The Student Becomes the Master: How a University Sophomore Took a Semester Off to Become a Full-Stack Engineer

Kevin Zhang

Many people who enroll in a coding boot camp are well into their careers, feeling like it’s high time they make a change. For Kevin Zhang, however, even waiting until graduation seemed like too long. 

Currently a sophomore in college, Kevin realized he needed a little something extra to get where he wanted to go professionally. At 19, he became the youngest learner in the Columbia Engineering Coding Boot Camp—putting his career on the fast track.

Back to back to school

Kevin’s path to programming wasn’t a straight line. He studied an array of subjects from physics and statistics to marketing. However, after a conversation with a peer, he became interested in the accelerated coding boot camp at Columbia.

“I was having trouble finding purpose in my classes. Every major I tried had its own unique beauty, but none of them completely captivated me,” said Kevin. “My friend at Columbia told me about the Coding Boot Camp. With nothing to lose and all to gain, I applied and got in. Little did I know this decision would not only help me find my major but my lifelong career.” 

Unlike his traditional college classes, Kevin quickly became engrossed in the fast-paced, project-based structure of the boot camp.

“Sometimes I had to put in 70 hours a week, but it never felt like work,” he said. “I realized that coding was a superpower that allowed one to create anything that came to mind and fell in love with what we were doing.”

To make the most of the accelerated 24-week boot camp, Kevin took a semester off. He credits his success to this extra time to study and work on projects—but he’s also quick to acknowledge the positive influence of his fellow classmates.

“I was the youngest person in the class, but I got to meet a lot of great minds—a Ph.D. in physics, a former NFL cheerleader, and people from all over the place with established careers coming back to find a new purpose,” said Kevin. “Their passion for continuing education was inspiring.”

Head of the class

It wasn’t long before Kevin’s work in the boot camp started to pay dividends. In fact, one of his most ambitious projects led to a job offer to be a full-stack engineer at CUNY, before he’d even finished the course. 

“I built an automated queue management system that parsed student information through a magnetic card reader for a university computer tech rep center. Originally, students would line up to wait for help, which caused a jam. Now, students swipe in and receive a text message when it’s their turn,” said Kevin. “I spent around 300 hours on the project, but it was well worth the effort. The program reduced traffic by 95% and gave management automated data reports for more information” 

“The job let me be a big fish in a small pond right away,” Kevin said. “I was still taking the class and learning new skills every day while managing real projects.” 

Preparing for the real world

Kevin’s boot camp experience didn’t just upgrade his technical skills, though. It also gave him a fresh perspective that he just couldn’t get with a traditional college education alone. 

“When you’re in a small class of 25 learners, you get to see how people actually collaborate,” said Kevin. “The boot camp was a window into how people actually work and learn. I got to pull a lot of inspiration from my peers and empathize with their perspectives on the world—and their code.”

Kevin hopes this new outlook and enthusiasm for coding will propel him into his new career for years to come.

“I’m only 20 now. I’m not worried about my salary yet. Money isn’t a big factor in my life—yet. I code 70+ hours a week simply because I enjoy programming,” said Kevin. “For example, this summer I created websites for NYC companies for free, just so I could learn more real-world skills. I even I got to design the website for NYC Idea Coffee. I just want to be able to develop scalable algorithms, learn more about AI and machine learning, and fail meticulously while solving more complex problems.”

Kevin sums up his unique perspective with one simple piece of advice for anyone who wants to learn to code.

“Programming can be difficult, but the more you struggle, the better you’ll be in the end. People who attend the boot camp and want results have to dedicate their time. It’s all about the effort you put in,” Kevin said. “The boot camp will provide you with all the resources you could possibly want, but in the end only you can decide what you make with those resources”. 

Whether you’re a student or a career professional, Kevin encourages you to give coding a shot. You’ll never know unless you try. 

“If you even think programming might be for you, try it out,” he said. “In the end, if you’re passionate about it, you’ll naturally invest more time working on it, and eventually you may work your way to the top to earn more than you would in a field you don’t love.”