Summary of My Time at Dev Bootcamp

So I have been asked quite a bit “how was that ‘thing’ you went to?”.  I figured this would be a great place to let everyone know

First of all, that ‘thing’ was Dev Bootcamp.  Im going to use DBC going forward.

While sitting out front of the office with the rest of my cohort (strangers at that point) the very first morning waiting to be let in, I remember thinking to myself and reflecting, “How hard could this possibly be?  I have worked and or subjected myself to some pretty challenging and pressure filled environments”.  I was thinking of 3 examples in particular.

I worked as an arb clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade for 3 years.  Have you seen videos of the trading pits where those guys are flashing crazy hand signals to each other at an incredible rate of speed?  That was me.  And those hand signals are usually for orders worth millions of dollars.  If I misinterpreted one of those signals I would lose my job instantaneously.

I did the GoRuck Challenge.  I remembered being in Millennium Park at 11:45 pm on March 16th.  Standing in front of a backpack full of 40 pounds of bricks that I would not be able to put down for 12 hours, while hiking 16+ miles, and having a military special forces member screw with us.  One challenge in particular stood out.  Carrying a 1500 pound, slippery, soaking wet log with my team from the intersection of Clark and Diversey to Fullerton and the Lake (approximately 1.5 miles).  Only one way to get it done.  Teamwork.

The first few months at my last job.  For 3 months, I was on call 24/7 coordinating and testing hardware and software installations remotely through a third party contractor.

I thought I was prepared.  haha.  Hindsight is 20/20

Suffice it to say, DBC was like nothing I have ever done before.  It was a combination of all 3 of those experiences and then some.  I am going to do my best to give you a run-down of what it is about, some of the important things we did, and what I got out of it.

Our first day we were thrown in the deep end and were provided the 2 central tenets of DBC

The 2 components to this education / experience are - Technical Knowledge and Self-Awareness / Empathy

The Technical Knowledge

This was eloquently put to us in the form of a lecture by Mike, one of the greatest teachers I have ever had.  He drew the picture below.

The comfort zone, is where most of us operate on a daily basis.  Its the location of the skills and abilities familiar to us, that we have proficiency in, and are comfortable doing.

The panic zone is where we don't want to be.  These are activities that are so difficult and so far out of our reach that we get anxious and don’t even know where to start.  Over the 9 weeks at DBC, we learned techniques to back ourselves out of the panic zone if and when we got there.

The learning zone is where the skills and abilities are just out of our reach.  They are neither so far away that we panic and are frozen, nor so close that they are easy.

Mike explained to us that we wanted to be in the learning zone but since things came at us so fast we would probably be on the edge of the learning and panic zone. I found myself on the border of the learning / panic zone most of the time.  I slowly got comfortable being there and became confident that I was able to absorb and apply the material.

Curriculum on the technical side -

We had daily coding challenges, individual and group projects, and assessments.

We were exposed to technologies and methodologies that would usually take months to learn and years to master.  We were expected to learn them in a day or so and show proficiency in a couple of days.  They say “DBC makes world class beginners” and they are not kidding.  I am by no means an expert in any of these but am confident in my ability to learn them and other concepts quickly and thoroughly.

Empathy and Self Awareness

This is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, provide feedback, empathize, and be able to see the views of other engineers, clients, and customers.  

Curriculum on the emotional side

We had sessions called Engineering Empathy, Check In Groups, and were constantly giving and receiving feedback.  All of this amounted to a sort of sensitivity training on steroids.  From day one we were encouraged to “drink the Kool-Aid” and not to fight the process but to trust it and let it happen.  I accepted the fact that we were going to get crushed both physically and mentally, I had no idea I was in for this too. These sessions and experiences gave us a safe places to blow off some steam and were greatly needed and appreciated since we were all on high alert from the first day.  I liken it to one of those wind up sirens, like the tornado sirens that wind up to a crescendo and after you stop winding them they have to dissipate their energy for a while before they go silent again.  Well, day one we were wound up to full throttle and kept wound up like that for 9 weeks.  The energy is still dissipating and it has almost been a month.  haha

Now this all may sound kind of far fetched and I was a little apprehensive myself.  I am a little ‘rough around the edges’, I was NEVER vulnerable and I always thought a man should never show his emotions or talk about anything that was bothering him.  I considered it weak and wanted nothing to do with it.  I would not have been able to surrender to the process and own my part in it so adeptly had it not been for a defining moment in my life.

