Most coding bootcamp graduates boast new salaries that blow their past careers out of the water. But for some, it’s less about money and more about quality of life. For Mike Smith, who spent years unfulfilled as a London banker, a career change meant finding a job he wanted to spend his time doing, and programming was the answer. He moved to Berlin for its lifestyle, learned to code at SPICED Academy, and now works on a 120-person engineering team at SoundCloud! Find out what projects Mike is working on at SoundCloud, and how he’s grown as a developer since graduating from SPICED Academy.
How did your path lead you to SPICED Academy?
I graduated from university with a degree in philosophy, which means I didn’t study mathematics or computer science at all. After university, I worked in banking for many years in London in a well-paying job. In fact, I earned twice my current salary (although in London, that meant that I broke even each month).
I always enjoyed the analytical and technical side of my education and my career. Even when I studied philosophy, I was strongest in logic. I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend the next 40 years of my life working in banking?” – the answer was no. I looked into new careers that I would be successful in and that I would actually want to spend the next 30 years doing. Programming was definitely the answer.
A lot of bootcampers go into coding to double or triple their salaries, but you mentioned that you actually took a pay cut from banking. Why?
You’ve got to love what you do. If I step back and think about what I did day-to-day in banking, it was so boring. I didn't get into coding for the money. I got into it to have a job that I enjoyed. That was far more important to me. Plus, Berlin is so easy to live in; my quality of life is so much better.
How did you choose SPICED Academy?
First, cost was a big factor. I looked at bootcamps in London, but because of the expensive cost of living, studying in London for a few months would have absolutely destroyed me. Whereas, a few months at SPICED was something that I could pretty much afford.
At the time, SPICED was a bit of a risk because it was new, so there were no online reviews to read. I had to do my research and talk to people at the school. I spoke to Shilpa Rodriguez, the Director of Programs and Community, quite early on and she was great and made me feel really comfortable with the idea.
I'd been to Berlin a few times in the past and loved the idea of moving here. So I quit my job, packed my bags, and arrived here. This may have all been a bit risky; I wasn’t making any assumptions about the bootcamp, but I did tell myself that I needed to put everything I had into it. Thinking that way really paid off.
You mentioned cost was a factor. Was SPICED Academy in Berlin considerably cheaper than bootcamps in London?
Yeah. Because SPICED Academy was so new, the tuition was at a reduced rate to offset the fact that the course was not quite proven yet. And the Berlin living costs were cheaper. Studying at a London bootcamp for a few months with no salary was not feasible. Whereas a few months in Berlin, which has much cheaper living costs than London, was something that I could pretty much afford.
Isn’t college in Germany free? Did you think about getting a Master’s Degree in Computer Science?
I did look into it, but the consensus was that it would still take several years and I would learn a lot of redundant information. Programming is a skill that you learn more practically than academically. I’ve never really want to be an academic; I wanted to build something and have the ability to code. Going back to school just seemed like a huge waste of time. A coding bootcamp appealed to me because I could condense that learning as much as possible and expand my professional role. I didn't want to wait for another few years before actually getting into the workforce.
As well as your chat with Shilpa, what else was involved in the application process for getting into SPICED?
First, there was an interview with Shilpa with a coding challenge. I took a couple of months off right after I left my job and spent some time in Budapest teaching myself to code using online resources and getting the absolute basics down. So the actual coding challenge wasn't too difficult.
I definitely had a head start for the first couple of weeks when I got to SPICED. Preparing beforehand put my nerves at ease and made me feel a lot more comfortable with the whole idea. I recommend that anybody who wants to take the course spends some time learning all of the basics and figuring out if you're going to like programming or not. Coding means spending many hours each day staring at a screen with your headphones on. It's not for everybody.
What were your classmates like?
We came from all walks of life: Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Norwegians. Not only were we from all across the world, but we were all coming together for different reasons and from different backgrounds and ages. Some had artistic backgrounds, others previously had a tech background. It was really interesting to meet everyone and see their take on life. But everyone had the same commitment to learning. It was a great experience.
What was a typical day like?
We would come in around 9:30am each morning, climb five flights of stairs, grab a coffee, and have a morning lecture covering the topics of the day. Then we’d break up and do a challenge or project about what we’d learned in the lecture that morning. Everything built on the previous lessons and built more momentum.
We would work on the problems together. Basically, I just used to stay there until the end of the day until it was done.
Who were your instructors?
Our instructors were a good mix of people with different backgrounds. David, our tutor, was brilliant and answered our questions immediately. He used to work in Silicon Valley and he had 20 years of past web development experience.
We also had a couple of experienced teaching assistants who were always around, willing to help if you hit a problem, and really relatable. Matt graduated from an American-based bootcamp and had worked for a couple of years in a junior developer position. Julia was German and only learned to code a few years ago.
Can you give me an example of a project that you worked on that you really liked?
We had just spent the previous two days making an image carousel of cats. I had been staring at these pictures of cats for about two days, so I made the hangman hang a cat because I was so sick of seeing cats.
How did SPICED Academy prepare you for the job hunt?
