With a degree in creative fiction and plans to write a book, Erica didn’t expect to fall in love with coding as a career. But once she started learning JavaScript, she enrolled at Lighthouse Labs to learn full stack web development in Vancouver, Canada. Now, three years after graduating, Erica is a UX Developer at Mozilla in Toronto. She tells us about mentoring students at Lighthouse Labs, how perceptions of coding bootcamp grads have changed over the years, and her advice for breaking into tech!

If you’re interested in Erica’s growth three years after graduation, check out Lighthouse Labs’ new Career Trajectory Report. They found that graduates are having long-lasting careers: 81% of graduates still work as developers and 91% of graduates are now in Intermediate/Senior roles.

Q&A

What were you up to in 2015 before Lighthouse Labs?

I went to school for creative writing – my specialties were poetry and children's fiction. I always idolized authors and I wanted to write a book. Shortly after graduating, I taught English in Japan for a year.

With that background, what inspired you to move into computer science or web development?

Writer's block! When I got back from Japan, I decided to sit down and write my book. I was waitressing part-time and trying to write, but it wasn’t happening. I tried to remember what I enjoyed doing in high school. I was actually very lucky in high school to have a teacher who taught C++ as an elective. I took that in Grade 11 and 12 and I really loved it. But it never clicked that I could do coding as a career. I grew up in a very outdoorsy family, and the thought of sitting at a desk all day seemed like the worst career ever! I didn't realize how creative and exciting it is.

How did you start learning to code?

I had a friend who was working in web development. Initially, to keep myself busy and entertained, I started learning JavaScript. Once I found that I was practicing JavaScript for 10 hours a day and I was excited to get up in the morning and learn more, I started to explore how to make a career out of it.

Why did you choose Lighthouse Labs to change careers? Did you think about going back to college for a Computer Science degree, or continuing to teach yourself?

I thought about doing a degree but I was anxious to get going with my life and with my career, and the idea of doing another two to four years of school was not appealing. Initially, I was using FreeCodeCamp and Codecademy. And while there are ways to make a career out of those free resources, I wondered how that would look on my resume. Three years ago, there were a lot of beginner tutorials, but at some point, you reach the end of those and you don't know where to go next. Lighthouse Labs (or any bootcamp) gives you a lot more guidance.

I mostly decided to go to Lighthouse Labs for the connections, the community, and the assistance in job searching.

Which technologies/programming languages did you learn when you were there?

The curriculum was Ruby, Rails, a little bit of JavaScript, jQuery and Node. And we learned SQL on the back end.

When you graduated, what types of jobs did you feel prepared to apply to?

I was ready for an internship or a junior developer job when I graduated – definitely not senior developer jobs yet. My first job was relatively unique – I was actually working with one of the teachers from Lighthouse Labs on a social media startup. It was unique because I got to build a project from scratch with a team of four.

We built a social media startup that aggregated LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, categorized your posts and found interesting connections on who influences your influences. This was a Ruby on Rails project and we used React for the front end.

Do you think that working for a small startup for your first job was a good decision? Did you get the mentorship you needed?

I felt really lucky to be working with my teacher because he knew my level, so his expectations weren’t too high. He was probably one of the only people who could have had a full picture of what I could and couldn’t do yet. I also liked being able to touch all different parts of the project.

You’ve had three jobs since graduating – did the Lighthouse Labs team help you find and transition into those next jobs?

They were totally willing to, but the jobs that I ended up taking were not set up by Lighthouse Labs. Actually, when I was applying to my second job at Mobify, Lighthouse Labs was setting me up with other interviews, they just weren't the jobs that I ended up taking.

What did you work on at Mobify? Did you learn anything new at your second job?

I was a Developer Advocate at Mobify, so I was the point person when our clients had technical issues. We built mobile websites for our clients and then they continued maintaining the site. We worked within Mobify’s custom framework called Adaptive.js, so I had to learn that framework on the job and also did a lot of teaching and debugging for clients. Even though this position was very short, the skills I got from it were monumental. I learned a lot about debugging mobile devices, and since I'd have to solve the clients' problem without having access to any of their code, I became an expert at breaking into code from Chrome Devtools.

