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From Elementary School Teacher to UI Developer

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

Meet James Billard! He realized he needed a change after seven years as an elementary school instructor. He studied in our nights & weekends track, and now works as a UI Developer at Indigo Slate. Read his advice, struggles, and ultimate triumph as he made a massive career change to pursue his goals. (From Code Fellows Blog)

James Billard who moved from elementary teacher to UX Designer

Hi James! Thanks for chatting with us today. You used Code Fellows to make a career pivot—what you were doing before the program, and what prompted your desire to change careers?

Hey Sarah, the pleasure is all mine! I was an elementary school teacher for seven years before studying at Code Fellows. While mentoring students to become their best academic and emotional selves is very rewarding, it is also very emotionally challenging. Most of the schools I taught in were in economically depressed areas. I had students who were homeless, who were being abused, who lost family members due to many different types of violence, who were suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, etc. I grew tired of the way governments were handling these sorts of cases and felt I needed a change for a while.

Right around the time I decided to apply to the program at Code Fellows, my wife and I were discussing having our first child. My wife was and currently still is a teacher. We both knew the potential challenges of raising a family on two teacher salaries. She has always been satisfied with her career and I was becoming burnt out. I have always been interested in tech and thought that becoming a developer could be something I could fall in love with. Spoiler alert, I did!

Since you’d been a teacher for so long, how was it being a student again?

After being a teacher for so long, being a student again was a breath of fresh air. I had a certain set of skills that I had acquired over my career that allowed me to be a much better student than what I had been in the past. I know my style of learning, strategies that allow me to attain more information over a short period of time, and how to be a successful part of a community of learners. These were a part of my keys to success.

How did you decide which programming language you wanted to study?

Initially, I wanted to study Python, but the Python classes were running during the daytime. Being that I was teaching during the day, this wasn’t going to work. Honestly, JavaScript was my plan B, but I am glad it worked out that way!

Tell us about learning to code in the Nights & Weekends track while working during the day. That sounds like a tough schedule!

Honestly, it was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, but very worth it! The emotional exhaustion came from being away from my friends and family. I missed vacations, some birthdays, a lot of my wife’s pregnancy, and many other important events.

The mental burnout was what got to me the most. I would wake up in the morning, plan my lessons for the day and then teach it. At the end of the school, I would grade classwork, help students with homework, call parents, go to meetings/training, and then complete my readings for Code Fellows. I would also try to finish assignments and write down questions I had to ask my instructor. Then it was time to learn in class! This took a lot of time management.

I did this for 4 months, so I think the reason for physical exhaustion is pretty obvious. If Code Fellows had not designed the pace of their Nights and Weekends track so well, I don’t think I would have been able to complete the program. I am definitely elated I did!

What did your job search look like?

In the beginning, I was very fortunate. I had made friends with another student who was working as an SDET for a company named Pavia Systems. Randomly, I messaged her on Slack and jokingly asked if there were any internships available. That conversation turned into an internship that lasted around five months.

Sadly, Pavia was not looking for a full-time dev at that time, so I started looking for work again. I found my first Web Development Engineer position at a small startup called Basemap through a “One Tap Apply” on ZipRecruiter within two weeks. There, I helped this company release their Web App (also named “Basemap”). In the weeks that followed, the company wasn’t making enough revenue to support my position. Last in, First out. I found myself laid off.

This was a huge blow as a few friends of mine already had been in positions for a while at this point. I couldn’t help but doubt my decision to change careers. Little did I know, it was about to get much more challenging.

I spent the next three months without a job. I had planned my days to a very specific schedule:

Nora (my daughter) with grandma (8 A.M. - 12 P.M.):

8:00 A.M.: Apply for jobs ~9:00 A.M.: Study new materials/languages 10:00 A.M.: Study data structures and algorithms 11:00 A.M.: Read articles on updates to various technologies I know 12:00 A.M.: Grandma goes home. With Nora until nap time

Nora’s afternoon nap - Update LinkedIn and work on a personal project until Nora wakes up Erica comes home - reach out to various connections

I also went to the Seattle Tech Fair and other meetups during this time. This actually got me a lot of interviews with many different companies—some well known, like Adobe and Placed, and other not so well known. I made it to many “final” rounds, but in the end got “You don’t quite have the experience we are looking for.”

To be honest, I was very discouraged. I even completed seven rounds with one startup to be told that they weren’t interested. I made the decision that if I did not get any offers before September, I would have to go back to teaching.

It was right around this time that I received emails from three companies for phone screens. I received two offers and, in the end, I chose Indigo Slate because the company culture really fit with what I was looking for.

That is quite the roller coaster as you started a new career. What motivated you throughout that process?

Lots of things motivated me throughout this process. I was writing posts on LinkedIn about my job search and interviews. I always tried to keep the tone positive, honest, and not get down on myself. I received a lot of support from the people who were reading my posts. I also received a few private messages about how my positivity was inspiring others to keep going. To keep myself moving forward, I would reread these messages in times when I was not so positive.

My wife and daughter were also big motivators. When Nora was born, my wife and I decided that she would work less so that she could be with my daughter more in the early years. I really wanted to stay true to this plan and in general, I really wanted to be the best father and husband I could be. I didn’t see “jobless James” as a way to fulfill this role.

All that hard work paid off! Can you tell us about your role at Indigo Slate?

The UI team at Indigo Slate is a part of the design department. Although my job title is “User Interface Developer,” I am involved in more than just app development. From early wireframes to app development, I am a part of almost everything to do with the actualization process. What is really fantastic is that all the projects I work on are “green field” marketing sites for companies like Microsoft, Boeing, Sony, and others. This normally involves awe-inspiring animations. Needless to say, “Creating awesome is in our blood!”

Your new job sounds like the perfect fit. What does a typical day look like?

This really depends if I am on a project and what stage the project is in. In the early stages of a project, I am in wireframe design meetings.

The development stage lasts anywhere from two weeks to two months, and it is very similar to Project Week at Code Fellows—with one difference: the dev team is usually smaller. On my last project, I was the only developer.

This is not to say that I was alone. I still had my UI team to ask questions and help manual test the app throughout the process, but the site architecture was up to me. I set up a Kanban board and create all the tasks and then it’s off to the races.

Every week during this time, I am also attending meetings to discuss progress. Around three of these meetings are internal Dev syncs and two of them are skype meetings with the client to keep them in the know.

Currently, I am not on a project. What is cool about Indigo Slate is that this time can be used for self-study. Since my next project doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, I am currently studying the view library, Vue.js. Also, my day involves afternoon team coffee runs to Starbucks!

You obviously learned a lot, both technically and how to stay positive during the hard parts of switching to a new career. Any advice for someone who is starting out in software development?

Don’t get discouraged when looking for your first “real” position, as this can take time. You’re probably going to see your peers receive job offers and you might not right away. This is totally fine and there is nothing wrong with you. You could—and probably will—hear the words “We are currently looking for someone with more experience.” I honestly feel like companies use this phrase to avoid talking about the real reason why they didn’t offer you the job.

But this intel on why you weren’t hired is exactly the insight you need to ace the next interview. Ask interviewers how you can improve. Most will be happy to share, and this information is invaluable to your job search (even if it can sting from time to time).

If someone was considering attending the coding academy, what would you tell them?

Learning to program is challenging. Stacked learning is challenging. Put them together and things can be, well, very challenging! Don’t get discouraged. Instead, first realize that all learning takes time. Then, create a support system amongst your classmates, TAs, instructors, and generally anyone around Code Fellows. From what I’ve seen so far in my new career, you are never truly alone on a project. When you need it, use the people around you for help. When you don’t need it, offer someone your help!

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