Sarah Kaplan was a high school English teacher for 6 years before realizing that she was excited about the way technology could support education and wanted to transition into a more logical, problem-solving role. But because she was a beginner, Sarah didn’t dive immediately into a coding bootcamp; instead, Sarah chose to attend First Step Coding’s part-time 8-week, Bootcamp Prep course to jumpstart her learning and prepare for the Rithm School application. Find out what Sarah is up to today!
What were you up to before First Step Coding?
I have a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in Education. So for the past six years, I've been teaching at the high school level, both English language arts and special education.
So why did you want to change your career path and learn how to code?
Using different apps in my classroom really sparked my interest in coding – I got excited about the way technology could support student learning. And as a teacher, I saw how my school district was using data analysis software, and how it was shaping education – technology had a real influence on choices about assessment and school structure. That technology could also sometimes be problematic, and I wondered if I could build software that generated more meaningful data about student learning.
I also saw my students interact with cell phone games and started thinking, "What if I could build a game that was as exciting as Fortnite, but helped promote literacy skills." I got curious about what I could build if I had a programming skill set.
At the same time, I had this hunger for more logical problem-solving that I used to do when I was younger (in middle school, I used to go to mathlete competitions)! I started with Python and found that I was feeding that part of my brain that used to get really excited about math, and I was really enjoying it!
What was your biggest challenge in your journey to learning how to code?
Because I had so little experience when I started, one of my challenges was knowing where to start. I spent a lot of time researching different resources and read a lot of advice on the internet saying, "Oh, just start a project and then, figure out the next step." But when you don't have any background in coding, you don't even really know what kinds of projects are possible, or what you should start with first.
I finally ended up starting a great Python course on edX called Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python. But even while I was working on that, I kept thinking, "Should I be learning Python? Should I learn another language first?" So having a class like First Step Coding with curriculum laid out was really helpful. They outline and create a structure for steps to follow as you're learning.
What made you decide to do First Step Coding first, before you took a full-time coding bootcamp?
I did some research about coding bootcamps and was interested in a few, but it was a big leap to leave my current job to do a bootcamp. It's a big financial investment. When I came across First Step Coding, I thought it would be both a good way to prepare for the bootcamp application process and solidify that a coding bootcamp is something I really wanted to do. First Step Coding also appealed to me because their courses emphasize pair programming. Coding collaboratively with another person really helped solidify my understanding of the concepts we were learning and gave me insight into what it might be like to work as part of a team in a job setting.
Accountability was also a factor. When you're working full-time, it’s hard to carve out a solid amount of time after work every night to teach yourself how to code. But having a class that I paid for, with other people there, helped keep me accountable. I did the in-person First Step Coding course in Boston, so going to a physical location with people and spending that time focused on coding was a good way to accelerate my learning.
You're starting at Rithm School in September – congrats! Did you apply to Rithm School before you chose to do First Step Coding?
I'm so glad that I did First Step Coding because that's actually how I found out about Rithm School. First Step Coding partners with bootcamps, so you can apply your tuition to one of those bootcamps if you end up attending. I was able to apply 75% of my First Step Coding tuition towards my Rithm School tuition.
In First Step Coding’s bootcamp prep program they have guest lectures from different instructors who teach at full-time bootcamps. So one of the instructors from Rithm School did a guest lecture and I really liked his teaching style. From there, I investigated the program a little more. Rithm School has final projects working with an existing code base from an actual company – that was something really different from a lot of the other bootcamps I looked at. It really appealed to me because it was a more real-world experience than building your own app.
I did all of my bootcamp applications after First Step Coding. At the end of their bootcamp prep course, you have the opportunity to complete a mock interview and get feedback. The mock interview definitely helped me feel more prepared when I applied to bootcamps.
I was hesitant to actually click the Apply button and start the application process because I felt like, "Oh, maybe I'm not ready yet. Maybe I should keep learning more." Once I actually did the interviews, I realized that I knew more than I thought; the experience was pretty similar to the mock interview and I actually felt very confident about how to solve the problems that I was given.
Was it hard to get accepted to First Step Coding? How was the application and interview process?
I don't think it's that hard to get accepted because their program is really focused on people who are exploring and learning how to code for the first time. You do a call with someone from First Step to talk about why you're interested in learning to code and what your goals are. And they tell you a little bit more detail about the program, so you can make sure that it matches with your goals. Then there's the option to attend a free online class called the “OnRamp” if you want more information.
Applying to First Step Coding is not like applying to a full-time bootcamp where you have to do a technical interview and solve problems because they know that people taking their prep course are trying to gain those skills.
How many people were in your cohort at First Step Coding? Was it diverse in terms of gender, race, and career backgrounds?