Earlier in the summer I was fortunate enough to watch a TED talk called "The Power of Vulnerability" by a woman named Brene Brown.  The talk was compelling and I decided to read 2 of her books, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly”.  These 2 books have changed my life.  By reading these books I realized that it wasn’t weak to show your emotions, it was empowering.  In order to live life fully you have to put yourself out there.  Show your pain, show your happiness, show your weaknesses.  I embraced the fact that I needed to change and more importantly, I wanted to change and become a better man.  This wound up being a pivotal moment in my life and turned out to be an important component to my experience at DBC and I am incredibly grateful that I read them.

I had intended for this post to be more about the technical challenges we all faced but I think it would be better to explain the day to day pressures, expectations, and personal growth.  I will post about the technical challenges later.  

For now I will explain a normal day at DBC.

Our days were very structured - hence the “bootcamp’ in the name.

The gong (yes, there is a gong) is rung at 8 am sharp and we are given 5 minutes of general updates about the space, any visitors or speakers for the day, and announcements from fellow boots.

The first day we were told that phones and laptops are to be put away so as not to be distracted.  That needed to be said exactly once, because as soon as we were thrown into the deep end 5 minutes later, we all understood what was expected of us and that there was no question that there wasn’t going to be any time for e-mail or texting.

Tuesday / Thursday we had Yoga from 8-9 am.  We were only required to do this for the first 3 weeks but could continue throughout our time at DBC if we wanted.  I dropped out as soon as I was able because I felt my time was better spent starting the new daily challenges or working on something from the previous day I had not been able to finish.

Wednesdays we had Engineering Empathy 8-9 am.  This was taught to help us learn empathy and recognize our Id, Ego, and Superego.  Very interesting stuff.  These seminars were only for the first 3 weeks.  I wish they would have continued for the duration of our stay.  Dave Hoover (one of the founders of DBC) set the tone our first ‘EE’ session opening up to us with some incredibly powerful insights and admissions.  That was the moment I decided to “drink the Kool-Aid”.  It helped that Dave reminded me a ton of my brother.  He is quiet, introverted, introspective, incredibly smart, and sensitive.  I admire both of them a great deal.  Now, I wasn’t any good at expressing these feelings, although I don’t think that was the point, I thought the important part was that I was trying and putting myself out there.  Talking about my vulnerabilities and insecurities was incredibly unnerving but I felt better being able to talk about them and started to appreciate how it helped me. These sessions really glued the cohort together so that these type of conversations just kind of happened going forward.  I was going through some issues while at DBC and this really helped me feel comfortable opening up and talking to my fellow classmates.  Its kind of weird thinking back and knowing I would normally have held all of this in.  This blog is a direct result of this experience.  

Friday we had ‘Check In Groups’ from 8-9 am.  These were done in groups of around 15 students from other cohorts and teachers.  We had the same group every week.  We had 2 minutes to open up and tell everyone how we felt and what was going on with us, anything goes.  I really enjoyed these.  These sessions were pretty much the only time we had contact with people from the other cohorts, unless they were helping us out.  That sounds weird considering we were all jammed into that small space but we were just so busy all the time there was really no time for screwing around.  

Assessment Days - 3rd Thursday of each phase.  At the end of the first and second phase we had assessments.  These were the gatekeeper to the next phase.  These were VERY difficult and VERY stressful.  They are done individually.  They were designed for 2 reasons - to simulate a job interview coding challenge and to stretch your knowledge and test that you had grasped what had been taught the previous 2.5 weeks and could continue to the next phase.  We had 3 hours, from 8:15 am until 11:15 am to complete them.  The space was normally very loud with either a lecture going on and or the drone of all of the pairs talking amongst themselves but on assessment days it was like a funeral parlor.  Thinking about it always brings me back to that scene in “Walk the Line” when someone says to Johnny about his clothes, “and what’s with the black, its depressing.  It looks like you’re going to a funeral.” and Johnny retorts “Well maybe I am”.  haha.  That was the feeling those days, and I know i wasn't alone.  I know I sound dramatic but each of those days could have been your last.  Normally you would be able to repeat with the cohort behind you. That wasn't an option with us.  We were the last cohort of the year and if we failed the assessment would have to wait until January to repeat.  More stress.  After the assessment, we were assigned a teacher and a time after lunch that day.  During this time, we had to go over our code with the instructor and explain to them why we had done things the way we did and answer any questions they may have.

We would then normally have a lecture for about an hour in the morning covering what we had done the prior day.

After the lecture, it was then time to take care of business.  The daily coding challenges.  These were always difficult.  Some days we would have 2, and some days we would have 6.  We would pair up and log into the DBC website where our challenges for the day were located.

