Learning How to Code — Fourth Time’s the Charm!

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA
Founder & Executive Director, Break Diving, Inc.

It all started with Nintendo & an Apple IIe

It was sometime back in the 1980s. My family got two cool digital things for Christmas during that decade — though I suppose back then, they were two cool analog things, haha!

One was a Nintendo Entertainment System. The other was an Apple IIe. One day in particular jumps out at me.

I was in my 9s or 10s, or early teens. We had just gotten a modem installed. No one knew what those things were back then in my circle of friends. And there was a program called “The Sierra Network” that allowed you to logon, and actually instant message people, and play games like checkers with them. With real people! It was amazing! And it was the EIGHTIES!

I remember inviting two of my friends over to show them. They heard the beeping and screeching of the modem. They saw the screen light up. They saw the game of checkers I was playing with someone in Pennsylvania despite our being in New York. I was so excited! They even saw me having a chat with the person while playing checkers. How cool, right?!

Well, according to my friends, “That’s impossible. That’s fake.” All the wind was blown from my sails.

“That’s not a real person you’re playing with,” they said, with their smart allecky glibness.

“No, it is!” I pleaded, “It really is.”

“Nahhh, you’re lying. We know that you just programmed it to do that.”

My heart sank. They wouldn’t believe me. What I had thought was going to make me the coolest guy on the block ended with me talking to my ‘fake friend’ on the internet about the non-tech-savviness of the masses.

While it was a sad day for my persuasive production of evidence, it was also a day that sparked something in my brain. On that day, I thought to myself, “Wow, they thought I programmed the computer to pretend to be a person!” (Today, I realize how amazing it would have been if I had actually been able to create a self-aware chat bot — a technology that even today isn’t totally perfected.) But back then, it lit a fire under me: a fire to learn how to code! Woohoo!! Yeah! I was gonna become Bill Gates! Yeah! The fire was huge!!!

Well, the fire quickly went out.

Twice.

First, I tried to code in the language “basic” — I got lost in endless loops and “GO TO line 24”s. Same thing in high school and C++ with my second attempt at self-study up in Maine with object oriented programming and programs that would never compile. Never compile? Translation: the code didn’t work.

Back then, there wasn’t much of an internet at all. It existed, but via dial up modem, and not many people were ‘online’. Most still didn’t now what it was. And me? I had no one to turn to for help.

Internet chat groups didn’t exist.

I had no friends who were into coding.

And frankly, I dare not tell anyone I was coding, because I was an awkward pre-pubescent (or just barely post) dork enough as it was; asking around for someone who could help me compile C++ code would have been a ticket straight inside the locker with my underwear pulled up to my chest. [Which sadly did happen once. But that was in 6th grade. Tip for new parents: don’t sent your kid to Catholic middle school. Why? The children there are devils, I say! Devils! Alas, I digress. 🙂 ]

Well, fast forward to 2006. I had just moved back home from Iraq, where I had been stationed as an intelligence officer, training the 4th Iraqi Army.  While in Iraq, I started coming up with ideas for websites and computer programs. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these ideas, but I started writing them down. Then, as I mentioned, I came back to NY, and returned to civilian life. I found a book about something I had never heard about called, “Ruby on Rails”, and it apparently was the ‘in’ thing to be doing as a coder. So I decided — AGAIN — that I was going to finally learn to code. And I was going to make my apps! YEAH, BABY!

What happened?

Failure # 3.

In my defense, I did sorta start to figure out Ruby. I was actually making some progress. But Rails? Rails is what did me in. I was lost. Completely and totally lost. Perhaps you are too, reading this. Let me backtrack, for you newbies.

You see, Ruby is a computer programming language. But nowadays, most code is on the internet, presented via a website. Hence the term: a web app (which is usually attached to a database and uses algorithmic code) as opposed to a web site(which is usually static and doesn’t really do anything). Get it — dynamic web application versus static web site.

So Ruby by itself is sorta useless unless you create a program that just stays on your own computer. And what good is the code if no one but you can find it or use it? Enter: RAILS.

Rails is the method we programmers use to get Ruby code up onto the net and integrate it with websites that the general public can use. Cool right? There are other frameworks for other languages that do similar things, but with Ruby, if you want it on the web, you generally use Rails.

But… I couldn’t figure it out. Wah wah wah! And I didn’t want to go get a bachelor’s in computer science. Wah wah wah! Sooooo… guess what? I gave up again. Third time’s a charm right!

Let’s fast forward one more time.

Shanghai, China, 2015.

I was packing up my things, ready to head back to New York. I had been living there for a year, teaching English part-time, and studying Chinese full-time, after quitting my job as a public defender attorney in White Plains, NY (Westchester) two years earlier. Yes, 现在, 我的汉语非常好!:D

When I got back to New York, I got a subscription to a magazine called “The Week”. It rocks, in case you don’t read it. It’s an amazing aggregator of the week’s top stories, in printed magazine form.

Well… in one issue, I randomly read about a cool place to learn how to code… in just 12 weeks. I was blown away. WHAT?! IS THIS FOR REAL!? NO WAY!! YES WAY, TED!(That’s a Bill & Ted’s reference, for those who aren’t fans — and good news, there may be a new movie with Keanu and company coming soon…)

Back to the story: this amazing angelic message from God was called… AppAcademy, and it was I think a two line story in the simple “5 Websites You Need To Visit” section. You didn’t have to pay for this coding program (cool!), but you had to pay them a percentage of your first year’s salary once you get a job, and the program was full-time in NYC, 6 days a week, and something like 9 hours a day. Brutal. Further, it was a live course and in NYC, so I’d have to travel nearly every day to Manhattan on the commuter train from Westchester. Not a huge deal, but I could already imagine how exhausted I would be. Further, I couldn’t afford to not make money for 3 months, and finally, I didn’t want to be legally obligated to take a job just because I finished the program. Honestly, at the time, I just wanted to see if my childhood dream could again be rekindled, and this time, maybe even flourish!