How have you continued to learn and grow as a developer since you graduated from Lighthouse Labs?

I've had some very good mentors over the years, and ones who are happy to sit down with me and explain difficult concepts. Sometimes it comes up in the work I'm doing - for example I was doing some animations for Firefox that needed to use the GPU, so I was learning webGL and I needed to multiply some matrices to figure out the positioning. So I asked my manager to explain some concepts to me I ended up getting some fantastic lectures on matrix math.

Other than that I go out of my way to study. I've been reading non-fiction about people who inspire me, and books like Code by Charles Petzold (I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand computers at a more basic level). I've also done a few courses on Coursera and Khan Academy - in areas that I feel I'm lacking. Right now I'm working through the CLRS book introduction to algorithms.

How has teaching at Lighthouse Labs helped you grow your skills?

At my first job, I worked out of the Lighthouse Labs building, and because of that, students would sit with me, get to know me and often asked me for advice. Eventually, I started filling in for teachers and joined the teaching team part-time. When I moved to Toronto to take the Mozilla internship, I didn't really know anyone in the Toronto Community. Through mentoring at the Toronto Lighthouse Labs campus, I got to know a lot of developers in various companies throughout the startup ecosystem. It’s been a good way to get involved in the tech community.

It’s also always a fun time working with students. I get to relearn skills that I don’t work with in my job at Mozilla. For example, I get back into Ruby during that part of the curriculum. I haven’t used databases and SQL since my first job, but I get to work on that as a mentor.

And now you've worked at Mozilla for the last 2.5 years – tell us about your role there.

I work on the UX team as a developer. Basically, that means that I build prototypes, so if the designers have an interesting idea, I will build the first version of it for user testing. I work mostly in Javascript, html, and css. With a variety of frameworks depending on the project. I have also worked in Objective-C (for the mac touchbar), python (for mozilla.org), and swift (for Firefox for ios) depending on which project I'm working on.

I also work with a team called Test Pilot to build the first versions of products that we want to test on larger audiences. Mozilla has a couple hundred thousand users who sign up to try new extensions or products in Test Pilot. Often, if something succeeds in Test Pilot, we will keep it around as a standalone product, or we will bake it into the browser in some way.

I also do some front end work on the browser. Currently, I'm working with the security team to change some of the preferences UI in the browser.

Because your background is in web development, have you had to learn a lot about User Experience in this job?

Yes – it’s difficult. I participate in our critique meetings and because I'm not a designer, I often feel under qualified to speak in those meetings. But I'm working to get over that.

On the other hand, because I have a coding background, I am often translating between the two sides (UX designers and developers) during a project. When I'm in a UX meeting, I can talk to the designers about what can and can't be feasibly done, and vice versa when I'm with the developers.

Does Mozilla help you learn and become more confident in design skills?

Yes, we have a budget for upskilling, which can go towards conferences or further education. It’s up to each person to use how they see fit. We've also had a few internal trainings when there’s a general need for it. For example, a couple weeks ago, we had a two-day conference on accessibility. It was a fantastic conference. And they're all recorded, so new hires will have access to them as well.

You’ve been in the job market for 4 years now as a bootcamp graduate – have you noticed a certain perception of bootcamp grads from employers?

When I first interned at Mozilla, I actually got quite a few comments from managers and recruiters saying that I was essentially a “beta test.” They had never hired a bootcamp student before. Other employees told me I was the first bootcamp graduate they’d ever met who made it into “old tech.” Startups are much more willing to take a risk on bootcamp students, whereas older companies have these ideas about how “real” a bootcamp education is – who knows what they think?  

I have to tell you one of my proudest achievements at Mozilla. When I applied for the internship, the listing specifically said that you must be a current university student. After I finished my internship, they changed the internship requirements to say “must be enrolled in a computer science course or be recently graduated from a coding bootcamp.” I was quite proud of that.

