Life reprogrammed: ‘Am I gonna succeed?’

 Sean Strauss tackles a coding challenge as part of the 90-day Zip Code Wilmington boot camp. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Sean Strauss tackles a coding challenge as part of the 90-day Zip Code Wilmington boot camp. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

This is the third installment of a four-part series that follows two young men through a 90-day software coding boot camp. You can hear parts one and two here and here. 

It’s late September — about three weeks after classes started for Zip Code’s first batch of aspiring developers. I meet Joel Guevara in a conference room at Zip Code headquarters in downtown Wilmington. He looks tired. He talks softly. He feels overwhelmed.

“My confidence coming into this week had been at an all-time low,” he says. “I just feel like I’m falling behind, and I’m not really grasping the reading.”

And academics aren’t the only problem. Joel’s relationship with his girlfriend is crumbling. The two have been together five years. They live together, have a child together, and are raising two other children — each from prior relationships. But the stress of the class is driving them apart. And as they drift, Joel’s focus is waning.

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“I feel like I’m not at the level where i should be and that I only have two more months,” he says, adding a small growl of frustration.

“Am I gonna succeed?”

Joel says he’s feeling isolated. His family doesn’t understand the rigors of a course like this. And his girlfriend resents that he’s no longer contributing income. As he’s talking, Sean Strauss’ parents arrive unannounced to check in on the class. Joel watches them from inside the conference room and recalls meeting Sean’s parents a few days earlier. He remembers their warmth and their willingness to help. 

“I was like, damn, I wish I was part of your family, y’know? But that’s how my cards were dealt. And I just gotta deal with it,” he says.

A ‘rainman’ moment

As Joel flounders, Sean is flourishing. In late September, Sean had what he calls a “rainman” moment. In a flurry he coded out a program that would allow a user to play blackjack.

“I don’t know where it came from. I’ve never done anything like that before,” he says.

Not only is Sean emerging as a strong coder, he’s growing close with the other Zip Coders. A couple have joined him at his kickboxing gym. He’s bonded with others over slightly nerdier fare.

“I’ve been indoctrinating people with a game called Hearthstone. And I’ve already sucked one person in,” he says with an impish grin.

Sean’s life has purpose again. He’s in the workaday world for really the first time in his life. And the confidence he’s gaining just being part of the Zip Code community seems to feed right back into his confidence as a coder.

“It really takes an ‘aha! moment’ to build your confidence,” he says. And I’ve had a few of those.”

A clean break

In mid-October, I join Joel at a local shooting range. He’s still anxious about his progress, but he’s optimistic. And his stress seems, in a way, more bearable — the kind you endure when you have a lot to do, not because you feel you can’t do it.

Joel’s exercising. He’s getting out more. And after five years together, he and his girlfriend split. Joel says it’s the break he needed.

“It’s cleared my head. I’m not worried about useless stuff that may or may not start an argument. I’m just focused on the work,” he says.

And his work is improving. Joel comes in on Saturdays for special assignments to help patch up his deficiencies. He’s still one of the weaker coders in the class, but he’s one of the best at understanding the basic concepts behind the language. He gets it. He isn’t great. But, finally, he gets it.

“The sky’s the limit,” he says. “I’m gonna rock this out — freakin’ get a good job somewhere. Probably relocate. Be happy.”

In our fourth and final installment, Joel and Sean look to seal the deal. A new job and a new life await, if they can convince someone to hire them.

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