.

Tell us about being a remote instructor at General Assembly! What has it been like teaching the bootcamp that you graduated from? 

Going through the bootcamp myself has given me an advantage, and now I'm on the other side of the screen and assignments. I can anticipate most of the questions that students are going to have. When I'm teaching my lessons, I think to myself, "When I did this, where did I have a hangup?" Right now our cohort is about 15 students. Typically, we have 15-20 students and 30 is the limit. So far, the class is going well! I love teaching, so this was a natural fit for me. 

As a former student and a current instructor, who do you think is the ideal student for General Assembly’s Software Engineering Remote Bootcamp?

It could be a good fit for almost anyone! All that really matters is that you have a good internet connection. Having two monitors seriously helps, too. In my cohort, plenty of people had just started coding the week before the course began and were still able to get acclimated. Of course, the less experience you have going into the class, the harder the first few weeks will be. The first unit covers fundamentals, so if you're fresh, unit one will be a slog. You'll get through it, but you'll be pushed to all of your edges. If you come into it with some dabbling in JavaScript, HTML, and CSS you should pick up pretty quickly. You'll still hit some hard spots, everyone does, but once you get past unit one everything gets a lot easier. After Unit One, your life gets easier with frameworks and tools and building bigger and grander things. Even if you find you’re having a hard time following a Udemy course, you'll probably be able to get through General Assembly because General Assembly is more engaging and forces you to interact. 

I've also gotten to meet some of the other remote instructors. Everyone I've met so far is funny and knowledgeable. That's important! When I was teaching with Greico, while it was my knowledge that allowed me to be an expert, it was my humor that kept people engaged. 

How do you continue to learn after bootcamp?

I keep trying to teach myself new things by keeping up my Youtube channel. I've been learning frameworks and doing videos about those learning experiences. I've done Vue, Angular, Svelte, React, React with Typescript, and some different back end frameworks and languages as well. One of the things I'm starting to focus on more lately is teaching myself Go to get into more systems development.

What's your advice for someone who is working to get a remote tech job?

You have to be passionate about it. You can’t be learning to code only to get a job. At the end of the day, when you're doing an interview, they will want to hire you for two reasons: your ability to learn and your passion. If you're passionate, they know you're going to do well. They want to know that you’re creative, curious, and they don't have to be on you to do your job. You need to show that you can manage yourself and push yourself. I've been fortunate that no matter what I'm doing I've been able to find a way to be passionate about it. So, it's about pushing yourself to see how amazing you can be. If you think about it that way, General Assembly will be the perfect catalyst to do great things. You only need to find the passion within you.

Find out more and read General Assembly reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with General Assembly.

About The Author

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Jess is the content manager for Course Report as well as a writer and poet. As a self-identified lifelong learner, Jess is passionate about education, and loves learning and sharing content about bootcamps. Jess hails from New England, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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