From Literature to Web Development: My first 6 weeks at Lambda School

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Most people who have recently found out I’m in the full stack web development program at Lambda School have looked at me with a bit of surprise. “You? Web development? Are you sure?” Only when I talk to them about it a bit more does it start to make sense to them.

You see, I used to be your quintessential literature major. In high school, I was the kid reading novels in the back row of math class. In college, I double-majored in Comparative Literature and English just so I could take more literature classes on topics like French literary theory and African poetry and Italian drama and Middle English. I went on to get a Master’s degree in Literature because I had a literature-related project I didn’t want to stop working on and I genuinely loved the material. Teaching English as a second language has been paying my bills for years.

To be honest, I was always a bit scared of STEM. It would be convenient to say my fear came from never being encouraged to explore it, but that wouldn’t be entirely the truth. Gen ed requirements were a thing after all. My ninth grade science teacher even tried to get me into a pre-engineering alternative high school program, but I didn’t have much confidence in myself at age 14. I was always at least a little bit interested in science and math, and I was relatively good at it, but I felt like it wasn’t something for me. STEM was for other people. I was highly encouraged to major in what I enjoyed doing, and I enjoyed reading and writing. I had chosen my path — literature — and at the time, I didn’t really bother to see if there were any other routes worth taking.

This fear of STEM was unknowingly reinforced by well-meaning literature professors who would make jokes about not knowing how to count or who would make their class rubrics out of 100 points because “percentages are too hard.” When I was pursuing my Master’s in Literature, professors and graduate teaching assistants would often remark with surprise when engineering students wrote beautiful essays and when math majors could partake in strong literary analysis. It was clear that the stereotypes went both ways.

As I progressed through my Master’s degree, I found myself out of sync with the literary academic world. I was getting tired of debating decades old literary theory. I wanted to do something practical, meaningful, and hands on. I wanted to solve problems instead of just talking about them. I wanted to participate in the real world instead of spending all my time engaging in conversations about fictional ones. Before anyone freaks out, I still believe there is value in those discussions of literature and theory — it was simply not where I wanted to spend my time and energy. I believe I learned valuable skills from my degrees. However, I’ve always been a relatively pragmatic person — a “doer” so to speak. Reading and talking about what I was reading wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to build something.

A fresh graduate, I knew I did not want to be in the literary academic world anymore. I wanted to explore new opportunities and saw practical need, so I started teaching myself to code. I was hesitant at first — this was me we’re talking about. I had previously believed computers were magic. Like my well-meaning literature professors, I had also found myself on occasion joking about not knowing how to count, even though I can do most arithmetic off the top of my head. I felt like I was supposed to be bad at logic, because well, I was a literature person. I was never bad at logical reasoning though. I’d even argue that my writing intensive degrees helped me strengthen those skills, or at least my ability to articulate them in clear, meaningful ways. It’s amazing what power our own perceptions can have over us.

The more I learned about computers and the more I learned to code, the more excited I got about the prospects of what I could do with technology and about moving into this industry. I had been solidly on the will-eventually-be-an-English-professor track, so I was being primed by my professional mentors and colleagues to expect to be one of literally thousands of candidates for a single job opening and to be happy and consider myself lucky to get a sub-par adjunct or non-tenure track position with low pay at a college in an area no one wants to live in teaching intro-level classes no one wants to teach, let alone take. The fact that there are thousands of open jobs in the tech industry and that I could actually make a living doing something that I enjoy, which uses my brain in good and challenging ways, while living where I want to live, instead of where I have to live, thrilled me. I knew I needed a drastic change. I wanted to be a web developer.

But how? I had been teaching myself to code for a while, but I knew I needed something more focused. I took a risk and applied for Lambda School’s full-time, 30-week full stack web development course, and I am so grateful they chose to invest in me. As I write this, I’ve just finished my 6th week in the program and I have to say — this school is like no school I’ve ever been to in all the best ways possible (and I’ve participated in a lot of schooling).

In case you haven’t heard about it, Lambda School has a rather unique payment model. Instead of tuition, students don’t owe any money until they’ve gotten a job in the field making at least $50,000 a year. Then they must pay back 17% of their income for 2 years with an upper cap of $30,000 total. If they don’t get a job within 5 years, the agreement expires and they owe nothing. This means that the school invests in the students at least as much as the students invest in the school — because if the students don’t get jobs, they don’t get paid back.

Lambda School is the only school I’ve attended in which there is a culture of striving to learn more instead of a culture of shame. Everywhere else I’ve ever studied, there seemed to be an expectation that one be interested, but not too interested. It was frowned upon to be too into the material, or to care too much, or to do too much of anything on your own outside of what was taught in class. Read a book a professor recommended but didn’t require and you might as well be sucking up. Dive deeper into the material on your own and you might as well ostracize yourself from your peers. This is absolutely not the case with Lambda School.

Every single person I’ve interacted with — from instructors to students in their first week to alumni starting their first jobs — is really passionate about coding and technology and wants to learn more. From what I can tell, most people are working on their own coding-related projects in addition to doing the coursework. There is no sense that you could care too much or dive too deeply into the material on your own. It’s definitely an environment that encourages you to want to learn as much as you can and to actively participate with others while doing so. Everyone seems to genuinely want to be there. There is also an emphasis on taking breaks and making sure that you don’t overwhelm yourself. I found this culture at Lambda School to be a stark contrast from the world of academia where people would often brag about how overworked they were in some kind of weird one-upmanship. In grad school, you weren’t supposed to care too much, but you were supposed to work harder than everyone else at the expense of your health and well being and use that overwork to justify your position in the program. Lambda School isn’t like that.

The culture of active learning also extends beyond students absorbing the material. Lambda School wants to learn what is working and what isn’t from students and wants to implement their feedback. I’ve been in other educational environments in which nothing changed, year after year, even though everyone at every level knew something wasn’t working and exactly how to fix it. At Lambda School, if something isn’t working, they not only strive to find a meaningful solution to the problem, they actually do it in a timely manner.

In the past 6 weeks, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned HTML, CSS, Less, Sass, responsive web design, Javascript, git work flows and the basics of React JS. I participated in a build week that gave me the opportunity to practice working on a development team and to practice what I learned in the first four weeks of the program. There are weekly career preparation lectures, and twice a week there are optional after hours sessions to ask questions about the material and learn more. The mornings are spent in lecture and the afternoons are spent hands-on-keyboard, working on projects. We meet with a small group of other students and our project manager daily to talk about how things are going. Every week, we have a “sprint challenge” where we use what we learned that week. If we’re struggling, we can go back and repeat a week without it being considered a failure. I haven’t once felt that I don’t belong at Lambda School. I can’t say the same about any other school I’ve attended.

Ultimately, it’s been a long journey from thinking I wanted to pursue a PhD and become an English professor to where I am now — immersing myself in Javascript and React, spending all day at Lambda School, and being on the fast track to a new career in web development. I wouldn’t change the path I took to get here though. The skills required to complete a graduate degree in literature and to succeed in web development overlap more than one might imagine at first glance. To be a good web developer, you have to be able to read documentation well, understand arguments and genre expectations, and organize your thoughts effectively. The ability to write is also never wasted.

If you are a fellow literature person thinking about pursuing a career in web development — I encourage you to go for it. The possibilities are endless. I’ve started the transition, and I’m loving every minute of it. If you want to do it, you can do it too.