Sarah Hermanns spent years in "the black hole of retail" after graduating from University of Washington before starting free tutorials and completing two Code Fellows programming bootcamps. She fully committed to a career transformation by applying to the Code Fellows iOS Dev Accelerator, where she is currently a student.
Tune into this Live Q&A where Sarah tells us:
Tell us what you were up to before you started at Code Fellows.
I graduated from the University of Washington back in 2008. I got a BA in the compared history of ideas. It was interesting but wasn’t super applicable.
Then I ended up falling into the “black hole of retail.” But I moved up and I’ve been a store manager for the last three years but I just didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. I was looking to do something different, a lot more challenging and I eventually found Code Fellows.
Even though your undergrad degree wasn't technical, it does sound very critical.
Yeah, that’s what I enjoyed about it. It really helped me think outside the box which is also why it was painful to be in retail for so long because it really didn’t challenge me at all.
Did you ever take a computer science class or an intro class in your undergrad?
I didn’t for computer science. I just took a ton of math. I started in college training to be a nutritionist, but then I ended up switching gears. I think I was only a couple of classes away from being able to minor in math, so that’s why I figured this would be a good fit also.
What was the push to start looking at coding bootcamps from being in retail? What made you start looking at coding as a career?
I have a friend who works for the Nordstrom mobile team. She was a scrum master. She didn’t have very much of a computer science background but she always told me that there’s a lot of opportunities and she thought that I could probably pick it up really easily. That’s how I started trying free tutorials and what not and I found Code Fellows. It’s close to where I live, too.
Where is the Code Fellows classroom in Seattle?
It’s right in South Lake Union, so where Amazon is, right in the center of that.
Which online coding tutorials did you use before you actually decided to take the plunge?
I did some Codecademy; I paid for a couple inexpensive Udemy courses. To be honest, anything that I could get my hands on that was free or close to free.
Did you look at any other bootcamps in Seattle or even think about leaving Seattle?
I found out about Code Fellows and knew nothing was going to be more convenient for my current lifestyle. I think a lot of it was timing-based for me; I would’ve been willing to go down to their program in Portland. And then some other all-female code school got in touch with me from California but I was already accepted to this bootcamp so I didn’t even look at it.
Which classes have you done at Code Fellows?
It was a steep learning curve. Then I took the Foundations II for iOS specifically. I really enjoyed the visual elements of Xcode, to be able to see the design part in the same interface that you’re building functional code; I really enjoy not having to jump around all these different programs.
So you did a bootcamp, a foundations class and then an iOS Development Accelerator?
The foundations one wasn’t full time, it was just evenings for like a month.
When did you decide to quit your job and do this as a career transformation?
I decided right after I took the iOS Foundations evening class. I kind of already knew I was going to do it but I wanted to make sure I could get into the Development Accelerator and that actually wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I picked the course that was a couple of months out, because financially I needed to save some more money and what not. So I started in August.
What appealed to you about iOS and developing for mobile?
I felt like that’s what I’m always using. I’ve obviously been back on my computer but generally speaking prior to that, anything I was doing was usually off of my phone. I really was interested in working on a mobile platform. I switched to an Apple phone at least eight years ago. I know they still have their faults but they’re my preferred to other brands.
Was your goal in doing the Development Accelerator to graduate and get a job as a junior developer?
Yes, definitely. I also have such a strong background in retail sales management, I would actually like to be able to be a developer but then work between developers and people who are trying to drive business results. I think that I’d be really valuable in that world. I can talk to people, I’m very outgoing so I would like to possibly utilize that in the future.
What was the application like for you? Did you have to do a technical interview or a formal since you’ve already gone through that foundations and Bootcamp class?
I still did have to do an interview but because the same instructor was going to be teaching a Development Accelerator and I had just finished, I feel like he was familiar with the level that I was at and was comfortable. It wasn’t as intense as it would’ve been if he never met me before.
Did you have to do a coding challenge during the application?
I actually did not. But I also think that that was because of what I produced in the class. I think he verbally asked me a couple of questions to see if I could recall something that we had just finished but I don’t think I actually had to do anything on a whiteboard.
You got the Diversity Scholarship (women, minorities, veterans) for the Development Accelerator?
