When Hillary Whitworth heard that a coding bootcamp, Covalence, was opening in her city of Birmingham, Alabama, she took a semester off from college and took the plunge. Now, two years after graduating from Covalence, Hillary hasn’t regretted her choice! We asked Hillary about her career building websites and mobile apps for local Birmingham businesses, how she continues to keep learning on the job, and why finding her dream job after coding bootcamp meant she didn’t need to get a traditional college degree.
What were you up to pre-Covalence?
I've always been good with technology but I didn't really know how to carve a career path out of that. I started taking Computer Information Systems courses in college and stumbled across an Introduction to Programming course. I did really well and noticed that I didn't have to force myself to work on it; I just liked it. So I decided to dive into web development and started teaching myself HTML and CSS in my spare time. But I was still waiting tables and bartending through college.
When I heard that Covalence was opening in my city, Birmingham, I decided to quit my job and take the plunge. I took a semester off of school, went to Covalence, and got hired as an intern at a bank, BBVA Compass. Because I found the career that I wanted after Covalence, I actually didn’t go back to college! I don't want to tell people not to finish school, but I ended up getting my dream job straight out of the bootcamp, and I saved a lot of money too.
Were you in the first cohort of students at Covalence?
Yes, I was, which was a scary thing, because I didn't have past students to talk to or get advice or reviews from. It was risky to take a chance on this company that I hadn't heard of and didn’t have a reputation yet. I almost waited until the second class, but I am so thrilled that I didn't wait. I had a fantastic group of people whom I was able to learn and grow with.
Matt was my instructor and the quickness of plunging into exactly what I wanted was just amazing. 10 weeks in there and you're hired.
What was the application and admissions process like at Covalence?
First, I submitted a general application. They want to understand if you’re a fit, and make sure that you’re actually passionate about tech and web development. If you're not passionate, then you don't need to waste your time. After that, I did an in-person interview.
Before I was admitted, I completed several hours of pre-work, which I think is a good way to make sure that coding is something you really like before you take a risk and quit your job. We also had to take an assessment where they provide you with a simple design for a one-page website and you have to build it out and submit it. Once you pass those challenges, then you do a final interview.
Since you started learning to code a few years ago, what’s been your biggest challenge or roadblock?
I’m not sure if this is the answer you're looking for, but my biggest challenge was just taking the initiative to start. I didn't know which technologies to focus on. That's something tricky about trying to get into programming, web development, or app development – there are so many different ways to do it, and I didn’t know which route to take. There was all this information and I wasn’t sure what I needed to know to be successful. There is so much information out there and it can be intimidating and daunting and overwhelming.
So just taking the chance and pushing through that noise was the hardest part for me. Once you get started, it all falls into place. Things can seem difficult, but you will figure it out.
What was the actual learning experience like at Covalence?
Class started at 9am and we had a lecture until around noon. After lunch we would work on a lab. We were assigned one lab each day, or if they were a little more difficult we would have two days to complete them.
During the lab, I worked with my fellow students, but we also had the instructor and a TA available when we had questions. They provided instruction to us, showed us how to get started with the material, and we could use them as a resource as we needed them. I thought that was great because it's very much like coding in a job. You're not going to have someone sitting next to you the whole time telling you exactly what to do. You’re more likely to be given a problem that you've never seen before and have to figure it out. Covalence teaches you how to teach yourself, and to think like a programmer.
Which programming languages did you learn at Covalence?
How many people were in your cohort and what kind of diversity and backgrounds were there?
There were about 15 people in my cohort. The career backgrounds were all over the place. Some people had been to college, started a career, then realized they weren't happy and wanted to change careers. One student had a Master's in finance and was a financial advisor, another had a physics degree, someone had a philosophy degree and taught math, and another person worked at a comic book store. Other people, like me, hadn't started a career at all – I was still in college and waiting tables. It was a wide range.
We were all different ages. Most people were in their mid-20s, with a couple of students probably in their late 40s. There were three other women in my class – it was mostly guys. We had a few people from outside Birmingham – one guy had come down from Philadelphia to take the course and another guy was from Atlanta.
What brought us together was that we were all interested in technology, and we knew that there was a demand and a future for tech.
What was your favorite project that you worked on at Covalence?
For the final project, we worked as a group and decided what to build. My group of three built a cross-platform budgeting app. That was my favorite because we actually got to put all of our knowledge together and work together as a team to create something, start to finish. Users could log in, input their monthly income, how much they wanted to save, and their expenses, and the app would show users how much to spend each day, week, or month.
It was really cool seeing it all come together, getting to work with my teammates, and helping each other. As you go through the course, you find out what you're good at, and everyone is good at different skills, so you learn a lot from each other. I was better at the UI/UX side of things, whereas one of my teammates was better at the technical back-end.
