After a degree in popular music, Joe Reed was bored with working in London coffee shops and wanted to challenge himself, so he enrolled in Thinkful’s Flexible Web Development Bootcamp. Joe worked with a mentor based in Europe, and graduated from the online bootcamp in just three months. Joe tells us how useful the Thinkful Slack channel was for getting help from other students around the world, how in-depth Thinkful’s career coaching was, and how his music background helped him get a job as a Junior Web Developer for BBC News!
What is your pre-bootcamp story? Your educational background? Your last career path?
I got a degree in popular music which got me into a coffee shop job for the following couple of years. It was a great course, but I had always been quite realistic with my aspirations going into that. I was bored as you reach the ceiling of a coffee shop job quite quickly. So I wanted to challenge myself a bit more.
What made you choose Thinkful’s online coding bootcamp over other options?
As I was researching, I noticed a tendency for other bootcamps to advertise their courses as the “most intense experience of your life,” and then guarantee that you’ll be a rockstar coder with lines of employers waiting for you. That attitude was not really my relationship with coding; I’ve enjoyed doing this since I was a teenager, and had already made websites for friends. There was a disconnect between that kind of marketing and how I wanted to progress as a developer. As I was on Thinkful’s website, and emailing past students and mentors, I realized Thinkful’s attitude is about the people. It’s about how you can learn programming on your own terms, and get out of it what you want to get out of it.
General Assembly and Makers Academy both had online courses, and they all had great reputations. It just came down to what appealed to me more as a person.
How did you decide on an online bootcamp specifically? I know there are a few in-person coding bootcamps in London– did you consider those?
I did entertain the idea of an in-person bootcamp for a period. One barrier to entry was the cost. Not only are you committed to spending up to £9000 up front, you’ve got to live without working for three months. So I looked at General Assembly, Makers Academy, and Founders and Coders. I went to a couple of Founders and Coders meetups; they are entirely funded by finders fees from their students, so they don’t charge students anything, but they’re hyper-selective, and only take cohorts of 20 or so at a time.
Yes, I suppose so. I knew that I wanted to be very focused on front end, and still try to do as much design work as I could. Thinkful was quite full stack heavy in the end, but I was able to focus more on the bits where I wanted to develop my skills. It was really useful to have all that back end experience, particularly when it came to applying for jobs.
Why did you choose to do the Thinkful Flexible Web Development Bootcamp rather than the Full Time Web Development Bootcamp?
Thinkful introduced the full-time option just after I started. I think I still would’ve gone with the flexible bootcamp because it was just going to suit my life more easily. Even though I quit my job, we had also just adopted a puppy, and it gave me the opportunity to take on freelance work when I needed to.
Did you think about doing a 4-year CS degree?
I looked into it briefly, but I knew I wanted a different environment, and something faster. Living in London, everything is very time sensitive.
What was the Thinkful application and interview process like for you?
I sent the Thinkful admissions team a couple of emails while I was deciding on the right course. Eventually, they set up a video call with one of their course leaders, Derek. We had a chat, and it was as much my responsibility to decide that Thinkful was for me, as it was for him to check if the course would meet my needs. I started Thinkful the following week, so it was a pretty quick turnaround.
What was the Thinkful learning experience like? What was a typical day like when you were working?
I probably devoted more hours to Thinkful than most people doing the flexible bootcamp– it was all I was doing all day. I’d get up in the morning and start working on whatever ongoing project I had as part of the course material. The general structure was to follow a tutorial, try and elaborate on the tutorial by yourself, then apply the concepts from that tutorial to a bigger project that you lead from inception to completion.
I’d start working on that, and note any obstacles I came up against. Then I’d have an hour-long video session with my mentor at 10am or 11am, where we’d go over any issues I had, or sometimes he’d just watch me code and comment on my work. It was useful to have someone watching what you were doing. That also prepared me for the interview process for jobs, having to think on my feet and code in front of someone.
What material did the Thinkful course cover?
How often did you interact with Thinkful mentors? Did you have one assigned mentor?
I had one full-time mentor, but there were numerous other mentors who I came into contact with. I met with Victor, my mentor, for three one-hour long sessions each week. Then you have Program Managers with whom you can arrange meetings with whenever– and it’s really encouraged to do that. Thinkful encouraged me to stay in touch, tell them how I was finding the course, and would send us resources and contacts.
Thinkful also has a really active Slack group. There are so many remote students and mentors all over the world, so you can basically ask a question at any time and there will be someone awake to help you. For me that was a massive draw because, coming from a music background, I didn’t have a network of coding friends, so it was nice to have that community.
How did meeting with your mentor work with your timezone? Where was your mentor located?
My mentor was located partly in Scandinavia and partly in Uganda. There were quite a few Europe-based mentors with whom I came into contact to ask questions, and chat with in my own time zone, which was useful. It was still very U.S. heavy, but Thinkful is increasingly worldwide. I’m still a member of the Slack channel now. When you’re a student, having a load of alumni in a Slack channel is a great resource as well, not just for technical knowledge. If I have a job opening in the department where I work now, I would definitely give my Thinkful channel a heads up and tell them to keep their eyes peeled.
How else did you communicate or interact with other Thinkful students?
