Sarah has been a flight attendant for 20 years, but taught herself to build websites as a hobby. After the birth of her son in 2015, she realized that she needed a more flexible career, so she decided to pursue her interest in web development and enrolled in The Software Guild’s online coding bootcamp. Sarah tells us how she learned to code from airports and hotels around the world, how The Software Guild’s detailed curriculum helped her build difficult projects, and how she'll work her new tech skills into her future career.
Tell us about your career and educational background before you decided to learn to code at The Software Guild.
I graduated with a degree in international management and Spanish, and then became a flight attendant about four years out of college. In 2000, four years after I started flying, I started a master's program for software design at the University of St. Thomas. I took five courses which gave me a certificate in information systems. I could’ve continued and received a master’s degree, but it became a cost issue. It didn’t work out at the time, and I ended up leaving the program. What I was looking to learn didn’t seem like it was a good match with formal education.
In 2005, I started creating websites for airline ski clubs in my spare time. First, I designed the website for the Northwest Airline Ski Club, then the North American Airlines Ski Federation asked me to design their website because they liked what I did for Northwest. Then once Northwest and Delta merged, I did the Delta Ski Club website.
What resources did you use to teach yourself how to build those websites?
My brother who does web design, suggested I use Joomla to build the websites. He helped with the first one, and I figured out the other two on my own. I learned a lot by trying things, poking around, learning how to do CSS, and using the different components. I used Joomla.org – there is a lot of info there. I also did a lot of Google searching, finding info on how other people did things, and looking at other templates. It was pretty fun.
At what point did you decide you wanted to do a coding bootcamp and begin a career transition?
Because of my young son – I’m a single parent – I decided I need to change my career a little bit. The trips I usually fly are international. I do a lot of flights to Paris and Amsterdam, and to be away from him is hard. The cost of childcare is expensive, and when you’re doing overnight trips it’s much more expensive than 9am to 5pm childcare. I don’t think it’s working for me or for him, and right now I have help from my family but that isn’t a viable long-term solution.
I’m looking for something different, and I’m looking for the opportunity to do something challenging. At the airline it’s the same thing every day. I go to different destinations, but it’s the same job, not much has changed. There are good things about it like getting to see lots of destinations. Yet, I’ve been there 20 years, and when the top of the payscale is 12 years, there's no opportunity for advancement. The only way to increase your earning potential is to work more hours. Also, I'm looking for an opportunity that gives me more of a mental challenge
My brother actually said I should really become a programmer– he knows what my skills are, and that I’m good with languages. So when bootcamps started popping up, he recommended I do one.
How did you find The Software Guild and why did you choose their online program?
The Software Guild was listed as part of Concordia University, St. Paul. The in-person class that I would have enrolled in would’ve started in 2015, and my son was born in May 2015, so he would’ve been 3 months old when I started. I was on leave from the airline for 9 months, and thought maybe I could do a bootcamp while on leave. I soon realized that you can’t do much with a 3-month old at home, and you don’t really sleep much. I knew it was too intense for me to try and do both so I put it on hold, and thought that if they came up with an online course I could do that. They launched an online program, so I signed up.
Did you consider any other bootcamps?
There were some others I considered. When The Software Guild was still trying to design their online program, I looked at some other online courses that were out there. Some of them seemed too intense for someone who was also working. The Software Guild requires 20 hours of work per week, which was pretty much all I could handle. I’m still working, and I’ve got a baby, so I can’t do more than that. I saw some online courses that want you to study 8am to 5pm online with the class, and that was not what I was looking for– I liked the part-time aspect of The Software Guild.
Were you working full-time or part-time while doing The Software Guild? How did you find time to study?
I was working full-time. Typically, I fly 12 to 14 days a month. Towards the end of the program in January, I flew 9 days and in February I flew 10 days. But overall it’s pretty much the same each month. I would try and take whatever opportunity I had to study. If I was in an airport for a few hours, I’d pull out my laptop. If I had a layover in a hotel, I’d try and work– which was sometimes challenging if I was on an international trip and had been working all night. When I was home, I had my mom to help me with childcare so I would go to the library. I would get a lot more done at the library without distractions– at home I was sometimes easily distracted.
What was The Software Guild learning experience like? How did they present the material?
Everything was broken into sections. The Software Guild had pre-course work which was about eight weeks, then you had three sections, broken down into three-week courses. They would open up one section at a time, and you’d go through the readings, watch videos, do quizzes, and sometimes have labs for that section. Toward the end of a bigger section, they’d have a project you’d have to submit.
How often did you interact with other students? Did you ever do projects with other students?
There were times where it was hard to sense that you were working as a class. Everyone is working at their own pace, so it’s hard to ask questions to other students because they might be ahead or behind you. That was a little tough, because I would’ve liked to be on the same page as everybody, but it’s hard to do when everyone is working at home. There were about five or six of us who had a separate chat group, we would check in, ask each other questions, and help each other out a bit.
Did you actually have a cohort, or could people start at any time?
Everyone started at the same time, and The Software Guild wanted us to do three weeks per section. But somewhere in the middle, they switched to four weeks per section, because people were having a hard time keeping up with the pace. If you didn’t keep up with the three weeks, you could drop back to a separate class which was a month behind our class. You could drop back three times, and after that you would drop out of the program. When working full-time at a job while also studying, things come up, and there are times when you are too busy to study.
There were about 20 students in my class at the beginning, and at the end there were six. A lot of people either dropped back or dropped out. I really didn’t want to drop back, and I didn’t. I thought, “No, I’m not going to drop back. I’m going to get this done.” Even if I was working really hard on the last couple days before a project was due, I would do it.
