How I ignored conventional wisdom, taught myself full-stack development, and learned to love the unknownFeatured

I pay a coding mentor $700 a month to meet with me for two hours every week. Many people have called me crazy, but they’re wrong. No one balks at $10k a semester for college - that’s considered a bargain these days. Those same people don’t bat an eyelash at the cost of coding bootcamps, but they tell me, “I could never afford to pay a mentor.” Looking back, I couldn’t afford not to. In the past two years, I’ve built three apps as side projects. Each app has leveled up my knowledge, I would guess, the equivalent of working a job for three to five years. Even better, my earnings have jumped up over $40k each year as I’ve added that work and experience to my portfolio. And it has been a blast. When I first started teaching myself development, I’d continually run into problems that’d take me hours to solve when I knew an expert could figure it out in five minutes. Although I had great respect for experts, I noticed that working with developers was often like pulling teeth. I was in a weird paradox of, “Oh my god this tiny bug is destroying me,” and also, “Would it really be that hard to program XYZ?”I got into tech because I wanted to build out my ideas. But I did client work to start. I always had to account for those difficult bugs in my quotes and figured others must be doing the same. The 80/20 Pareto principle came to mind. What if the reason that programming was so difficult was because 20% of the work was on the edge of your skill level? If you had help with that part, how much more could you accomplish? So I set out to find someone to help me with that. I started a campaign of Googling. I stumbled across this guy who had written a million tutorials online and had just launched a company to mentor people building digital products. His tagline said, “Ship your first product with experience, not stress.” Scroll down to price tag…$700 a month. Eeek. At that time, that was more than my rent and I had just started out in tech. But I felt I had to give it a shot. First session, I was blown away. Through one 2-hour session of pair programming, I had learned equivalent to at least a week on my own. And I didn’t want to throw my computer out the window once!Fast forward two years later, I’ve just accepted my first ever full-time job. It’s a senior position at a brilliant and well known tech company in San Francisco, and I blinked when they told me the salary. I’m also about to launch an app that I came up with six years ago and thought, “Welp, I’ll never be able to make that. I’d need 10 devs and millions of dollars.” It’s called Tripvector if you want to check it out. I need beta testers!Each one of the projects I made during that time pushed me to the limit. Every week, I’d work independently, make progress, but inevitably get horribly confused by that 20% that was beyond my grasp. Having a mentor allowed me to pleasantly move through that knowledge gap each week and it gave me endless practice of knowing that it will be okay. Now, when I have no freaking idea how to do something, it’s exciting. So Elphas, what’s that 20% for you? And how could you create a system to move through it? --Nicole Forrester is a developer/designer hybrid. She's designed enterprise apps from the ground up, and is a self-taught full-stack javascript developer. She's based in Philly, but thanks to remote work, spends much of the year traveling. After starting her first business at 13, she weaved her way through the fields of marketing, event design, and business consulting before landing in tech. Her latest endeavor, Tripvector, is a platform that takes the mental work out of travel planning by creating visual map-based itineraries.
This is awesome! I also had a mentor to get me through a difficult patch of teaching myself to code and it was sooo helpful. Unfortunately the program I did it through doesn’t exist anymore so I can’t recommend it to others. I also occasionally still want mentorship for myself, but haven’t heard of any good resources out there.I’m curious if you or others in the community have suggestions of where/how to find mentors/tutors for remote help? I’m sure many of us could use the support for that 20%!
Oh and ps I love philly ❤️ will you be living in SF full time now?
It’s remote! So I’ll be doing even more traveling now that I don’t have to worry about clients. For mentors, I recommend starting the search with something like or another easy online service. Its definitely way better to have a consistent mentor, but connecting with someone to get you unstuck also works wonders. Then you can be on the lookout for someone that can really help you skyrocket. One note I’d say about that. Good mentors love good mentees. They want to feel like you’re dramatically benefiting from their help. So make sure to impress them by the work you do in between sessions. You might meet someone brilliant who is willing to meet up a few times. They’re basically trying you out to see if it’s a positive experience for them. Even if you’re paying them, this part is more important.
