Chasing Dreams During a Pandemic

Where it all began, how/why I decided to change careers during a global crisis, and where I am today

Gabriel Hicks

January 19, 2021 - 15 min read

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A photo of me in front of the family desktop computer in 2006, likely playing RuneScape

A photo of me in front of the family desktop computer in 2006, likely playing RuneScape

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My motivation and origin story

First, let me introduce myself. I am who I am today because I grew up alongside the modern web. At the age of 7, my life dramatically changed when visiting one of my favorite gaming websites, Miniclip. I saw a new advertisement at the top that read RuneScape. It was in this moment that I knew I would inevitably grow up to become a software engineer.

Although I wasn’t great at the game, I was enamored by the yellow floating text and the friends I had made on the other side of the screen. I convinced many of my friends to play if they weren’t already, and stayed connected with some through the game when they would move away or change schools.

I owe much to RuneScape, it is where I learned how to type, and how to read and write leetspeak. For many years it was a central part of my online identity. As the game’s developers improved their skill, the 2.5D graphics became lackluster in comparison to other games, and in short time they released an "improved" iteration of the game. I vowed to never abandon the home I had made on RuneScape Classic.

Through cheating communities and private server forums, I found a solution to my problem, in order to play the game I loved, I needed to learn something deeper about computers and computer programming. I made a new host of friends in these niche chatrooms and as a community, manage to keep the game we grew up with alive to this day.

Essentially, a small collective of developers devoted countless hours rebuilding, maintaining, and updating a game that was intended to die in 2003. Not only did they reverse engineer the game, the forums were filled with ample documentation, and open source files. It was through these years of my life I wrote my first scripts, first traversed codebase, and hosted my own game servers that I could play on with old friends and to show proudly to my family.

I fancied myself a "hacker-man" and "tech guru" for most of my adolescence. I was the go-to person for my brothers and their friends when they needed computers fixed, promotional videos edited, or information they themselves had trouble sniffing out on Google. I saw my love and passion for all things internet as a part of me, and my identity.

Through high school and into college I kept my hobby with computer engineering close, but chose to start traversing a path in business school.

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What happened: Winter 2019–2020

My lovely fiancé Emily and I after a Valentine’s Day date

My lovely fiancé Emily and I after a Valentine’s Day date

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Fast-forward to the winter of 2019, I found myself as an electrician working very long days in the frozen tundra of Iowa. My fiancé, Emily, had applied and was beginning to hear back from graduate school programs and we were envisioning a future together away from both of our homes. We talked intensely about how far we may be moving away, what that would look like, our dreams, passions, and goals in life.

As Emily worked hard through interviews, and inevitably decided to pursue a program in New York City, we sought advice from anyone willing to give it. After countless heart-to-heart’s, soul searching, and guidance from people we trusted, we knew this was the time and opportunity to pursue our dreams together in a new place. I liked the work that I had been doing, but I had a sudden moment of clarity, perhaps a quarter life crisis, and poured my heart out to my partner about my dream to become a software engineer.

Fortunately for me, I had a small host of resources to question about this goal of mine and how to navigate it. My brother is a senior software engineer, my best friend a SCRUM master, and my cousin co-founded freeCodeCamp — to say the very least I had a great support system. Both my and Emily’s families were incredibly supportive and excited for both of us in our new adventure. I considered the many steps that I may need to take in order to be successful in the City that Never Sleeps.

I planned to find or develop a structured learning path. I wanted to find a way to make new friends, and I wanted a network of people that I could plug into to become a part of the industry. For all of these reasons and by the recommendation of my support system, I came to the conclusion that attending a coding bootcamp could help me reach my goal in a meaningful and structured way.

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If you are anything like me, you may currently be reading your second or third blog post, cross examining content in search of the truth on coding bootcamps, or how to change careers. You may be researching a couple months before applying, or you may have recently applied and are seeking positive affirmations. Whatever the case, you have found good company here, as this is exactly where I was one year ago.

