Danny Dawson is not your average programmer. He went straight into the British Army after high school where he focused on telecommunications design. That telecommunications background led him to start a telecommunications and e-commerce business in London. See why Danny chose to attend NYC coding bootcamp Flatiron School through their online campus, Learn.co (and how he landed a job at PWC Ventures after graduating).
What is your pre-bootcamp story before Flatiron School?
I joined the Army straight from school, so instead of a university, I did a technical, telecommunications apprenticeship within the British Army. After being in the Army for seven years, I worked as a telecommunications network designer for a range of UK telecom companies. Then I set up an audio-visual installation company with a friend and ran that for a couple of years (we grew too fast and unfortunately had to close).
I spent the last 5-6 years as a principal engineering consultant and project manager for IT and Audio Visual projects.
What made you want to learn to code?
I've run a couple of companies, in the audiovisual and e-commerce sectors. In my Audio Visual company I generally dealt with technical design and the web development work. This was back in 2006, when I was just getting into web development, so I used a template and modified it with basic HTML and CSS.
I always wanted to learn more about the web because I really enjoyed that basic HTML and CSS. Last New Year’s, my resolution was to learn how to code so I could essentially build my own MVP for a new business idea I had. I took One Month Rails, which was a $50 course teaching Rails in 30 days. After building a Pinterest clone, it got me hooked and I knew I wanted to be a full-time programmer. Because I am entrepreneurial, it's essential that I know how to code, otherwise I won't understand the possibilities.
It's been pretty hard, to be honest. But with each I course take, I fully believe that anyone can actually learn to code. You just have to expect to incorporate effort and push yourself.
What made you decide that a coding bootcamp like Flatiron School was the right educational path?
I've done online courses before, and I actually did the Stanford Technology Entrepreneurship MOOC, so I was quite comfortable with an online style of learning. And I knew that if I put the effort in, I could do it.
Secondly, because I was working full-time, I couldn't really afford to go back to school full-time. I'm 33 now, and I didn’t complete the last two years of high school in the UK as I joined the Army, so it was out of the question for me to do a four-year degree. I'm sure doing a CS degree is beneficial to every programmer, but a four-year track personally would not have worked for me.
What made you choose Flatiron School?
I spent about 1.5 years teaching myself using online resources. I knew that I could build an app in Rails/Ruby, but I didn't know the underlying technology behind it – the “why.”
At the time, I wasn't interested in a bootcamp because they were obviously quite expensive. I'd always had my eyes on Course Report, and when I saw Flatiron School’s Online Web Developer Program on Learn.co, it was the right time and the right place. I needed to continue working full-time, so I had to choose an online course.
Flatiron School is a well-established school. As I understand, they are one of the top few coding schools in the US that have online offerings. I liked the fact that Learn.co was essentially self-paced. There is a monthly cost, and you can do it as fast or slow as you’d like.
Did you face any challenges as an international student applying for Flatiron School?
I had a long chat with Flatiron School’s Dean, Avi, prior to doing the course – he is brilliant! He’s really infectious with how he wants to teach people and how he wants others to learn. It just got me excited about joining the school and obviously the new program they were coming out with. That's how I chose it really. In a way, it was like sort of like the luck of the draw but I think I chose it because Flatiron was one of the better schools out there. Flatiron School came up with an online platform right when I was thinking to doing it, and the price fit within my budget.
How long did it take you to finish Flatiron School’s Online Web Developer Program?
On top of working full-time and doing it out of hours for two months, it took me another 4 to complete full-ish time. So overall six months. The course was a lot more in-depth than I thought it would be, which is brilliant. I'm so glad I did it, and that it took that long.
How did you commit yourself to learning online? Any tips for our readers who are concerned about focusing?
I actually rented a desk at a co-working space. I went three days a week and surrounded myself with programmers and other startups; it definitely helped.
Coming from a very corporate engineering background, Flatiron School was very different to what I was used to. It helped being around like-minded people while I was trying to learn. When you're learning on your own, it's quite hard to stay motivated sometimes. I'll be honest, I love programming, but obviously you have off days and not be motivated.
As an online student, what was the application and interview process like for Flatiron School?
I filled out an application form and then created a video, detailing more information about myself and why I enjoy programming. They also asked questions like, “If you could do anything when you're a programmer, what would you do?”
Once I got to the interview process, everything was online through Skype interviews. I ended up talking with Avi, the Dean of Flatiron School. We had a half an hour chat on Skype about the course in general, a bit about my background, and what I'd get out of the course.
Then you take a free, 30-hour introductory course, which culminates in you building a Tic-Tac-Toe game in Ruby. Once you finish that, then you can apply for the full course. I liked that process because if you put the effort in and know you love it, you'll do better in the full course.
Tell us about your learning experience. What was the Learn.co online platform like?
Learning online 100% worked for me. When I first started I was still working full-time, so I could do Flatiron School coursework around my working hours. I used to get up in the morning at 6:00am, log onto Learn.co to do a couple of hours before work, sneakily do some lessons/labs at work, and then more in the evening when I got home.
Because I had already completed the 30 hours, I knew what to expect from the platform. There were instructors available for online chat/help if you needed them. If you needed someone to bounce ideas off or guide you to the answer without giving it away, there were mentors there for that. We also had a Slack community for Flatiron School, where we'd all keep each other updated and encourage each other.
