Written By Jess Feldman
Will Abbot worked odd jobs after dropping out of college, but he was looking for a stable yet interesting career that encouraged him to learn. When Will enrolled in the 6-month, part-time full stack web development program at Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp (offered in collaboration with edX), he got the instruction and mentorship he needed to apply for junior developer jobs. Will shares how the career services team supported him in his job search even after program completion, how he landed his first developer job at Comcast (and a second job after COVID-19 layoffs), his greatest challenges during the career change, and whether he believes Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp was worth it.
What inspired you to break into web development?
After dropping out of college due to depression and mental health issues, I spent a few years working in sales, canvassing for nonprofit organizations and teaching an after-school program for children. When I saw an ad for Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp, I was ready for a change in my life, so I quickly applied. I had taken a Java-based introductory computer science class in college, which inspired me to create an algorithm that could calculate your chances of winning a Texas Hold ‘Em poker hand (I was watching a lot of late-night poker shows at the time). I really enjoyed building that project, and it gave me confidence to pursue a tech career.
There are so many coding boot camps — what stood out about Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
I read up on Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp and knew that the boot camp was a quality program. I ended up applying because I knew that I needed in-person instruction and a social connection in order to learn effectively. Plus, the boot camp was walking distance from my house! I chose Penn Boot Camps’ part-time program so I would have more time to go above and beyond what was required in the curriculum and make the most of the program. I didn’t want to just power through the curriculum, I also wanted to fully absorb the material.
What was the Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp application and interview process like? Was it hard to get in?
I spoke to a boot camp representative over the phone who was friendly and enthusiastic. He sent me a multiple choice test that took about 30 minutes. The answers I didn’t know (which to be honest was most of them) were easy to find with Google. It was more of an assessment of aptitude than knowledge, measuring if I could figure out problems independently. It turns out a lot of coding in the real world involves Googling things you don’t know, so it really was a crash course in a type of problem-solving you’d see on the job.
Did you have to complete any pre-work?
There was pre-work, and Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp organized it well; there were multiple steps, and for each step, there was an article explaining goals and assignments. It prepared me for the program, walked through account setups, and prompted me to download software. I made a LinkedIn account, signed up for AngelList, and set up my GitHub.
The pre-work also covered fundamental coding concepts, and I built a program in Scratch, which is a platform designed to teach coding to elementary school kids by linking pre-made functional blocks together. I built a simple video game where you’re a T-rex shooting lightning out of your mouth at Pterodactyls and shouting “YAH!” It's still the best piece of coding I've ever done.
Since this is a part-time program, were you able to work while completing the boot camp?
To help pay for my living expenses while I was at the boot camp, I cobbled together freelance video work that fit into my schedule. I was also lucky enough to have parents who could help me out with living expenses while I was in the program, for which I’m very grateful.
Many members of my cohort were working full-time jobs during the program, but it was important to me that I identified my needs and determined what was going to allow me to thrive. Working a 35+ hour job would not allow me to concentrate on the curriculum and classwork. My advice is to be honest with yourself and what is going to put you into the best position for the best experience.
What was a typical day like at Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
We had two night classes from 6:30pm to 9:30pm and a Saturday morning class from 10am to 2pm. You could come early or stay late to get additional help. Classes consisted of lectures and related solo and group coding exercises. Each week we had an assignment that took a significant amount of time, and at midnight on Monday, we had to turn in our assignments. Eighty percent of the time I spent outside of class doing homework was devoted to those weekly assignments.
Did the teaching style match your learning style?
Yes, it was a good fit and exactly what I was hoping for. I come from a family of educators, and the biggest difference between one learning experience and the next is the teacher. Those who are good at the discipline itself can be awful instructors because, unfortunately, knowing a subject doesn’t mean that you can teach it well. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic teacher that I got along with who could teach the curriculum well and adapt to the cohort's needs. We connected on a social level too, which makes it easier to pay attention and learn well. They also provided plenty of class time for independent work and group work to build things. It was a terrific mix of collaborative environments. I recommend making connections with your TAs and instructor to get the most you can out of the in-person assistance available to you as a learner.
We also had access to a virtual tutor once a week who would spend an hour with us on any subject. Meeting with your tutor isn’t required, but I would recommend that anybody starting the program get set up with a tutor right away. The students in my cohort who took advantage of the tutoring time definitely recognized the benefit.
What did Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp curriculum cover?
What kinds of projects did you build at Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
We had three group projects assigned throughout the boot camp, and each week we completed an individual project for homework. The group projects were self-directed, and became more complex and lengthy as we went through the program. My first team built an app that could help you find places to stay on a camping road trip. My second team built a website that would allow you to make and track random bets with your friends. We learned a ton doing these projects, so it’s okay that the final products were, uh, technically flawed.
