Matt Studdert runs the excellent Frontend Mentor website, which helps newbie coders learn to make websites by making real projects instead of doing endless tutorials.  I have used it myself! Matt went from attending a bootcamp as a novice developer to teaching courses in web development at the very same bootcamp. I chatted to him about learning to code, tips for coding newbies and his advice for job seekers with no CS degree.

Many thanks for the interview! So can you give an introduction for people who want to know more about you?

You’re welcome, thank you for creating this awesome site! Hey everyone, my name’s Matt and I’m from London, UK. I’m the founder of Frontend Mentor, which aims to help people build their front-end skills by providing designs for them to build.

When I’m not working on Frontend Mentor I’m also a part-time Lead Instructor at General Assembly. I teach a lot of their part-time web development courses and workshops.

How did you originally get into coding?

I got into coding in my late 20s after studying in a completely different field. At school, I was never exposed to coding at all and was more into sports. This led to me studying Sports Science at university and then starting up a personal training business when I finished my degree.

Now and then I’ll mentally fast-forward my life 5 and 10 years and think about if I’d be happy if I continued on my current path. After 4 years of running my PT business the answer to that question was starting to become “No”. I couldn’t see myself doing it for the long term. As soon as I had this realisation my mind began to constantly wander to other possible routes for me. I still loved what I was doing, but I knew I had to make a change sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, all the ideas I was excited about involved launching a website or an app. Being that I had no coding knowledge at all, I thought it would be a good idea to start learning! As soon as I started, it was like a lightbulb had gone off and I was completely hooked! I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t ever coded before.

I started off using websites like Lynda and Codecademy. But soon a well-timed YouTube pre-roll ad from General Assembly caught my attention. I went through to the website and realised that they had a full-time bootcamp that was starting at their London campus in 4 weeks.

I was lucky, as I was in a position where I had some savings and some money from selling-off my PT clients to another trainer. So I immediately visited the GA campus and went through the interview process. I didn’t have my own place in London though, so for the whole 3 months of the course, I was sleeping in the spare rooms and on the sofas of friends and family. It was an amazing experience though and 8 days after completing the bootcamp I had already been hired as a full-time developer!

No CS OK  - a job board for developers without degrees

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What advice do you have for someone who is learning coding but finds it overwhelming?

Try as hard as possible to focus on a single learning goal and block out everything else until you feel you have achieved it. Keep it manageable, focused and plan out how you’re going to achieve it. In tech, there is always a new, shiny object to play with, which means it’s easy to get distracted. Hopefully, the plan will help keep you on track.

Learn at a pace you feel comfortable with and don’t worry at all if you feel like you’re learning things slower than others. I was in no way the smartest person in my cohort at GA. But over time I started getting fewer errors and things started to move where I wanted them to go on the screen!

Also, find communities that are supportive and welcoming to aspiring developers. Frontend Mentor has a Slack community with over 1,600 developers of all skill-levels talking about front-end code and helping each other out. If you like the sound of that, please feel free to join the community here.

Do you have any advice for programmers looking for their first job?

My main advice would be to demonstrate a willingness to learn and an enthusiasm for building projects. For your first job you will most likely get hired for attitude over aptitude. Showing a willingness to learn and improve, is especially crucial in the early stages of your career.

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Did you ever consider a Computer Science degree and if not, why not? Has it ever been an issue when looking for work etc?

Because I was never exposed to coding during my school years Computer Science was never on my radar. I have a feeling that if I had started coding earlier in life it might have been a different story and I might have gone down the CS route. However, these days, with the learning resources that are available for coding I wouldn’t see a CS degree as being critical to becoming a web developer.

I haven’t personally had any issues finding work as a result of not having a CS degree. It would depend on the role, but I don’t see it as a requirement in a lot of job specs. As long as you can show off some projects and talk through the technical aspects you should be able to get your foot in the door in a lot of places.

Why did you set up Frontend Mentor and how is it going?

One of the courses I teach at GA is a 10-week part-time front-end development course. Whenever a course ended, the most common question I would be asked by students was “Where can I go now to keep practicing?”. My default answer was to go to Dribbble and try to re-create some shots, build a portfolio site, or try to re-create downloadable template sites from scratch. But none of those options truly mimic how a front-end developer works.

After a while, I started to wonder why a site that provides designs for developers doesn’t exist. There are so many incredible tutorials and step-by-step code alongs out there, but I couldn’t find any site that just provides designs and leaves the rest to you. I thought it would be valuable for people trying to get out of “tutorial purgatory”, so I built it!

Since I launched the site the feedback has been amazing. It’s so rewarding to see people posting their solutions and improving with each new submission. Some people are even using their projects as portfolio items, which is awesome! The platform is still in beta at the moment, but I’ll be flipping it over to the main domain soon.

Any productivity tips for people when learning to code?

This isn’t specific to coding, but I think everyone should read the book Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. In a world of constant distractions, it really helps you implement tactics for staying focused on any task.

Did you ever think you would be teaching people to code? Do you think it’s easier as you’ve been in that position at a bootcamp yourself?

If you told 16 year old me that at 34 I’d be a web developer and instructor I would have never believed you! Teaching was never a conscious goal for me. At first, I came back to GA as a teaching assistant in the evenings to help reinforce my knowledge and earn a little extra money. But as soon as I started helping others progress I found it extremely rewarding.

I would say that having been a student at a bootcamp has helped shape my teaching style. I know how I felt as a student and so I want to make sure my students are as well supported as possible.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I would love Frontend Mentor to one-day be well-known in the industry as a valuable resource for helping people refine their front-end skills. I aim to keep growing the community and help as many people as possible gain experience of building in a real-life workflow.

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