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From History Graduate to Happy Programmer

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Andrea is an Escape member who works for Front Digital as a full-stack developer and project manager.  She changed careers from being an historian and a marketer, after taking General Assembly’s Web Development Immersive course.  She’s now kicking ass and taking names as a programmer!  

Three years ago, I graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ and decided to take the plunge and move to the big city – not New York, but all the way across the pond to London. It was a big step but one that I was sure would open up tons of new opportunities.

The year was 2010 and unfortunately, employment for young grads was grim. Jobs were sparse, especially for an English and History double-major, despite my 4.0 GPA. After a difficult job hunt, I finally got an interview with Groupon in their “young entrepreneur” program, which sounded super exciting. I was ecstatic and began my role in the marketing department as a Marketing Executive. Unfortunately, I soon realised that my role was nothing like I thought it would be.

The responsibilities were little more than cold-calling websites and existing clients to ask if we could slap banners on their site to increase our cost-per-click conversions. I worked my way through the same spreadsheet of about 1000 contacts day in and out, working to a script. It was mind-numbingly dull and on top of all of that, the pay was so poor that I quickly realised I was actually being paid less than minimum wage. Though this was increased after complaining, I realised I needed to move on as quickly as possible.

Getting Schooled

As most English and History majors do with few job prospects on the horizon, I resorted to the only alternative course of action to employment: further education. I applied to Oxford and Cambridge to do my master’s degree in the History of Science (I admit, I didn’t really think about how many jobs were out there for this specialty at the time) and wound up choosing Clare College at Cambridge.

As an American obsessed with the past (and Harry Potter), Cambridge was everything I had hoped it would be and I adored my time there. The course was brilliant, my college was gorgeous, and it ought to have been, considering I was paying overseas fees. But when I completed the course, I inevitably found myself in the same predicament of having all the wrong skills for the working world. I was lucky enough to land myself some, originally unpaid, work experience at English Heritage, which I rapidly turned into a paid consulting job. I was a Historical Research Consultant for the Property Historian’s team, and although I worked for pennies, the work was absolutely incredible.

My first project involved working on Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s seaside resort in the Isle of Wight, that involved lots of archive visits to the British Library and most incredibly, to the Royal Tower at Windsor Castle where I was lucky enough to read Royal diaries and journals, peruse the Royal family photo albums and get unprecedented access to the children’s truly stunning artwork. My second project there was for the upcoming Nursery Exhibit at Audley End House, which also involved a ton of archival research, only this time at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, a lovely facility, though less glamorous than Windsor Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how lucky I was to be able to do this type of work. But when I say I was working for pennies, I do not exaggerate. English Heritage is a fantastic institution, but it is no secret that they, like many heritage organisations, are strapped for cash. When February rolled around, there were promises of a book deal and future projects, but no money could possibly be coming in for at least a few more months. I had to accept it, my time as a historian was seeing an early demise. I applied for over 40 jobs in the museums and heritage industry, and even applied and was accepted to UCL’s Museum Studies graduate program. However, over three months I had a measly three interviews and I could not afford, nor should I really be doing, a second masters. I even considered running away to one of those islands ESC advertises every now and then to become a caretaker. I was beyond frustrated and I desperately needed a change.

General Assembly

I found out about General Assembly in a roundabout way. I came across an article talking about these new short-burst programming courses in California, more specifically Dev Bootcamp, and I got so excited about the idea of it that I spent the rest of my day making my application video and filling out forms. I was actually ready to move to San Francisco for the summer just to do their course, with no plan of how to pay for it. It was only after thinking about the costs that I decided to look for something here in London, and I quickly stumbled across General Assembly, a tiny little coding school based in Clerkenwell. I filled out an application and was soon after called by Kali, their head of admissions, and asked a number of funny little questions like “How many pizzas are delivered in NYC every week?”, one of their “let’s see how you think” questions.

