After studying history at Stanford and working in sales and marketing, Sekhar decided to become a software developer. Sekhar tells us how he decided on Turing School after months of research. Turing’s extended program (7 months), inclusive environment and model that ensures no student falls behind are just a few of the traits that set this bootcamp apart.
Liz: Tell us what you were up to before you started at Turing.
Sekhar: I had a pretty roundabout path to Turing, but I think I needed to see what was out there career-wise before choosing to study software. I studied history as an undergrad at Stanford. I took one Intro to Computer Science class and also Intro to Mathematical Logic alongside a mostly humanities course load. Those two classes weren’t required, but everyone encouraged taking courses outside your major. Those experiences were as close as I got to programming.
I started doing sales at a late-stage startup after I graduated, an enterprise software company named Box. For the three years prior to Turing, I worked in sales and marketing and most recently handled marketing for a boutique investment bank. At the end of those three years, I felt that I was not on a very intellectually engaging path and disliked the functional fields I had tried out. I was a budding “business guy” and not excited about it. People often make deliberate choices about their career, but I felt like I’d been making a series of reactive choices and wanted to go back to the drawing board entirely.
I decided to take a break in May and quit my job in finance. That same month I applied to Turing and got accepted. Afterwards I took a few months to myself, traveled, saw family and friends and did Turing's pre-work (a Pragmatic Studios Ruby course and a series of classes through Tealeaf Academy). I started Turing in late August and am set to graduate in mid-March.
Liz: Why did you decide on web development as a career path? Did working with developers factor into this decision?
Sekhar: I was very fortunate in having quite a bit of exposure to tech and to programming before deciding to attend Turing. Growing up in an Indian-American, I had many close friends and family members who’ve all had successful careers in software. In addition to working in tech business-side in Silicon Valley and Colorado myself, I also studied at schools that are very connected to the tech world. As a scholarship kid from Texas, I went to Phillips Exeter, Mark Zuckerberg's alma mater. Just recently, one of my closest friends from Exeter and former roommates quit his job in consulting and learned Rails on his own to start his own e-commerce company. After Exeter, I attended Stanford, where many of my classmates majored in Computer Science. At Stanford CS is now the most popular major; crazily enough, I was actually roommates and friends with one of the co-founders of Snapchat!
I did and do sense a level of opportunity in software. There’s a wide variety of career paths and there are plenty of directions I could see myself moving in. I started researching bootcamps around January of this year, and by May I knew that I wanted to do make the leap. I quit my job and within a week was accepted into Turing. I had the savings to spend a couple of months to relax and prepare for Turing.
Liz: Did you look at schools other than Turing?
Sekhar: Yes, I did some research. I used LinkedIn to see who in my network had gone to different bootcamps. I talked to folks that went to Hack Reactor, Flatiron, Galvanize and Turing. I also used Course Report and similar websites heavily, read plenty of material on Quora and watched a few videos on Youtube that the Turing staff made about the school.
Liz: So you thought about leaving Denver for a boot camp.
Sekhar: I did, but I wanted to stay and would like to stay in the area afterwards working. I have friends here, am in a long-term relationship and just moved here two years ago — I love it. It just worked out that the school that would’ve been my first choice regardless had roots here as well.
It’s easy to make a little too much of your top choice— do I have to go to a school that crosses off every single checkbox? Does that school even exist? I think it was a bit happenstance and bit deliberate that I ended up at Turing, and I couldn't be happier. Turing is clearly one of the best programming schools in the country.
I wasn’t making these decisions quickly and I didn’t reach out Turing two weeks before my class started, though I had classmates who did. I spent months researching bootcamps and took time to think about the decision and choice of school. I went to community nights, talked to the instructors at Turing and ultimately chose this school after some careful deliberation.
Liz: Did you have any doubts about attending bootcamp?
Sekhar: I talked about being exposed to web development and software in general through my education, but even with being exposed to it and having the educational background and ‘pedigree’, I was still a bit scared of the prospect. I was not bad at math, science or anything technical per se, but I chose to be a humanities major and you define yourself partly by what you’re good at and what you've done in the past. So to move out of my comfort zone and what I had studied gave me some initial anxiety.
