Duran Gradwell and Debbie Westwood both learned to code at Coder Camps, but what we found most interesting is that Duran studied at Coder Camps’ Seattle campus, while Debbie studied online remotely from Phoenix, Arizona. We wanted to examine the difference between studying in-person versus online, so we asked Duran and Debbie to compare and contrast why they chose their study methods, what the learning experience was like, and what their favorite projects were. And regardless of where they learned, both Debbie and Duran have now found awesome jobs as full stack developers!
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What were you up to before Coder Camps?
Debbie: I’ve been through a number of previous careers. I originally went to school for genetics, but discovered that lab work was not my thing. So I spent some time in social work, then moved into the paralegal world. With the increasing use of electronic evidence in legal cases, lawyers were using their clients’ emails, documents, spreadsheets, and databases, which is where I discovered I had a knack for technology. I actually managed a litigation process, then got more and more into the technology side. Most recently I worked in a technical trainer role for a software company that was selling software to help lawyers manage that electronic evidence.
I dabbled a lot in coding over the years. From 2012 onwards I took some college classes, working towards a certificate, so I already had a fairly good understanding of the basics of HTML, CSS, and C#. I decided if I was actually going to make a career out of programming, I needed to quit my day job, and jump into a coding bootcamp feet first to really accelerate that process.
Duran: I graduated from university to become a music teacher and a sound engineer. Once I got into the working world as a musician, it ended up not being what I wanted to do every day. I’d always had a knack for programming, I’d done a bit in high school and enjoyed it. I thought I’d give it another shot, so I started doing some online tutorials. When I realized how much I was enjoying it, I started to look into colleges to study programming, but a few more years as a student wasn’t going to work for me. Then I discovered coding bootcamps and realized I could get the knowledge and experience I needed without having to go back to college.
Duran, why did you choose Coder Camps specifically? Did you look at other bootcamps in Seattle?
Duran: I had done a little bit of C# programming before, so I thought I should find a C# bootcamp, and it turned out that Coder Camps was the only one I could find offering a .NET program. I was at a point in my life where I could just move somewhere and start my career all over again. So I decided to move to Seattle to be where Microsoft and all the big tech companies were, and get that .NET education. I was living in Rockville, Maryland before Seattle and had a looked around there first, but didn’t find anything that worked for me. So what ended up persuading me was the fact that there was a .NET bootcamp in Seattle and that was Coder Camps.
Debbie, why did you choose Coder Camps and why specifically did you want to do an online bootcamp?
Debbie: I chose Coder Camps because I was looking for something online. I’m a little older than the typical Coder Camps student, and pretty well-established. Plus, I didn’t really want to leave my husband and everything else in Phoenix for three months. So I was very interested in doing an online bootcamp.
The reason I selected Coder Camps was because it was the only one that had a .NET online option, and given that all of the previous classes I had done were very much .NET oriented, whether it was VB, or C#, I felt it would be my fastest and easiest way to make the career change. I could go and learn something like the MEAN stack at some other point.
What was the application and interview process like for you both? Was there a coding challenge?
Duran: It started with filling out forms on the website. Then I got a phone call, and they asked me questions about what I’m doing now, my previous experience, and by the end of the call, they were convinced that I should be able to handle the demands of the course. I committed to dropping everything and to focus on it 100%. They accepted me, I sorted my finances out, and I was in.
Debbie: My experience was very similar to Duran, and there was no coding challenge. I think that was because it’s really a discussion about coding from scratch, as the program is designed for beginners. I filled out the application and then there was a call. They were trying to gauge how much experience I had, whether I was prepared to put in the number of hours and the amount of work that was involved. In terms of assessing how skilled I really was, there was none of that.
Duran, how many people were in your cohort? Was the in-person class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
Duran: It was extremely diverse. We had people from all over the world, someone from Turkey, India, other parts of Asia, there were Americans, and then me. I’m a bit of everything, but originally from South Africa. It was very diverse in terms of gender as well, and we were all ages.
Debbie, how many people were you learning online with? Were you able to get to know them and interact with them or was it more of a solo learning experience?
Debbie: Duran and myself were doing the class at the same time. He was there in person, and I was online. So it was a shared experience. I was in the same class, and it was a diverse class of 40% women. I think it was close to a 50-50 split between online and in-person students.
There were sometimes barriers in terms of getting to know people who were physically there, as well as getting to know the people who were online with me. We had Skype so there was often a lot of chatting going on between the various online people. I had worked professionally as part of a remote team, so I had no problem reaching out and making connections, getting resources, and bugging people, whether they were there in person, or online.
So were the online and in-person people interacting quite a lot?
Debbie: Yes. There were obviously some difficulties sometimes. You couldn’t always hear what people were saying and sometimes there were technical difficulties, but it was fine. Obviously, the online students weren’t there at 10pm to interact directly with people. Overall, we did pretty well as I went in with very a realistic expectation of how it would work, so I was satisfied.
Can you describe your learning experience at Coder Camps? Was it different for each of you?
Debbie: It was very similar for both of us. There would be a lecture, then an exercise that we would do individually. It was basically rinse and repeat throughout the day. As we progressed through the class we started incorporating more group exercises in preparation for the last three weeks which was all group exercises, no lectures. We were focused on our group application.
I was usually up around 6am – I was actually an hour ahead of the Seattle class. I usually would try to finish off the previous evening’s assignments until 10am, which is when class started for me. I would listen to the lectures and participate directly with the in-person class. We would start with lectures, have lunch around 1pm, and then finish at 5pm. Then I slogged through whatever assignments until I went to bed at 10 or 11.
