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Alumni Stories, Coding, Tips & Advice

GA Grad Guest Blog: How to Get Your Pre-Work Done Stress-Free

General Assembly
June 14, 2024

This is the second guest blog in a series by GA grad Tim Bruns. If you haven’t already, check out his first post on how to quit your job and embark on a complete career change.

The next morning after I’d quit my job, my euphoria was replaced by panic — and I was scared to death. With hours of pre-work to complete in under two weeks before my full-time General Assembly bootcamp started, I began to question if I’d made the right decision.

Well my friends, this is where you learn what you’re really made of.

GA requires a considerable amount of pre-work to be done by the time you hit day one of your cohort. This is for good reason — you’re quite literally about to immerse yourself into a highly complex and nuanced world. You need a dip in the kiddie pool before you dive in the deep end, and the pre-work serves this exact purpose.  

Fear not, future coder. This guide will equip you with the tools and strategies to not only survive, but even thrive during this pre-bootcamp phase.

Set & Setting

Your environment matters — if you’re taking an online GA course, this is especially important to address upfront.

Location and vibe play a crucial role in your ability to maintain focus. Creating a dedicated space at home is preferable if you can keep constraints on interruptions. Setting up shop at your kitchen counter is probably not ideal. Find a room with a door that closes — we’ll invent our workstation later. If home isn’t doable, public libraries are good options, but try to avoid noisy coffee shops.

Keep it simple — find a spot with solid lighting, fast Wi-Fi, and low distraction.

Hacking Your Senses

While some swear by music for concentration, learning new concepts of varying complexity demands your full attention. My advice is to skip your metal or rap playlist for now.

You can hack your auditory senses in other ways though. If you’re a Harry Potter nerd like me, check out this background ambiance study music to transport you to the Gryffindor common room.

Remove knick-knacks, trinkets, or other visual disturbances. If you need a stress ball, allow that to be the one bright spot on your desk. I might sound like a broken record, but put your dang phone in a desk drawer on silent and leave it on silent — give your brain a fighting chance.

Create a Work Station 

I’d also recommend procuring some new or used equipment. Even though this can be cost-prohibitive, it can provide a motivational boost, similar to how a fresh pair of running shoes can energize a runner.

A solid semi-new MacBook is sufficient to meet GA’s requirements. However, if you’re getting a new MacBook, I recommend physically going to the Apple store to speak with a store associate. I was able to negotiate a $100 “new student” discount off a $1,700 MacBook Pro (back in 2017, mind you). Every little bit counts.

Ignore the allure of an expensive new desk or fancy chair — all you really need is a decent cushion, a chair with back support, and a sturdy table. If you can macgyver a method to switch between sitting and standing, all the better.

A second monitor significantly improves productivity. Amazon has a ton of cheap options under $100. Facebook Marketplace is littered with people getting rid of quality monitors. Don’t shy away from buying used — you won’t regret this essential piece of gear.

Finally, consider using timers to stay on task and mitigate interruptions. Whether you use your watch, phone, or invest in a fancy gizmo like this one, timing routines like the Pomodoro Technique can keep your pace up and on track.

To be clear, other than the laptop, none of these are required. But I promise you the right equipment can make your time behind screen all the more enjoyable. My setup was a normal desk, a wooden chair with a pillow, and an old Samsung TV I converted into a monitor (stacked on top of some books) – a jerry-rigged job through and through, but functional nonetheless.

Become a Time Management Master

GA will push you to hone and develop your project management skills. You’ll need to get creative in finding new ways to manage your time effectively.

Tools like Trello can be incredibly useful in breaking your pre-work down in manageable chunks. Don’t over-engineer it — create three columns to represent your backlog, what’s in progress, and what’s complete. Beneath each column, create cards that represent small tasks or lessons, and drag them along as you progress. 

This is a muscle you’ll build over time. If you’re like me, you’ll come to find immense joy in using Trello (or your project management tool of choice). That’s also when you’ll realize you’ve crossed to the dark side — you’re a real dev now.

You’ll undoubtedly learn about Agile planning and SCRUM methodology. The inventors of this method famously base their practice off an untold insight — humans are actually terrible estimators of time. Don’t let your optimism fool you into falling prey to the planning fallacy — you’ll underestimate nine times out of 10. To combat this, you’ll need a system to document, prioritize, and monitor tasks in a practical way.

