Janine Duhre’s CV might miss an important entry had she never come across that LinkedIn post in September of 2020. As a Product Manager at Zalando, she already had a good thing going, covering a non-technical role in digital communications which kept her content and fulfilled.
But the post she found offered a 24-week long bootcamp teaching how to become a full stack developer. As part of a scholarship for women in tech that was being offered that year, it was free. Just as importantly, it was scheduled to be part-time.
‘I wasn’t a developer myself,’ Janine tells me today, ‘but years of working in the field had made me curious to find out what goes on behind the curtain. At the time I had a broad idea of what HTML and CSS were, but no more than that. I knew the bootcamp would be challenging, but I told myself, if I wanted to acquire some new hard skills without leaving my job, then this was the chance.’
Janine was right about both things – about the bootcamp representing the right opportunity, but also about it being challenging. Experiences like this are intense at the best of times, but when one has to fit them around full-time employment, they have to be managed carefully if they are not to become overwhelming.
‘I expected it to be time-consuming,’ she admits, ‘but I wasn’t prepared for just how exhausting it would be. The projects I realized were rewarding, naturally, but they were also demanding on many levels. There were moments when I questioned my decision. But that’s common with every new venture you start, especially when you grow out of your comfort zone.’
So what can one do to ensure one gets to the end of the marathon without giving up halfway through? Janine was happy to share her best tips with me, which fall under three essential headings.
Balancing a job and a bootcamp is certainly tricky, but Janine is positive that it can be managed with the right preparation.
‘Studying on Saturdays meant that I only had one free day a week, so I really wanted to find a way of arranging my schedule that still left room for the things I wanted to do. And while I was very disciplined about my time from the beginning, the routine I ended up with was one that developed organically.
‘Doing the groceries, for example, fit well with my lunch breaks on Saturdays, so I turned it into a habit. It’s important to make plans before the bootcamp and complete any preliminary assignments the school may give you, for sure. But keeping a flexible mindset, and leaving room for improvisation and adaptation, is just as important.’
Yet when Janine discusses the idea of ‘planning’ her scope is broad, encompassing not just the work one does but also the people one knows. ‘I made it quite clear to the rest of my team at work that going forwards, I would no longer be available outside regular working hours. This was a good idea not just to keep my studying time free from distraction, but also because – to my surprise – it ended up providing a good motivational boost.
‘Everyone was supportive and understanding from the get-go, and seeing them get excited for me made me even more excited in turn! So definitely do not clam up when taking a bootcamp – let the world know what you’re up to.’
Her feelings were certainly not uncommon – anyone who codes, regardless of how or where they learned, knows what it is like to hit a wall conceptually ‘I went in with high expectations for myself, so those feelings like I was lost at sea really got to me. When you’re wired to constantly deliver quality work in every detail, you apply the same strictness to yourself, even in completely new terrain. It was then that I started wondering whether I could really do it.’
So how did she overcome these feelings?
‘I didn’t – instead, I learned to accept them. And I think that’s one thing that everyone who takes this sort of path should learn too. You have to make peace with the idea that when you’re presented with a broad concept like a programming language, you won’t understand every single detail of it. But having a few blind spots doesn’t make you a failure. It’s enough for you to get the bigger picture, and tackle the smaller details when it becomes necessary. And, when you do come across something that you really don’t understand, just give yourself a few days. Let it sink. Trust me, you’ll figure it out eventually.’
In the same spirit, Janine also strongly recommends taking regular breaks. ‘I used to get anxious about leaving the computer with a problem unsolved. But I discovered quickly that there is nothing more unproductive than just sitting all day and staring at a puzzle – you just end up doing the same things over and over again and not making any progress. It’s much better to step away from the computer. Ideally get out of the house for a bit and you will find your missing piece.’
Janine’s last and most practical piece of advice has to do with how to retain information. ‘I lost count of the times that I had to look up how to do something, only to suddenly realise this is something I have already learned!’
Her recommendation to counter this is to take notes not just on coding skills, but also – accurately and methodically – on resources and frequently used links. ‘There’s stuff that looks peripheral, like how to setup a React App, or how to submit to GitHub. It may seem too basic or elementary to require study, but during your first weeks/months of coding you probably won’t remember how to do these things unless you take notes. And I can guarantee that you will waste more time than is reasonable just looking for a way to do something you already learned. Spare yourself that.’
In short, don’t be afraid to ‘study how to study’, and note down information that at first glance seems inessential. Time is short – use it to focus on coding.
Her final thoughts?
‘One thing that really helped me during the bootcamp,’ Janine tells me at the end of our interview, ‘was to know that I wasn’t just doing it by myself. If you take on something like this you will be surrounded by classmates, instructors, mentors. Even when things get at their hardest, you never feel alone.’
As hard as it sometimes got, Janine would not go back on her decision to take the bootcamp.
‘I am happy with my job – the point wasn’t to change it but to complement it. The difference is that now I can speak the language of developers. I can work not just for them, but with them. Not only my portfolio of skills, but my professional perspective has broadened too.
‘For someone who already has a full-time job, I understand that a bootcamp like this can feel intimidating. And make no mistake, it really is a substantial investment of time and effort. But if you are willing and determined, and your expectations are realistic, then I can think of no better way to upskill.’
Janine Duhre is a Product Manager at Zalando, one of Europe’s leading online platforms for fashion and lifestyle. She graduated from the WBS CODING SCHOOL Part-Time Full-Stack Web & App Developer bootcamp in July 2021.