After serving in the military, Stephen Cooke tried a number of different careers before he realized he wanted to pursue technology. He went to college to learn software development, but left when he discovered that a coding bootcamp like The Software Guild, in Louisville, KY, would be a faster and more efficient way to accomplish his goals. Stephen tells us how his intense military experience prepared him well for “drinking from a firehose” at coding bootcamp, why he is pleased The Software Guild is now accepting GI Bill Benefits, and how he landed a developer role at El Toro shortly after graduating!
Tell me about your background before you decided to go to The Software Guild. How did your path lead you to want to learn to code?
I had always liked computers, so I started dabbling a little, and playing around with the hardware side of things when I was around 11 or 12 years old.
When I graduated high school, I went into the military doing inventory. After I got out of the military I bounced around different jobs. I worked in factories, did real estate for a while, but decided that I wanted to start pursuing tech.
I made a couple of failed attempts to go to college, but it just wasn't for me. I enrolled at Western Governors University and worked in an IT help desk job at the same time. I was learning software development, but it was too slow moving, and I wanted something more vocationally oriented. After going to school and working for about a year, I discovered The Software Guild here in Louisville. I loved the idea of a 12-week vocational program that would get me trained up on coding and help me get a job. So I reached out, went through the whole admissions process, and was ready to go into the next cohort in two weeks.
Before you decided to do structured learning, did you try to teach yourself how to code?
Yes. Right before I did the help desk job and enrolled in college for software development, I wanted to see how I liked coding. I started teaching myself Java and dabbled with some basic game development for a couple of months. Once I got some stuff to happen on the screen, I was hooked, and at that point I was ready to dive in. When I discovered The Software Guild could provide me with a faster and more efficient path to my goals, of course I had to take that opportunity.
What was The Software Guild application and interview process like? Were you well prepared?
When I was ready, I scheduled an admissions interview, and then The Software Guild paired me up with one of the instructors for a video call where we worked through a problem that the pre-course material prepared me for. Most of the people in my same cohort did not have the same experience as me, but they said the pre-work prepared them just fine. So based on The Software Guild’s assessment of my abilities, they decided whether or not to accept me.
What's the learning experience at Software Guild like? Describe a typical day and teaching style.
The first word that comes to mind is intense. You definitely have to commit to it. To call it a bootcamp is pretty accurate. When you arrive, you’re expected to have read a certain amount of material the night before and at least be familiar with it. Then in class, the instruction was focused on giving us examples of how to practically apply the coding skills. We did exercises that were relevant to whatever material we had covered.
It was definitely not a “come in at 8:30, leave at 4,” and you're done for the day kind of situation. I had to come home and put in more time there too, and expect to work on weekends. We covered way too much material to cram it in 12 weeks if you're not giving it a high level of commitment.
It was extremely fast paced – my instructor, described it as like “drinking from a firehose.” Each week had a different difficulty, so it determined how many fire hoses we were drinking from. So if it was extremely challenging, it would be about four fire hoses.
How did you feel your experience in the Marines impacted your experience studying at a coding bootcamp?
My military experience really helped me because that intensity is exactly how the military is. It's all vocationally oriented, and extremely fast-paced and challenging. There's no time for, "We're going to take a year and a half to learn this." No, we have to get it done in three months – that's the way it is and you better be good at it.
Bootcamps are a great thing in particular for veterans because this is the culture and the lifestyle that veterans are used to. This is how I learned everything from day one of going into the military until the day I left. I don't like to take the time to do it the slow way by learning a little here and there. I want to learn what I need to learn quickly so that I can do what I'm trying to do – accomplish a mission. I feel like this bootcamp model yields well to vets.
So that bootcamp way of learning, the culture, and lifestyle was natural for me. And that's the way I prefer to learn.
Now that The Software Guild accepts the GI Bill benefits, do you have any thoughts on how that will help future students?
Oh yeah, that's great. It will allow a lot more veterans to go through the coding bootcamp and transition from military, or whatever they're doing shortly after the military, into a more valuable and rewarding career. You can make money doing anything, but this job is really rewarding, especially for me.
The whole financial piece to getting a new education is a barrier to entry for people. Another reason why I think it's awesome that they can do the Post-9/11 GI Bill, is because not every veteran is as fortunate as I am. I was unable to use the GI Bill at the time, but I was still able to afford to go to coding bootcamp.
How did The Software Guild help prepare you for job hunting?
The cohort was divided into two sections – the first six weeks and the last six weeks. During the last six weeks, in addition to the same level of intense coding education, they started implementing more career-focused material. The Employer Network Manager in Louisville, would critique our resumes, and we’d get edits and advice on formatting. There were also mock interviews, where local industry professionals would come into the classroom to conduct practice interviews. The Software Guild also brought in a bunch of people from the industry to talk about what it was like working in a real software developer job, to help set our expectations.
