Matt Downs was a rice farmer and English teacher in Japan for 14 years before returning to the United States to change careers and pursue tech at DigitalCrafts. In learning Japanese, Matt had weighed the benefits of self-teaching vs immersive courses, and found that learning to code on his own had the same limitations. See why Matt chose to attend DigitalCrafts in Atlanta, the network he built along the way, and how he landed his new Junior Developer job at Triton Digital!
Tell us what you were up to before DigitalCrafts.
My career path before DigitalCrafts was a little different than most. I spent 7 years teaching English in Japan, then another 7 years as a rice farmer on Sado Island.
What was your relationship to tech over the last 14 years, and what inspired you to consider programming as a career?
Tech had always been a hobby in school. I was a Lit major in college, and studied Literature and Linguistics in grad school. But I enjoyed building my own computers and playing video games, so I was always interested in tech. I spent about 5-6 years teaching myself programming through online courses.
Tell me about the online courses- did they work for you?
Most of those courses were through Coursera, and they were okay. They didn’t work for my personal learning style, because with coding, there's vocabulary that is tough to learn. I couldn't even articulate my questions to find answers when I hit a wall. That was a shortcoming of the online learning environment for me personally, I needed a classroom environment.
Tell me how you found out about DigitalCrafts or about coding bootcamps in general. Had you moved back to Atlanta?
When I was learning Japanese, I realized that my ability to learn on my own had plateaued. I considered an immersive language course to kickstart my Japanese learning again. I had seen mention of programming bootcamps, so after my failed attempts in teaching myself programming, I thought that an immersive course would be helpful as well.
I knew that I would be looking for schools in the Atlanta area, and that's how I found DigitalCrafts. I actually applied while I was still in Japan.
Did you look at other schools?
I looked at Tech Talent South, The Iron Yard, and DigitalCrafts. DigitalCrafts was based in Atlanta, and their class size seemed a little bit smaller (16 students at the time). I figured I'd need one-on-one time with the teacher, and I’d get that with a smaller class size.
I wasn't knowledgeable enough to know exactly what I wanted to learn. However, 3 of the 4 online courses I had taken were in Python. Even though I had trouble with it, I found Python easier to learn. I knew that I wouldn’t be completely lost.
Did you do the whole interview process and application process from Japan? What was the DigitalCrafts application and coding challenge like?
Yes. I did a video interview with DigitalCrafts, and then they gave me a code challenge. I ended up passing it, but I remember talking to Jake Hadden, Co-Founder & Director of Student Services, and he pointed out some redundancies in my work. I’m not sure about other schools’ code challenges, but you don't have to know everything by heart for the DigitalCrafts coding challenge. Part of what you learn at code school is how to be able to look up problems that you don't know the solution to. Searching for and finding solutions to problems is a skill.
How many other students were in your cohort?
There were 16 people in my class, and 15 graduated. We had one instructor and a teaching assistant at all times. We actually had three different teaching assistants throughout 16-week course, because they all got jobs as full-time junior developers before our class finished.
The class size was great; I never felt that I couldn't get the teacher's attention if I had a problem. I was also extremely happy with my classmates. Going into something like this, you're always a little worried about your classmates, but everybody pretty much bonded and became really good friends from day one. Once we started sending out resumes, we had an ongoing joke that we should just start our own company after we graduated.
It was very interesting group of people. 4 of the 15 students were women, and everyone had different backgrounds. One student was a lawyer and decided that he wanted to try programming. Another woman was previously a special education teacher. A couple of students had moved from Spain, California, and Japan (yes, I wasn’t the only one from Japan!). One nice thing about DigitalCrafts Atlanta Campus is that the classroom is in Atlanta Tech Village, so when you're taking breaks, you're also meeting a lot of the people that work at the companies there.
You have a lot of experience as a student and a teacher. What did you think of the teaching style and learning experience at DigitalCrafts?
Our teacher, Toby, did a very good job of giving you just enough so that you know what you're doing, but not handing you answers on a plate. When we worked on projects, Toby was very good at giving us the bits to get the engine started. Then we can drive the rest of the way with using what we've learned.
At the beginning of the bootcamp, the format was split between lecture and projects. The first quarter of your day was spent in lectures learning a new concept, and then you’d spend the next quarter before lunch working on exercises to learn those concepts. Then you would repeat that in the afternoon. We’d also have a project that we worked on with a partner. We did a lot of pair programming and ended up with four group projects at the end of the bootcamp. Towards the end of class, the lectures were shorter, the exercises and projects got longer, and we spent more time getting our resume and portfolio site up to speed, and working on our capstone project.
Can you tell us about your favorite project that you built at DigitalCrafts? Maybe it's your final capstone project or another project?
My final project was called HappyPlace. It’s an application that saves locations where users had good experiences. If you see a beautiful sunset or have a great dinner, you can just put place a marker, write a little blurb, and that's your HappyPlace. Users can track their own happy places and see all of the happy places around them. It's simple, but I liked the concept.
I used HTML, CSS and AngularJS on the front end. I ended up using Leaflet to integrate maps, because I had trouble figuring out how to get the Google Maps API and Angular to work together. Leaflet had an AngularJS directive that I grasped a little bit better. On the back end, I used Node.js, Express, and MongoDB for the database.
What are you up to now? Are you working as a developer in Atlanta?
Yes! I had plans to continue developing Happy Place during the weeks and months that I thought I would spend looking for a job. But then while I was at DigitalCrafts, an online friend of mine posted a job to his company. They were looking for a junior developer, and so I applied and ended up getting hired.
I’m a Junior Developer for Triton Digital, which is a digital audio technology and advertising company. I work on the Audience Management Platform, where our users can build websites, contests, and connect with their listeners while streaming.
Are you using the programming languages that you learned at DigitalCrafts in your new job?
How did you learn PHP on the job?
I’m learning by jumping in and taking tickets, trying to learn something familiar, and then building off that. I think the biggest challenge has been coming into an existing code base. My coworkers know it inside and out, while I’m still getting familiar with it. Every time I finish a ticket, I think I’m getting somewhere, but there’s always something new to learn. The office here is great, and my coworkers are really nice. Everybody's been really welcoming and understanding when I have questions.
How did DigitalCrafts prepare you for the job search?
I’ve been at Triton Digital for about one month now, and I’m not sure that I knew what to expect in my first job. At DigitalCrafts, I learned that not all tech jobs require you to build a full website from front to back. When we started the job search, DigitalCrafts was big on making sure that your resume and portfolio site were polished. Around the nine-week mark of the course, we started mock interviews. Jake, Max, and Natalie from the DigitalCrafts team were always sending out job notices.
Do you stay involved with DigitalCrafts at all?
I have kept in touch with my fellow alumni. Like I said, we had the ongoing joke that we would try to start our own company. After we all graduated, we realized that we enjoyed the time that we spent together at DigitalCrafts. We are planning monthly meetups with the alumni that are still here in Atlanta.
You made a complete career change- do you have advice for other future bootcampers?
When I started at DigitalCrafts, I approached my time as a job, not school. I got there early and I stayed there late. I studied as hard as I could without burning myself out because I'm susceptible to burnout. You get out of a coding bootcamp what you put into it. If you don't take it seriously, then I don't think you're going to learn as much. Trust your teachers– they know what they're talking about. They've been in the industry for a while.
My final advice is that there will always be a new language to learn, and that can be overwhelming. I was very thankful that our teacher stressed that we were learning evergreen skills. It doesn't matter what language you're learning or what framework you're learning, he focused on the programming skills that never get old. The better and more comfortable you get at those fundamentals, the easier it is to pick up a language and then move onto another one.