“The biggest challenge is checking yourself at the door”
Matt King talks about his experiences mentoring and facilitating at Founders and Coders in London and abroad
Rebecca: Matt, thanks for much for taking the time for us to grab a coffee and chat.
Matt: When I heard you're looking for Founders and Coders stories, I was eager to share. It sounds funny, but Founders and Coders has changed my life.
Rebecca: I believe there are people in Nazareth, Gaza, and London who'd say the same thing about you.
Matt: I can’t believe people would say that about me!
Rebecca: I'm just telling you what I've heard. But before we get to your experiences as a mentor, I'd like you to summarize your experiences with Founders and Coders.
Matt: Sure. In 2017, I did the Founders and Coders course in Nazareth, and then I stayed on as a mentor for eight weeks of the third cohort.
Rebecca: You then ended up in Gaza.
Matt: Yes, for three weeks. And after Gaza, I mentored for another month in Nazareth, before moving to London where I was course facilitator for FAC13, our spring 2018 cohort.
Rebecca: I’d love to dig into your experiences from Nazareth to London via Gaza. First, tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to become a web developer, and how did you find out about Founders and Coders?
Matt: I got my degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Sheffield but I just couldn't see myself going into the profession.
Matt: I felt like I was jumping through a lot of hoops without really learning things...sitting in a lecture hall with 250 other students and regurgitating memorised equations for exams just ground me down to the point where I was uninterested in what I was studying.
Rebecca: And where does coding fit in?
Matt: When I used MatLab in my dissertation I realised I was more interested in writing code than the results of my simulations. I think this is what pointed me towards other careers that involved programming and hands-on problem-solving.
Rebecca: And how did you find your way to Founders and Coders?
Matt: You’re going to laugh! I essentially stalked Founders and Coders online.
Rebecca: Now there’s a story I want to hear.
Matt: Here’s what happened. After teaching myself coding for a while using Codecademy, I started looking at ways to increase my learning and exploring jobs I might want to pursue. I came across a company called 8th Light and spent an afternoon at their office with a guy called Nick Dyer, who mentioned that a coding bootcamp might be a good option for me. That was the first time I heard about Founders and Coders.
Rebecca: You said you starting stalking Founders and Coders?
Matt: I did. I read everything online I could find, including YouTube videos, reviews, and Medium articles like this one by Per about choosing a bootcamp and this one about his journey to becoming a developer. I was attracted to the small class size, the project-based approach, and the peer-led learning. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how peer-led learning would pan out for me, but I love working things out rather than being spoon fed so it seemed it would be a good fit. I also loved the idea of Founders and Coders as a community of like-minded people. After reading Jack’s Medium article, I made up my mind to do the Founders and Coders programme in Nazareth.
Rebecca: Can you say something more about your experience in Nazareth?
Matt: It was mind-blowing.
Rebecca: Tell me more!
Matt: First of all, living in the guesthouse was a huge part of my Founders and Coders experience (Rebecca: During Matt’s cohort, Founders and Coders managed a six-room guesthouse across the street from our classroom in Nazareth). It was such a hub of activity and fun. Everyone was always welcome, and several times people just randomly appeared at the front door who’d graduated from other cohorts. Communal dinners here were the dream, out of which came the infamous nazareth-recipes repository. Nazareth was the foundation for a lot of the friendships I have built at Founders and Coders and I think this is what made my experience so special.
The course itself was a lot harder than I expected. I really needed reading week and actually went to Cornwall to recuperate.
Rebecca: What in particular was tough about the course for you?
Matt: Working in teams, I think. I haven’t had too much trouble working in teams in the past but the quick turnaround of projects during the course meant that every member of the team had to be on the same page. In week two I struggled with DOM manipulation a lot and I remember working my way through a morning challenge with at the weekend with Harry so we could both understand it.
Rebecca: This is where the peer-learning comes in, right?
Matt: Exactly. Harry was a fellow student, and he helped me a lot. I also had to jump in and help other students. Week two was tough because it was the first time because our team came into a code base that we hadn’t written. It took us until halfway through day two of the project to get to grips with everything.
During some of our projects, I found that I was spending more time explaining code than writing it. I remember struggling to find creative ways to explain concepts that I’d only recently figured out myself to my teammates. This process, of course, is a two way street — as often as I helped my teammates, my peers and mentors took the time to talk things through with me.
Rebecca: You mentioned how you stayed on to be a mentor in Nazareth, and then Gaza. Can I ask why?
Matt: From the first moment I found out about Founders and Coders I always thought I would give back. During the course in Nazareth, it was clear to me the mentors were having a great time and a lot of them mentioned how much they were learning as well.
As a mentor, I loved giving code alongs (interestingly I didn’t like them when I was a student). It amazes me that four months after I sat coding along without a clue what was going on I could actually lead the process myself. Code alongs tested my ability to know what to type, what to explain when and which questions to answer in the moment and which to answer two minutes down the line when another file or function is written and things start to make a little bit more sense. When preparing for these I generally tried to remember as many questions as I could that we asked as students and parts where I was confused and come up with good explanations for them.
