My Bootcamp Application Journey

A lot of my closest friends have been following along on my private Twitter account with my career journey this year, but I can finally talk about it a bit more publicly. In February I decided that it was time to start pursuing my passions again and get back to working on my career in tech. My goal since December of 2011 has been to be a professional front-end web developer instead of just a hobbyist front-end web developer. To that end I spent a couple months of my unemployment trying to advance my skills at home independently. HTML and CSS have been in the bag since I was a teenager but I knew I needed to finally learn JavaScript and JQuery and build up a portfolio. Unfortunately, this wasn’t progressing as quickly as I had hoped, as the resources I was using to learn weren’t very great. In addition, I really needed a source of income, so I was spending a lot of time applying to anything I could find in order to pay the bills. After 5 months of unemployment I eventually got a job as an Office Manager at Viator, Inc and my career goals were put on hold.

Which brings us back to February of this year. I set some firm deadlines for myself and started spending my evenings and weekends doing tutorials online. I also started working on hand-coding a new website for myself (for the 10th time in the last year) to better represent myself. I was devouring every resource I could find on front-end development. I joined a bunch of meetup groups, some skillshare classes on JavaScript, general programming, and took a one month Ruby on Rails class on a whim (which produced this). I also did a pricey one-day workshop about iOS programming (which I was very dissatisfied with, by the way) because I was just so anxious to start learning everything about everything as fast as I could. I was advancing much more quickly then I was before, but I was really scattered trying to learn a billion of things at once instead of just focusing on one thing at a time. But through all these different resources I discovered something that didn’t exist back when I was working towards this goal while unemployed: web development bootcamps.

Web Development Bootcamps have been popping up like crazy over the last year. They are intensive full-time programs that aspire to help people become programmers. When I first started seeing information on these in March I thought, “Darnit, I wish they had these a year ago when I was unemployed!” and, “Too bad these are so expensive.” Then I started doing more research on Hackbright Academy and Devbootcamp, the first two that I had heard about, because I was dissatisfied with only getting to learn more about development here and there. I only have a couple hours of free time when I get home from work at night and in addition to coding I was also trying to plan a wedding, clean my house, run errands, and try not to neglect my fiance or cat. The more that I read about the bootcamps, the more I was convinced this is something I wanted to do. Realizing that I would have to quit my job to do this and fork out a bunch of money, I was extremely hesitant, but I figured that when it came down to it, it was a pretty risk-free deal considering the rate of employment after the programs is 93–95% (at Hackbright and Devbootcamp). And even though I’ve always been primarily a front-end coder, I’d been becoming increasingly interested in back-end languages. After considering it a great deal I brought it up to my fiance and as usual he was very supportive and said he’d do whatever it takes to help me with this new goal. So in March, I started working towards that course of action.

Once I decided that this was a definite course for me I wanted to start right away, but unfortunately with the wedding and then the honeymoon a month after that, it looked like I wouldn’t be able to start any of the programs until August or September. I was bummed I would have to wait but figured I’d continue learning all I could in the meantime and continued preparing and doing research. I also started discovering more bootcamps, like App Academy and Hack Reactor, and I realized in the midst of my obsessive research that I may not even get into any of the programs because they’re extremely competitive and receive a lot of applications. I had my heart set on getting in, so this was a hard notion for me. Here are the summaries of my experiences applying for each of the bootcamps over the last 6 months:

Hackbright Academy

Hackbright was my top choice so I spent weeks working on my application for them. There really wasn’t a lot you could put into the application form, but they let you submit a 2 minute video with your application and I recorded it over and over again trying to get it right. 2 days after my wedding I finally submitted my application, 4 ½ months before the session I wanted to do would even start. The application said they would initially respond within 2 weeks, but that’s inaccurate. I spent over 2 months chewing my nails, wondering if my application got lost in the ether. 2 months and 2 weeks after submitting my application I finally got an email saying that they would be reviewing applications that week (this was the 2nd week of July). Then 2 days after that I got an email saying that they wanted to do a video-interview with me and to schedule a time.