How did Covalence prepare you for job hunting?
The networking and exposure from the classes alone is amazing. The Covalence team helped us with resumes and mock interviews, and they are very connected with employers in the Birmingham community. Guest speakers came to the classroom all the time and would say, "We have an internship or position coming up and we're looking at you, because the Covalence curriculum is teaching exactly what we need."
Now, Covalence is not specifically going out and placing you in these jobs, but they do help push you in the right direction. Several of us at least had an internship before we even completed the course.
What was your internship and how soon did you start after Covalence?
My internship was with BBVA Compass. They selected us for the internship before we finished the class, and we started work on the Monday after graduation. During the internship, we were free to come up with an app or idea to disrupt banking using an API.
It was a four-week internship and I worked on two different teams. It was a great learning experience. But during that internship, I decided that I wasn’t happiest in a corporate environment – I wanted to be more creative. After the internship I was hired by Platypi, a creative agency.
Some of my classmates in the internship are still working at BBVA, and they’re using Java – a technology that they didn't learn at Covalence. Once you learn how to think like a programmer, you can pick up anything. You don't have to learn a specific language.
How did you get hired by Platypi and Covalence?
There was talk that Platypi was expanding and wanted to hire a developer from my cohort. I expressed interest, went through an interview with one of the owners, then further interviews with two developers. Since they are the founders of Covalence, they already knew what my skills were, they knew the curriculum, and they knew the kind of work I had already completed, including my final project app. They ended up hiring three different people from the first cohort at Covalence
Can you tell me about your role there and what you do?
I work for Platypi doing client services, building websites and the mobile apps, but Covalence also uses me as their in-house developer. I think they're going to redesign their website soon, so I’ll be a part of that project.
Mostly, I work for Platypi in Client Services. Platypi offers digital services to businesses around Birmingham. I build responsive websites and small mobile apps for those businesses. There are three developers who do most of the development work. The websites are small enough that I usually do entire projects by myself, but we have also had larger projects which required all hands on deck.
Within the first three months of working at Platypi, I had already built about six small-scale websites. For example, I've built websites for an environmental company in Birmingham, a lawn care services company, and our local radio station. The next project I have coming up is a mobile app for a medical center in Birmingham, where doctors can login and contact other doctors.
It sounds like you get to make a difference in the Birmingham community!
Oh, yeah. Most of our clients come to us because they need a lot of design help. I don't do design, but I get to implement the designs and make sure that the client is getting a beautiful site that looks good on all devices, all browsers, all screen sizes, and that their information is being displayed properly. It's really cool to help them figure out who their target audience is, where they're getting the most traffic from, etc.
Are you using the same technologies that you learned at Covalence?
My skill set has grown tremendously since the bootcamp – I’ve grown from building standard brochure type websites for small businesses to learning how to incorporate third party services to create e-commerce websites. I’ve worked with Wordpress and I can create fully customized Shopify themes using their templating language. My day to day work still relies heavily on the skills I took away from the bootcamp, but my knowledge of these subjects have grown tremendously since graduation. Covalence provides you with a solid foundation to get started as a developer, whether you want to grow the skills you learn there, or branch off and take on something entirely new.
Over your last two years working at Platypi, how has your team facilitated that learning?
My team regularly throws problems at me that they know I'm not familiar with. I'm literally learning something new every week. That’s just what it’s like to work for a creative agency. When clients need something new, my boss will say, "We've never done this before, but Hillary, why don't you dive in and see if you can figure it out." If I'm struggling, there's always a mentor or someone who can help me develop a further understanding. So my learning comes naturally with new projects, new clients, and their needs.
I know you still work with Covalence, but do you keep in touch with the other alumni from your cohort?
I developed really strong friendships with people from my cohort and have become very close friends with two of my cohort-mates. We've grown together as developers. Once you go through something as difficult as a career change and the struggle of defeating a bootcamp, you create strong bonds with your classmates.
I keep in touch with the Covalence staff as well. I regularly go to graduations and see the new graduates’ final projects, which just keep getting better.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about going through a coding bootcamp?
There's so much advice. You can't go through it and expect to just let the information come to you. It's something you have to pursue 100% and just give it everything you've got. Treat it like it is your job already. A lot of people will say, "There's no way that I can be job ready in 10 weeks." You can be job ready in 10 weeks, as long as you treat learning to code as though it is your career already and dedicate all of your time to it.
And make sure that you're passionate about programming before you start a bootcamp, and that you're going to dedicate your time to it. Just be persistent and be passionate and know that no matter how difficult it may seem, if you keep pushing, you'll succeed for sure.