Combining Teaching and Coding: Robert Deckard’s Journey from Principal of Inmates to Software Engineer
When he was directing the educational program at a Texas correctional center, Robert Deckard assumed he had the perfect job for himself: one that benefited society and utilized a major professional talent—teaching.
Then one day—after thinking about a world going quickly digital—Bob googled online computer science degrees. He browsed through dozens of courses and noticed that many required him to take prerequisites he had already completed. (He had earlier received his master’s degree in educational leadership and administration.) “I didn’t feel like I should have had to start all over again,” Bob said.
Fortunately, the native Texan caught sight of the Coding Boot Camp at UT Austin. He liked that it was an in-person class that he could attend part-time.
Without thinking twice, Bob enrolled. He started class and continued to work full-time at the correctional center.
Confronted with new challenges and applying grit
As is the case when acquiring any new skill, the Coding Boot Camp came with some challenges. Bob faced a steep learning curve and felt a bit daunted by the sheer volume of work. Having breezed through school, Bob was used to being at the top of the class. He began to question if he had made the right decision.
Bob soon realized that he was surrounded by helpful resources: the instructor, the TA, and even his classmates. “The teacher was extremely knowledgeable—not just in coding but also with the industry,” said Bob.
Importantly, he wasn’t afraid to fail. “You learn more from failures than successes,” he said, noting that his past career had taught him that lesson time and again.
Bob appreciated the varied demeanors of his fellow students. “There were personalities of all kinds—they were funny, silly, and serious, depending on what we were working on that day,” he said.
Making the meet-up easier
For Bob’s group project, he teamed up with two students who both had previous coding experience. Consequently, he fell into the role of the “ideas man,” he said. Trying to coordinate where in Austin they could huddle on the project itself, Bob and his team decided to develop an application that could triangulate meeting participants and then suggest coffee shops or restaurants that would be roughly equidistant for all.
A quick Google search by Bob and his teammates discovered that a version of their idea already existed; undeterred, they created their application and added one significant improvement. In addition to triangulating a meet-up location, they included an in-app chat feature.
Revisiting the past
After a full career in K-12 education during which Bob worked his way up to becoming principal, he decided to use teaching in his individual coding project. So he leveraged a lifelong skill set to create proof-of-concept software.
Bob’s software asked users a series of questions about how-to topics, such as ‘How to Change a Tire’ or ‘How to Boil an Egg.’ If the user answered 80 percent of the questions correctly, they would receive a certificate (e.g. “Certified Egg Boiler”). But if they got less than 80 percent correct, the program would display an on-point video tutorial. In this way, Bob’s software proved that the concept—of customizing lessons through testing—could be realized.
Combining new skills with old ones
While the intensive coding program enabled Bob to get the skills he needed to jump-start a new career, Bob didn’t completely abandon his teaching skills. Tapping into the boot camp’s career resources, he found a role at Home Depot as a software engineer, but the title doesn’t encapsulate everything Bob does. “I always like to put an asterisk, and add ‘instructor,’” he said, because he spends much of his time teaching and on-boarding new software engineers.
Bob is grateful to have taken the boot camp—and glad that he stuck through the inherent challenges. When asked what advice he would give future boot campers, he didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t let frustration overwhelm you into quitting. And don’t be afraid of the past experiences that you’re bringing to your job search,” he said. He added happily that once he secured his new job, he helped to get one of his classmates hired, too.