Jeff Mendiola was a top salesperson at Enterprise Rent-A-Car when he decided to pursue a career in coding. He spent a year teaching himself, but when he couldn’t get a job, he realized he needed experience building projects in a team, so enrolled at Dev Bootcamp’s Seattle campus. Jeff tells us how his small class meant a great student:instructor ratio, how much he learned in his final project, and how the Dev Bootcamp careers team prepared him for getting accepted to Microsoft’s LEAP apprenticeship program!
Can you tell me about your background before you decided you wanted to go to Dev Bootcamp and learn to code?
I graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in sociology in 2012. My first job out of college was at Enterprise Rent-A-Car as a sales and customer service rep. I worked there for about a year and by that point, I felt like I wanted to pursue a career that would challenge me to use my creativity and skills in problem solving. That's when I decided to pursue a career as a software engineer. A lot of the influence came from my brother, who is a developer, because he told me about the projects he works on.
Do you think your background in sales was useful in learning to code or even in your career as a developer?
My past experience was very valuable. I used to be ashamed of not having a traditional engineering background, but through Dev Bootcamp I learned to embrace who I was and how I got to where I am. I'm proud to say that I used to be a salesperson at Enterprise, where I learned a lot about work ethic, running a business, working on a team, and how to deal with and work with different people.
From Dev Bootcamp, I learned how to have a growth mindset and feel like I could conquer the world. I'm not afraid to tackle any task at hand. I feel like there are a lot of stereotypes of what a developer should be or look like. But I think if you're interested in it, and you want to pursue it, you can put in the effort and find success.
Have you found a job as an engineer with a “non-traditional” background?
I’m working as a software design engineer apprentice at Microsoft through the LEAP apprenticeship, which is a 16-week Engineering Acceleration program to help promote diversity at Microsoft. It's a way of tapping into other talent pipelines and finding engineers who don't come from traditional pipelines like a college computer science program. The main goal is to get hired at Microsoft, so it's like a 10-week interview as opposed to a seven-hour interview.
We have a lot of talented people here from all walks of life. Some are women who are trying to return to the industry after taking time off to raise a family. Others come from coding academies like Dev Bootcamp, and are looking for their big break. It's crazy how diverse it is. I think it's 80% women and 20% men, and we come from everywhere– Egypt, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Philippines. We're not representative of what the tech field currently looks like. That's why I appreciate it so much, and why I appreciate Microsoft as well– they're really making an effort to promote diversity.
Did you try to learn on your own before considering a coding bootcamp?
In 2013, I decided to pursue a second degree in computer science, so I took an intro class to computer science programming in C++ at my local community college. But after doing my research, I realized it would cost too much money. A friend told me about coding bootcamps, so I did initial research on several bootcamps and saw a lot of mixed reviews. A lot of people had good experiences, but others were skeptical, which made me skeptical. So I decided to first go down the self-teaching route for about a year. However, I felt like I needed experience working with other engineers and putting myself in a situation more closely resembling working in the real world– communicating and doing product planning. One of the reasons I signed up for Dev Bootcamp was because I felt I could already do a front end job, but I wasn't getting any opportunities because I had no portfolio to show off my skills.
When I gave Dev Bootcamp a look, I asked someone about their experience, realized how awesome it was, and how well it worked for them. So on June 3rd 2016, I signed up.
What made you choose Dev Bootcamp in particular over other bootcamps?
There are several reasons. One reason was that I knew two people who did Dev Bootcamp; they graduated and found jobs. They had nothing but great things to say about it. It gave me a vote of confidence knowing that if it worked for them, it could work for me too. One of them attended Dev Bootcamp in New York and the other in San Francisco.
While I was researching Dev Bootcamp, I noticed that they emphasized developing skills outside of just coding– how to work with other people, how to communicate your thoughts clearly, and how to be an empathetic engineer. And I thought those were very valuable skills that I wanted to learn. Now I feel really strongly that those skills are part of why today I'm successful with working with other people. The curriculum didn’t just teach us how to code, it taught us how to become well-rounded and empathetic engineers.
Coding bootcamps can be expensive! How did you pay for the program?
I decided to go to the Seattle campus rather than NYC or San Francisco because it was a bit less expensive, due in part to the cost of living. At the time, tuition was about $1,000 less and at that moment every dollar counted. I also took a loan through Skills Fund. I went through the program with an attitude of focusing on getting better and moving forward every day; it was a lot of hard work and sacrifices. I went into it with zero expectations, but I knew it was an investment in myself and would be worthwhile.
What was your cohort like at Dev Bootcamp? How many people were there and how diverse was it in terms of gender, race, and backgrounds?
I was in the second cohort at the Seattle campus. We had two instructors with a cohort size of 10, so we had a lot of attention.
In terms of diversity, our cohort had about 30% from underrepresented groups in tech, which Dev Bootcamp provides scholarships for. We had two women, eight men, and one student from the LGBTQ community. In terms of racial diversity, it was a small group, but we were very diverse. People had all sorts of backgrounds. We had an electrical engineer, people from sales, customer service, business and law.
What was the learning experience like at Dev Bootcamp?
It was like drinking from an information fire hose. There was so much information every day– it was crazy. The first three months are remote and part-time involving building a solid foundation, online tutorials, and some exercises. That was pretty easy and manageable if you put in the time and effort. The on-site portion, which is the second three months, was intense. I came in there with a lot of confidence in myself and soon realized it was going to be very hard work. Every day is tiring. You're working from 9am to 6pm, and then after that, you're still working with preparatory material for the next day and weekend assignments.