Though these group projects were intermittent throughout the course, everything is collaborative at the boot camp, and our instructors encouraged us to get help from our peers and the TAs for all learning. The course culminates in a group capstone project. My team built a Chrome browser extension called OneView Reviews that would run all the reviews for an Amazon product through IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis and give you a handy “one view” analysis of all the reviews based on keyword inputs. Unfortunately, the extension is defunct because Amazon flagged us for scraping their website and shut our network requests down. (You can see the page with descriptions and screen shots here.)
How did Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp prepare you for the job hunt?
Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp does an incredible job of preparing learners for the job hunt with their career services team. Working with the career services team is not required, but strongly encouraged by the instructors. A career coach was assigned to each of us and they helped us with our resumes as well as our LinkedIn and GitHub profiles. The career services team also held seminars on preparation for technical interviews and many other topics.
My recommendation for future boot campers is to start prepping with career services early in the program. One boot camp colleague of mine, Neha, who got a really early start with career services, received a job offer just four months into the six-month boot camp! The career services team also continues to help you after program completion; they were reaching out to me on a regular basis asking me if they could be a resource.
What roles did you feel qualified to apply for after completing Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
You’re now a developer at Comcast! What was the interview process like?
I took 6 weeks off after completing the boot camp to spend time with my family, but once I started my job hunt, I got an interview with Comcast within two weeks and had an offer within four weeks. I went through two phone interviews followed by two days of in-person interviews — it ended up being more than 5 hours of interviews! I met with all the developers on the team, the project managers, and the UX team. In the boot camp, we focused on practicing for the technical interview, but Comcast only had me do one whiteboard problem. Comcast asked me a lot of CSS questions, and I was glad that I dug deeper into learning CSS on my own instead of relying on Bootstrap.
As a Junior Developer, employers don't expect you to know everything. They are mostly looking for intelligence, culture fit, and basic understanding of the fundamental principles of coding. Comcast wanted someone who would be a positive influence, work within a team, communicate, be eager to learn, and do what was needed.
Was your Junior Developer job impacted by COVID-19 at all?
I was initially hired for MachineQ, which is a startup within Comcast that does IoT work. I worked in that role from October 2019 until the end of June 2020 when there were COVID-19 layoffs. However, my boss liked me and connected me with other people in the company, and I applied for and was hired as a front end developer for the Xfinity Flex rebuild, which allowed me to stay with Comcast and not miss any time.
What projects are you working on now?
Are you using the programming languages you were taught at Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
What do you wish you knew before enrolling in Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp?
Choose your own adventure. Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp is a great guide and good at teaching the curriculum, but you need to take the initiative to keep learning. When something piqued my interest, I sought out more information on my own. I’m glad that I took advantage of the tutors and thought outside of the curriculum. And I’m glad that I pursued self-directed projects outside of the bootcamp. Employers respond to a developer that is excited about all aspects of development. It shows that you won’t burn out in a year.
What has been the biggest challenge in this journey to make a career change into tech?
Losing my job at the height of the pandemic this year was definitely a roadblock, but there are a lot of challenges that come along with being a new developer. That’s why it’s important that new developers ask for help, discuss where there are issues, talk about them with your team, and reevaluate. While you may not know nearly as much as the people around you, it's important to remember that you have a valid perspective. You need to stand up for that in order to obtain good results from your team.
What skills from your background in canvassing and education do you still rely on today as a developer?
Organization. Leading an after-school program, I was responsible for teaching, managing a budget, and communicating with kids, parents, TAs, and my Program Director. That translates to my current role at Comcast where I'm working directly with product managers, UX developers, back end developers, and executives. When I started, the team had been together since the beginning and coming into that was a delicate process. My canvassing experience helped me to communicate effectively with the team and deliver my observations in a way that was well-received and easily understood.
Looking back on this experience, was Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp worth it for you?
No doubt it was worth it! If you compare the timeline and cost to the payoff, Penn LPS Coding Boot Camp was absolutely worth it! I'm in a field where I can work remotely and that's the direction that the industry is going. I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, this month, but technically, I still work in Philadelphia. I feel incredibly lucky that I made this decision and it worked out the way that it did. I took a boot camp that cost $11,000 and lasted 6 months and within a couple of years, I can be making six figures. From a purely financial standpoint, I can't think of a better educational investment.
Jess Feldman is an accomplished writer and the Content Manager at Course Report, the leading platform for career changers who are exploring coding bootcamps.
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