Although he had a solid career in technical support, Tim Martinak wanted to take his love for technology to the next level. He started learning Rails in Bloc’s Software Developer Track while balancing his full-time job at Braintree in Chicago, and when a Software Engineering Apprenticeship opened up at Braintree, Tim went for it! Tim tells us why a Skills Fund loan made his learning possible, how a Bloc project helped him land his apprenticeship at Braintree before graduating, and why his people skills are so useful as a developer.
What were you up to before Bloc?
I started out in entry level IT support at a number of different companies including Best Buy. Eventually I made my way to Apple, working at the Genius Bar, which was fun for a few years, but I got the bug to do something more. I ended up in tech support at a mobile payment system company called Braintree, where I was exposed to some basic coding. It was an opportunity to dabble, play, and learn, and do something I had a knack for.
But I wanted to take it to the next level, get away from hardware, and start writing code and making websites. I was always amazed by the products coming out of technology companies and I thought it would be really fun to be on that side of things. I like making and creating and wanted to add coding to my portfolio. So I started looking at coding bootcamps and Bloc immediately came up.
It sounds like you started learning to code by yourself. Why did you feel like you needed to pay for a bootcamp like Bloc rather than continue to teach yourself how to code?
People are inherently different. Right now, there’s something wonderful happening in technology – this massive open source movement of knowledge. People are willing to share software engineering resources for free. It’s phenomenal. However, to fully take advantage of that you need to understand how those open source communities are built, and have the drive, and self-motivation to excel. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people! I wanted a pre-structured learning environment; a class that had a start and an end, with the steps laid out to get there. I was also looking for a mentor – I knew I would run into problems, or gaps in understanding. I wanted to start writing code professionally sooner rather than later, so I didn’t want to get stuck without anyone to turn to. I knew my personality and I knew I would benefit from the structure of a coding bootcamp.
What made you choose an online coding bootcamp instead of an in-person bootcamp?
One of the reasons I was very focused on an online program like Bloc was because I needed to keep working full time. The way that Bloc structures their Software Engineering Track was important, and I planned to do Bloc and keep working at Braintree. I live about an hour southwest of Chicago in the suburbs. It’s fairly easy for me to get into the city for work, but my family is in the suburbs. Balancing my time between work and family is important, so that was a big deciding factor when I was choosing an online bootcamp rather an in-person bootcamp. Because Bloc is online and part time, I could do it from anywhere and be very flexible. I can speed up and slow down my pace, I can freeze the program and take a break, so the cohort isn’t reliant on me if something comes up. Having that flexibility was really important for me.
What stood out about Bloc in your research compared to other online coding bootcamps?
I thought about attending a bootcamp for three or four years before I actually enrolled. I had seen bootcamps come and go, and watched Bloc evolve. They didn’t offer a Software Engineering Track when I first started my research, which is why I didn’t take the plunge. It turned out waiting was beneficial.
I specifically wanted to do the Software Engineering Track. A lot of other bootcamps do not go into as much depth in their curriculum. Most bootcamps I found would be equivalent to Bloc’s Web Designer Track, which is not a bad thing, but if you want to get further into underlying technology or methodologies, various design patterns, and a lot of nuts and bolts, then you need to learn software engineering. I didn’t find anything comparable to the Bloc program, which was another selling point. I figured it would be worth the investment to do that track.
I did know that Braintree was a Rails shop, but that didn’t affect my choice to learn Rails. When I first started Bloc, I didn’t realize that I would be finishing in an apprenticeship at Braintree! I didn’t know where I would end up, it was just a happy coincidence.
How did you pay for Bloc? Any tips for our readers?
By the time I applied for Bloc, they wanted to offer their program to as wide an audience as possible. One way to do that was partnering with Skills Fund and other microloan companies like Upstart and LendingTree to help people finance their education, because coding bootcamps are not cheap. It can be tough to apply for a private loan, but because Skills Fund was working directly with Bloc, they understand coding bootcamps.
The Skills Fund application process was very straightforward. It’s different for everyone, but it took about two days for Skills Fund to approve my loan after I submitted my application. After that, they handled everything with Bloc – finalizing the loan and actually sending the tuition. I really didn’t have to do anything besides apply for the loan. I didn’t have to move anything from my bank account, everything was automatically linked up and sent to Bloc. It was a very easy process from start to finish. All in all, Skills Fund just kept surprising and delighting me throughout the process. They have a very clear partnership with Bloc.
What’s the learning platform like at Bloc? Is it easy to stay on track and engaged?
It’s set up based on which track and what pace you’re on. Bloc’s control panel is like a road map, which shows you where they expect you to be based on your track, your course duration, and your current progress. Each section is cut up into modules, and each module has around 7 checkpoints. Based on your track and your expected finish date, they give you a minimum number of checkpoints to finish each week to stay on pace. They are very good at communicating what you need to accomplish each week.
How often do you interact with your instructors and mentors?
Originally, I was working at a faster pace – I had 2 one-on-one meetings per week with my mentor. I would make every meeting unless something came up, then we’d reschedule. Since my daughter was born, I no longer have a lot of time, so I’ve dropped to a slower pace, and meet one-on-one with a mentor once per week.
On top of the scheduled meetings, there is a Slack community and a lot of the mentors, alumni, and students hang out in there, so I can ask anyone questions, not necessarily only my mentor. It’s easy to interact with mentors and support at Bloc.
Did you have one main mentor throughout the Software Engineering Track? How do you choose your mentor?
