Lighthouse Labs fires up coding skills through boot camp and the HTML500

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      The city of Indianapolis has its Indy 500. The Florida city of Daytona Beach has its Daytona 500. And Vancouver has its HTML500, which is ample proof that high tech still ranks ahead of auto racing in our town.

      The HTML500 was created by Lighthouse Labs to promote digital literacy. It's the largest free learn-to-code event in Canada.

      This year, the daylong session takes place next Saturday (March 11) at the Rocky Mountaineer Station (1755 Cottrell Street). On-site mentors help people build their first page in HTML or CSS.

      “They’re doing it by lottery. There are only 500 spots,” cohost Sarah Veness told the Straight by phone. “The last I heard, there were 2,000 people registered for it.”

      Veness, an SFU communications grad, used to work as a community manager at Lighthouse Labs, where she organized events to help women and children learn how to code.

      Last September, she enrolled in the company’s intensive and immersive eight-week boot-camp program, which trains people to become junior developers. Shortly after graduation, she joined Omnifilm Entertainment.

      “The point of boot camp isn’t to make you a JavaScript developer or a Ruby developer,” Veness said. “Really, the point is to teach you how to learn a language.”

      The HTML500 brings 500 people to the Rocky Mountaineer station for a free day of instruction.
      Miya Gu photography

      Below, you can read an edited and condensed version of the Georgia Straight's interview with Veness:

      Georgia Straight: How did you get interested in technology?

      Sarah Veness: I have a B.A. from SFU in communications. So my formal education wasn't in anything that technical. But I've always been very interested in the tech industry and in coding in general. My dad is a programmer, so it was always something I really had an interest in. I've been building little websites since I was a kid. Doing design with MySpace and that sort of thing. HTML and CSS and the web just always interested me. Once I graduated from SFU, I was kind of like, what am I going to do with my life? What's the next step?

      GS: What led you to Lighthouse Labs?

      SV: At that time, I had heard about Lighthouse. I applied for the boot camp. At the same time, I saw that they were hiring for a community manager. So I got invited for an interview for the boot camp as well as an interview for the position with the Lighthouse. I wound up working at Lighthouse for a year. Basically, it was a very fluid job with a lot of different responsibilities, and a lot of event management. A really big mandate for Lighthouse is giving back to the community. There's obviously a huge wealth of knowledge there, so part of it is being able to share our mentors' expertise. I would help to organize mentors with Ladies Learning Code events and host their workshops. We also hosted an event of December 2015 called Code Create, which was organized by one of our alumni. I just helped her plan the whole event. We had, I think, 70 kids come in and learn to code for a day. So that was super-exciting.

      GS: When did you enroll in boot camp?

      SV: I took the boot camp in September in last year and I graduated in November and I started working at my new company in early December. It's called Omnifilm Entertainment.

      GS: Can you describe the process as you went through boot camp?

      SV: It's definitely very intense. On atypical day we would get there at 9. You usually have an hour or two of lectures, depending on the topic. After that, we get access to that day's assignments. So you have a whole bunch of daily assignments that range from little readings and modules to logic-based exercises. But we also have weekly projects that we're completing. You'll do your daily assignments while working on this project. You get graded and you get a code review on your project every week. There's a lot of face time with the mentors and the instructors, which is definitely one of the biggest benefits of the program. I was there Monday to Sunday, most weeks, 9 a.m. till 9 p.m., getting stuff done. It's very immersive.

      Sarah Veness says that the best way to learn a computer language is to immerse yourself in it.

      GS: How did that help you make the transition into your current position?

      SV: When you're learning to code, you're learning a new language. I think you really need to immerse yourself in the culture and the atmosphere of it entirely to really wrap your head around it. What I'm doing now is nowhere as intense as boot camp. Boot camp really builds up your confidence that you can solve problems that you’ll face day to day. A lot of the projects are also built that way. On one of the projects you're given an existing code base. You just have to jump in and start building different features or fixing bugs. It's supposed to mimic what you're going to experience when you get into the real world. A lot of people think that when you're coding, you're sitting there in front of a blank editor and you're building a page from scratch. That's not the reality for most people entering a job, especially as a junior developer. You're jumping into something that already exists.

      GS: To what extend was boot camp focused on JavaScript?

      SV: The point of the boot camp isn't to make you a JavaScript developer or a Ruby developer or something like that. Really, the point is to teach you how to learn a language. Once you leave the boot camp, you have no idea what you're going to be working in or working with. You could learn everything there is to know about a language, and the next year, there will be something new that everyone is learning and transitioning to. There is definitely more of a JavaScript focus. We definitely learn Node JS. We also have a week on Rails as well. You really get the full-stack experience. Even HTML and CSS we spend time on. They really want to give you a little bit of a taste for everything.

      GS: What advice do you for anybody who might be thinking about Lighthouse. What skills would they need before getting involved?

      SV: When I was working there, I was very much like a frontline person for a lot of people that were coming in and thinking about taking the program. I think above any technical skills or background you have in coding, it really needs to be the kind of environment you thrive in. It's very intense. I think that's one of the most important things to really keep in mind about a program like this. It's not a traditional school model but I think that's what makes it so great. You really get to immerse yourself for the full eight weeks plus the additional week for your final project. Advicewise? Really just do it. If you're thinking about doing it and taking the program, you just got to take the leap and see if it's right for you or not. I think if this is the right learning style for somebody and they're passionate about wanting to do it, you just need to take the steps and do it.

      GS: What has been your connection to the HTML500?

      SV: I'm going to be cohosting the Vancouver event, which I'm really excited about. I'll be hosting with Don Burks, who's the head instructor at Lighthouse.

      The goal of the HTML500 is to promote digital literacy.

      GS: What's going to happen at the HTML500?

      SV: It's going to be a full-day lesson: building your first page in HTML and CSS. It will be really good for beginners. With any of these events whether you've coded or not, I think just being in that kind of environment where people are building things—whether it's new material or old material to you —everybody takes something away. Even the mentors definitely will leave with something. I know I always do when I mentor.

      GS: What have you learned while encouraging women to get involved in the tech field?

      SV: How do you encourage more women to want to enter this field that's been primarily male-dominated for a really long time? What are some of the factors that hold women back? I don't really know that I have the answers. For myself, I was really interested in tech from a young age, but I still pursued a communication degree because I just didn't feel I would be able to excel in a computer science discipline. I don't think it was necessarily that it was this overt: girls can't do math. Or girls can't enter computer science. It was just a very subtle kind of feeling. It made me think I'm just going to take communication because that's what I'm probably better suited for.

      GS: What’s out there for youg girls interested in a tech career?

      SV: I'm part of this program called Technovation right now where I'm mentoring two little girls. One is 12 and one is 13, and they're trying to build their first mobile app. It's a worldwide program. It's really cool, actually, a 12-week-long program. They get paired up with a mentor. The idea is that the girls do all the coding themselves. There's a very robust curriculum that they're following. I'm there to give them some hands-on support. They say girls that enter this program are 50 to 60 percent more likely to enter careers in the technical field compared to girls who don't do any kind of program like that.

      GS: Do you have any thoughts about where you would like to be three to five years?

      SV: That's a great question. I'm definitely really passionate about mentoring and I would love to keep working. I'm going to be instructing some Girls Learning Code events this year. So I would love to keep doing something like that. I really like the company I'm with right now. I definitely want to stay in Vancouver.