Duran: My experience was very similar. I would get in around 8am, if there was any time before class began I would start working on what I was doing the day before. Every day was intense and focused, with no time for anything but code. I wouldn’t stop working until close to midnight, because there was always more to do. Every Friday we would get a seemingly impossible assignment for the weekend, based on everything we learned throughout that week. As difficult as it was, the instructors worked very hard with us and were a great source of inspiration until the very end.
Debbie, how were you able to watch and participate in the lectures going on in Seattle?
Debbie: We were using Webex, so the screen was shared, and I could see exactly what the instructor was coding. Then there was a camera set up, so the online students could see the in-person students in the class. I was usually coding right along with the instructor, so what was going on in the classroom was secondary, and that was fine.
The only time it became a little more difficult was if there was whiteboarding going on, and at that point I would say, “remember to point the camera at the whiteboard.” I was pretty vocal about making sure they did that and to make sure we could always see what was going on. The instructor was very obliging and worked hard to make it work.
How were you able to interact with other students to work on group projects remotely?
Debbie: For group projects we followed the Scrum methodology, so we had daily standups and we used Skype for calls. We were given individual tasks, we would check in with each other if we were stuck, then we might open up a Skype call or piggyback onto the Coder Camps WebEx if we could, just to share the screen and work through things.
It worked about as well as it usually would for a relatively inexperienced team of coders working remotely. I suspect those who were online worked a little more independently than those who were physically there. It worked fine for me. I reached out and made sure I got help when I needed it.
What were your favorite projects you worked on at Coder Camps?
Duran: My favorite project was my individual project, which was something we were supposed to work on throughout the first six weeks of the camp in addition to classes and other homework. It's a forum-type website for musicians and sound engineers/audio enthusiasts like myself to share their recordings and get feedback from a musical and/or technical perspective. It uses all the technologies taught during the course, and a few extras I taught myself. I enjoyed working on it so much that I've continued working on it even after graduation. It's still a work in progress, located at: mixedup.azurewebsites.net
Debbie: I liked the group project, but I wasn't too happy with the final look of it – I didn't do the CSS. That said, I did implement Fluent API in the group project. I was inordinately proud of that at the time. The group project was essentially a way for authors of written works to share their works, get reviews on their work, and review others' work. It used the FileStack API, SQL backend, C# server-side, AngularJS/Typescript client side, and bootstrap for styling.
My personal project was somewhat more simple with fewer pages, but followed the same overall architecture, albeit with a less complex data model. I implemented Filestack API and Google Maps API.
Were you both interacting with the same instructors or mentors, or were there specific instructors working with the online students?
Duran: We had the same lecturers. We could reach out to any of them, and we still can now.
Debbie: The online students could interact with instructors over Skype. If we had any kind of discussion or lecture where we were doing a formal session, then I would always speak up if I needed some help. I think as an online student– and I’ve said this to people who’ve asked what my experience was like– you do need to be a bit more assertive to get the help you need. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Coder Camps, it’s just how it is. Like I said, I’ve worked remotely and it was exactly the same in the workplace. I had to be a little bit more assertive and persistent, and I was fine with that. You need to prepare to speak up if you are online.
How many students were there online and in-person and how many instructors were available?
Debbie: We started out with 12 people, and 10 graduated.
Duran: We had one main instructor. There was another instructor who wasn’t in normal lessons, who works on other things for Coder Camps, and when assistance was needed he would come in. There was also a TA who would come in during the evenings, and she’d be there until about 8:30pm every night helping us with assignments and answering our questions. She was a great help to everyone.
You’re both now working as developers – congratulations! Can you each tell me about your role and what you are working on?
Duran: I'm working as a Full Stack Software Development Engineer for Kon Tiki Academy, a startup located in Redmond, Washington. We are focused on digital transformation services related to the education vertical. Our clients include educational institutions and some Fortune 500 companies. I work as part of a team that focuses on Microsoft's student discounting program worldwide. As part of a small agile team, working in this super cool project, each of us takes on many roles such as development, testing, deployment etc. At the moment I am working with the team to onboard a new partner. It’s an extremely talented and enthusiastic team founded by a Microsoft cloud veteran. I’m proud and thankful to be a part of it."
Debbie, what advice do you have for someone who is considering an online bootcamp?
Debbie: If you are in a mixed online/in-person class, you will need to be a little more assertive and persistent to get the help you need than if you were physically there. Speak up in class if you can't hear or see something, or if there are technical difficulties. The instructors at Coder Camps were very responsive to any issues raised.
Also be prepared for internet outages on your end, or other technical glitches. Have a backup plan, even if it's just calling in on your cell phone. Make heavy use of Skype and Slack, not only with your instructors but also for other students. There will almost certainly be at least one other student there who is smarter than you. You'll need them, so get to know them before you need them.
In general, be prepared to work very hard. If you don't put in the work, you won't succeed. The more you can learn before going in, the easier it will be, but you will still need to be highly motivated. Be sure that programming something you truly want to do, and get the rest of your life cleared for 12 weeks! Put in the work and don't slack off in the group project. It's not fair to the other students if you disappear for the last three weeks.
Duran, what advice do you have for other people who are considering an in-person bootcamp?
Duran: Make sure you are willing and able to give up everything for the duration of the bootcamp. Every waking moment should be spent coding or thinking about code. It helps to start taking online tutorials in preparation for the bootcamp. Even if it's not required, it helps to get ahead, and to find out if you actually have any interest in coding before you start.
Do not hesitate to ask questions because you feel like you've already asked too many. Expect this to be one of the most difficult things you'll ever do, and also one of the most rewarding. Don't give up. I saw people who were falling behind in the beginning, come back strong towards the end because they were relentlessly determined to succeed.