Chris taught himself to build websites during his 18-year career as a Cleveland book publisher. Knowing that his background in marketing and sales wasn’t his most favorite part of his job, he realized it was time for a career pivot, and enrolled at Tech Elevator. We chatted with him to learn why he chose Tech Elevator’s 14-week web development bootcamp, how he adjusted to the fast-paced learning environment, and how he landed a new developer role after graduation.
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What were you up to before you attended Tech Elevator?
I went to Ohio University and got a degree in English. After school, which was in 1998, I got a job working for a local interest Cleveland-based book publisher. It was a small book publisher, and my role was mostly marketing but I eventually ended up being a jack of all trades working in marketing, sales, event planning, customer service, and warehouse management; I even drove a forklift. We were a small publishing house with less than six employees and I worked there for 18 years.
The technology hook of the story is that basically at that time, everybody was starting to get on the internet. My boss said to me, "Hey, everybody else has a website. I need a website. Can you make me one?" I told him, "I've never made one before," so he said, "You're young, just go figure it out." So I taught myself the basics of HTML and CSS. Every time we had to reinvent the site and any time he wanted some new feature, I had to figure out how to do it.
What were you using to teach yourself HTML and CSS?
I think, originally, it was probably a couple of books that I had found. Back then, there weren’t many online resources. I think used a book called "Creating Killer Web Sites" or something like that. I'd used a couple of books to learn, and then as we got into more CSS in the early 2000s, I could find more blog posts and online resources. I think I used Lynda.com at one point to learn how to use Dreamweaver and HTML. Anywhere I could find a resource to match whatever functionality my boss wanted, that's where I went to go find it.
When did you realize that you were ready to enhance your coding skills?
I kept thinking, "All right, what am I going to do next?" I was concerned with being a jack of all trades for a small book publisher because it was going to be hard to market myself to another company. How do I say, "All right, I can do anything?" There's not really the sales point.
What led you to attend Tech Elevator?
My wife heard an interview with Tech Elevator on NPR, and she encouraged me to try it out since it was right up my alley. It made sense for my next pivot because internally I kept thinking about writing my resume and getting on LinkedIn, but didn’t know how to pitch myself. I couldn't figure out what is it that I want to do? What do I want to market myself as?
I went to a Tech Elevator Open House and listened to Anthony Hughes, and David Wintrich give the pitch, and I thought it was amazing. I wished this was available in 1998 when I left college, because to get into code and the internet back then, you had to really want to go out and find it. And then nobody ever said, "Oh, by the way, you could do this as a career." I pretty much was sold immediately after that Open House. I took the assessment, the online aptitude test and did well on that. I then applied and tried to get in to do the interview as best as possible. I was ready to get in there and do it because it made perfect sense for my next step.
When you were introduced to Tech Elevator, did you start researching any other bootcamps?
I think I was sold on Tech Elevator. I was also really sold on the bootcamp model, but a quick search in Cleveland doesn't yield too many options. I think the selling point for Tech Elevator was David Wintrich and his background with working at the Fed, building Pay.gov and all his years of coding. Also, I was looking at Tech Elevator back in April, and I needed to have a plan in place come May. Their next bootcamp started in May so the timing was right.
Did you consider getting a four-year computer science degree or getting an MBA?
Those conversations were definitely started by my wife on a regular basis because we both understood that the job I had was going to come to an end at some point. I didn't want to deal with it, but she did. She's a professor, so she was kept saying "You could come and get a master's for free because you'd be a great teacher," or "you could take coding classes."
I just kept wondering how that would work spending two to three years on a master’s and possibly needing to get a part-time job. We have two small kids, a house and a mortgage. So the timeframe of university schooling wasn't as appealing. The cost wasn't necessarily that big of a deal, because she's working at a university, I could receive a spousal benefit. It was really that the timeframe wasn’t something I wanted to invest in. The ability to get two years of coding experience in 14 weeks made the most sense. I mean literally, the timing was perfect. It was one of those stars aligning moments for us because I needed to learn quickly. My main goal was to come out with a skill that I could market myself with to attach onto my 18 years of marketing and sales (and all that other stuff).
