Vivian shifted from the insurance industry to a mobile development bootcamp in 2014 when she attended TurnToTech’s 16-week iOS bootcamp in New York City. She’s now been a mobile developer at Hackerati for two years working with clients including Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, and Personal Blackbox. Vivian tells us how TurnToTech prepared her for the job hunt and introduced her to her employer, and all about life as a mobile developer.
What’s your background and why did you decide to go to TurnToTech?
I didn't major in computer science. I majored in math, physics, and French, and learned a little bit of coding back then. After college I spent the next couple of years in the insurance industry, where I also did a bit of coding.
I came to TurnToTech with quite a bit of coding experience. I really wanted to learn iOS because it was a new, exciting field. I originally thought I could learn iOS by myself, but that wasn't the optimal way. I had actually quit my job, and I had a runway of three-to-four months until I couldn't afford my mortgage anymore, that would have been a real disaster.
So I decided to learn with a bit more structure than just learning by myself. Showing up to a bootcamp every day really helped me get into the mindset to learn, got me out of the house and into a specific, focused location.
Why did you choose TurnToTech specifically over other coding bootcamps?
I visited TurnToTech’s campus to talk to their team, including the Lead Instructor Oren. I had a couple of different bootcamps lined up to talk to, but once I talked to Oren I knew TurnToTech was exactly what I wanted. I actually didn’t even need to talk to anybody else.
One of the things that appealed to me about TurnToTech was that it's more self-directed. I was scared that some of these bootcamps would be like college: sit in a lecture for an hour, then go home, do coursework, and come back and sit in a lecture for another hour. In general, I found it more helpful to do the practical work. A lot of the things I studied in college, I spent a lot of time on, but I didn't actually know how to do it.
But at TurnToTech, you come in every day, and you spend about 8 to 10 hours coding- and then you go home and get more experience. TurnToTech was more focused teaching us how to learn the answer. That approach is so useful, because in tech, there's a new technology to learn every day. And because I had so much practice teaching myself, it didn’t matter if I know a particular technology. I can quickly gain expertise to actually ace a language that I didn’t know before.
What motivated you to first quit your job to focus on coding?
I knew the tech industry was (and still is) a hot career choice, and more exciting than the insurance field. I worked at a very large insurance company where we used older systems and technology from the 1980's. I wanted a field where I could work at a very small company, do something innovative and even disruptive, and feel like my work was more meaningful. Plus, tech is also financially very rewarding.
What drew you to the iOS development bootcamp specifically?
It was mostly because it was new, and new to me. In hindsight, there are a lot of things I do like about it. But going into it, it I thought, “I know this is a hot area, I know the field is constantly changing,” so it was a chance to get in on the ground floor. Other alternatives would have been Android or web development. But the main reason why I didn’t choose Android is because I have an iPhone. I also think there are more opportunities in iOS.
There is also web development, which is very different from mobile, and I didn't really know that going into TurnToTech. I'm glad I did go into mobile instead of web because I feel like it's more my style and it's a more recent technology.
Did you at any point think about going back to college to learn how to code and do CS at college?
It's not that I didn't think of doing it, it's that going back to college would have been a huge waste of money. I think college serves its purpose. I don't think that purpose is necessarily to teach you to do professional work in a lot of cases.
There's the time cost of actually registering, going to this three-month thing, part-time or whatever it may be, and it becomes this extended affair. And fortunately, I realized, "Okay, I’ve quit my job and I only have three or four months to learn how to jump into this field- iOS mobile app development." I couldn't go back to school and get a master's degree in computer science in three months. Even if I had the opportunity to do that, it would have been, "I have to take all these student loans.” And I would have been paying for it for the next 10 years.
What was your cohort like at TurnToTech? How many people were there and was it was quite diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
When I started, there were 10 to 12 people. They have this big room, with lots of computers, and there's a small office space for administrative work. Then they have a large open area that is good for presentations.
From what I can remember it was actually a pretty diverse crowd. I think maybe 30 or 35 percent were women. It was a very diverse atmosphere. And of course, I'm LGBT so there's that as well. There were also really diverse skill sets. I remember one person was a bit older, and had experience running his own businesses. Another person was just out of college and realized this was a field they were interested in. I would say there were a lot of people that were quite a bit older.
How did you find the learning experience at TurnToTech?
One of the reasons I chose TurnToTech was because it exactly fit my own learning style. When I need to learn something, I need a problem to solve. It was task-based learning. There was a bit of a primer of "here's some stuff to do in computer science," but that only lasted a day or two, then we jumped straight into, "Put something on the iPhone that does X." Or one of the projects might be, "display a map where you have a search box, and you type in a search, then it goes to Yelp, and then it places a pin on the map." So you could search for pizza and it would place a pin on a pizza place.
So we were learning how to do front end skills, how to query third party API's, and how to store the data. All the tasks we covered are extremely common in every single app from the market. And there was a project event, for which I had to do a bit of back end work, which isn't necessarily part of the program. It was just insanely valuable for my career to be able to put up a server and be like, "Okay, I can construct a back end for what I'm doing now."
Did you have a particular favorite project that you worked on at TurnToTech?
Yeah. For the final project we were worked on a messaging app which was helpful for the experience of working on software, but my favorite project was when I was asked to do a code sample as part of a job interview.
