Rebecca Sullivan and Gabriel Sheeley are both bootcamp alumni from Tech Elevator's Ohio campuses. They actually graduated a few years ago from Tech Elevator, so we caught up with them to find out about their experiences at bootcamp and how they've grown in the tech world since graduating. Rebecca graduated three years ago from the Java Web Developer Bootcamp at Tech Elevator's Cleveland, OH campus. She now works at Google in Boulder, CO as a Software Engineer III. Gabriel graduated from the Fullstack Web Development Bootcamp at the Columbus, OH campus three years ago. He now works as a Senior Software Artisan at Accenture in Columbus, OH!
What were you up to before Tech Elevator?
Rebecca: If you rewind a little bit, I took a sort of winding path. I went to a music conservatory in Cleveland for my undergraduate degree in Music Performance. I realized I had some other skillsets besides music performance and this led me to getting a master’s degree in business from Case Western Reserve University, which is right across the street from where I did my undergraduate degree. I ended up working in marketing for a couple of years before I attended Tech Elevator. In that position, I was doing everything marketing for a small company. We didn't have a design or coding staff to throw email marketing campaigns to, so anything marketing-related I had to do from the ground up. I found myself in a position where it made sense to upskill because I didn't have design or coding skills and I needed one or both of those to get our marketing efforts off the ground. I started by taking some classes after work. I figured out that coding was much more interesting than what I was doing as a marketer. I decided to quit my job and do Tech Elevator's full-time bootcamp!
Gabriel: I was a carpenter before Tech Elevator! I never graduated from college, but I did finish high school. I started an associate's degree in computer science because that is the traditional path to get into development. I finished whatever online stuff that I could, but I ended up having to put that on the shelf as well. Then, I found Tech Elevator.
Why did you feel like you needed coding bootcamp to transition into a career in the tech industry if you already had an associate's degree in computer science?
Gabriel: I never actually finished my associate's degree. I had to drop out before I finished it to take care of my family. Tech Elevator bootcamp was attractive to me for their Pathway Program. I could learn development online or through books. I'd been doing it on my own for years! But the pathway program connected me with potential employers. Tech Elevator helped me prepare my résumé, interview skills, and gave me interview practice. They helped me identify experiences from my life prior to this career change that would translate well into the tech field in order to market myself. It was the boost I needed to get a job and finish learning the skills I needed.
Rebecca, why did you choose Tech Elevator and in Ohio specifically?
Gabriel: I would second Rebecca on the quality of the teaching. My teacher had 10+ years of industry experience and now works at Google in San Francisco on their VR projects. I pestered him every day with questions and rarely did he not have an answer for me. The Pathway Program, as I mentioned before, was huge for me as well. At the time, Tech Elevator was the only bootcamp in Columbus, so that also narrowed down the potential bootcamps that I was going to work with.
Gabriel, what is it like to be working in the tech scene in Columbus?
Gabriel: The tech scene in Columbus is actually rather vibrant! I know most people might not see Columbus as a key player in the tech scene, but we've got big tech presence with Chase, Hungtington, AEP, Amazon Data Centers, and a lot of other companies. As Columbus bolsters its startup reputation, we have even more companies moving in, too. Plus, Columbus is one of the first Smart City endeavors. The US Department of Transportation gave Columbus a grant to develop a Smart City infrastructure that could then be adopted by other cities. My company [Accenture] has actually spearheaded that endeavor with the city. There's a lot of interesting work going on, but the city is not massive like San Francisco so the cost of living is still reasonable. The tech community is small enough and organized enough that it's easy to meet people and get connected with a company you’re interested in. It feels like a bit more of a homegrown tech community.
Let's talk briefly about your time at Tech Elevator. What was your learning experience like?
Rebecca: When I went through Tech Elevator, our day-to-day structure included lectures in the morning, a lunch break, and then pair programming in the afternoons. They rotated pairs so that you ended up working with most of the other people in your cohort. That was a great learning experience. Sometimes you'd be paired with someone who got things much more quickly than you, other times you'd get paired with someone at your level or slightly below. There is real value in being paired with people of different skill levels. You can solidify your learning by getting someone else up to speed or learn from someone else. It also gave you a chance to practice the coding skills you were learning along with interpersonal skills. The rest of the curriculum focused on the capstone project and a bi-weekly pairs project. I loved having a goal to work toward. In true full stack bootcamp style, we studied a variety of topics. Everything from object-oriented fundamentals, front end, database work, and tying it all together for an agile experience in a two-week wrap-up project.