How was the Tech Elevator application and interview process?
Tech Elevator starts with an online aptitude test, which was 12 logic-based questions. If you score well enough, Tech Elevator invites you to come in for an interview. The interview was mostly behavioral to get a sense of your background. I think most people they accept do not have a technical background, so there really isn't a coding challenge. It's all logic and aptitude-based. After you go through the behavioral interview, there's a larger, 30 question aptitude test. If you score well enough on that, Tech Elevator offers you a spot in the next cohort. It's relatively simple and you can't really cheat an aptitude test, so it's basically "do you have the aptitude?" The behavioral interview is to see if you’re going to be a good fit with the other people in the cohort.
Any tips on how to ace the Tech Elevator interview?
I don't know if there's a way to do it. I think you truly have to be yourself. If you're going into a coding bootcamp, you probably have already decided to make the jump to change careers or do something that you're just currently not suited for. If you can show that you're passionate about your decision, and show that you're willing to learn, and open to the process, I think you'll do fine.
What was your Tech Elevator cohort like? Was it diverse in terms of gender, race, and career background?
I was in the Java web development cohort. It was definitely a diverse group, yet we had one female. There were many different backgrounds including one guy who had just received a doctorate in clarinet performance. There was another guy who worked in children's camps and another who was an accountant from Atlanta. One classmate had been a consultant for SAP and just wanted to add Java to his tool set. We also had a recent graduate from Harvard who just wanted to come learn. Ages varied, but I was probably on the older end. It was a really interesting group of people to meet, to learn about, and to see how they brought their backgrounds to code.
How was the learning experience at Tech Elevator? Describe the teaching style and a typical day.
To sum it up in one word, it was intense. Class time is Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 4:30pm, but you’re really doing 60 hour weeks of learning. It’s definitely something to get used to because you're being thrown two years of information in 14 weeks. Our mornings were mostly spent with lecture instruction, going through new concepts in small groups. There was a lot of opportunity for questions, and a lot of opportunity for reposing a concept. Someone would say, "I just don't understand that," and that would give our instructor a chance to re-explain it from a different point of view, and that was always helpful.
Some days we would go to a lecture after lunch, but a lot of times there were multiple exercises to complete. You could start working on these exercises and then collaborate with other people in the cohort. The instructor was always there for if you needed further explanation, or if you had questions about how something worked in a particular exercise. It ends up being a long day of really pushing through various concepts. But at the end of the day, I think between the instruction and then between the exercises, it really helps drive home the point.
Was there a favorite project that you built while at Tech Elevator?
I think every project we built when we were building it was my favorite until we did the next one! Because of my HTML and CSS background, I was the front end guy that everybody kept referring to. My first favorite project was when we were given a file that had National Park information in it, and we had to build a website that would dynamically generate pages based upon that file of park information. It was a pair project. I think we had like three days to work on it, and I really pushed the CSS to the point where people were coming over and saying, "So and so says I need to look at your site because you have the best-looking site out of all us." That was constant validation, and my confidence was building because I was doing something well. We had a good looking site that worked well!
My ultimate favorite project would be our two-week capstone project. I had proposed a meal planning app because my wife and I have the same conversation every week, "What are we going to get at the grocery store?” We ended up always picking up the same things as the week before. I proposed it as a project because it solved a problem in my household. There were four of us on the project, and it was way more complicated than I thought it ever could have been or expected it to be. However, we had an amazing demo on graduation and everybody was very impressed with it; we received great feedback. So actually, I think the meal planning app was my favorite project because it was my proposal to solve a problem in my household, we got good feedback, and I got to show it to my parents and wife, which was exciting to me.
How did Tech Elevator help with job preparation?
One of the selling points of Tech Elevator, is that they have The Pathway Program, which is basically this underlying job prep curriculum. Tech Elevator helps with various things such as enhancing your LinkedIn profile, editing resumes, and helping you practice elevator pitches. The school also helps you with behavioral and technical interview prep. Tech Elevator has their own network of hiring partners, so they help you with your job search.