I really wish the interview would have been a technical interview instead of a social one. I was so nervous that I’d bumble it and be my normal socially inept self, whereas if it was a technical interview I could have shown I was a good candidate. The interview was conducted by Liz Howard, who I recognized as being the teacher of some of the meetup events I had attended. She asked me why I was interested in the program, and I was able to answer that well enough. She didn’t really ask me a lot of questions though, and I didn’t really feel like the interview was going well. It lasted about 10 minutes and at the end she said, “Okay, well I’m going to pass you along to Christian to do a technical interview, and you’ll be receiving an email in the next couple days to schedule that.” So I was elated thinking, “Yay, I’ve made it to the final round and this is finally going to happen and happy joy joy!”

But the next day came and no email, and then another day passed and no email. Finally, 4 days after the video interview, I received a form letter rejection saying that they would not be moving forward with me as a candidate, which made me extremely upset because 1) the form letter didn’t even have the correct cohort session that I was applying for and 2) I was told by Liz that I would be moving on to the next step. I felt it was kind of cruel to say that and then not follow through. The email also said that I should try to apply again in 6 months, but after already waiting 6 months to do it in the first place, this was a really big blow. I know they get a lot of applicants and I know they can’t possibly accept everyone, even good candidates, but I couldn’t help but feel bitter every day for the next week when I saw them tweet, “The deadline for the next cohort is in one week. Apply now!” I ended up muting them in my twitter feed for a couple weeks because I kept getting really depressed about it. So that was the end of trying to get into Hackbright.


Originally, Devbootcamp was going to be my backup if I didn’t get into Hackbright Academy, but I had waited too long to submit my application because I was hoping to hear from Hackbright, and also because I didn’t think I could come up with the money as fast as Devbootcamp required, if they accepted me while I was waiting to hear from Hackbright. In the end, waiting made the decision for me, because in the 2 months between when I was going to apply and decided to apply, the program filled up for the entire rest of the year. So it no longer was an option. In the end though, I’m not sure that I would have been happy with their particular program, the more I’ve read about it I don’t know if I would have fit into their culture well, and with it only being 9 weeks, etc.

App Academy

At first I considered App Academy a worst-case scenario because while the price tag is attractive (you pay nothing until you get a job), they didn’t seem to be as good of quality as the others. I was also extremely hesitant about them because their website was horribly out of date. It only had statistics for their first class, from a year prior, and that wasn’t even the same kind of class they were teaching now. On top of all that I figured they were probably even harder to get into because of the deferred payment option. But after 2 months of waiting to hear back from Hackbright I thought I should go ahead and apply to App Academy just in case. They emailed me back the very next night (a Sunday) with a link to a timed coding challenge and some recommended prep-work to do before the challenge. They said there was no deadline to complete this. The next night after work I got started on the prep-work, which was a bunch of beginning Ruby exercises. Due to my limited free time after work, I had not yet finished all the prep-work by the end of the week but got an email from them saying, “Why haven’t you completed the coding challenge yet?” We had a wedding to go to that weekend so I didn’t have a lot of time to finish the prep-work then either.

On Monday night, the same day I did my video interview with Hackbright, I decided I needed to just hurry up and take the coding challenge even though I wasn’t comfortable with Ruby yet. That was an extremely stressful 45 minutes. There were 3 problems that you had to complete and you weren’t allowed to google to look anything up. These were problems I could have easily done in JavaScript, but I wasn’t able to complete a single one in Ruby. I worked through them over and over trying to find the solution but half my problem was I kept forgetting what would be the correct syntax for Ruby. In hindsight I wish I would have just googled for help anyway, since it was syntax throwing me off. In the end I submitted my incomplete code to at least show an effort, but I knew I blew it. I was mad at myself for rushing into it and not studying more.

