Why A Mom From Nebraska Left Home To Join S.F. Coding Boot Camp

By Kristen V. Brown
San Francisco Chronicle.

When Ginny Martin decided to leave behind her family and enroll in a 19-week coding boot camp in San Francisco, she expected her new classmates would regard her with curiosity, if not prejudice.

If the prototypical computer programmer looks something like a hoodie-clad Mark Zuckerberg, then Martin looks something like that programmer’s mother.

Martin is 47, a married mom of three from Lincoln, Neb. Every hair in her blonde bob is always perfectly placed, as if she were a congresswoman or talk show host for whom being meticulously styled is a professional prerequisite. She’s the kind of person who usually has a spare healthy snack to offer anyone who looks a little drained.

At Dev Bootcamp, the coding school, Martin was an obvious deviation from the norm. The school pretty much mirrors the rest of the tech world — more than 90 percent of students are under 35 and two-thirds are male.

“I realize I’m not the typical code camp student,” she wrote in an application essay to the school. “I’m a woman in my mid-forties, and coding has been the domain of young men.”

This, she told an admissions interviewer, could actually be a good thing. During a technical interview conducted over Skype, she was asked, among other things, to quickly calculate which numbers could be put onto two six-sided dice to represent every day of the month. Martin was sure she flopped. Still, she told the arbiters of her fate, both her gender and maturity could make up for what she lacked in technical know-how.

But being a statistical anomaly also made her extremely nervous.

The night before she started the most intense part of the program — nine weeks of classes at Dev Bootcamp’s San Francisco headquarters — Martin hardly slept. Would people notice how old she was? Would they think she couldn’t hack it, since she didn’t grow up on iPhones and Facebook?

“I hadn’t felt like this since the first day of middle school,” Martin said.

She had chided friends who told her they could never do something like learn how to code. But deep down, she wasn’t totally sure she could, either.

The boot camp
Dev Bootcamp’s South of Market site looks like the offices of startups where most of its graduates hope to land their first jobs.

Rows of open-plan desks are temporary homes to the school’s 90 or so students, while instructors zip around on AirWheel electric unicycles. During lectures, students sit in beanbag chairs or sprawl on the floor — on Tuesdays, they do so wearing neon tutus.
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Among the school’s amenities are a nap room, a yoga area and several copies of the board game Settlers of Catan. There is also an awful lot of green shag carpet.

The camp likes to think of itself as a necessary antidote to a tech culture dominated by white men. It offers partial scholarships for its more than $12,000 tuition both to women and minorities underrepresented in tech. It has a written set of values surrounding diversity. In its lessons, the school emphasizes feelings, thoughtfulness and above all, empathy.

The school does not, however, offer any particular enticements for older students, even though they, too, are an underrepresented minority in tech. A 2013 PayScale survey of 32 tech companies found that just six had a median age greater than 35. The average age of a Silicon Valley business founder is just over 31, according to the Harvard Business Review. The average age of CEOs and presidents is 42.

Ageism, it seems, is a Silicon Valley institution impossible to disrupt — even when you’re trying.

Martin, though, does not shy from a challenge. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. Her first job out of college was at Kawasaki in Japan, crunching forecast numbers for the company’s motorcycle and Jet Ski division, back then a job typically held by men.

After receiving an MBA from American University in Washington, Martin wound up as a vice president at Nebraska Global, a venture capital firm that invests in software companies. There, she backed startups focused on health care. She also became enamored with the engineering world. At one point she moved her desk to sit among the firm’s engineers. She wanted a better sense of what they did.

Martin and her husband, David, a news producer for Al Jazeera America, had moved back to her hometown to raise their kids somewhere that had good schools and a low cost of living. But with her kids nearing college age, Martin was ready for something much bigger — she wanted to build the kinds of products that would change the world, and, as she put it in her Dev Bootcamp application, “improve the human condition.”

In Nebraska, that wasn’t going to happen.

Making an impact
So Martin went looking for a job somewhere she might be able to make such an impact. She scored an introduction to a major Sand Hill Road venture capital firm that was looking to hire someone to help with business acceleration. But the firm’s response sounded like some kind of online error message: her “domain expertise was out of network.” In other words: she wasn’t qualified because she had never rolled with the big guys in Silicon Valley.

A big tech company turned her down, too. Candidates for business strategy roles had everything she had on their resumes, the company said, but also the ability to code.

As Martin saw it, the corporate ladder she had been ascending for so long was missing some rungs. To get any higher, she would need to learn to code.

