Professional musician Léo McKenna relied on odd jobs and performances to pay the bills. When the COVID-19 lockdown threw Léo’s financial stability into limbo, he turned to Lighthouse Labs. Léo shares how Lighthouse Labs’ 12-week, remote web development bootcamp provided him with a new sense of purpose, and why he now feels confident about his future as a developer-musician. Plus, Léo answers the age-old question: do musicians and performing artists make great developers?
As a professional musician, what inspired you to get into web development?
I've been devoted to music since I was eight years old and I have worked professionally in choirs since I was 18, but a career in the arts is financially precarious. That said, I don't see myself ever leaving the field permanently. I've done odd jobs trying to supplement my income as a bartender, mover, server, you name it! When the pandemic hit this year, it negatively impacted arts organizations and I lost my job.
I'm currently studying music performance at McGill University, but I’ve always been interested in computers and programming — I just never had time to pursue that interest until now. When the pandemic hit, I jumped on the opportunity to add to my skill set. I now plan to work full-time as a developer until I complete my music training and I can pay off my student debt.
There are so many coding bootcamps now — why did you choose Lighthouse Labs?
What was the Lighthouse Labs application and interview process like for you?
There was an initial interview followed by a logic test. So much of coding is trying to find that one comma that is in the wrong place and broke the code, so this test was not about coding, but instead about noticing characters that were out of place. Once you reach out to Lighthouse Labs, they give you access to their portal so the instructors can have access to everything I completed, including my test results.
What are the similarities between music and coding?
I've thought a lot about the connection between music and code! Music theory is a language all its own. Like programming languages, there are a million rules in music theory, but there are always exceptions you can use once you understand them.
The key factor that connects musicians with developers is their ability to take an abstract idea and create it using a language. Musical composition and web applications are both complex abstract objects that begin as a thought in your mind. Neither truly exists until you transform their language into something. The song is all in your head until you perform it. Coding is an abstract mess of lines that you need to make sense of and navigate in the same way that you would conceptualize a song.
Being a musician is also about being good at learning quickly. Musicians have a strong work ethic, practicing constantly to keep music fresh in our mind. Learning and remembering a song by heart is hard. Since graduating from Lighthouse Labs, I’ve been putting in 10 hours of coding a week so I don’t forget what I’ve learned. I'm currently developing an app to do musical harmonic analysis from PDFs with my friend. It's fun and I'm learning a lot. Just as I would with my music, I've been mindful to use my new skill set regularly.
Did you have to complete any prework to prep for the bootcamp?
How did you pay for the bootcamp tuition during COVID-19?
I paid for my tuition in a few ways. First, I received a partial scholarship from Lighthouse Labs’ COVID-19 Relief Scholarship. I then paid a portion of the tuition out-of-pocket, and received a loan for the remainder. Depending on where you live, Lighthouse Labs has associations with different banks that make the lending process easier.
What was a typical day like in Lighthouse Labs’s remote Web Development bootcamp?
There are lectures five days a week from 10am to 12pm, and then through the portal, we would complete our exercises for that day. The portal is well designed, and makes it clear what we need to accomplish each day. I expected to put in 10 hours of work per day, but sometimes I was able to finish by 4pm. Many times our exercises were building towards a bigger project, and over the weekend we had separate homework projects.
All day, every day, Lighthouse Labs mentors are online for us. There are anywhere from six to twenty mentors online, and they are there to help us to understand and answer questions we have. There is a help button within the portal you can easily click when you get stuck on an exercise or project.
Since this was an online bootcamp, how did you collaborate with your cohort and instructors?
Everyone I met at Lighthouse Labs was super nice and helpful, from the students to the mentors to the instructors. I connected with my instructors and peers through a Slack channel and Discord server. Connecting remotely with new peers can be tricky because you can miss out on social cues that you would pick up in person. I didn't get to know all of my peers that well, but I got close with my capstone project group. We would spend all day on Google Hangouts building our project together.
