By Gino BonaMay 28, 2015

Part Three: The 42-Year-Old Coding Virgin

SEATTLE — The second week of Computer Science & Web Development Bootcamp began with some sobering news: A few of my classmates decided to drop out.

I don’t know the exact reasons why they dropped out of Bootcamp, but I would bet a contributing factor was the frustration of learning in a stacked module environment.

Stacked what? Let me explain.

Traditional classroom learning is based on linear modules. A student practices a single concept until she becomes proficient with it before moving on to the next concept. It’s a slow process when you need to learn a large amount of material in a condensed period of time.

Code Fellows’ Computer Science & Web Development Bootcamp is taught using a stacked module method. The idea behind a stacked module method is to be introduced to a new concept every day. For example, after five days, you will have been introduced to five new concepts. You likely won’t fully grasp the material at the end of each day. And before you know it, you’re introduced to an entirely new concept before you have wrapped your head around the previous day’s material. This can be very frustrating — especially as the days and unmastered concepts pile up. But it’s imperative to keep moving forward to force yourself to grasp the concepts you barely understood in the first place.

I wasn’t surprised to learn students dropped out of Bootcamp. That’s because I considered whether or not I should continue early last week.

I struggled mightily on Monday. I couldn’t grasp the concept and application of domain modeling during the morning lecture session. I was lost during the afternoon’s lab assignment. I feared that I had fallen too far behind to be able to catch up —especially since we were going to learn a new concept the following day.

I spent the entire afternoon in the lab session and couldn’t figure out how to complete the assignment. I left Code Fellows and walked to the bus stop on the corner of Olive Way and 8th Avenue. During my walk, I called my wife to discuss my situation. I questioned if attending Bootcamp was the right decision. It’s difficult enough being away from my wife and children for one month. Adding the frustration of not being able to grasp all of the material nearly put me over the edge.

All I had to do was say, “I’m out.” Then I’d return to my family in Raleigh and all of my frustrations would disappear.

But my wife encouraged me to stick with it. She reminded me that struggling is a part of the learning process.

She was right. She usually is.

Before going to bed on Monday night, I sent a direct message via Slack to my instructor, Brook, and my TA, Scott. I expressed my frustrations and requested extra help.

Brook and Scott replied within minutes of receiving my message. Scott encouraged me to come into class early the following morning for one-on-one instruction. I met with Scott before our lecture started and he spent an hour explaining the finer points of object-oriented modeling. During the afternoon’s lab assignment, Scott sat next to me for two hours offering guidance and answering all of my questions. By Wednesday morning, I was completely caught up on my lab assignments as we transitioned to incorporating CSS into our project.

I managed to keep moving forward. Which is exactly what you need to do in a stacked module learning environment.

During one of our lectures later in the week, my classmates opened up about their own struggles with the material. It was a relief to hear that I wasn’t alone. It was a relief for all of us.

In addition to discussing our challenges, Brook pulled up a short film based on an interview with Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life.” During the film, Glass expounds on The Gap. Basically, people who are creative are drawn into the creative industry because they have great taste. But when you start creating stuff, your stuff isn’t very good. Your taste is the reason your work disappoints you. Too many people quit at this phase.

“We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

- Ira Glass

The film is an inspiring reminder that I came to Code Fellows because I wanted to learn how to create websites and programs and apps that live up to my standards. It’s impossible to immediately marry your taste with your skills. But I’m committed to working may ass off to close The Gap.

Part Four »

This is Part Three of a five-part series documenting Gino Bona’s journey as he learns how to code. Read Part One and Part Two, and see the original post on Gino’s blog.