Yeah, I had asked a couple of times if there was anything you could do to get a discount or whatever, but the answer was no until they’d started on this scholarship program. I think it was only a month before the program started. I’d already been admitted before I applied for it.
How much of the tuition did it cover?
About 70%, so a lot. I wasn’t counting on getting it. I was so excited. It was awesome.
What was the application process for the scholarship like?
You have to answer five question but you could answer them in any way you wanted, I guess. It’s interesting because you fill it out online, almost like a survey. But of course I didn’t just start typing, I spent a lot of time editing and what not. I really treated it like a merit scholarship.
How long did it take to find out?
A couple of weeks or a month because I applied right before a deadline.
When did you start the Development Accelerator?
We’re exactly a day out from being halfway, so the 3rd of August.
How many people are in your cohort?
Just shy of 20. It’s funny because at the beginning I had heard that I thought we’re only going to have 12 people but I know that there’s at least 16 or 17 of us now.
Does it feel like a diverse cohort in terms of age, gender, and race?
Definitely; it’s really interesting I would say age and experience wise. There’s actually a lot more people in my class with quite a bit of experience than I would’ve expected. And it’s not from that platform but from other languages; but there’s some pretty experienced people.
Have the skill levels evened out over the last month?
It felt more like we were even at the beginning. I was more comfortable in the homework weeks because you’re learning how to do something and you’re implementing a similar application of it in the homework. Project week, all bets are off—you can work on anything.
I’m in a group; we chose to do something where it involves some of the things we already knew but I’d say at least a 50% of the stuff we haven’t learned yet so we’re having to teach ourselves.
While you’re working on the project?
Yeah, it’s like learn as you go and we’re lucky; there’s one of the people in my group who is phenomenal with this stuff. But I would say without his assistance I feel like I wouldn’t be able to know where to go with it. But we get to learn from each other and really enjoy how we work.
How much of a foundation do you think the previous courses you took gave you before you started the Development Accelerator? Would you have been able to jump into this iOS Development Accelerator without having gone through those?
What are you learning? Can you give us a quick rundown of the technologies?
Yeah, I’d say that big things that we use constantly, you really need to understand how to use Table Views, Table Views are in every app that exists and there’s obviously lots of different forms but I think you need to be comfortable with that. In the first week we started to get familiar with how to parse data, which means anytime we need to scrape web API for any information, you need to be able to parse through what they give you, to get out what you need. And we’ve used that in every app since that one, with a little less guidance.
We’ve learned how to do the map kit, the core location which you use a lot in different applications.
Do you know the curriculum from week to week or day to day?
Our assignments are posted at the beginning of the week and you’re able to see “today I’m probably going to learn about these five topics.” I’d say probably in a day we cover four major topics and then you’re asked to implement that in the homework. But as far as like what order we’re going to learn these things in, no. It just depends on how he wants to do it and every week there’s a different example.
The first week we built an iteration of Twitter and then we did one that we parsed the backend service and then we did one for Github too. You never know what we’re going to do.
Who’s your instructor now?
His name is Brad Johnson.
What’s his teaching style like and does it work with your learning style?
Yeah, absolutely. He’s really laid back and I think that he goes at a really nice pace and with a lecture it’s a perfect balance of learning concepts on slides and he’s talking about them and then he goes in and does a demo so that you actually get to see it in action. I know for me, I like the way it works because I don’t have to try to keep up with what he’s doing. I can just watch and then later on I can access all of the code to look at it or look at the slides again.
Does he do traditional lectures?
Our days are broken up. We’re here for eight hours. Half a day you spend working on implementing features that you learned how to create the day before and then the second half of the day we spend in lecture, so usually we don’t spend more than three hours in lecture and we take breaks.
How many hours are you committing to Code Fellows per week?
I’d say for me, I’m here between 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. every day. I always stay until at least 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. but I also need a mental break so I usually go home and then spend another couple of hours either in the evening or early the day before working on it. So I’d say you spend at least 10 hours a day.
In project week that’s not even close. We should be here all night but we don’t stay that late.
Can you tell us about the projects that you’re working on right now?
It was actually my idea. We’d go through ideas and then vote. We’re actually creating an app where you can build your own scavenger hunt. Anybody could use it. Essentially, you come to a screen first where you can search through hunts that other people have created. We would like people to do this anywhere they want to; you can make a hunt about anything.