My brother and father are both engineers, and they were interested but they were apprehensive about the whole educational model. You get funny reactions when you tell people about bootcamp-style schools — it’s unaccredited, starts in August and ends in March, you receive no degree — and it’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around.
Having people go before me and personally researching bootcamps for months (often using Course Report) were both influential in my decision. When I visited New York this past summer during my time off I had dinner with another Exeter friend and his wife, and coincidentally she had just quit her job in finance and enrolled at Flatiron, unbeknownst to me. Another guy from my dorm in high school had completed Flatiron’s iOS immersive this year as well. It’s something that more and more people that I know personally are doing, and that helped pave the path.
Liz: In doing that research, what was it that set Turing apart for you?
Sekhar: Turing in particular has a real community and educational focus, and Jeff obviously has a strong reputation in the Ruby world and programming education space. He’s definitely well known both in and out of Colorado, and everything I read online about Jeff and Turing was positive. The nonprofit side and educational focus of Turing also really appealed to me. The instructors here all have an extensive educational background, many with years of teaching experience in K-12 environments and other arenas. As a work-study role in undergrad, I worked for Stanford in student services and the admissions office. I personally care a lot about education and felt like Turing shared that same ethos. The bootcamp industry is almost entirely for-profit, which I don't inherently find an issue with, but Turing is doing something different and that appealed to me.
I’ve also been out of school for three years and chose to make a career change, so I wanted to have a good foundation in my new skill set. I knew seven months would feel quite different than three months and that I would have less knowledge gaps by the end. I could probably handle a 12-week or 14-week program and 80-hour weeks, but I also know myself and my limits. I was really attracted to the intermission week model. There’s still a bunch of work to do each intermission week at Turing (on the order of 20-40 hours of work), but you can have a bit of a breather from the crazy schedule and stress of being in a module.
Liz: What was the application process like for you? What level did you have to get to coding-wise to get through the application?
Sekhar: Turing has a really good program for absolute beginners, which appealed to me. There’s no coding challenge during the application process but we had a logic challenge. It’s a 1-2 hour test with LSAT-type logic problems. You can find lots of examples of LSAT logic problems online to prepare for it.
The application process consisted of a short form, a writing sample on a topic of interest, a 4 minute video of yourself and the logic challenge. It was a pretty straightforward process and I think a lot of people do it in a day or a weekend. I took about a week on it. I took some time with the take-home logic challenge and I edited the writing sample. You could probably do it all in four to five hours.
Liz: Do you think that process worked well in terms of selecting for students that are a good fit for the program?
Sekhar: I think the application process did a pretty good job; we have a diverse and able cohort overall.
There are about 22 people right now in our second six week module. There are good weeks and tough weeks for me, but I'm managing well and feel like I keep up with my classmates and contribute regularly on projects and in the classroom. Everyone has their areas of strength. We’re starting to get into frameworks and Rails. I know students who are strong at Ruby, but are struggling with Rails. Many folks also gravitate towards front-end versus back-end on projects.
Another huge selling point for Turing was they actually cared about diversity and inclusion. You could tell that they wanted to bring more women, minorities, and more LGBT people into the industry and see a lot of emphasis on that from everybody.
Liz: Are there specific things they do at Turing to foster a more inclusive environment?
Sekhar: Absolutely. We have community days on Fridays where we don't work on our current projects and do student led electives, workshops, and have a guest speaker. Turing really emphasizes taking a break from projects on Fridays. There’s a weekly meetup for the women at Turing to get coffee together that the school supports. I formed an LGBT affinity group that does a handful of events every module.
One Friday tradition is that we have “Gear Ups” which are workshops focused on specific issues. We read a piece, do some writing, discuss it in a small group; it’s usually an hour long. The topics include things like managing stress, how we approach careers and money to diversity and inclusion-related topics. For the first Gear Up, we read a piece about intersectionalities, white privilege and male privilege by a professor at Wellesley (a women’s college in Massachusetts). She talked about her struggles as a woman and yet her simultaneous privilege as a white woman compared to what her black female colleagues went through. It was a really interesting piece on racism and sexism.