Probably the most beneficial aspect of the career help was the roundtable interview sessions. Software Guild brought in a bunch of companies that were actively hiring developers and we would could book “round-robin” interviews to meet new contacts and get our resumes out there. It really helped plug us into the network and that's actually how I got my job at El Toro now. They brought me in for a 15-week internship, then they hired me on as a dev, and now I've just recently moved into DevOps.
Congrats on your role at El Toro! How long did it take you to find that job when you graduated?
During the group interview process, almost the whole Java cohort got selected for second interviews at the actual El Toro office. We didn't hear back from them until the last week of bootcamp. I got an actual start date for that internship shortly after graduation so it all took around two to three weeks. From there, I was determined to get the job. There was no way they weren't hiring me!
There were eight of us that got second interviews and we all ended up here. So we all went straight from graduation to a job.
Describe El Toro and your role there.
I was a developer for about four months before I moved into DevOps. Now it's my responsibility to set up the continuous integration and deployment pipelines for the developers, and I’m working on monitoring solutions. On the DevOps side, I've learned Jenkins, which is for the continuous and deployment of the code. And I've been doing a lot with Bash.
You learned Java at The Software Guild. How did you learn all these other technologies on the job?
It’s almost a year since I started the internship, and I've learned so much stuff that I never dreamed I would have been able to touch. It's actually pretty incredible. I haven't actually used Java at all in this job, but I continue to learn new things every day. I learned all the fundamentals at The Software Guild so even though my learning was all in Java, that doesn't mean there's not a huge portion that's completely transferable into other languages.
I tend to be extremely intrinsically motivated, so my style is to dive in. When I'm trying to learn something new, I read the docs and start playing with it. And luckily, where I'm at, we have the flexibility to do that. We're very team-oriented at El Toro, so I can lean on the experience that's around me. If I have questions that I can't figure out on my own, everyone is always more than happy to help. We have some really great talent here.
At El Toro you've shifted roles from intern, to developer, to DevOps. How do you feel you've grown as a developer?
I wouldn't say I'm at a senior developer yet, I guess I'm teetering into the intermediate level. I don't feel like there's anything that I can't learn! It's a matter of how long it will take me to get something done, as opposed to whether I can do that thing or not.
How do you feel your background in the military has been useful in these software development roles?
For starters, being in the military, you find yourself in scenarios where you may not know all the details going in, but you're still expected to perform. So you get comfortable diving into something and working the details out as you go. That skill serves me well every single day because when I start something, I'm not so overly focused on the details that I can't get started if I don't know them all. As long as I know enough, I can dive in and the rest will sort themselves out as I go.
And then on the job, the attention to detail, discipline and other skills are useful because the learning is continuous in this industry – it doesn't stop. So you have to have the discipline and the motivation to keep learning.
Are any of your other past experiences helpful in your role in DevOps?
When I was working at the help desk doing enterprise-level support, even though I was at a very low level, it introduced me to how that industry was structured. Now that I'm in DevOps, it helped me a lot more than I thought because I know what the space looks like – I can draw from that experience.
What's been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to becoming a fully-fledged software developer?
For me, it was the financial aspect of attending a coding bootcamp because I have three children and a wife. Going through The Software Guild, and having that 12-week period with no income was extremely challenging. When you have such an intense workload, the financial worries become a distraction. I was stressing about bills and everything else, and trying to invest 180% into the coding bootcamp, so I didn't have time to worry about other aspects of my life. It was really challenging for me to navigate all that and muscle through, but we made it.
When you look back at the last couple of years, what role did The Software Guild play in your success?
I think the possibility exists that I could have gotten to where I am without The Software Guild, but there's no guarantee for that. I could’ve finished college and been right there in that same boat, except I wouldn't have been plugged into a network. If it would’ve been possible, but it would have taken more years to accomplish.
I learned way more through The Software Guild as far as coding is concerned, than I ever did through the college track.
What advice do you have for other people, especially veterans, who are thinking about making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Don't wait, just start doing it – that's the key. And don't be intimidated. Coding is really hard for everyone at first because it's literally like learning a foreign language. None of it makes any sense until you start doing it. Also, be sure that if it's what you want, you're ready to commit fully because it takes a lot of work, especially if you decide to go the bootcamp route.
Do you still keep in touch with The Software Guild?
Yes. It's a tight community and it's completely open. I can still stop by there anytime, and I still use the Slack group. You don't just train and then you're done – it's a community that you’re plugged into.
Software Guild is more than just the vocational program. The guys that I studied with and with whom I still work, we're more than just coworkers, we’re friends. We're Guildies so there's camaraderie there too, which is big for me coming from the military.