Even if you don’t live in a bustling tech hub, there’s demand for developers in every city. But what if you’re learning to code in a city with a smaller tech community? Veteran Chris Billiau and former supply chain analyst Brian Barrow both studied at Thinkful’s online Full Stack Flexible bootcamp, and did it on their own schedule without moving to Silicon Valley. These two Thinkful alumni now work as a Web Application Engineer and a Front End Developer, have started their own meetups in New Hampshire and Utah, and are proof that you can kickstart a career in tech without leaving your home base.
What were you up to before Thinkful and what motivated you to change careers?
Chris: Until 2013, I was an active duty lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard. During the sequester of Congress in 2011, there were a lot of budget cuts, so after almost 18 years I was let go. I stayed in the Reserves and I just retired after 23 years this past December.
I was forced to figure out what to do next. I spent about three years bouncing around different jobs, looking for a role that provided me with the level of income I needed, that I was interested in, and had the opportunity for future growth. In one of my jobs before Thinkful, I was project managing programmers. I found their roles really interesting so I decided to pursue programming.
Brian: I have a degree in business and supply chain management, and I've been a buyer and supply chain analyst for a few different companies. As an analyst at Overstock.com, I’d play ping pong with the web developers during lunch and talk to them about their roles. I had worked with Excel and VBA and done some programming before, so I started taking online courses like Udacity and Free Code Camp and really enjoyed it. Now that I’ve graduated from Thinkful, having that Excel/VBA background and knowing how to Google answers has been really helpful.
I got to a point in my self-taught learning where I was just stuck. I wanted to be able to talk to someone and I needed a mentor to bounce ideas off of and ask questions.
Why did you choose an online bootcamp like Thinkful instead of an in-person coding bootcamp?
Chris: I lived in Connecticut when I did Thinkful, and I didn't have the ability to drive two hours every day to New York. So as I compared bootcamps, I was looking for courses that were online, or had the majority of the curriculum online.
I really wanted a course that would reflect the level of seriousness and commitment that I would put into it. I wanted to get the best possible outcome and graduate with the skills necessary to get an entry-level developer position. With that in mind, I chose Thinkful.
Brian: I had considered a couple of the in-person bootcamps around the Salt Lake area, but I was in a similar position to Chris. I had a mortgage and a family, and I couldn't just quit my job and drop a lot of money on an in-person bootcamp. I had a few friends who did in-person bootcamps in Salt Lake City part-time and they weren’t impressed, so I was hesitant to go that route. I was pretty focused on an online option.
Someone mentioned Thinkful in a Facebook group for the local Free Code Camp meetup, so I looked it up. Thinkful fit exactly what I needed. I pulled the trigger and it worked out really well.
How was the Thinkful application process? Did you feel prepared?
What's the secret to staying engaged online? Even though you took the Full Stack Flex bootcamp, did you commit to Thinkful full time?
Chris: I actually wasn't working during Thinkful. I was very fortunate to have put money away and was able to take time off. It took me six months of savings, which really put a dent into my family's savings, but it was a very educated investment.
So I treated Thinkful like it was my full-time job. I was studying at least eight hours a day, full-time for six months. When I finished the program and went into the career development portion of it, I was sending out resumes to 10-20 companies each day. I applied everywhere. I treated everything like it was my full-time job. Knowing that I just invested six months of savings into Thinkful gave me a level of urgency that reinforced my commitment and drive.
Brian: It took me just over five months. At the beginning, I talked with my wife and said, "I really want to jump into this career and it's going to be a huge time commitment.” To juggle my time, I would wake up at 4:45am in the morning and work on Thinkful for a couple of hours, and then I'd go to my full-time job. I'd then come home and go to my office area or to the library, to get more Thinkful work done. I was motivated to graduate quickly because I really wanted to get into a new job. If you finished early, then you pay less tuition, so that was also a huge motivating factor for me. It wasn't easy, but it paid off.
Who was your Thinkful mentor? How did they help guide you through the curriculum?
Brian: My mentor was Patrick Ford. Mentorship was the biggest selling point for me with Thinkful. I did okay by myself learning online, but it was good to have my mentor there so I could ask questions, and he would review the curriculum with me. It was good to have that follow up to fill in any gaps that I missed, and have a consistent feedback loop on my progress.
Chris: I really didn't know what I was getting into in regard to what the curriculum tempo and course load would be like. My mentor was key. My first mentor and I worked really well together and had a great rapport. He would say, “Let's skip over that and go to this other section first, or we'll come back to that." He was very hands-on helping me through the course.
He was extremely supportive, not just in terms of the course load, but also as a professional mentor. I could ask him questions like, "Hey, out in the real world, how do these things happen?” etc. Getting input and feedback from someone in the industry doing the work was very beneficial.
Chris, you chose Thinkful because your hometown didn’t have an in-person coding bootcamp. Did you end up finding a tech community where you lived?
Chris: Thinkful was great at advocating for us to cold call people and ask them to have coffee to ask questions. So I started doing that. Fortunately, in the town I was living in, Old Saybrook, there were a lot of people who were involved in tech, so I was able to meet a lot of people.
I was also only 45 minutes from New Haven, Connecticut, which has a very large and robust tech meetup program. I met a lot of people there who were working in the industry; they gave me their input on what it was like to get a job etc.
When I got my new job and moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, there wasn't a meetup group, so I started one with a friend. That meetup group now has about 90 people, and serves all of the upper valleys of Vermont and New Hampshire. My town is close to Burlington, Vermont, which has a much more robust tech scene. We have Dartmouth College here so there's a lot of turnover of young people in the tech community. Even though the technology industry isn’t as robust as it might be in larger cities, there are a lot of smart people here.