I began my search and preparation in my normal fashion, I started Googling. I found any and every shred of information on how to learn how to code and coding bootcamps, and comparing each resource against the next to distill what I consider a generally suggested path. I also utilized the resources I had built in with friends and family. This research and development helped me formulate the following plan:

  1. Start freeCodeCamp’s web development and JS certification courses
  2. Enroll in and begin work with Harvard’s CS-50 course
  3. Seek out and rank my top choices for in-person coding bootcamps
  4. Enroll and start each bootcamp prep course, at least finishing one
  5. Apply, interview, and be accepted into a program by July 4th

I will include an exhaustive list at the end of content creators and other various resources and media that heavily influence this plan of attack.

The first two weeks of the new year, I was off to the races with freeCodeCamp. I was working out of town and staying in a hotel, the only thoughts on my mind each 11+ hour day, was how I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and start working on HTML and CSS. I worked hard during the day, and even harder at night to push through and successfully complete the first test I set up for myself.

Next, I simultaneously, and in an unorganized fashion, began freeCodeCamp’s JavaScript certificate, as well as App Academy, Flatiron School, and Galvanize’s bootcamp prep programs. I managed to make it through every resource up to, and through the introduction of objects. Each curriculum and coursework walked through basic data types, looping, conditionals, and I found myself lost when comparing each program’s explanation and teaching style of objects.

Then COVID began…

At the onset of COVID, and continuously through my progress I had been emailing admissions from each coding bootcamp listed above, seeking advice and resources how to best move forward. I also continued consuming YouTube content, reading Reddit, and reading any daily reviews that had been posted on the top coding bootcamp boards. It was my lovely fiancé who helped me make a decision to finally see one of these preparatory programs out to the end. I paid for the App Academy bootcamp prep course, and symbolically planted my stake in my new future as a software engineer.

After putting my money where my mouth was, I continued completing a majority of Flatiron’s bootcamp prep, and working through the freeCodeCamp JavaScript materials. For financial and professional reasons, work conflicted with my studies during the months of April and May. COVID was now a thing so naturally Emily and I cancelled our lease and moved into my parents basement. Through the end of May and June I helped my parents finish their basement, adding a living room and bathroom, and worked as much as I could on research and coding problems.

I set a goal to be accepted into a program by July, was moving across the country in August, so June 1st I diligently worked through the a/A bootcamp prep. I applied and interviewed with Flatiron, App Academy, and Hack Reactor. My decision in the end was based upon a few criteria:

  1. Immersive Program
  2. Alumni Network
  3. Onboarding / Interviewing
  4. Process
  5. Bootcamp Culture

On June 30th, I had a technical interview with Gracie from Flatiron, and by July 9th I was officially enrolled in the Flatiron School Software Engineering program!

Additional contributing factors to why I chose Flatiron included the overwhelming and supportive communal feeling I received while onboarding with Maryssa and Gracie. I also learned and loved "Feelings Fridays" which made it a no-brainer for me, as I am an expressive and transparent person. I am unaware if/what support systems exist at the other bootcamps since I did not personally attend them.

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A photo of my family mostly because I miss them, the last time we were all together!

A photo of my family mostly because I miss them, the last time we were all together!

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The move, and starting Flatiron School

Emily and I moved to New York City with the help of her parents in late July. I brought one bag of luggage and a backpack, we didn’t have furniture and hadn’t seen the apartment in which we would be living. For me, this experience was wonderfully simple, it was not easy, but the nature of the move and the status of the world in that moment made it very simple to drop everything and start fresh in a new place.

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My one bag of luggage with masks and all of the clothing I have today!

My one bag of luggage with masks and all of the clothing I have today!

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When you are officially admitted into the Flatiron School, you will in short order receive access to their online platform, and a mandatory pre-work section that should be completed before day 1. Since I did almost all of my bootcamp prep courses in JavaScript I felt I had some catching up to do in Ruby. In a little more than two weeks I had worked through all of the material provided and was set to start with my cohort on August 24th.

