First big decision made: I’m applying to Makers Academy

After hours of researching coding bootcamps some more (see here for my previous post on coding bootcamps) I’ve applied to Makers Academy.

Warning: this post is a long one.  Only read it if you want in-depth tips and advice about the Makers Academy application and interview process.

The application process

Simples:

  1. You go to Makers Academy’s website, click “Apply” and complete a short application form.
  2. If your application is successful you’ll be:
    • invited to schedule an interview with someone from Makers Academy, either in person face to face, or remotely; and
    • sent some preparation materials to complete prior to your interview – this is to demonstrate your commitment to code (i.e. that you can be bothered to school up on Ruby (the primary language used on the course to teach coding)) and to make sure you can pass the technical test (see below) in the interview.
  3. The interview lasts around 45 mins to 1 hour and is comprised of two parts:
    • a technical test; and
    • a general “get to know you” session where you explore your motivations for wanting to code and to study at Makers Academy.

I’ll go through each of these in more detail below, together with TIPS for other people considering applying.

Step 1: The Application Form

The application form is super simple.  It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 10.41.38

TIPS:

Below are some tips, both general and specific to each box on the application form.  I’ve also explained how I answered these boxes.

Generally


  1. KISS it – no not literally, Keep ISimple Stupid.  Makers Academy  accepts a variety of students onto the course with a range of existing experience and knowledge of code and computers.  Don’t overthink it or be put off if you’re a noob like me!
  2. Honest – be frank, why do you want to code? Why do you want to study at Makers Academy? What’s your endgame? Don’t be afraid to put your cards on the table.
  3. Don’t be lazy – this is your first encounter with Makers Academy.  Don’t blow it by being too lazy to proofread your application form.  Coding requires attention to detail: a missing “:” or a misspelt piece of syntax will break your code.  A badly spelt application form will ruin your chances!

Box 1: why do you want to study at Makers Academy?


Break it down – analyse why you want to study at Makers Academy? I broke this down into the following subitems, which made it easier for me to answer.

  1. Why do I want to code? For me it was having enjoyed experimenting with coding in my spare time via online courses (see previous post on that subject), chatting to my university friends who work in tech and genuinely being interested in tech my whole life.
  2. Why do I want to study at a coding bootcamp? I wanted to quit my job as a lawyer, and take a sabbatical to try something else, something I thought I could enjoy as a potential career: coding was what I fixed upon after researching other alternatives (advertising, consulting and VFX among others).  A coding bootcamp was, in my opinion, the best way to accelerate my coding skills and network with industry people.
  3. Why Makers Academy? I’d spent hours online researching bootcamps, online courses and other alternatives (I’ll write a separate post on that process when I get time!).  But in summary I wrote about:
    • Student blogs: Makers Academy encourages its students to blog their experiences before, during and after the course (hence this blog!).  This allowed me to get a real understanding of the course, how it works and the people that successfully apply for and complete it.  The fact I couldn’t find a negative blog really impressed me and I said so in my application form!
    • Good press: search Makers Academy online and you’ll quickly find they’ve been positively featured in the press, via traditional print, online and on TV.
    • Awards: my research revealed Makers Academy graduates had taken place in and won first prize at the TechSprint Hackathon – no mean feat considering they had only just graduated from the course.
    • Employability: Makers Academy is frank about how it makes money.  Spoiler: they make money from course fees and a recruitment fee (charged to the employer in the same way as a regular recruiter would) if they place you successfully at the end of the course.  Therefore it’s in their interest to get you employed.  To do so they work closely with their employer partners to ensure the course stays up to date and relevant thereby ensure their students’ skills match employer demands.
    • Get a taste: Makers Academy occasionally runs taster weekends, open days and informal ‘Drop in‘ sessions.  They also hold graduation events where graduating students present their final projects and answer questions.  I attended these, all of which gave me a good flavour of the course and allowed me to demonstrate my understanding of and interest in Makers Academy.
  4. Why you’d be a good Makers Academy student? Makers Academy’s reputation with employers hinges on the quality of its graduates.  The old saying goes you can’t polish a turd.  Demonstrate what it is about you that makes you a great potential student.  I tried to draw out the skills and outlooks I’d developed as a lawyer and how they were relevant to coding intensively at a bootcamp, e.g.
    • Attention to detail: this is a given in law.  Lawyers spend forever checking and re-checking documents to make sure all the figures, words and grammar are correct.  You don’t want to be this poor guy:

      White & Case has instructed Kennedys to defend a multimillion-pound professional negligence claim brought by a former client over a typo that led to a failed oil deal.

