Life Reprogrammed: Boot camp begins to build a better code

 Joel Guevara builds a closet space on his last day as a carpenter. Guevara is one of 19 students in the first class of Zip Code Wilmington. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Joel Guevara builds a closet space on his last day as a carpenter. Guevara is one of 19 students in the first class of Zip Code Wilmington. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

This is the first installment of a four-part series that follows two young men through a 90-day software coding boot camp.

It started with a “no.”

In early 2014, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell personally lobbied a California-based coding school to open a campus in Wilmington. They balked.

A coding school? In Wilmington?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Fueled by a combination of civic pride and government subsidy, three Delaware businessmen took up the cause. In less than two years — with the help of a $250,000 grant from the state — their defiance birthed Zip Code Wilmington, Delaware’s first coding boot camp.

It’s early September when Zip Code’s first class gathers for the first time in a sleek, wood paneled room on the second floor of craft brewery in Wilmington’s riverfront section. If all goes as planned, in 90 days this group of 19 novices will be employed as entry-level developers. It’s a heady idea. And the mood on this night reflects it.

“You all are a little bit like astronauts,” said Ben DuPont, a venture capitalist and one of the school’s founders, to the assembled. “We have worked really hard to cull the 150 folks down to 20 who we think can go to the moon.”

A taste of Silicon in the Brandywine Valley

In geography and trajectory, Wilmington is about as far as you can get from Silicon Valley. Delaware’s largest city has lost more than a third of its population since the middle of the 20th century. Its violent crime rate is among the country’s highest.

Wilmington may be the last place you’d go to get ahead. And yet that’s exactly what the students gathered here intend to do. They are twenty-something strivers and middle-aged career changers. Computer science majors and art school grads. High achievers and near dropouts.

They are united only by their intelligence and their determination to make a very big change in a very short period of time.

There are about 70 coding boot camps in North America, according to the industry group Course Report. All operate on the same basic premise — that smart, motivated people can become employable developers with a little bit of intense training.

Zip Code Wilmington stands out, though, in a couple ways. First, it’s a nonprofit boot camp, one of just a small handful. Two, it’s one of the very few that teaches Java — a computer language more commonly used in existing businesses, not start-ups. And three, it’s in Wilmington, a city with a lot of big, old financial institutions that rely on languages like Java.

About 60 percent of coding boot camps are in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, or Seattle. The usual suspects. So when something like this pops up in a place like Wilmington, it comes with equal doses of symbolic heft and civic aspiration.

“We’re going to show the rest of the Wilmington and the rest of Delaware what’s possible,” said DuPont. “We’re gonna get you to the moon.”

A second chance

In this haze of ambition, purpose, and expectation stands Sean Strauss, 29, soaking up every intoxicating morsel.

“Dude, this is just…a second chance,” he says. “I’ve been looking for something to inspire me. This is it.”

Sean grew up middle-class in Northern Delaware. Like a lot of smart, middle class kids he went to a private college out of state — in his case Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.

When he was a sophomore, a BMW SUV piloted by a teenager struck him near the corner of 54th Street and 1st Avenue. He walked away from the crash and was released from the hospital later that night. But over time, his symptoms intensified. By senior year he had recurring numbness in his foot and shooting pain every time he walked.

“When you’re in constant pain it causes depression,” he said. “Like you don’t want to wake up and be in pain.”

For comfort Sean ate, a lot. He remembers one meal in particular — a bacon cheeseburger with bar-b-q sauce, french fries, and a milkshake from a diner called PK’s Place.

“That was like everyday, three times a day,” he said.

His weight ballooned to near 400 pounds. He left school one credit shy of graduation and returned to Delaware, where doctors determined he had four herniated discs in his back.

“Just getting out of bed and doing anything was such a daunting intimidating feeling,” Sean remembered. “The longer I experienced this the worse it got. It was…just…hopelessness.”

Sean withdrew to his childhood room. His circle of friends shriveled and his life began instead to revolve around a menu of video games and Netflix offerings. When he later developed a heart ailment, thoughts of suicide crept in.

“At this point I had quit,” he said. “I had given up on life and everything. I didn’t think I would have a normal functional life again.”

From inclination to career

Last summer he was living at home with his parents when he applied for a $13-an-hour customer service job with Capital One. He didn’t get it.

“And I’m depressed again. And I’m searching for the meaning of life on Facebook and I come across Zip Code Wilmington. And I click on the link and I start reading it and I’m like, holy s—. I think they made this for me,” he said.

Sean has always been good with technology. He’s the guy family members ask when their Mac Book has a bug or their iPad won’t charge. Zip Code offered a chance to turn that inclination into something bigger. When he was accepted, it seemed like the end of a decade-long losing streak.

“It just felt like my whole world was lightened,” he said. “I thought in terms of my future instead of just in the present, which I had been living in for a very long time. But now I have plans, you know? I’ve got a reason to get up early and get out of bed.”

Another early morning

Friday, September 4 begins early for Joel Guevara — just like thousands of days before it. Tool belt on his hip, drill in hand, the 28-year-old is plugging away inside a gutted office space full of naked walls and dangling wires. He makes $17 an hour.

“It takes a lot on your body and a lot of years to be in a position where you’re not struggling paycheck to paycheck,” he said above the din of hammers and drills.

Joel grew up poor in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the child of a single mother from Puerto Rico. At 10, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent much of the next year in and out of the hospital.

“I remember kicking my family out of my room and wanting to end it all,” he said. “I just didn’t want to live no more because what I was going through was so hard.”

Joel was always smart and curious. But even after beating cancer, his curiosity didn’t translate to scholastic achievement. He barely graduated high school and had his first child at 19. When he looks back now he sees a kid afraid to succeed.

“None of the members of my family went to college,” he said. “A lot of the males in my family went to jail for selling drugs and everything like that. I just felt like I was going to be like one of the rest of them.”

Joel knew he needed a change. Immediately after high school he enlisted in the marines and became an aircraft mechanic. He served one tour in Iraq and was discharged in 2010. When he came back he bounced around jobs until finally latching on as a carpenter about 3 years ago. But he’s always dreamt of something bigger.

“I had the little seed planted in my head that i could do better and I was gonna do better in my life,” he said.

 Thirteen floors

Joel likes building things. As a kid, he loved Lego’s. In his wayward teen years he says he doctored car engines for use in illegal street races. As a marine, he fixed airplanes. And now he wants to build programs — to finally translate those engineering instincts into a stable, middle-class career.

“In a sense it’s kind of surreal, too,” he said, “Am I really quitting my job to go to school full-time for something I don’t know anything about?”

His final job is on the 16th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Wilmington. As it so happens, Zip Code Wilmington is on the 3rd floor of that same building.

Come Tuesday, he will go down — thirteen floors — into another world. He is nervous. He is hopeful.

“Before you got here I played this song three times, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come,'” he said. “That’s like the theme song for today. Theme song for my life. I’ve been working a long time and it’s finally gonna pay off.”

Joel wants a way into the middle class. Sean wants a way back into society. Both feel the next 90 days provide path to get there. And we’ll walk that path with them.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal