Life reprogrammed: Ups and downs lead to a steady path forward after coding boot camp

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 Joel Guevara (right) moves a chaise longue into his new apartment. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Joel Guevara (right) moves a chaise longue into his new apartment. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

This is fourth and final installment of a series that follows two young men through a 90-day coding boot camp. You can read parts 1, 2, and 3 here, here and here.

The last couple weeks of Zip Code Wilmington play out like a nervous courtship.

The companies who’ve agreed to accept Zip Code graduates pick which students they’d like to interview. After a round of face-to-face chats, the students rank the companies, and the companies rank the students. Somewhere in this dance, matches are made and the students are told where they’ll be working when the boot camp ends.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Since Zip Code Wilmington has never done this before, it’s unclear — at least to the students — how this whole process will unfold. They’re supposed to get, at the bare minimum, six-month apprenticeships. But the fact remains:  someone has to want them.

By mid-November, Joel Guevara and Sean Strauss are both confident someone will want them. Sean continues to perform well. And though there’s no formal ranking system, the instructors say he’s solidly above average.

After struggling at the outset, Joel has started to prosper intellectually. He’s still not a strong coder, but he’s at least keeping pace and proving to himself, and others, that he grasps the basic concepts behind the languages.

But as the calendar turns, a new problem has cropped up.

Joel’s broke.

“Dead poor broke,” as he describes it.

Two months after quitting his job, his small reserves have been exhausted. He’s behind on the payments for his pickup truck, and he’s borrowing from friends and family to pay for meals. Though he and his girlfriend broke up weeks ago, he’s still sleeping on the couch at the house they share together. It’s an uncomfortable situation at best — a hostile one at worse.

That apprenticeship. That paycheck. It can’t come soon enough.

Getting the call

On Nov. 18, I get a call from Sean. He’s got big news.

“All right,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect. “Starting Dec. 7, I’ll be taking a job at …”

Another dramatic pause passes.

“Capital One.”

I laugh and ask him what sounds in retrospect like maybe the dumbest question ever asked.

“You pumped?

“Fuck yeah,” he responds. “And you can quote me on that.”

Shortly before Zip Code Wilmington started, Capital One rejected Sean. Not for a coding position, but for a $13 an hour post working customer service. The disappointment deepened his depression, serving as yet another rude reminder that he’d never be a normal adult with a normal, independent life.

In the sting of that setback, he found Zip Code. And now, less than six months later, he’d be working for the same company that rebuffed him — this time in a highly skilled job with enviable career prospects. When I caught up with two weeks into his new job, he still couldn’t process how far he’d come.

“It’s really all a blur,” he said of the boot camp. “It happened so fast. And just … I loved it.”

But the experience wasn’t perfect.

In the final few weeks of the course, Sean and the lead instructor, Tariq Hook, began to argue. The cause is hard to trace — both are unable or unwilling to detail how the tiff began — but the damage was significant. Hook didn’t assign Sean a mentee in the second Zip Code class. What might have been a relief to some left Sean wounded. He felt shut out from the community he’d come to cherish.

“I’m not throwing Tariq under the bus because I really respect Tariq a lot,” he said. “I hope one day we can have a relationship. I dunno.”

Sean wanted more from Zip Code than a job. He wanted friends. He wanted a foothold in the social world, one he’d withdrawn from over a long battle with depression and obesity. To feel that slipping away at the end saddened him — even angered him, at times.

But it wasn’t enough to change his outlook.

In our final chat, I asked him the ultimate cheesy interview question:  Where do you see yourself in five years?

Sean grinned. He already had his answer.

“I have no idea where I see myself,” he said. “But I can tell you one thing, I’m excited about the future. And that’s a new feeling.”

‘I feel like I’m not good enough’

Sean was among the first Zip Coders to learn his fate. Joel isn’t so lucky.

By Nov. 25, he’s one of just three in the class who haven’t received an apprenticeship offer. When we talk outside his gym that afternoon, it seems all the progress and optimism he’d built toward the end of the course have evaporated.

“I feel like I’m not good enough,” he said. “Like why does this have to happen to me like everything else in my fucking life? Something always has to happen to me.”

It was a fatalism born of struggle. This was the Joel who grew up poor, the Joel who endured rounds of chemo as his childhood flitted away, the Joel who saw no way out of a dead-end job.

“I can never get away from something that’s bad — ever since I was a little child,” he mumbled over the sound of whirring treadmills. “I’m never gonna work, I guess. Not gonna have no money. Be stuck on a couch of a person that I dislike’s house. Basically I’m like a bum on the streets asking for a dollar here a dollar there …”

This is Joel’s valley. But in typical Zip Code fashion, a peak is just around the bend. Later that day he got the word. A small, local company called Diamond Technologies had offered him an apprenticeship.

He wasn’t so much elated as he was relieved. The enormity of what he’d accomplished didn’t hit until a couple weeks later when he changed his LinkedIn profile — from carpenter to developer.

One final move

It’s early January, and Joel has one more move to make. He’s taking the last of his items from the house he shared with his girlfriend to a new one-bedroom apartment. The new place isn’t much — a loft above an old garage owned by his uncle. But the rent’s cheap. And it’s his.

With the last of the items moved, Joel reclines on a leather loveseat. His 2-year-old son, Ami Joel Guevara, climbs in and out of his lap as he contemplates the simple joy of waking up each morning, working a white-collar job, and returning home to his own apartment.

“I’m blown away,” he says. “And I still keep thinking I’m gonna wake up from this dream.”

Nineteen students started Zip Code in September. Sixteen finished in December and landed either a full-time job or a 6-month apprenticeship in Wilmington. That’s an 84 percent graduation rate, about equivalent to the number of freshmen who finish high school in four years.

The question now is whether those who’ve survived will stay. 

Three weeks after the first boot camp session ended, DuPont announced it would cut more than a quarter of its Delaware workforce. The news was a psychological blow to a city whose destiny, for 200 years, has been intertwined with DuPont’s. It also meant Wilmington will rely, more than ever, on financial institutions and the coders they employ.

Joel Guevara is one of those coders now. But his sights are already set elsewhere.

“I feel like I already sucked Delaware dry for what they can give me,” he says with distant chuckle.

Joel wants to move west. He’s not sure where. He’s not sure when. But he can picture what it will look like.

“Sun shining,” he says. “Tons of land. Decent house. Built how I want it. Custom designed by me. Dogs. Kids coming here and there. Relaxing. Growing my vegetables …”

As Joel rambles, he smiles. And as he smiles, you get the sense that the image in his head looks clearer than ever.

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