Tech Elevator brought in industry professionals who were current or former developers who told us, "If you're going to get into this, here are some tips about how you sell yourself." They also brought in recruiters who talked about how to conduct yourself in interviews. Tech Elevator brought in outsiders to review people's resumes and hold mock interviews. So it wasn't like you were inside a bubble, it was actual recruiters from recruiting firms coming in helping you prep and talking to you about necessary changes you needed to make.
The most beneficial Tech Elevator prep for me was when they brought in managers to do managerial interviews. I picked a woman who is president of a software company, and she gave me some of the best advice out of the entire cohort about how to sell myself in an interview. That outside access, and those mentorships were hugely helpful and important. Tech Elevator really focuses on getting you ramped up for the job search while you're learning. And then, of course, their big event is the Matchmaking Event, which is week 11 where they bring in 20+ companies over two days to interview everybody. You get a 25-minute interview with 8 to 10 companies over two days, which gives you a leg up in the hiring process.
Tell us about your next steps now that you’ve recently finished Tech Elevator.
Tech Elevator’s matchmaking event is where I received my technical interview with a company called Dealer Tire. From that technical interview, they presented me with an offer. My next step is that I will start a job as a web developer with Dealer Tire here in Cleveland. It is a six-month contract, so it's an opportunity to get out and get experience and make sure that I'm a good fit for them, and they're a good fit for me. Their current headquarters are not far from my recent job and not far from my son's school so I know the neighborhood already, and they're building a brand new headquarters, which is literally across the street from Tech Elevator.
Tell us about the interview process for your new web developer role!
At one point in the interview, I thought that they liked me because they were tailoring the technical interview to my background and the conversation started to get more comfortable. Also, I had been warned that there was going to be a logic question because somebody else from Tech Elevator also went through Dealer Tire’s technical interview. I was ready for it, but of course, they gave me a totally different logical question. The fact that I was able to push through it and actually solve it, made me very confident. 48 hours later, I got the call that they wanted to extend an offer.
What has been the biggest challenge or roadblock for you on your journey to learning code?
I think there's probably two challenges for me. I kept having these discussions about impostor syndrome. I've got 18 years of work experience, and I knew what I was doing in my job, and now I am pivoting into a new industry, and I'm only taking 14 weeks to learn. I kept thinking, “Is somebody really going to hire me and pay me to do coding?” I had this issue of feeling like an imposter and always asking myself "do I really know what I'm talking about? Am I really going to be able to go in and contribute as a developer to some project?"
It was nice that we would meet biweekly with Tech Elevator staff to discuss our feelings about the course and our progress. We were reassured by David, someone with decades of coding experience, as he would tell us that we do know what we’re doing. Yet, we were learning so much, so fast with the hopes of a job opportunity at the end. It was hard to get past feeling like an imposter.
Then the other thing was that I graduated from OU in 1998. It's now 2016, so having to go through large amounts of learning took my brain a little while to get back on track. I had to get my brain back up and running in order to figure out how to take notes again, how to ask questions, and how to think things through. In my exit interview for Tech Elevator, I told them how this course turned my brain back on to not only being able to learn more stuff but also wanting to learn more stuff. That was a big roadblock for me, getting the brain back up and running again to not just learn, but also to be able to take in information in this fast, intense way.
What advice do you have for people thinking about attending a coding bootcamp?
My advice is that you have to not only be committed to the idea, but you have to be able to focus on the content, on the process, and on the bootcamp. At Tech Elevator, I focused on three things only for 14 weeks, and that was Tech Elevator, my wife, and my kids. That was it. Everything else just had to just hit pause. You have to focus, you have to be committed, and you have to be willing to ask questions, learn things, and be open-minded.
You have to be prepared to get in there, push forward and see it through. Fourteen weeks seems like a long time, but it's going to go fast. There will be moments where you're going to get bogged down, but you just have to push forward because in the end, you will be rewarded.