Two years ago, Will Jacobson graduated from Fullstack Academy, and since then he’s worked as a Software Developer at Perspective Data and even been promoted to lead their Data Acquisition team! See how the work ethic Will learned at Fullstack Academy helped him take on more responsibility at work, what he’s done to grow as a developer since graduation, and why he trusted the Fullstack Academy path to a career in tech.
What were you up to before attending Fullstack Academy?
I was a couple of years into a Ph.D. program in Earth Science at Columbia University when I started to feel detached from my work as an isotope geochemist. When you’re a grad student, as soon as you stop being fully engaged and excited about your project, it just doesn't work anymore. I felt like my project was far-removed from having a tangible effect on the world.
I made the decision to leave academia and spent about eight months bartending, before realizing I wanted skills that would allow me to contribute in, what felt to me, a more meaningful way. I wanted to be able to create.
Did you learn to code at all as a geochemist?
Like a lot of ex-academics, I did some coding in MATLAB. That’s a language that's used a lot by hard scientists, but going into my grad program I didn't know any of it. Then my early Ph.D. work ended up requiring a bit of mathematical computation, but MATLAB has a lot of hooks with complex statistics, though I was still quite scared of it, to be honest. So while there was a lot of quantitative work in my master's program, I would not say I was a strong programmer at all.
How did your path ultimately lead to a coding bootcamp?
I took on a couple of little freelance projects and then realized a bootcamp would be just the thing to jumpstart my learning and development. A four-year degree was not stomachable to me; it just wasn’t a mental or emotional option. I needed faster returns and I knew that graduate and undergraduate degrees would be too general for my purposes. I wanted an education that would be useful immediately, and that's why a coding bootcamp seemed so attractive right away. The Fullstack Academy reviews were amazing, so I applied, and it worked out.
There was a lot of prep work first, of course. To make sure I was ready for Fullstack admissions, I used Coderbyte as my main online resource. Coderbyte got me to the point where I could convince Fullstack that I was worth accepting.
Tell us about your cohort at Fullstack Academy!
My cohort was diverse in that students of many backgrounds were represented. There were plenty of ex-academics, ex-financiers, and people just looking for their first career after college.
Even though we came to Fullstack Academy from all walks of life, we were equals in the classroom, and that was great. We were all just good, earnest people trying to get a foothold in tech. Fullstack did a really good job facilitating that feeling of being on the same team and equal to each other.
After a life in academia, did you appreciate your learning experience at Fullstack Academy?
There were two phases: Junior Phase and Senior Phase. The Junior phase was like drinking from a fire hose. First, you see how many tools you can possibly incorporate into your toolbox. Then you build projects with those tools. Junior Phase was very intense because if you had one “off” day, you could really miss out. It was very busy and weekends were spent internalizing concepts. Looking back, I’d say the more energy you give it, the better position you'll be in after graduation. Every single day was valuable.
I should be clear that I had never experienced the “bootcamp” learning model. In a traditional school, we had always spent weeks on each topic; whereas at Fullstack, any given topic was all condensed into one morning. The Fullstack approach is an efficient use of time, but I had no experience with that aggressive pace.
I wouldn’t even have known what to learn if I’d tried to teach myself. One of my mentors says "Just buy speed" all the time and I love that. That means that if you know a certain learning process will get you results, you should just do it. Let someone who has taught a hundred other people, teach you. That’s what I did, and I then took those tools and ran with them. That's a long way of saying I would not be where I am without Fullstack Academy, that's for sure. I think I could have gotten here some day, but it would've taken much longer.
Tell us about life after graduating Fullstack Academy. What was your first job?
I finished Fullstack Academy in January 2016 – almost two years ago now. I took a job pretty quickly at a small startup called Prescriptive Data as a Fullstack Developer. We make it easier for building managers to run large buildings by gathering tons of data from the building and prescribing ways ways to do things smarter and more efficiently. We’re bringing a lot of disparate data sources together in a scientific way.
How has your job evolved over the past two years?
I started out as a Web Developer, and then I got more heavily into the process of acquiring and aggregating the data coming from all the different sensors in each building. I’m now the lead for our Data Acquisition team. We feed the application with data and also write commands back into the building to change fan speed intensity which controls interior temperatures. I’ve now actually hired two more Fullstack Academy students and I lead a small team of three.
How did Fullstack help you with your job search and how did you ultimately land your first role at Prescriptive Data?
Fullstack has a Hiring Day during the last week of class. For my cohort, they had about 15-20 companies in attendance to watch us present our Capstone Projects (the final project you complete before graduating) and then we went through a round of speed interviews. Prescriptive Data was there, but I didn't actually meet with them that day. I ended up reading about what they did and following up with them after Hiring Day, and the conversation kept moving from there.
That connection was completely initiated by Fullstack Academy. I know that at least half of my cohort found jobs in a similar way. We didn’t have to cold-call companies. Employers took us seriously because they knew the Fullstack Academy name, and that would always start the process.
How was the learning curve when you first started at Prescriptive Data? Did you feel like Fullstack Academy really prepared you?
I already knew front-end development and back-end development, so I was able to swap out different frameworks. It was just a matter of learning new syntax and new tools, but the fundamentals were the same. It was quite empowering to realize that even though I'd never seen a particular framework before, my foundation from Fullstack was strong enough that I learned React quickly, all on my own, and immediately contribute at work.
And not long after I graduated, Fullstack Academy realized this new framework React was important for any developer to know, so they started teaching it. Students who graduate now would report even less of a learning curve than I experienced.
You've been at your company for two years and have gotten a promotion – what did that process look like? Do you have any tips for other bootcampers looking for growth within their company?
It kind of goes back to what I learned at Fullstack Academy – the more you give, the more you get. The more energy you put out, the more you're going to gain from it. When I joined Prescriptive Data, there was one tech lead and he was stretched thin. It required a lot of self-starting to get a foothold and start producing meaningful work for the team. Once I got the foothold, the feeling of building something, being in the trenches with people, and seeing it go live in the app became addictive.
As far as the change in team dynamics, at one point, I found myself as the only developer working in data acquisition. I was the sole owner of a huge pile of code, feature requests were coming in, and there were a lot of processes to maintain. I didn’t feel like I was an amazing developer – I think that’s what they call impostor syndrome – but I chose to go full-speed ahead instead of crumbling. I kept up with the feature requests, I kept the code clean – all while interviewing multiple people a week to try to build a team around me.
It was a busy time, and I could’ve said, "I'm not ready for this." I had to make the decision to be confident and to put in the extra time and energy. There's not really a shortcut for that. It's a mindset that I definitely learned at Fullstack: to separate my ego from tough problems, and fortunately, it always worked out.
Do you think that your background in academia and earth sciences has been useful in your new life as a developer?
Earth science essentially means using other areas of science to answer earth-based questions. You identify a problem and then you pick from your toolset to try to address that problem – and everyone's going to have a slightly different toolset. On an abstracted level, that’s pretty similar to engineering because you pick your goal and then you pick your path. And it taught me to keep an open mind and leave my ego out of the solution to a problem. So while that experience didn't translate to tech on a practical level, the mindset and the enthusiasm certainly have.
What's been your biggest challenge or roadblock on your journey to becoming a software developer and now a team lead?
I remember that when I got to Prescriptive Data, there was a little disconnect between exactly what I had studied at Fullstack Academy and the code base at Prescriptive Data. The two didn’t merge seamlessly – which is the hard part for every brand new developer when they start a new job. That was my first challenge--and my first step toward life as a real-world developer.
The next step was making the shift from doing little assignments, to thinking about the product holistically – from a level where I can identify the problems we're going to run up against in the future. That's a jump that an every-day-developer will have to make in order to be a team lead. You’ll have to be in the trenches, dealing with everyday headaches, while also looking ahead. Always be ready with your next game plan. You're acting as the player and the coach at the same time.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about making a career transition and who are contemplating attending a coding bootcamp like Fullstack Academy?
Apart from “just do it,” I would say that it’s helpful to talk in-person with someone who has graduated from a coding bootcamp. When I was considering a coding bootcamp, my first thought was that I'm not smart in “that way.” I was lucky to have a friend who convinced me otherwise, but it’s a big leap! You see these stats about bootcamps that you can make X amount of money and develop these valuable skills in just 4 months, but you have to know that it’s for real; otherwise, it's a big blind investment.
But at this point, coding bootcamps are a well-established path and I am just one of the many thousands of developers for whom it’s worked out. The most important thing you can focus on is to absorb everything you're taught, and one day you’ll look around and realize you're a hot commodity.