Terry Bu of Turn to Tech shares his experience becoming an iOS developer after graduating from Turn to Tech one year ago. Terry provides insight for other bootcamp grads considering whether to get a job or pursue their own startup. For those wondering if bootcamps are worth it, Terry tell us why you can’t become a software developer on your own.
Tell us what you were up to before you went to TurnToTech and what made you think about making the switch to web development?
I graduated in 2011 with a degree in Business Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
I considered different paths after college - marketing, sales, financial consulting, healthcare business analyst. I chose to work in marketing and sales for around 2-3 years. I’ve worked at Ogilvy & Mather, Epsilon, Cisco and Logicalis.
But long story short, I didn’t feel passionate about my day jobs. I started to do a bit more soul-searching to discover what I really wanted from my life and remembered that public-speaking on stage and making people laugh were always a huge part of my life growing up. So I started doing standup in the underground comedy community in NYC. I became pretty serious about it, performing at places like Gotham Comedy Club and Broadway Comedy Club. Around late 2012, I quit my dayjob and did standup full-time, living off my savings. I’m still doing comedy now, about 3 years later, and going strong.
Unfortunately (and in hindsight, quite obviously), I ran out of my savings and had to find another job. Then I thought about it— what if I learned a completely new skill to support myself in a day job while I pursued standup? I considered all my past interests and thought “Hey, computer science is something I haven’t had the guts to study yet . You can do so many things with technology now, so I thought why not give it a try?”
After three months of self-study, I was doing Ruby on Rails freelance projects that I found on Remotework.com and craigslist. But relying on freelancing as my only source of income was tough and I knew i had to get a full-time job before I could really call myself a computer programmer.
How did you find out about bootcamps?
I went to a career fair that was held at Turn to Tech. It was completely by accident, although I don’t really believe in accidents!
Did you look into any other bootcamps outside of New York? At that time a year ago, there were probably five or ten in New York.
Other bootcamps had career fairs too. However, I already taught myself Ruby on Rails and most of these bootcamps were teaching that. TurnToTech was the only bootcamp I found that was offering IOS at the time, and that was the key for me. I tried learning Java and Android on my own so I knew that mobile dev is definitely not something you can easily pick up in a couple weeks by yourself.
So the language was the deciding factor.
Yes! I thought it would be a waste of my money to learn the same language that I studied on my own for the past 3 months. TurnToTech also had a deferred payment model (students pay tuition after they get a job) at the time, so that was a factor too.
The other thing about TurnToTech is that a year ago it was relatively self-paced. You could start at any time. You didn’t start with a cohort on the same day and learn through lectures every day, right?
Correct. Some people were upset because it’s very self-paced, but I loved it because you work as hard as you want to work. If you’re ambitious, you can finish the program in two to three months.
I’d get there at 9 a.m. and leave at 10 p.m. I started in September, finished the curriculum in mid-October and then I did their internship.
Was there a set curriculum? Self-paced instruction can be daunting to a lot of people who need a little bit of structure. Did you know what you were supposed to be learning?
We have a structured curriculum from day one. It consists of about 20 projects that you work through. The time you spend just depends on on how long it takes you to work through those projects. The instructor, Oren, is always there to answer questions if you run into trouble, which I did. You may ask the instructor questions ten times a day! You could always see what you were supposed to be learning, because the curriculum offered a week-by-week project breakdown.
What was the application process like for you? Did you have to do a technical interview?
Right after the career fair at Turn to Tech, I set up a time to speak with Oren one-on-one. I did a couple of coding challenges. I think there were problems like Fizz Buzz, reading from and writing to a CSV file, string reversals, things like that. I did everything in Ruby because that’s what I was comfortable with at the time.
Tell us about the student interaction. How much interaction did you have with the other students in the class?
A lot. It also depends on who starts the program at the same time as you but I was lucky to have four other iOS students starting with me and also four or five other Rails students. The students would ask each other questions when we got stuck and help each other out a lot. Both iOS and Web students got along well and we would marvel at each other’s creations, sharing domain-specific knowledge. We were close and did hackathons together at HackerRank.com
Did it feel diverse in terms of age, gender and race? What did the classroom feel like to you?
Very diverse. Young, old, international, local, you name it. There were guys in their fifties looking for a career change. This young lady in her late 20s who didn’t need the income but just wanted to be an entrepreneurial app developer. A lot of recent college grads. There was also a man who used to be homeless that learned how to code. I met a lot of interesting people.
Give us a rundown of the technologies that you learned in the classroom. Was Swift out when you were at TurnToTech?
Yes, Swift had just been released. TurnToTech started teaching it right away in the evenings. I listened in on Swift classes that Aditya and Oren offered weekly but learning Objective-C and Swift at the same time was a bit too demanding for me so I ended up learning Swift on the job after graduation.
How many projects did you do when you were there?
There must’ve been 30 – 40 of them.
Did you do a capstone or final project?
Our internship was a sort of final project.
Tell us about the internship.
After you get through the basic curriculum, you can do an internship which involves working in a group of three or four developers. We work with real clients who want to release an iOS app for their early-stage idea. We work on a specific feature or functionality. When that’s complete we sit down together to ensure everything works well together. We are also given a deadline for each job. That was our capstone project.
What did you do for your internship?
