A former police officer and legal adviser, Ioana Rosu was looking for a coding bootcamp where she could be totally immersed with no distractions. When she found Web Dev Camp in rural Finland, she left her home and job in Bucharest, Romania to live at the campus and learn to code for eight weeks. Ioana tells us about how effective she found her instructor’s teaching methods, the close bonds she formed with other students, and why being surrounded by nature was key for staying refreshed and inspired.
What was your background before you decided to go to Web Dev Camp?
Before I decided to start seriously with coding, I was a police officer, then a paralegal at a law firm, then a legal adviser. I went to a special police training school after high school, and later got a bachelor's degree in law.
Why did you want to change careers and get into technology?
My story with code started like a game. Last year I wanted to learn a new foreign language, and I wanted to use an application for that. I discovered a great app, but while I was trying to learn the language, I actually became more fascinated with the app itself. Like a kid who has a brand new toy, but instead of playing with it, tries to assemble and disassemble the toy to work out the mechanics behind it. I was intrigued by the different parts of the app, and started trying to research how it worked. Then after that, I got more and more interested in coding and I started some online courses. Meanwhile, I was still working full time as a legal adviser.
What types of resources did you use for learning?
I started with Codecademy, and then I tried Treehouse, and a bunch of other online courses. After that, I tried the free Bootcamp Prep course from Flatiron school, and I applied for a scholarship to go to Flatiron’s in-person course. I would’ve gone to New York, but I was one of thousands of applicants and I did not get the scholarship.
What other coding bootcamps did you consider?
I used Course Report to analyze my options. I read about online bootcamp Viking Code School. I also read about Hack Reactor and Galvanize, but at that time, I was only interested in Flatiron, Viking Code School, and Web Dev Camp.
What made you choose Web Dev Camp over the other options?
Web Dev Camp’s autumn cohort was perfect timing for me. After I had applied for Flatiron, I took a break from bootcamp applications over the summer, but still coded every day. I applied for Web Dev Camp at the end of August, and I spoke with Torsten immediately. Everything went well and I was accepted!
Did you specifically want to do a live-in bootcamp?
When you’re learning to code it’s very hard to focus on anything else, so for me it was great to know I would be there on site, without any distractions. When I was at Web Dev Camp, that notion was confirmed– it was extremely good to not be distracted by anything else. It’s hard to describe, but when you are there it feels like you’re at home with a private teacher. I was happy to move to Finland for eight weeks.
Was it important for you to learn Ruby on Rails?
Yes. I had heard Ruby was very good for beginners, so I started to learn Ruby and liked it. I mainly searched for bootcamps that taught Ruby.
Did you ever consider going back to university to do a computer science degree?
I did, and I visited a local university to try to speak to someone there. I realized I didn’t have enough time to study for the admission deadline. Gaining admission is very hard here in Bucharest, and I was working full-time. I didn’t study high school math or science, so it was very hard for me to prepare myself for such an admissions process. I considered the amount of time I could commit to this, and what I could do in that amount of time and decided it was better for me to go to a bootcamp. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue with my studies now that I’ve finished the bootcamp, maybe I could do a master's. This is only the beginning of my web development career and education.
What was the application and interview process like when you applied for Web Dev Camp?
I completed the online steps for the application, then spoke with Torsten, Director of Web Dev Camp. We asked each other questions, and talked about my skills, experience, and education. Because I didn’t have a CS background, there was no coding challenge for me.
How many people were in your cohort? Where were they from and what kind of backgrounds did they have?
There were four women including me. One woman was from London, and worked as an engineer and worked at Institute Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France, before becoming a freelance developer. Another woman was from Brazil, and was a new graduate from Nottingham University in the UK. The other woman is from Hungary, but lives in Finland. She was an experienced testing engineer and was older than all of us. I have a law background – so we were all very different. Only one girl knew Finnish, so we were all speaking English.
How many instructors were there? What is Torsten like as an instructor?
Torsten was the only instructor, we were such a small cohort we didn’t need any extra help. He’s very kind and has a lot of patience. He is very wise, and very creative as well.
How were the lessons structured? Can you give me an example of a typical day?
The whole curriculum was split into four parts. We started with more theory and less practice, and as we got closer to the end it switched to become more practice and less theory. We had a 9am to 6pm schedule, six days a week, but usually studied longer than that each day. In the first few weeks, we would start in the morning with theory, then we would try to individually learn something and present what we learned to the cohort. We would then work on some real examples, in a group or peer-to-peer.
By the end of the course we were feeling the time pressure hanging over our heads, and trying to work more individually on real features for our final project. Luckily, Torsten was always there to guide us when we were stuck. We would also have nature sessions where we went into the forest, to the seaside, or to a local cafe to work, have discussions, and do retrospectives (and sometimes cuddle a beautiful cat). That was different from week to week.
What was the campus like at Web Dev Camp?
The campus is a B&B, which Torsten and his wife run. It’s a big Finnish style house, with a lot of rooms, a big living space, a huge space for our classroom, a sauna, and a giant garden. We spent a lot of time outdoors. We started in September and it was very unusual weather for Finland, without much rain. It was sunny, sometimes cloudy, and then towards the end of the course we had a lot of snow, so it was a real Finnish experience with snowmen and everything. We had the forest right there in the garden, so we were also surrounded by deer, rabbits and squirrels. It was beautiful. I fell in love with the sauna and loved watching the Milky Way or aurora borealis in the sky at night.
