thinkful-alumni-spotlight-courtney-waller

Once Courtney Waller got excited about learning to code, it was Thinkful’s job guarantee that gave her the reassurance to enroll in the Flexible Web Development Bootcamp. The Thinkful team worked hard to help Courtney get her first job, and her past career as a teacher and counselor has now propelled Courtney into her second developer role in the EdTech space. We sat down to learn how Courtney balanced a full-time job with her Thinkful class, what stood out about her mentor, and how Thinkful gave her foundations to build on in her career as a developer.

Q&A

What were you up to before Thinkful?

I studied Spanish and Math in college, thinking I wanted to be a math teacher. I spent most of my 20s in education, working in higher ed, teaching in Asia, and then working as a counselor. While I liked that social skills-heavy work, I found that I wanted a career that used more of the logical side of my brain. One of my female counseling clients was getting into coding, and I couldn’t stop talking about it. My now husband said to me, “You obviously want to do this, just go learn it!” So I took some free courses online to see if I would like it, and I loved it. I thought it was such a blast.

Do you think your background in education and counseling has been useful in your transition to web development?

It’s helped a ton! Both companies I’ve worked for have been education companies, so the fact I know the education world and my target audience has helped a lot. Because I’m a social person in general and I’ve worked so long in roles that require communication, my skills have lent themselves to leadership roles pretty early on. I’m pretty calm, easy going, stable, and understand how to break down problems.

I think that those communication skills also help to break the stereotype of a coder who lives in their basement and can’t talk to anyone. I’m very personable and friendly, and I think that’s reassuring for non-technical people.

How did you choose which bootcamp to go to? Why did you choose Thinkful?

I did a ton of research on bootcamps, to decide whether I should take an in-person or online bootcamp, what kind of community I wanted, and how much I should pay for it. It felt like I went through every bootcamp on Course Report. What first stood to me about Thinkful was the job guarantee. That gave me peace of mind because I wouldn’t lose thousands of dollars if I couldn’t pull this off.

I also wanted someone to guide me through the material. I knew that a coding bootcamp would consist of me working on projects, but I needed someone I could ask questions of live, rather than just asking questions via a chat room. I had one call with Thinkful, and I loved Liz Parsekian. I started the Flexible Web Development Bootcamp next week!

How did you choose an online bootcamp vs an in-person coding bootcamp?

When I first started researching, I was living in Portland, Oregon (now I’m in Salt Lake City), so I looked at in-person bootcamps in Portland. Even though there were some really good bootcamps, I was still working full-time as a counselor, so it was way more convenient to work on projects around my schedule, rather than have dedicated time that I had to be in a classroom. So that’s why I ultimately chose an online coding bootcamp.

How long did it take you to finish the Flexible Web Development bootcamp?

It took me 6 months from start to finish. I spent 5 months on curriculum and projects, then about 1 month getting my portfolio ready. Once my portfolio was done and signed off on, I started looking for jobs. That job search took about 5 weeks – it moved really fast. I usually spent a total of 25 to 30 hours working on Thinkful each week, and I gave myself a day off every week. So I  probably spent 4-5 hours a day reading, coding, going to mentor sessions, or attending online sessions.

Who was your mentor and how often did you communicate with your mentor?

My mentor, Marius, was amazing – we’re still in touch! I really bonded with him, and would totally grab a beer with him. He had a way of explaining hard concepts using normal, everyday language, so I would understand the concept, then he would explain how to do it with code, which was really useful. He was always a resource who knew a lot more than I did. Even when he didn’t know the answer, he was really calm, and said, “Let’s figure it out.” He taught me how to understand that you’re always going to be confused, and how to use Google effectively.

I met with my mentor Marius three times per week for an hour each session. Sometimes if I had a really pressing question I could shoot him an email in between sessions, but usually we kept it to just the meetings. Marius was new to React, so I did switch mentors for three weeks to learn React, then switched back to my original mentor to finish the course.

Were you able to get help from other Thinkful students?

I got as much as I put in. There was a Thinkful Slack community, live workshops, and Q&A sessions, and I used at least one of those resources every day. I would check in, look at Slack, or post a question if I was really stuck to see what other people were working on. Because I did the Flexible bootcamp, I wasn’t learning with a set cohort, but I started noticing people who were around the same stage as me, and we grouped together. In an online coding bootcamp, it’s up to you as a student to be active and to reach out, and I wouldn’t have been as successful if I hadn’t done that. Thinkful definitely encourages you to interact with other students, but there is no pressure; you don’t fail the course because you didn’t make friends.

How did Thinkful prepare you for the job search? Did you get introductions to employers?

Learning the technical material was the best part of Thinkful, but the career services were what made Thinkful worth the money.

Once I finished the curriculum, I moved from working with my mentor Marius to working with Liz Parsekian and Grae Drake. Liz chased down job leads for me, looked for jobs in the area, and leveraged her networks to see if she knew anyone who was hiring. That’s actually how I got my first job – it was with a company that Liz reached out to on my behalf! That was hugely helpful.

On top of that job searching, I had hour-long meetings every week with Grae to talk about interview skills and go through code challenges (and how to solve them). After my interviews, I would debrief with Grae and talk about what I couldn’t handle in the interview. He gave me a lot of practical advice, helped me stay organized, and work my network to get a job. Between Grae and Liz, finding a job felt like a breeze. They took a lot of the pressure off.

Tell us about your first job after Thinkful!

My first job was with a music education startup. They have a video library of educational videos, about things like learning how to play instruments, how to compose music, and sound recording. When I started I was the 12th employee, and the only developer, which was intimidating for a first job, but I learned a lot really fast. I wouldn’t have come across the job if it weren’t for Liz from Thinkful. It ended up being a really good first job in this industry.

How prepared did you feel for that job on your first day? Did you have to keep learning a lot by yourself?

I did feel prepared to start my first job, and I also had to learn a lot. Thinkful gives you the foundation to understand how the code works, so that you understand the logic within JavaScript, HTML, and CSS and can work a lot of problems out. My first job was coding in PHP, so I had to learn a whole new language, and new conventions, but I had a strong enough foundation and understanding of how code works to teach myself without getting overwhelmed. Thinkful gives you the foundations, but there is no scaffolding or roof on the house – you definitely build that once you get into your first job.

How did you know you were ready to move into your second job after graduating from Thinkful?

My first job was a super fun challenge, but I wanted to be part of a bigger team. It’s kind of a lonely world to be the only developer, especially when you’re new to the industry. There was no one to review my code, and I knew I was making mistakes.

I found my current job using the skills Thinkful taught me in the Career Services phase. I leveraged my own networks, put out the word to developers I had met or interviewed with before that I was looking for new job. I got a referral to an open position at Instructure, got my foot in the door, interviewed well, and everything moved very quickly – about 3 weeks from start to finish.

I probably could have reached out to Thinkful for help if I had needed it, but everything moved so quickly. I did email Liz and Grae after I started the new job to tell them how I had negotiated my salary and used my skills from Thinkful.

What is your current role? Did the company provide onboarding or training?

I’m a Marketing Web Developer at Instructure, an educational software company. I work on a team building marketing sites like landing pages. I’m working in a similar technology stack to my previous role – JavaScript, jQuery, and PHP. It’s a different CMS from what I worked in before, so I’ve been learning the ins and outs of that CMS, but the learning curve is not as steep as my first job.

Instructure had a great onboarding process, which was really nice. There are three developers, and the two most senior developers trained me. They helped me get my development environment set up, told me about some known bugs, and as I started getting project work, they were available when I didn’t know how something worked. There was a lot more support in this role, which was exactly what I was looking for. My confidence is higher in this job, whereas at my first job, it was hard fought.

How far did Thinkful get you compared to the level you’re at now?

When I finished Thinkful, I was relieved to be done, but I knew I was very much in the beginning stage of my learning. It was shocking how far I had come, but I was very aware there was still so much to learn. After working at Instructure, I would say that I’m in “Early Intermediate.” I’ve come so far, but there’s still so much left to learn.

What advice do you have for other remote bootcampers who are going through the job search?

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I got was to go to local meetups. Go learn about code, talk to people with similar interests, and tell them what you’re working on. It will put you out of your comfort zone, but that is the way to get established as a developer. Unless you’re in New York or San Francisco, the coding communities are pretty small, so you’re going to see the same people over and over. Get yourself into that community and get your name known. I didn’t love it at first, but I established connections that I used to get my second job, which I totally love.

Also, know that the interview process is not as scary as you think. Yes, you have to do code challenges, and you won’t know how to solve a problem in front of people, but in all my experiences, everyone was so kind and willing to help. What employers want to see is how you handle yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, they want to see what you do, how you talk through it. The more you talk to your interviewer, the more receptive and willing to help they are.

What’s been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to learn to code?

My biggest challenge was learning to love frustration. I realized I needed to learn to really enjoy that feeling and that experience. I now know how to work through it, but that was very hard for me when I first started Thinkful – I felt this pressure and I wanted to perform perfectly. Now I love being frustrated because I know I’ll get through it, and that has helped me a ton.

How do you stay involved with Thinkful? Have you kept in touch with staff or other alumni?

I pop into Slack sometimes to see what’s going on. I’m still in touch with my mentor; we talk every couple weeks via email, and I’ve hired him one-on-one a couple of times when I’m stuck on something. As I get more settled and feel more confident, my hope is to become a mentor at Thinkful. I see myself moving back into the Thinkful community.

What advice do you have for people making a career change through an online coding bootcamp?

First, be really clear about the goal you’re working towards at a bootcamp, because that’s the carrot on the stick when you are frustrated because your code won’t work, or you’re too exhausted to understand. Maybe you want to start a family and this career will help you support them, or you’re in a dead-end job and you want to be inspired – whatever your personal reasons are, you need to keep aiming for those.

Second, make sure the people in your life really understand what you’re signing up for. My husband was very supportive, but it would have been a lot harder if he weren't. He knew I wouldn’t be very available for six months – I’d be tired, working hard, and not as engaging. Going to coding bootcamp really does change your life, but for those few months, you’re in a very different rhythm.

Thirdly, I suggest giving yourself time off. Give yourself a day where you don’t write any code. Go to a park, watch a movie, eat ice cream, let yourself refresh and you’ll come back with more energy and be able to solve the problem you were stuck on.

Lastly, let yourself really celebrate your successes. Don’t be shy about bragging; show off your projects to anyone who will listen, go to your online community and say, “I can’t believe I built this – check it out!” When you have that camaraderie, and people say they like your design, it’s really inspiring and gives you the motivation to tackle the next project.

Find out more and read Thinkful reviews on Course Report. Check out the Thinkful website.

About The Author

Imogen crispe headshot

Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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