Were Michael Flohr to someday write his memoirs, the account of how he ended up in a coding bootcamp may well be interpreted as a dramatization, because it sounds just like the set up of a novel:
‘It was the summer of 2021. I was taking a short walk down Weiskopffstrasse with my girlfriend, enjoying the mellow sunshine, when we strode past a billboard on an angular building that invited me in big capital letters to learn to code. And I thought to myself, why not?’
The ‘angular building’ just so happened to be the WBS CODING SCHOOL Campus in Berlin, where bootcamp students come together to work on their final projects. And however coincidental Michael’s first personal brush with professional programming may appear, in truth it was remarkably indicative of what he calls the ‘three phases’ of his bootcamp experience.
The first was the Fun Phase.
Michael calls this the Fun Phase because of the light-heartedness with which he was able to approach coding.
He had no previous experience in the field – his past academic interests (pursued to doctoral level) had ranged from politics and economics to music, while during his PhD he’d helped build the non-profit organization netzwerk n, dedicated to making universities more sustainable.
‘I’ve always liked computers,’ he says today, ‘but I had very few friends who worked in IT, and almost nobody to share my passion with. So I was never really able to explore programming.
‘In summer of 2021, however, I was nearing the end of a project and looking for something new. I enjoy problem solving and I have an analytical mind, so learning a programming language seemed like a good fit for me. It also looked like something that I could use for personal stuff, like automating some of my daily tasks or designing a web page.’
In brief, should one sum up Michael’s motivation when he signed up for the WBS CODING SCHOOL Web & App Development bootcamp, it would boil down to the simple fact that it looked like fun. Lots and lots of fun.
At least until the Crisis Phase.
The second phase of Michael’s introduction to programming started almost immediately and went on for quite a while. He calls it the Crisis Phase because that’s basically what he did – stumble from one crisis to another.
Indeed, the hectic pace of a bootcamp was quite a switch for Michael, formerly used to the independent research of the academic world and the gentler tempo of work in his non-profit organization. ‘Nearly every day a new concept got introduced to the class. I’d barely be able to get a handle on it, and already the next one was thrown at us. I really struggled to keep up. In all honesty, the bootcamp felt like a more difficult learning experience to me than my PhD.’
The lowest point came a few weeks into the course. Michael was taking a walk with two friends, after yet another day spent learning to code from 09:00 to 18:00. It was winter and Berlin was wearing the snow like a dress. But all he could think of was whether he should drop out of his bootcamp. This is too much, he told himself unhappily.
Fortunately, instead of giving up, Michael did the wisest thing anyone can do about their unhappiness – he opened up about it: ‘I decided to share my feelings with the rest of the class. I told them that I felt like I wasn’t smart enough. Everyone was very understanding. My instructor gave me feedback as well: he explained that my feelings were normal for a student, that bootcamps are by their nature challenging and intense and that anyone who takes one will feel the pressure. That sort of support was really helpful.’
This didn’t make the challenges go away, naturally, but the reassurance helped to handle them. ‘I still had a mini-crisis about every third day. But I realized sleeping over a problem and taking breaks worked better than stressing over them.’
By the end of the bootcamp, Michael was working by himself on a mobile app for Vegan Ice-Cream shops. ‘I had to call my instructor every day to deal with all the errors that kept coming up. But I finished my project, and then kept on working on my app for several months after the bootcamp, expanding and perfecting it. In fact, that was when the final phase started – not at the end of my classes, but after the end.’
The End & New Beginning – or, the Serious Phase
For many, the last phase of the coding bootcamp experience is about entering the tech workforce. For Michael, it was about entering a condition of responsibility.
‘When you finish a bootcamp, you possess privileged knowledge,’ he says, and his expression turns – aptly – more serious. ‘Only a minority of people really understand how a website or an application works under the hood. This means that you can create marvellous things, but also things that are destructive, or toxic, or exploitative.
‘If you use machine learning to get your customers to buy more than they normally would, or to spend more time watching videos than they intend to, that’s not making the world a better place. On the other hand, you can also use your skills to facilitate the lives of others.
‘Here in Germany, for example, public services are still very backwards in terms of digitalisation. Bring your expertise to that field, and you can make life easier for so many people. For my own part, I worked on a project in Elterngeld, the public support system for parents.’
But Michael emphasizes that the biggest question is not what you can do, it’s what you choose to do.
‘Programmers in this historical phase are in very high demand,’ he says. ‘This means that they have a choice in terms of where they want to work. They can turn down offers which could earn them a couple of extra thousand euros a year but would put them in service of fossil fuel producers, unethical financial products, defence contractors, factory farming or surveillance companies, and instead work for groups that match their values. This is something that not everybody can do.
‘I’ve certainly felt that on my own skin. Before the bootcamp, I had a PhD, but I worried that that wouldn’t help me land jobs – generalists are not in such high demand, particularly those of the non-technical type! Now I feel like I will always find work, not to mention get paid for it more than I would ever have expected five years ago.
‘Even if you don’t work for a company that is actively doing good for the world, you always have a responsibility – as the person with that privileged knowledge – to be the one within the group to push things in the right direction. To make a difference.’
And even if programming remains fun as a thing to do, that responsibility is a serious thing indeed.
Michael Flohr graduated from the WBS CODING SCHOOL Web & App Development bootcamp in May 2021, is currently working for team neusta and will start as a senior developer at DB Systel in the coming months. He can be found on his own personal website.