      … and end up getting fired:

      Likewise, in coding, a missing “:” or misspelt syntax will break your code and you’ll be driven to insanity trying to find the culprit.

      For the lawyers reading this, this video perfectly sums up the endless checking and re-checking for typos in legal docs…

      TYPO (Living the Dream, Ep. 3)

    • Problem-solving: as a lawyer I problem solved everyday.  I was constantly bombarded with new problems that I would have to breakdown, research the law, apply it to my clients problem and deliver a solution, which would usually get iterated following further discussions with the client and opposing counsel.  This is a lot like coding: you get told what you need to build or solve, you go away and research how to do it, you build some code and you iterate based on feedback from your client and/or their users.
    • Communication: as a lawyer I was always communicating with clients, colleagues and the other side’s lawyers to understand every aspect of the problem and coordinate its solution.  To be a good developer you need to be able to communicate with your client and colleagues to understand what you need to build and then also communicate back how your code works and why it works.
    • Ability to work hard and smart: I was constantly overworked as a lawyer, often working until 2-3am for several nights a week (sometimes weeks or months in a row..).  Makers Academy is INTENSE – you need to have stamina and work smartly.
    • Work/life balance: Makers Academy isn’t all work and no play.  There’s a big focus on wellbeing – they have a dedicated “Joy Officer” who runs yoga and meditation each day to help students decompress during the day so they don’t burnout.  Having burnout at times in my old job I know how important this was to me when applying to Makers Academy.

Box 2: How have you learnt to code so far?


In my opinion, this is the easier and less involved box to answer.  I kept it simple:

  1. What have you done to date? For me it was working through courses on Udemy and elsewhere (see previous post) and building little projects, such as a version of the classic arcade game Pong with Javascript and canvas.
  2. Where has it led you? I realised that unless I quit my job (at least temporarily) I’d never achieve anything approaching mastery in coding.  Like any language, you need to immerse yourself in it if you want to stand any chance of achieving fluency.  As I note above, this was one of my main reasons for applying to Makers Academy: to accelerate my ability.

That’s it.

Step 2: The Interview Prep

The Invitation:

Very shortly after submitting my application (around a week) I received an email from Makers Academy inviting me to choose a suitable date and time to interview.  Being a tech start-up themselves, they used a web app to allow me to select a suitable time/date slot.

As it was just before the Christmas holidays I chose a date during the first week of January 2016 to give myself enough time to prep in between mince pies, sherry and roast turkey.

The Prep:

Makers Academy advise allowing 7-10 days, assuming at least 2 hours study each day, to prep.  I had the Christmas holidays so was able to do more or less hours each day depending on what I was up to.  

The prep is very clearly set out, and for me consisted of the following:

  1. Dev set-up: following an easy tutorial to set up my computer for development, e.g. installing xCode on my mac, command line tools, homebrew and git.
  2. Codecademy Ruby: completing the Ruby course on Codecademy.  Codecademy is a freemium massively online coding course provider.  The Ruby course consists of a series of interactive tutorials, each including a coding challenge or mini-project for you to test with the code you’ve just learnt.
  3. Chris Pine’s Learn to Program: completing at least the first 8 chapters of this classic Ruby tutorial book, including the various challenges.  You can also buy the book here.

All of the above is free to use and easy to follow, though that’s not to say the coding challenges aren’t tricky.  I spent roughly 3-4 hours a day on items (2) and (3) above over the 10 days I was on holiday over Christmas.

Shortly before the interview, Makers Academy sent me a further email to check in and see how I was going, which I thought was a nice touch, and to point me in the direction of some further study materials, including trying my hand at Codewars to practice what I’d learnt.

What is Codewars?