It was a fairly small group. There were six students – myself and one other woman, and then three men. It was interesting to interact with the other woman in the class because she seemed excited that I was there, and wanted to talk about being a woman in tech. She had this sense of urgency around being welcoming in a way that hadn't occurred to me before. Being a teacher, 90% of my colleagues are women, and I've only ever had female bosses, principals, and administrators. I've never actually worked for a male superior, so that will be different. I'm definitely anticipating that this will be a big shift as I start a full-time bootcamp and then start my first job.
My cohort had diverse goals too. Some were planning to apply to bootcamps, and some were staying in their roles at their current jobs, but wanted to be able to communicate more effectively with developers.
Tell us about the learning experience at First Step Coding? What was the teaching style and what did you actually learn?
I liked that First Step Coding had an in-person class in Boston. They also have a really small class size so you can get a ton of personalized attention, and a strong focus on pair programming.
The second half of the class is more project-based. We got a little bit of starter code and then we got to build our own movie finder app, where we had to take user input and make a call to an API to bring back data about movies that matched the user’s search criteria. We could customize what information we wanted our app to display, and how it was going to look.
What was your favorite project to work on?
I really liked building the movie finder app – it was the first time I worked with an API. Interacting with an API felt like I built something real; I could collect information and display it for a user. That was pretty cool.
Also, I got motivated to read a lot more technical documentation through that project. I used Stack Overflow to figure out how to make a summary when you hover the cursor over a movie. That was probably the hardest thing that I tried to do; it was fun to figure it out.
Did First Step Coding help you with the application process for Rithm School?
First Step Coding also emphasizes teaching strategies for problem-solving and introducing different resources that students can use when they are stuck. After the class ended, I continued to use a lot of these resources as I was preparing for bootcamp interviews. The emphasis on how to approach and solve problems also made it easier for me to explain my thought-process aloud when I was interviewing.
What are you doing now before you start at Rithm School?
Rithm School gave us pre-work with specific projects that I'll probably get access to some time in the next couple weeks. My program doesn't start until September so I have another two months to prepare. For now, I've been using Rithm School’s online course, continuing to practice on Codewars, and I’m also doing some MOOCs on edX.
I’m moving from Boston to San Francisco and I'm really excited about it. It’ll be a big change, but I'm really looking forward to it. I think I'm going to learn a lot – I chose Rithm School because it seemed like the program that I would learn the most in.
What advice do you have for people considering a bootcamp prep program and a full-time bootcamp?
If you have the opportunity to take a prep class like First Step Coding, go for it. It accelerates your learning so much to have instructors who can answer your questions. And you’ll have the opportunity to pair program and work with other people on your code.
Also, practice a little bit every day, especially during the application process. If you stop for a week then it's easy to forget what you learn. Even if you can find 20 minutes a day to practice, that will help a lot.
What’s your career goal after you graduate from Rithm School? Do you want to stay in education or find a job in software engineering (or both?)
I definitely want to find a job in software engineering. It would be great to work on projects that are relevant to education--either software that is directly used by students and teachers in the classroom or maybe an online learning platform or a data tracking system that is used by school districts. But there are also really interesting projects outside of education--I am intrigued by mobile voting and curious about the work that is happening around trying to create a secure system. I’m sure I will continue to learn about all kinds of fascinating projects, so I am open to discovering something outside of education as well.
We caught up with Sarah after enrolling into a full-time bootcamp!
Now that you’ve been with Rithm School for over a month, are you learning the same stack/programming language you learned at First Step Coding or a new one?
How prepared for bootcamp do you feel compared with the other people in the class who may not have taken a prep program?
There are several people in my cohort who have engineering or technical experience. I don't have a technical background at all, so I was pretty intimidated when the bootcamp started. However, once we started collaborating on projects and completing assessments, I realized that I was actually as prepared as the other students despite coming from a non-technical career.
How has your previous background been useful in learning at a coding bootcamp?
As a teacher, you spend a lot of time "backwards mapping" your curriculum – thinking about what you want your students to be able to do, how you would test those skills, and then planning what steps students need to take to get ready to pass that assessment. It turns out, that process actually translates really well to coding – I think about what I want to happen at a certain endpoint in my program (for example, what should happen after a user enters a guess in a trivia game), then I create tests that I can use to check that my application is returning the correct result; then I think about the steps that need to happen in order for my application to reach that result. It actually feels really natural to "think like a programmer" and, in some ways, I think that comes from my teaching background.
What’s been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to learn to code now that you’re in a full-time bootcamp?
Now that you’re in the full-time bootcamp, what advice do you have for people considering a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Do it! Being able to learn to code in this hyper-focused way is incredible. And if you're on the fence, try something like First Step Coding, where you create a small project. I think a lot of people who are considering a bootcamp get focused on preparing for bootcamp interviews and do a lot of practice with logic problems. This is important, but I'd definitely recommend creating some projects where you actually build an application. As part of the prework for Rithm school, I made a memory card game. It was a pretty silly little app, but I had so much fun creating something that I could actually show to my friends and have them play the game. Making those kinds of projects really helped solidify for me that this is something I love to do.