Leaving her family would be hard. Somehow she’d have to balance mom duties like approving prom dress budgets and keeping track of dental appointments while coding for 15 hours a day. But, she wagered, it would be worth it.

When Martin mentioned coding school to her husband, he wasn’t all that surprised.

A few years ago, when she and her sister decided to become better swimmers, they found motivation by training for one of the toughest open water swims in the U.S., Alcatraz to Pier 39.

“Ginny is someone who jumps into deep end of the pool,” he said.

Tough start
Dev Bootcamp is hard.

In what’s dubbed Phase Zero, nine weeks of coursework completed from home, students spend a few hours a day getting introduced to basic coding concepts. But during the nine grueling weeks that follow in the school’s classrooms in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, students are expected to master enough to be able to hack it in any entry-level programming job after graduation. They learn the programming languages of Ruby, SQL, Javascript, HTML and CSS, curriculum that otherwise might take a few semesters of computer science class in college. Sometimes students are required to learn entire languages in just a day or two.

At the end of each phase of the program, students are given the option to repeat it for free — and usually, in every phase, a few students do.

Class starts at 9 a.m and is out by 5 p.m., but Dev Bootcamp estimates that most students spend up to 80 hours a week on school. Even on weekends, the office is bustling at most hours of the day.

On most days, Martin got to the “office” by 7 a.m. and stayed until 8 p.m. or later. She rented what was advertised on Airbnb as a “charming eclectic” bedroom in a SoMa apartment, whose occupants lived a “bohemian lifestyle,” because it was just a few blocks away and she wanted to maximize her coding time.

When she worked at Nebraska Global, Martin had been amazed by how the engineers could code for 10 hours straight, inhaling junk food and guzzling soda without ever stopping for a break. Now she totally got it.

“Once you get into a problem and you start coding, you get way into it. Taking a break means another 20 minutes to get back into it,” Martin said after her first week in San Francisco.

She wanted to approach DBC (as the students call it) the hacker way — no breaks, just code.

But toward the end of her first week, she had a meltdown. On top of her normal assignments, she was attempting to skim 1,000 lines of code a day and look at 1,000 pages of other reading per week on her instructor’s recommendation. She wasn’t sleeping enough. Then late one day she and a classmate decided to take on a bonus challenge: writing what’s known as a merge sort algorithm using the programming language Ruby. Martin got stuck. When she asked for help, her instructor just shook his head at her approach.

“I cried.” she said. “I was like I have to get outside.”

Dev Bootcamp keeps two therapists on staff and requires students in Phase One to do yoga at least twice a week to help manage stress. There’s also mandatory group therapy, at which students are forced to open up about insecurities. The camp calls this “engineering empathy” — it’s a central tenet of the school’s teachings and inspires cultlike devotion among students.

But even with yoga and group therapy, Martin said, students could take only so much of “the pressure cooker.” Sometimes people cried. Eventually, Martin realized that she probably couldn’t finish everything while also maintaining her health and sanity.

After her breakdown, Martin said, “I promised myself I (would) walk outside once a day.” She started carrying running gear everywhere, in case she had a spare 20 minutes to dash up to the top of Coit Tower and back down for some exercise. To keep her energy up and time spent eating down, she bought a blender and subsisted on smoothies of spinach, almond milk, cashew butter, whey, bananas and berries. (At one point, she considered trying Silicon Valley’s favorite meal-replacement sludge, Soylent, but that seemed to be taking things a little too far.)

After a few weeks of class, she started dreaming in code.

But she still felt as if she didn’t belong.

Her classmates seemed hesitant to swear around her. Sometimes they would shoot her an apologetic look when they did.

One Friday night, she was at school when another student pulled out a beer — contraband at DBC (it may look like a startup, but it is a school, after all).

“He turns around and he sees me, and he acted like I caught him or something,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not your mother.’ And he said, ‘But I wish you were!'”

Some mysteries
And she didn’t quite get all the references made in class, often to video games like “Zelda.”

Outfitted in sparkly earrings and sensible flats, Martin sometimes felt like a tourist in a land of hoodies and Tutu Tuesdays.

“People seem to be pretty proud of their T-shirts,” she reported one day. “And there is this guy that wears this hat … it’s like an Eeyore hat that I saw him wearing for days during my first week. I wanted to take a picture.”

No background
Most students come to the camp with at least some minimal knowledge of how to code — a little CSS picked up at a job, or maybe an introductory computer science class in college.

