Coding While Distant
Learning computer code and becoming a software engineer is one of the few areas of the job market that, even in a pandemic recession, offers a chance of a living wage job you can do from anywhere.
We talked to some students from Alchemy Code Lab in Portland about how they were coping. Alchemy had just one week to switch to distance learning in March as a new cohort began.
The students all said they:
Student to teacher
Jose Ojeda has seen both sides. After completing the program in-person, he then worked for Alchemy as a teaching assistant under the remote program.
Aside from one free online computer science class a couple of years ago, which talked about C, Alchemy was his first attempt to learn to code.
"I always considered myself smart, and I figured I could learn anything, but going into tech or programming specifically, I realized that there's just too much to learn," he told the Business Tribune from his home office.
One day he mastered the "ternary" and realized he could do it.
"Imposter syndrome is a real thing, and a lot of the time, I didn't know if I could actually be a full corporate developer." However, he recently made it to the third round of a job interview and was told he almost got the job but lacked experience.
Ojeda, who usually works at his coffee table, said the hardest part of learning remotely is that "Alchemy focuses on teamwork and I think it can be hard to express emotions over the camera," as opposed to sitting across from someone.
"I don't think bonding is an issue. Honestly (the online-only student) have been a lot more active."
Working cooperatively, in the agile method, forces people to communicate, he says. They bond professionally, if not personally. And they asked good questions — questions which were also instructive for the other students to hear. Ojeda observed that the quality of questions improved when the students had to write them down for an online chat.
Since the recession hit, he has noticed that companies are looking to hire mid-level engineers for entry-level jobs to save money. Of the 10 or 20 developer jobs he sees advertised every day, he could do about half.
Ojeda is not worried because it's a growing field. And he could always be a tech worker in the insurance industry, having noticed how dependent they are on their website for leads and customer service.
"They are all building dashboards for connecting with accounts. It's surprising how much tech there is now, in things you wouldn't even think about."
Since she graduated from Alchemy in June, Chelsea Spangler is glad they had time to bond before the class went remote.
"We formed a really tight community with my cohort, and that really helped me," said Spangler. "Afterwards, Zoom rooms were always available to us, and I could just pick one of my other colleagues and say, 'Would you mind hopping over to this room and talking us through this?'"
Zoom rooms are password-protected video rooms that do not require a scheduled time.
Spangler is job hunting now, doing a lot of virtual Meetups, and finding the people on LinkedIn afterward.
When they were stuck, they can share a browser-based code editor called REPL, the code equivalent of a Google Doc. Some companies use Coder Pad for job interviews.
"Pre-COVID in an interview they would verbally give you a problem to solve, and you would stand at a whiteboard and solve it. Since we can't do that, we're using this program," which is more like the actual job.
Spangler would love to work remotely.
"I don't miss my commute time. I get two hours a day that I wouldn't normally have on the bus. I can control my environment a little bit. I don't get interrupted as much. I'm not freezing to death like I am in an office."
Spangler lives with her wife, an academic, who works from home, each with their own space. Spangler used to be a project manager at an environmental nonprofit, where wages are stuck in the mid $40,000 range. She was shocked to learn she could earn six figures in a few years in coding.
She adds, "My mental health has been much, much better since I started coding. It's really intellectually intense work. It's like solving puzzles."
"We are fortunate to have enough space that we each have a separate room to work in. It works really well, and we remind each other to get some quality time at lunch. I find it much easier. Once in a while, the dog decides to bark at the window, and I tell her, 'No.' Not much beyond that. In an office, I would have people stopping by my desk to chat. Constantly."
The future looks good. "The field is going to keep growing, despite, and maybe even more so due to quarantine. We need more technology solutions to things we used to do in person, like all those meeting tools. There are more ways for small businesses to do business online without having the capacity to hire a developer to build something for them."
Max Lamb dropped out of high school and worked as a line cook. He lives with his mother and two brothers, moving together from Montana. His mom, who has designed some websites, suggested he learn coding.
"I would have preferred that we do it in person. But Alchemy did a really good job of making sure we had everything we need. Because my teachers are insane, these people know everything that you could possibly want to know about coding. So, we have the ultimate resources in them."
It wasn't cheap.
"Alchemy is definitely more pricey than the other ones, but it seems like they have more resources, especially for networking to meet people."
At first, he found it mentally taxing and draining. His family would notice at dinner.
"It's so aggressive that you can't really tell if you're learning until later," said Lamb.
"Your brain will learn to work differently as a coder. You'll see things differently because you're used to breaking everything apart. The internet is never going to look the same. I go to Facebook and I go 'O my gosh, this is terrible. I could change some things.'"
He's in it to make money for his family. "Me and my brothers are all slammed into this house right now. It's cramped."