Most of us had all prepared for the world to reopen, and to return to campus in September. The night before our start date, we received notice that the entirety of our bootcamp would be online. If it hadn’t been for the pleasant onboarding experience, and a previous interaction with a cohort-mate, I would have considered postponing my course until I could attend in person. With the confidence of having at least one friend in class, he and I hopped on a Zoom call to simulate the intended experience of being at a table together on day 1.

As a cohort we had several ice breaker sessions to get to know each other which was very nice. I took it upon myself to begin reaching out to a couple more students I had interacted with, and struck up conversations. I made strong friendships early on that helped me open up and ask for help, as well as have people to confide in when I felt off. Slowly but surely as we progressed through the course, our cohort grew into a real family. We made a Slack for all of us to chat off the record, and have supported each other the whole way.

As the bootcamp carried on through it’s 5 iterations of 3 week sprints, I developed some personal goals:

  1. To pass each module
  2. Make real friendships and bonds
  3. Deploy and host each project
  4. Find ways to help others like me

Before committing to any bootcamp, I studied and compared things like job placement and attrition rates. I fought and continue to fight everyday against the constant feeling that I am an imposter. I had taken notes and made plans for what I could do after failing two modules to recoup my investment and still be able to chase my dream. With ample help from new friends, coaches, and instructors, I was successful in meeting my first three goals, and will pursue the fourth goal throughout my lifetime.

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A group of us were able and willing to meet at Central Park for the first, and only time since Flatiron started!

A group of us were able and willing to meet at Central Park for the first, and only time since Flatiron started!

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Final Project

After completing my fourth and final coding challenge, and presenting my final project with an amazing parter, I had developed some level of confidence in my ability. The fear and anxiety of the final module, as well as being admitting into the career services portion of the program however, was unmatched. I determined to follow through my last section of bootcamp on the same strict schedule I had previously. I woke up before 7, showered, ate, and was on my computer by 9.

I had heard of a place called tutorial purgatory, also known as tutorial hell. I decided to develop a platform that attempted to combine the things I felt were essential in my success this far and called it [Tutorial Heaven]( The concept was to create a web forum/real-time chat application that allowed users to post user stories and project ideas in which to collaborate on. Making friends, reaching out, countless nights of long zoom calls were the things that made my experience so overwhelmingly rewarding and I sought a way to tell the world of new developers that.

I had a very simple MVP for the first week, and dove head first into integrating fun animations, custom artwork, and mobile responsiveness into my project. In 12 weeks I had truly developed some fundamental technical competence, and got to demonstrate that. I also had career services meetings each week following our introduction and was on a sure path to completing that course.

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Post bootcamp — Now

I wrote a blog last week that details some of what my life is like today:

Networking After Coding Bootcamp

After graduating coding bootcamp, I have now embarked the part of my story where I actualize my dream. I am currently working with a local mental health startup called Whimser as a software engineering intern, and I have successfully pushed original code that I have written intro production. Whimser should be making a debut soon, I have been working on both the Next.js web application and the React Native mobile application both have been extremely validating.

I have also been able to start a side project with my two best friends, one who is a SCRUM master, and one who is just beginning to learn React with a vanilla JavaScript background. Having the experience of teaching someone what I have learned this far in a team environment, and to be learning from more senior engineers in a more professional environment affirms that I have made the right decision to change my career.

It has not been very long since graduation, and I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work within real engineering teams. My part in this internship is to assist bringing the product to MVP, and it is not a long term position. I am actively seeking a more permanent, full-time position as a software engineer.

Since beginning to pursue this dream, I have overcome many obstacles and road blocks, and would love to talk more at length about those if someone is interested in my experience. Having come as far as I have, and with the overwhelming support I have backing me, I have no doubt that I will, in good time, achieve my goal of being a full-time employed software engineer.

If you have made it this far, thank you, I am always open to meeting new people, working with new technologies, and helping wherever I can be useful.