Bootcamp Corner with Garland Riley Jr

Garland Riley Jr is an incoming Telegraph Academy (TGA) student, training to become a software engineer. He talks about moving from Georgia, learning to code, and diversity in tech.

Bootcamp Corner with WeFinance is a regular series that looks at coding bootcamp students, their experience, and the lessons they’ve learned.

Garland is crowdfunding a loan to cover his TGA expenses. You can see his campaign here.

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You mentioned that you were originally from Georgia. How has the transition been to the Bay Area?

I moved from Georgia to the Bay Area a little over a year ago. The area I’m from is pretty rural growing up, so I’ve never been around this many people in my life. I actually used to get anxiety on BART because I hadn’t been around so many people before. You adapt pretty quickly though.

It’s interesting since people are fundamentally the same wherever you go. They’re just looking to take care of their family and to have fun with their friends.

You mentioned that you came out here because your friend who went through Hack Reactor reached out. Can you walk us through that?

I was actually thinking about joining the Air Force before he called me. I thought it would make sense since I was good at math and science but didn’t enjoy the repetitive structure of traditional education.

One of my friends from college, Mehul Patel messaged me on Facebook, asking if I wanted to come out to San Francisco to learn programming. The timing and opportunity was right.

Programming was something that was interesting to me since I always liked solving puzzles as a kid. It just felt right.

What resources were helpful while you were learning to code on your own?

Eloquent JavaScript was the bible when I was learning to code on my own. It taught me that I can’t read everything like a novel and re-trained the way I think about the composition of words. It was the first time I had to re-read things to gain a real understanding.

Most of us are used to reading something, absorbing it, dumping it on a test and forgetting about it. When you’re learning to code, I would recommend that you read a section at a time and try to re-explain everything you’ve learned to someone (even if you’re really talking to yourself). When you can say things in your own words, that’s when you have a fundamental understanding of the topic.

What’s been your experience learning to code?

I relish a mental challenge and, for me, there’s nothing that makes me happier than solving a problem. You know that feeling when you spend hours trying to solve something and you have that eureka moment? That 30 seconds of euphoria is worth the struggle.

When did you move from self-study to a more structured program?

I got a scholarship to go to the TGA Prep+ program and it lit a fire under me. I got through prep and knew I didn’t want to stop there.

I’m continuing with TGA because I really like the ethos of the school. I realize that as a person of color, that I’m extremely underrepresented in tech. That’s a big issue that TGA was made to address.

I feel like I wanted to be part of the change and TGA seemed like the right place.

What’s been the most challenging thing about learning to code in the past year?

The most difficult thing about learning to code is adjusting to failure. Coding is about failure. It’s about finding all the wrong ways to do something first.

I spent more time trying to figure out why something didn’t work than I did trying to make it work. Being wrong — and being ok with being wrong — is really hard and not for everyone. You have to be have a lot of perseverance to be a good programmer.

Being a programmer is like being a writer. You can be very precious about your book but that’s not good if you’re still trying to improve. It can be intimate when someone reads your code and if they point out that something is wrong, it can easily hurt your feelings.

You have to be ok with failure and preserve past the difficulties.

Was it difficult to get into the “developer mindset”?

I think the “developer mindset” is an overhyped concept. People give too much credit to people who are good at programming. It’s like anything else where you have to put the time in — you have to want to be good at it. I honestly think that anyone can code and be a developer if they put their mind to it and put in the effort.

Anyone can “think like a developer” since it’s basically just thinking in steps and thinking critically. I think you have to take the time to want to do it and have good instruction is paramount.

What are you hoping to get out of TGA other than education and the network?

I want to work on interesting products that help people at a great company.

I didn’t really have a passion until I found coding. I really love what I do everyday. I’ve already found good friends and great instruction from TGA. I just want to be able to apply my abilities at a company I’m interested in.

Are you more interested in front-end or back-end? What type of product?

I have an affinity for front-end but I full-stack very interesting. I like products like Braintree Payments since I think products that combine code and economics extremely interesting.

What tips would you give to someone looking to learn to code?

Learn JavaScript and take it seriously. If you’re looking to make a career change, you have to treat learning to code like a job. It’s not a hobby, it’s what you do now.

How do you think we can solve some of the issues related to diversity in tech?

I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of visibility in these underrepresented communities.

I never considered software engineering as a path since I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me do it before — no one in small town rural Georgia fit this profile growing up. In the black community, most of the successful people you see are in sports, music, or television. People assume that entertainment is the only path.

I think visibility is the most important thing; we need to see more woman and people of color doing it so that others can know that it’s possible.

There was a physicist called Hakeem Oluseyi from Mississippi. He has an amazing story about growing up in a poor rural area. Even though he was very interested in physics and concepts, he didn’t know that it was a possible career path. If there was greater visibility, he might have been a physicist sooner.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?

I would move sooner. I’ve grown so much as a person just by leaving Georgia. I love my home state and I want to eventually go back and contribute to the community, but it’s hard to know the scope of humanity if you don’t experience new things.

When are you hoping to move back to Georgia?

I only want to stay in California for 5-10 years. My heart’s in Georgia and the south. I want to bring what I’ve learned home and help others.