After Sanjana discovered an energizing career as a web developer, she wanted to return to her coding bootcamp, Lighthouse Labs, to provide the same mentorship she received as a student. Sanjana tells us how she helps students get unstuck when they are working on a problem, how her day job as a web developer at Shopify informs her mentoring, and what sort of career advice she gives to Lighthouse Labs students. Plus find out her suggestions for starting a career in tech in Vancouver!
What led you to attend Lighthouse Labs?
During my business degree at McGill University in Montreal, there was a certain point where I realized that it was not the type of work I wanted to be doing every day. In my first year, I took a course with a computer science professor and fell in love with the material and the concept of how powerful technology is. In my fourth year, I started to feel the stress of figuring out what I was going to do with my degree and finding a job. I took some computer science courses as a minor to complement my business degree. During that time, I met a friend who had done a web development bootcamp and was now studying software engineering.
I started researching web development bootcamps, and Lighthouse Labs popped up as a web development bootcamp in Vancouver. At the time I was ready to explore a new city. I had one semester left of university in Montreal, so during my summer break I went ahead and signed up for Lighthouse Labs and it all fell into place from there.
What was it like to attend Web Development Bootcamp at Lighthouse Labs?
Lighthouse Labs was life changing for me. It was the first time that I felt fully immersed in technology, in something that I love, and it was an empowering experience. Lighthouse Labs converted my basic computer science knowledge into actual tangible skills so I could embark on my career.
Over the course of the bootcamp, there are highs and lows. You're going to go through periods where you'll feel like you have no idea what you're doing. But being able to overcome all of those challenges, see yourself grow, and actually understand development and building applications from scratch, made the challenges more gratifying. It was a big confidence boost to see that I could do this.
Lighthouse Labs bootcamp is based around different projects. Every week, you take on different projects with different technologies. The first project is simple, and then they grow in difficulty throughout the bootcamp. I saw myself grow in each of those projects, and by the end, I had grown in terms of both confidence and skill.
What happened when you graduated from Lighthouse Labs?
Because I was still in my undergrad when I did bootcamp, I didn’t start looking for a job right away. I completed my degree at McGill in December of 2017 and I was living back in Montreal. During my college exams, I started applying for jobs in web development. I built my own website and portfolio and started applying for jobs on LinkedIn. I informed the jobs department at Lighthouse Labs that I was ready to start applying for jobs and was put in touch with someone from Lighthouse Labs in Montreal who suggested I start teaching workshops. During that process, I found a great job that I was happy with as a web developer and started working as a web developer in January 2018. I have now moved back to Vancouver, and I currently work for Shopify, a global e-commerce software company.
How did you end up becoming a mentor at Lighthouse Labs?
In March 2018, I was approached by Lighthouse Labs to teach the part-time Intro To Front End course, in Montreal. It was a brand-new course, so I got to help build out some of the curricula. I started teaching that and in the process of becoming one of the instructors for that course, I was also looped in as a mentor for the bootcamp.
I work part-time at Lighthouse Labs and have a full-time day job. I teach the part-time courses in the evenings from 6pm to 9pm twice a week. On other evenings and some weekends, I mentor. I work my day job as a Web Developer during the weekdays before teaching and mentoring.
What made you want to be a mentor at Lighthouse Labs?
When I was getting involved with volunteer work with the Lighthouse Labs community in Montreal, I was able to give a couple of workshops and share my experience with other people for the first time. Hearing positive feedback from those workshops, I knew that there was something there. Being a mentor, you get to share what you know but also learn so much from the people around you. As soon as I finished bootcamp, I knew that I wanted to come back to be a mentor because the mentors had shaped so much of my own experience. Mentoring also keeps you sharp mentally. You have to think about what you're teaching, how you're teaching, and stay on top of technologies. Some of the technologies taught in bootcamp I'm not using on a daily basis, but this keeps me sharp. It's a big learning experience.
What is your role as a mentor?
From a practical standpoint, a mentor is like a coach or a guide. A mentor can't do the work for you and can't give you the answer but will help you find your own pathway to the answer. I can help someone get unstuck and think about problems in a different way. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that the students are learning the methodology and their own sense of how to find the solution.
At Lighthouse Labs there are a number of different mentors who roam around the floor. We have an internal system that is essentially a knowledge management tool where students request assistance if they are stuck or they don't know how to approach a certain problem. All of the mentors are notified and have the option to help with that problem. If I accept the problem, I'll locate the student in the workspace and sit down with them. I’ll have the student explain their problem then we'll have a conversation to help them get unstuck. Upon completing the assistance request, I use the management tool to end the request in the system and add a little description about how the request went and where I think the student is in terms of their learning. It's definitely proven to be a very practical system – it allows Lighthouse Labs to gather metrics on the curriculum and topics.
When someone is stuck on a problem what is your approach to guiding them through that?
I have a two-step approach. I'm big on the idea of active listening. A lot of times, the challenges occur in interpreting the problem.
