Matthew had 10 years of work experience, but when he moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh, he noticed a gap in his skills. There were tons of tech jobs that he was unqualified for, so when he heard that coding bootcamp Tech Elevator was opening a campus in Pittsburgh, he enrolled in the first cohort. Matthew tells us about building Java projects at Tech Elevator, how the matchmaking event helped him and classmates land jobs, and what he’s learning in his new job as a QA Engineer at PNC!
Tell me about your education and career background before you decided to go to a coding bootcamp.
My original degree was actually in Audio Engineering, but I went back to school for Graphic Design and worked as a Production Designer and Graphic Designer for 9 or 10 years in Minneapolis and Chicago. In that world, there is a ceiling of sorts and I felt like I had plateaued.
That plateau coincided with moving back to my hometown of Pittsburgh. I was unable to find a production graphic design position in Pittsburgh for a year and a half, and was trying to figure out what to do next. Then Tech Elevator showed up on my radar in Pittsburgh – they were about to start their first cohort and I heard the local NPR station mention Tech Elevator in their morning programs.
I had always worked with computers throughout my career, and my dad was a computer programmer for U.S. Steel, so computers were not foreign to me.
When you were job hunting in Pittsburgh, had you noticed a demand for programmers?
Yeah, I saw positions all the time that I was just not qualified for. In fact, friends and family would send me listings for software development positions and say, "You know computers. Why don't you do this?" I'd always have to tell them, "It's not that easy!"
That demand I saw in Pittsburgh for software developers and computer programmers, definitely fed into my motivation to attend Tech Elevator and open new doorways for my career.
Did you try to teach yourself to code at all or learn with free resources before going to Tech Elevator?
Then I did Free Code Camp on my own and I realized that even despite my high interest and best efforts, I'm not the most self-motivated learner. I definitely learned things that helped me quite a bit in my transition into Tech Elevator. I would say that those free, online courses are a really good start.
What stood out about Tech Elevator in your research process – did you consider other coding bootcamps or another college degree?
I'm still paying off student loans from my last degree, so I didn’t want to go back to college. Going to Tech Elevator is about $15,000, but I compared to $50,000 to $60,000 for four years at college for a CS degree.
At first, coding bootcamps seemed a little too good to be true. You spend a little bit of money and time, and graduate with access to much better jobs than previously available to you. I spent time researching the success rate across the coding bootcamp industry. I went to a Tech Elevator open house where Justin, the program director in Pittsburgh, gave us the feel of what Tech Elevator teaches, their graduation rate, and a lot of information about technology companies in Pittsburgh.
One of the reasons that Tech Elevator stood out was their Java program – Java is one of the most widely-used programming languages in the world. But the biggest thing that attracted me to Tech Elevator was their job placement Pathway Program. I realized that without a computer science degree, you can do all the online programs you want, but without some sort of middleman to sell you to prospective employers, you're working with one hand tied behind your back.
What was the application process like when you applied for Tech Elevator? Was it hard to get in?
I took a 15-20 minute pre-screening questionnaire, which was almost like a miniature SAT test. Then if you pass that, you go to their campus for a 1-2 hour interview with a team member. Then there's a second technical test and a behavioral interview.
The work I did on Free Code Camp gave me a leg up during the technical challenge. I had a decent knowledge base before entering into the actual Tech Elevator program. I would definitely recommend anyone starting a bootcamp to do some free online classes first to see if it’s for them and see your grasp on the subject.
What was your cohort was like at Tech Elevator? How many people were there and was it diverse in terms of gender, race, age, and career backgrounds?
There were 13 of us in the first Pittsburgh cohort. In some aspects, it was a diverse class: there was definitely an age spread. I think the youngest person was 21 and the oldest person was in his 40s. We did have diverse backgrounds. There were people with high school degrees, people with bachelor's degrees; some people had worked professionally; others had worked in retail.
In other ways, it was less diverse: my particular cohort was all guys so it wasn't diverse as far as gender. I know Pittsburgh’s second cohort is quite a bit more diverse, in terms of race, financial background, and gender.
Tell us about the learning experience at Tech Elevator – what did a typical day look like?
A typical day was essentially 9am to 5pm, with around four hours of classroom learning – either lectures, group projects, group lessons, or group exercises. Then after that, the remaining part the day (which often turned into eight hours) was spent on homework, lessons, and exercises to reinforce the classroom lesson for the day.
We had to do four major projects that coincided with each subject section. The first month was purely Java, then it switched over to databases, then front end, and finally we tied everything together. So every time they switched technologies or switched focus there was a capstone project at the end.
Did you have a favorite project that you worked on at Tech Elevator?
I have two favorites. The very first was a simple Java-based vending machine, which was really simple and not all that impressive. But it was the first time that certain ideas took a while to sink in and solidify inside of my brain. So that was my personal favorite.
