Since graduating from Dev Bootcamp [As of December 8, 2017, Dev Bootcamp will no longer be operating], Tom Goldenberg has thought critically about his experience during (and after) Dev Bootcamp, and shared two articles on Medium that caught our attention. The first was an open Letter to Employers on Behalf of Bootcamp Grads and the second was his advice for Getting the Most Out of Your Coding Bootcamp. We caught up with Tom to hear about his new job, what it’s like to interview at Google, and his newly-launched mobile development tutorial called buildreactnative.com (heads up: Course Report readers can use promo code COURSE to get $5 off)! Listen to the podcast or read our Q&A!
Let's start with your background. What was your pre-Dev Bootcamp life like?
I had zero developer experience, which is why I am all the more proud of what I've been able to accomplish. I do have experience with language instruction. I lived in India for nine years as a language instructor and was involved in some humanitarian causes there. When I came back to the United States after that nine years, I was left searching for direction in my career.
And you actually speak about a million languages, right?
I'm fluent in Malayalam, a language spoken in Southwest India in Kerala, which is actually a palindrome (the same backwards and forwards). Kerala is mainly where I lived. I also used to teach Sanskrit at a university, along with Hindi, Spanish, and a little bit of Mandarin.
I regularly hear that learning a new language is similar to learning how to code. Does that hold up in your experience?
And you did your final project at Dev Bootcamp about languages also, right?
Yeah, that's right. When I joined Dev Bootcamp, one of the things that excited me was this idea of a “mini startup” as a final project. And so I came up with this idea of video conferencing for language learners so they could have conversations in different languages. It was definitely a big challenge, but we did pretty well.
Let's back up a little bit. Once you returned to the US and decided to switch careers, why did you choose Dev Bootcamp of all the coding bootcamps in NYC?
At the time, there were a few schools in New York, and I heard some of the schools were very selective. I didn't have any coding chops at that time, so I was studying very hard to get into these different programs. But what I liked about Dev Bootcamp was the ability to do a final project at the end that uses entrepreneurial skills as well as functional skills. Visiting the campus gave me an idea of what the students and teachers were like, and the curriculum.
In your post "Open Letter to Employers on Behalf of Bootcamp Grads", you tell a story about an employer who you really admired, tweeting negatively about bootcamp grads. When you were at Dev Bootcamp, did you expect to hear that sentiment afterwards?
I don't think it was surprising to me because throughout the bootcamp I wasn't in a bubble. I was going to meetups and talking to different people, and there was some discrimination against bootcamp grads. I wrote that article because I felt that I could make a case for giving bootcamp grads the benefit of the doubt.
The person who made that comment on Twitter is a really good friend of mine, and I've collaborated with him a lot since then. But I thought it was powerful for other bootcampers to read about an employer who puts down bootcamp grads, then goes to a bootcamp grad for consulting advice. That's what I wanted to bring out. And I had a lot of really good positive feedback from other bootcamp grads who said that was encouraging to hear.
Do you envision that discrimination getting better or worse for bootcamp grads as this market matures and we get to a point where there are 60,000 bootcamp grads looking for developer jobs? Do you think with more bootcamp grads in the market there will be less discrimination or more?
That's a good question. As you guys highlight on Course Report, the market size is growing tremendously. What I do think is that people will not be able to get by solely saying that they went to a certain coding bootcamp, regardless of the bootcamp. This was the case with universities too. Even if you go to a top tier school, you need to have something to prove – something to show for yourself.
So I think it will be less about the fact you went to a bootcamp or which bootcamp you went to, and more about what projects and code you have worked on. I think that will be much more influential.
What's your advice to students who are about to start a coding bootcamp? How do they go above and beyond the curriculum to stand out once they graduate?
I don't want to give a one-size-fits-all prescription for anything. All I can do is share my experience. When I went into the bootcamp, I had taken out a lot of debt, and it was a decision I made with my fiance (we’re since married). I had very little runway after graduation, so I approached it with a lot of intensity.
Some people from my cohort were just doing Dev Bootcamp for the experience. They were in between undergrad and graduate programs. Other people had six months of runway, and so they could go through the course, get the basic understanding, then take three months afterwards to go deeper into the subjects. That wasn't my situation. So my advice for someone in my situation, is you do really have to go above and beyond. You have to network and build really non-trivial projects to showcase for employers to get that full-time position.
One thing I really liked from another of your blog posts was talking about learning something that isn't in the bootcamp curriculum, and you chose to learn React. How did you know React was going to be huge once you graduated?
Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time this was a big decision for me because the curriculum basically taught the fundamentals of web development and software engineering. It didn't cover front end frameworks, which is something that a lot of jobs require in New York City. It's very hard for a bootcamp to constantly stay on the cutting edge of whatever is trending because it changes every two to three months.
For my research into what technology to learn, I was very active on online forums, I went to meetups, and asked a lot of questions. While I was studying, AngularJS was the heavy hitter, and if you went on Indeed.com, almost all the jobs were hiring for Angular. So I thought, "Oh, I have to learn Angular." But through meetups and talking to people who were working, I kept hearing, "No, you don't have to learn it just because people are hiring. Pick a framework that makes the most sense for you that you find fun to build with." And I found React incredibly fun and got it right away, and I've never looked back. Every job I've had has used it. And now I organize the React Native NYC meet up here in New York.
How often do you do meetups for React Native NYC?
The React Native NYC meetup page has info about the next meetup. We've been expanding, and the community has gotten really large. We started with a 30-person meetup, and now we have a 200-person meetup at American Express in November. I also brought some other organizers on board, so shout out to Brian and Allison who are organizing some more frequent office hours events. But it's just been amazing to be part of that community and to see the adoption in New York City.
In addition to the React meetup, you're also working on buildreactnative.com. Tell us about the tutorial. Who is it for?
At the time, there wasn't a meetup specifically for React so my co-worker and I created this meetup. And then another friend of mine, Nick Brown (who's a product manager at consulting company Huge) and I realized there was a scarcity of resources. The documentation was not fully helpful, and that's when we made the decision to make this tutorial. It's designed for web developers who are interested in building iOS apps on the side.
So any bootcamp grads or students listening would benefit from this tutorial?
How soon did you start the job search? Before you graduated from Dev Bootcamp or did you finish the program and then start the job search?
I definitely didn't start looking for a job while I was in the program. That would have been too much. I was really concerned with getting a good portfolio – something I could showcase to employers. My job search after graduation is interesting because I tried the traditional way of going through LinkedIn and Indeed.com, and sending my off resume. And maybe I'm a sensitive person, but I got so many rejections, it was depressing.
After two weeks of that, I scrapped that entire process and reached out to the Meteor NY meetup organizer I knew and asked if I could present a 5 to 10-minute lightning talk, and they said, "Sure, go ahead."
The way I pitched the lightning topic was that I already had something to present. I didn't. I had nothing. Just an idea. So I stopped everything else I was doing, and for the next seven days, all day, I worked on this presentation. In the presentation, I built something similar to Chess.com – an online chess app that users can play in real time. And I showed how to do that with React and Meteor. And honestly, it was that lightning talk that got me almost every lead that I've had since then. So many people there gave me business cards and people who weren't there saw I was involved and said, "Hey, we need a developer for Meteor or for React. Let's talk."
Is that a built-in part of tech meetups where they connect people who need jobs with people who need developers?
It depends. This is one thing that I gained from the Meteor NY Meetup. Alim Gafar is the main organizer, and they've been incredibly helpful. I've been to other meetups where it feels like if you're not on the cutting edge of what's going on with that technology, you feel alienated or shut out. But I never felt that at the Meteor Meetup. In fact, I went there with no information at all the first time, and someone sat me down and showed me how to get started. And now I want to replicate that kind of attitude at the React Native meetup.
Did you meet your goal of getting a job within a month? When did you start your first job after Dev Bootcamp?
I didn't get a full-time salaried position as my first job. I had to go through a two-week contract at first with this small company. And then from there a six-week contract for a startup. And then after I had some experience and I was able to get good recommendations from these employers, I ended up at the company where I currently am, Agolo. They signed me on for a contract position at first, but it became a full-time position.
I know you also interviewed at Google. What's different about the Google interview process compared with other interview processes you went through? What didn't you learn at Dev Bootcamp that you needed to know for that Google interview?
The process of interviewing at Google was interesting. In my case, they reached out to me because they saw I had built some mobile apps, so they were interested. I skipped ahead to an onsite interview. Interviewing at one of these large tech companies, whether it's Amazon, Google, or Facebook or whatever, is very different from interviewing at a startup or a medium size company because it's like a marathon. They bring you in there, and it's like six to seven hours of whiteboarding and solving problems. And after the first one and the second one you're like, "Okay, I can do this,” but at the end, there's definitely fatigue.
For sure. I have a friend too who had a nine-hour interview at Palantir with the flu. I don't know how you get through that.
To do really well on these interviews, first of all, you need to know that they're super competitive. You can do well and still not get the job just because there's such a high pool of talent. I didn't get an offer from Google, but a consolation prize is that a lot of people who end up at Google don’t get the job after just one interview. So if you get a technical phone interview or you go on onsite to interview, and you don't get an offer, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you have some stuff to improve.
