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With a nonconventional work history, Dale Bustad turned to Code Fellows to learn new skills and to get noticed as a developer. We talk to Dale about his experience at Code Fellows, how he got the most out of his time in the JavaScript Development Accelerator, and how he landed a job as a Front-End Developer at Formidable Labs. 

 

Tell us what you were doing before you started at Code Fellows?

A few years back, I was working as the director of technology for a startup in Seattle, focusing mostly on networks and systems administration. I did end up doing some programming, largely because it was a technical company with no technical employees; when things went wrong I had the opportunity to step in and make it work.

 

Did you study computer science in undergrad or did you do any self-teaching?

In undergrad I pursued a double major in physics and music. I actually got a job before I graduated so I don’t have an undergrad degree.

After I worked at the startup, I left technology for a period of time. I worked taking care of a man who had quadriplegia for about a year. Later, I worked at a non-profit in the Philippines, working with kids who are impacted by HIV and Tuberculosis.

After that, I needed a break from that sort of work — I was looking for something intellectually challenging, and found myself in a place where I had this nonconventional work history. I had some pretty solid tech background, but it was a few years back.

Code Fellows was an opportunity to learn, but also an opportunity to be noticed — whereas before, I wasn’t compelling enough on the surface to get somebody to turn the page. I was looking for something that would give me the opportunity to talk about my skill set.

 

That network is definitely valuable.

Yeah! And also, I learn pretty quickly and I can be self-directed, but I also find working with other people to be really motivating. So while I feel I probably could have learned everything that I learned on my own in Code Fellows, I probably wouldn’t have.

Those were really my two primary motivations: to get noticed and to have that accountability in learning. A third point I considered was the fact that I would have people to go to when I didn’t understand something. That was also a compelling reason for me.

 

Did you look at any other bootcamps or only Code Fellows?

I only looked at Code Fellows for several reasons. The reason I was excited about Code Fellows was even though it was expensive, they had the job guarantee and that meant something. If I didn’t have a job in a year, I would get the money back. That would not be ideal obviously; but it’s definitely an incentive for them to follow through and help me make it. That was the thing that convinced me and convinced my wife that it seemed like a worthwhile thing.

I don’t think I considered any other bootcamps. I didn’t want to do something that was online because I wanted that in-person accountability, and Code Fellows was located in my city, Seattle.

 

Why did you choose the JavaScript course?

I originally applied and was accepted to the Python course. Something came up with the instructor, so they had to defer it for awhile. They gave us the option of waiting for the Python course, or entering into the JavaScript course.

Considering how everything was lining up with my finances and how I had already planned to start Code Fellows at the end of October, I decided to jump into Javascript. In retrospect, I was really glad of that because I was already pretty strong in Python; it had always been my go-to language when solving problems, but I was pretty inexperienced with frontend development.  So JavaScrip was a solid complement to my existing skillset.

 

What was the application process like for you?

There were three or four stages. I think again in retrospect, I was more nervous about it than I should have been. All things considered, I was a pretty good candidate and just didn’t know that about myself.

First, I submitted an application. It was a pretty long application with my work history, why I wanted to join Code Fellows, that sort of thing. Next, I got a coding challenge and then they wanted me to submit a video. It was a 2-minute video, and we were asked to explain something about programming, or with programming. My instinct was that it was intentionally left open-ended.

Since I had been doing some travelling, I used the Google Maps API to get the geo-locations of all the places I’d been and programmatically calculated my average air speed over the two years, which had ended up being like 6 MPH. So that’s what I submitted.

The final stage was coming in for an interview - that was with Will (at the time he was CEO). I enjoyed that conversation a lot. He had some technical questions in there but I think he was really getting a gauge for who I was and was I going to be a good fit because they’d already done a lot of technical screening; and maybe also to make sure that I didn’t get somebody else to send in the work for me. It was about a 20-minute conversation, and I got a good reaction from him. He said he might hire me there on the spot but he’d definitely hire me after Code Fellows and that was very encouraging for me to hear.

 

How long did that process take?

I think I was accepted 3 months before the program started, which I think is considerably more in advance than a lot of students; I’m not sure exactly.

Before the course started, they had us do prep courses online. Since I’d already done a lot of preparing on my own, I was in a good place in terms of computer science knowledge, but I was pretty new to Javascript so the work was definitely worthwhile.

 

When was your course? When did it start?

Mine was the first Javascript course. It started at the very end of October 2013 and went through to the end of December.

 

Once you were there, what was the cohort like? Was everyone on the same level?

That’s a good question. I don’t think everyone came in with the same skill set or even the same capability. Also, because we were the first Javascript course, they were still developing the curriculum as we went. It ended up being really good but I would guess that subsequent courses and students had a leg up because there was a pre-established validated process for learning these things.

I think there was maybe one person that dropped out part-way, and that was because something happened with his family.

 

Was there a lot of support during the class for people who were struggling?

I think for the most part, people got through it. There were definitely resources there to help people get through it. I think some people also went in with different motivations, so there were a few people that went in not even for the job guarantee. There were a lot who were there for that, but some people just wanted to supplement their knowledge or their pre-existing career or whatever.

 

How many people were in your cohort?

It was about 20. It was pretty big. And I think that was partly because there were several other people who joined from the Python course. So it would’ve been smaller but for the fact that we joined it.

 

Who were the instructors? Was there a good student-teacher ratio?