For a deeper dive, check out Cal Newport’s new book Slow Productivity, and his pull versus push technique. I’m confident his message will resonate for those of you coming from roles where work is constantly thrust on you via endless email threads.

Other Tech Tools

Code Beautifier – Spacing and indenting your code is a necessary skill for the sanity of others as well as your own. Perfect code formatting is a breeze with this tool.

Stack Overflow – This vast knowledge repository is a must-learn for navigating coding challenges. Don’t rely on AI shortcuts like ChatGPT — learning to search effectively is an essential developer skill. Not to mention, you’ll miss out on the community aspect of what it means to collaborate openly with other struggling devs.

Replit – This online playground lets you experiment with code snippets and practice coding interview problems. Great for on-the-go tinkering — I used this religiously on my train commute to and from GA’s NYC campus.

Regex101 – Bookmark this one for later — you’ll thank yourself when you delve into regular expressions.

The Power of Breaks 

If you learn one trick from this post, it’s to step away and go for a walk. It’s not a social (or social media) hour. Allow yourself to think your thoughts — sometimes the answer you seek is just jammed up between your ears.

Step away and recharge. Take a walk, clear your head, and let fresh air spark those “aha” moments. A little fresh air and movement can unstick more than you can imagine. I can’t tell you how many mini epiphanies I’ve stumbled on walking through Union Square and Madison Square Park, near GA’s campus.

One of my favorite hacks is to create a small system of rewards in order to take a break. When you finish a lesson or section, allow yourself a snack or a 15-minute walk. Incentives are a powerful way to drive progress.

Embrace the Beginner Mindset

There’s no shame in being a beginner. Own it. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your peers are likely grappling with the same questions. Asking questions and seeking help are essential developer skills. Utilize available tutoring and support resources early and often.

Get comfortable being a n00b — it’s a right of passage and 100% part of the journey

Save your shame, because I can tell you from firsthand experience, the imposter syndrome is part of the process. No one expects you to be a master coder on your first day. 

My cohort was set to begin on Monday, October 23, 2017 (shout out to my fellow Hamiltonians!). It was the Friday before and I was stuck on the last part of the pre-work — a card-matching game, which included some JavaScript that felt above my pay grade. 

Instead of spending the entire weekend wrestling with the problem, I saw that there was a free evening office hour for new students. I grabbed my laptop and hightailed it into the city. I was lucky to get paired with a teacher’s assistant who was willing to work with me for over two hours. 

This was my first experience truly discussing a coding problem out loud, writing draft code (pseudo-code), and visualizing the solution on a whiteboard. Not only did I finish the last exercise just in time to enjoy my final weekend of freedom, but this session also gave me a glimpse of what the GA program would be like. It made me incredibly enthusiastic to jump in and start learning.

The Final Word on Pre-Work

Don’t wait until the last minute. Getting your pre-work done is a serious commitment and 100% required when you arrive on day one. I worked at a very steady clip and barely finished. The classmates of mine who started a step behind had a hard time catching up — falling behind compounds quickly, especially in the beginning.

While GA’s pre-work is significant, it prepares you for the program’s intensity. By creating a focused environment, utilizing helpful tools, and prioritizing your well-being, you can conquer the pre-work and step into your GA experience with confidence.

Looking to dial it back pre pre-work? Try one of GA’s free skill-building classes (I recommend Hands-On Coding Basics). 

ABOUT TIM BRUNS

A few years after graduating college, Tim realized his lifelong dream of becoming a sales trader. But after reaching the summit, he quickly realized his dream career was the wrong fit — for a litany of reasons. So at 27 years young, he had a “eureka” moment, quit his supposed dream job, and attended a General Assembly coding bootcamp. It was both the most radical and important decision he’d ever made. With help from General Assembly, he re-learned how to learn immersively, acquired domain expertise, and landed as an early employee at a scrappy tech startup — where he still works today as a Team Lead & Sr. Solutions Engineer. Check out Tim’s blog for everything from advice on choosing a coding bootcamp to no-nonsense LA restaurant reviews. 

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