The next day I received an email saying that it looks like I don’t have much programming experience (No App Academy, I just don’t have much Ruby experience, which is what I would be learning in your program). They then gave a list of books and tutorials saying, if you do all this work then we’ll review your application and MAYBE let you in. Some of the books cost quite a bit of money, and it was about 50 hours of work, and there was no way I was going to have enough time to complete it all by the deadline, with no guarantee of even getting in at that point, so I didn’t pursue it. A week later they updated their program and their website, making the course longer and more expensive. I still had my doubts about them and the increased price tag made me kind of glad I didn’t get in anyway.

Hack Reactor

After being rejected by both Hackbright and App Academy I started to have doubts about whether I was cut out to do back-end development. I had always worked on front-end and maybe I should stick with that. I started exploring my other options and took another look at Hack Reactor. I had barely looked at them months before because all I saw was their high tuition price. They are definitely the most expensive program by far, but then giving them a fresh look, the more I learned about their program the more I realized that it’s the program I should have been working towards all along and I was mad at myself for not trying to get into them sooner. The reason they’re so expensive is because the value of their program is so much higher, their program requires more hours of your time, and they achieve top results (100% hiring rate). On top of all this, their focus is on JavaScript. Initially all I had set out to do was master JavaScript, so this focus was much more aligned with my goals. My excitement was renewed and I applied to them the night I got the rejection from Hackbright. I was worried about being able to afford it but thought I’d worry about that later. They also have an extremely competitive application process with many rounds of interviews so I was mad at myself for giving JavaScript a break to work on other languages etc.

I received an email 2 days after I applied saying that they’d like to have an in-person interview with me and I was excited that they responded so quickly. I scheduled the interview for the following week because that’s what worked best with my schedule and it would give me time to brush up on JavaScript since I hadn’t been using it for a couple months and they would be testing me on it in the first interview. Working on JavaScript that week was a breath of fresh air after doing Ruby. The Hack Reactor interview was scheduled during my lunch hour at work. I was very nervous but showed up intent on doing well. But when I got there it turned out that they had double booked interviews and asked if I could wait 20 minutes. I said yes and sat down on the couch watching the clock so that I wouldn’t be late back to work. After waiting for an hour I couldn’t wait any longer and went back to work. Once I got back to my office I got back on their calendar link, which luckily I had saved and selected another interview spot right after work that day.

I headed back over and sat back down and waited for someone to notice me. Finally Tony came out and said, “I wondered what happened to you.” I explained to him how I had to get back to work, and that I had rescheduled, so he invited me into the office and started the interview. He asked me to do a JavaScript problem on his laptop while he went to get a drink from the kitchen. I felt under pressure to do it quickly and ended up making a bunch of stupid mistakes that I normally don’t make at home. He was very friendly, however, and explained to me what I did wrong, how I could make the code better, etc. After doing the problem he talked to me about the details of the program and answered any questions I had. At the end of it he offered me two choices. He felt that I wasn’t as ace at JavaScript as I should be, and he could give me a guide on learning and getting better and then I could come and meet with him again, and then do a technical interview. The other option was just going ahead and scheduling the technical interview. It was a hard choice but I was anxious to get started soon and I knew I should push myself instead of playing it safe, so I chose the latter. The technical interview was scheduled for a week and a half later, which is the week after I was going to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Part of preparing for the technical interview was doing their chatbuilder app, that they sort of walk you through the steps for, but you have to figure out the code to write. I spent my entire vacation working on it, and at first was feeling very overwhelmed and discouraged, but then I took another stab at it and did lots of research and parse api tutorials and then I felt like I could write it from scratch, but I still couldn’t write it using their tutorial. I just kept working away at it, and eventually I actually got it working and had it almost completed. But I was having lots of anxiety about the technical interview, and I was really worried about being able to physically handle the 6 day/all day program that Hack Reactor does, because of my chronic fatigue problems. Combine this with not being able to afford the program, and I ended up canceling my technical interview. I had lots of regret about canceling it, thinking I should have at least found out if I would have been accepted or not. But the fear of failure was really strong because I wanted to get into their program so badly, and I thought it’d be too hard to say no if I was accepted.