For our final project, my group had two weeks to build a project using all the technologies that we had learned at Tech Elevator. We used the Agile methodology and did mini sprints. We built a sort of Yelp-style tour company, utilizing Google API calls. At the end of the program, there was an open house and people’s families came, and everybody demonstrated their projects. The final project is definitely a project that you can hang your hat on.
Do you think your previous career in Graphic Design has been useful in learning to code?
My graphic design background came in handy at Tech Elevator a few times – redoing my resume in typography, laying it out, etc. It helped when we learned front end design for websites and other projects. In my job now, I am doing all back-end work, so my graphic design background hasn't necessarily come in handy in my job yet, but it doesn't mean it won't.
Because I had 10 years of work experience, I knew how a corporate office worked with emails, meetings, and day-to-day dealings. It's always good to know how to write an email.
How did the Tech Elevator team prepare you for job hunting?
Again, job placement is one of the main reasons I went with Tech Elevator. Over the 14 weeks, they start out tech-heavy and then you start on their Pathway Program – it's sort of a full professional makeover. Everybody redoes their LinkedIn pages and resumes, and there are a lot of peer reviews. They actually bring outside companies in to look at resumes, recommend changes, and do mock interviews.
The Pathway Program leads up to a matchmaking event, where companies who are hiring come in for a career fair and everybody does real interviews. A number of people actually got job offers almost directly after our matchmaking event. It's a huge help.
The company I'm working for now, PNC, is one of the companies that came to the matchmaking event at Tech Elevator. I interviewed with them during matchmaking, then had a phone screening, then a second in-person interview, and then a third phone screening.
Congratulations! Did everyone in your cohort get hired so quickly?
The majority of my fellow students landed jobs through matchmaking or through connections made with companies at Tech Elevator.
A lot of that has to do with the giant demand right now for tech jobs in Pittsburgh. Companies like Uber, even Facebook, and Google, have moved into the Pittsburgh area. On top of that, established Pittsburgh companies are ramping up their IT and software departments so they will survive into the next century. So there's just a giant job market for software developers and IT in Pittsburgh.
Can you tell me about your job at PNC – what are you working on?
PNC is a financial services company based in Pittsburgh – it’s fairly huge with about 50,000 employees. My individual team is eight people, so it’s actually really small and everybody works very well together. As a QA Engineer, I’m doing code testing. Everybody works hand-in-hand on the projects we take on.
A lot of the techniques and strategies that I learned at Tech Elevator came up on Day One when I started working at PNC. There’s a great amount of overlap between what I actually learned at Tech Elevator and what I'm actually using in my day-to-day job.
Are you using Java in your QA Engineering job? What other tools and programming languages have had to learn?
PNC is a Java company so that ties directly into what I learned at Tech Elevator. What’s helped me as much as the various technologies I learned at Tech Elevator was learning about Agile methodologies and DevOps. Learning about Continuous deployment / continuous integration has helped me immensely in my day to day working.
How does PNC make sure you're ramping up and continuing to learn new technologies?
I have been partnered with a more senior member of my team. So any questions I have, I can go to them. We also do some paired programming. One of the company goals is to encourage a knowledge transfer between departments rather than having siloed departments cut off from other departments. We've got product analysts occasionally writing code, we've got testers writing software or writing stories for the sprints, etc.
As a Tech Elevator graduate, do you feel welcomed into the Pittsburgh tech community?
I have met a lot of people at meetups and at my job who have actually been really interested and intrigued by the fact that I’m a coding bootcamp graduate. They want to know all about the program, what we actually learned – they ask similar questions to what you've been asking! A number of people with CS degrees have friends who want to start coding as well, but don't want to go back to school for four years.
I'm actually surprised how well everyone got along during Tech Elevator. We all just met up recently for a happy hour and I think 90% of the people I went to school with were there. The community is building, which is great. Unlike Tech Elevator, I don't keep in touch anybody I went to college with. So it's definitely been an all-around good learning experience, good community, good everything. In Pittsburgh, Tech Elevator has been exceedingly helpful and nice in welcoming me into this new world.
Are there any meetups you would recommend for aspiring developers in Pittsburgh?
Realistically, if you wanted to in Pittsburgh, you could go to a tech meetup every night of the week. It has a very active meetup culture. Code & Supply Slack channel is probably the place I would start. They have different meetups and groups, but it's sort of a one-stop shop to find something that you either find interesting or you want to learn more about.
What advice do you have for future bootcampers making a career change through a coding bootcamp like Tech Elevator?
You don't have to be a mathematics wiz to go into computer science or computer programming, which is what I used to think. Math is part of it, but it's way more logic and problem/puzzle solving than anything. Even if you don't think you can do it, you probably can.
If nothing else, go to an open house, go to a coding class, find a meetup, talk to people, and ask around. People are more than willing to talk about Pittsburgh and technology. Building your network is almost as important as your technical skills.