After earning his history degree from Columbia, Conor Sweeney was at a career crossroads. It seemed like none of his job applications were reaching recruiters, so after reading an article about coding bootcamps, he decided to give it a shot. TurnToTech in NYC was the best fit for his flexible learning needs and app building ambitions. Learn about Conor’s iOS bootcamp experience at TurnToTech and see how he created an interactive resume app that helped him land a mobile engineering job at Tremor Video!
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What was your educational and career background before you decided to go to TurnToTech?
I majored in history at Columbia University in New York City, but I couldn't find a job. I applied to everything and hoped something would stick. You can do any career with a history major, but at the same time, it doesn’t prepare you to do anything specific. The problem was that every employer wants some level of experience before offering you a job. When I was applying to finance, advertising, and marketing roles, employers wanted to know why I wanted those roles. The truthful answer was I wasn't sure what I wanted to do because I hadn't tried anything.
So why did you end up at a coding bootcamp?
I never had a real job before attending TurnToTech. I worked briefly for the Yankees, but it was a summer job. I came across an article on coding bootcamps, I read it, and thought, “Maybe I should look into programming.” I worked through Khan Academy and discovered I had a knack for it. I really liked doing it, and realized it was something I could see myself doing for the foreseeable future. It got to a point where I decided to jump all in and start looking for coding bootcamps.
Did you use any other online resources to help you get a taste of coding?
I mostly used Khan Academy. I did a little bit of Codecademy too, but I liked Khan Academy's combination of video and assignments. Every day they have more available. Even now, if there's something new I'm looking to learn, Khan Academy is the first place I go.
When you were looking at coding bootcamps, had you already decided that you wanted to learn iOS development? When did that idea come about?
I was looking into iOS development because I saw the opportunity for growth in mobile. If you look around, everybody's on their phone now - we don't use our computers as much. iOS was a simple choice because I enjoy it and I am an iPhone user. I had also been building a million dollar mobile app idea in my head that I had to build. So instead of trying to find a developer to build it for me, I wanted to build it myself.
What stood out about TurnToTech as a mobile app development school?
What stood out about TurnToTech was the enrollment process, admissions, and the self-guided, self-paced coursework. I was very eager to get on with my life as I had spent months trying to find a job. I wanted to start right away. With most coding bootcamps, you have to wait for a class to open up and then the application process takes a while. TurnToTech jumped out at me because they give you the tools to be your own boss.
What was the TurnToTech application and interview process like for you?
There was an online form where you had to answer questions about your experience and why you liked programming. Then I got a phone call from Teddy Angelus, TurnToTech’s Head Career Counselor, and COO, inviting me in for an interview. In that interview, I met with Teddy, Oren Goldberg, the lead instructor, and Aditya Narayan, the CEO. We had a laid back conversation about my story, and why I wanted to learn to code.
Do you have any tips on how to ace the TurnToTech interview?
Show passion. TurnToTech wants people who love programming. This would be my advice for people in job interviews too – people want to see that you love what you're doing, not that you want to be a programmer because you want to make a lot of money and buy a boat! Nobody wants to hear that.
How many people were in your cohort? Was it diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
There were about 30 students. Everybody works on their own, so you can be as social or as quiet as you want. It helps to be friendly because sometimes the instructors are busy and a student who is a week ahead of you (one week might as well be years ahead), can help you. The cohort was very diverse. There was a strong amount of males, white and Asian, but there was a definite effort to reach out to and include minority groups.
TurnToTech has a unique teaching style– could you describe that teaching style and share a typical day?
The instructors give you coding assignments, and you work at your own pace. The instructors are there to help you through when you hit a wall, and man, do you hit a lot of walls, especially early on. In theory, the assignments are things you could do on your own at home, except there were things that I would have had no idea how to do no matter how much I tried reading. The documentation for certain things is far too dense and there's a steep learning curve.
Did the flexible learning environment work best for you?
I’ve always said this about my education at Columbia University- they taught me how to think. Everything I learned was based on a way of thinking and a way of learning. TurnToTech did something similar. They put the training wheels on at first, then they want to see you do it on your own because someday you'll be working in an office and you won't have somebody to call over and ask. You have to figure out how to Google the right thing, read the right documentation, and figure it out on your own.
Did you have a favorite project that you worked on at TurnToTech?
There was a project I liked that involved using the cloud. The cloud really interests me. All of a sudden I felt like I was making something really useful because it was globally connected. Most of the assignments are meant to simulate a real-life work environment. For instance, for the cloud-based assignment, they gave us an app that already functioned. The app was already built with Amazon Web Services, and we had to recode it. Switching servers is a project that you could do in the real world, so it’s a great way to learn.