By the end of the conversation, Kali decided that I was good fit for the program and asked me to come in to see the school and meet the staff. Having never heard of the school and having no background in tech at all, I was actually afraid to go in and never did. I did a few walk-bys of the building in which they were based, which was down an odd little side street and covered in scaffolding. Yet somehow, against all my fears of my own inabilities and my suspicions of the legitimacy of this institution that did not offer any kind of educational certifications, I for some reason signed up for the course and resigned to dedicating my entire summer to learning how to become a web developer.

Before embarking on the course, I was sent a bunch of emails from our course producer, Gordon, asking us to do a number of tasks such as upgrading our computers, downloading software, and completing some pre-course work. I diligently did almost all that was asked (there was a lot), and while excited about what I was learning, I was even more terrified at how little I knew about programming, and even just the internet in general. I was so nervous that the day before “Installfest”, our first day of the class, I nearly backed out completely. Thanks to some supportive words from friends and family however, I showed up for the course. In retrospect, I can honestly say that was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The General Assembly Web Development Immersive course (WDI) is intense. We were in class from 9-5 every weekday, spending mornings doing code-alongs with our truly brilliant instructors (not just great developers but also great teachers), lab exercises on our own or in pairs in the afternoons, followed by homework of what we learned that day, in addition to weekend projects. It is so full on, we essentially had to surrender our social lives outside of the course for the duration of the 12 weeks. However, it is anything but anti-social. Spending all day, every day with 20 or so people is not just intense, it’s actually really great fun, and we all became incredibly close whether we wanted to or not. The course is emotional, in that every single day your code will break, you will fail, you will get frustrated, but you will also help someone, someone will help you, and you will experience the elation of fixing your problems and getting working code, a thrill I seriously can’t even put into words.

The Hiring Process

After our last week of class we were given a week off to regroup and get our CVs in order and then the final stage began: getting jobs. General Assembly organised a “Meet & Greet” hiring event that functioned something like a science fair, where we all showcased the work we had done. Our class was only the second one ever to be run in London and General Assembly was still a burgeoning name in the UK. Yet they managed to get about 40 employers to sign up for the event and over half of these attended. In a room with only 10 other job-seekers, I actually had people queuing to speak with me! Apparently the number of employers attending more recent “Meet & Greet”s are now at least three times the amount at ours.

In the week following, I had scheduled over ten interviews, some of which I wound up cancelling, as within two weeks I had four offers of employment.

A New Career

I am 6 months out and I now work for a small digital agency called Front Digital as a full-stack web developer, and as of late, also as a project manager. I mainly develop in Ruby on Rails, Javascript, jQuery, HTML5 and CSS3. We are currently building an awesome google-maps based website for a large UK football charity and I just recently returned from a client visit to their headquarters in Ghana. My typical day involves writing code, problem solving, sketching out logic, sifting through Trello planning boards, pair programming with one of my best friends, a fellow graduate from my course, and generally building awesome stuff, all because I took a chance on what was back then, a new little alternative education school in Clerkenwell.

While I really did “escape the city” back when I left my mindless affiliate marketing role over three years ago, I have still been stuck in the unemployment cycle for far too long. I was sick of constantly consuming, I was sick of being paid nothing, and I was sick of anti-social jobs and being in an industry that had an unpromising future. After completing General Assembly’s course I can honestly say that I am happy in my work, not just at my company but also in the general aspects of what I do everyday, creating, innovating and producing. It is far more fulfilling, financially rewarding, and frankly more stimulating than any other career I could have hoped for.

Andrea Kennedy lives in Islington, London and works as a web developer at Front Digital in Shoreditch. You can read more about her experience at General Assembly on her blog at http://therakishradish.wordpress.com

  • Rob Symington

    Amazing post. Thanks so much for sharing with us. Serious props for getting your head around code (from a history grad who never has – yet!).

  • mikeyhowe

    Congrats, an inspiring change of direction!

  • Liz E

    I am so jealous, I really want to learn to program!

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