Don’t Be a Bootcamp Burnout

A pipeline explosion shot I took a few years ago.

Let’s face it. Coding bootcamps are awesome. They teach you focused skills that help you land your first gig, help you build up a portfolio of work, and even teach you the ins and outs of interviewing. What coding bootcamps don’t teach is how to avoid burning out.

I graduated from a bootcamp a little over two years ago and have learned a lot through my experience. Here’s a little ad-hoc timeline of my coding career so far…

1) March 2015 — June 2015: Attended coding bootcamp.

I took the plunge and jumped into a full-stack web-development course. I put life to the side for 10 weeks and worked as hard as I could to suck as much out of the program as possible. I made a goal in the first week to seek out and partner with someone who was as focused as I was to learn and someone who could motivate me. This was the first key to my success.

2) June 2015: Presented final project in front of potential Toronto employers.

My partner and I made it a goal to put 110% into our final project and land as many interviews as we could during our final presentation. We didn’t sleep for about two weeks, and we each landed about 4.

3) July 2015: Took my first job.

Of the 4 interviews I took, I decided to take a job with a consulting company. Before I took the position, I made sure to ask lots of questions about culture, the ratio of junior developers compared to senior developers, as well as ways I could grow in my career at the company.

4) July 2015: Stressed out of my mind.

After the second week of employment, I felt like I was the most stressed I’d ever been in my life. The tech stack at the consulting company was heavily JavaScript focused, and I was tasked to take a week or two to learn the AngularJS framework. Having focused mainly on Ruby on Rails and basic front-end skills at the bootcamp, I had to self teach everything. I consumed as many online courses as I could, read articles until my eyes felt like they were going to blow out of my head, and spent too much time lying in bed at night staring at my new apartment ceiling wondering if I should drop everything and go flip burgers for the rest of my life.

5) August 2015: Began my first consulting gig.

After taking on elementary-level learning tasks from my employer, they introduced me to the first client I’d be working with. I consulted a mix of part-time (while juggling other clients / projects) and full time over the course of the next year.

6) August 2015 — August 2016: Consulting and independent studies.

Outside of my 9–5 I decided to take on some projects on my own. I started by building projects for my family and their businesses. I started to build things that interested me, but didn’t always understand how or where to start. I dove into NodeJS and learned as much as I could about developing consumable APIs. I filled as much time as I could with learning, but I started to get exhausted.

7) August 2016: Applied for a new role at a new company.

I was beginning to feel burnt out (and too comfortable) where I was at. I felt it was time to make a change and decided to apply for an open position at a large apparel company. I got the job and started at the end of the month.

8) February 2017: I asked for a promotion.

Well, not exactly. There was an open role for a more mid-to-senior level role. Everything in me was telling me I wasn’t ready for it. I decided to ask for it anyway. I ended up getting the job after a few interviews.

9) February 2017 — present: To be continued…

So why should you care about my career and the path I took? Because in hindsight I made a lot of mistakes, and I also made some really good choices. I want to see you win, and I want to see you get the most out of your bootcamped career.

Here are my big takeaways:

Set The Bar High from the Get Go.

Before you even sit down for your first class, prepare yourself. Start reading articles about the technologies you’re going to learn. Lock down in the library in your free time and start playing around with free courses online. Set yourself up to enjoy learning about the powerful tools you’re going to use to build incredible things. Learn to love to learn.

Ideal First Jobs.

Consulting jobs are the perfect start to your career. They give you a wide range of experience in a bunch of different fundamentals and frameworks. You begin to see patterns in problem solving. You pick up some awesome communication skills from dealing with a diversity of clients. They let you max out your learning and make the best use of your first year. Progressive startups can also be a great choice, but like any product-focused job it can be easy to get comfortable really quickly which is not ideal for your first year. When you’re focused on one tech stack, you can miss out on the opportunity to learn a lot of different things as you do in consulting.

Don’t Be Too Picky About Your First Job.

