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The Boot Camp Diaries Week 2: Am I Cut Out for This?

Think about the last time you were learning how to do something complicated. You probably remember that it was a process and that it involved high moments of understanding and triumph mixed with low moments of confusion and frustration. When it comes to coding – based on my own experience as well as countless memes on the ‘gram – those high moments are especially high and those low moments are especially low. When you’ve spent weeks on the same coding problem without getting anywhere you feel like the dumbest moron the planet has ever produced, and when you finally crack the code and it runs without errors you’re ready to pick up the phone and call Mensa to let them know they’ve overlooked a genius.

When you’re learning on your own, you have some measure of control over this process. You can choose to end the day on a high note, or pause a project when you’re stuck and come back to it a day or a week later for the next attempt. You’re also usually learning more slowly, between your day job, volunteer commitments, and social obligations, so your highs and lows have some space between them. When you’re in a coding boot camp, your schedule is not your own; you’re learning so much so quickly that those highs and lows roll in on top of each other like thunder following lightning. You can go from being on a roll to slamming into a challenge that makes no sense to solving a complicated problem to being stuck on something you swore you understood the day before, all within the same hour. When you’re bouncing between extremes so quickly, it’s easy to lose track of your baseline. You start asking yourself the hard questions, like “Am I even making progress?” and “Am I cut out for this?”

On the first day, I thought it was a little strange that so much time and discussion was focused on how to respond to frustration in a professional environment. Now it makes sense. We’re all adults who have learned new skills and had frustrating experiences in the workplace before, but coding boot camp is another level. The upside is, all that stress and struggle and triumph and celebration creates a bond among members of your cohort very quickly. You see people anguished and you see them elated. You’ve heard the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes”? Well, I submit to you that there are no poker faces in higher order functions. When you lose sight of your own abilities, you can rely on your cohort to clue you in.

I had that realization after a particularly difficult day, when 5pm rolled around and our code wasn’t working. We spent another half hour after everyone else left trying the same solutions in slightly different ways before finally calling it a day, defeated. Oh, and it was one person’s birthday, and they stayed late anyway without telling anyone, which to me made it even more heartbreaking. Walking back to my car, I came to the conclusion that I need to be more vocal about my teammates’ strengths, and really dig deep to access my reserves of patience and positivity when we’re stuck. I can’t control the rhythm of the class or the rate at which we all understand, but I have power over how we frame the situation.

The next day when one of my teammates asked if we’d figured out the solution overnight, I said, “No, but we’ll get it this morning, with fresh minds and caffeine.” Then I forced myself to relax and see the issue not as the wall we’d been banging our heads against, but as a knot to be gently teased apart one length of string at a time. We figured it out and moved on. The next time we got stuck, I told one teammate they’d been crushing the logic the day before, and asked them to take the lead. “I wasn’t crushing anything,” they argued, but I insisted, and I pointed to the lines of code we wrote the day before and told them I never would’ve figured that part out on my own. They stopped protesting, got us unstuck, and we moved on. When it was time for presentations, our finished product wasn’t perfect, but it was really good, and we all spoke confidently about the code.

My biggest takeaway from this week, and what I hope you take from this post, is the power of lifting others up and allowing yourself to be lifted. One huge advantage of doing a boot camp is having a cohort, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if you’re learning on your own. Learning independently doesn’t have to mean learning in a bubble.¬†Attend coding meetups in your area, volunteer with local tech-oriented organizations, and get hooked in to the coding community on Instagram and Twitter. Become the biggest cheerleader you can be for others and you can harness that positivity for yourself as well.

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[Photo credit: Adi Goldstein via Unsplash]

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