Kevin Hurley taught high school math and computer science for 17 years, when he realized his programming side projects were more interesting than his teaching job. He had taught himself Java and Unity, but to streamline his career switch, he enrolled at Fullstack Academy in Chicago. Kevin tells us why he valued the strict admissions requirements at Fullstack, his advice to other career changers with 15+ years of experience, and how he got a job as a Front End Software Engineer at Catalytic one week after graduation!
Tell us your pre-Fullstack Academy story. What were you up to?
I taught high school Math for about 17 years, and nine years ago I had the opportunity to teach the AP computer science class. I didn’t have a lot of programming experience at that point, so I saw this as an opportunity to learn. The class was taught in Java, and over time I got really into it. I started developing on my own, and even worked with Unity to release a couple of mobile apps.
I realized that I was more interested in my side hobby than I was my teaching career, and that's what brought me to Fullstack Academy.
Since you had those CS foundations, why did you decide on a coding bootcamp, as opposed to a CS degree or continuing to learn on your own?
I definitely considered graduate school. I already have a master's in math, and experimented with getting a master's in computer science in 2008. What I didn’t like about the CS degree was that I had to start from the basics and take introductory courses. I didn’t want to prove myself again through a long, expensive graduate school process.
I was reluctant to switch careers on my own, because I had been in an education bubble for quite a long time. I needed some type of credential to show that I could learn things quickly, work with others, and be a professional.
Did you research other coding bootcamps? Why did you choose Fullstack Academy?
I got a visit from a former student who was a graduate of Dev Bootcamp, and that was the first time I'd ever heard of coding bootcamps. I found Fullstack Academy through Course Report (editor’s note: yay!) and I chose them because they were the only bootcamp in Chicago that had a strict admissions requirement.
I didn't like the idea of paying the Fullstack Academy tuition and getting accepted easily. I wanted to make sure I was surrounded by people who were not only super motivated, but also knew some programming already.
You’ve worked in traditional education for a long time – did you need to be convinced of the coding bootcamp model?
No, because learning to code is just like anything else. If you're motivated, you'll get there. I've seen that time and time again with my own students, and I knew that I was pretty motivated at that point.
I was convinced by the Fullstack Academy curriculum and teaching style; they emphasized pair programming and project-based learning. And I loved that they emphasized struggle. As a teacher, I gave students the opportunity to learn by struggling too. I was convinced that Fullstack would be a good experience, but it definitely exceeded my highest expectations.
Any tips for our readers before they start the Fullstack Academy application process?
Once you started at Fullstack Academy, did you find that your classmates were on the same skill level as you?
Yeah. I would say that the skill level was very high. I think honestly it was good that I had some experience coming in, because my classmates were gifted. They were very smart, and the great equalizer for me was my experience.
As the cohort went on, many of them caught up and even surpassed me. I felt grateful that I was admitted to that class of incredibly sharp people. And I think that's a credit to the admissions process. I didn't want to go to a coding bootcamp and not be constantly learning.
How many people were in that Chicago cohort? Was your cohort diverse in terms of gender, race and life experience?
This was the first Chicago cohort, and there were 14 of us. There were two women, and the rest were men, but people came from all different backgrounds: teachers, lawyers, people from finance, business, customer service. All walks of life.
One thing I was a little worried about before Fullstack was age. I think I was the oldest person in my class, but not by much.
Can you tell us about the learning experience in Chicago? Was the curriculum broken into Junior Phase and Senior Phase like it is in New york?
Yeah. We did exactly what New York did, to the minute. There was tons of communication back and forth.
The six-week Junior Phase was a crash course on how to build a web application. Then we had a review week, so I started building something in Angular. The last six weeks was a Senior Phase, when we built projects. We built an e-commerce site, had a fun four-day hackathon, and did our capstone project.
What did you build during the hackathon?
The hackathon project was probably one of my favorite parts of Fullstack Academy. We worked on our own, and I managed to tie in what I knew about Unity into a Node server.
I set up a multiplayer game Node server and I figured out how to wire it to my Unity clients. I was basically using my Node server like a real-time multiplayer server, which I've never done before. I was so pleased with how it came out.
As an educator with a master’s degree in Math, I'm curious what you thought about the Fullstack Academy teaching style?