I just saw you're in Seattle! I love it there as well!
Thank you for sharing your story! I am going through a similar path except that I could not afford to pay for a mentor since I left my job two years ago. But the good news is that hopefully very soon I will start my first full time job at a good tech company)). When I was a kid I always thought that one could learn everything on their own. This mindset helped me to reach where I am right now. When everyone else in my village would doubt my chances to get into university, I dared to dream that I can get a full scholarship which was the only option for me to get my formal education. Fast forward many years now, I feel that I should have had a more flexible mindset. For a long time I was trying to find a mentor, and I failed, except for very recent when I got a free three months course where we had mentors who could spend a limited time checking our homework. And that little help counts. Hopefully soon I am going to pay forward and become a mentor for those who were struggling like me.
That’s awesome. And just to mention, you don’t necessarily have to pay someone. There are definitely ways to build connections and find people who will offer you help. You will however, get more reliability if you do have a consistent payment schedule.
Thanks for sharing, Nicole! Your journey is inspiring and a great reminder to look for unconventional ways to push past the barriers on the edges of our learning curve. Also I checked out your app - what a GREAT idea! The idea of taking a weekend trip with my husband is now far less stressful. The interplay with a calendar and a visual map - genius!
Thanks so much Mandy!! I can't wait for you to try it out. Beta is almost out!!
You are an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your story - I hope to follow in your footsteps!
Thank you so much!! You got this.
Massive congratulations on your app Tripvector! I’d be happy to beta test it! I’d love to get to where you are to developing my own app/web application. I have a lot of ideas but always feel held back with 'but I don't know everything!'.I haven’t thought of getting a coding mentor before - I did have a couple of mentors via Built By Girls WAVE program and although helpful in navigating through my last year at university, I didn't have a coding mentor specifically.I learn a lot via pair programming, especially as you mentioned having a coding mentor helped you through the knowledge gap! A friend of mine mentioned to me to always code with someone who knows more than you, chances are you will be learning a lot more than if you were just doing it on your own.I think my 20% would be the knowledge gap and the way I could probably move through it is maybe by posting on Elpha seeing who wants to pair program? Although I'd love to pay for a coding mentor of sorts, as I'm on my job search for my first job in tech it's not currently an available option but I do look forward to having one in the future!
Hey thank you!! I'll definitely reach out. Or you can check it out online and sign up at I'd encourage you to get more specific about what your 20% is. Like say you have an idea. What are the parts you can do to get it going? What are the parts that are really difficult? With my app, I had a background in design, so I spent a bunch of time figuring out how it would function design wise, and then the development aspect started making more sense. Even when you know how to build things, it's really important to break in to small manageable chunks. Some of the most talented programmers I know routinely don't finish things because they make things unmanageable for themselves. The more you have to show someone else, the more willing they are to help. If you get started on what's in your grasp now, you'll be ready to accept the help that others will inevitably offer you later.
This is fascinating! Also, love the point about college tuition and investing money in a mentor- very valid. Were you at all nervous when you finally decided to take the leap and pay a mentor? What were your initial factors into finding the right one?Thanks so much for sharing your experience!
Yes, I was definitely nervous. But I had started out with mini mentoring sessions from online marketplaces for getting unstuck with a very specific problem. I knew how helpful it could be...but I wanted regular weekly sessions and a more experienced mentor. Anddddd...more experienced people won't do something unless it's a real value to them, so I knew I had to up my budget. I still remembering mulling over that decision. In the end, I figured $700 was an appropriate risk to take. Either way I'd learn a significant amount about what would work for me, and I could always cut things off after a month.
This is so ridiculously inspiring! As a bootcamp grad, I can definitely see the benefit of this!