One of the most popular questions we hear at Course Report is “how do I pay for a coding bootcamp?” and we know that ~20% of bootcampers use a 3rd party loan. One of the most popular of these lending partners is Ascent Funding (previously called Skills Fund). So on today’s podcast, we’ve got a special guest – Liam Boll – who graduated from a coding bootcamp called Grand Circus in Detroit in 2017 and 4 years later, he’s working as a software engineer at Quicken in Detroit.
Before this interview, we got a lot of questions from readers to ask Liam like “how did you weigh your funding options” and “was it ultimately worth it to take out a loan for a bootcamp?” – and Liam was gracious enough to answer all of those questions. Plus, we talk about living stipends, grace periods and more!
You went to a coding bootcamp about four years ago – back up and tell us what you were up to in 2016/2017.
I went to Holy Cross Notre Dame right out of high school for my first semester of college in 2015, then I swapped to Grand Rapids Community College for my second semester in the Spring of 2016. I was already learning programming on my own because Yale, MIT, and Harvard all offered free courses online, so I did some programming on the side, but I was mainly just working. Then I moved to Detroit in late 2017 and started bootcamp from there.
I was working in kitchens and getting cooking experience (because that was one field I was still interested in), but I was also interested in programming, so I swapped gears and started to look toward Grand Circus.
Even in 2017, there were a lot of bootcamps – why did you choose Grand Circus? Was there something that stood out to you in your research process?
I found out about Grand Circus because I had two cousins that went through it. One of them actually went through the whole bootcamp and started working at what is now Rocket Mortgage. Another one got halfway through and didn’t end up finishing. I moved from Grand Rapids to Grosse Pointe and I decided I would go to Grand Circus.
Seeing your cousins go through Grand Circus – did that inform how you approached the bootcamp?
Yeah, definitely. My options were to either: stay up in Grosse Pointe and commute, or move downtown and fully commit to it and it be within walking distance. I took the option of moving downtown for the bootcamp and sinking everything into it, making the full-time commitment to get the most out of it.
One of the most-asked questions we hear is “how do I pay for a bootcamp?” So how did you pay for tuition at Grand Circus?
I went through Skills Fund (now Ascent Funding) and took out a loan to pay for half of tuition, as well as a living stipend. I was fortunate enough to have friends and family pay for the other half of my tuition. The living stipend from Ascent honestly helped a lot because I was fully committed to moving downtown just for the bootcamp. That's why I went with that route of the loan and the stipend.
What is a living stipend?
I believe it was a fixed amount – it conveniently covered 4 months of living expenses as I went through the bootcamp and one month afterward. That covered my food, rent, and daily living expenses. Of course, I'm not living a super luxurious lifestyle, but it covered my needs so I didn’t have to work and could fully sink all my time into it.
You do pay that living stipend back, right?
Did you research different lending companies? Why did you choose Ascent Fund?
Grand Circus offered quite a few options because they’re partnered with various lending companies. I considered others, but once I saw they didn’t offer a living stipend, I’d cross it off my list and keep looking. The biggest deciding factor for me choosing Skills Fund/Ascent was that they offered the living stipend.
Have you ever taken out other student loans? How did this process compare?
When I was at Holy Cross Notre Dame, which is a sister-school to Notre Dame, I took out loans because I was also on the rowing team so I also needed to pay for that. At the time, I got my student loans from the Federal Credit Union of Notre Dame.
The process definitely felt different, mainly because it felt like a lot more money to pay for that university than the bootcamp, and I knew I'd have to keep adding onto it. It was a different experience, having to pay for that and understand the loan structure. I also was only 18 at the time of university so I needed a co-signer, whereas this time around it was just me taking out a loan for the bootcamp.
Did anything else stand out about the loan process that you’d like to share?
Another thing that was nice was that I graduated from Grand Circus in December 2017 and I had a grace period to start paying the loan back. It wasn't like I had to start paying it back on January 1st! It wasn't until March that I had to start paying the loan back, so it was nice to have a couple months of a bye-period, which gives you time to find a job.
I know it’s been a minute since you went to Grand Circus, but what was a typical day like at Grand Circus?
I loved my class. I did the three-month, full-time program. It was 9a -5p with a class size of 12 or 13 students. We had a teacher and a teacher's assistant. The first half of the day (9-12), we spent 15 min at the beginning of the day going over the homework from the day prior. Then we learned new information, then maybe an hour into the afternoon there was more learning. Then the rest of it shifted to peer projects, where we could work on tonight's homework with people in the class, or a designated group project to complete before 5p and go over it together. It offered the social, peer programming aspect of it that you will be doing on a daily basis on the job. It was very peer-focused, working in groups and collaborating.
Do you remember what you built for your capstone project at Grand Circus?
Oh yeah, it was a fun one! We worked in a team of four. One person, Jordan, was a fungi analyst in Michigan and knew all the mushrooms in Michigan. So we built an application that allows you to mark on a map where you found this mushroom, upload a picture of it, and then you have a profile of all the mushrooms that you found, including the name, date you found them, and where you found them on a map. New users could come in and create an account and upload which mushrooms they found. The website has a whole list of all the mushrooms and who found them. I learned a lot about mushrooms in my capstone project!
What was the curriculum at Grand Circus at the time?
What roles did you feel qualified to apply for after graduating?
Of course, when you’re entering a new field, you feel that you’re not as qualified, given that you just graduated from this bootcamp and you're just applying to every job you can find. That's what I did – I applied to every job, whether it was internships at large companies or associate positions at smaller ones, trying to get in at a start-up as a Junior Developer. I started branching out to maybe not just "software development." I learned programming, but started thinking about jobs in quality assurance and software testing. That's when I started to open up my job search and my first job was as a Quality Engineer.
Were you thinking at all about your loan during the job search?
Honestly, not too much. I knew that, at the bare minimum, I'd be able to make the minimum payment for the loan going into whatever job I accepted, as long as the job was software-focused. The loan was kind of the last worry on my mind.
How long did it take you to land that first job?
I started February 19, 2018 – about two months after the bootcamp ended. I was never stuck with loan payments without having a job. It was the best-case scenario: as soon as I got a job, I started paying the loan back.
Did you get that QA Engineer job through a connection with Grand Circus? How involved was the bootcamp in your hiring process?
Grand Circus is committed to job preparation. Of the time spent in our program, 75% focused on the technical side and 25% on aspects of the job search and social skills.
They're constantly partnering up with companies around Detroit that want to hire bootcamp graduates. They've got connections established with various companies and even recruiting companies! That's where I got my first offer – a recruiter reached out to me. The recruiter approached the community manager with what they were looking for, wondering if they had anyone that would fit. I was presented to them and of course I agreed! I got the job alongside another bootcamp graduate, from my class. We both started working there at the same time and worked there for a couple months doing the same thing.
After talking to so many alumni, we think QA engineering jobs are so great for a fresh bootcamp grad!
Definitely! Of course, I wanted to get into programming. But I didn’t realize, going into my role as a Quality Engineer, how valuable it would be to learn the testing side of things. When I eventually moved into a Software Developer role, I realized that the experience I gained in documentation and accuracy was a blessing in disguise.
Today, you are now a Software Engineer! What are you working on at Quicken Loans? What problems are you solving?
Quicken Loans is a Detroit-based company and it's a lot of fun! I’m still working in C#./NET though I branched out through some previous jobs into various languages like Python, Angular, React, F#, and others. I enjoy it! I've been working in Azure and AWS hosting services.
These days, I'm doing more on the architecture side of things; figuring out solutions, microservices, and where to start with the new service.
You graduated from Grand Circus nearly 4 years ago! How has your career as a software engineer grown the most?
Software architecture has been the biggest area of growth. It’s been important to learn programming from end-to-end, considering business requirements such as goals and expected outcomes, and the cost of doing the work. As an engineer I also need to know if other services will connect to it and how accessible it will be for them. There’s a lot more involved in the process and I’m constantly learning.
Looking back on the past decade, was attending Grand Circus worth it for you? This could be weighed by pre/post bootcamp salary change, quality of life, or whatever is valuable to you!
Oh, definitely, 110%. I’ve even recommended other people to Grand Circus! There have been times where I wear my Grand Circus bootcamp shirt around downtown Detroit, and people who know what the bootcamp is stop me to ask if I actually went through it. They ask how it was, if it was worth it, and I always tell them that Grand Circus was worth it.
Any advice for someone thinking about going to a bootcamp?
I was only 20 and didn't have family or other responsibilities, so I was able to move downtown, two blocks away from school and start a new life. What I've told others is to fully commit to it. I really enjoyed doing the full-time program. I don't know much about the part-time after-hours style bootcamp, but if you can afford not to work, then sweet, go for it! Grab a living stipend and put all of your effort into it. It’ll be worth it to put in as much effort as possible into your program.
If you're able to put in all the effort possible for it, then it'll really make the bootcamp worth it.
Now that you’ve paid off your Skills Fund/Ascent loan, would you say that it was worth it to take out a loan in order to attend a bootcamp?
Oh, yeah. Especially for someone my age going through it and trying to decide. It's a lot cheaper than college and university and it's definitely worthwhile to take out the loan.
Anything else that you want to tell future bootcampers?
It's a lot of hard work, but it's a lot of fun. You meet great people and you stay connected with the group of students that you went through the bootcamp with forever; there are people that I work with four years later on the same team at the same company. It's definitely worth it.
This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with Ascent Funding.
Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!
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