Also, the next-door neighbors had dogs, and I love animals very much. I found that a great way to refresh my mind was to take the dogs out for a walk in the forest when I needed a break. I missed my own dog a lot, so that was amazing, and made it feel like I was at home. I had heard a lot of stories about students who had burned out at coding bootcamp – it was amazing to be at Web Dev Camp, where we had so much access to nature and relaxation.
What was it like living and studying with the students and the teacher?
We had our tough moments at the beginning, but after we got past those, it was like a family. I’m good friends with all the girls, and I talk with them regularly. It was a great opportunity for all of us to make new and real friends. When you live with somebody it’s different from just going to school with them. We studied together, ate together, went to the city together, and explored the forest together.
What was the food like?
Torsten and his wife are vegan, so they provided only vegetarian and vegan food. I don’t have a problem with vegetarian because my husband is vegetarian. The food was very nice, we couldn’t complain. We could eat whatever we wanted because we had access to a kitchen and fridge, and we could go to the supermarket. It was like normal family life with shopping lists and everything.
What’s been the biggest challenge while you were learning to code at Web Dev Camp?
For me the biggest challenge was understanding the structure of the data, the models, and the associations between models in Active Record. Torsten worked hard to help me with that.
The Finnish education style is very different from what I was used to in Romania. Finland ranks highly for education in global reports and the approach focuses a lot on the real underlying understanding of things. I immediately noticed the difference. You feel like you aren’t learning, then afterwards you discover that you do know how to do it. This blew my mind! Torsten saw that I couldn’t understand the associations, he tried to explain them, and encouraged me to learn by doing. After that, to make sure I understood, he asked me to present what I had learned to the other girls. This was the best test for me because when you can explain something to someone else, it’s clear that you’ve understood it. This educational approach was extremely beneficial for us.
Another example of the effectiveness of this approach is when we came up with our final project idea. We went to the seaside to get inspiration and started to talk, and imagine, and brainstorm. We didn’t realize that we had actually put together a huge project.
What was that project that you built at Web Dev Camp?
It’s called LASER and is built to be a complex platform for Ruby developers, allowing you to sort the Gems that match your search criteria by (Github) downloads, user score, or by a magical ranking algorithm. You can type in a Gem name, description, or tag, and the search function will quickly find the Gem you need. Or you can add your brand new gems to the platform. It integrates with the GitHub and RubyGems APIs. The app was built with Rails, Sqlite3, MySQL, Bootstrap, Sass, Susy, Haml, SVG, Ransack, Devise, Acts-as-taggable-on, Will_paginate, Capistrano, and is tested and analyzed with RSpec, Capybara, Guard, Code Climate, Travis. LASER is live here: rubylaser.org
How were your previous skills in law and law enforcement useful when you were learning to code?
My previous experience as a whole was very useful. In my previous roles, I had to be extremely methodical, patient, and read and study a lot. I also developed good communication skills. I learned to interact with people, to work out what they want, to provide what they want, and to negotiate. I knew how to adapt immediately and to speak in front of people. I used a lot of those skills at Web Dev Camp. Also, during the bootcamp we went to some meetup events and parties. One of them was the local Ruby Brigade meetups, where we had to present our project to other people – which we found extremely helpful.
How did Web Dev Camp prepare you for the job search? What sort of career advice did they give you?
Torsten gave us very valuable advice about how we should approach the job search. He said something like, you should approach it from the outside to the inside. The idea was to rank the jobs from those that actually didn’t interest you much, to the ones that you really want, then practice your skills with ones you don’t want, and after that, apply to jobs right in the middle that you want and are more prepared for. I think that’s very good advice. Initially, I wanted to just go and jump directly on what I wanted, but Torsten said that might not work out because I may not be prepared for that job yet. Torsten also looked over our applications, our LinkedIn, and Github profiles.
What sort of jobs are you looking for?
Last year we finished just before the holidays in December, so the job hunt didn’t go so well at first. Yet, from the beginning of this year it has skyrocketed! It’s going much better. I’m applying for Ruby developer roles, and I’m not only applying for front end or back end, I’m trying to go to the full stack roles, because I don’t want to narrow my opportunities.
Is there a particular industry where you’d like to be a developer? Perhaps in law enforcement?
I don’t have a specific industry or company in mind, because you never know what you can get. I was thinking about looking for a job related to my previous experience, but I haven’t found any jobs like that, but I will keep looking. I would feel more within my comfort zone to work in an industry that I understand.
How do you stay in touch with the other members of your cohort?
We have our Slack channel, and we talk a lot on email and Facebook. All the women are back in their homes, all learning, and trying to get a job.
How do you keep your skills fresh while you are looking for a job?
What advice do you have for other people who are considering a bootcamp?
First of all, read a lot from Course Report and carefully analyze your options. Second, have patience and self-reliance, and third, work a lot. Keep in mind that it can make a big difference if your experience learning to code is a positive one. It was a time when I learned that patience and things well done are much more important than struggling to get a job, whatever job I could take.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The traditional greeting: Happy Coding!