Before you knew it the lunch gong would be rung at 11:30.  I went to the gym for what I say was 20 minutes but was probably more like a half hour and picked up my lunch, went back to DBC and continued to work while I ate.  This was supposed to be a time to decompress but I found I was constantly wound up.   Lunch time turned into free time to research how you could do something better or how to complete something you were working on.

The end of lunch gong was rung at 1 pm.  We normally had 5 minutes of announcements and updates

Then off to another lecture for an hour or so.

After the lecture we got back to working on our challenges with our pairs.

The end of day gong was rung at 5 pm.  Most of the teachers and staff would go home.  The rest of us continued to work.  I would usually either eat leftovers from lunch or run downstairs to grab something quick to eat from subway, I know, its disgusting and I am embarrassed. Depending on where we were in our core challenges and how confident I was feeling about the material we had covered that day, I either continued to pair or “broke up” to work on something myself.

I left every day at around 9pm.

Final Observations and Words of Wisdom

If you are a caveman like I used to be, buy or rent "The Gifts of Imperfection" and "Daring Greatly" by Brene Brown, and actually read them.  I came in so much better prepared with that knowledge under my belt.

This program is no joke.  Seriously.  There is a disclaimer on the F.A.Q. page of their website stating “Don't even think about committing to anything else. If you have a job, quit or take time off. If you're in a relationship, send them a variation of our personal apology letter - Dear boss/friends/family, I'm training at Dev Bootcamp for the next 9 weeks, learning to be like Neo. See you on the other side. I love you and I'm sorry.”  Every word of this is true.

You will find out who really cares about you and who really has your best interests at heart.  These people will be the ones that believe in you and make sure you have the time, space and support to do what you have to do to get through this.  These people will understand that time with you during these 9 weeks will be very limited and precious, and as a result, treat it as such.  These people will enjoy the time you are able to spend with them and will not ask you to sacrifice any part of your schooling for them.  Trust your gut, and cut people out if they are becoming a problem.

Remember, these 9 weeks are about you.  There is nothing selfish about it.  You will not have any bandwidth left over to handle anything else.  Trust me.

This environment is a pressure cooker.  Just try to relax and enjoy the ride. 

You will never have enough time to complete everything.  Don't worry about it.  Make sure you grasp the big concepts and move on.  Do NOT go down the ‘Rabbit Hole’.  Time boxing is key.

You will wind up working on things even when you are not there. Sometimes its a good thing, sometimes it isn’t.  It is unavoidable.  You will find yourself thinking about code, working on code, and refactoring code in your head in the weirdest places.  On the walk to school or on the way home, on the train, in bed, in the shower, at the gym.  It was summed up perfectly by someone in my very first check-in group session.  They were in Phase 3 and said that they had started to dream about code.  I thought that was a little crazy, kinda cool and pretty funny.  It wound up happening to me too.  haha

Believe in yourself.  I had a pretty bad case of impostor syndrome and didn't feel like I was in a position to help anyone, yet when I asked an instructor he told me that I was one of the better positioned students.  Helping people helps you as much as it helps them.  Everyone can help someone.  Do it.

I hope this post helps future boots or gives my friends and family that I neglected during the time I spent at DBC an idea about why I disappeared and what I was doing.  If you feel that someone may benefit from reading this post, please forward it to them.  If you have any questions, feel free to email me.

3 responses
Wow. Totally shed tears a few times in this one. What a powerful, energizing, inspiring, thoughtful essay. Thank you *so much* for putting this out there, for writing, and for continuing to be courageous. The world will be a better place when more men become more like you. And fast. I love you, Oliver, and am so deeply proud of you. Thank you for sharing yourself, these lessons, and this great, powerful energy. I need it so much! You've given me a great start to the New Year with many things to think about and many tools to use. Thanks for being a leader, Oliver. Thanks for being *you.* Love, Rebecca
Avoiding the “Rabbit Hole” is an acceptance that no one can know everything. It normally starts with using a new(to you), and interesting technology. The “non-Rabbit Hole” way of using this technology is to use it as a “black box” of sorts. Meaning that you put stuff in and are only concerned with the output. You do what you need right now with it and trust that it works. You don’t spend time going through the inner workings, or if you do, you do it later, on your own time. Going down the Rabbit hole is the converse of this. It is trying to figure out how everything in this new technology works before applying what you need. This usually results delays due to trying to understand the inner workings too deeply, and ultimately things you don’t really need to know, to get your project to work.
Great article, Oliver! Amanda just brought this up and I honestly had no idea what you had done over the last few months. Truly speechless on your day to day... an amazing story on what it takes to get something that you want - and I think we can all learn a little more about ourselves! Also, really interested in those books. Thanks, always looking for a good read!