Stephen and Stuart were both ready for career changes, so decided to take a chance on a relatively new Atlanta coding bootcamp, DigitalCrafts. For their capstone project, the bro-grammers (literally, they’re brothers!) built BootcampXchange, a platform DigitalCrafts has now launched to help connect their students and other bootcamp graduates with potential employers. In this video Q&A, Stephen and Stuart tell us how they switched careers, why the 16-week format stood out when they were researching bootcamps, and even gave us a video walkthrough of BootcampXchange.
What were your education and career backgrounds before you decided to go to DigitalCrafts?
Stephen: I went to school at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and got a business degree in business management with an emphasis on finance. After graduation I started a job as a proprietary equities trader, commonly known as a day trader. I did that for 13 years or so, but it can be a stressful career and I got a bit burned out during the last couple of years. I started looking into a career that would interest me that I thought I would be good at. I had done some coding a long time ago back in high school, and a couple classes in college. A year ago I saw an article in BusinessWeek magazine about coding bootcamps, so piqued my interest as I didn’t even know they existed. I started kind of looking into various schools in Atlanta and ended up choosing DigitalCrafts.
Stuart: I got a degree in electrical engineering at Southern Tech in Atlanta, and worked in that field for about three and a half years.Then I got the opportunity to go work with my brother Stephen in the finance field – we were actually day traders together. I did that for about 10 or 11 years then found myself in the same situation as Stephen. Trading had its exciting moments but overall it was very stressful, and I was burned out. We both researched web development, and both decided at the same time to make a career change.
How much coding experience did you have before DigitalCrafts?
Stephen: In high school I did an AP computer science course, and at Georgia Tech I did an intro to computer science course. But other than that it had been a gap of 12 or 13 years since I’d looked at anything coding-wise.
Stuart: I’d had a few courses in college but my focus was not on computer programming. In my work as an electrical engineer I programmed programmable logic controllers (PLCs) which used a very simple kind of language called ladder logic. It’s not comparable to web development at all.
What made you want to go to a coding bootcamp rather than learning on your own?
Stuart: I tried to do some learning online and was making progress but I found I would spend a long time researching a small problem. I would spend hours working on something that someone with experience could have helped me get through in five or 10 minutes. It was about making the best use of my time.
Did either of you look at other coding bootcamps or just DigitalCrafts?
Stephen: I looked at General Assembly and The Iron Yard in Atlanta, and toured both of them.
Stuart: I also looked at some exclusively online schools, but after my experiences of trying to learn on my own I wanted to do an in-person bootcamp.
What factors made you choose DigitalCrafts over other bootcamps?
Stephen: It was a risky decision. We were the first class to do DigitalCrafts, so there was some trepidation about being Guinea pigs. The DigitalCrafts program is 16 weeks, so a bit longer than the 12-week programs I looked at. That appealed to me because it covers more information, and I was hoping I would graduate a bit more qualified to find a job. Even though the school was unknown, what put it at the top for me was meeting the DigitalCrafts professor. He seemed to be really knowledgeable, and the kind of person who could teach well. So I went with my gut. And luckily I was right – he was a great teacher.
As brothers, what made you decide to go to DigitalCrafts at the same time? Who had the first idea?
Stuart: It was an opportunity for us to spend some time together. We’d worked closely together for the last 10 or 11 years, so we’re kind of partners in crime. I’m a native to Florida so I lived with Stephen for a few months while we were in the bootcamp. It was a good experience.
Stephen: Living and working together definitely helped us. We had our program during the day and then there was content to work on in the evening. It was probably advantageous having someone there to ask questions, someone else's brain to pick outside the classroom.
What was your class like in terms of size, diversity, and student backgrounds?
Stuart: It was a mix of 10 students. A couple of people had programming experience, and others were from fields with nothing to do with programming. Some of them had mechanical backgrounds or were just out of school. So it was really pretty diverse in terms of education and experience.
Were there many women in the class?
Stephen: No. DigitalCrafts is working on strategies to get more female coders. They’re definitely looking for female candidates, it just happened in that cohort there weren’t any.
What was the learning experience like at DigitalCrafts?
Stuart: In the morning it was more actual studying or covering new topics, going into depth about whatever the topic for that day was. In the afternoon it was a lab where we would actually apply what we had learned in the morning and start working on projects. Sometimes it was something small that could be done that day, or often times it was a topic that was bigger that would carry on for the better part of a week. In addition we would also have topics to cover at home on our own time.
Can you tell us about your final project – BootcampXchange? How did you come up with the idea?
