Nearly four years ago, Dora Korpar was adrift. She had finished college with a degree in biology and discovered that she didn’t really want be a doctor. She didn’t even want to go to grad school.
She was getting by on a $20,000 a year job at Trader Joes in her Minnesota home town when she ran into a friend of hers from college.
“He had been a philosophy major and he told me, ‘I’m a software engineer at Apple,” Korpar remembers.
He had taught himself to code by studying online courses and landed a job at Apple. Learning to code outside of a college degree —”I didn’t even realize that was a thing people could do.”
It was a “minor interaction that opened up a new world” she said.
She wasn’t one of those kid computer geniuses either. “I had no concept of coding or anything with computers at all, never been technical,” she said.
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But she was intrigued with the idea that she could have a fantastic career in tech by learning to code and wanted to try. She took a basic HTML course on Code Academy, a site that hosts free learn-to-code courses and it made sense.
It made her believe, “Oh, I can do this.”
And then she ran in a problem.
“Amidst the sea of resources that are online, I was lost. I was looking for more direction. I ran across an article on an IT site, talking about a program called the Holberton School,” she said.
Living in a San Francisco hostel
The ad invited her to apply for the program and move to San Francisco. It was another minor moment that changed her life. And it was also a stroke of luck.
The Holberton School bills itself as an alternative to a traditional four-year computer science degree. It involves two 9-months blocks of study around a six-month internship. It’s geared to people who know nothing about programming.
Holberton offers a different way of paying too: charging nothing upfront, but taking a 17% cut of the student’s first 3.5 years of salary, once the student lands a job paying $40,000 or more. It caps tuition to $85,000 total paid, or as low as $23,800 over 3.5 years for someone making $40,000.
The school was founded by former LinkedIn and Docker engineers and is backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley bigwigs: Jerry Yang, Jeff Weiner, Solomon Hykes, even musician Ne-Yo has a stake, the company says.
But Korpar was applying to be part of its very first cohort. As she was to be a guinea pig for the curriculum, she wasn’t charged tuition (although she was on her own to pay for food and housing in San Francisco).
She applied, got in and moved to San Francisco, sharing a hostel room with two other students from the school for $500 a month and living on her savings.
Another big break
The course work was grueling and engrossing. “I came in at 9 a.m. every day and left at 11 p.m. for the first nine months,” she said. It was hands on. Students learned by completing actual coding projects.
She loved it. “I would just work on those all day, everyday,” she said.
Her next break came when the school did mock job interviews to help students prepare.
A founder of a startup called Scality was friends with the school’s founders and agreed to conduct these fake interviews. But he grew so impressed with the students, that he hired two of them, including Korpar.
And she’s still working at that job today, making what she describes as “more than four times” the pay she made at Trader Joe’s.
She says that anyone with an interest can learn to code.
She warns that without deadlines, self study takes a pretty epic level of “personal dedication and motivation” she warns.
That’s why coding boot camps became so popular. Still, with their popularity came issues like low-quality experiences, low-graduation rates and low job placement rates. Even the bootcamp that bears Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s name has faced recent complaints, as CBS reported.
The bootcamp industry has tried to clean up its act a few times, such as the self-reporting Council on Integrity Results Reporting (CIRR). CIRR was to share self-reported graduation rates. But CIRR has yet to report on results from 2018.
Korpar advises students to find a school that doesn’t charge anything until the student lands a job, giving them skin in your success.
And, she says, for those that do go the self-study route, it’s best to focus on practical projects rather than computer theory lectures from universities like MIT.
Here are her top tips for learning to code to get a job:
Build a complete website from scratch. Some respected online schools that can take you from zero knowledge to informed for little-to-no money include CodeAcademy, Coursera,Udemy, Udacity and Treehouse.
Most cities have multiple meetups for programmers, too, where you can ask questions when you get stuck. There’s also online resources like StackOverflow.
Korpar says to create a GitHub profile, a site that hosts free programming projects, and get involved with open source projects there — those are software projects that are free to use, change, contribute to.
You can even “fork” a project, she says: meaning make a copy of it that you can alter as you wish, sharing it with others.
GitHub will become important when you apply for a job, too, she says. It’s how programmers check out each other’s work.
And most importantly, “Have an open mind and believe you can do it,” she says.