An Open Farewell to Dev Bootcamp

My third week at Dev Bootcamp with the Otters, February 2014.

I cannot count all the times I have felt “confident” and “convinced” in my life, there have been plenty. I can count on one hand the number of times I have felt certain. In the final months of 2013 I was certain I would work at Dev Bootcamp in Chicago. Dev Bootcamp did not know this at the time, and Dev Bootcamp was not hiring. Perhaps my certainty was enough, because Dave Hoover hired me anyway. I will be forever in his debt.

When I joined the Chicago staff I found that Dev Bootcamp was not a work of precision. It was a strange, and beautiful, and chaotic thing. Dave, it appeared, had assembled a team of compassionate human beings and gently convinced them that it was ok to color outside the lines. Sometimes he even encouraged them to make a mess. If a dozen teams across Chicago had been asked to produce a painting of a sunset, I am certain this staff would have used markers and glitter to draw a dinosaur.

It could be no other way. Dev Bootcamp, like many coding schools, was lauded for rejecting the status quo. What made it different was that it didn’t. Rejecting the status quo is easy; you break left when they break right, pick blue when they pick yellow. Rejecting the status quo may change one’s position in the world, but the world itself does not move.

Dev Bootcamp was not a rejection of the world as it stood, it was an attempt to craft a new one. It asked us to abandon the patterns of thought we took for granted and challenge ourselves to be a little more uncertain. “This is a crazy place,” a student once said to me breathlessly at the conclusion of her first week. It was a crazy place. Imagining a new world requires a modicum of lunacy, and by god we were in a nuthouse.

While I had ostensibly joined a coding school, it didn’t take long to see that coding was a very small part of it. Here was a place that asked students and staff to question what they knew about learning, and about themselves. It was a place that endeavored to make its students feel safe, even as it pushed them to work harder than they thought possible. The delicate balance between safety and discomfort was not something we ever got perfectly right. We were tweaking it when I started and we were still tweaking it when I left, but we never lost sight of it.

Last Spring I left Dev Bootcamp with the same certainty that I joined. I could see that the end was coming, and after three and a half years I was tired. I had done a great many things at Dev Bootcamp, but hospice care could not be one of them.

When I left I knew that I would write a farewell letter. I also knew that I had to wait until it was a farewell to DBC too. Too much of me still resides there, and I only have enough in me for one goodbye. Now that we’re here, I will address what mattered to me most these last few years: you.

To the students

Before I moved to Chicago, when I was still sitting in my drafty San Francisco apartment eyeing a sliver of the Bay Bridge out the window, I would daydream about ways to teach you. I invented AJAX role-playing skits in my head and imagined how I would explain objects and references and recursion. Most of what I thought up was terrible, but it didn’t matter. I was practicing.

I arrived at Dev Bootcamp and found every teacher’s dream; a group of people that were bright, excited, determined, curious, and ravenous for knowledge. I soon discovered that you were also empathetic, funny, compassionate and caring.

Every week I was inspired by the risks you took, the dedication you embodied, the fears you conquered, and the profound ways in which you grew. I witnessed a depth of perseverance that is rarely observed in our day-to-day, but during my tenure, observing it was my day-to-day. I watched you fight through moments of embarrassment, confusion, frustration, fatigue, anger and hopelessness. Instead of stopping, you turned those feelings into forward movement, and did so with an impressive grace.

Many of you have thanked me over the years, but the honest truth is that I did very little. You are the ones that chose to take the journey you did; to spend weeks away from your families, to leave your jobs, to go into debt, to leave what you knew and who you used to be behind. You walked a difficult road, and I was just there to listen and offer a hand. Thank you for letting me walk a piece of that road with you. It was an honor to be a part of it, and I hope someday I can repay you.

To the staff

In you I found compassion, empathy, and patience beyond measure, but most importantly I found a commitment to growth. It was a commitment that appeared so natural, so innate, that I often wondered if you were even aware you possessed it. What’s more, the commitment was not just to yourself, but to our entire community. You would only accept growth that included everyone, no matter how difficult that was.

Compassion, empathy and patience are fine virtues, but they do not fall into our laps. They are the result of hard work, driven by a commitment to being better versions of ourselves. You live and breathe that commitment in all your roles, and I believe most of the time you do it without thinking. Over the last few years you’ve worked tirelessly, but in the months to come I ask you to consider that your most powerful contribution to the education of your students may simply be your presence.

The shirt you got me when I left reads “I worked at Dev Bootcamp, and all I got was a tenuous balance between whole-heartedness and nihilism.” I love this shirt. It is true that I find no solace in our vast and indifferent universe, but that is precisely what strengthens my belief that we are here on this earth for each other. Our relevance extends only as far as the next mind we meet, and the next heart we touch.

On “Day 1”, when the teachers share with the school why we teach, I would share that I enjoy witnessing “ah-ha!” moments. I picked that answer because it was easy, and because the true answer was more complicated: I taught because learning illuminates connection. We see things we never would have seen before, and find links between concepts that were previously distant. Above all, learning illuminates the connections between us. We are allowed, briefly, to see the filaments that hold humanity together. Filaments without which we would only be collections of matter, unmoored amongst the stars.

“However vast the darkness,” Stanley Kubrick once said, “we must supply our own light.” Teaching is the only way I know how.

To all of you

When people ask me about my time at Dev Bootcamp I offer a small answer: “It was exhausting and rewarding.” I offer people a small answer because, more often than not, they don’t realize they are asking a big question.

But when people really ask about my time at Dev Bootcamp I get quiet. It was a moment in my life, but it was no ordinary moment. Slavoj Žižek might say moments like these represent an effect that seems to exceed its causes. It is these kind of moments that leave us hushed and reflective.

Such moments are not permanent, they are rarely repeatable, and they always feel brief. Like all moments there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Like all moments they become a part of us, and the story of that moment and the story of our lives interweave until we don’t know where the the moment begins and we end.

The moment we call Dev Bootcamp was not designed to last, and we weren’t designed to last in it. It pushed us all farther beyond the limits of dedication and growth than we thought possible. We gave ourselves over to it and created the space we did because, I believe, we all knew how rare and precious these moments are. We were right to pour our hearts into Dev Bootcamp, but it is also right for it to come to an end.

When the last gong sounds at DBC, remember that we are all still here. We still exist, as a community of alumni and staff, connected to each other and illuminated. We supply our own light, and maybe it’s time for that light to spread. As the Dev Bootcamp diaspora begins, our light goes with it; old staff will share it with new teams, but their connection to this community will not weaken. Dev Bootcamp may be closing, but we are still growing.

Of this, I am certain.

With all my love,
Matt Baker, 2014 Owl

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