Life at Bitmaker: Health Edition

In Randall Stross's book The Launch Pad, Paul Graham says of the most successful Y Combinator participants: “They just sleep, eat, exercise, and program.” When it comes to advice, there is plenty of crossover between the learn-to-code movement and the startup incubator scene. Graham's observation applies equally to Bitmakerlabs as it does to Y Combinator. The sleep, eat, and exercise bits — preferably in balanced measure — are as important as 'programming' in both realms.

yoga sans cc licensed by flickr user fontfont

In any intensive environment, the temptation to ignore your health is strong. Chris Johnston, one of the lead instructors at Bitmakerlabs, often makes an analogy that learning to program is like learning to play music; it's all about practicing. A nine week learn-to-program course like Bitmaker only allows a limited time to practice — approximately 1500 hours if you don't sleep. Most students are tempted to maximize their time by arriving early, staying late, and generally being hardcore in terms of workload. I thought the same way, but I am here to warn you about the downside.

After only four days in the course I was sick. Perhaps it was the stress of winding down my previous project. Perhaps it was the 40 new people I was meeting for the first time and shaking hands with. Perhaps my mind thinks I can cram like I did in university, but my body knows better now. In any case, soon after starting at Bitmaker, my immune system was in revolt and I spent a good portion of the first weekend in recovery. Week two was spent catching up. I got sick again in week three. It was no fun. And I wasn't the only one. Several students — and one instructor — took one day off or more the same time as me.

The course material at Bitmaker builds on itself, so falling behind early is a bit of problem, but trying to dig out from the workload wasn't helping with my recovery. In the end, it worked out but I wasn't in good place for a few weeks. If I did it over again, I would leave at 5:30pm as if it was a normal job, get some sleep, and not try to conquer the programming world in the first week.

If you are considering Bitmaker Labs, here is what you need to know:

  • You can come and go from the classroom environment as you see fit. There is only really 2.5 hours of 'lecture' time per day. It goes between 10am and 12pm every day. There is a 20-30 minute recap/standup later in the afternoon, and instructors are on hand until 6pm. Aside from these commitments, your time in the program is your own. (Most students explore the assigned tasks in the time available, but you are adult so be responsible and know your limits.)
  • Access to the classroom is 24/7. For a small deposit, you can get a key fob from the co-ordinator and have the run of the space day or night.
  • While the course material prompts the students to be hardcore, the Bitmaker staff do the opposite. The founders are actually fairly overtly healthy-lifestyle proponents. Students are encouraged to get out of the building after lecture. Some students go to the gym. Some just go for a walk. You have the time to do what you want, find your bliss, whatever. Case in point, Will Richman, a founder and yoga practitioner, encourages students to attend lunch hour sessions at Tula Yoga down the street. Much to my initial surprise, this is/was on the class schedule once a week.
    The main takeaway is an obvious one, learning to code is a marathon not a sprint, pace yourself accordingly.