But it was definitely focused on data structures and algorithms. It's stuff that I could have focused on while I was at Dev Bootcamp, but I was more concerned with how to build a portfolio rather than how to be really good at solving these kinds of problems. In an actual job, you don't use them much. There's also some discrepancy between the hiring process for web developers and what they actually use in the job.
For sure. Is your day to day at Agolo a lot of whiteboarding?
No, never. This is like a can of worms because everyone has so many different opinions on it. But I definitely think a lot of companies just do whiteboarding because other companies do it. They don't really think about "what are we trying to test for the job?"
But I do think that algorithms and data structures are really important, and since I've gotten some real world experience, taking some algorithms courses has improved my coding for sure. It helps with understanding the complexity of operations. But it's really hard to become an expert in that and learn how to become a web developer at the same time.
Is there an algorithms course that you recommend?
There is a book "Algorithms" by Robert Sedgewick from Princeton. And on Coursera there are free courses you can take – Algorithms Part 1, Algorithms Part 2. But the problem is that a lot of these algorithms courses are written in Java, and so you’re thinking, "I don't code in Java. Do I have to learn another coding language just so that I can take these courses?" There are a lot of different choices that you have to make.
How did you get the job that you have now? What was it about the Agolo interview process that went well?
So it was a very good skill match. For a small startup like Agolo with six or seven people, I think having a good fit and making sure that you are able to communicate with each other and get along with everyone is probably the most important thing. The interview there was much more open-ended. It wasn't a whiteboarding interview at all. It was just talking about the company, talking about where the company wanted to go, and how I could contribute to that.
What does Agolo do? What are you doing day to day?
At Agolo we're doing something really interesting in the machine learning and natural language processing space. Basically, the core technology is summarization. Our most common use case is for financial analysts who want to keep track of either news items, or internal documents related to that, we can cluster that information and provide bullet point summaries.
One thing you pointed out, which I hear from employers all the time, is that the skills bootcamp grads have before transitioning can also add value to a company. What's your advice and how did you sell your past skills? Like your language skills?
I think that's a question that depends. For me, I didn't try to bring up my past experience because it's very interesting, but I don't think that people would be like, "Oh, you speak many languages so you must be good at this particular job." I mainly focused on my portfolio, specifically in web development to get going. But I have seen it work for other people. My brother, he interviewed at Google– he's been there for almost a year.
Oh, did your brother go to a bootcamp also?
Yes, this is a funny story. Ryan is six years younger than me. And when I was in high school, I was a chess player, and I did so well that I tied for the State Chess Championship in Connecticut. But Ryan, he overshadowed me by making it to the national competition. In fact, he got a free ride to college from chess!
We have this history of me doing something and then him doing it even better. I started doing Dev Bootcamp, and he was like, "If you can do it then I can do it." So he went to App Academy, and his first job out of the bootcamp was at Google. It's history repeating itself.
I will say that Ryan had a math degree, so he had experience with algorithms prior to going to the bootcamp, and I think that's what really helped him get his job. In my case, I didn't really try to leverage the experience I had in languages per se.
It sounds like the number one thing that people need to brush up on when they graduate from a bootcamp is algorithms and data structures.
If you're not good with algorithms, don't worry. I feel that if I was a small business owner and I had a startup, I would be more concerned with what can this person contribute to my product and not can they balance a binary tree. But everyone has different backgrounds and the way they've been trained at a different company often spills over into how they interview.
How important have you found the Dev Bootcamp alumni network to be since you graduated? Are you friends or colleagues for life?
Yes. Definitely, a big part of the experience was you go through this program together. And in our case, we had about 15 different people in our cohort. And what's really helpful about that is that you're in the same position; you're trying to get your first job, it's a really difficult situation, and you're going to get a lot of rejection. And so it really helps to be able to check in with other people and give tips to each other.
It's been about a year and a half since you graduated. What's the biggest struggle you faced throughout this career change? Would you have done anything differently?
Honestly, I look back and I'm really grateful. I think I made some good choices. And all the companies I've worked for provided me with really good experiences. I don't think I regret anything yet. So I hope it stays that way.
What are the meetups and groups in New York that you love? You mentioned your React meetup, the Meteor JS meetup. Any other meetups that you recommend?
Yeah. When I was in Dev Bootcamp there were a few Ruby meetups, and most of the coding bootcamps focus on Ruby, so it's good to get out and talk to people who are using Ruby in the wild. Thoughtbot runs a meetup at Flatiron School. There's the NYC.rb meetup, which has more of a lecture format. There's a ReactJS meetup that I've gone to frequently.
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