Martin was starting from scratch. To even get into the school, a programmer friend helped her bone up on math. After her first interview — the one in which she was asked to solve the dice riddle — she was told to read a beginner’s book on Ruby, study up and try again.

Martin took lots of statistics and finance classes in college and graduate school, but had thought of herself as bad at math ever since a second-grade teacher booted her from the advanced math class. A fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, solidified the sentiment when she yelled at Martin for asking a question — a moment she still remembers vividly.

Before the first assessment at the end of Phase One, Martin was fairly certain she would be held back. Instead, she was among the group of students doing well enough they were not even asked to take a test.

“My sense of reality must be so whacked,” she said afterward.

About two-thirds of the way through, Martin’s self-doubt began to dissipate. Too many of her fears had never materialized for her to continue believing they were real.

Her first coding project, an app that allows people to schedule thoughtful text messages for occasions such as birthdays and graduations, fell apart a few hours before deadline when she tried to incorporate new features the class hadn’t learned yet, like creating a sign-in. Martin shrugged it off — as she put it, she had taken on the hardest thing she possibly could.

She pitched her final project ideas with spot-on Silicon Valley overhype: ServingSchmerving, an app to help people determine how much food to make for a crowd, would not only “save you money,” it would also “save the planet!”

“Twice I didn’t think I was passing and then I did,” she said. “It just occurred to me it was all made up. It’s all learnable. It’s about going up to the whiteboard with confidence, and you know there are lots of ways to solve a problem, not one right way like we learn in school usually.”

She also came to enjoy the school’s extracurricular activities — stuff like tutus and pingpong.

Toward the end of the program, she was invited into a regular Hacky Sack circle that met on a street corner in front of the office. Martin was amused.

“So Hacky Sack is a thing!” she said. “The key is using the side of your foot, not the top of your foot.”
Playing Hacky Sack, she reported, seemed to give her some kind of “cred.”

On the last day of boot camp, her family — husband, three kids, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew — flew in to celebrate her graduation and take a tour of the camp.

Her kids said they thought learning how to code made their mom really cool. Also, they had missed her a lot, and realized how dirty the house gets when she’s not around to make everyone to clean up.

Her son Caleb, 17, is adamant that she should go work at Google.

“It just proves age doesn’t define your capability or give you boundaries of what you can or can’t do,” said daughter Olive, 16. “That’s a cool lesson to learn.”

Martin also got points for learning how to Snapchat, which became a primary means of communication for them while she was gone.

“I think her selfies went up in quality,” Caleb said.

Upon seeing Martin’s whole family, one classmate announced to the room that they were in the presence of the “famous DBC mom.” A guy in a green frog suit walked by, a source of great amusement to the Martin clan.

Charlie Ward, a 23-year-old friend of Martin’s from the class below, said that she had been an inspiration. They became friends after a group therapy session where he complained of not sleeping or exercising enough and eating poorly. She offered him green juice. They started going for runs together, up to Coit Tower.

“It’s so badass that she is deciding to go into this new career head-on.” he said. “And she’s a mom as well! She’s like some superhero!”

A classmate, Sara Gilford, said Martin is an pretty impressive coder.

“She is an incredibly meticulous programmer,” she said. “It’s an interesting complement to her broader persona. She’s such a fearless risk-taker.”

Martin hopes to spend a few years as a junior programmer, probably in San Francisco, at a firm where she can make things that “improve the human condition.” She hopes that employer will also be willing to groom her to eventually take on an executive role, like chief technology officer. She might also look for an executive job right out of school. As she takes her time to find the right job, she’s fleshing out her plans for an app.

While Dev Bootcamp is a trade school that prepares students for the real world, not everyone who graduates from code school successfully breaks into coding right away. (The school would not share specific employment data.) And in a young, male-dominated industry, Martin will undoubtedly face additional hurdles. (On her first job interview, to her confusion, the interviewer suggested she take most of her pre-boot camp experience off of her resume.)

But Martin, ever the optimist, isn’t worried about any of that. At boot camp, she found that her admissions interview turned out to be incredibly prescient — being a 47-year-old mom from Nebraska did give her an edge.

“The main hurdle was really me,” she wrote, a few days after flying back to Nebraska for a break before hunting for a job. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure I could learn to code and be decent at it.”

Now, she said, “if I’m an outlier, I’m glad about it.”

Martin had already changed her title on LinkedIn. “Leader, Full Stack Dev, Mom, Badass,” it read.

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