I was in a small group composed of two women and myself; we had a really engaging conversation about our prior work experiences and our experience at Turing so far. We all wrote a little bit about what our privileges are and situations that you often don’t ever critically think about. For example, I walk in a grocery store or I walk into a jewelry store and nobody follows me around or thinks I’m going to steal something. That was really powerful for me, discussing issues you would never imagine talking about with my fellow classmates at a “coding school.” Gear Ups are a great component of the Turing experience.
It’s been a real pleasure to attend school here, and I respect what Jeff is doing. He can very easily talk about topics unrelated to programming, but his goal always is, as he always says, “to make students uncomfortable.” Jeff wants people to think, and thinks we’re learning the most and thinking the most when we’re uncomfortable.
Liz: Does Jeff teach any of your modules?
Sekhar: He teaches module one, which has two tracks. There’s an absolute beginner's track for folks who don’t have much coding experience and there’s an advanced beginners track for folks that have had some exposure to programming. He also teaches on rare occasion a guest class in later modules, such as the MVC class in module two.
Liz: Which track did you do?
Sekhar: I did the absolute beginner track, for students with effectively no prior programming experience. I started in the other track but dropped down. The curriculum is designed at two slightly different paces. Both cohorts end up at the same place and merge by the second module.
Jeff taught more of the absolute beginner track, which I think was a really good fit for him and for everybody. I had Jeff in my class most days in my first module.
Liz: Are the classes lecture-focused?
Sekhar: There’s more at the beginning. There’s a good amount of lecture, a good amount of hands-on workshops and a lot of very directed, very structured material. But there is a lot of project time, especially when we get into the bigger projects.
Towards the end of module one, there are a handful of days where it’s all project time as we’re working on the final project.
I think the general approach of the school is that as it gets more project heavy, there’s less class time. The school is very project-heavy, and over the four modules you gradually just do bigger and bigger projects, more and more often.
I’ve definitely never done this many large projects on my own in my life. The closest thing I’ve probably done is write large research papers as an undergrad. I was definitely uncomfortable at the beginning of many big projects at Turing. It takes five to ten plus hours to get a sense of the project’s purpose and sketch out the wireframes and initial code.
Former students advised us to ask questions and get help when we get stuck. They said, “It’s a big adjustment and it’s a difficult school. This is a 70-hour a week commitment, if not more. You’re going to get stuck a lot, especially in the beginning. If you’re stuck for longer than 15 or 30 minutes, ask somebody to point you in the right direction.” That advice has helped me immensely.
Liz: Are the projects that you’ve done so far individual projects? Are they assigned to you?
Sekhar: My sense of the whole curriculum is that it’s half-half. It’s half individual projects and half group projects. There may be slightly more group projects. A big part of their focus is pairing, soft skills and communication.
I’ve done four individual projects and something like three paired projects, at a little less than halfway through. They’re pretty different experiences, working with somebody versus doing a project entirely on your own.
Liz: Do you learn agile methodology?
Sekhar: We do, throughout our experience. We are often given projects where we have simulated client meetings throughout, and we have to write code that’s adaptable to client requests that change over the course of the project. On a related note, every single day we talk about testing, so there’s a focus on TDD (Test-Driven Development) as well throughout the curriculum. Turing tries to simulate the working world environment for developers as much as possible throughout most of the program.
Liz: How do demo days work?
Sekhar: Usually students present projects that they’ve finished in modules 2, 3 and 4. One of the demo days I went I remember seeing what the students did as their final projects. They present, and afterwards you can meet the students and have a talk over pizza and drinks. I followed up with a few students and met them for coffee to learn a bit more about Turing.
Liz: What is assessment like at Turing?
Sekhar: That’s changed quite a bit in the last 3-4 months. Student portfolios are assessed at the end of every module. The portfolio includes all the projects in a given module, community work with Turing, such as participation in clubs or mentoring/pairing with other students, goals for the module and personal reflection on what was learned.
The portfolio is assessed by the instructors. Jeff likens it to defending a dissertation. Modules are seven weeks long and usually more than one person does not pass in each cohort. It’s not easy. The portfolio is separate from the core academic components, which is a final project and a one-on-one assessment.
