Ilana Horowitz decided to take the leap and attend RefactorU coding bootcamp after feeling burnt out in her job as a legal assistant. She had to decide between doing a CS degree or a coding bootcamp, but after starting the degree, she chose to switch to a bootcamp, allowing her to upskill very quickly. Ilana tells us about her path to starting a bootcamp and why she chose RefactorU over other bootcamps.
What were you up to before you went to RefactorU?
I got my undergraduate degree in gerontology and anthropology at the State University of New York College, at Oneonta in 2011. I had planned to get a master’s in gerontology, which is the study of seniors and the aging population, because a lot of the jobs I was looking at required master’s degrees. But in spring break of senior year, I kind of had a mini crisis and realized I was not 100% sure about the master’s, so I didn’t go ahead with it. I graduated and looked at jobs, but the job market wasn’t great. I couldn’t get hired without either having a lot of experience, or a master’s degree. So gerontology sadly fell to the wayside.
Through that process of struggling to find a job, my dad suggested I get a paralegal certificate. I looked into it; it was pretty simple so I did that, then got hired in the field. I worked as a paralegal on the East Coast and then in Denver, before I started at RefactorU.
Did you ever take a CS class in your undergrad or had you ever played around with web development before?
In middle school, a friend and I would build really horrible websites and try to design Livejournal layouts. Then in my undergraduate program, I took an intro to web design course, using mostly HTML.
When did you decide to start thinking about web development or about tech as a career?
I got burnt out working as a legal assistant. At my last job, I had asked for more work or bigger projects or stuff like that and they showed no initiative to keep me on board or to keep me engaged in what I was doing. Half the time, I was just sitting there 40 hours a week doing nothing. You don’t realize how bad it is until you’re just sitting there doing nothing.
I’d always known becoming a paralegal wasn’t going to be my end all career goal. My boyfriend is a software engineer, and seeing him in this job he loves, I realized I wanted to be in a field where I have projects I can do myself, where I’m proud of what I’m accomplishing, doing real work, and seeing what I’m doing in real time.
Did you try out coding on your own using Codecademy or did you go straight into thinking about a bootcamp?
I had completed Codecademy’s HTML, CSS, and Command Line courses on my own beforehand, and had dabbled in the Ruby and Python courses.
Did you look at bootcamps other than RefactorU? How did you make that decision?
I actually started looking at online bachelor’s programs for CS before I had heard of bootcamps. I found one through Oregon State University; I applied, got in and I did one semester. But it didn’t work for me because it was hundreds of pages of reading while I was working a 40-hour a week job. It was too much reading, not enough doing. So I put the bachelor’s on hold to see what my other options were.
I applied to Galvanize and didn’t get in, but I asked what I could do better, and they told me to practice as much as I could, which was obvious to me.
My boyfriend actually told me about RefactorU and I applied on a whim. They got back to me really quickly and it was actually only a week before the start of their January program. The COO Ed Powers made time the same day to talk to me. It felt like a very personal experience – they were interested in me as a person and not as another number to fill a seat.
It’s interesting that you get to compare the experience of an online bachelor’s degree versus a bootcamp.
I find I much prefer applying what I’ve learned by building a program or doing code, rather than just reading about it, because sure, you can understand it but you’re not applying it to real world scenarios.
What was the application process like at RefactorU?
There were a number of steps and tasks, including questions about problem solving and teamwork. For example, they asked me to tell them about a difficult problem I had had to solve and how I solved it. We also had to build a function called Optimus Prime.
Were you able to build the function on your own?
I was at a point where I was able to do it on my own. I had a one-hour window to complete step three of the interview process. Thankfully, I knew what I was doing.
Did you ever think about leaving Denver for a bootcamp or was location important to you?
I did consider it, but at the same time, I live in Denver and there are so many great coding bootcamps here. Why would I go somewhere like New York when there are great opportunities here?
