You Will Survive (pro-tips on how to survive a coding bootcamp)
My grandpa Louis was a hilarious and amazing guy. Here’s his quick bio: A Jewish hairdresser from Wales who escaped World War II with his family, taught Vidal Sassoon everything he knows, somehow convinced some people to let him hold the Olympic torch once in 1984 as it was paraded through Los Angeles, and was buried with a photo of Catherine Zeta Jones. Out of all of my favorite stories to tell about him, top on my list is that he requested that “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor be played at his funeral. I can’t make this stuff up guys; he was hilarious.
So, inevitably, as I tried to survive my way through a 12-week software engineering bootcamp at Hackbright Academy the anthem of my bootcamp experience became the sassy vocals of Gloria Gaynor. There were times my imposter syndrome took over my brain so much that I could barely focus, times I wanted to throw my computer across the room, and times I wanted to cry under a blanket and fast forward to me getting a job as an engineer (ok, that was basically all the time).
However, I made it to the other side and now have the signed offer letter for my first engineering job to prove it! And so, prospective bootcamp grads (or friends/loved ones of bootcamp grads), I decided to write this article so you can combat some of these feelings as you enter the magical (and stressful) world of bootcamp land:
Tip #1: Do Not Compare Yourself to Other People in Your Cohort
During the 3rd week of bootcamp, I had dinner with Mekka Okereke (a mentor and friend of my wonderful cheerleader and partner throughout bootcamp, Ty Smith). When I mentioned that I felt “behind” compared to all of the other women in my bootcamp, he gave a metaphor for how I should be feeling as I went through bootcamp (which I often reflect on when I see myself comparing my skills to other programmers). It was the idea of a painter’s apprentice: as you’re learning to paint, you may start with sweeping up the studio, then move onto mixing and prepping the paint for the artist, and perhaps in time (after building up your skills as an apprentice) you learn the necessary skills to become an excellent painter. It does not happen over night. In other words, these women had started learning to code before I had, therefore, it would take me a little time to get to their level.
Mekka’s metaphor reminded me of this quote I discovered from Gretchen Rubin, which became my mantra during school:
“You don’t become a painter, you just discover one day that you are one.”
— Yves Klein, quoted in Klein, by Hannah Weitemeier
Tip #2: Don’t Freak Out About New Things
This was probably one of my biggest hurdles during Hackbright. Every time something new was thrown my way, I’d have a instant “OMG WAIT- I DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS IS” reaction. For example, as I began to build my final project, I was told by my advisor that I would need to build a cron job for my app (something we hadn’t learned in any of the lectures at Hackbright). I began to spiral and panic over not knowing what this “cron job” was. I honestly spent more time worrying about it than actually building it. New things were scary! I quickly learned that bootcamp is just a bunch of new things. Every day. So, the freak-outs were… frequent (freak-uent? sorry, I had to). 😬
The best way I dealt with this overwhelming feeling was through some words of wisdom from one of my mentors, Patricia Lawless. Hackbright pairs you with 3 mentors during your time at Hackbright who are there to support, help, and provide you with industry insight during (and after) the program. I mentioned that one of my biggest obstacles during the program was not freaking out over new things, and she suggested that if that was the case, I be mindful of it, and perhaps make the mini-freakout part of my process. Having this awareness of my fears kept me sane; I would get a new topic, start panicking, and think “ah- right, this is the part where I freak out”, and then continue. So, try the mindful freak out; I would highly recommend it.
Tip #3: Workout, eat, and sleep 💪😴🍔
Seriously, just do it (Nike quote, unintended). From what I gathered from my fellow students, I believe I was one of the only women in my cohort who consistently worked out. Each week, I made an effort to do yoga, run, or use the elliptical at least 5 days a week. It helped me get out of my brain for an hour and focus on something other than code. It is easy to feel like “there’s no time” or “you’re too tired”, but your body needs exercise between all of the sitting you’ll do during lectures and pair programming. Even if you’re just walking for an hour a day; get some movement in.
Also, please sleep. At least more than 6 hours. It may be tempting to stay up all night and try to cram in all the info you learned about SQL that day, but you need to have enough sleep to set you up for success the next day. I can’t tell you how many of us had to take naps between lectures. Please, please, please sleep.
This should go without saying, but make sure you eat. Eat breakfast (you need fuel for those AM lectures and pair programming), eat lunch, eat dinner, and pack snacks! The days are long at bootcamp; set yourself up for success and try to do some meal-prep on Sundays if you can. I won’t get into a lecture on what kinds of foods you should be eating (that’s a whole other article on the keto/paleo/healthy fats I’ll write someday), but make sure you’re having more than just a coffee.
Tip #4: Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions
For the first week of project time, I was terrified to ask any of the staff, teaching assistants, or my mentors questions. I would struggle for hours on one small problem, and begin to get more and more upset that I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Set a limit for yourself-- along the lines of “okay, after struggling for 40 minutes on my own with something, I’m going to ask for help”. Give yourself the time to work through the problem, try multiple solutions, and then ask for help. I can’t tell you how validating and rewarding it is to struggle through something with another (much more experienced) engineer. Sometimes, you’ll find that just talking out loud with someone will help! Usually, what you’re struggling with is easily tackled with another set of eyes on it (or ears to listen to it!).
When I joined my friend Corey Latislaw for lunch at Pinterest, she told me that she writes down all of the things she’s attempted as she goes along and tries to solve a problem. I love this approach, since you can show the person you’re working with (be it your mentor, a TA, or fellow student) all of the steps you’ve already tried before asking for help. Corey has a great example you can view here. I would highly recommend this approach as you build your projects!
Tip #5: Breathe
Musical theatre nerd moment: one of my favorite mantras is quoted quite often by Sierra Boggess (hilarious and talented Broadway actress who has played Christine in “Phantom of the Opera”, and was the original Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway). It’s a quote she was told from one of her vocal teachers:
“You are enough, you are so enough, it’s unbelievable how enough you are.”
No, your bootcamp didn’t make a mistake and let you in. No, you’re not the slowest learner in your cohort. Yes, you belong there. Yes, it will be hard. You are enough. Don’t feel like you’re enough? Meditate (Calm app is 💯). Talk with your cohort-mates (trust me, they are feeling all the same things). Message your BFF from the bathroom. Have a strong support network you can reach out to when you’re feeling low. Or, if that’s too difficult, you can always email me (email@example.com) and I’ll be happy to send you all the supportive messages and Rupaul’s Drag Race memes I can to bring you back up.
And, on that note, I’ll leave you with this gif from Rupaul’s Drag Race that I assure you will be how you feel once you graduate and sign your first offer letter as an engineer:
You will survive.