General Assembly Q&A21 Apr 2014
People occasionally contact me with questions about General Assembly, usually because they're considering applying for a place on WDI or another of their courses.
I know what it's like to have a million questions before making this decision, so I thought it might be useful to compile a list of my responses here. If there's anything not covered yet, feel free to get in touch and ask.
Did you have any prior coding experience before attending WDI?
I didn't really know how to use the various components of a language as tools to solve a problem, so the task of writing a non-trivial program, or even making a slightly dynamic web page, was beyond me.
Were there students in the program that came with little to no understanding of coding/programming?
Yes. The more you can cover on your own before you start, the better, but they don’t assume you know anything. You’ll just be less likely to fall behind if you can get a good head start.
Ultimately, I want to get into design and front-end and I've read client-side JS is the way to go. Do you think WDI would be a good fit/program for my goals?
I was also most interested in front-end development before I started. WDI is a full-stack course, but that’s a really good thing even for people like us, because having at least a grasp of how the rest of the stack works will make you a better developer and much more hireable than someone who just knows HTML/CSS/JS.
You’re right that client-side JS frameworks (like Angular, Backbone, Ember etc.) are really useful to know. Luckily GA do give you the opportunity to cover one of them - probably either Backbone or Angular depending on your instructors.
What was the final interview/Skype process like?
Mine was actually completely non-technical. We talked about my background and interests, what attracted me to programming, and what kind of program they were trying to build in SF. So be prepared to talk about all that stuff, plus anything you particularly enjoyed or found difficult about the technical exercise in the application (we had to build an 'about me' web page for this). You’ll get bonus points for talking about any technologies you’re curious about too, just to show you’re enthusiastic enough to have read around the subject of web development.
I know some people get asked little brain-teaser questions, but these aren’t necessarily pass or fail, more just to get an idea of how you approach a problem. My advice with those kind of questions is just think out loud, talk the interviewer through what’s going through your mind and keep them engaged. It’s more important to do that than to produce a perfect solution, if you see what I mean.
Did you have any concerns before applying? Were they quelled?
Oh yes! I was concerned about whether I’d be good enough, whether I’d find a job, whether I was even cut out for it, all of those things. The course was a roller coaster of feeling amazing and like a genius one minute, and then being convinced I’d never make it the next. Then gradually I learned from talking to experienced developer friends that this mindset never goes away, no matter how good you are, you just kind of get used to it. But your confidence will grow as you get better.
What was the commitment like while in the program? Close to 24/7?
Yeah, 9-5 every week day, with homework every night (I was often up until 1am), plus projects on weekends.
I don't have a crazy social life but there really isn't a break? What kept you motivated?
It is intense, but it’s doable. And while you do mostly have to put your social life on hold, I still managed to see my friends on the weekends a bit. Plus, you’ll make friends on the course and it can be fun to hang out in the evenings and do homework together. That way you can help each other out and it feels more social, rather than just work work work. We used to hang out at each other’s places at the weekends sometimes to work on projects and things too.
Now that you've completed the WDI course, would you feel confident enough to teach someone else the skills you picked up?
Yes, definitely. In fact, they offer students the chance to apply to be TAs for the next cohort once you graduate, so this might be something to consider to practise your skills. Quite a lot of people go on to teach, and you’ll find that the more you do it, the more it solidifies your own understanding of the topics, so it’s also a great way to keep learning.
Having done the bootcamp, has it been easier for you to learn other languages/concepts?
Yes, actually I’d say this was the biggest thing I gained from the program: learning how to learn. Before, programming was just like this sea of mystery to me. I didn’t know where to start or even really what there was to know about it. I was terrified of trying to approach a new concept because I knew it would mean nothing to me and I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to teach myself and then I’d feel stupid etc etc. GA gave me enough of a foundation that now when I come across something new, I can go ‘ahh, that’s kind of like this thing’, so I have enough context to at least grasp the idea. I still don’t have some huge repository of knowledge in my brain, but nobody does. It takes a while to realise this, but I’m actually comfortable with it now, as I’m confident in my ability to figure most things out.
Do you have a programming/developing job now? If so, can you credit GA for helping you get it?
Yes, and yes. It took longer than it needed to in my case because I have a bit of a complicated situation. Basically I did GA in San Francisco, but I’m British, so wanted to apply for jobs in both London and SF to see what happened. I got 3 offers out of GA’s meet and greet in London in January, so could’ve been employed by then, but instead I went back to SF for 2 months to try for jobs out there. Unfortunately I didn’t find anyone in SF willing to take on someone so junior and sponsor me for a visa. You won’t have this problem if you’re not looking at changing country as part of the process though.