An interviewer said to me, "Let me see your GitHub. Let me see some code written in front end." And I told them, "Oh no, I don't have a good code sample." It was on a Friday, and I said: "Let me get you something by Monday." And I spent Saturday and Sunday intensely coding, came back on Monday morning with a demonstration app, which was very design oriented. It was a bunch of parallaxing screens that as you scrolled down it did all this cool stuff with the text. At the end you could press a button, and it sent an email saying, "Hey, I like what you did.” It wasn't super practical, but from a design perspective it was something I was able to share with people and say, "Here's a complicated task that I've done in code, plus some beautiful animations."
I’m also telling that story because it literally helped me get the job that I have now. At the career fair at TurnToTech, I walked up to someone, showed them this animation demo, and they said, “Just come in for an interview right away." And it got me the job. If I hadn't gone to TurnToTech, I'm sure I wouldn't have gone to the career fair that got me the job. It was an environment where I could learn very easily, and after two months of learning iOS, I made this amazing code sample.
As well as that career fair, how else did TurnToTech prepare you for the job hunting process?
There was a lot of support. When I say, there are no lectures, I mean there are sometimes presentations that are maybe 30 to 40 minutes long. Almost every day there was a small stand-up where someone got up and presented some cool topic. And one popular topic was, "Here's an interview question that they're definitely going to ask you." Some students did interview practice with Oren, and said it was helpful. It was also helpful talking with my classmates about interviews they’d gone on and how difficult they were.
How hard was it to get interviews?
From my experience of interviewing for tech positions, I found there are a lot more opportunities compared with when I was interviewing for insurance positions a couple of years ago. It was really difficult to even get one interview, and suddenly in tech, if you have the right skills everyone wants to talk to you. I think most people in the program were able to find jobs pretty quickly.
How long did it take you to find a job?
I graduated in May of 2014 and I got officially hired in August. It was just over two months.
Wow. And what was the position that you got through the career fair?
It was working for Hackerati, which is a consulting firm. For the first project, I also had to go through an interview with Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. I ended up spending 10 months there and did the interface for their Nick Jr. app. That's one of the projects I am most proud of, I think in my whole career.
Was that project all iOS?
It was an iOS app for iPad first, and then iPhone. And we were actually one of the first ones to launch on Apple Watch. So it's pretty cool.
What did you do after that?
The next project was at Viacom. It was MTV and Comedy Central. I did a lot of prototyping. After that, it was this company called Personal BlackBox, and we built an app for them, and some very lean startup style projects.
Some of those projects were like 10 months long as well, and some of them were a couple of months. But it’s always a very intense, "let's build this app and get it out the door type atmosphere." It's kind of cool.
So the apps you're building now, after two years, are they still mostly iOS or have you had to learn some new technologies along the way?
How it works in tech is that once you learn one programming language, you're pretty free to move around to other programming languages. I had some Java experience before I came to TurnToTech, and then I took an NYU course on programming for financial trading. There have also been opportunities where I could do Android work. I've done a few web projects. I would say a lot of that has been back end web because that also shares the server technology with iOS and other mobile apps. There's actually a pretty big divide in the skill sets needed for web and mobile. I would say my learning has mainly been focused on stuff like Scala, and I’ve had to do DevOps.
Do you feel you have reached the goal you set out for?
I think my goal of coming out of insurance was, "I want to do something that I'll have an impact, something that’s new and exciting." Then the projects I ended up doing definitely fulfilled that criterion.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about transitioning from insurance to a career as a developer?
I won't say it was challenging. It was very fun actually. I think you do need to put in some time to learn new things. I really enjoyed learning these new technologies. Sometimes there were moments where it's like, "Oh shit. This thing isn't working the way it should be. How the hell do I do this?" And there are moments where you get stuck for hours. It’s rare, but I've been stuck on some problems where I need the whole entire day to figure it out.
You have to be honest with yourself, and know when you run into challenges that you are capable of working through them, even sometimes without a manual or any specific instructions that tell you how to do something. It's almost like programming a VCR without instruction sometimes.
It's been about two years since you graduated from TurnToTech. Have you managed to stay in touch with TurnToTech and your fellow alumni?
The tech industry in New York is actually pretty close knit. You see people you know going to run an event. It's a community where there's a lot of interaction between different companies, and there's a lot of meetups. TurnToTech hosts a lot of meetups. I think Hackerati even hosted one event where we taught some stuff about Spark and Scala. I even ran into Oren a week and a half ago in the subway.
What advice do you have for someone who has decided to make a career change and is thinking about going to a coding bootcamp?
I would say definitely go to a bootcamp. Definitely, don't go back to college. Choose a bootcamp where you can do a lot of hands-on stuff.
I'd also say, don't get too caught up in having to prove that you're smart or analytical. Don’t think you can't learn to code because you're not analytical or because you don't drink a gallon of Mountain Dew in a basement.
I think one of the most important pieces of advice I could give is that it's a learned skill. There's no such thing as coding talent. There's no such thing as genius coders that didn't have to work at it. I think I have this problem too where I believe, "There are genius artists.” but, "No, they actually had to work their whole life practicing drawing." And coding is the same thing. When you get into the industry you're not going to be the best at everything, but that doesn't mean you're not a developer, and that doesn't mean you can't have a great career and eventually become that super genius programmer. It just takes time.