The final project in modules one and two are two weeks long and involve working with at least one other person. Last module I worked on a project called Headcount in which we analyzed large Excel files with real educational data from all Colorado school districts, cover tens of thousands of lines of spreadsheet data. We parsed that data and built an analyzer to look at test scores and the percentage of students on free lunch in every single school district in Colorado. We tested the Ruby concepts we learned on a production level scale. It was probably one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done in my life, and the hardest project I’ve done so far at Turing.
You have to get certain grades on both the project and 1-on-1 assessment to pass the module, but there’s some room for flexibility. They may give you additional work over the intermission week or an opportunity to reassess later during finals week. There’s a lot of factors that influence graduation from modules at Turing. The flip side is flexibility. The person who I worked with on the first final project ended up repeating module one and she understands everything better this time around. It’s a good system for people to progress at their own pace.
Liz: What’s been the biggest challenge so far at Turing or bootcamp in general?
Sekhar: There’s a lot of challenging components to the bootcamp experience. I went to a difficult high school and college, and I was generally a stereotypical “good student” throughout. I pushed myself a lot, but I would say Turing is probably the hardest I’ve pushed myself in a long time, if not ever.
It’s not like going back to school. I have friends who are in law school or business school and they might have one class on a Friday and another one or two on a Thursday. At Turing you’re at school a minimum of eight hours every weekday (roughly 8:30am to 4:30pm). I’m usually here 12 to 14 hours, 10 hours minimum. I often take work home with me.
The pace has definitely been the biggest challenge. On the flip side, I have learned so much and I have built a lot of tangible, interesting projects. I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough, but I would say I’m doing relatively well among my peers and putting in a solid amount of effort.
Liz: Are there things that you would change about your experience? I’m curious about the feedback loop.
Sekhar: The staff alters the curriculum and program in response to student feedback every single week and especially every module. They also get new ideas based on their observations. Every Friday we complete surveys about the week — which lessons were the best, which lessons were the worst, what could be improved, our thoughts on the assignments and projects. We do “group retros” where we talk about what went well in the week and what went poorly. Students often care about making things a little better for the next group. For example, in the Headcount project, there were parts that were confusing and rough around the edges, so we all edited that project together on Github and improved it for the next group.
Students often have unrealistic expectations of what a school that starts from scratch can do. I wouldn’t say that every lesson is perfectly polished, but I would say this course is better than the majority, if not vast majority, of classes I took in college, and I went to an undergraduate school with plenty of resources.
The instructors I’ve had so far have put a lot of effort into planning the curriculum, taking in student feedback and varying their teaching style because not everybody learns the same way. I’ve given my share of feedback, but overall there isn’t much I would change about the experience.
Liz: Are you confident in your ability to get a job when you graduate?
Sekhar: I am confident. It’s a question that’s definitely on everyone’s mind. A Turing student or alum gets a job offer pretty much every week. Some students in module 4 (the last module) have received job offers already. They might even leave in the middle of the module depending on their personal situation, but usually they stay through the end of school. About two weeks ago, two students left after receiving job offers. Every time a student gets a job offer that they accept, they announce it at the wrap-up at 4 pm and everyone congratulates them. It’s pretty neat to watch and definitely takes away some of the anxiety you have as an early student at Turing.
I’m not worried about getting a job because most Turing students that I know have got a job within three months of graduating, often much sooner. It’s important to be flexible on geography and the role itself. I'm going to keep my eye out, build a strong portfolio of projects and start networking. A lot of students have started at really excellent jobs out of Turing, both locally and around the country if not world. We had one student who accepted a job at Andela, training students at a bootcamp based in Lagos, Nigeria who came from all over Africa.
Liz: What type of company you want to work for?
Sekhar: I’d be happy to go to any place – I know it’s cliché – that offers me the opportunity to learn and grow, receive mentorship, develop hands on experience and work with senior developers. An environment that has a strong culture of TDD and pair programming would be ideal, but I’m pretty flexible given that it’ll be my first role in what’s hopefully a long career in software.