As for crediting GA for it, it's true that you could learn the same skills on your own. But without the support they provide, mentors on hand to answer questions, curriculum to give you a structure for what to learn, and motivation to keep going when it gets tough, I'm pretty sure it would take most people much longer.
What was the interview process like for your job? I read that interviewers ask questions based on theory which from what I understand you need a degree for.
There were 5 interviews in total, and the process went like this:
1. Phone screen with a recruiter 2. Coding challenge to complete at home 3. Phone interview with the front-end team lead 4. In-person interview with front-end team lead and VP of Engineering, which included another technical exercise 5. In-person interview with the CTO and a senior QA engineer 6. In-person interview with the CEO and another developer I hadn’t met before
I know this probably seems terrifying, but it really wasn’t too bad. Be honest about your abilities, but otherwise just make sure you come across as the kind of person people would want to work with. Good companies care more about potential and whether they like you than whether you’re a genius programmer, at least at entry-level stage.
On your second point, you’re right that technical interviews do involve you having to answer questions on theory. GA start to prepare you for this, but I found I had to do quite a lot of extra work on my own too. However, it’s absolutely not true that you need a degree for this. Even for the more CS-based questions, it’s all stuff you can learn on your own. Enough schools make their material freely available online that, given enough time, you could learn the exact same stuff as a CS student (though it’s not necessary to do it all). Check out Harvard's CS50 first and then MIT OpenCourseWare.
Can you tell me what your career was before doing the bootcamp? I'm wondering if there were people that put a lot at stake in doing this program.
Sure, I was a copywriter in design studios for 3 years before I did WDI. It was completely non-technical so I was basically going into web development with very little knowledge of it.
What do you think made you choose GA over other similar bootcamps such as Dev Bootcamp and App Academy?
Pretty simple answer for me: when I was looking around, Dev Bootcamp was booked up until the following February, and I wanted to start in September. App Academy was $1500 more expensive than GA, and I had to borrow quite a lot to take the course anyway, so was trying to save all the money I could. But they both look similar in terms of curriculum - I just didn’t happen to apply to either.
It’s true that GA is less focused on you being a certain level before you start, but people do get jobs 2-3 months out of GA. It depends more on things like how much work you put in, how many of the concepts you’ve managed to grasp before, and how quickly you pick things up. If you’re picking stuff up quickly, there’s nothing to stop you doing extra tutorials etc. to complement the things you’re building as part of the course.
My cohort was by no means all complete beginners though. It had everything from people with little more than the basics of HTML and CSS, to people with computer science degrees. Obviously the more you know beforehand, the better you're likely to do and the easier you're likely to find it when it comes to getting a job.
You went to GA in SF, but I think I saw that you were attending networking events in London. Are they pretty open to you networking across their network in different cities?
Yes. That was a big factor when I was looking around - it’s definitely the only programming bootcamp with such global reach. So if you did want to work in any of their other locations post-graduation, you will have access to GA facilities there too.
They can’t help at all with things like visas, but will certainly do everything they can to give you tips and advice, and help you make contacts. And as long as you're able to be somewhere for the course duration, then they’re happy for you to apply to that location.
Do you think attending WDI in another location would differ from SF? It's the same curriculum so it should be the same, right?
It's difficult to say because I've only visited the SF and London locations. The different locations around the world vary a lot in size, so I think NYC is pretty huge now, whereas London and Hong Kong, for example, are much smaller.
I’d say just pick the city you like best. You probably won’t have time to do much in the 12 weeks other than stare at your laptop screen and sleep anyway, but you might get the occasional evening free to go to talks or meetups. There’s a lot of that stuff in SF - I don’t specifically know how the scenes in other cities compare.
Did GA continue to help you out even after graduating or did they pretty much just wipe their hands after a couple of months since you graduated?
I’d say this is actually one of their stronger points. They really go out of their way to help you in your job search, for as long as it takes. It might vary in different cities, but in addition to their ‘meet & greet’ event where you demo your projects to employers, they do things like weekly job search stand-ups, workshops on interview technique, help with your resume and access to free or discounted events and classes. You can even attend future meet & greets if you’re still looking for a job by the time the next one happens. They were still emailing me to see how I was and find out how everything was going 4 months after graduation.