We had two instructors and they had different, complementary backgrounds. The first was Colin McGill; he’s not instructing anymore. He had a background in programming education. I think he actually started doing programming education with middle schoolers. He also was in the very early stages of his own startup and I think that’s ultimately why he left. He’s one of the cofounders of Polis and they’re doing some pretty cool things with machine learning, collaboration, and visualization. Colin didn’t have a heavy CS background; he was self-taught.

Our other instructor, Dan Hable, had worked for several tech companies and had a lot more hardcore computer science knowledge than Colin did. Colin was better at design and solving problems from the front-end perspective, whereas Dan was maybe better at the hard math. We definitely had people to go to when we had issues and people who could answer the questions we came across.

 

Did you ever experience burnout throughout the course or were you ever challenged in that way? And how did you push through it?

I’m not sure how to answer that question because I think I was sort of atypical. I was super motivated going in. I didn’t have a lot of spare cash so if I was going to spend this money, I was going to take advantage of the opportunity.

In the last two weeks, I slept like 4 hours a night, and worked basically the rest of the time.

I was hired before we graduated, and I think part of the reason is because I was very ambitious in the projects that I chose and what I pursued while I was there. Some people were doing what they were told to do and going through the process – which is fine, absolutely nothing against that. But going in with the intention of taking advantage of every opportunity definitely benefitted me in the end because there were a lot of opportunities that presented themselves.

 

Tell us about a project that you worked on that you were proud of during the class.

In our course, we did two big projects; one after the first four weeks and then one after the second four weeks. The first project I did on my own, and for my second, I invited someone to join me partway through. I was eager for his help because I respected him and felt we worked well together.

In my first project, I built an invoicing system where you could send out invoices to people and you’d see a printable invoice, and recipients could view, print, and pay for that invoice by credit card or bank transfer.

My second project was a Google Voice clone. We got multiple-phone ringing, voicemail transcription, ability to reply to SMS through the web interface — more than I thought we’d get through in a week.

 

Was the rest of the curriculum lecture-based or were you doing projects that were assigned?

The last week of each set of four weeks was project-based. Both instructors would stay late and make themselves available; students could work and get help as we needed

With the exception of our project weeks (the fourth and eighth weeks of our course), we could have lectures and new material in the morning on Monday through Thursday, followed by application of those concepts in the afternoon.  Sometimes that would be in the form of smaller one- or two-day projects, and sometimes it would be homework problems or additional reading. Instructors were available to answer questions and help people along if they had trouble.

On Friday, they’d bring in someone to speak to us and answer questions: someone from Google, several from local startups, recruiters, etc.

 

What are you up to today? Tell us where you’re working and what your job entails!

Two weeks before I graduated, I got a job offer from Formidable Labs, and I jumped on it. They’re located here in Seattle in the Fremont neighborhood. They have a couple of large projects; one is an ongoing redesign of Speedtest.net.

Our biggest customer is Wal-Mart, so I’m working on a big Wal-Mart.com redesign.

 

Did you end up working with Javascript or with other languages?

I am working 100% with Javascript – well, maybe 95% with a smattering of things on the side. All entirely front end work right now.

 

Do you work on a team?

Yeah. When I started, there were like 5 or 6 of us (at Formidable) working on WalMart projects, and that’s grown a little bit since. Then there’s also a dev team that’s employed by Wal-Mart and we work with them pretty closely.

 

How did you get that job before the program was even over?

The CEO of my company came and visited Code Fellows once. He’s the co-author of Thorax, a JS framework built on top of Backbone, so he came to introduce us to the framework and demonstrate the problems that it solves. Later, Formidable was growing and he needed people and he must have felt good about the people he’d met at Code Fellows.

He knew one of my instructors, Colin, and Colin recommended certain students for interviews, and I was one of those.  The first interview was with Ryan, the CEO, and was sort of informal. We discussed my projects, what I’d learned, what I’d built; I got to show off some of the things I was building. That led to a technical interview with the CTO, which also went well. Or, at least, it must have!

Working at Formidable has afforded me continued opportunities as the company has grown. I’ve been able to take leadership roles for sub-projects, and I’m now part of the hiring team at Formidable.

 

Since you now have a hand in hiring, have you looked to Code Fellows as a source for talent? Have you all hired anyone else from Code Fellows?

Yes! I think there are now five Code Fellows graduates working here, out of a 20-person company.

Really, the big qualifier for our hiring has not been “Do you know how to do this?” but “Do we think you could learn it quickly?” We’re looking for people who can demonstrate critical thinking and the ability to pick apart a problem, as well as strong communication skills.

 

Have you continued your education further after you graduated from Code Fellows?

I have not done any formal continuing education, but there’s been a lot of opportunity to learn here on the job.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve come pretty far in a short time. Actually, I spoke at Code Fellows the other day and one of my biggest pieces of advice was to view your first job as an extension of Code Fellows. Don’t go for the highest salary, don’t necessarily go for all the perks, but really try to find a place where you can continue your learning and continue developing. If you can approach it with the right attitude, that’s going to have greater long-term benefits than some of the short-term benefits that may be attractive now.

That’s what initially attracted me to Formidable Labs. They do a lot of training; they literally wrote the book on front-end testing and they’ve written some of the frameworks that we use. I really wanted to learn from people who were smart and had done a lot and, hopefully, that would rub off on me.

 

Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t touch on?

I have been pretty happy with my decision to go to Code Fellows. I feel like it paid off better than I expected. My underlying advice would be to not be complacent and take advantage of your time there — don’t waste any of it.

 

Want to learn more about Code Fellows? Check out their School Page on Course Report or their website here!

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