Jess Mitchell

From Social Services to Software Development

March 28, 2019

Most of the places I’ve interviewed at in tech usually start with the question, “Looking at your resume I’m wondering… How did you end up in tech?” It’s a totally reasonable question to ask and one that I expect. Three years ago I was doing pretty much the exact opposite of coding: I was training to be a therapist after working in mental health services for a few years.

The short version of leaving the mental health field is that I knew it just didn’t feel like a good fit for me. I was passionate about helping others move through recovery because I had already seen how much a positive (or negative) experience with health care professionals impacted a person’s motivation to stick with recovery. I had worked in a recovery centre already and knew it was a very delicate process to which I felt empathetic.

As much as I wanted to be that supportive person for someone else, working in mental health ultimately didn’t embrace one skill I happen to really enjoy using: problem solving. Therapy seemed like it would be a lot of problem solving but in reality it’s up to the person you’re speaking to to solve their own problems with your guidance.

Around the same time, I was discussing with my Anti-Oppressive Practice professor that I thought it was unfortunate her research didn’t feel more accessible to the public. There was so much useful information in her publications but it didn’t have a platform for others to find it all in one place. She asked if I could build her a website. I said, “Sure,” (and thought, “Probably…”).

As soon as I started learning about all the options for how to build a website, I was hooked. Yes, immediately overwhelmed — but hooked. Solving my first FizzBuzz tapped into the type of problem solving I wasn’t really using day-to-day but knew I missed.

I started learning JavaScript, dropped out of my graduate program that was giving me a permanent existential crisis anyway, and applied to a full-stack JavaScript bootcamp using my leftover tuition money.

I pretty much blew up most of the life plans I had been working on for years in a couple months. It was the best decision I could have made.

Since then, I finished the initial bootcamp, worked for a few companies — all small start ups — and ended up doing a second full-stack bootcamp online.

I get asked a lot how I made such a dramatic change but, to be honest, it didn’t feel that dramatic to me.

Often we define people by what they do for work but we forget that people have many more dimensions than what we think they do at their day jobs.* In reality, most jobs use a lot of the same skills: managing time, managing priorities, critical thinking, working in stressful situations, and making decisions in the larger context of the company. So switching fields didn’t make a difference with these base skills in place.

Secondly, a lot of “non-technical” jobs have technical aspects. At my job managing the recovery centre I was regularly updating our website, fixing printers and internet as needed, invoicing, etc. There was a lot of math in my day-to-day. Additionally, as a therapist intern, I noticed that someone coming in wanting to make massive changes in their life but not knowing how to usually ended up feeling a lot like big coding problems: “Let’s break this down into smaller pieces and do it one step at a time.”

Similarly, it turns out working as a software developer requires a lot of “non-technical” skills: communicating effectively with colleagues, discussing the subjective aspects of UX and design, etc.

Thankfully for me and others who have had similar transitions, a lot of skills from previous jobs end up being transferable and extremely useful. Once I got more confident coding, the rest felt manageable.

*I want to note that I also think there’s a gendered component here. I always did well in math and sciences but was mostly encouraged to continue in the arts and humanities. My best mark in high school was in Computer Science but my arts teachers were the ones who encouraged post-secondary options.

Bootcamps: Online vs. In-Person

The fact that I did two bootcamps during my transition into tech is a bit uncommon. One was in-person and the other was online. One was nine weeks and the other was six months. The first was a clean slate and the second was after getting some work experience. Both valuable but very different experiences.

For anyone considering bootcamp options, here’s a little information on my experiences with the two.

The first one I completed, DecodeMTL in Montreal, Canada, was a small cohort of 16 people, nine weeks long, and intense to say the least. (They’re partnered with a university now so this may have changed.) We spent the morning learning something new in a lecture-style format. The rest of the day (and evening, and sometimes night) was dedicated to trying to finish all the of problems for the day to make sure we understood what we had just learned.

I loved this format. The rule was that you shouldn’t leave for the day until all the problems given out at lunch were solved. We mostly worked on our own but still asked each other for help. If anyone was really stumped, there were always TAs available to help you talk through the problem and what you had tried so far.

During the last two weeks, I built a React CRUD app from scratch with another bootcamper and learned how to technically discuss what we had built. On the last day of the bootcamp, everyone presented their projects to a room full of people looking to hire junior developers.

The second one, Flatiron School, was considerably longer and taught two programming languages, JavaScript and Ruby. You could work through the problems at your own pace and ask for help in their online chat options. The goal was to get all your tests to pass for each problem so it was obvious when you had completed each task.

At Flatiron, I got to build a few different Rails and React apps and worked through over 700 online problems. After completing each app, there was a test with an instructor that involved explaining what I had built and answering relevant technical questions. It provided a valuable opportunity to practice technical discussion similar to what you might experience in a dev interview.

Tweet screenshot of Ariana Grande song lyrics replaced with Jest lyrics

This experience was also my introduction to Test Driven Development, which I continue to be grateful for. Every. Day.

I want to mention that I received a scholarship for this bootcamp, which was the only way I could have done it at the time. For anyone looking into Flatiron as an option, I’d definitely recommend checking out any potential scholarship opportunities to subsidize or cover the cost.

Between the two, I personally am glad my introduction to coding was at the in-person bootcamp. There was a definite solidarity in struggling and succeeding in the same room as others who are equally as overwhelmed. In moments where I felt discouraged I would chat with a colleague or go for a coffee to get some space from the problem. It helped keep me engaged longer.

That said, most people aren’t in the position to drop everything and do a full-time immersive course for two months. If that’s the case and part-time learning in preferable, online is a great option. If you go this route, I’d recommend coming up with a schedule and sticking to it as much as possible. It’s really easy to procrastinate with work that has no deadline, especially if you feel stumped on a problem.

Ultimately it depends on how you learn best. There is an essay in this book, On the Internet, about the benefit of learning in person that has always rung true for me. The argument is that there is shared risk in learning and teaching in front of others, which has a unifying effect for everyone involved. But again, that’s my take, and ultimately we’re talking about work you end up doing mostly alone on your computer anyway.

Overall, it’s been an incredible few years of learning, new opportunities, and a lot of coffee. I’m always happy to discuss my experiences regarding making the jump into tech, so feel free to reach out on Twitter. 👋

March 28, 2019


Jess

Hi, I'm Jess. I write about software development, mental health, and how the two can co-exist.🌿 Follow me on Twitter