It’s unfortunate. I think their program is the best and I would have loved to do it, but after trying to get a personal loan for another program, and having trouble getting a much lesser amount, I know I never would have been able to afford Hack Reactor’s tuition. So that’s that.

General Assembly

Even though I had known about General Assembly for a long time through my meetup groups, I hadn’t thought of them as a bootcamp since all the articles and comparison charts that talk about bootcamps never mention General Assembly. I knew they did some online courses and some workshops, but that was about it. After being rejected from App Academy and Hackbright Academy and trying to explore what my other options are, I delved into research on General Assembly trying to figure out if they were a worthwhile option to consider. They started out in New York City, and now have about 8 different bootcamps all over the world. They don’t just have one area that they focus on, which worried me a little, but the program that I’d be doing through them is their Web Development Immersive. Something else that concerned me was that I could find lots of information about the New York City one, but not the San Francisco one and another thing that made me hesitant is that they’re the only one that doesn’t have a hiring day, or job placement rates, because they’re not as job-focused and make no guarantees. After the rejection from Hackbright and App Academy I decided to go ahead and apply, since I couldn’t afford to rule out any options.

They emailed me back a little over a week later saying that they wanted to schedule a phone interview. Luckily I was about to start my vacation so I scheduled the call to take place the first morning we were in Ashland. The call lasted about 25 minutes. I spoke to a man named Danoosh and he asked me some questions about what my goals are, and if I understood that this was a full-time program, etc. He also asked if I was a good typist and what my prior skills are in programming. He then let me ask questions, and I asked how many students were in each cohort, and some more general questions like that. The call went well and he said he’d be emailing me a sort of “test” for the application process and that I would also need to schedule my in-person interview.

The test was that you had to use html and css to make a one-page “About Me” site that included a photo and a summary, and then you had to email the files to them 48 hours before your in-person interview. I thought, “Well that’s easy!” and instead of just sending them one of my dozens of “About Me” websites that I’ve done over the years I decided to do something from scratch that is completely different from my other stuff. They said not to spend more than a few hours on it, so after a few hours I forced myself to stop trying to make it perfect, and got back to working on my Hack Reactor chatbuilder web app. I ended up liking my super colorful webpage so much though that I’m considering changing my live site’s theme. Here’s the quick page I made for them.

My in-person interview was scheduled for 1 ½ weeks later on a Friday evening. I was very conflicted and hesitant about them still though, and was hoping to get into Hack Reactor. General Assembly is the only bootcamp in San Francisco that doesn’t have computers on site for you to use. All the other ones tote their pair programming stations as one of the benefits of their programs. I find this to be one of the reasons General Assembly is less desirable because you’re paying the same amount as the others but not getting as many benefits. I’m lucky enough to already have a computer to use, but the point is that it’s nicer (and easier) to work on large monitors, and that wouldn’t be an option at their school. They are also much further away from public transit than any of the other bootcamps. But I eventually found the GA San Francisco twitter feed and read the entire thing and that helped me get a tiny bit more sense of how the program is.

I started considering taking the money I would be spending on a bootcamp and just using it to quit my job and stay home learning independently. I would actually save money that way and could focus on learning the languages that I was most interested in, and not wasting time with things I already know, etc. I developed a plan and a budget to weigh that as an option, but my husband was not crazy about that option. I didn’t think it was optimal either; I wouldn’t learn pair programming, or gain whiteboarding experience, etc. But I was worried I wasn’t going to get into Hack Reactor and I wasn’t convinced General Assembly was worthwhile. A few days before my in-person interview with General Assembly I just decided to email them, point blank, to address a few of the things that were worrying me. I asked them who the instructors are, how much 1 on 1 time you get with them, and what are the employment statistics for people who’ve gotten jobs after attending the WDI program in San Francisco. He emailed me back and said that he didn’t have information in the instructors yet because they were still hiring for the next session. He assured me that the instructor to student ratio is very good, and he said that 100% of people who were looking for jobs after the program got the outcome they wanted, and then emphasized that a lot of people who do their program are not looking for jobs and are just wanting to learn the skills.