We had workshops to develop our LinkedIn profiles. As SPICED has grown, they’ve probably got a better realization and structure for job preparation. I found my job via a job posting that Shilpa saw on a Slack channel. I probably would never have found that job if she hadn’t passed it along.
Oh, wow you got the job before you graduated?
Yeah, which was an incredible weight off my mind. I basically got the first job that I applied for!
What was it like trying to get a job in Germany without speaking German?
SoundCloud is a Berlin-founded company but everyone uses English and most of my teammates actually don't speak any German. That makes life pretty easy. I don't really need to speak it.
Companies like SoundCloud offer German lessons and we have set hours when we can bring in documents to get translated. So in my actual day-to-day life I don't really require much German, to be honest.
What was it like applying for the job at SoundCloud?
About 30 people went to the interview day at SoundCloud. Job experience wasn't as important as showing that we had motivation and had tried to learn independently. I think that was probably what got me the job; they could see that I was committed and that I really wanted it. A lot of companies in Berlin are quite happy to train people as long as they show the aptitude and ability to pick up the technology.
Why are Berlin companies investing in training? Is there a shortage of coders in Berlin right now?
Yeah, definitely. SoundCloud is always asking employees for referrals. It's incredibly hard to find good coders. I think a lot of German companies are quite happy to train developers as an organization, so they’re looking for the aptitude and the ability to pick up new languages.
What types of developers are you working with at SoundCloud?
We have about 120 engineers at SoundCloud, and our teams are centered around clusters of seven to 10 people. For example, we have one team that’s focused on Listening and another team that focuses on Creator Tools and another that focuses on Playback.
Because we work in clusters, there's always somebody there to help you. Someone always has the capacity to help when you hit a wall. SoundCloud was open to the idea of hiring a coding bootcamp grad, but when they hired me, it was a test to see if they could successfully train up somebody from a bootcamp. My teammates have more of a computer science background, and most developers have quite a few years of experience. They’ve moved from San Francisco, Barcelona, etc to work here.
What kinds of projects do you work on as a developer at SoundCloud?
I've rotated between projects at SoundCloud. At first I was working on their back end tools team. I helped rewrite a front end service using the React and Redux framework – technologies that I didn't actually learn at SPICED Academy (although they do teach those now).
After that, I worked on rewriting the RSS feeds. SoundCloud hosts podcasts using Scala (a functional programming language that’s completely different from anything that I learned at SPICED). Every time you listen to a podcast from SoundCloud, my code is used. As a big podcaster myself, that’s pretty cool. Now, I'm working on the iOS team, so I’m picking up app development skills.
How did you learn all of these new technologies?
A professional programmer can basically pick up a new language in a few days. I wouldn’t say that it’s easy but you take what you do know, apply it to this new language, and fill in the gaps. You learn slight differences in the syntax.
It's really important to have a mentor and somebody who knows their stuff. I’m fortunate to work with people at SoundCloud who are really investing in my development, are always there to help, and listen to my problems every day. That’s the reason I wanted to do programming for a living; I knew I’d be learning new things every day.
Since you graduated from SPICED and joined SoundCloud, how do you feel you've grown as a developer?
I look back and cringe at some of the code I've written in the past. Knowing how to build reliable, structured and maintainable code is definitely something that I've learned as I’ve worked in the real world. Making products that the public consumes and that are expected to work 24 hours a day is a world away from putting a website live. I'd definitely love to go back and rewrite everything I've done, but I also know that I’m always moving forward and learning new things.
How do you think your experience working in banking has translated to your new career as a programmer?
Because I work with engineers who have been coding since they were 13 or 14, I think I bring different skills from my past experience that are useful. My background was focused a lot on analytics and I think having the capacity to understand complex issues quickly is really important.
Working in banking also prepared me for working under pressure. Markets open and close every day, so there’s a lot of pressure to do things efficiently and quickly in those hours.
What’s been the biggest roadblock or challenge in your journey to becoming a developer?
The biggest roadblock is finding the time and money and energy to do it. It's not easy to quit your job and learn to code full-time. Time and financial commitment are definitely the biggest stumbling blocks. But you should look at a coding bootcamp as an investment.
Do you feel like you’re still part of the SPICED Academy community?
I became quite close to the people whom I took the course with, and I still see the people who live in Berlin. I don't live too far away from the SPICED campus so I go back when new cohorts are graduating and see how things have changed. It's good to see what students are achieving and I enjoy giving them advice.
I know that SPICED has developed and grown quite a lot since I went there. I wish I could have had alumni support when I was at SPICED, so now I want to give that to future students.
What advice do you have for other people who want to make a career change by going through a coding bootcamp?
Going to a coding bootcamp is definitely not a quick fix to anything; don’t look at it as a fast pass to riches. It's something you have to prepare for and enjoy. Be sure that you’re prepared and know that you like learning and understanding complex ideas; new ones will be thrown at you every day. At SPICED, there was a focus on intensity and new information was thrown at you all the time. If I had decided to learn everything online on my own, it would have taken me two years rather than three months. The bootcamp lasts three months, but once you get a job your learning will last another three years.