How Morgan Learned to Program in 9 Months: Reflections on Becoming a Web Developer

Ten months ago, we launched the Thinkful fellowship: an opportunity for students to join our team and apply the skills from the course in a business setting. Morgan Polotan, our first Fellow, had been only coding for two months and was eager to become a full-time engineer.  

Nine months later, we’re excited to announce he’ll be joining Tapad as a Junior Front-End Developer — his first full-time role in his new career! It’s been an exciting journey for Morgan, and we’re continually inspired by his hard work and passion.

Here’s Morgan’s story:

Months 1 - 3: Discovering Bootcamps and the Thinkful Fellowship

Last summer, I quit my job, moved to NY and planned to break into the tech start-up world. Big problem: I’d never written a line of code.

Like everybody else, I started learning with Codecademy’s Web Fundamentals track. On Quora, I discovered the “bootcamp” model, which suggested the idea of breaking into the tech industry without a CS degree. The motivation kicked in. I began plowing through the massive Treehouse video library, focusing on JavaScript and jQuery while researching bootcamp options.

I considered three variables to narrow down my list: location (NYC), price (App Academy was free if you didn’t get a job), and student reviews (via Quora). My top five was 1) General Assembly 2) Flatiron School 3) App Academy 4) FullStack Academy and 5) Hacker School.

The interview process was humbling, to say the least.  I was told by Flatiron School that most people spend 100 hours programming before applying. 100 hours?! You can imagine why I didn’t nail the problem-solving interview. At Fullstack Academy, I had my first technical interview — a set of four programming challenges. I was accepted!

To prepare for Fullstack, I enrolled in Thinkful’s Front-End Web Development course. I thought the project-based approach and personal mentorship would set me up to excel in the bootcamp.

Weeks later, Thinkful invited me to team lunch. We ate Chinese food at their co-working space, which had an astro turf rug and a foosball table (a window into start-up life), and the team asked about my approach to becoming a developer. They let me in on an idea they’d been tossing around: the Thinkful Fellowship — a program for students to apply the programming skills from the class at a company. I followed up several times, and, when they officially launched the program, I applied.

Forty-eight hours into Fullstack Academy, I quit and accepted the Thinkful fellowship. I showed up at the company’s headquarters the next day, eager to dive into my first projects.

Months 4 - 6: Learn by Necessity, Learn by Doing

I spent my first few weeks learning the complexities of Git and GitHub. For the first time, I pushed code to a company’s repository and sent my first release notes! I explored advanced concepts I might not have been exposed to at bootcamps: merge conflicts, when to test locally, when to test in production, continuous integration, and overriding other people’s code. Most importantly, I learned not to break things and structure my code.

Right from the get go, I was asked to make a direct impact to the company. In my first project, I had fun building Thinkful’s digital version of a certificate of completion. Later, I contributed to the homepage by creating a student reviews webpage. Next, I worked with Google’s Peter Lubbers to adapt his slideshare presentation on the latest HTML5 features using Angular. The product was an interactive tutorial that implemented HTML5’s accelerometer, speech input, and geolocation features!

Three big things happened:

  1. My learning style changed — I had to learn specifics by necessity instead of choosing a broad topic: when I needed CSS animations for a project, I found the resources.
  2. I could answer engineering questions! - I remember being thrilled when our education engineer asked ME a question on CSS.
  3. Recruiters started reaching out — I had NEVER been contacted by someone through LinkedIn (it was always the other way around). This was pretty motivating.

Months 7 - 9: Falling in Love with Angular and Landing My First Dev Job

My next big project was on the Bootcamp Finder, a tool that curated content and reviews about all the offline programming schools. (If only it had been around when I was scouring the web for bootcamps…) This was my first time dealing with databases. I was immediately drawn to the complexities of working on back-end applications, which helped me form a real opinion on what kind of developer I aspired to become.

I also realized how naive I was when I simply wanted to be a “developer.” It was like deciding to become a doctor with no specialty.

I was going through a classic process of discovery. First, surprise. Companies need front-end JavaScript developers but all the NYC bootcamps focused on Rails. Second, understanding. I learned why companies wanted JavaScript developers: after Gmail, the snappy, fast web applications that run like desktop apps were popular, and that means code needs to be in the browser. Finally, acceptance. I loved Google Apps, and I realized the power of Angular.

Knowing Angular helped me stand out on the job market. Although there’s a big obsession with learning Rails in the startup community, companies are in desperate need of Angular talent. Five companies reached out to me for interviews. Nine months after my first technical interviews, there was a job on the line. This time, I was prepared. 

My New Job!

I start next week at Tapad, a mobile advertising platform, and I’m excited to join a team where there are over 20 senior engineers who I’ll get to work alongside.

Here the big takeaways from the last nine months on what it takes to start a career as a developer:

  1. Build foundational skills.

  2. Find projects that are meaningful.

  3. Mentorship will accelerate your learning.

  4. The framework you choose matters. Specifically, anticipate where the market WILL BE, not where the market is. (Right now, that’s Angular. Four years ago, it was Rails. Four years from now it may be something different.)

Feel free to reach out if you have any questions at morgan.polotan@gmail.com