  • Codewars is a really cool interactive library of coding challenges (called “kata”, to borrow the martial arts term) created by users for most major coding languages, including Ruby.
  • By completing kata you are able to learn and practice applying various coding techniques and/or concepts to real coding problems.
  • Solving kata allows you to reveal other users’  solutions so you can compare and contrast your code with theirs, often enlightening yourself as to other (and sometimes better) ways of solving the same problem.
  • It’s also a great example of gamified learning, i.e. the incorporation of video game elements into traditional learning exercise programs, e.g.codewarcs.fw_
    • each time you score kata and earn points, eventually you earn enough points to move up a kata (like you would in karate as you progress through each kata and earn a new coloured belt); and
    • you can also compete against friends by joining clans and checking your rankings on the leaderboard.

After I’d done the interview prep I felt pretty smug that I knew Ruby: WRONG!

Codewars quickly put me in my place.  I could barely comprehend even the most basic challenges.  Immediately I panicked and thought I’d wasted my Christmas holidays as I’d obviously “not got it“.  It seemed there was a huge gulf between following tutorials and being spoon-fed solutions and actually tackling real coding problems on my own.

I felt like a first year law student again: I’d done all the reading but still couldn’t apply the law correctly in my essays and exams!

Thankfully, like before with Law, I persevered and got my head around at least a few of the easiest challenges on Codewars and earned my first points.  Nevertheless, it knocked my pre-interview confidence for six.

…needless to say this experience with Codewars was something I would get used to (see this post on the pre-course at Makers Academy).

Step 3: The Interview

My interview was very relaxed and friendly.  I arrived at Makers Academy, checked in with a member of the team and was escorted to a meeting room to begin the interview with two of the resident coaches.  So how did it proceed?

Dress Code

The tech industry is much more relaxed and informal than law.  At my law firm I’d usually be wearing a suit, either with or without a suit jacket and tie.  However, for my interview I dialled it down and wore chinos, a casual shirt and jumper with some suede boots.  I wanted to look more relaxed but without looking like I didn’t give a f*ck.  It paid off – the interviewers were very casually dressed, so I didn’t feel too overdressed nor did I feel underdressed.

Bottom line: no need to wear a suit/tie etc!

Part 1: The Technical Test!

After initial introductions I was asked whether I wanted to do the technical test first or second.  I chose first as it was the part that scared me most… especially after my disheartening foray into Codewars where I realised how little I actually knew despite Codecademy Ruby and Chris Pine’s Learn to Program.

The technical test was actually ok.  The coaches explained that the MacBook in front of us had been set up with Pry open and on screen.

What the heck is Pry?

… Pry is a powerful alternative to the standard IRB shell for Ruby.

Ok, so what the hell is IRB? Is it like IBS?

… no it’s not a bowel disorder or indeed an actual shell.  IRB is short for “Interactive Ruby Shell” and is a program launched from your computer’s command line that you can use to test pieces of Ruby code and see what’s happening when that code is run without having to separately write programs, save them and run them.

Knowing full well that I was a complete noob with no prior experience other than my own online dabbling and the interview prep, I was then given a very simple coding challenge to solve.

I won’t say what it was in case it’s one Makers Academy regularly use, but safe to say it had me stumped for a moment or two.  However, I was massively overthinking it and, with some gentle nudging from the interviewers, figured out how to solve it.  We then iterated it a few times to tweak it and improve the code.  After wrapping that up we moved on to part two.

Part 2: The Get To Know You

This was the easy part.  We delved into my motivations about wanting to learn to code, what I’d done to date to code and why I wanted to study at Makers Academy.  I basically expanded upon those things I’ve already mentioned above in the application form section.

I drew a lot of analogies between law and coding… so many I think I’ll write a separate post on that as it may be of interest to other lawyers who code or who are thinking of coding.

I also asked lots of questions, including:

  1. Where does Makers Academy see itself in 5 years (I was keen to see how long termist the founders are – very long termist it turns out!)
  2. How easily do students find employment after completing the course?
  3. How many lawyers have completed the course? (a couple to date)
  4. How is Makers Academy different to its rivals (aside from the differences I’d already explained in my interview when expressing my motivations and decision process)

And that was it.  All in all I was in and out within one hour and the actual interview probably took around 45 minutes.

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