How often did you interact with instructors or mentors?
It was mostly through the online chat. I would send a chat message saying “I’m getting an error message, what does this mean?” Or I’d ask a quick question for clarification about an assignment. I would usually get a quick response, but sometimes it was hard if you’re working on the weekends because there weren't as many instructors available. Towards the end of the program, The Software Guild made sure more people were available to help students on the weekends.
Did you ever do calls with the instructors?
If I had a quick question, they would usually answer via text, but if it was something more complex, we would do a screen share call, they would look at your screen and walk you through and explain things. We did that a lot.
In the beginning they were trying to have scheduled calls. It was like a flipped classroom so you would submit questions before a scheduled time, and then they would do their lecture based on that twice a week. But they weren’t getting enough questions, which I think is partly because of the pacing. Some people were ahead and others were behind, so it was hard to get a classroom idea to work. Then they switched to have more availability, so mentors would be available from 3pm to 8pm Monday to Friday. You could look for someone who was online if you had a question and request a private chat or video chat.
What was your favorite project or assignment you worked on?
My final project. Going into the assignment I was thinking, I don’t know if I can do this– this is big. We had an example project which was broken into 60 pieces, and for each piece you could watch a video with the steps to follow. That really helped. I would watch the video, then use the example as a model to build the final project. I could make sure I didn’t miss any steps, add integration testing, and do validation. I would look at what the instructor did, and see how I could use that in my project. In the end you feel good that you built it the right way, and you have a pattern to follow. I like the idea that if I had to do it again, I’d have a sense of the best steps to take to get there.
You mentioned the program was supposed to require 20 hours per week. Did you end up usually working at that pace?
It’s hard to say because it feels like some weeks were a lot more that 20 hours of studying. If I had to guess, it would average 20 hours per week. There were some weeks where I didn’t do anything– over Christmas I went on vacation. There are times when you do more and other times you can’t get anything done.
How long did it take you in total? Is that how long you expected it to take?
It ended up going longer. Originally they thought 9 months, but there was also the pre-coursework which was 8 weeks. Then at the end, because they went from 3 weeks per section to 4 weeks per section, the overall program got extended. The final project was due February 8th. We had four weeks to work on it and I don’t believe anybody submitted it on time. One person got it in 3 weeks later, I got it in 4 weeks later, and I was the second one to get it in. You want to put in your best effort, and make sure you covered everything, so I took my time with that. In total it was almost a year, the pre-coursework started March 14, 2016, and I finished on March 8th, 2017.
What was your biggest challenge going through the program?
There are times when you get frustrated not having the ability to get quick questions answered like you would in a classroom. Sometimes I knew I missed something silly, like punctuation, but not having someone to help me find those little things was when I probably spent more time than I should have on something. You have to be pretty resilient to say, “Ok, I'm just going to keep plugging away.”
What kind of career guidance or preparation did you receive from The Software Guild?
They have an employment specialist, and we worked together on my resume over email. I’m having a conference call with him tomorrow to talk about my career goals, and how he can help me. The Software Guild also has a career fair coming up on March 29th and 30th at The Software Guild Minneapolis campus. The employment specialist has been sending emails to ask me which companies I’m interested in interviewing with, and emails with jobs from LinkedIn in the area. They are doing a good job trying to help students find what we’re looking for.
That’s great you can take part in the in-person career fair.
Yeah, it is an advantage, definitely. I think they are doing speed interviews, and talking with employers. Of the six of us in my cohort, two of us are in Minneapolis, and one in St. Cloud near Minneapolis, so we can all go to the career fair. Another student is in Ohio, and there is also a campus for The Software Guild there. When they had an in-person class going on in Minneapolis they told me I could come in and talk to instructors, but I didn’t have time– that would’ve been a good resource.
What sort of job are you hoping to get?
I am looking to work as a junior web developer. Although we learned full stack development, I'm more comfortable with back end than front end development. At this point, I'm ready for a change but I also am hoping to leave the airlines with a buyout or early retirement package.
Would you consider doing freelancing while you’re still working at the airline?
I think so, that would be really fun. My brother who does web design lives in Germany, and he said he’ll think of some projects for us to work on together, since he’d like to help me get started.
Will you continue to code and work on your portfolio in the meantime?
Yes. You get to the end of the program, you’ve learned so much since you’ve started, and you want to go back and fix other projects– you’re not sure if they are as clean as they could be. So I want to go through everything and make sure it looks really good. I’ve seen examples online of what kind of portfolios other web developers have put together, so I want to work on that, and make it look really nice. We did a few projects that The Software Guild said would look good in my portfolio.
What advice do you have for people considering an online bootcamp? How do you stay motivated and get through it?
You have to be very persistent as far as working through things. You can’t give up, you have to keep pushing through. You also can’t be afraid to ask questions, because the instructors will have heard it before. Sometimes you think you’ll look silly because you don’t know something, but that’s what the instructors are there for– to help you.
In the beginning, things are coming at you so quickly– so much information and new terminology. You feel like you’re not understanding, but you actually are learning it. It’s interesting how your brain works that way. You think you’ll never keep all this in, but then you get your hands to do it, and realize you do understand, and it does make sense.
The Software Guild said that some people get into this and don’t realize how much work they have to do on their own. But that’s also what it’s like in this profession. You do have to do a lot of research, and find answers for yourself, and The Software Guild wants you to be prepared for that. They know that’s how the job is, so the bootcamp is really preparing you for the real world.