Brian, did you find yourself benefiting from the Salt Lake City tech community?
When I was studying at Thinkful, I started going to larger meetups and tech conferences in the area to see what else was out there. I have definitely seen growth in that area, especially with more people learning to code, doing bootcamps, and trying to get into the industry.
It can be tough to land a tech job in smaller cities – how did Thinkful help with career prep?
Chris: The more I did the program, the more I found that I really enjoyed the back end work and my longterm goal is to bridge the virtual internet world with the physical world with the Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
I didn’t know where I wanted to work right out of the gate after Thinkful, so the career services portion was extremely helpful. Thinkful helped me hone my resume and gave me some great advice. I already had a lot of soft skills since I’m older and had been a professional for so long, so it was more about transitioning what I already knew and molding that into something that was coherent for the tech world. I was extremely impressed with the people I worked with at Thinkful. I wouldn't be where I am now without their help.
Brian: Thinkful’s career services program helped me spruce up my portfolio and resume. Meeting with my career mentor once a week helped me nail down ideas and approaches for certain job applications or email communications.
Once I applied to a company, Thinkful would also reach out to help me get an interview. The Thinkful team actually emailed my current boss and asked for an interview. I had an interview a couple of days later, and got an offer a couple of days after that. I actually ended up with two offers that week so I was able to choose one. All in all, it took just over one month from graduating to start working full time.
Congratulations to you both on your new jobs! What’s your day-to-day life like as a developer?
Brian: I work as a developer for Signs.com, an online retailer of banners and other signs. It's a relatively small startup – there are about 30 employees with a team of six developers. I’ve been working here since May 2017.
They brought me on to work on the front end, styling the website and the HTML. Day-to-day I work on different product pages, and new product page releases that I get from the design and marketing teams. I start marking those up and write the code that makes them functioning web pages. I also help with generic bug fixes on the back end for the general website functionality and other features on the site.
Chris: I work for a small startup developing polymers that detect nicotine molecules in cigarette and marijuana smoking. These polymers are put on a sensor, in a small device that works over Wifi. On the back end, we have a bunch of microservices to evaluate those nicotine levels and send alerts to the owner of the device. Our clients are mostly large hotels and property management companies.
When I started, there were about 11 people at the company. There was one developer and he was doing everything from firmware to the back end to the front end. He had an offshore dev team in India, so I was hired to oversee that team. I've been working on the front end, interacting with the database, and working on microservices. I wear a lot of hats and I’m learning a lot. It's really exciting. I’m learning about being in a startup, and realizing what it’s like to have all this technology come at you like a fire hose. Anyone who's involved in tech knows that every week there's something new you need to learn.
Were your employers impressed by or concerned about the fact that you went to an online coding bootcamp?
Brian: For me, it was a topic of discussion. They already had three developers who worked on the full stack and they needed someone to focus on the front end. Thinkful teaches front end development really well, so I was a good fit, and they weren't concerned that I was a bootcamp grad.
Chris: Looking back, it really wasn't that big of a concern. I think a lot of hiring managers didn't really know what types of qualifications they were looking for – there is no standard. A lot of people don't know how to compare online bootcamps – what do you compare them to? You can't go to college and graduate as a web developer; you graduate as a computer scientist with math skills.
If a hiring manager is concerned about your skills, they will give you a coding challenge. In my experience, employers in web development in tech don’t really care about a degree, which is great. It’s about whether you can do the work or not.
Chris, do you think your military background has helped you in the tech world?
Chris: Yeah, my background has helped me a lot. It’s not just my military background, but my age and experience helped during the interview process. A lot of my interviewers were my age – they were in their 40's and they had a mortgage and kids. So we could relate to each other as peers during the interview. My soft skills helped a lot.
What has been your biggest challenge or roadblock in this journey of learning how to code with Thinkful?
Chris: You get this feeling that people think you know more than you do. There's this give and take where my supervisor says, "Hey, Chris, I need you to do X, Y, and Z," and I'm thinking, "I don't know how to do X, Y, and Z. So now I’ve got to figure out how to do X, Y, Z." I have to rise to the challenge and figure it out. Of course, challenging yourself is how you learn.
My biggest hurdle is realizing when I have knowledge gaps. Usually, when you learn something new, there's more time involved. Thinkful took six months and then you're out on the street doing it. Technology is 10 miles wide and 100 miles deep so there's always going to be something we don't know. It's totally doable, but you also end up with a tech skill set that is like Swiss cheese! You have a lot of information, but there are also a lot of holes, and you don't know where all the holes are until you slice the cheese.
Brian: I think the biggest challenge was probably believing that I could do something new. I'm still pretty young, but imposter syndrome is a challenge, and I had to build the confidence in my own abilities to learn.
What advice do you have for people living in smaller towns thinking about an online coding bootcamp in order to make a career change?
Chris: Even though larger cities like New York have a reputation for tech, smaller towns still have companies which need software developers. Every town in this country is connected to the internet, and every business needs some level of web development.
Also once you make the decision to learn to code, treat it like a full-time job. There's really no waste of time when you're coding, but you will need ample time. If you're not making the time commitment to do it, you won’t succeed.
Brian: Especially if you’re learning online, you have to stay motivated and commit to learning. Since I organized the local meetup group, I see new people all the time but often they don't come back a second or third time. Those that do stick with it are really committed to learning and understanding. It's a good career and it pays well, but it's not easy. A career in programming pays well because it's hard!