Advice from a Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp Alumnus

My bootcamp experience started with a mindset.

I was a student at Dal one year into my second undergraduate. I had already been the “super student” in my first degree.  I knew I could lock myself in a comfortable place, study for an hour or two every day, and nail the midterms as they came. But other than a degree with the word “honours” on it and a GPA that was supposed to indicate my capabilities moving forward, what else did I have? Computer science was a more practical field. I decided to come to Dal and supplement my skills in the sciences. I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “super student” anymore. Instead, I was going to devote my time to building up a set of practical skills that I could take with me when I left. Learning to program was part of it, but the real challenge was building my network of people. I wanted to have connections that could take what I’d learned farther than I could on my own. It was with this in mind that I read an email from ShiftKey Labs inviting students to apply for the Nova Scotia Sandboxes Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp. I applied the same day.

For me, preparation began before I was accepted. I told the manager at my kitchen job that I might need the time off. I told my partner that I might be staying in Wolfville for the first two weeks of May. And then the wait began. First, I received a letter that I had been shortlisted. We had a few days to answer some interview questions which would determine whether we made the final cut. I talked to my co-workers about each question, trying to get an idea of what the interviewers were looking for. The question I remember most was something along these lines: “Think of a time when you failed at something. What was your reaction? How did you respond?”.

My co-workers told me they were probably looking for me to show that I can take failure and turn it into something positive.  I agreed and tried to reflect that in my answer. I wrote about doing poorly in a chemistry course in my final year of my first degree. A few more days passed before I received another email: I had been waitlisted.

I interpreted this as a failure. After all, why would anyone go through the second stage of the application process and turn down their spot? Despite my answer to the interview question, I didn’t turn this failure into a positive.  I dissected each of my answers, wondering what I had done wrong. Confused and defeated, I went to sleep that night thinking of how to go about telling my manager that I would need to work those two weeks after all.

When I woke up the next morning, I had another email stating that I had been accepted into the program. My disappointment turned to shocked and excitement. I booked my bus ticket to Wolfville, packed my bags, and mentally prepared to put all of my energy into the bootcamp for two weeks straight. I was going to learn everything this bootcamp had to teach me and make as many new friends as I possibly could.

Our first night was filled with icebreakers. The one I remember the most was where we had to introduce ourselves along the lines of “I’m Alex and I want to go to Ireland” (that was my actual introduction and I did indeed go to Ireland later that year). But before you introduced yourself, you had to go around the circle introducing everyone else who had gone before you. It has been almost a year since that first night and I still remember that Kyle wanted to go the moon.

Our first night ended in Wolfville at Paddy’s Pub where we continued to get to know each other after the icebreakers were finished. I was stricken by the different backgrounds of people attending – we had people from college, undergraduates, and master’s degrees with backgrounds in psychology, English, business, computer science, agriculture, geography, and more! Every single person had something unique to contribute to our knowledge pool and I went to bed that night with an empowered feeling that I could learn something from all of them. I could have told you then that Bootcamp would change my life but that was just the beginning.

I won’t write a lot about the bootcamp’s content – I went in with almost no idea of what we were going to learn and I think that made it more valuable. Design thinking is a powerful skillset that makes it possible to generate many ideas in the hopes that one idea will be great. Dr. Jenny Baechler, who leads the main workshops, is an incredible speaker. What she had to say has influenced the way I approach problem solving in almost all aspects of my life. The Sandbox Managers were there to support us the entire time and – even more importantly – would also be there at our respective schools after the bootcamp was over. We spent our two weeks trying to design something that would help people in Wolfville to properly recycle. That was our theme, but the skills we learned were much more universal.

Over the two weeks, I made 50 new friends. We still talk and I make a point to see them whenever they’re around. Every time we ate at the Wheelock Dining Hall, I made a point to sit with people I hadn’t sat with before. We went dancing at The Vil even if we were the only ones there. I went hiking in places I had never seen before. We dressed a person as a robot and had them wander around Wolfville telling terrible jokes about recycling. It didn’t matter how late we stayed out or how early we had to get up – there was always a reason to be excited for the next morning.

One mantra of bootcamp was to fail early, fail often, and succeed sooner.  If I could rewrite my initial application now, I would write about how failure is the key to getting rid of an idea that won’t work and welcoming in an idea that will. And with the view that failure is an opportunity to grow, there are no wrong choices I can make. Each step is always a step forward.

Here is my advice to people thinking of going to the bootcamp:

  1. Don’t go because of the money. Money can come from almost anything you devote your time to, so choose the bootcamp because it offers something else that is valuable to you.
  2. Be prepared to meet passionate, enthusiastic, incredible people who will have a different way of looking at the world than you do. These can be some of the most important relationships you will make in your life.
  3. The experience is entirely dependent on the effort you put into it. Remember that if you are accepted, someone else is missing out on this opportunity. Make sure that you get more from the bootcamp than somebody who may not have been accepted would have.
  4. You will learn a lot in a short amount of time. You will likely leave the bootcamp feeling different than when you started and only the people who were there with you will really be able to understand it. Know that those people will always be there for you and that change is a good thing.

If Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp sounds like something you would be interested in applying to, you can apply online here before March 25th, 2019.

Author: Alex Sproul

Lab Coordinator at ShiftKey Labs. Bachelor of Computer Science Student at Dalhousie University.

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