Rebecca: Are there any breakthroughs you experienced?
Matt: What do you mean?
Rebecca: Personal breakthroughs while mentoring.
Matt: There is one. I was working with Vered, one of my fellow students, and she was using pens and cups to represent things. While she was moving them about everything suddenly clicked. I also learned how to talk out a problem with a peer. Later I realised this method is called rubber ducking, as in, explaining each line of code to your rubber duck in order to find a bug. I still constantly ask people questions or explain my problem with the full expectation that the biggest help probably won’t be the response but by explaining it I will have reordered my thoughts.
Mentoring also reinforced for me the importance of planning before beginning a project. So many times we see people rushing into projects when actually the ones that do well are those that take enough time to whiteboard everything (possibly for hours) before starting to write a line of code. It’s interesting watching some groups do it both ways and watching the varying levels of stress. Learning to plan prepared me well for my current work, where my colleagues are big advocates of whiteboarding and problem-solving before writing code.
Above all, I’d say the biggest challenge is checking yourself at the door. It’s hard to remember how I felt in the same position 4 or 8 months ago and to have empathy for people who were once in your shoes.
Rebecca: From Nazareth you went to Gaza.
Matt: Yeah. I was in Gaza for three weeks. I ran design week, which kicks off the longer projects during the second half of the course. Design doesn’t come naturally to me so I had to work really hard on this. By mentoring on these concepts, I learned a lot about design methodologies and became more confident in my own abilities as a designer. Fortunately, I had the support of Ghada, who coordinates the programme in Gaza, as well as Sohad, a mentor from FACG2. I’d also watched design week in London the week before and on guidance from Noga (FAC8), who works as a designer.
Rebecca: And from Gaza it was on to London as a course facilitator for FAC13, the spring 2018 cohort in London.
Matt: I knew I wanted to make more of an impact in the Founders and Coders community and well as make connections to the rest of the community in London, which I didn’t know at all. I also loved the idea of working on small freelance projects whilst supporting the next cohort of students. Facilitating was transformational for me.
Rebecca: How so?
Matt: I’ve become so much more self-aware. From observing group dynamics and identifying where groups get into trouble, I’ve also learned better ways to relate and work with others.
I often take a backseat role when pairing because I find that I can think better with my hands off the keyboard. When I notice an error, I try to count to ten before pointing it out to my partner—a lot of the time they have already spotted it but just haven’t come back to fix it yet. I think I got the advice about counting to ten from a podcast. I’m certainly not perfect but I am trying to get better and I think mentoring/facilitating helped me learn to be patient in a way I never was before.
Facilitating also taught me to really think about what is in front of me before I start writing code. Recently Helen from FAC13 spent a week with me at Spill before going to work at Ticketmaster. She created a feature for us which she made pretty much solely by herself but then we paired together when integrating it with the rest of the app. Before we started coding we wrote down all the things we needed to do so when we started integrating it there would be fewer problems. Of course there were problems (there always are), but when we encountered a weird bug we just closed the laptop and spent time writing and talking through the problem for a while. This is something I just wouldn’t have done during the course and actually helps because you don’t get sucked into reading/writing/running code indefinitely.
Honestly, the hardest part about facilitating the course was knowing when to stop and switch to my own development work (course facilitation is a part-time commitment).
Rebecca: And what would you say was the best part about facilitating?
Matt: I just love involvement with the students. The classroom is where I feel most at home, from debugging things for teams during projects to doing mini presentations about all things GitHub to running morning challenges.
I also enjoyed mentoring at our meetups. I almost always stuck around when I could—though it’s not a requirement for course facilitators—because I love helping people write their first few lines of code. I also enjoyed talking about Founders and Coders and answering questions from prospective students.
Rebecca: Can I ask you where you work now?
Matt: It’s a startup called Spill. I’m the lead developer (also the only developer). We're on a mission to help people talk about their feelings. We believe that we're all healthier and happier when we talk about what's really on our mind.
Rebecca: Is there a Founders and Coders connection to Spill?
Matt: Of course! When I was ready to look for full-time work, I sat down with Joe (our commercial manager at Founders and Coders), to talk about the kind of position I wanted.
Getting hired was pretty speedy—I spoke to Joe in the morning, who called them and set up an interview. I cycled across London (fell off bike) and sat with the team in a nearby park. Our conversation was actually more of a chat than a formal interview. We discussed our shared passion for mental health, as well as my own experiences with mental health services.
I love that I am building something that is really making a difference in people's lives. Being the only developer at a small startup is helping me to grow as a developer as I become much more confident in my abilities since I completely own the development process (with input from everyone on the team).
Rebecca: What are your career goals?
Matt: I love what I do at the moment. I believe in what I’m building and that is what is key to me. There were moments when I was unsure that developing was definitely the right path for me but this role has really confirmed that for me. I plan to stay here for the foreseeable future and see where it can take me. It gives me the opportunity to grow and write code and learn through the process of building new things.
Rebecca: Thanks for sitting down with me, Matt!
Matt: Anytime, Rebecca.
To learn more about Founders and Coders’ tuition-free, peer-led training programme, visit www.foundersandcoders.com.