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Who Are You? Don't Lose Yourself at a Coding Bootcamp: PART ONE

Written by Sam Lubin on January 10, 2018

I’m a graduate of the New York Code + Design Academy (NYCDA) Web Development Intensive program and I have been employed here ever since. I have been a boot camp student and I work closely with boot camp students full-time. That said, I like to think I know a lot about the student experience in a web development boot camp.

I understand first hand what it means to leave the security of a job to attend a full-time course in web development in order to change careers entirely and seek a better future. I went through it myself and I help others go through it every day. For those that take a code boot camp in order make large career shifts (like I did), it can be a struggle to maintain a sense of self and there are healthy ways to frame the experience to prevent bad juju and identity crises.

I’ll speak for myself first (buckle up, approx. 4 pages). I came into the world of web development and software engineering from a background in arts and education. All through school I studied performing arts (theatre and music). In and after college I generally supported myself making what money I could as a performer, meanwhile supplementing that meager income with part-time jobs as a stagehand and as a private tutor.

This amounted to a lifestyle I strongly identified with: a creative, flexible, and not-too-routinized life. These were and are core values I appreciate, but in the same breath, the reality of my life at that time was wearing me to the bone. I experienced such heavy burn-out running from gig to gig day after day that my health, my relationships, and creative life all began to suffer.

During this time, my intellect also began to stagnate as I was constantly forced to put myself in the “performance zone” rather than the “learning zone." I came to recognize the life I had made for myself was in many ways comforting because it was mine, but it was also unsustainable. I wasn’t learning anything, I had no upward mobility in my work, deteriorating personal relations and I needed to make a change.

I looked to my peers for some guidance and insight. About half of my friends work in cafes and food service and love the flexibility, but not the pay. The other half of my friends work in finance and consulting and enjoy the compensation, but feel stifled by the corporate structure. However, I have 2 or 3 friends who work in software development and, in talking with them, they only had great things to say about their work and how rewarding it was.

My friends got me going on free online resources like codecademy.com and I stuck with it, educating myself for the better part of a year before I recognized that I was interested enough in the subject to pursue more formal training. One of these friends took some courses at NYCDA and recommended I check it out too. Feeling encouraged and ready to take the plunge, I applied, interviewed and was accepted to the NYCDA full-time intensive program.

If you come from a strong academic background or have any level of expertise in a given field, you’re conditioned to expect success. Coming into NYCDA I had this secret part of me that was sure I would be a natural at web development and all the self-education I had done before the course would set me ahead of my classmates.

That part of me was utterly shattered. The course covered everything I had taught myself in almost a year within the first 3 or 4 days of a 60-day class. I failed the first week’s technical assessment, my first group project was a total disaster, and then I failed the second week’s assessment as well. The course just kept ploughing forward and it took nearly everything I had just to stay afloat.

Naturally I was humbled. I was forced to recognize that my perception of myself was inaccurate and I would need to put in serious time and effort on my studies if I expected to see any returns. I had to reflect: “Of course I’m not good developer yet! Isn’t that why I am taking classes for it? How can I expect anything else if I have not put in the time and effort?”

This was an important step in adjusting my identity as a learner and a person: I cannot expect the ratio between my capability and my effort to ever be more than 1:1. Just because I have had easy successes in the past does not mean I can reliably expect things to continue that way.

After 6 weeks of what was essentially pain, I finally came to a very small sense of confidence in my abilities. Some other key moments in my journey as a student played a part in this. One of the more salient instances was the time my instructor, an incredibly capable senior developer, was unable to complete a feature for an in-class demonstration. I could tell he was a bit upset by the chain of errors he was getting and after some time ended up settling for just explaining in words what should have happened. It struck me then that software development is challenging at every level; even highly experienced professionals still fail!

And that is fine and well.

It occurred to me that failure is an absolutely essential part of any learning process. The instance with my instructor’s failure indicated to me that I was entering a field in which a learning process is a constantly evolving facet of working in the industry. I left my job because it was no longer interesting and presented no options for growth, so this continuous learning aspect of the industry was and remains very appealing to me.

On the flip side, at this stage of the course I still had the urge to cling to a lot of the values from my lifestyle from when I worked those less-than-compelling part-time jobs. I still consider myself an artist first and always. I started thinking: “I’ve been spending all this time and energy in and out of class learning new things, developing new habits, and grappling with all these ideas I don’t fundamentally understand.”

I started to question how I conceive myself and how I relate to the circumstances I’ve chosen for my life. Questions of identity: What am I doing learning to code? What is this amounting to and where am I going?

As our fears will often guide us into direct collision with them, my personal worst-case scenario image of long, tie-wearing days turning into weeks turning into months to years from inside a cubical becomes the inevitable destination in my mind. I don’t identify with that kind of life. So what am I doing? Am I selling out? Who do I think I am?

At this stage in the course imposter syndrome sets in because, come on, I’ve got to be kidding myself, right? I’m totally unsure of what I’m doing and right now I’m worried I’m spending all my time, energy and money to self-design my own nightmare -- what a concept! That said, I’m drawn to so much about software engineering, but maybe the hardcore developer life just isn’t for me? Is feeling this way even an option at this point?

I’ve seen this with students other than myself, too. In fact, I see it as a terribly common concern. These anxieties and inhibitions are what stand in our way as we traverse the unknown and prevent us from doing the real learning. In order to focus on actually learning new things we have to both acknowledge these hang-ups as real and painful, but then also set them aside and do what we must to learn the skills necessary to meet a deadline.

A tall order, for sure. But that’s being a developer. So how do we address that?

CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO!

Hero Image:
unsplash-logoHeidi Sandstrom.


About The Author

Sam Lubin

Sam is a recent graduate of NYCDA . Before that he worked backstage at Blue Man Group in Manhattan. Otherwise he is off pursuing some performing arts endeavor -- be it a play, a film, or a recording session with his alt-rock band -- and loving every moment of it. Sam cares about arts and education and intends to make those ideals the main facets of his life, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, Sam enjoys hobbies like cooking and hiking.