Rachel Pavilanis: Learning at Ada Developers Academy


In her last post, Rachel talked about her experience prior to becoming a student at Ada Developers Academy. In this post, she discusses her experience while in the classroom portion of Ada.  This is part two of a three-part series.

In August of 2016, I became a student at Ada Developers Academy. As I settled into my routine at Ada, I kept having the same thought: “So this is what it feels like to love what you do.”   I always thought I would live my life outside of my work – I would do something I generally liked, but the bulk of my satisfaction and sense of accomplishment would need to come from my hobbies and relationships.  I specifically chose my first career based on this understanding – find balance above everything else. I think balance is still in the forefront of my mind as a value, but I am learning that passion does not need to be sacrificed in order to find balance.  Love and passion bring meaning to life in a way that balance cannot.

In addition to helping me realize my passion for coding, week after week, Ada pushed me beyond what I thought I could accomplish.  Within three weeks of starting at Ada, we were already moving into intermediate Ruby, and the pace only increased from there – we covered Ruby, Rails, Javascript, APIs, HTML, CSS, AJAX, JQuery, and Backbone in just six months.  A typical week consisted of eight to ten hours a day of programming.  In addition to the lectures about practical application, live coding exercises, and larger coding projects, we also had lectures each week about Computer Science fundamentals like Linked Lists and Stacks and Queues.  Guest speakers shared on various topics, including implicit bias, self-care, microaggressions, and imposter syndrome – all issues that impact women and non-binary people in the tech field.  One speaker discussed financial empowerment, and another reviewed the importance of having a vision for our futures. We also each had the opportunity to give Lightning Talks to our class on a topic of our choice.

I can’t say enough about the level of support and encouragement at Ada – it unlike any other educational experience I have had.  We were constantly reminded by instructors, speakers, and “Adies” in other cohorts that we were there because they saw something in us.  It is easy to begin to doubt your skills or abilities when you are surrounded by 47 brilliant, strong, and driven women and the expectations for achievement and learning are so high.  But they seemed to know that, and they pre-corrected for it in some very effective ways.  Each classroom had two instructors, and some days we also had Teaching Assistants – volunteers who are often Ada alumni or other people in the tech field – come into the class to help. Our instructors gave us regular, written feedback and we had one-on-one meetings with them every two to three weeks. In addition to the support from our instructors, we were encouraged to meet regularly with the on-staff counselor to problem-solve personal or interpersonal issues. We also had six hours of scheduled optional tutoring each week, and some students were assigned individual tutors. On top of that, every new student is assigned an Adie mentor from a previous cohort, with the expectation that we meet with them or talk to them regularly.  Those of us that are not tech-adjacent are also assigned an industry mentor, so that we can ask them about issues specific to the tech industry and begin to develop our network.

Ada Developers Academy also has a strong interest in continual improvement. Throughout my time in the classroom, students were regularly surveyed about the effectiveness of the instructors, and how we were feeling about the pace of instruction. We also had a weekly retrospective, and instructors always seemed genuinely interested in taking our feedback and using it to improve their practice.

The Ada Capstone project

There are two experiences that make Ada Developers Academy unique among other coding boot camps – a month-long capstone project and a five-month internship.  For capstones, we are expected to build our own project from scratch, including learning several brand new technologies and one new programming language. For my project, I built an iOS app for habit tracking and goal-setting using Swift/XCode, iOS Charts, and Realm (based on my CHERPAS system – see blog post about that here). Before Capstone month started, we submitted a project proposal and a project plan, including things like user stories (e.g., users should be able to enter their tasks and mark them as complete), market research (looking at similar apps and what they offer/what they don’t offer), and features we hope to include in our app.

Then on Day One, we launched into designing and building our apps.  The first week was so stressful and overwhelming.  Where before, we had a month or even two months to develop comfort in a language, we now had maybe three to four days before we had to jump into building our projects.   We had the opportunity to see some Adies from the previous cohort give practice presentations toward the beginning of our time at Ada.  It was so awe-inspiring and exciting to see what Adies had accomplished, and I think the pressure to match the quality of these projects loomed large as we dove into our own capstones months later.

My teacher, Jamie, gave me some great advice that I think really shaped how I approached the rest of my project. She reminded me that those fantastic presentations showcased all of the best parts of a project.  She pointed out that many of these students had buttons, features, pages, and core functionality that didn’t actually work at the time of their presentation, and that they just didn’t click on that non-functional button or show off that non-existent feature during their presentation.  The goal isn’t to have a shippable project – it is to have something to present and to be able to talk about what you learned from the Capstone experience in a reflective way.  This took off a lot of the pressure I was feeling and allowed me to continually come back to what was most important for me to show off at my presentation.

In the end, I had everything I had originally wanted in my project, but I did it without this sense of extreme pressure that I felt during Week One. Here is a video of my Capstone presentation that I made for family, since they are all far away and wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise.

Deciding to intern at Avvo

The concept of internships permeates the last several months at Ada. In order to determine our internship placements, we heard an hour-long presentation from each sponsoring company, visited the companies that interested us, and then we interviewed at six of these companies.  Many of these interviews included a whiteboarding exercise – this was a nerve-wracking part of the program for many of us.  Avvo was one of my top choices from the beginning.  I really like that it is a smaller company with cross-functional teams, and that interns are immediately brought in as part of one of these teams.  They also provide a structured onboarding process, opportunities to sample different technologies, familiar languages and frameworks for Adies (Rails, Ruby, and JavaScript), and a great location in downtown Seattle.  Hearing that another Adie was already employed here and that a fellow Adie would be joining during internship also attracted me. I also had a great feeling when I visited the company and met various developers – many of them said it was the best job they ever had because of its inclusive, iterative, and friendly culture.  I can’t think of a better recommendation than that!

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will be talking about my internship experience at Avvo.