The Online Web Developer Program on Learn.co was essentially an online version of the Full Stack Web Development Program that Flatiron School offers on-site in New York. The course had the exact same curriculum, so obviously it had been tried and tested for a few years beforehand. It was very well-developed, and you could tell based on its depth.
How many people were in your cohort?
Flatiron School’s online programs don’t really work in cohorts because they’re self-paced and people joined at different times. There were probably about 20 of us right at the start, then more and more people were added every week.
How was the teaching style and feedback loop for Flatiron School’s online program?
Although you're on your own, you never feel isolated – there are always instructors available, it’s easy to start study groups with fellow students, and there are live lectures you can join about three times a week. Because of my schedule, I wasn’t able to attend the lectures in real-time, but they were all recorded. You can go back and watch every lecture that someone has given online.
The teachers were pretty cool. They were always available to help if you needed them. Students could hit them up through Learn.co’s “Ask A Question” and built-in chat features, on Slack, or by dropping them an email.
What was your biggest challenge during your time at Flatiron School?
It's always a struggle learning to code, no matter who you are. Sometimes you think you've got the subject matter, but your command doesn't work out how you expect it to. But then when it clicks, it just clicks and you think "Yes, I've won!" (until you get to the next thing). It's a whole massive learning process.
I was always thinking about how I could transition into personal projects that I wanted to build. Design patterns were always quite a big thing for me. It’s always good to step outside of the curriculum and think about how this will apply to your future, because otherwise you lose why you’re in the course. The curriculum teaches you how to do something; you still need to think and evolve to be a better programmer.
What was your favorite project that you built?
We built four or five different individual projects—one at the end of each section of the course. The first project I built was a command-line Ruby Gem for a “World’s Best 50 Restaurants” website. Users could type into the command-line and it would give a full list and more information about the restaurants. You can choose which restaurant you want more information from and it will you give their signature dish, the address of it, a bit about the chefs, and more. It is a very basic project, but when you first start building sites like that, you feel amazing. Check it out here.
For one of my final projects, I built a project management app in Rails. It was an internal project that you could use to add tasks to a project, add people to a project, and then assign people on that project's tasks. These projects were just simple ideas, but I spent a lot of time trying to get my head around the underlying backend technology than building the best app in the world.
Learn.co gives free reign to build anything you want. You have an hour session with an instructor and they give you an outline of what you are expected to do, then you can choose any project you want to build. Instructors then assess what you’ve built and may even write tests with you and you explain your design decisions. It was pretty cool to get real-time feedback and individual time with an instructor for each project.
What was the job hunt like after you finished Flatiron School?
When I moved to Melbourne, I wasn’t in any technology circles and didn’t know any programmers. I started going to meetups, joined the Ruby Australia Slack channel, and went to a Ruby conference when I first arrived. By chance, I spoke to one of the lead devs at Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and said, "If you're looking for a junior developer, I've got previous consultant experience, and I'd be very much interested in working at PwC." When I finished Learn.co, I passed my CV to the product manager and got asked in for an interview. I went through four interviews; it was quite a long process. There was an initial phone screen interview, a coding challenge, an interview with the lead dev and product manager, and then there was an interview with the group director.
I now work at PwC as a Junior Web Developer and have been there for about a month.
Tell us about your current role as a Junior Developer at PwC.
I work for PWC Ventures, which is under digital services. We look for inefficiencies in financial services, whether that be with government incentives or other areas. We think about whether we can turn these solutions into mini-businesses for PwC, and then we develop and build like a startup.
For example, I'm working on a project called Nifty Forms which helps companies in Australia, Canada, and the UK get tax rebates or tax allowances to pay most of your Research & Development costs. Nifty Forms essentially takes out the back and forth with companies and accountants and provides an easier way to apply for your R&D rebates with the backing of PwC. I also work on another product called Airtax which helps freelancers and Uber drivers with their tax returns on a quarterly and annual basis.
Do you feel that Flatiron School has prepared you for your career as a developer?
Definitely. I feel like I learned a lot during my time at Flatiron School. At PwC, I’m working in a large application, much bigger than while I have been learning, but I’m comfortable. Looking at the code base, I can tell what's going on and I already feel like I can contribute to the development. I definitely feel very much prepared.
Do you still stay in touch with the Flatiron School or any other alumni?
I actually worked for Flatiron School for a few months after I graduated. I wanted to continue learning and helping other students while I was looking for a full-time position. I was a Learn Expert, helping out part-time. I helped the students through the course materials or when they got stuck.
It was really rewarding, to be honest, and it was nice to help students understand tough concepts. Teaching solidifies the information in your mind as well. If you're not sure about something, and you have to convey how it actually works to someone else, it sticks in your mind a bit more. I also still communicate with alumni in on our Slack channel.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about making that career change and joining a coding bootcamp?
I'd say the first thing is to make sure you love coding. Make sure you've done loads of prep work; don't just jump into it. It's a lot of money to be spending, and not everyone loves programming. You can learn all the information you want, but if you don't have the passion, the drive, and the excitement about programming, it's hard to get junior dev role. Don't fork out a lot of money if you don't know that you love it.