Gabriel: I had a similar experience. We tried to cram as much into those 14 weeks as possible. It's an aggressive pace. They're not giving you a ton of time to absorb stuff in the classroom. The process expects you to learn it, practice it, build something with it, and then move on to the next topic. It's expected that students are doing work on their own to dig deeper into the topics and if they have questions bring those up themselves. The classes are large enough that the teacher doesn’t have a ton of time to be holding each student's hand through the entirety of the program. It's a self-driven program and you get out of it what you put into it. If you put a lot of work into it, you'll see a lot of benefits. They will not do the work to get you the job. You have to put in that work yourself. It may be harder than most people expect. It's 40 hours of in-classroom work, but I was probably putting in another 20 hours a week outside of the classroom. I stayed up until midnight most nights and went to class early. But I enjoyed that! It's what I was looking for. The curriculum was exactly what I expected.
What were your cohorts like? Are you still connected with anyone from your cohorts?
Rebecca: I definitely feel connected with the people in my cohort. I still try to stay engaged even after having moved! Tech Elevator has a great sense of community among current students and their alumni network. I was in the second full cohort after their pilot cohort in Cleveland. It's been neat to see their alumni network grow over the past few years. I used to joke that I measured my life in Tech Elevator cohorts! There's definitely a bond you have with the people that you go through bootcamp with.
Gabriel: I'm less social than Rebecca. I don't stay connected with anybody from my cohort. I'll bump into them once in a while at a meetup or at a Tech Elevator social gathering. I still stay in touch with Katie Detore, the Columbus Campus Director, and some of the other leadership. I was in the first cohort in Columbus so there weren't any previous cohorts to connect with. I quickly got immersed in work afterward which didn't leave me much time to connect with later cohorts. There is a great network of Tech Elevator alumni in the city who are all over. There are a bunch of them that have been hired at Accenture now!
Rebecca, you're a Software Engineer at Google in Boulder, CO now! Congrats! What are you working on right now?
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed by Rebecca Sullivan are solely her own and do not express the views or opinions of Google.
Rebecca: I work on Google Drive. The Google Drive team is based in Boulder. What I like about this office is that our core engineering team is all here. I work specifically on the Google Drive API. If you were an external app that wanted to integrate with Google Drive you might have even seen this. If you've been in Drive and you've enabled integration with another app they're communicating with us through our API. We maintain the API for external clients and internal clients. Our mobile front end and our web front end go through the API, too. Sometimes I joke that we're the back end of the front end and the front end of the back end! Right now I'm working on internal infrastructure migration projects.
You didn't go straight from Tech Elevator to Google, Rebecca, what was that journey like? Did it feel like you needed more experience before landing a job at Google?
Rebecca: If I'd interviewed for Google or a big tech giant right out of bootcamp, I don't feel like I would have been fully prepared. There are a lot of things that you pick up on the job that they don't necessarily teach you in a bootcamp. That's not just Tech Elevator, that's most curriculums. I definitely leaned on the real-world experience that I had in two different jobs before getting to Google. I’m not saying you can’t jump from bootcamp to Google, but I didn’t feel ready.
Gabriel, you're a Senior Software Artisan at Accenture now. What kinds of projects are you working on there?
Gabriel: At present, I'm a Tech Lead on a project with a large medical device manufacturer. Accenture is a consulting company. We take a different approach than a product-based company like Google. This company has been making medical devices for a long time, but software has slowly changed the way in which those products are integrated within the medical environment. We're helping them enter the 21st century by changing the way they innovate. We’re showing them how to make sure they're building software with the end-users in mind while still meeting their legal requirements. I was working on embedded automotive software before this project.
Gabriel, after you finished Tech Elevator you were a Software Apprentice. How did you spin that apprenticeship into a full-time job?
