Chelsea Dommert moved to Chicago specifically to attend Anyone Can Learn to Code, a part-time, intensive web development bootcamp. The risk paid off- with her new skills, she is starting as a web developer at Pivotal Labs today! We talk to Chelsea about the teaching style at Anyone Can Learn to Code, how her past experience helped inspire her final project, and the importance of attending conferences and staying in touch with the dev community.
What you were doing before you started Anyone Can Learn to Code?
I was a copywriter and an editor. I got accepted into Anyone Can Learn to Code while I was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. and did the program in the summer after that internship ended. I moved to Chicago specifically for the boot camp.
Did you look at other bootcamps or just ACLTC?
No, I only looked at ACLTC. I took programming courses in college and I found it very difficult to find instructors who were both competent programmers and good teachers as well.
Often in the programming community, we have a tendency to guilt people for not being able to figure things out themselves rather than offering them any guidance. I had worked with Jay previously- he was my programming tutor for several months before the boot camp- and found that his method is very different from that.
What did you study in your undergrad?
I majored in international relations- I actually quit basic computer classes when the intermediate level computer programming professor informed me that I was not intelligent enough to be a computer programmer.
So you were writing after college- what got you interested again in programming?
After college I moved to Miami and my day job was as a blogger at a tech company in the finance space. I wasn’t a programmer, but the technology was really interesting and I knew that I liked programming. I asked the CTO if he knew anybody who good at programming and at teaching. He introduced me to Jay.
Why take this course?
There were three reasons. The first factor was knowing Jay’s teaching style and knowing that he was going to actually teach. The second factor was that it was a nights/weekend course so I would be able to keep a full-time job and continue to earn an income while I was taking the course. I didn’t have the luxury of living in Chicago without a job for several months, which is what most bootcamps require of you.
The third reason was that Jay explicitly covers both the consumption and the creation of APIs in this course, which is the direction I personally think development is headed. And it doesn’t get covered in nearly as much detail in many other bootcamps.
What were your intentions doing ACLTC? Did you expect to get a new job afterwards?
Yes, that was my intention. The company I worked for at the time was aware that I was going through a programming boot camp. I can’t speak for the decision that they made to hire me anyway. I was not hiding anything from them.
You mentioned being impressed with Jay’s teaching style. What is his teaching style? What about it is effective?
Mainly, he’s willing to break problems down and explain them and still give a bit of guidance to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes you to get the basics.
I find that it’s very easy to get frustrated in the beginning because you know absolutely nothing, and once you have some initial direction and foundation, you can then use your autodidactic skills to become more advanced. But when you’re going from zero to beginner, it’s very helpful to have a teacher. Many teachers I had in the past expected a person to be able to get from zero to beginner largely on their own and when it was difficult for that person, blamed it on the student rather than acknowledging that they just needed help.
Since this was a part-time program, did you feel like you were interacting with your cohort a lot?
We did do group projects. We made an API and then we made an app that consumed an API as a class, then we also did a lot of projects in pairs and groups. I did interact with my cohort a lot.
Did you feel like everyone was on a similar level and people worked together effectively?
I wouldn’t say everyone was on the same level. In general, we were able to assign the various projects in a way that helped everyone develop.
For example, I, having done some programming in my leisure time, had the most experience going in. Clearly, I would be at a different level than somebody who had never written a semicolon in their lives.
Given that, we were able to find ways for everyone to contribute to each project.
How many hours each week were you putting into the course?
The actual time you spent inside the school was from 6-9:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. That said, it very quickly became apparent who was putting in time outside of course hours and who wasn’t. Unsurprisingly to everyone, if you put in more work, you become better at a quicker rate.
So I would definitely say outside work is required to become a good developer.
How did you commit to doing work outside of those hours with a fulltime job?
I would study from when I got off work until the program started, which was maybe an hour. Then I would work on Fridays and Saturdays, and that was an extra 12 hours a week.
You had mentioned doing projects as a group and individually. Were those projects that were assigned or did you have a chance to work on your own project?
Those projects were assigned. We also had a capstone project that was our own idea, and everyone in my cohort chose to do theirs individually. We would help each other but we didn’t work in groups.
What was the project that you did?
Sure. I made an API for a data set selected by the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project, which is a project based out of an academic institute in Texas to collect information about conflict events in Africa and then published in spreadsheets.
I made an API that would consume all of those spreadsheets and then I made an app that would take the data from that API and turn it into maps and other visualizations about who committed the violence and where the violence occurred, etc.
How did you come up with that idea?
My internship in Washington, D.C. was at a nonprofit that does research and investigation on issues of national and international security. During the course of one of our projects, we were trying to collect some data on conflicts in Africa. We found that although this particular project has the best data, it was not available in a highly accessible form and that made it much more difficult to research.
It was really a shame to me that good data would not be used by researchers because it wasn’t accessible enough.
That’s really cool because it was a specific problem that you faced and then developed a specific solution at ACLTC.
I found that to be the case among a lot of bootcampers because they generally came from a previous career and found that technology could solve the things that frustrated them. I can think of at least three other people in my bootcamp whose capstone project was based on problems they faced in their previous career.
Did you find that there was emphasis on job placement throughout the course?
I think we were prepared to a degree. Some resources were made available to us: we learned about interviewing, we learned how to showcase our portfolios, which would help us get a job, and go to conferences. Attending a conference after the bootcamp was ultimately what led to my employment.
What are you up to today?
I start my position at Pivotal Labs on Monday.
You got the connection through a conference, so it wasn’t directly from a hiring day or anything like that.
Was there a career fair or hiring day with ACLTC?
There was a day where we all showed off our apps in 1871 and employers came to us so that was actually pretty cool. I think there were a dozen companies that showed up.
Did you feel like ACLTC prepared you for that job application and interview process?
My situation is a bit of a special case because Pivotal is a polyglot consultancy; they work in a lot of different programming languages and none of the languages that I got interviewed in were languages that I learned in the bootcamp. But I think I had some of the basic programming principles they were looking for in the interview. And of course, I learned much of that through ACLTC.
Throughout the interview process, Pivotal told me what I needed to brush up on and learn. The interviewer gave me not only specific instructions at what I needed to be better at in order to merit a position but also he gave me the sources I would need, the books that would provide me with those skills.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience?
When Jay is giving advice about how to get your career kick-started, that is advice people should take extremely seriously. They told me to blog and to attend conferences, which is ultimately how I met the folks at Pivotal.
I know people tend to think that they will learn to develop and automatically become a developer, but a developer has to be able to get out and talk to people just like anyone looking for a job.