We worked on a geolocation-based anonymous app. You can interact with people around you and send each other anonymous messages. Aditya (Turn to Tech founder) worked with us very closely.
In the beginning, I got pretty frustrated because I am pretty sensitive about deadlines and was often worried that I wouldn’t finish developing something by a certain date. I finally said, “Aditya, I have no idea how to do this,” and he helped me calm down and walked me through it step-by-step. That was a huge plus. It was awesome.
Did you work directly with the client or was it Aditya?
Our client was very hands-on; he met with each one of us. But usually yes, it was more working directly with Aditya, asking him for assignments and delivering a feature by a due date. The client did give us UI mockups to work from.
Did the app get deployed and is it live now?
It’s live now. It’s called Up-anonymously spread kindness. It changed a lot from the time I worked on it until after I graduated because other students worked on it as well.
How long did that internship period last?
Around two to three months. I started late October and interned there until late December, then I started job searching in January.
Once you started job searching, what were you looking for?
I was looking for something full-time, but I didn’t really have any big expectations. I just wanted to get my foot in the door as soon as possible so I can start growing as a computer programmer. I did apply to some big companies like Amazon, BuzzFeed, Google, Twitter but it was more for kicks. I interviewed with a couple of them but those live coding algorithm interviews were no joke. I spent all my time developing apps and projects, which is good in its own way, but live coding is a completely different beast that requires its own training.
Where did you meet people looking to hire bootcamp grads?
I relied on advice from older graduates. They had different approaches, but it’s a combination of a lot of different things—going straight to company Careers section, blasting out resumes to job boards, AngelList, Stack Overflow, Indeed and job fairs, obviously. We went to a lot of job fairs.
Did you get any interviews from doing that?
Yes. It’s a numbers game. You send out 100 applications and you might hear back from 10 companies, it depends. I kept an excel sheet to track all my job leads and names of interviewers, kind of like how salespeople track their sales leads. I wrote about it more in a blog post.
Did you do mock interviews at TurnToTech with the instructors?
We did behavioral and iOS based interviews, and we’re very good at that.
What was your first job after TurnToTech?
It was a boutique software consulting company called The Hackerati that delivers Engineering as a Service for Web and Mobile. Their clients included Viacom and Nestle. It was a good learning experience because they had a very talented mix of Android engineers, iOS engineers, Web Engineers and UX Designers as well. I learned a lot from senior developers, peers and mentors around me.
I wore a lot of different hats there, doing everything from Swift and iOS to working on a MEAN stack web app’s Node and MongoDB backend for Nestle Waters. I even learned a little bit of Python and contributed to a Python Flask web app. Learning JIRA project management and doing tickets threw me for a loop too. Overall, I grew a ton there and really appreciated the experience.
Now what are you up to?
Now I am the Lead iOS Engineer at an early-stage seed startup called Tastii. We are like Spotify for food. We're a personalized recommendation engine for food and restaurants. We help you find the best restaurant that matches your taste. I’m the only iOS Developer so a lot is riding on me!
A lot of people have different intentions going into a bootcamp. Would you suggest that people take a full-time job before starting their own thing? Do you think you could’ve started working at Tastii right after graduating?
I think it’s a great idea for people to take a full-time job in a group dev environment before starting their own thing. I could have started working at an early-stage startup right after bootcamp but I think it would have been a very painful experience because you still have a lot to learn before you can take on a lot of responsibility. While working in my first job at the Hackerati, I learned more about how to use Git properly and collaborate in a team environment, and get a chance to see how things are supposed to be done. If I had jumped right into an early stage startup, I would have had no point of reference to compare everything.
I love programming but it’s still challenging for me right now, and you really need all the help you can get to grow faster. The benefit of working at a full-time job with senior developers are the little tips you can glean from them, just watching over their shoulders everyday. You learn about new tools and technologies by looking at the software, editor and commands they’re using. You talk to them and listen to how they think. It’s best to just be a sponge in the first few months following a bootcamp.
It’s been a year since you graduated. Would you say that it was worth the it? Would you recommend it to other students? Could you have learned the curriculum on your own?
It was certainly worth it. When I was trying to tackle everything by myself, I would fumble around trying to learn everything and the entire experience was very emotional. Many days, I lost motivation because there was no guidance in tackling this extremely vast body of knowledge called programming that takes a lifetime to master. Everything seemed pitch black. I had no idea what the next step was.
But when you’re working everyday in a group with support from instructors and senior alumni, they’re living proof that you can become great at this new skill, find a job and start a new future if you work hard. They’re there every day to remind you of that. And you see your peers working their butts off too and think “Hey I gotta keep up too!” Instructors also told me that I was doing well and encouraged me every step of the way, giving me valuable advice especially in that tough job-searching process. You don’t get that when you’re doing it by yourself.
I think it’s definitely worth the money. I won’t say it’s “impossible” to learn computer programming all by yourself and find a lucrative career because some really smart people have already done that. But the people I met at TurnToTech, the experiences, the connections, the mentors — those things will stay with me throughout my entire programming career and they were truly priceless. I’m very happy about all that’s happened because of programming and TurnToTech, and am always grateful for that day when I accidentally walked into TurnToTech’s job fair. I’m very grateful for meeting great mentors at TurnToTech like Aditya, Oren, Kaushik and the other guys.