Growing up in a small town in Colorado, Denise Stark never even considered working on a computer. She loved nature and the outdoors, so after earning her Earth Science undergraduate degree in the early 2000s, she planned on working in water management. But since life rarely plays out the way we expect, Denise found herself making a big move with her husband, working nights and weekends in retail, and eventually staying home full-time as a new mom. Several years later, at age 39, she felt lost—and knew she had something to prove to her then-11-year-old son.
Discovering all the potential that the University of Denver (DU) Coding Boot Camp could unlock for her soon changed everything.
“Enrolling in the boot camp, I wanted to show our son you can reinvent your life at any time,” Denise says. “You can try different things, and not everything’s going to work out, and that’s OK because you can always try again. But also, if you work hard like I did in the program, things will pay off. The boot camp was a clearly defining moment in my life, and it put me on a completely different trajectory I never would’ve accomplished otherwise. Now I think our son understands: Mommy did it, so I can always do that for myself, too.”
Discovering the “Magic” of Coding—and a Fresh Start
“Back when I got my bachelor’s, everyone saw that as ‘the end-all be-all’—you get your dream job and you’re happy,” Denise says. “But after graduating, my husband’s first job took us from Colorado to Alabama, where my prospects in water management weren’t great. I went from retail jobs to banking, and then we had our son. Once we moved back to Colorado, I found it more difficult to break back into the work I wanted to do, so I wound up raising our son at home for a good five years.”
During all that time, Denise longed for something she could professionally put her mind to and be proud of. Her husband kept suggesting she try programming, since she liked working with her hands and building and fixing things. “But I kept telling him I only know how to use computers for three things: email, social media, and shopping,” she laughs.
Denise finally budged and tried out a short weekend course on a whim. “I didn’t know what I was doing and initially thought I’m too old for this,’’ she admits. “But at the same time, coding seemed kind of fun and magical: You type in code and it turns into something on screen that can move and change and serve a valuable function. So that’s what kept me going—and knowing I was doing this for my family. When the DU boot camp popped up in my research for a more in-depth coding program, it was a no-brainer to apply. DU is a big university with a well-known name and great reputation.”
The Boot Camp “Sisterhood”
One unique aspect of Denise’s learning experience was that the boot camp’s entire class of students, as well as the instructor and TAs, were all women—a rarity in a tech-intensive program. While the DU boot camps offered today are co-ed, Denise was part of a women-only cohort pilot.
“It was a really neat dynamic,” Denise explains. “I was one of the older women in the class and struggled more, and some of the younger women were more tech savvy, but it still became like a sisterhood. I asked a lot of questions, and that was totally welcomed. We helped each other out. High kudos to our instructor, too. She had worked in the field for a long time and was easy to understand. But if you did struggle with a concept, she’d explain it in a different way and keep doing that until it clicked.”
Three years later, Denise remains close to about a half dozen of her peers. “I feel really fortunate to have had that experience, because I’m the only woman developer on my team now,” she says.
Facing the Future—and the Unknown—with Confidence
A couple of months after completing the DU boot camp, Denise landed her first tech job, working primarily in web content management. But it was her second job—as a programmer for IHS Markit, now part of S&P Global—where she really saw the connections between her boot camp learnings and day-to-day work.
“Learning React.js was key to what I do today,” Denise emphasizes. “I work mostly in front-end development with a little back-end work thrown in with SQL and API. At the moment, for example, we’re taking a client’s old C# code and rewriting their entire site in React.js. Lots of things still come up that I don’t understand, so I continue to ask a lot of questions. It’s kind of understood in tech that’s what you do, because you’re constantly faced with things you don’t know. Just like what I did throughout the boot camp, you learn how to step outside your comfort zone. But it gets easier the more you go along.”
Since starting at IHS Markit over two years ago, Denise has clearly become a lot more comfortable in her tech role. This past January, she was promoted to associate II software engineer—and for right now, she feels that puts her exactly where she wants to be.
"For me, if I’m enjoying what I’m doing, not feeling like every day is the same, and continuing to learn and grow—and also feeling proud of what I do—then that’s success,” Denise says. “I know it may sound a bit corny, but honestly I feel like the boot camp saved me. It enabled me to find that level of success for myself without having to go back to school to get another degree and spend tons of money on something I wasn’t even sure would make me more marketable. The boot camp far surpassed the expectations I had for what a job could be like—the respect and support and salary, and all the possibilities for my life.”
Newfound Gifts and Opportunity
The boot camp has also given another “gift”—the ability for Denise to now let her husband figure out what’s next for his career. “He has pretty much always worked in software or hardware but now he wants to pursue a career in music, so he’s taking the next year or so off. Everyone needs that time in life, where you have the freedom to explore yourself and actually be a person. The path from the boot camp now lets me say, ‘Honey, I got this, go do your thing. I can support the family, it’s OK.’"
But down the line, Denise’s dreams are sure to grow. “I love working on tickets and hands-on designing things,” she says. “Sometimes my husband has to rip me away from coding work at the end of the day because I can get really into it! I love to mentor and coach people, too. So who knows, I may even apply to be a boot camp TA or instructor someday. We’ll just have to see!”
And that’s the opportunity Denise now has—the freedom to explore and feel fulfilled.
This story is part of a spotlight series on alumni of boot camp programs whose experiences will be captured in the release of the Gallup-2U Boot Camp Graduates Study this summer.