His response made me feel a little better about it and I stopped having as much anxiety about the quality of their program, but it still seemed like it was too easy of a program to get into and that it wouldn’t be the level that I needed. The night before my in-person interview I started testing myself on brain teasers and logic puzzles online, because it said on the website that they’d ask some brain teasers. The next morning I woke up feeling so sick that I threw up (something that I haven’t done in years!) and so my husband immediately demanded that I call in sick to work. I laid in bed all day long while Jesse nursed me, but there was no canceling my 5pm interview with General Assembly, so I trekked over to the city with my laptop and tried not to think about my illness.

For my in-person interview I met with Anil who is one of the instructors. He asked me a couple questions about my technology background and I told him about the first time I saw a computer and how it was love at first sight. We pulled up the web page I made and talked about it. He really liked that it was colorful. I told him that I did that because it was opposite of how I usually design my live sites—I prefer simple and somewhat monochromatic. So then he pulled up my live website and complimented me on how clean it was. When I told him that I had been learning JavaScript this year, he asked to see a project. I told him that I didn’t really have any projects to share but that I was in the middle of working on the chatbuilder web app for Hack Reactor, so he asked to see that. I walked him through what I was doing with it, explaining the different parts of the code and what I still have left to do and he waved his hand and said, “You’ve got this. You know all this stuff.” He then asked if I had any questions and I asked a couple logistical ones. I also asked how much time they spend on HTML & CSS since I’m anxious to move on to the stuff that I don’t know how to do. He assured me that it’s very minimal, and that it’s not a front-end course. I found out that they have a couple female instructors, which I found very encouraging and pleasing. He asked me if my husband understood that he wouldn’t be seeing much of me and I assured him that Jesse is already used to me spending most of my time programming and that he’s very supportive. He didn’t ask me any brain teasers and overall the interview didn’t last long. We finished and he said someone would get back to me soon about whether I am admitted or not.

The next evening, a Saturday night, I got an email from them saying “Congratulations! You’ve been admitted.” So, I’m going to General Assembly! The next day I canceled my technical interview for Hack Reactor for the reasons stated in that section, and then spent the next few days trying to get a personal loan. Once that was all taken care of, and tuition paid, they sent out the pre-work that has to be done before the program starts, and I’ve been focusing on that for the last week.

There are certainly other bootcamps that I could have applied to in other cities, but it would have been more expensive to have to pay for housing elsewhere, and I didn’t want to leave my new husband for that long. If I hadn’t been accepted by anyone, I would have continued learning independently and strove towards a ThoughtBot Apprenticeship. With any of these programs though, you get out of it what you put in, and I intend to make this experience the best one possible.

What does this mean now?

It means that I will now be able to dress however I want again, and look however I want again, so be on the lookout for some fun hair colors ;-)

More importantly though, it means that I will be focusing really hard on the program to do my absolute best and insure my success in gaining a job afterwards. The program inherently is an intensive course; that’s the whole point. I will have homework and I will have very little free time between the dates of September 23rd to December 19th. Additionally I’m going to be a starving student for the next 4 months and will be saving every dime that I can. No more Rdio and Netflix for me (not that I’d have the time for movies anyway), and I’m going to be eating lots of ramen. I was even going to let my car registration expire and file planned non-operation since I won’t be using my car at all for the next few months and could save money that way, but unfortunately I found out that you have to have a garage to store the car in, so am ending up having to renew it at the last minute; boo on not getting to save that money.

I have warned all my close friends and family to not expect to see much of me during this period of time. The program suggests regular blogging of the experience and what we’re learning, so anyone interested in updates and how things are going should follow along here. Also, if you’re a friend interested in getting together with me before the program starts, please let me know! I’ve got a running list.

I’m really looking forward to this new adventure and finally getting to pursue my passions in a more direct way. I’m bursting with excitement and counting down the days until I get to start.