Don’t be the guy or gal who shows up to your first interview like you’ve cracked the Grothendieck–Katz p-curvature conjecture. Go into the interview with a humble and realistic confidence. As the old saying goes, honesty is always the best policy. During your first interviews the right employer will admire your will to learn and will hire you based on your potential and how you’ve applied what you’ve learned so far. Employers want to invest long term into someone who is energetic and enthusiastic about learning. Even if the pay isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, or the culture isn’t a 100% fit, just keep it in mind that your first job is not your last and is not your ultimate goal. Make sure you put a focus on the previous points we touched above (did I mention that a strong learning environment is most important?), and put everything else as secondary for your first position. In a world where programmers and coders are in high demand, the market is hot and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. There are so many jobs out there, especially after your first year or two of development, so be encouraged by that. You’ve picked an awesome industry to be a part of.

Learn Better for Success.

In July of 2015, I was stressed out of my mind. This was the best thing possible for me and what I needed most. Stress can be a really good thing. It helps us approach learning much differently.

The first year of learning is like participating in a marathon as an amateur runner surrounded by a bunch of Usain Bolts. It’s easy to feel like you don’t belong, and even easier to feel like you’ll never know as much as the senior guy that keeps to himself in the corner of the room and codes away at things you can’t even pronounce.

In August 2016, I was still stressed out of my mind. Stress can also be a really bad thing. Let’s be frank. We can’t sustain a life of nonstop stress. It isn’t healthy, it makes us miserable outside of our 9–5, and we won’t put out quality work. Consulting can be exhausting, and the term “JavaScript Fatigue” becomes more haunting every day.

So what should you do? Work as hard as you can for a year. Stress yourself out like you’ve never been stressed before. Set the bar as high as you possibly can. Make your employer expect the highest quality work from you. Why? Because the first year of learning is arguably the most important. You will learn so much and you will set yourself up for some really cool career milestones.

Then after your year is up and you’ve learned more than you ever thought you could pack into that brain of yours? Look for a new job. Yep, as simple as that. Reward yourself. You can’t sustain working that way for your whole life, so it’s time to break things off and move on. When you land your next job, turn the dial back a bit. Keep putting out quality work, never stop learning, but make sure you now put a focus on keeping life as stress-free as you possibly can. I can’t tell you how many people who graduated from my program are on the brink of burning out just after two years. They’re living every day to sustain the lifestyle of a junior developer trying to prove their worth to their colleagues and their employer. I can see the exhaustion in their eyes whenever I talk to them. Meanwhile, I’m taking 15 minute stress-free gym breaks, or doing coffee runs with my colleagues in between getting work done. It doesn’t mean I don’t work hard, that’s not the point of this. I just work a lot differently now and think about the tasks at hand in new ways. The skills and fundamentals I learned in my first year were invaluable and allow me to build things better, more efficiently, and ultimately allow me to enjoy what I do every single day. Approaching my career this way has pushed me to be self-aware in terms of what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. So take the time to learn things properly, use stress as a motivator early on, and get out of the habit of lazy learning or taking the easy way out.

Build Stuff You Want To.

During weekends and in your free time during your first year, don’t stop building. Try to fill as much time with learning concepts through building things that solve day-to-day problems for you, or things that you enjoy. Maybe you really like blackjack. Try to build a blackjack game from the ground up. Or maybe you like going to the gym. Try to build something to keep track of your exercise or diet progress. It doesn’t even matter if it’s been built by a thousand other developers. Use everything as inspiration, and never stop putting your skills to the test. Push boundaries and break stuff.

Build a Support Group.

You can’t do it alone. Every developer needs someone to lean on and draw inspiration from. Go to meet ups. Get to know developers in other departments or at other companies. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Take advantage of tools like Slack or Twitter to connect to people. Have other developers in your life to hold you accountable to your goals. You’re not in this alone, and you don’t have to be.

Tell Yourself You Can Make It Happen!

It’s tough and a lot of hard work. There’s no denying it. But the reward is so beyond worth it. The skills you have now, and the skills you’re going to develop you can use to change the world. Don’t limit yourself to a 9–5. Use your skills to build your own business. Use your skills to join a not-for-profit and make a difference in your community. Use your skills to teach others. Whatever your dreams and aspirations, never stop using that as motivation to progress in your career. But ultimately, don’t burn yourself out and become another statistic. You don’t have to burn out in IT just because everyone tells you that’s what’s going to happen. Be smart about how you learn, be cautious about the habits you create and the expectations you build, and don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith and try something new.