There was nothing particularly special about the actual teaching style. Obviously, my instructors, Zeke and Nick, were very knowledgeable and very passionate, which is what made the teaching great.
The structure of the assigned projects is what made the class special. The projects themselves are set up to be extremely instructive. As you work through a project, a lot of interesting questions and discussions arise naturally. The instructors are well-prepared for those discussions, they know where you're going to stumble, and they can anticipate where you're going to have problems.
What impressed me most about the curriculum was the flexibility; if you finished early, there were interesting follow-up assignments and challenge questions on hand. On the flipside of that, if we were struggling, there were a lot of cool ways in which they would help get you out of the struggle. The flexibility in dealing with many different skill levels and progress levels was helpful.
You got a job within one week of graduating. That's incredible. Where are you working and what’s your role?
I am a Front End Software Engineer for a small startup in Chicago called Catalytic. We’re building a platform to manage business processes – onboarding, scheduling, the possibilities are endless. I’m on a team of nine or 10 engineers, and it's a very exciting product.
It’s cool that you’re working for a startup, but you also have a team of 10 developers to learn from. Tell us about your first week on the job! Is it what you expected?
My first week and a half has mostly been spent learning the codebase, fixing small bugs, and navigating through the company. I did actually get to implement a small feature, and that’s going to be in production next week. It’s been cool to feel like I'm contributing this early, but I'm also constantly overwhelmed. When I get to work on a specific problem in the code, I’m most comfortable because that’s what I was trained to do. But it does take me longer to solve problems, because I’m still learning.
Did Catalytic hire other coding bootcamp grads?
Actually, one of my classmates from Fullstack Academy was just hired this week. Another guy from Hack Reactor started about three weeks ago.
At coding bootcamps, people have a lot of different backgrounds and life experiences. Catalytic actually looked at my teaching background as a real asset, which they told me during the hiring process. I appreciated that a lot because I felt that my experience teaching would be something unique that I would bring to the table. And the fact that they recognized that early on was really awesome.
Did Fullstack Academy get you that interview with Catalytic or did you get the job on your own?
Catalytic came to our hiring day, two days before I graduated. Then I had a follow-up interview the next day where I interviewed with their Lead Front End Engineer and we hit it off. They gave me a take-home coding assignment to write a small application. I spent a couple of days building that, we reviewed it, and I was given an offer that day. I think there was a total of six companies that I was talking to after Hiring Day.
Wow – that sounds like Fullstack has a lot of hiring partners in Chicago!
I think Chicago is just starved for talent. I don't know if I'm necessarily special; I just applied to a lot of companies, and I did the best that I could to sell my skill set.
Another reason I think companies were interested in my team was because of our capstone project. We took on a very challenging project and made it happen. In fact, you can actually check it out: hellocodejs.com. A user can input any public GitHub repository, and then it actually analyzes the code. I felt I got a lot out of that challenge, and it was awesome to be able to put the live hyperlink in my resume too.
The average bootcamper has four to five years of work experience. With 17 years of work experience, did that affect your career change at all?
Yes, but companies are so desperate for these skills, so as long as you can demonstrate that you have some skills, you're willing to learn, and you're not an asshole, then you're going to get a job for sure.
I’m starting my job at an entry level, just like every other coding bootcamper. I think it's unreasonable to expect that just because you have a past career, you will start at a higher level. Have reasonable expectations.
I don't care how old or young you are. If you don't want to be a programmer, you're going to quit. That's true no matter the situation. When the going gets tough, are you willing to really push through that? I definitely was, and all of my classmates were too. And that's what bonded us.
It sounds like your experience with Fullstack Academy was pretty successful. What was the most challenging part of it?
It's not an understatement to say that Fullstack completely changed my life. Everything about it was exactly what I was looking for and what I needed. I feel extremely fortunate that I was accepted into it, and got through it successfully.
Honestly, the most challenging part was being my age and having a wife and kids and feeling pressured to graduate and get a job. My wife was really supportive throughout the whole process, but I did put a lot of pressure on myself.
I had a lot of doubt about actually getting a job after graduating, so the hardest challenge for me was trusting the process and believing that it was going to all work out. It was a big leap of faith, but obviously, it worked out.