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The Second Step: An Ongoing Journey to a Career in Coding

February 05, 2020

Blog — Student Stories The Second Step: An Ongoing Journey to a Career in Coding

9 min read

Norman Hussey

About two and a half millennia ago, Laozi wrote that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. This is surely uplifting advice for anyone standing at the precipice of a daunting journey, but I can’t help but wonder what wisdom does he offer those of us on the second step?

This is the thought that continues to bubble up above the rest as the sun sets on my first week of the Juno College Web Development Immersive Bootcamp. The road ahead appears as formidable as it ever did but now there is also a gaping chasm behind. And here I stand in the middle, two feet firmly in the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Or perhaps I’m being a touch dramatic. I admit there is some comfort in dressing my feelings with quotes from the bard and ancient philosophers. It offers a whimsical perspective on my endeavours as though I were the subject of some great epic that would be told for generations to come. The reality, of course, is not quite so grandiose. I am a middle-aged man who quit his modest but stable full-time job in order to pursue a new career in a completely different field: front-end web development.

My journey to this point already feels like it’s on par with Gilgamesh and Odysseus, but in hindsight it was all just the first step.

It began two years ago with a career counsellor helping me to rediscover my long-dormant love for programming. Brimming with optimism and enthusiasm for this profound discovery, I began the pursuit of formal education in Computer Science with the goal of attending the University of Toronto.

My first derailment was when I learned that those Grade 12 math courses that seemed so unnecessary at the time turned out to be quite necessary indeed. You see, “mature students” don’t get any free passes when they’re applying to arguably the most competitive program at arguably the most competitive school in the country.

But I wasn’t deterred yet. I discovered an online high school that I could attend in my spare time, shelled out some cash, and enrolled in the courses that I was missing. I would be lying if I said it was easy to pick up where I left off studying a subject after nearly twenty years… so I won’t say that. Because it was hard. Very, very hard. The first of two classes that I planned to breeze through in a few weeks ended up taking me six months to complete. But in the end, I did well. I scored a 93% and felt that I was well on my way to achieving my goal, albeit a little slower than I had originally planned.

It was around this time that I received a very exciting email: U of T was having an open house! I would soon get the chance to see my future classrooms, talk to my future professors, and ask all the burning questions that I’ve had for months. I counted down the days until that fateful Saturday and when it finally came, my loving, supportive, and ever-patient partner came with me to cheer me on. I remember it as clearly as though it were happening now.

We sit down in a large auditorium. It must seat nearly 200 and yet we watch as every one of them is filled. Then another 50 or more people filter in and are forced to find standing room at the back. The air is thick with excitement, anticipation, and a potent dose of anxiety. Finally, the presentation begins, and we’re greeted by a charismatic professor with a slideshow of all the amazing things that we would soon be doing as students at this historic institution. I’m watching my dreams unfold through PowerPoint. But all good dreams, as with all good PowerPoints, must inevitably come to an end.

The final slide stated that due to the overwhelming demand for the program, the Computer Science department was only accepting students with a grade 12 average of 95% or higher. It didn’t take much mental arithmetic to deduce that I didn’t have a hope in hell of getting into this program. It was right there in black and white. No matter how well I did in my second math course, it would never be enough to bring up my entire average to meet these absurd expectations. My heart sank into my stomach so fast that it nearly gave me indigestion.

I continued with the tour afterwards, but all my burning questions had been extinguished. I traipsed silently through those cavernous halls, only vaguely present, while my mind waded through a murky sea of possibilities for my now-uncertain future. I considered retaking all my grade 12 classes in order to bring my average up… but if the first class took me six months, how long would it take to complete five more? That’s when the true reality of the situation hit me.

Even if I drained every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears that my weary frame could offer and finally, miraculously, got accepted into this program, how could I afford to give it four years of my life?

This is the part where I’ll mention that my partner was pregnant at the time. We only found out a few weeks before this and had just been telling ourselves that “we’ll find a way!” But now, as I was reeling from reality’s sucker punch, the haze of optimism and excitement began to clear, and it became painfully obvious that there was no possible way that I could go four years without a full-time job. It didn’t matter how good the employment prospects might be afterwards if my family became destitute along the way. My mind was overflowing with shattered dreams, harsh realities, and grim prospects. Suffice to say, it was a pretty rough day.

So, what now? I was battered and bruised. But not broken.

The aspiration that I had spent the last several months working towards was now off the table, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I just needed a new strategy. I needed to start over. I needed a new first step.