Stephen: My wife is a graphic designer so she had the idea from her own experience struggling to find freelancers who are well qualified. Her idea was to do a website where freelance people could create profiles then employers could look at those profiles, and maybe have a vetting process where you could vouch for someone that they were qualified or had credentials. Before we started the program, DigitalCrafts wanted to hear our final project ideas. When Jake, one of the founders, caught wind of our idea, he told us he had a very similar idea except it would be for coding schools, as a way for employers to connect with the students. He asked if it was something we were interested in working on.
Stuart: We had about 3 weeks to build it, and probably the first three or four days were for design and then we spent many long days getting it going.
Stephen: You start on the landing page where you have the option to sign in as an employer or a code schooler. The BootcampXchange partners are listed at the bottom of the screen. You can sign in as a student or an employer using your LinkedIn credentials or email. If you sign in as a student you open your profile with your profile picture, and basic information like location, coding school you went to, previous employment, skills, and a link to your resume. Probably the most useful part is you can search student profiles by location, skills, and employment type. So I can find students in Atlanta Georgia, but it doesn’t just pull up Atlanta, it also pulls up cities in the vicinity.
Stuart: It’s really designed for employers who are looking for junior developers with a certain skillset or certain location. And they know what they’re getting – people who have an education but may not have a lot of experience yet. One of the things we’ve noticed is on most of the online job boards now, people put up a posting and get 100 resumes, and only five actually meet the requirements. This platform kind of reverses the process and allows the employer to go and pick out people with the skills they want.
What technologies did you use to build it?
Stuart: The backend was PHP and MySQL. The front end used Bootstrap and we hand coded everything.
Did you learn new technologies you hadn’t used in class?
Stephen: We covered PHP in class, but for some of the functionality we wanted we definitely went beyond what we had learned in class. Things we learned in class definitely helped us find solutions to problems, but there were a lot of new things too. It was rewarding but also led to some long days.
Can you tell us about a big challenge or problem you had while building BootcampXchange, and how you overcame that challenge?
Stephen: One challenge was the query for searching by location. The way we initially built it, it would have to constantly call on the Google API for maps, which is not something you want to do unnecessarily as you can only get so many free queries per day. So I had to find a totally different way around that. It ended up being a relatively simple solution. There was a lot of reworking from how we originally built it. We had done queries before, but this was definitely next level complicated. It was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, but it works.
What are you up to now? Are you working as developers?
Stuart: I am doing freelance work and looking for remote positions. I am located in Northern Florida, which is not a major metro area, so there are not as many employment opportunities nearby.
What sort of career support did you get from DigitalCrafts?
Stephen: I happened to find this role on my own, but in the last three or four weeks of the course, they were very good about sending out messages about open positions. They were always looking for companies advertising for new hires. They brought companies into the classroom to talk to us. They were definitely trying to make sure we all had opportunities to look at.
What advice do you have for people wanting to change careers and take a bootcamp?
Stuart: My advice is to make sure it’s what you want to do. Don’t just do it because you know it’s a hot new career; make sure you actually have an interest in web development because it takes a lot of time and dedication to get good at these skills. Also these skill sets are constantly changing so you’re going to be learning new skills for the rest of your career.
Stephen: I would totally agree with that. Also for me, I did some study in the two to three months leading up to the bootcamp, which really helped. If I had gone in cold turkey it would have been a lot more overwhelming. There were moments when it was overwhelming but it helped to have some background knowledge and to be the mindset of a coder. It’s also a great way to see if you’re going to like coding as a job. Once you’re in the program, my number one piece of advice is work really hard. If you don’t put a lot into it, you won’t get a lot out of it. At first it seems like it’s never going to end, but by the time it’s over it’s gone by pretty quickly, so put in as many hours as you can.
Is there anything else you wanted to add about your experience at DigitalCrafts?
Stuart: It was a very positive experience for me and I would encourage people to look into bootcamps as a viable option for career changers. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and I realize the bootcamp is just the beginning. It gets you up to speed as quickly as possible, and DigitalCrafts did an excellent job of that.
Stephen: If you’re going into a bootcamp I would encourage you to meet the instructor beforehand, to make sure you will actually know who is going to teach you. I think it makes a world of difference. If I’d been in a bootcamp with a bad instructor my experience would have been completely different. You could have a great program with a great curriculum but you may not have someone who can actually teach it. There are a lot of people who are very knowledgeable who aren’t great at imparting their knowledge to other people.
Stuart: One thing that really made it special is nobody got left behind. If you were willing to put in the effort, you got the help you needed. That personal attention was very valuable.