Every day we had a calendar with a set of assignments which included instructions and background on what to do. Every day you're coding, learning, doing a lot of research, and solving problems with the support system of your cohort mates and your instructors
How did studying through the bootcamp compare to when you were self-teaching?
The main difference is that you have a support system so you can easily talk to anyone if you need help. Secondly, they have a lot of work for you so you'll never have to worry about what to do next– they have it all lined up for you.
When I was working on my own, I could easily get distracted. If someone asked me to lunch, that could easily turn into hanging out the whole day. But when you're here, you're in a workspace, you have zero distractions, and you’re working on this all the time. I found myself being very productive, and I felt like I was working in the real world already.
What was your favorite project that you worked on at Dev Bootcamp?
One favorite was my final project because there was minimal instruction. As a team, we spent a week going through the stages of creating an application– planning, setting goals, designing, and critiquing. There were many valuable experiences, and a lot of struggles because the instructors were not telling us what to do. However, they were active in helping guide us as needed.That experience gave me a lot of material to use for answers to interview questions like, "Tell me a time when you ran into a conflict with a fellow engineer. How did you resolve it?"
The project, pairBooked, was an application to help Dev Bootcamp students create meetings with each other. In the remote phase of Dev Bootcamp, you have to regularly pair with other students on assignments. It was often hard to coordinate and find someone to pair with, especially when people had different schedules or were in different time zones. So I came up with the idea where you put in your availability, people can see it, and then if someone else is available at that time, the app connects you. You will both get an email with each other’s contact information, and then you can pair-program together. We used Rails, which was the main framework that we were learning at that moment.
What sort of career guidance did Dev Bootcamp give you?
They teach you about the industry, and what it's like in your specific area. They give you tips on the interview process, what you can expect, examples of situations you might encounter, and basic negotiation skills. They go over some technical interviewing practice and workshops taught by a Microsoft Engineer who comes in. But you do also have to practice on your own.
The Dev Bootcamp careers team also connected me with as many people as they could in Seattle. Whenever there was an opportunity, then would send out my resume to companies. And I took advantage of those opportunities. Dev Bootcamp gives you the resources, but they won't place you in a job– nothing is a given. Just like if you graduate from college with a degree in computer science, you're not just going to get a job. You have to go out there, apply, interview and do the work.
Tell us how you got into the Microsoft LEAP program!
Right after the program in December last year, I was job hunting and networking like crazy. There was no vacation. I applied to 5-10 jobs a day. On LinkedIn, I tried to reach out to as many people as I could. I learned about the Microsoft LEAP program through someone I met at a coding workshop. I applied for the program, interviewed in January, started in February and now I'm here at Microsoft working as a software design engineer apprentice.
I applied online like you would for a school or a coding bootcamp. They ask why you’re interested in programming and what you’ve done to expose yourself to technology. If you're invited to interview, you go through two one-hour technical interviews either via Skype or in-person. You go over your resume and your projects, then they give you an algorithm problem to solve. I was really happy and amazed to be accepted.
What are you working on at Microsoft?
I'm working on Cortana, which is Microsoft's personal digital assistant. You can ask her to do stuff for you like get reminders about meetings and commitments. She can tell you about the weather, give you updates on your favorite sports team, tell you what restaurants are nearby, and answer any other random questions you might have.
I'm specifically working to improve the user experience of Cortana’s interface. Today I had a product meeting with product managers, designers, and other devs. After an hour or two of deliberation, I took my notes from the meeting and started implementing what we agreed upon. It's crazy – I'm in the real world now!
What kind of onboarding or training did Microsoft have when you first joined?
The next 10 weeks you work with your assigned team on your project. In week 16, you have a project fair where you showcase what you've worked on during your time as a LEAP apprentice.
What's been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to becoming a software engineer?
My journey wasn't straightforward at all. You can hit a lot of roadblocks when it comes to learning. It's not going to be easy, but if you practice and you keep going, then you get better.
Some of the roadblocks came in the actual learning, others were in trying to figure out what to do next, like what project to work on, and still others were in staying motivated to keep pushing forward. Finding a job was probably the hardest one. Even after graduating from bootcamp, there are no guarantees. It was a lot of effort and hustling – I had to study and practice every day. It’s so easy to get discouraged, but it's just a matter of having the right attitude and moving forward.
How have you been able to stay in touch with Dev Bootcamp and your other alumni since you've graduated?
I talk to them all the time. I am proud of whatever organization or team I'm a part of, and I like to keep in touch with everyone. I treat it like a family in a sense. Whenever anyone gets a job, we let each other know. I try and stay involved as much as I can by helping other people with their job search, or giving support or inspiration to move forward, because it is difficult.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about making a career change by going through a coding bootcamp?
Know what you want to get out of a coding bootcamp. There are a lot of resources available that describe what it's like to be a programmer. Do research, and talk to actual engineers who are working. It's a big investment and sometimes people jump into it without knowing what it’s really like. Weigh your options as there are different ways that you can get skilled up to get a job as a developer. I've met many self-taught successful engineers– it requires a lot of responsibility, self-motivation, and networking.
Lastly, if you do decide to do the bootcamp, give it your all. It's not going to be easy regardless of how much experience you've had. The motto I live by is, “Every day is a new day.” Bring a positive attitude; focus on learning and getting better. Whatever progress you make is good. Whatever happened the day before, regardless of how bad or good it was, keep moving forward. If it worked for me, I believe it can work for you. Just put in the work.