After I graduated, I continued to work on projects on my own. Part of the reason I went to TurnToTech was because of my billion dollar app idea. My first app was called toPic! which is basically Instagram with Tinder swipe cards. I spent about a month building that right after TurnToTech as a way to test my own skills. It's live on the App Store and has been downloaded about 80 times. It’s probably the most complex app I’ve ever built, and the one I spent the most amount of time on. It was a huge learning curve to do something to completion like that.
I now have about five apps on the App Store. I created my big App Store seller, Viral Hire, because I was struggling to get job interviews. It’s an app version of my resume.
Tell us about your app Viral Hire!
I first tried to just put my resume on the App Store, but Apple wouldn't let me, so I had to grow the concept. As it grew, it became more complex. There are games, a job poster creator, there's a picture of me which you can add stickers to, and then post social media. I also have a celebrity endorsement section which is pictures of me with random celebrities I've met throughout my life.
I came up with the idea after reading an article about creative resumes that got interviews. I read through it and I had an ‘Aha’ moment. I'm thought, "Wait a second. I'm an iOS developer, my resume should be an app!" It seemed so obvious at the time. Ten hours later I had a working prototype with all my information on it and I'm shipping it to the App Store. It had to grow quite a bit for Apple to finally publish it; I got rejected for about two months.
What was your job search like after TurnToTech?
I stapled fliers for Viral Hire all over New York City, trying to get people to use and view it. It didn't quite work out. I was sending that flier in lieu of a traditional resume and every so often, I got an interview for something that I was severely underqualified for. People appreciated my app, but couldn't hire me due to my lack of experience.
My next step was building an app for a wrestling charity called Beat the Streets in New York. I was a college wrestler and I coach there occasionally, so I offered to build the app for free. I learned that people want to see real work on your resume. The sad truth about apps is that you can make your own look great, but nobody really cares about it unless you're being hired to do it. I was trying to make opportunities for myself to convey real work experience.
At that point, I had just finished interviewing with Google, but I didn't get the job. I made it to the last round.
What job prep or career help did TurnToTech give?
The internship is the biggest thing, but I opted out of that opportunity because I wanted to start working. It gives you real work experience for people to sell to potential employers. Teddy and Aditya were always there with great job advice, and practice interviews. When I was interviewing with Google, they set me up with everyone they knew at Google. Aditya also put me through a practice whiteboard interview to give me a taste of what I’d be doing. I'd never done a whiteboard interview before that.
Tell me about the transition to Tremor Video- what are you working on?
My father had a friend who worked at Tremor Video. I looked at their careers page and they had a mobile developer position open so I applied. All of my interviews were remote, as my job is in San Francisco. I had two programming interviews with a Google Doc and two culture fit phone calls where they asked questions like "how did you get into programming?” Nothing too intense.
During my interview process, I really liked the people I talked to and I liked the products. I am now the iOS Mobile Software Engineer and I’ve discovered that I can make an impact on something really big. Tremor Video is an iOS software development kit (SDK) and it's probably somewhere in your iPhone. Our publishers include ABC, BuzzFeed, and Bloomberg. Whenever you get a popup ad on those apps, you can blame me.
So you’re three months into the new job. How has your ramp up period been?
I have a great boss who I would call my mentor. She works on the iOS SDK with me. She's always there for me when I have questions. She started me out a little slow, but you'd be amazed at how much code it takes to create a simple pop-up ad. I’ve learned that dealing with other people's code can be infinitely more difficult than writing your own, because you have no idea where anything is.
Are you using the same technologies that you learned at TurnToTech? Is there something new that you've learned since graduating?
I’m learning a lot of new skills. Everything I write is in Objective-C. Older companies and bigger companies tend to use Objective-C over Swift. Swift is always changing, so Objective-C is best when you value efficiency over the speed of development. The ability to teach myself anything new is the biggest value I got from TurnToTech. They push you in the deep end so you have to figure out how to swim on your own.
It sounds like TurnToTech was the right choice for you, but what's been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to becoming a mobile developer?
The hardest part for me was getting job interviews. Even though there is a very high demand for developers, everybody is skeptical about hiring a newly trained developer. There's also a bit of discrimination against coding bootcamps – many employers want computer science graduates. I actually went back to Colombia and took a Data Structures in Java class and I found that recruiters and interviewers would often focus on that more than my coding bootcamp experience.
How are you enjoying the tech scene in San Francisco? Are you still involved with TurnToTech alumni?
The tech scene is definitely stronger here in San Francisco. Everyone I’ve met in San Francisco works in tech or finance. There might be just as much tech in New York, but it's a bigger city, so it doesn't stand out as much. I always refer interested people to Teddy if they have questions about TurnToTech or coding bootcamps
What advice do you have for people making a career change and thinking about attending a coding bootcamp?
I would advise anyone to make sure that coding is right for them. One thing I really liked about programming was that I could try it out on Khan Academy before just diving in. There are a lot of people who might say, "All right. Let's just go. I want to do this because it's a fancy career move." Don't do that. There are so many free tools for you to dabble with. Get a taste for it before you commit to it.