When Life Hands You Covid, Become a Developer
Whether you consider it clandestine or a product of situation versus availability, the recent shift in the job market and social state of the world forced a lot of plans to change. One of those paths, strictly uprooted by circumstance, was our Junior Front-End Developer Christian Boswell, who found himself taking a big risk to come out of the pandemic in a completely different situation than he was in when it all began.
Where were you on March 11th, 2020? Nearly everyone has perfected their tailored response to this question by this point. Within 48 hours of major sporting leagues shutting their seasons down, we’d see the Dow close down 2000 points, the economy shed nearly 3 million jobs, and the entire populace was preparing to indefinitely live their lives behind locked doors, buried under a mountain of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
How it Started
For me? I was sleeping in my car in the parking lot of the company I worked for at the time. I was not destitute or experiencing severe economic distress, this was by choice. I was living the life that some might refer to as that of a “dirtbag.” I had been working as an outdoor adventure guide in Zion National Park in beautiful Utah for six years. Like many of my millennial brethren, I decided in my mid-twenties to abandon the tenure track of a professional career in search of something different. I had graduated with dual majors in Justice Studies and Political Science from Kent State University during the height of the OG 21st century financial crisis, which was likely the worst time in modern history to be entering the workforce. After a short stint in Americorps and a few promising job prospects to be found after that, I threw everything I owned into my 2007 Ford Focus and headed to the desert of Utah, seeking greener pastures.
My lease had just expired, and my partner and I had been planning for nearly a year to begin hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in April of 2020. Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans and all that. Fast forward to April. I’d lost my job, the entire economy had shut down, and I lived in an RV on my parent’s property in rural Ohio. Not the “dirtbag” existence I preferred.
I’m unsure if most people experience an exact moment of clarity as to when it’s time to “grow up,” but the complete isolation of living in an RV in your parent’s driveway in your early 30s with no internet access, bad cell service, and the only real possession to your name being a 13-year-old car with 130k miles, you have plenty of time to reevaluate your priorities. So like any person with endless time on their hands, living in a world that presented no prospects beyond the next day’s Covid news, I made a list. What was I good at? My degrees might say politics or law; five minutes of watching the news says otherwise. Besides Mario Kart and making coffee, what skills did I have? I was a pretty good guide, I’d say. I developed an extensive problem-solving skillset, worked well under pressure, and was fairly technologically literate. I could bust out a Squarespace site with the best of them. Guess I’ll be a developer, I thought. This, though, is where the hard part began.
Limited by the constraints of my circumstances, I spent the next several weeks working through copious amounts of tutorials. As the weeks went by and the malaise of tutorial “hell” set in, I knew I would need some help. As great as the internet is with all its wealth of information, it can also be a pretty terrible place to seek advice on, well, just about everything. If I want to get into development, do I need a Computer Science degree? How long does it take to get a job if you’re self-taught? This Bootcamp I ran across guaranteed I’d secure a FAANG job (shorthand for the big names in tech; Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) making $150k in six months, really?!
The endless conjecture was a bit overwhelming. At this point, I had to make a choice. I knew I would be moving back to Utah to reunite with my partner, I knew at 33 I didn’t want to spend (or could afford) four years back in college, and I also knew years of having a smartphone had drained my attention span. The structure and fast-paced environment of a Bootcamp seemed to make the most sense.
Coding Bootcamp, an Introduction
Let’s take a brief moment away from our story to discuss the finer details of the Coding Bootcamp industry. If you’re unfamiliar, it was essentially born out of the 2008 financial crisis as a way to help blue-collar workers quickly transition careers into the tech industry. Since then, it’s become a hundred-million-dollar industry that enrolls tens of thousands of new students each year. The main selling point of a Bootcamp is that it can offer a flexible yet rigorous course load within a short period of time and provide career services to help students transition as quickly as possible. There are also plenty of options for career trajectory, with UI/UX, Cybersecurity, and Web Development being the most popular. You can have a family, work full-time, graduate, and in theory, actually have learned something along the way. Basically, you get what you put in. Bootcamps have an extremely high risk to reward rate. They aren’t cheap, with the median price in the U.S. sitting at just over $13k, and they also do not forgive if your personal life is causing you to fall behind.
Reporting for Duty
It’s July 2020. After a quick phone call with a recruiter and $12k later, I was an official Full-Stack Coding Bootcamp enrollee. My cohort would be hosted through the local University in partnership with one of the larger national Bootcamp chains and, thanks to Covid, be 100% online. After tuition and an upgrade from the Chromebook to an iMac, I had officially spent my entire life savings. I was now in the same position as thousands of other Bootcamp attendees across the country. It better work out, or I’m screwed.