I tried the self-teaching route by diving through the endless depths of internet guides, tutorials, articles, and courses. It was enlightening but missing some key ingredients.Two in particular: a cohesive structure and live human beings. It was at this point that it dawned on me that one of the things I was most looking forward to about school was interacting with other people who shared my interests and aspirations. I was longing for peers.

I had read about these things called “Coding Bootcamps”. Intense and expensive programs designed to whip you into shape and get you a job quickly and efficiently.

And therein lay the operative word: quickly. These Bootcamps were short, very short, and had staggeringly high employment rates soon after graduation. University was a gut-wrenching four years, whereas these Bootcamps were a much more palatable nine weeks. I did exhaustive research on every Bootcamp in Toronto and found that one of them shone above the rest as the most consistently top-ranked option: Juno College of Technology (known as HackerYou at the time).

As a side note, I investigated a couple of other popular Bootcamps as well and filled out forms on their websites offering my email address and phone number in exchange for a syllabus. I won’t mention these schools by name, but what I will say is that immediately after filling out those forms I began receiving daily phone calls and emails from each of them. I’m not exaggerating, by the way. I literally got at least one call and email EVERY SINGLE DAY. If anyone from those schools happens to be reading this, please take note: your shameless and aggressive marketing techniques make you appear desperate and not credible. I filled out the same form with Juno and I received one email newsletter about a month later and not a single harassing phone call. And that is one of the many reasons that I am currently enrolled here.

What followed was an epic unto itself, but I’ll summarize it by saying that 2019 was the hardest year of my life. I became a father on my mother’s birthday and experienced the greatest joy I had ever felt holding my daughter for the first time. Nine days later, I started rehearsals on a play that I was directing and co-producing for the Toronto Fringe Festival with my indie theatre company. I worked full-time during the day, had rehearsals twice per week, and many sleepless nights navigating parenthood for the first time.

The day after our final performance at the Fringe Festival, I started my first part-time Web Development Course at Juno. My daughter was two and a half months old and I was at work during the day and going to school two nights per week.

Two weeks after that course began, my mother was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. She was admitted to a hospital in Markham, and we don’t own a car so we could only visit her on the weekends. Two weeks after that, I began production on our indie theatre company’s second play of the year which I was also directing and co-producing (we had put down large deposits several months in advance so there was no backing out). At this point, I was working 9 to 5 on weekdays, going to class at Juno Monday and Wednesday nights, running rehearsals on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, visiting my mother in the hospital on Saturdays, and trying to learn how to be a good father every day.

Another two weeks later, my partner and I discovered that we had to move for a wide variety of reasons. Finding the new apartment was fortunately easy, but now we had to add packing up everything we owned to our list of things to do. Two weeks after that (are you noticing a common theme?), my part-time course at Juno was ending and it was time to apply for the Bootcamp. I began working on my technical assessment test for admission consideration on my last day of class and worked feverishly on it over the next week, breathing a massive sigh of relief as I submitted it on the night before it was due. I was very proud of what I had accomplished and felt good about myself for the first time in a long while.

Two days later I watched my mother die in a hospital bed. Three days after that, I had my final in-person interview for acceptance into the Juno College Bootcamp. It turned out that I had scored 100% on my technical assessment and had made it to the final step of the admission process. I am very grateful for my many years of acting experience which helped me to block everything else out of my life for that thirty minute interview as I cranked the charm up to 11, put on a friendly smile, and pretended that everything was fine.

The remainder of the year had a few more trials and tribulations like moving into our new apartment the day before my mother’s memorial service, or the two weeks of hell producing an indie play in Toronto with our own money on the line. But after all that, six nail-biting weeks later, I finally got that fateful email from Juno College welcoming me into their program. I cried when I read it. I’m a little teary right now just thinking about it, to be honest.

So, I finished my year of hardships by quitting my job of over eleven years with a seven-and-a-half-month-old child and a partner on maternity leave. I was going back to school with the hope of starting a brand-new career in a brand-new field, but I would have to do it all without my biggest fan in the world. It is only now upon reflection that I realize that this was all part of one great big first step. And now as I finish my first week of Juno Bootcamp, it has become very clear that I have finally made it to step number two. The past seems so far behind me now and the future yet so far ahead, but as downright terrifying as it feels at times, I am comforted by the persistent feeling that I am finally moving in the right direction. My first step made me stronger and I have no doubt that my second will make me stronger still. By the time I reach my thousandth mile, I will be unstoppable.

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