Gabriel: The company I was originally hired at was called Pillar Technologies. They were acquired by Accenture about a year ago. Pillar started the apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship is a fully paid salary position with benefits. It’s not an internship. It's an opportunity for someone that comes from a non-technical background to work their way into the tech industry with an on-ramp period. There's a fully-dedicated staff member who works with a team of apprentices to get them up to speed from a technical perspective. I learned a lot of things that I didn't learn in college or bootcamp. Things like getting good at Git, getting good on the command line, learning how to use different continuous integration and deployment software. These are things that aren't taught in scholarly settings but are used by almost everyone in the real world. I also got to work on improving my consulting skills to be able to engage with the client. It was a three- to four-month program which was focused on learning and then they rolled me out onto my first client.
You guys each learned Java at Tech Elevator. Are you still using Java today in your current jobs?
Rebecca: My first job out of bootcamp, which was at an enterprise content management software company in Cleveland, I worked in C# and .Net for almost two years. I went back to Java at my job right before Google. I'm also working in Java now at Google.
Gabriel: My first client after bootcamp had nothing to do with Java. It was all operations. It was all about cloud platforms and managing distributed Linux systems which I knew nothing about. I enjoyed that, though! I love being thrown into new situations where I have to learn things on the fly. The last two projects have been Android-based, so I've been working mostly in Java recently.
It seems like there's a misconception in the community that you can go straight from bootcamp to a Senior Developer job. Looking back, how do you feel like you've grown as a Software Engineer since graduating?
Rebecca: I’ve noticed that misconception, too. There's an implicit promise of making a lot of money after bootcamp and the illusion that what you learn at bootcamp is all you need to learn. The people who have succeeded in my cohort and subsequent cohorts are the ones who love tech, the industry, and whatever niche they've gotten into. You are ready to be an active Junior Developer in a solid role right after bootcamp and you have a lot of skills. But tools like continuous integration, source control, dev ops, are what you build up over the years on the job. A bootcamp or academic environment can’t teach you those skills.
The unique thing about the tech industry is that if you're not developing your skills constantly, you're falling behind. That is something that excites me! If I'm constantly learning and updating my skills, then I'm always valuable to someone as an employer. On the flip side of the coin, if you think that you're going to go to a bootcamp and get everything dropped in your lap including a job, you're not being realistic.
Gabriel: I second a lot of what Rebecca said about misconceptions. The senior developers I work with are constantly learning new things, challenging themselves, and pushing themselves. That's why they're good at what they do. The constant learning is necessary across the board for all Developer positions at any level.
Gabriel, what do you see as the differences between being a Junior Developer and a Senior Developer?
Gabriel: Focus is the biggest difference between Junior and Senior Developer roles. From focusing on code to a holistic, big picture focus. As a Junior Developer, I was primarily learning from others because there was so much that I didn't know yet. I was always asking questions and having people draw things out on whiteboards so that I could understand things better. That hasn't changed. I still do that every day as a Senior Developer.
The biggest difference is that the scope of responsibilities changes. As a Junior Developer, I was responsible for the code that my pair and I would produce, the work that I was responsible for pushing through, and making sure that was quality work. I was mainly focused on me. As I've moved into more of a Tech Lead role, I'm also coordinating with the client to make sure that the solution that we're building is meeting the business needs that they have and solving the problem that they came to us with. I have to make sure that the team is doing well, too. The job becomes more people-focused.
There's a misconception that developers are introverted, nerdy people that sit at their desks with their headphones on and write code all day and don't interact. That's not true! Tech is extremely collaborative. There's a lot of communication, coordination, teamwork. There's more going on than one person can manage. I communicate far more in my current job than I did in any other job I've ever had.
What is your advice for recently graduated bootcampers who are now on the job hunt?
Gabriel: There are many different types of tech jobs that you can get following a bootcamp like Tech Elevator. I see it as very similar to the medical industry where you could say you wanted to get into medicine, but that could mean anything from prescribing insoles to cutting someone's heart out! Any of those roles might not be right for every person. It's important to figure out which aspect of tech you're really interested in. What are the things about tech that get you excited? Target those employers.
Rebecca: Don't underestimate the value of soft skills. Someone once told me that soft skills and technical skills are like multipliers. If your technical skills are on par but your soft skills are lacking, you're not going to be able to communicate your value to employers. But, of course, if it’s the other way around and you're a super gregarious person who everyone loves to work with yet your technical skills aren’t great, that's going to be a challenge too. Even if you're not in a customer-facing role, being easy to work with on a team is valuable.
