It’s fall in California. The leaves have long-since turned burnt orange and red and fallen to the ground; I can almost feel the cold air outside without even opening the window.
A little over one year ago, I sat in this exact chair and began my journey into the tech field by enrolling in Lambda School. I remember feeling like I was standing at the foot of Mount Everest with no idea which route was the best to take.
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This month, I started working as an engineer in San Francisco.
If I can do it, you can too. My biggest asset has been (and will always be) my raw work ethic. The biggest determinant of your success in this industry is how hard you are willing to work to learn; unlike raw IQ and connections in the industry, it’s something about yourself that you can control. That should be an encouraging thought.
In this article, I’ll detail (for the first time) what my studying process was like at Lambda. I’ll go through my philosophy, tips, and mental frameworks that I used to get where I am now.
As I always tell my readers, now is a good time to go grab that cup of coffee, tea, or hot apple cider (it is fall after all).
Let’s do this.
“Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.”Mark Twain
Push Through the Desire to Quit
Navy SEALs have a mentality that you’ve really only given about 40% of your maximum effort when you first get that feeling of wanting to give up.
What this means is that you are capable of far more than you think you can handle. You can study for harder and longer than you initially feel; most people give in to that feeling and call it quits when they start feeling bored or like they’ve “studied enough.”
For most of my life, I listened to that inner voice that told me to “take a break” or “rest up” whenever I felt like I needed it. At Lambda, I pushed through that. It enabled me to keep on studying when I would have otherwise quit.
Lambda School’s curriculum site has a quote inside it somewhere that says, “Hustle. Most of the world is asleep or watching Netflix.”
How true that is.
If you can force yourself to keep hustling even when you want to quit, you’ll travel farther than you’ve ever dreamed.
It always seems impossible until it’s done.Nelson Mandela
Surround Yourself With All-Stars
One of the biggest factors of my success was choosing to surround myself with people that I could learn from. There’s a quote that gets tossed around a lot that says, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Picking excellent friends to spend my time with had a massive impact on my learning at Lambda.
When you’re looking to find these sorts of people, search for those who are persistent and motivated to learn no matter what. Look for kindness, a desire to study hard, and a hunger to turn that knowledge back to help others. These sorts of study partners are gold and are exactly the kind of people who will be pleasant to spend time around for the hundreds of hours you’ll be spending learning. You will build friendships that could eventually change the world.
Additionally, try to broaden your network and meet as many people as possible. Each of my project teams at Lambda were intentionally different from the rest; my capstone project team was unique, and I sought out different team members for each of the hackathons held internally at Lambda.
Many of us aren’t fortunate in the specifics of our learning environment; a student at Lambda School famously completed the program on a phone hotspot in the backroom of a mattress store, and I guarantee that they didn’t have an ideal environment.
While you might not have it as hard as that, it is likely that you aren’t in a perfectly quiet place all the time. However, I find that many people don’t maximize their learning environment no matter what situation they are in.
For instance, I’ve seen many students continue to study in the main area of their family’s home despite having their own bedroom. But even if that’s the only area they have access to, many students still choose not to wear headphones and will respond to noisy, distracting family members and pets during class time. Public libraries are also a great option to study; they are quiet, open all day, and built to provide public access to the internet.
By doing everything within your power to control what you can about your learning environment, you remove unnecessary distractions and set yourself up to focus on learning how to code during your study time.
The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom.Jon Stewart
Keep To-Do Lists
A recent book that was recommended to me by the awesome Eric Rosenberg is The Effective Engineer by Edmond Lau. In the book, Edmond details how to leverage your time and learning to supercharge your career; one of the big items he recommends is to keep lists.
Edmond argues that a well-kept list enables you to stop having to hold dozens of abstract, random to-do items in your head. Instead, your personal task list shortens to just one item — “Check the list.”
This is 110% true in my experience. I keep a personal Trello board of everything I want to learn (including links to those resources so I don’t have to scramble to find them later), and I also utilize a checklist of things I need to get done each day.
I’ve found that this broadens my focus by freeing up my brain from having to remember items that don’t ultimately contribute to my learning (e.g. remembering an obscure URL to learn that item later).
We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to-do’ lists.Michelle Obama
Optimize for Repetition
There is no magic pill you can take to make you a great engineer. If you want to reach the point where you’re employed in tech, you’ll need to put in a lot of repetition (called “reps” in Lambda School) to get there.
I would often do my homework every day and then open a new branch on Git to redo it again in the evening. I would also specifically focus on the repetition of the ideas in order to help them sink in.
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Professional athletes train for thousands of hours in order to achieve success, and the same is true here. If you want to retain information, you will need to consistently practice concepts over extended periods of time.
While this point is coming last, never underestimate how important your mental game is to whether or not you succeed. There will come a point where staying positive and mentally fortifying yourself for the road ahead will be your “million-dollar moment.”
If you’ve never heard that phrase before, “million-dollar moment” means a point in your life where your decision will make an income difference of a million dollars in your life.
“Staying positive” doesn’t mean that you’ll travel through life whistling, but it does mean that you choose to focus on what the end result of your actions will be; you realize that you are sacrificing for a greater purpose and that better days are to come thanks to your hard work now.
I’ve seen many peoples’ bad attitudes get the better of them in this journey, and they ultimately pull out of the race because they can’t see the sun shining up above the clouds. Remember that it’s there, and your climb up the mountaintop will one day let you see it.
Staying positive doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time. It means that, even on hard days, you know that there are better ones coming.Anonymous
While everyone learns differently, I think the tips contained in this article will set you up for success. I’ve detailed the main points that helped me on my own journey. They’re also what I continue to use every day.
Always remember that we’re all learners here and that even the most knowledgeable engineer still has things they want to focus on getting to know better.
You are valuable. You are enough. You can do this. Never give up.
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This is a great article. Thank you for the pull quotes that are actual inspirational quotes! The one from Michelle Obama was new to me, and too true of course.
Maybe I was just needing and ready to read this, but I am inspired. Going to work out and prep for my call with my career coach.
My only question for Nathan would be: between graduation and starting a new job in SF, what did the job search look like? I suspect he wrote it up so I will have to look around, unless someone replies with a link.
Again, excellent work in terms of clean copy, high-value content and professional design and layout. Impressed.