I came into the cohort with a very general knowledge of web development and was quickly put in my place. Learning a programming language without knowing anything about programming is a fascinating experience. This would be similar to working on an assembly line. You put your part on the car but have no idea what it really does or why it does it; you just know that that part has to go there for the whole thing to work in the end. Bootcamps don’t really have the time to cover Computer Science 101, so they skip right to showing you how to put the part on the car, no questions asked.
The basic structure of the course was simple: One main teacher, a rotating cast of teaching assistants, and 50 or so students. Three days a week, 12 hours a week, for the next six months. Every week, a new concept, and just when you think you’ve got it, you’re onto something completely different. As ignorant as it sounds, the pandemic was maybe the best companion to have along for this ride, as the lack of any real social interaction outside of class meant little time for distraction. As the assignments began to pile up, I was getting “A”s but ended most weeks with the thousand-mile stare of a soldier during war. Those 12 hours a week for class quickly became that, plus 20 more consisting of an amalgamation of studying, mastering the art of Google-Fu, and learning that most people on Stack Overflow are as dumb as me. Summer turned to fall, then to winter, and soon enough, I was approaching the waning days of the camp.
I recovered the password to an ancient LinkedIn account, put my title as Full Stack Developer, and added my portfolio of generic projects for the world to see. It didn’t take long for LinkedIn’s algorithm to suggest I befriend hundreds of other 30 something white dudes with the exact same title and portfolio. They even had the #OpentoWork on their profile picture, just like me. Believe it or not, thousands of other people had the same bright idea to lose their job to Covid and then use their stimulus bucks to transition into a more sustainable career in a post-pandemic world. Thousands of other people, who likely attend the exact same Bootcamp, trying to get a job with the exact same profile of projects. Maybe I’d get some hits if I wore clown makeup in my profile picture.
With graduation just weeks away, I began applying. Crickets. Modern online job sites have a really great feature that lets you see how many people have applied for a position as if the little dopamine hit you get after seeing you’re one of the first 100 applicants to a position that will inevitably have 800 is somehow more reassuring for your prospects. In the waning days of my Bootcamp, I first spoke to the Managing Director at Thinkingbox. It wasn’t an interview, more of a casual conversation. They weren’t exactly in need of the services of a Jr. Developer, but more so someone who could help with Quality Assurance (QA) and assist on some less development-heavy projects coming down the line. I knew nothing about QA, but I knew I could be the best QA person who knew nothing about QA that they could hire. I’m sure many others who’ve been in my position at the time could attest I would have agreed to mop the floors if it meant getting my foot in the door. Somehow it worked. 10 months and 19 days after waking up in my car that last time, the journey had come full circle.
How it’s Going
February of 2022 marked my 1-year anniversary as a Front-End Developer at Thinkingbox. You hear a lot when you’re first getting into programming about imposter syndrome, how you’ll learn more on the job than you ever did in the Bootcamp or school, and how you’ll always be learning till the day you either quit or retire. These are all indeed true statements. The eagerness to learn and create is palpable when you’re first given the opportunity to put your code to work. One of the most nerve-wracking things as a new developer, especially as a Bootcamp graduate, is looking like a Jabroni. You want to be respected, but you also need a lot of help to get to where you need to be. Finding that equilibrium is critical.
Since day one, the resources provided to me have significantly assisted in my working toward being a more well-rounded developer. The presence of a mentor has also been one of the most beneficial things a green developer could ask for. Someone you can bounce questions off of, ask for code reviews, and generally consider a friend, are all invaluable resources. The relationships I’ve fostered in my short time here have made the work easy. That’s not to say it isn’t stressful or that there aren’t late nights where I find myself pounding my head against the table. It’s an environment that I’m always excited to return to each day, which I’ve found to be a rarity.
The work, though, is what really makes the job at Thinkingbox something to be proud of. In the beginning, I would have taken any development position, anywhere, if it simply meant landing a job. Somehow, I stumbled on a gem. Yes, I’m sure maintaining a bank’s website is fun and all, but you’d probably never find yourself in the position to craft amazing experiences for the likes of Riot Games and Netflix.
“In the end, I’m unsure if I’ve ever had a job in my life where I was really excited to talk to my mom about it.”
It’s hard for me to quantify where I am as a developer a year in. I don’t feel any better. But, I can see growth in the work. I can also feel it in my desire to always want to make another push, to not settle for “just good enough”, to keep tinkering, keep breaking things, and see what happens when all of the dust settles.
The future is bright. The internet has that feeling again. Same as it had in the late-90s, and mid-00s. Like something big is about to happen, and if you blink, you’ll miss it. I have a good feeling Thinkingbox will be along for the ride, and I’m happy to be a part of it.