And don’t forget about your transferable skills from before bootcamp! I had a lot of transferable skills that are valuable from my jobs prior to bootcamp. When you're being interviewed, hiring managers are thinking about what you'll be like to work with 40 hours a week and how you'll fit into their team. They're going to want to hire someone that they'll not only tolerate but enjoy working with.
The technical interview for Google seems intimidating. Did you feel like you were prepared for that interview because of Tech Elevator, Rebecca?
Rebecca: Tech Elevator taught me how to teach myself. I had 20 hours after work per week to prepare for interviews, I knew how to make the most out of studying within that amount of time because of bootcamp. It's definitely an intimidating process but preparation makes you feel a little bit less intimidated. It's still scary, but you can prepare, give yourself enough time, know what to expect, and do your research so that it's a little less scary.
When you were both applying for tech jobs after Tech Elevator, did either of you run up against any bias against bootcamp graduates?
Rebecca: I've noticed more on internal teams once I've gotten a job that there's a stigma around it. People will ask what school I went to and I know what they’re going for by asking that question. I can tell them about my music degree and MBA and bootcamp but what they really want to know is what computer science program I went to. A computer science degree is great. It gives you theoretical fundamentals, and it's strong on the theory side. A coding bootcamp is strong on the other end of the spectrum: the practical skills. In reality, you need both. I see a lot of computer science graduates that are weak on the practical-side, and I see bootcamp graduates who are weak on the theory-side. That was definitely where I was right after graduation. You certainly have to bridge the gap in some respects. It seems like recruiters and external-facing people at these companies seriously need people to fill jobs, especially in the Cleveland market. There was no stigma in the hiring, from my perspective, just in the onboarding.
Gabriel: For me, there were a couple of companies that I was interested in that required bachelor's or master's degrees. Within the company that I'm at, I haven't sensed any of that bias because there is an emphasis on holistically coming up with solutions for problems. The fact that my background is different than my coworkers is a good thing here. Those differences can help us come up with better solutions than if everyone was coming at it from one computer science degree perspective. My company recognizes the strength in that diversity.
I did notice that when I went through the bootcamp, nobody in Columbus had ever heard of Tech Elevator, there was no previous reputation to ride on. Now that there's been multiple generations of Tech Elevator students that have gone into the workforce, people have seen the quality of the graduates and hearing about the experiences that other employers have had. Even though the market is more saturated because there are more bootcamps, graduates do have the benefit of previous cohorts coming before them and proving the high-quality employee output. That boost is a big benefit.
What has been the biggest challenge or roadblock for you in learning to code?
Gabriel: The biggest challenge was deciding what to learn and then figuring out where to start. It's such a broad space. There are a ton of different languages that people recommend and then within that language, there are upwards of 20 frameworks and then within that, there are tools for each framework. It's easy to get lost. The bootcamp helps with that. They have a set curriculum that they've found works in the industry. It gives you a plan and a focus. After that, it's just the challenge of continuously learning. You can't stop once you finish the bootcamp. You have to constantly be learning, challenging yourself, asking questions, and trying to make yourself better at what you do all the time. As Rebecca said, if you don't you will get left behind.
What advice do both of you have for people who are thinking about making a career change into tech with a coding bootcamp?
Gabriel: When it came to learning how to develop, I basically took all of the paths. I started with self-taught for a few years, I took college courses, and then I did a bootcamp. I recommend trying self-taught coding for several months to figure out if you even like it before you drop $15,000 dollars on a coding bootcamp only to realize that you don't like it. Teach yourself for a few months. If you find that you enjoy it, you're able to stick with it when nobody's making you, and you haven't paid anything to do it, you'll know that you can do it for a job and probably enjoy it. But if you do that for a while and you are having to force yourself to do those exercises and learn, maybe it's not worth investing all of that time and money.
Rebecca: I completely agree. There are so many free or inexpensive resources that aren't $15,000 and that don't require you to quit your job! People considering Tech Elevator often ask me whether they should do C# or Java. If you're first learning to code, it truly doesn't matter. Dive in! Start with some language that you think sounds interesting and figure out if you like it from there. Programming languages fall into specific categories and follow similar patterns. The same thing is true of different tools and concepts. Eventually, over the course of a couple of years, you won't need to start from scratch to learn another language. It'll be easy to pick up a second language. Just pick a starting place and don't get hung up on whether what you're learning is the "right" place to start. It is a place to start and that's what matters. You can course-correct as you go!