It sounds like a cool idea, I would use it.
It would be really cool if we could actually get people to use it for team building. We’d like to make hunts either public or private too, so if you wanted to create one for your birthday and invite all your friends and try to find special breweries in Seattle, you could do that. We also think it would be really nice for people who are new to a city, if you’ve moved somewhere new you could access hunts that locals have put together that aren’t so generic.
We’d love to give some sort of incentive to people who do it too, so if you’re in a business that was included in a hunt maybe if you checked into that location you’d get a dollar off something. We like the idea but it’s got a long way to go.
Tell us about some of the functionality. You mentioned there’s login; what does the user do?
The screen, your initial view controller is just a collection view of a whole bunch of hunts. I think we might have time to do it before tomorrow but I doubt it—we’re also going to have a rating underneath it. And that’s actually a tab bar controller so you can see hunts that you can search through. They’ve already been created and there’s a tab that you can go to: there are your hunts. When you’re in the “Your Hunts” tab, it’ll show you any hunts you’ve created previously or any hunts that you’re partially done with. Let’s say last week you started a hunt but you haven’t had time to finish it; it’ll show those.
Then you can segway another view controller when you can create a hunt yourself. You essentially name your hunt, describe it briefly and then you scrape the Google Places API for you to add places to your hunt and then you add a clue. Then you jump back to the same view controller that you were on and it shows a list of all the clues you created.
Was it difficult to use that Google Places API? What was the most difficult part technically?
Well, the whole thing. We thought we could just use Map Kit but then we realized that we really needed to be able to get an image for the location that you were pinning. And the problem is that people would have to take those images themselves and then upload them from their gallery. You’re not going to have time to walk around and take a picture of everything you want in your hunt, you need to be able to gather that someway, so we decided that Google Places would be an easier way because they give an image of whatever you’ve typed in. I think it was a wise decision but we were already a ways through the Map Kit part.
Tell us about the group that you’re working with. How many people are in the group?
There are four of us.
What have you noticed about working on a dev team?
I think it’s really hard to get started, because you have to have a roadmap of where you’re going but you also don’t know. You don’t really know how far you’re going to be able to get, so you try to scale it down into the lowest basic features and see if you could get there and then add from there, which is what we’ve done. I don’t think we realized how much of a project we were getting ourselves into. It sounded simpler on paper than it actually is.
You have one week to finish?
Yeah, we really have four days because we’re presenting tomorrow at 1:00 p.m., so we have tonight and tomorrow morning to finish it off.
That’s exciting! Will you deploy this to the app store? Is that a part of the project?
It should go on our resumes at least, as a project in progress and we would like to do that but you have to have it perfect. I’d say that we’ll continue to work on it in our free time and possibly you might see it. I’d like to see it happen.
So you are halfway through this class; has Code Fellows started with job prep or doing interview practice, resume building or they don’t think about those until the end?
No, we do stuff every week; every Friday except for project week. We usually have an hour-long presentation but I think the first week it was on networking events and how to be better at that. The second week was on updating any of our social media platforms to accurately convey who we are. And last week was resume tips. There’s something every week.
What do you think about the Seattle dev community? Is it a community that you like? Have you gotten involved in other ways other than Code Fellows?
I have gone to some meetup events and I think Seattle is an interesting place. I think that Code Fellows, I’m more excited about it because we’re not just here in class all the time. I’m meeting people that are from all these different platforms, those are going to be very similar to a lot of people that I’ll be working with out in the real world; I think that’s pretty reassuring.
But I do think especially being down here on the Amazon campus, it’s a little bit weird. I think it’s a harder community to break into, until you’re actually a developer.
Since you were saying a lot of other classes in Development Accelerators even at Code Fellows and web and a lot of other technologies, do you all overlap? Do you ever work with other classes?
Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you think would helpful to future bootcamp students in general or at Code Fellows?
I would just say I wish that I would’ve exhausted more free resources, and I’d say to take anything that you can do or watch for free and just stretch it as far as possible—anything you can build to give yourself more experience prior to doing this, because the more you have going in the more you get out of it. So not just scraping by to get the basics; you’re getting to dig for information that’s deeper than what’s taught in the homework.