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Now that Lighthouse Labs has been around for a while, many of our alumni have approached their one-year graduation anniversary. In this new series, I'm taking some time to catch up with them and feature the amazing things they've done since coming to Lighthouse Labs!

Up next, Jamie Woodbury. He graduated from our May 2014 Web cohort, and since then has been working at Bench (and competing in world-class Ironman competitions). But I'll let him tell the story:

What was your background before Lighthouse Labs?

Coming into Lighthouse, I think I probably fit the bill of your typical North American Millennial. I had a degree, a belief that I was a precious snowflake capable of anything, and a minimum wage job at Starbucks. As it turns out, four years studying Math and Physics was great at making potential employers think I was smart, but in terms of marketable skills, I was only slightly better off than my angsty teenage self from a few years prior.

That being said, my exposure to code was probably higher than most entering Lighthouse. In university, I had written a few lines of Python in my first year lab, and somehow got offered a job writing basic scripts for one of my professors. Despite not even being remotely qualified, I accepted the position and ended up spending the next four years writing small apps while teaching myself basic coding skills on the fly. “Fake it ‘till you make it”, as they say.

What made you decide to come to Lighthouse Labs?

Once it was clear that tech was the best option for me, the decision to do Lighthouse was obvious. Sure, I could do what I’d always done and learn the skills on my own. After all, between coursera, udacity, the plethora of tech blogs and Stack Overflow, what more resources could you want? But which one do you start with? Do you learn Rails, Django, Sinatra, Node/express? How about Client-Side frameworks? Wait, what the hell is a SQL injection attack? Maybe I should just use Mongo…

Going it alone was definitely an option, but it probably would have taken me twice as long to put together some cohesive set of skills I could present to an employer, even if I worked at it full time. To me, Lighthouse was a VIP pass into a club with a two hour line at the door.

How did you balance your Ironman training with your time at Lighthouse Labs?

I think most people would be surprised by how many hours there really are in a day. A usual weekday for me involved waking up before the sun to get in the pool for 5:30. I would swim for about an hour and a half, change into my running or cycling gear, put in another hour or so of training, then saunter into Lighthouse around 8:45. This gave me just enough time to scarf down second breakfast and get a good seat for the morning break-out. The key for me was always to keep things time-boxed. Before 9:00 was me time; I was explicit in my training, and the work waiting for me at Lighthouse was not allowed to seep into those defined hours. Similarly, I knew that I had to wrap up by 8:00 so that I could get home in time to get a good sleep. This dictated my pace of work throughout the day.

Do you have any advice for people who are coming out of university and want to launch their career as software developers?

If you think a career in tech is the right fit for you, you enjoy working through puzzles rationally, but you’re lacking the skills to actually convince someone to give you money to build things for them: do it. Once you do, I have three pieces of advice:

  • Never be the smartest person in the room. Find a company that can offer you plenty of mentorship, and that has a codebase from which you can learn something. This is probably the most valuable thing you can look for in your first job as a developer.
  • Strive to be the smartest person in the room. There will never be a shortage of new things to learn, and it is easy to fall into the trap of finding and resting upon a set of skills that work for you. Don’t let this happen. Keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep trying to find novel ways of solving problems to which you already know the answer.
  • Spend plenty of time outside of that room. There’s more to life than just coding, and you’re probably in the best field to make the most of it. Many companies offer flexible work schedules, remote work policies, extended vacation time. Take advantage of this and go make yourself a more interesting person.

It’s been exactly a year since you graduated Lighthouse Labs, what have you been up to?

I had a few job offers on the table upon graduation from Lighthouse, and ended up taking a position as a front-end developer at a small startup called RunGo. After working there for a few months, I came to know what my strengths and weaknesses really were and what kind of company I wanted to work for. I settled in at Bench back in October and since then it’s just been a steady pace of training and working, juggling 20 hours of one and 40 of the other per week.

What is it like to work for Bench?

Given the rate at which Bench has grown over that past year, answering that question is a bit like trying to shoot a moving target. I was brought onboard at a time when the company was at the tipping point between being a proof-of-concept and a fully profitable business. To be on the Engineering Team at that time (which numbered all of 6 people) felt a bit like pioneering a new world. There was freedom to take charge in making UX and technical decisions on the fly, and a sense of stewardship over what we all knew was going to be an amazing product. As a new developer this was an amazing process to be apart of; growing my skills in parallel to the app we were creating.

Bench has since graduated to the civilization building phase of its existence. The concept has been proven, we have a roadmap of improvements and new features we want to roll out over the next year, and we’ve established a cultural identity shared by a team that has more than doubled in size. Working as an intermediate developer now means devoting more time to creating plans for new features, and to mentoring the new recruits.

What specific projects are you working on at Bench?

Since starting here, I’ve been working on porting over our existing front-end infrastructure from a Backbone/jQuery app into Angular, with the goal of streamlining the architecture and introducing a consistent design throughout.

What technologies are you working with?

The core technology I use in my day to day work is AngularJS, with a smorgasbord of tools and libraries like Webpack, Gulp, Lodash, Sass, etc. But every now and again the opportunity comes up to work on interesting side projects, so I’ve found myself building Django apps, performing machine learning with scikit-learn, and writing Node/Restify APIs in ES6. The culture at Bench is very much one that encourages experimentation, so there has been no shortage of opportunity to try out new tech.

What's the coolest part of your job?

I think the beer taps in the lobby are a nice touch. But really, it all comes down to the people and the product. Most tech companies these days pitch themselves on the same set of perks: a shiny new computer on day one, a flexible work schedule, foosball tables and beanbag chairs. What’s rare is finding a product that you can get excited about and a team of highly talented people who share that same excitement. That’s what I’ve found at Bench, and I think it’s pretty cool.

What’s next?

Next? Who knows. If two months can make a software engineer out of a barista, another year in this industry could take me just about anywhere. World domination is still under serious consideration.

Anything else you'd like to add, either about yourself, LHL, or Bench?

Only that you can expect to see great things from all three in the coming years. Lighthouse Labs and Bench are both great companies led by some of seriously intelligent and creative minds. It has been a pleasure to be a part of their journey over the past year, and I’m indebted to both for starting me off on mine.

Want to read about more inredible alumni? Check out Andre Soesilo's story - he's currently working at a Techstars-backed logistics startup!