How much of an incentive do they have to place you in a job post-grad? Is there some sort of recruitment fee that the hiring company pays GA?
They’re one of the only courses that doesn’t charge companies a fee for hiring graduates. I’m not entirely sure how they compensate for this compared to other bootcamps, but it’s nice to know a company won’t be factoring in that extra cost when considering you as a candidate.
Even though GA have no incentive as such, there’s still a lot of support in helping you to find a job - it’s not just about shuffling you out the door so the next group can start. There’s a 'meet & greet’ networking event after the program ends, where you get to meet lots of companies and show off your projects. Then GA also run a 3-month apprenticeship program which involves you working at a company for 4 days a week, and studying with GA for the other day.
After you graduated from GA, what did you do during your downtime when you were trying to find a job? The thought of having no income is absolutely, incredibly terrifying.
I sympathise on this one, it is genuinely terrifying. I am lucky enough to have a boyfriend who could support me until I found a job, but if you don’t have savings or help from friends or family that you could fall back on if it came to it, it’s definitely a good idea to have some kind of backup plan. Depending on your career background, there might be some kind of contract/freelance work you could do if necessary? My backup plan was to do bits of freelance copywriting work if I had to. Or even web development, as you will have those skills too by that point.
Can you tell me about a student(s) that essentially 'failed' in a sense that they didn't fully absorb what GA offered or just went back to an old job?
I think some people went in without having a real passion for coding, or much of an understanding of what it’s about or what it requires to do it well. To give this a bit more context, you’ve probably noticed how bootcamps market themselves (and programming) as being this this nicely-packaged, smooth, easy route to a good job, when actually it can be quite a minefield of complexity, technical depth, things breaking and a lot of frustration. Learning to think like a programmer is also not very intuitive if you don’t have a technical background. You have to learn to care about things like code efficiency, rather than whether a web page just works or looks nice, which I think a lot of people kind of failed to grasp.
There were students who went into roles like technical sales or product management - things where it’s useful to have technical understanding, but not really coding roles. It all depends what your goal is after the program. If you’re interested in getting a programming job, it might take a bit more time to develop that 'way of thinking’ that employers want to see, but these other related roles can be a good stepping stone if you find you’re not quite ready.
I think a lot of people’s problem was confidence too. If you’re at all prone to impostor syndrome, you have to really work at telling yourself to keep going, every time you feel you’re not good enough. Keep reading up on stuff and making sure you grasp as many of the concepts as you can, even when you’re exhausted etc. Regardless of prior technical ability, everyone who did this that I know of has done well.
Do you regret having done it at all?
I don’t regret it, because it gave me an insight into a lot of things that I couldn’t have achieved at that pace on my own. It also helped me get several job offers.
With hindsight, I think a CS degree would’ve been more useful in terms of getting hired, and more respected by employers, but it’s too late for me to change that now. So I’d say GA was the best/quickest way I could’ve got into web development at the time, given the options available to me, if that makes sense.
Some companies I spoke to were not keen because I only had 3 months’ experience, and I think as more bootcamps spring up, this is unfortunately likely to get worse. I’m not trying to put you off here - it’s definitely still possible to find jobs - but it's worth being aware that you might meet a bit of skepticism at this stage.
Are you better set now than you were before?
Definitely! There’s a limit to what you can cover in 12 weeks, so you won’t be a pro by the end of it, but I can't deny I’m much much better off for having taken the course.
Did you feel like the program was worth it overall?
I think this is something that will vary for everyone. For me, I’d say the course was definitely worth it. I couldn’t have learnt that much on my own in that amount of time, and I was able to get a job as a developer when I finished.
Having said that, getting hired is much more about you than it is GA. I think some people get disappointed when they don’t get hired immediately, having expected GA to magically make jobs happen. It won't. It will help, and you’ll be equipped with marketable skills, but I’d say getting hired still depends more on what you achieve personally on the course, what prior relevant experience you can bring, and how well you present yourself in your resume/interviews etc. and all those other factors that apply to regular job-hunting. GA will get you some contacts, but there are still hundreds more out there that it’s up to you to go and connect with yourself.
It is a lot of money, but if you do get a job, the chances are the course will pay for itself within a few months.
Obviously whether the program will be worth it for you depends hugely on where you're trying to get a job after, what kind of job, what kind of company, the hiring environment at that specific time, and so many other factors. These things are all so variable that there just isn't really a clear answer to this question.