Christopher Cohen wanted to work in user experience before user experience was established as a career field. As a child, he was interested in art, design, and photography (today, he says he’s more of an artist than an engineer); some of his earliest memories involve sculpting clay and painting. His interest in technology was also present, but in that arena he didn’t have the necessary tools—or rather, they didn’t exist yet—to create the ideas his mind conjured up.
“I’ve always been interested in software development, but when I was younger there wasn’t a focus on application development because the markets that exist today didn’t exist back then,” says Christopher. “I didn’t know there was going to be a name for it, but I wanted to do user experience development and design.”
He grew up using operating systems like DOS, macOS, and Windows 3.0 but was frustrated by their limitations. His ideas were consistently one step ahead of what technology was able to do, and it was this frustration that led him to where he is today: a Code Fellows graduate; chief technology officer of computer software company and mobile application developer FiLMiC Inc. (the company at the forefront of what filmmakers can create with only a smartphone camera); and a speaker at the most recent Apple Keynote.
“I thought there had to be some kind of science and psychology to designing an interface that works for people,” says Christopher. “Then the mobile revolution started, and I saw immediately there was this intersection of user experience and software development.”
That realization set everything in motion.
A smaller computer, a smaller classroom
While Christopher was in college, he learned different coding languages and software development. But he was less interested in what household computers could do and more in what could be done with handheld ones: smartphones. “With iOS and Android, you’re touching the hardware,” says Christopher. “These are computers sandwiched between two sheets of glass. If you want to do something incredible or impressive or computationally difficult, you have to come up with creative solutions.”
College presented Christopher with a wealth of knowledge, but higher education wasn’t entirely conducive to him or his needs. As a person with autism, Christopher experienced sensory overload in his large lectures, making his courses overwhelming and challenging. So when Christopher first heard from a friend about the Code Fellows program, their low student-to-teacher ratio, and their classes about iOS and Android, he was immediately interested. Once he started, he felt right at home.
“For people like me who are on the spectrum, you have to focus intensely on something to get it done,” says Christopher. “Code Fellows was perfect for me because to do the program you have to focus wholly on the subject. I loved it.”
“Fake your confidence, don’t fake your knowledge”
While the Code Fellows classroom better suited Christopher’s needs, his time there was not without its challenges. Each day, he could expect to be thrown into the deep end of whatever code or concept the class was learning, and imposter syndrome would creep into the back of his mind. But Christopher got through it by relying on his support systems in and out of the classroom—as well as himself.
“I felt like I was too old, too slow, or I had gotten in too deep. After one long, frustrating day I told my wife about it, and she said, ‘Fake your confidence, don’t fake your knowledge—just focus on the thing you need to know, and everything else will fall into place.’” says Christopher. “After that, I did fake my confidence. I trusted myself and gave my brain a chance to absorb everything.”
Christopher went from pretending to believing in himself to actually believing in himself—and his classmates believed in him, too. He and his cohort bonded together over their shared experience in the classroom and helped each other get through the fast-paced and stressful curriculum. While at times it was uncomfortable to be fully immersed in such difficult concepts, they worked together and shared their knowledge with each other every step of the way. “What I loved about Code Fellows was the stimulating people there,” says Christopher. “There were people of diverse backgrounds, all working together and making it happen. That was an experience I didn’t get in other forms of higher education.”
More than learning to code
Christopher credits Code Fellows with helping him learn the soft skills he wasn’t taught in college, either. “Reading” other people has always been a challenge for him. Like many people with autism spectrum disorder, Christopher often struggled to interpret people’s facial expressions and body language—and that kind of emotional intelligence is critical when you’re managing people, the way Christopher is. He knew he had to find a way, and Code Fellows showed him the path.
“I tried really hard, read books, and asked some really stupid questions,” says Christopher. “But I learned it, and one of the things I’m really proud of is that I’ve been able to effectively lead people despite some of my innate shortcomings. You can learn anything if you’re willing to surrender to the discomfort of it. […] Code Fellows prepared me by teaching me how to teach myself.”
Today, Christopher is a Code Fellows graduate and the current CTO of software company FiLMiC Inc.—and he recently presented FiLMiC’s newest update of their video camera app, FiLMiC Pro, at the Apple Keynote event alongside award-winning filmmaker Sean Baker. As he walked off the stage at the Steve Jobs theater, Christopher earned thunderous applause from the crowd of Apple developers and employees. At FiLMiC, Christopher is still creating technology ahead of its time—but he simply archives his work until smartphone technology catches up. While it once frustrated him, Christopher now sees tech’s limitations as an invitation to keep innovating, learning, and pushing the boundaries of what he can accomplish as a coder and as a person.
Feel inspired by Christopher and his story? Interested in learning to code yourself? Whether you’re already experienced in tech or you’re looking to shift your career (or life) path, we believe in you. Check out our coding course map to see where you can take that first step.