There were sometimes interactions organized between students, which would’ve happened on Slack. There were a couple of times where we thought, “It would be useful if we had a Google Hangout, where we could check out everyone else’s work and give each other feedback.” It would be a really informal thing, peer critiquing in a nice safe environment. Everyone lived in quite disparate places, so it was mainly communication via Slack and occasionally a little video call.
What is your favorite project that you built during Thinkful’s online bootcamp?
The one that sticks with me most was an early project to make a quiz, and give a user their score at the end of it. I did a quiz about Prince, and for each right or wrong answer, it gave you a Prince GIF. That was fun. Thinkful would provide a brief for a project, so you’d be familiar with how to build a product, but what your quiz was about and how it was designed and styled was up to you.
How long did it take you to finish the Thinkful course?
Just over three months. From the beginning of April until the end of June– each day, on average, I was committing about six to eight hours.
How did the bootcamp prepare you for job hunting?
This is something Thinkful was exceptionally strong in. Really early on, you start mock interviews. Over the three months, I did four mock interviews. You don’t get graded on them, but you do get feedback at the end, which doesn’t happen in real life. If you don’t get a job you’ve applied for, nine out of ten times you don’t hear why. So to get that immediate feedback– to hear what you were strong at, and what you could improve– was such an amazing and valuable resource.
As for putting me in contact with people, Thinkful offered me a couple of contacts, which did not end in jobs, but it was useful to talk to those employers. From the outset, Derek the Program Manager told me how fierce the London job market is. I would be competing with computer science graduates, and a lot of companies only accept CS graduates. But Thinkful did a great job keeping my confidence up.
Thinkful also encourages you to hold informational interviews with people. That involves finding someone who has a job you want, and emailing out of the blue to say, “I’m trying to do what you do, I think what you do is great, can I buy you a coffee, and have a chat.” I did one informational interview in the end, and it was such a fulfilling experience. He gave me so many great resources in terms of how to get better and pointed me to lots of companies that might be interested my skills.
What are you up to today? Do you have a job as a developer?
It was a really long process, but I now work as a Junior Web Developer for BBC News! It’s great. I first found the job listing in June, and after the huge online application, there was a 20-minute screening call, then a live online coding challenge, a long form technical test, and then a three-hour interview in person– so it was really protracted and intense. I started working there in September, the day before my 25th birthday, so my story had a nice wholeness to it. I made this choice to take my skills to the next level exactly a year ago and I did it!
Congratulations! What sort of projects are you working on at BBC News?
Since I’ve been at BBC News, the first major thing I was doing was the U.S. election results map, which was insane. I did the map part of that page, which was intense, as I was definitely thrown into the deep end.
The second major project went live recently and is for the OECD Pisa data. It’s an international schools assessment system which comes out every few years and has been published in six or seven different languages. So it was not just a matter of making it a working, functioning product; I had to look at how does this page look when you fill it with Russian text, or with right to left languages like Arabic.
How did you find the job at the BBC?
The BBC has quite strict protocols they need to follow, so they can only advertise jobs themselves. One thing Thinkful did was get me in the habit of checking job listings every day. Especially in a place like London, there are so many new job listings each day, and so much to sift through to find roles appropriate for you. But again, having the Thinkful Slack group was a great resource for that. Everyone is constantly sharing links to databases of companies who were hiring, and pointing out companies which are worth cold calling.
Are you using the stack/programming language you learned at Thinkful or have you had to learn new technologies?
How has your background in music been useful in learning to code and in your new job?
When I had my screening call with BBC News, my line manager said, “I think it’s great you’ve done a music degree, because that tells me you have a mind for abstract thought.” That was something I’d benefited from up to that point, but I hadn’t realized quite why. It’s true, I can deal with concepts that aren’t that easy to sum up in a few words.
I’m also used to working in a project-based manner. Being in a band is a collaborative project that I work through. There are bits where you’ve got to graft, and be really creative. That applies a lot when I’m writing code. You’ve got to find solutions to a lot of problems, and the way my brain does that is built on a lot of skills made from practicing and writing music.
Music can be so programmatic in general, because there is such a strict set of rules. But within those rules, there are a million ways to solve the same problem. It’s definitely that combination of science, math, and art that has linked the things I’ve been interested in, and enjoyed the most.
How do you stay involved with Thinkful? Have you kept in touch with your mentor or other alumni?
It’s felt pretty busy since I started my job. But it’s great that the stuff that I’m doing now is out on such a global platform, so I can share what I’m up to. The election map was seen by nearly 20 million unique users which is insane– too many people to comprehend.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Follow your heart, and choose a coding bootcamp based on your gut. If you read a review of a place and there is one bad review and that gives you a bad feeling, then trust your feeling. But if you see a place with one bad review and you still feel great about it, that’s probably the right decision.
It does get difficult studying remotely. There are times when, particularly for me when I was working on the back end, I felt “there is no way I can do this.” But you persevere and get through problems, and then you think “wow that was great.” At the same time, drink lots of water, take breaks, and try to be a stickler for your own schedule. If you’re working from home, set your boundaries and create a “working day” for yourself. You could keep putting off work, but similarly you can take work too far into the evening. So treat it like a job.