My first step with any assistance request to speak to the student and ask them to give me a detailed breakdown of the challenge they're experiencing. Is it a bug in their code? Is it understanding a certain tool? Do they understand what the curriculum is asking them to do? Once they articulate what they're experiencing, I'll embark on my second phase of mentoring which is asking questions. I'll get the student to break down the problem and I’ll ask them questions about how they're interpreting the problem and what they've tried so far. In asking questions I'm also able to express my thinking. Sometimes students can answer the question on their own at that point, but if they can't, that's when I take a more hands-on approach. I'll try to provide an example or a simplified version of the problem they're trying to solve so that they can see the whole thought process. Working through the process hands-on humanizes it with the student and they can see the mistakes and the thought process.
Do you help students with a specific aspect of the curriculum or generally throughout the whole course?
In general, I help students throughout the entire course. I'm familiar with the entire curriculum since I have gone through the bootcamp myself. I've received reviews from students who said I was relatable because I've experienced the challenge of the curriculum myself, so I know what the students are going through. Most of the mentors at Lighthouse Labs mentor for the entire curriculum. The idea is that even if you're not familiar with a certain technology, the logic and concepts that you need to be aware of are foundations. Anyone who is a mentor, who is already a Web Developer, is experienced in understanding those foundations. Questions aren't typically about how the technology works, they're usually about the thought process of solving a problem.
How do you balance mentoring at Lighthouse Labs with your day job at Shopify?
At Shopify, we have a culture of recognizing that you only become stronger from the experiences that you have outside of work. The company encourages me to take on mentorship opportunities outside of work. I make sure that my shifts at Lighthouse Labs don't overlap with my day to day work. I enjoy my day job a lot, I definitely don't feel a loss of energy at all with balancing both. I always come out of my mentoring shifts at Lighthouse Labs feeling refreshed and having learned something new, and I come out of my day job energized for mentoring. My jobs balance each other out well. Sometimes my schedule gets hectic, but it just means that I have a few longer days during the week and I'm okay with that.
How has your day job informed your mentoring and vice versa?
In my day job, I often work with people who aren't familiar with technology. I explain technical problems and complex concepts to people who don't have a technical background. Doing that sort of work in my day job constantly informs my mentoring because it is a similar task. The questions that I'm asking my mentees are the same questions I ask my colleagues to help them understand and break down technical problems.
The technologies and frameworks also transfer well between the two jobs. Shopify is an innovative company; they're constantly implementing new technology to improve their services. A good portion of the new technologies that we use at Shopify are things that I've learned at Lighthouse Labs. From a technical standpoint, I'm learning new things at Lighthouse Lab, I'm improving and practicing my skills at Shopify, and I'm practicing my soft-skills in both areas.
Do your students ever ask you for career advice?
A lot of students that come into a coding bootcamp are looking for a career shift. They want to see what the tech industry is like, what working as a programmer is like, what interviews are like, and what types of companies are out there. I've gone through a lot of those challenges myself. I'm pretty familiar with the way that the hiring process works so I'm able to advise on those things.
I'm also able to advise on things like purpose and passion. Reminding them that they're doing programming because they're passionate about it and that they're not wrong to be investing in continuing their education and knowledge. I tell them to keep learning, keep up with the industry, have side projects, and not to be afraid to ask for help when they get stuck. Work is all about challenges, so keeping a learning and growth mindset active is a common piece of advice.
I also advise students not to be so hard on themselves. A lot of people coming into bootcamp put pressure on themselves to be the shining star and that's not realistic. Every company is looking for someone that fits within their expectations, you have to be aware that there are a lot of different factors in the game of finding a job. It's completely fair if it takes time. It's just important to keep working on yourself, build new things, and keep your passion for technology.
How important do you think the mentorship model at Lighthouse Labs is?
It is absolutely essential. Whether mentorship is in the form of the instructors or mentors that work in the industry. I think a lot of the strength of the Lighthouse Labs mentorship program comes from the fact that many of the mentors also work full time at other companies, and face different challenges in their day jobs as web developers. They're able to bring their experiences from real tech jobs to the table.
Being able to see how people in the industry solve problems is comforting. They show you that everyone faces challenges and that everyone approaches problems differently. It allows you to have this collaborative experience. It allows you to give and take when solving problems instead of just trying to achieve something difficult on your own which can be extremely frustrating at times. Mentors lift that frustration and walk you through problems while providing you with a new lens of how you can approach a problem.
For me, being able to speak to mentors during my own time at bootcamp, widened my scope of awareness. It broadened what I could see existed in the world of web development. Without mentorship, I wouldn’t have that understanding.
What kind of resources can you recommend for people interested in starting to learn to code in Vancouver?
Do you have any other advice for prospective students?
Put yourself out there! Don't hold yourself back. The idea of imposter syndrome, the feeling that you're incapable, is big in the tech industry. Allowing yourself to throw that mindset away and give yourself a chance is important. Be ready to make mistakes and learn. Those are the key aspects of getting started in bootcamp and pursuing it in the first place. All you have to think about is whether or not you want to learn something new. If you do, let that curiosity drive you forward.