Why won’t my code run?
Maybe I’d forgotten to put the semicolon after the closing parenthesis. Or maybe I had done that, but the semicolon should be after the right brace instead. Or maybe I had neglected to store the output so the code could run the function. Or maybe I had omitted the line of code that called the function and told it to run.
Who knew? Not me.
I was in the fifth week of a coding boot camp, a new kind of school that was unknown just a few years ago. Now, intensive courses on front-end web development are a $260 million industry from which 23,000 developers were expected to graduate in 2017, according to Course Report, which reports on such schools. Course Report lists six schools in Cleveland, including local heavy hitters such as Tech Elevator and We Can Code IT. Mine was a newer school, the inaugural class of the Full Stack Web Development Coding Boot Camp run by the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program of Case Western Reserve University.
The camp unabashedly trades on the university’s reputation as an engineering and research powerhouse, says Brian Amkraut, who heads the learning program. A “robust” demand from potential employers and students convinced Case to launch its program.
Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts web developer jobs will grow by 15 percent between 2016 and 2026. The median pay will hover at $32 per hour. In Ohio, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts a 26 percent increase in web developer jobs by 2024.
“The reason we launched aggressively in the web development area is a sense there’s a market for it,” Amkraut says. “The labor market data shows in the Cleveland area, there are still many jobs looking for people with [web development] skills.”
The allure of boot camps rests on their promise. In less than a year, students can gain skills leading to good-paying, steady work. The message isn’t always explicit, but it’s clear: Learn the right trade and you won’t be looking sideways at your bank account.
It’s a guarantee dangled in front of a range of displaced workers: folks who knew vehicles from the inside out, because they’d made them; reporters, like me, who were experts because they covered a beat for years or even seasoned white-collar workers whose industries are rapidly changing.
The guarantee offers a shining hope that we workers will remain vital and moored, instead of lost, when disruption comes for our professions. But that retraining, framed as salvation, ignores an emotional cost. Expertise, amassed over time, makes you feel capable and valued. It builds self-esteem. In Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland, our new economy seems to value the opposite kind of skill set. Now everyone must be a jack-or-jill-of-all-trades, but have time to master none.
I have lived that experience. Just more than a decade ago, in my late 40s, I left newspapers for academia. It was the first of many small reinventions during my midlife crisis. I got a job at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, near Columbus.
Ironically, I put the cart ahead of the horse. I had promised to teach my students to build websites. But first, I had to learn myself. So I took courses the prior summer and taught during the fall.
I took more classes after I left teaching to stay current. I built a resume and pitched myself to a local agency. For six years, I worked long-term temporary assignments as a “content migration specialist.” The fancy title decorated a mundane job. For eight hours, I copied content from a website and pasted it onto a new one. I resized photos and graphics and coded text so it flowed correctly. I clicked hyperlinks to ensure they linked to the right pages.
It was tedious work with great benefits. One year, my office was my downstairs bedroom. My hours were from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Or later. Or earlier. It didn’t matter, as long as the work got done. It paid $19 to $25 an hour, not bad for a job that anyone could do with a rudimentary knowledge of coding.
It was perfect for my other gig as a musician, flexible enough to accommodate rehearsals and pop-up gigs. But as the websites changed, my skills became outdated. I didn’t want to code full time. Yet I knew I couldn’t continue to get contract assignments unless I updated my skills.
I had it all figured out. On April 16, 2017, I walked into a bare classroom on Case’s campus. It would be my home on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings, from spring until fall. Graduation was set for Oct. 7, the day after my birthday. For once, I would have something to celebrate besides maturity and wisdom.
Tech likes to tout its innovative workspaces, but this class wasn’t built for comfort. There was no fridge of seltzer water, no padded chairs, no ergonomic desks. The instructor lectured in front of a smart board. Students slumped in narrow chairs with fold-down desks. It took me back to my freshman year in 1971.
I was building from the ground up.
I couldn’t transfer much from my previous lifetime of experience into the coding I was studying now. I knew how to write for humans, not for computers. I could craft a coherent sentence, but not a command. It made me question my value. What good was I if I couldn’t figure out the difference between a variable and a function? How could I function if I couldn’t keep up?
I needed to reinforce the fundamentals while building on them, simultaneously. But the boot camp kept a dogged pace. So I persevered, taking advantage of help from a tutor to finish respectably. On graduation day I got my certificate and a surprise birthday cake. The student coordinator slipped me a card: “She believed she could, so she did.”
It didn’t click for me as a student, but it did as I was teaching music at a local charter school, the job that paid the bills while I attended boot camp. My students were hunched over their Chromebooks, learning to program an online drum machine. I had downloaded one of their files, expecting to run it on a media player.
Instead the computer spit out a text file, brackets of zeros and ones. “Oh,” I said to myself. “It’s an array. It’s JSON.”
“This is the code that runs the app,” I said. “We can create a new pattern. All we have to do is switch some zeros and ones.”