Sooo… for all of those reasons, I again put my childhood coding dream on the back burner.

But it was still there, lingering… How do I know? Because I must have told about a hundred people about AppAcademy over the next 12 months. I thought the concept was absolutely brilliant. We teach you to code in 12 weeks and then you get a job paying $80K in NYC or $100K in San Fran. Umm, okay! But it wasn’t the right program at the right time…

But then, about a year later, in early 2016, since I was on their mailing list, I discovered that App Academy was launching — ta-da — a part-time program sometime in the future. I was stoked! My interest was again rekindled!

I started their boot camp prep course, which was little more than a PDF and a recommendation to start learning how to code in Ruby, but get to work I did. And I started the problems, and the algorithms, and learning the language I had tried ten years earlier to learn. But the part-time program wasn’t starting in NYC for a while, and I wanted to get started now.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany: if AppAcademy exists, maybe other schools exist too. So I did some research, and I found something called CodeAcademy. Wow, it was free, all online, and I could learn to code. And I could learn ruby, rails, javascript, and the list goes on. I thought, “Gotta give it a try!” And I fell in love. And I was coding every day.

But… DAMMIT!!!! I got stuck again, just like I had gotten stuck 3 times before. And I again became discouraged. And the feelings of, “I am such an idiot. I am never going to learn how to do this” overwhelmed me once again. And feelings of giving up pulsed through my veins once again. [This apparently is normal in the world of coding, haha]

In fact, I did give up for about a month. And I was so fed up that I decided that I wasn’t gonna go back to it this time.

But apparently, sometime over those few months when I was playing around with CodeAcademy, I had told my very close friend Arthur Brown about CodeAcademy. He’s a database guy and really knows about Visual Basic, etc. I thought he’d be interested.

Well, while I was giving up coding once again, he (unbeknownst to me) had not only signed up to CodeAcademy, but upgraded to the ‘pro’ version for about $19/month, which offers a bunch of additional features.

For some reason, hearing that he was using it, and learning new skills, and in the PRO version, which gave you access to coding experts via live chat — -I don’t know what happened, but my buddy Art’s email popped me out of my funk, and I decided I would give it one more try. One more try and see what happens.

So, I logged back in, upgraded to pro, and BAM…

THAT WAS THE TURNING POINT.

I vowed I was never again going to turn back.

From the moment I logged in, I had live expert coders there to answer every question I had. Couldn’t get the code to work? No problem: they told me how to fix it in less than 5 minutes. Didn’t understand a concept? No problem: they explained it to me.

I was BLOWN AWAY!

What was happening?!

Was this really happening?

Was I finally learning how to code?

Was this dream of mine finally going to come true?!

I was like a kid in a candy store who just found out all the candy was FREE! FREE! FREEEEEEE!!!!!!!

This was around October of 2016.

I went through some of their courses: HTML. CSS. Ruby.

Somewhere along the way, I asked about how I could learn about building projects, and putting a lot of the skills together.

Well, one of the code advisors there told me about a place called Free Code Camp. Free Code Camp? Yeah. Sounded lame to me too. But, why not go check it out.

So I went there on a whim just to see what it was all about, and BOOM SHAKALAKALAKALAKALAKA, I was floored for a second time. I registered immediately, and began their program. This is really free? So cool.

Now, it’s completely javascript focused, so no ruby or rails, so you should be aware of that. But in many ways, that’s pretty cool — I figured it would be good to learn javascript too, since javascript is used in nearly every website you see out there these days. But more than that, the three things I immediately loved about FreeCodeCamp were:

1. The community. Their chat rooms are filled with awesome talented helpful people from all over the world, 24–7. Need help? You will get it. Just ask.

2. The curriculum. it’s full stack. In web app development, there’s front end (what the user sees), back end (the database side that stores and manipulates all the data), and data visualization, which is how complex data is presented. FCC teaches you all three disciplines.

3. There are projects. Lots of projects. Projects that teach you how to put into practice what you are studying. I was sold, and hooked. And actually, here is

4: It was all online, and that made things SO convenient.

So is that where my study ended?

No, actually, it’s from where it launched.

Along the way, pursuing the FCC front-end curriculum, something was nagging at me. I wanted someone to help me individually and I wanted to learn ruby on rails dammit! I didn’t just want help from the chat rooms alone either; I wanted something even more intense.

But… (and this was the challenge), I wanted an intense bootcamp like AppAcademy, with actual instructors and full-time mentors, without the obligation to absolutely get a job, and one that was entirely online based. Did it exist?

So I went back to Bing and began my search. Wow, I found a lot of them! The two that I narrowed it down to based on curriculum and easy of understanding what they were doing were Flatiron based out of NYC, and The Firehose Project, based out of (to this day, I still don’t know, haha, but since I study there, I should probably find out).

I finally made the decision to go with Firehose.

It’s a long story and this post is already long enough, but suffice it to say that Firehose was a better fit for me, and I absolutely LOVED their FREE two-week prep course — if you want to learn to code, go sign up for it now. That prep-course, along with the wonderful skype interview I had with co-founder Marco (so friendly and non-stressful), and the amazing testimonials I read on their website… totally sold me. I was going to become a Firehose student.

Read the next post for an update on where I am today!

***

Come join the Break Diving Unstoppable Artists Coding Community today at http://www.breakdiving.org/coding_chat

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