What was the first week at RefactorU like?
I started on Friday, January 8. On the first day we did orientation. We got to meet everybody else in the cohort and did some activities to get to know our classmates. On Monday, we started lectures and coding. The instructors did a quick review of HTML and CSS, then gave us an assignment using 3D animation in CSS. Throughout the week, we had lectures on CSS and open coding time as well.
Overall, RefactorU consists of four or five modules or assignments they’d like us to get through each week. So during open coding time we take what we learned in the lectures and apply it to those assignments.
Did you have to do a pre-work curriculum before you got to the first day?
Did you feel overwhelmed in the first week of the bootcamp?
On the second day, I hit a speed bump where I was coding, and I think I started off on bad footing. By the time I realized what was wrong, I was really deep into what I was doing so I came out of Tuesday feeling very discouraged. I had to sit myself down when I got home and say, “Look; it’s the second day, everybody’s going to have these issues, this is the real world.” Any job has some days which are great and others which aren’t. I went back in on Wednesday and since then, everything’s been fine. I haven’t felt overwhelmed yet.
What is the mix of students in your cohort like? Are people at the same technical level?
I think there’s 27 of us. There are five women including myself. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I knew there wouldn’t be a ton of women. But there’s enough that I don’t feel so isolated. RefactorU told us they are really looking to make sure they are diversified. They understand the importance of getting women and minorities into the field.
Everybody seems for the most part to be on the same level. Some people have been bouncing ideas off of each other and working well with each other, so that’s been nice. I don’t feel like I’m struggling or that everyone else has surpassed me.
What backgrounds do the other students have?
The majority of people I’ve talked to are career changers. It seems that most of us have come from all different fields. One guy was in the IT field, but no one else that I’m aware of had any other prior tech experience.
Who are the instructors?
We have two instructors, Rob Camp and Raphael Serota, plus two or three TAs. Our TA Jenn Vance is a RefactorU graduate.
In your first week of RefactorU – what were you most excited about for the next couple of months ahead?
For me, going from a career where I felt I was doing nothing and had nothing to show for myself, to building a project, website or an app is what I’m most excited about. It’s exciting for me to feel I’m accomplishing things every day. I haven’t been in school for a while so I like the environment of learning something new every day and applying it.
Do you have a career goal after you graduate? Do you want to work for a specific kind of company or do you have a dream job?
I honestly don’t. Some of the students here know what they want. I came into it without a concrete plan after graduation, because I’m not sure what will really end up being the most fascinating for me – maybe front end, maybe back end? I want to learn more before making a decision. That being said, I don’t think I’d necessarily want to work in a huge company. I guess I’m looking for a mid-size company right now until I feel more comfortable on my own. I want a company with a great culture fit for me.
Does Refactor U have a job guarantee?
They have a 96% job placement rate with their students 12 weeks after graduation. I do realize not everybody’s going to get a job instantly. There is a career team who we can make personalized sessions with and they’ll do sessions with us weekly. Talking to them, it sounds like they have great networks so I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to get hired after this.
Since you went through two different application processes for two different bootcamps, what advice do you have for people when they’re just starting to apply to bootcamps?
I think you should really do your research. Sure, the majority of them are going to be great programs but that said, each one is a little bit different. There might be different learning styles, teaching techniques, the length of time, job placement rate or even what languages you’re learning. I think you need to know what you’re looking for out of this. If you get the opportunity, go to an open house and meet the instructors, previous students, and staff.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience at RefactorU?
One thing I’ve noticed is that the team here understands the importance of having a life outside of a coding bootcamp. RefactorU’s bootcamp is 40 hours a week and then you have study time on your own. People might have kids, they might want to work out, or they have other interests. They’ve been really good about balancing work time. Some programs are up to six months long, but a lot of people can’t be out of work for that long. Ten weeks is manageable when you’re looking to change your career. Also, the instructors, TAs, and staff are awesome!