Did the teaching style match your learning style?
Yes! I have always had a hard time following lectures, but Lighthouse Labs is very hands-on with its teaching. Once we were done with a lecture, we had to try out what we were just taught. It was a good teaching style for me. Each mentor has their own teaching style. Some of them were old school programmers who would focus on explaining the fundamentals of why something works; others were young front end developers who were more task-oriented. I enjoyed my interaction with all of the mentors.
I enjoyed learning at Lighthouse Labs more than learning in a traditional academic setting. In the university, there are papers and exams. While there were exams at Lighthouse Labs, they won't fail you if you didn't do well. You could even come back to it later and try to get 100% right. Lighthouse Labs was there to show students what they had to learn. Students have access to the Lighthouse Labs portal forever, so graduates can pick up anything new Lighthouse Labs may add.
What did you learn at Lighthouse Labs?
In Week Three, we learned about Express and set up our first web project, which was a Twitter clone we connected to a server. We learned how the front end and back end interact. At this point in the curriculum, we were already building a website from scratch. Looking back, it’s daunting, but at the time, I didn't realize the complexity of what I was doing.
By Week Four, we learned to style pages with HTML and CSS. In Week Five, we covered databases and SQL.
During Week Six, we set up our midterm projects and our groups chose from 10 different project options. My group decided to create a Pinterest clone.
In Week Twelve (the final week of the bootcamp), we worked on our capstone project. We made the teams ourselves and had full freedom over what we built.
What did you build for your capstone project?
Was there a Lighthouse Labs virtual demo day?
We gave two demos of our capstone project on the virtual demo day. The first demo was for staff and potential employers, and the second demo was for our family and friends. It was nice to be able to present our project because it can be useful in the professional world when you’re trying to connect with employers.
How has Lighthouse Labs prepared you for the job hunt?
Every two weeks, we had resume prep, mock interviews, career workshops, and tech interview prep. Lighthouse Labs never gave us a failing grade in our career training; they only told us how we could get better.
Lighthouse Labs’ Career Services offer lifetime career placement for graduates. Once I complete my music degree with McGill next year, I will reach out to Lighthouse Labs Career Services who will help me with my job search. I’ll notify Lighthouse Labs of any junior developer jobs I’ve applied for, so they can be in contact with the employer to make sure I’m offered a proper salary and that I’m paired with a good Senior Developer to mentor me. Lighthouse Labs has extended their Career Services to include helping graduates with freelance jobs.
How will you balance your music career and web development?
Coding can be done anywhere – all you need is a laptop! Even though a music career is busy, performances mainly happen on the weekends and in the evening. As freelance musicians, we are used to working seven days a week and countless hours. I'm not worried about balancing my music career and being a developer, because I know I can go on tour and still code part-time as a remote developer.
Do you recommend that other musicians and performers get into tech? Is a coding bootcamp a good option?
I think musicians should learn to code. It's a great mindset and pairs well with a music career. As musicians and performers, we are taught to assume that we will never own our own home or have a family because we won’t be able to afford these things. Existentially, that's heavy! Completing this bootcamp at Lighthouse Labs made me realize I would like to buy a house someday. Now, I don't feel like I'm just dreaming — with my new coding knowledge, I could do it.
Looking back at this year, are you happy that you went down this route into web development?
I am thrilled! If I didn't take the bootcamp, I would have been stuck at home doing nothing during the lockdown. Lighthouse Labs offered me a sense of purpose. Lighthouse Labs has given me a confidence in my future that I never had before. If everything crashes, I know I will always find a quality job as a web developer.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you wish you could tell yourself before starting at Lighthouse Labs?
When Lighthouse Labs says that React week is hard and to prepare for it the weekend before, listen to them! React week was really hard. Other than that, be patient with yourself and ask for help when you need it. The mentors are there to help you! If you are stuck on a problem for over fifteen minutes, click that help button.
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