Why do a coding bootcamp if you don’t want to be developer? General unsolicited advice from a generalist to any aspiring generalists out there.

As the title may suggest, I did a coding bootcamp and I didn’t want to become a developer. I knew that going into the bootcamp. I think it warrants talking about right now when I know that a lot of people whose working life has been impacted by COVID-19, and working professionals who are not key workers and are perhaps questioning their purpose might be looking to upskill, pivot or consider something new — this is often quite hard for generalists and in particular in such times of uncertainty. In particular, I wanted to share my experience of being true to myself as a generalist as I navigate my career.

Photo credit: Safar Safarov

I stepped out of the venture capital industry after over three years in what was a new fund where I contributed to the initial stages of fund setup as well as actually investing. Being my first investment role, I also had to learn the craft of VC investing — everything from sourcing an investment right through to portfolio management and exiting an investment. I loved learning on the job and have fond memories of the work I did there and I continue to watch the fund, the portfolio and its work, but from the outside. As I got close to completing three years there, I started to wonder how I could better myself as an investor, as a professional. It was not an easy decision to step out of VC, but to even be a better investor or tech company operator in the future, I knew that I needed to do it and break the steady-state. I identified a few skills that I needed to develop (if not for any other reason, for myself) to feel professional and personal growth and one of those things was a coding bootcamp.

I am learning what it means to be a generalist: Being a generalist means that you need to constantly be learning. You’re constantly adding to your repertoire and looking for synergies across your skillsets and experiences. Occasionally, driven by enthusiasm and/or necessity, a generalist will go deep into a particular domain. The first domain that I ever felt strongly about in like was mathematics and I knew from an early age that if I wanted to be good at any one thing, it was maths. In fact, my earliest “what do you want to be when you grow up” answer was maths teacher.

My journey of tech investment up until that point had been more emphasis on the “investment” and less on the “tech”. The investment was my working knowledge of finance, business plans, financial modelling, deal modelling, valuations — you get the idea. The tech was really just my enthusiasm and some conviction on there being a commercial need for the tech-based or tech-enabled company I was investigating. I wanted to play with products and the bootcamp could give me that.

When I was young, at home I was exposed to computers — my parents were both quite tech literate and an early memory of mine is of my Dad building a PC tower from scratch. I remember just watching in awe — I didn’t even want to touch anything because I had no clue what to do. I was happy to watch and wait patiently to find out what the machine would do. My parents would give me projects to do on the computer and they kept me curious. Unfortunately, my school did not have computing classes except one every six weeks as part of a ‘Personal Health and Social Education’ curriculum where I could safely say I knew more than the supply teacher who was roped into teaching computing despite only typing with both index fingers.

I often wondered whether I would have done maths with computer science had I had more confidence in computing through schooling, but there’s no time like the present to make up for it and the bootcamp certainly scratched the itch in my brain. A bootcamp is not a computer science degree, it is a practical route to building products. I do hope to top up my knowledge with the science-y side of it and I do this through reading around, both with books and also there is great content open-sourced through blogs and universities sharing their content and even lectures online.

As I consider myself a generalist, I like think of my career (past, present and future) as a portfolio of experiences. To many, this can seem daunting and high risk. My academic passion was mathematics and so I did my degree in that. I later discovered a keen interest in economics and I always had an entrepreneurial mindset (though never that one idea that I wanted to pursue full-time, all chips in) and did my masters degree in financial economics. I did not enjoy institutional learning at university as I found the content delivery method too impersonal but I consider myself a lifelong learner. Though it was not the point I was trying to prove to myself, bootcamp was so well structured and gave me that joy of classroom learning again that it satiated some long-since buried desire to have a good taught learning experience as an adult.

Speaking of economics, I am married to an economist. My partner studied economics and went on to practice quite literally what he learned. We are both ambitious and we often discuss how we are both navigating our careers, wholly acknowledging that he is a specialist and I am a generalist.

Generalists always have the danger of acquiring a skill just for the sake of it, particularly if you’re knowledge thirsty. I can be guilty of the crime, too, but I do like to make lists of skills that I would like to learn and demonstrate and rationalise why I need them for my future path. Context is key and I don’t like to lose sight of that.

A few people have asked why I would pay to do a coding bootcamp, not be earning in that time and see no direct return on investment given that I explicitly stated I didn’t want to become a developer. I found this comment quite cynical and my answer continues to be that I did it for myself, I invested in a skill, I got to see a path not taken and scratched a curiosity itch. Had I done an MBA at a world renowned institution the same people would have been okay with that even if it burns a hole in my pocket and does not help me advance on my particular career path and costs me up to two years of my life. Coding bootcamps may not be on par in terms of cache with the Ivy League, but after a couple of months you can build full products and clearly demonstrate your skillset. I am currently studying and training for a qualification in coaching skills, which I think will be hugely beneficial to me. Through the course, I anecdotally learned that successful people invest around 20% of their disposable income into their personal growth, learning, wellbeing and development.

I would like to caveat that this is a very personal view of an MBA and I personally don’t believe that I will derive value out of it versus on the job. I find my recent move into an operating role at a start-up far more practical — a real-life ongoing case study if you will. In fact, the alumni network and continuous learning that comes with the bootcamp has effectively given me an MBA in product and tech, with proficiency as a junior developer.

This personal account was not designed to persuade you to do a bootcamp. Rather, I wanted to share how a generalist craves growth and, sometimes, needs to find it in environments external to their steady-state. There are a few other topics that I want to cover, for example, I am currently self studying aspects of corporate governance. I can clearly understand why this is beneficial to me and my path. Sometimes as a generalist, I can feel quite lonely because of a lack of empathy for what I do, or like or my professional goals. With the majority of my social network being accountants, teachers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, essentially specialists I feel that there is less advice out there for someone who is carving a path with their CV, building a collection of experiences that interact well together for the next thing.

Being a generalist is neither better nor worse than being a specialist. It is simply different. A generalist is blessed with degrees of freedom that a specialist may never have or afford themselves. I hope that I make the most of it.