Do you have advice for recently-graduated bootcampers?

Bootcamps are definitely quick, but they are not easy. You're spending 10 to 12 hours a day learning and you're working hard. And afterwards, even though you’ve gotten your junior developer position – you are still working. We have a saying at Lighthouse that the bootcamp is actually one year long. Your first two months are spent in class and then the rest is on-the-job training. You’ll get support from Lighthouse Labs, but it's more that you get a taste of what it's like to learn quickly, and you have to keep that momentum going through at least the rest of the year.

As a mentor at Lighthouse Labs, I chat with students a lot about career stuff. My students seem to appreciate when I tell them that the position you're at now is so small in the grand scheme of things. How “good” you are is much less important than how hard you work.

I've had a lot of students ask me, "I'm the lowest of the class, this other student is breezing through all of this. Am I going to struggle to get a job?" Even though the difference to them seems like a lot from their perspective, both of them – the person struggling and the person breezing through it – have a long way to go. As someone who now hires interns, I always pay a lot more attention to their attitude than to how easily they breeze through the technical questions.

As a mentor working with students, do you see the quality of graduates changing year over year?

I don’t think the quality of the students has changed, but the teaching style has definitely changed. Lighthouse Labs used to feel more like traditional school – tests were very hard, a lot of people couldn't handle it and would drop out.

Our style has now changed. If someone drops out, we take it personally, like we let them down. There's less focus on testing. There are a lot of students who don't test well, but that's not necessarily indicative of their skill.

Lighthouse Labs just released a new report examining the career trajectory of bootcamp graduates outcomes which says that 91% of graduates who are employed as developers are in Intermediate/Senior roles and making ~$85,247. Is that your experience? How has your salary changed over the last 4 years?

My salary has changed drastically. The numbers you quoted are probably roughly correct for most Lighthouse Labs grads. I think this is a difficult question for me because I am paid very well - and I want people to know what is possible, but on the other hand I don't want expectations to be unrealistic. Looking at the data in aggregate is probably more beneficial for students rather than an individual's numbers.

My first position was underpaid, but I was learning a lot, and I was very happy. At Mozilla, it's now the opposite – I feel overpaid! However, I need to keep in mind, especially as a woman, what my value is. When I was first offered my full-time position I didn't know how to negotiate, I'd never done it before, but I remembered a senior engineer who'd spoken to the Mozilla interns, and she said her biggest mistake was probably not negotiating her first position, since raises tend to be a percentage based on that original salary. I didn't want to make the same mistake, so I sent a polite letter to the recruiter and it worked out in my favour. I'd say it's always worth a shot to negotiate, and it'll pay off in the long run.

Do you think that your writing past and tech will ever cross paths? Do you still have plans to publish a book?

I do still plan to publish a book, but I’m okay waiting on that. I don't think I need to rush it. And I'm not sure if it will relate to tech!

When you look back at the last three or four years since you started out self-teaching, could have gotten to where you are today at Mozilla by self-teaching?

I think it's possible to get here solely through self-teaching, but I think it would be significantly more difficult. The community and career coaching at Lighthouse Labs is pretty invaluable. I felt much more confident knowing that I had that support system. It gets to a point online where you have mastered the basics, but you don't know what to learn next. I think that's where a bootcamp really shines, they know the state of the industry and what skills are most in demand and they point you in that direction.

How can a total beginner start this journey? You used FreeCodeCamp – any other recommendations?

I get asked this a lot. I've referred so many students to Lighthouse Labs now. First, use the free online resources like Codecademy, FreeCodeCamp, and NodeSchool. Work on that for a whole day and see how it feels. If you’re not excited about coding for an entire day, then it may not be for you. If you enjoy it, and you're willing to put the work in, then go for it.

Find out more and read Lighthouse Labs reviews on Course Report. Check out the Lighthouse Labs website here.

About The Author

Liz pic

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students considering a coding bootcamp. 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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