Being a line cook held little advancement.
"Unless you're working like a really high-end chef job, the most you can make is $20,000-ish. Taxing is pretty crazy. Minimum wage is $12. After taxes, you get $9. I think the median for code school grads is $80,000 or something, so pretty much over four times as much."
He's confident of finding a job. 'We talk to people who have been through the program, and they're like, 'What you guys do in one day, we get a week or two weeks. You go to work for six hours, and you only spend like two of them coding. The rest is meetings and talking to people."
He wants the remote life.
"My mom's got a friend in the industry. She has unlimited vacation as long as you get the job done. She comes to stay for six weeks and just works during the day and hangs out at night. And she makes six figures."
He misses in-person school in one way: A non-Zoom graduation.
"It's a shame because I've never graduated. Yeah, my first graduation is going to be like 'Yay, you graduated, you're a little square on a screen."
Noah Ingram Puckett was also a TA and helped switch to online-only school with just a few days' notice.
"I was homeschooled, but my parents didn't do any curriculum or testing," said Puckett. "So the school environment was totally new to me. I love the instructors and my classmates."
Puckett was worried about the emotional side, such as when a TA helps out a student who is "freaking out," would be lost. But they found being remote much different from just reading articles and watching YouTube. A TA could still be attentive.
Puckett also found that the shy people, "especially women, people of color, other minorities who are used to trying to not take up space, digitally taking up more equal space."
For example, people too shy to ask questions in an in-person lecture are now comfortable typing it in a chat, where their colleagues can also see it.
Alchemy uses Zoom and Slack, as well as screen sharing software where the tutor can draw on the screen and point out errors. In coding, one typo can jam up a whole application.
"It's the same high-touch, interactive, face-to-face, real-time (help) as we offer on campus. We're physically distant, but we're right there," said Puckett.
"The most valuable thing I took away from Alchemy was how to assess unknown situations calmly and methodically, think critically, and problem-solve while leaving my ego at the door."
Puckett now has a coding job at New Relic and had to learn a new language, Ruby, the same way, by staring at a screen and asking questions.
"It's definitely not as hard as learning the first language. At Alchemy, I learned how to learn."
Helping the family
Briseida Pagador is doing the Alchemy course right now. This is her first time training in software development. Previously I was a customer service specialist at a software company."
She was working 70 hours a week with no upward mobility.
"I had for a long time, wanted to go into the tech industry as a software developer, but it was only until I was actually able to work at a software company that I realized like just how feasible that was and how many schools they were here in Portland.
Pagador wanted to support herself and help out her family. They came to the USA from Peru and live on the east coast. "They live in a tiny apartment with my grandmother and my auntie and my sister, a two bedroom apartment about the size of my one bedroom apartment here in Portland. To create a safer, happier environment for my parents is really the main motivation."
At first, going virtual was awkward.
"It invites a lot of insecurities because you're not sure if your tone is being received the way that you want it to, you're not able to show your body language or your mannerisms. But as time went by, I really noticed how working remotely could be really used to my advantage. I felt like I had perhaps more energy to give than before."
She found it was much more efficient than mingling with a room of 30 people in real life. "You hear a lot of people speak within a matter of a couple of hours and it really gives you a glimpse into their careers, their backgrounds and their personalities."
The class started in March and she has adapted to working remotely and expects it to be the new normal.
"I don't know what the world is going to look like, but I can't imagine that it would go from overnight to being physically together."
Because staring at a screen all day s stressful she noticed classmates will admit when they need an afternoon off. "It leads to more transparent conversations. There's a bit of trauma bonding, I think.
"Our lives are incredibly determined by the pandemic right now and there's a sadness and loneliness that we won't be able to share physical space together. We're able to share that sadness to and to build our friendships and our connections in spite of it. Which has been really wonderful."
Pagador adds that the current civil rights demonstrations mean "We're, we are at a very precarious intersection of a lot of difficult things. One of the main reasons why most of us got into coding is because we want to use our skills to build things that are human responses. And to see how poorly humans are treated in this country and to be entering the job market at such a strange economic recession is also jarring."
She thinks maybe a couple of students as well as herself from her cohort have met up for socially distant walks. Nobody said they couldn't.
As for her chances of getting a job, Pagador says "I would say they're fairly high. Simply because we are now entering a time of so much remote work. Tech is not exactly foolproof but it has a certain level of power, which should be always used for good, right. I'm looking at San Francisco companies, Colorado companies, all of these places that are making the shift to remote work, which opens up a whole can of possibilities in different time zones."
Some of her family is undocumented and she sees detention camps as a death sentence given the coronavirus.
"My goal has always been expatriation, living in a different country and finding opportunities there because it's hard for me to continue living my adult life in a place that doesn't care about me, and doesn't care about my family."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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