The mentors themselves have specialties, so you have the option to pick from a list of available mentors who specialize in your track. It is possible to have more than one mentor throughout your time at Bloc. The Software Engineering Track is cut into two areas – the web development section and the software engineering principles – and some mentors only specialize in one of those areas, so you might switch to another mentor for the second half. That was the case for me. My software engineering mentor Richard Newman actually ended up getting promoted within Bloc, then I switched over and have a new software engineering mentor, Kinsey Ann Durham and she’s wonderful.
How many hours per week do you spend on Bloc and how do you balance it with your full-time job?
Originally I was putting in about 25 to 30 hours per week minimum, when I was at the two-meeting pace. At my slower pace, I’ll spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a week on Bloc, which is as much as I have time for. That has pushed my expected graduation date from October 2017 to April 2018. So I changed from a 54-week to a 108-week program.
For the faster pace, it was a mad dash. If I wasn’t working, sleeping, or walking my dog, I was parked in front of my laptop, hammering away, or Googling furiously. My wife is wonderful and put up with me paying a lot more attention to the computer. It did mean that my entire weekend was Bloc, just writing code, being frustrated, and Googling, but that’s part of learning. I would compare it to having a second job.
How often do you interact with other students? Do you feel like you’re part of a group or is it more of a one-on-one learning experience?
Bloc encourages a community experience. I’m sure there are people who don’t feel comfortable doing that, or aren’t as active in the Slack groups, but there are definitely familiar faces whom I’ve come to know in Slack. I, myself, have responded to other students who are stuck on something, so it’s a community; everyone will jump in and throw out their thoughts.
What is your favorite project that you’ve built at Bloc?
To date I think I’ve learned the most from the Rails projects. We built a basic Reddit clone, with a lot of basic functionality. That project probably taught me the most, and it helped me get the apprenticeship position I have now at Braintree, so I think that was my favorite for a lot of reasons.
That project was my first real Rails application, and it taught me a lot about how Rails works, about the design paradigms, and the “gotchas.” It allowed me to learn Rails well enough that when Braintree opened up the Apprenticeship application, I had the skills to build the coding challenge project. The challenge was to build a product in any way you want, as long as it fulfills Braintree’s user stories. I was able to build it out using Rails, and have fun with it. I submitted it, and that project is what got me into the apprenticeship – I wouldn’t have landed it without building that Reddit clone first.
Congratulations on the apprenticeship! Was the apprenticeship competitive to get? Was Braintree impressed that you were doing Bloc?
There were a lot of people going for the apprenticeship. It was competitive but I think everybody was happy and excited to be doing the program. The application process was fairly rigorous: it was a code submission, multiple interviews, and ultimately a decision by a group of engineers. I had to live code with engineers, and explain my code choices in my project, so it was really close to an actual technical interview.
The engineering team at Braintree was very interested that I was going through a coding bootcamp. A fair amount of Braintree’s engineers, and even some people leading the apprenticeship program, are coding bootcamp grads, so I think they are aware of the struggles. They were very interested and excited that I was doing a bootcamp, but I don’t believe that had an impact on whether they did or didn’t want to hire me.
What is the software developer apprenticeship like, and how is it different from the technical support job?
My previous role involved support for customers of Braintree; it wasn’t internal tech support. It involved very basic code troubleshooting, questions and answers, and issue resolution. The software apprenticeship is drastically different, in that we started out building a project internally to learn the internal processes and get us acquainted with the style guide and our build systems. There is a lot of hands-on learning and in-the-moment learning, which is really cool. We are building actual products which will be used by the teams here. We’re writing real code, and we have to make sure that it deploys and actually works, and is useful – it’s definitely a change from my jobs in technical support.
Did Bloc teach you everything you need to know for your Braintree apprenticeship? Or are you learning on the job?
The apprenticeship at Braintree is mentor-driven, so I’m apprenticing under Software Engineers. There are weekly talks from guest engineers about various principles, design paradigms, dependency injection, object oriented design, etc. They want to make sure we have a good skill set, so they are not pulling any punches, and they are making sure we know these things really well. As a company, we use Java and Ruby. I learned Ruby at Bloc, so that was a very easy transition. There is a lot of material that I’m continuing to learn beyond my Bloc course, like VIM, tmux, Docker, Amazon Web Services, continuous integration, and other technologies that are unique to my development team.
Do you think that your previous background in technical support roles has been useful in your new job?
The biggest thing that my previous role taught me is people skills. A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that software development is very people-driven. We’re people who are solving problems for other people using technology. You’re not going to get hired and then just write code for 8 hours a day in a corner. It doesn’t work like that. I spend about as much time talking to people, understanding their problem, or getting clarification around something, as I do writing code. We often talk about the best way to approach a problem, so knowing how to ask questions, clarify, be very explicit, and not be afraid to talk to people – those are important skills that I’m so glad to have.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
First and foremost, find out if the particular bootcamps you are interested in are hosting webinars or meetups. Get to know the bootcamp beyond their marketing website. Marketing websites tell you everything you want to hear. Webinars give you a chance to ask questions about things that are important to you.
Financing options can also be very tough, so I would highly recommend that anyone worried about paying for a bootcamp take a look at companies like Skills Fund. It’s not going to be super cheap, but it can really offset the costs if you don’t have the upfront money to put towards a bootcamp. Being able to cut the payments up into something manageable per month gives a lot of people opportunity where they might not otherwise have it.
Find out about Bloc’s new Interest Only loans from Skills Fund.