Q&A: First Step Coding Alumnus Zac Bennett
After teaching high school math for several years, Zac realized that he was ready for a career change. Zac had tried out programming in college, but felt that he would need to experience coding in a structured, professional setting before really committing to a new career in the field.
Zac's research led him to First Step Coding, an in-person and online program that teaches coding to complete beginners. Many students (like Zac) attend First Step Coding to decide if coding is right for them, and build the skills necessary to get accepted to top coding bootcamps.
We sat down with Zac to learn more about why First Step Coding was critical to his career change, the problem-solving strategies they teach, and how FSC helped him get accepted to his first-choice coding bootcamp.
1. Before joining First Step Coding (FSC), you worked as a high school math teacher. How did you become interested in programming?
I had initially done some programming as a kid. I had a book called game programming for teens and I went through that, but I found I just didn't have the patience for it. I got frustrated really easily when I missed a parenthesis or a curly brace and I didn't touch it again until college when I took an intro to CS class. I was taking it as an elective during a really intense semester, and I enjoyed it but wasn't able to really put the time I needed to into it. So I had some previous exposure to coding, but it wasn't very deep. It wasn't until I was teaching where I was looking for something different to transition into. I had heard about a friend that recently completed a bootcamp and he really loved it. That's when I decided to give coding a try to see if it was right for me.
2. What did your decision-making process look like for learning how to code and what ultimately led you to decide to do First Step Coding?
At the time I was considering a bunch of different career options. I read a really great book called Pivot, which basically explains how to make a career change in a smart way. One of the strategies it talks about is to find something you're interested in and then "try it out" in a professional setting and see how you like it. Whether that's through volunteering, a job shadow, or something else.
I knew I wanted to try out coding to see if I really liked it. I tried to teach myself how to code online, but it was awful trying to do it on my own. All of the resources I found were either too easy or too hard and if I was stuck, I couldn't get help. It was difficult to make progress. I knew I wanted an in-person experience to guide me through learning how to code and that led me to First Step Coding.
3. Are you happy with your decision to have gone through First Step Coding? If so, what did you take away from the experience?
Absolutely. I'm super glad that I was able to attend First Step Coding. It took the guesswork out of "what do I learn next?" which I had to do all the time when I was trying to teach myself. They had concepts broken down and laid out in a way that I always felt like I was learning something new, but never too much at once. If I ever needed help, I could always have my question answered quickly, which is something that I didn't have when learning on my own. It also taught me how to approach a complicated problem, which you face all the time with coding. They use a strategy called PREP, and it basically teaches you how to break down a really big problem into smaller steps and start from there. It's an approach that I use every day and I especially use it during any technical interview that I have.
4. How confident were you that you wanted to pursue a career as a software engineer before FSC?
Not very confident. I knew that I wanted something different but I didn't know if that meant I want to go teach somewhere else, for instance, go teach English in another country or maybe I just want to go back to grad school. I had a lot of potential things I was thinking about and coding was just one of them.
5. How confident were you that you wanted to pursue a career as a software engineer AFTER FSC?
Very confident! When we got into the flow of things during class, coding really clicked for me. I knew that coding was something I really enjoyed, and I saw a lot of people at the time who were really successful through bootcamps. After I did my research and talked to a bunch of people I knew it was the best next step for me.
6. What bootcamps or other options did you consider, and what led you to ultimately deciding to go to Rithm School?
I only considered two. Hack Reactor and Rithm School. I considered a lot of different variables such as the tuition, the alumni network, the curriculum and actually wrote them all out on a google doc to compare them and make the best choice. For me, the most important one was the curriculum. For every coding school, if you visit their website, they have a page describing their curriculum and what languages they teach. I basically took that page and I asked a lot of my software engineer friends which they thought was the better curriculum between the two schools and they all said that Rithm School had the best curriculum hands down. Even after that, I was still considering Hack Reactor, because of their name recognition and alumni network. But after talking with even more people, I decided that connections and a name brand can get you in the door, maybe get you an interview, but it can't help you pass a technical interview. I knew that if I really wanted to learn how to code, I had to go to the place with the best curriculum.
7. What was the interview process like at these bootcamps you interviewed at and did FSC help prepare you?
I believe the interview process that I went through for Hack Reactor and Rithm School are pretty standard across the board. You have an introductory phone call with someone from admissions. They just want to get to know you, who you are, and why you want to spend all this money to learn how to code. Then they set you up with a technical interview with one of the instructors. You will either whiteboard some interview questions if it's in-person, or if it's done remotely you'll do it in a coding environment online. For the technical interview, they're not so concerned whether you get the answer right or wrong, but they want to get an idea of how you approach different problems and how you communicate your thinking to other people because that is really important in programming. After that, they either accept you or they will tell you to practice a little more.
I prepared by doing a lot of practice problems on Codewars and going through the exercises that Rithm School requires before you can interview. For each of these problems, I utilized the skills I learned in First Step Coding to solve it and the PREP strategy to break down problems. Towards the end of the First Step Coding class, I was able to do a mock technical interview with one of the instructors and get feedback on how to improve. This was really helpful for me since I had never done a technical interview and wanted the feedback. Ultimately, all of that stuff that I did really helped prepare me because I was able to get into both Hack Reactor and Rithm School.
8. How prepared did you feel compared to other students in your class when you started Rithm School?
I think all of us came in at different levels. I think for me it took a few weeks to find my stride and get used to just coding all day. One thing that I did feel really strong at was solving algorithms and that's mostly because of all the practice and feedback I got at First Step Coding.
9. So far, what has been your biggest challenge while learning to code?
I think with programming and just tech in general, there is so much to learn. For me, the most challenging thing has been just the sheer amount of material to learn. There's always something new whether it's a new language, framework, library or different approach to a problem. The learning never ends. That's what makes it so exciting, but also really difficult at the same time. I spend quite a bit of my free time researching different articles about coding or watching tutorial videos to try and stay on top of things.
10. Do you have any other advice for people who are interested in making a career change into tech?
I think if you're looking to get into tech with coding just know that coding is hard, but with time and effort it's definitely possible to learn it. That said, coding isn't for everyone. If you're spending a lot of time with coding, and don't feel excited by it, that's okay. There are still plenty of ways to work in tech without coding.
But if you really enjoy coding and solving different algorithms, keep coding and explore the different bootcamps that are out there. I would also highly recommend talking to other people who have gone through the same experience of going through a bootcamp. You want to ask them about their experience, what they like, dislike and see if it's something that's right for you! Going through one of these programs is a really big risk to take, and you want to be 100% sure before you spend the time and money to learn how to code that ultimately you'll be able to get a job after the bootcamp.
Want to learn more about how First Step Coding can help your career change? Check out the quick video below, and apply at https://www.firststepcoding.com.
This post was sponsored by First Step Coding.