Code 411

‘I’m kinda curious about coding, what’s next?’, ‘I want to learn X, Y, Z – where should I start?’, ‘How can I just play around and see if I like this?’

I’ve noticed these questions becoming frequent subjects in my inbox. I’m writing this post to share my typical answers, and some of the best resources I’ve come across which you might love too.

“So, how do computers work?”

Quote-on-quote, a few friends have asked this, and I genuinely think it’s a good broad starting point. When I first started writing JavaScript code, I constantly had similar questions – how is this computer actually processing my code? What the heck is a compiler? How does it ‘just know’? It’s generally accepted that Harvard’s CS50 (a free online course) is one of the best resources to get you going. I took this course while I was working full-time at a tech company, and the fact that I thought this was a fun weekend activity says a lot about how engaging it is. It’s their introduction to Computer Science, and gives you a taster of a number of programming languages, while focussing on the general CS that will kick-start your coder mind-set. It’s also pretty atypical in that the lecture videos aren’t static, scripted ones that will potentially induce sleep – they’re recorded in real Harvard classrooms. Begin here. I predict it’ll make you yearn to go to Harvard and be in David Malan’s lively classes.

“Where can I get a taster of what coding is all about? Get me inspired!”

I adore Google’s Made with Code project, it’s one of the most unintimidating entry points I’ve seen. They’ve managed to subtly introduce some basic coding concepts (such as variables, and data structures) through creative mini-projects which take a few minutes to try – think making your own emojis, or mixing music. They’re also really active on social media, so it’s easy to check them out – go to their Instagram or Tumblr (they’ve built all of the cool animations with code. I love to use them in my posts!) The Techies Project is such a cool site which has a compilation of interviews with diverse people who are working in tech. You can filter by tags such as ‘self-taught’, ‘career switch’ or ‘LGBT’ and find amazing stories describing life in the industry. You’ve probably heard of Scratch, the interactive programme created by MIT’s Media Lab. It’s typically associated with teaching kids to code, but it’s also a great place for anyone to get a taster of coding (and is actually used in part of CS50). It lets you build little games, stories and animations, and similar to Made with Code, it succeeds in introducing fundamental coding building blocks without scaring you off if you have no prior knowledge. In addition, She++ is building up a collection of videos including webinars with the team in which they discuss their experiences with CS, and interviews with women like Theresa Johnston, a data scientist at Air BnB.

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Photo Cred.

“I want to start learning a language. There’s overwhelming choice. Help.”

The language you choose to first start coding with is probably best decided by your reason in wanting to learn. Check out this website – it has a fun quiz to help understand where you could begin. Below I’ve mapped out my two favourite programming languages, and the reasons why you’d want to learn them.

JavaScript

Why?

It’s the programming language for the web. ‘Interactivity’ sums it up in a single word. This website is a cool example of the use of JavaScript. Imagining if we didn’t use JavaScript… You would go to a website, and you wouldn’t be able to use the search box to find anything, you couldn’t click a button and expect a form to pop up, the content wouldn’t change – the webpage would be ‘static’. So if you’re interested in creative programming, and want to build websites or web-based applications, it’s the standard go-to. If you want to read more about why, take a look at this.

Where?

Step 1:  Download a text editor (the place you write your code). (I love Atom).

Step 2:  Get familiar with the command line (the interface for typing commands     directly into your Operating System). (I use iTerm for Mac).

Step 3:  Master the basics of HTML and CSS. (CodeAcademy is great).

Step 4:  Read up on Google’s Chrome dev tools (can’t live without it when you’re debugging!)

There are a ton of JavaScript frameworks and libraries (think React, AngularJS, JQuery), but starting with plain old ‘vanilla’ JavaScript is probably best if you’re starting out. I really liked CodeSchool’s online course (try the ‘Roadtrip’, parts 1-3). There are two video series on YouTube which taught me so much – JavaScript – Understanding the Weird Parts (I can’t hype this enough), and the Derek Banas series. Use the Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) docs if you’re looking up syntax or trying to understand methods. If books are more your thing, the classics are Douglas Crockford’s ‘JavaScript – the Good Parts’, and the ‘Definitive Guide’. This Quora feed has an endless list of resources.

Java

Why?

Java is a powerful general-purpose language. I started learning it because I wanted to understand data structures, and how to write algorithms. It’s super popular, and is used pretty much everywhere – it’s great for building large-scale applications and software (for all operating systems), networking, and it’s even been adopted as the language of choice for creating Android mobile apps. Here’s more on why you’d want to learn it.

Where?

Step 1:  Install Java’s software development kit (JDK).

Step 2:  Download an IDE (integrated development environment – it acts as a text editor, and compiles, debugs, and runs your Java code). I use Eclipse.

If you’re starting from scratch with Java, I can’t recommend this Udemy course enough. It’s the only paid-for resource I’ve listed, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless it was totally worth the money. I did the first half before I started my CS Master’s, and it taught me more than any book did. Java has a massive API (application programming interface – basically all of the classes, methods, and so on, which help you write Java code) – so a key resource is the official Java documentation. Hackerrank is a great place to practice, and it provides varying levels of code challenges in Java which really help you wrap your mind around the key concepts.

Additional:

Free Programming Books – this GitHub repo has links to literally hundreds of free books on every CS topic. It’s invaluable.

Tech Articles – I’m a big fan of Backchannel (Steven Levy is the editor, he’s written some great books too).

Best University courses onlinethis repo has collated a list of all of the best courses. Quality.

Cutting-edge techPeter Diamandis’ site contains news snippets on the coolest tech advances.

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Photo Cred.

Doing it for the Girls.

It’s clear we’re in the midst of a period of evolution when it comes to women & minorities involvement in the tech industry. The first step for any shift of this magnitude is awareness, and it’s apparent that the issue is receiving the attention it deserves. I feel it’s a great time to be immersed in, entering, or gaining an interest in technology, despite the currently unattractive gender & diversity ratios. Yes, there’s safety in numbers, but there’s comfort in community. And that’s what so many of the groups and organisations championing diversity in tech have become. They’re advancing the issue beyond discussion, and are taking the invaluable next steps, which require action.

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Photo cred.

Here are just a few examples of people & projects that have gotten me excited:

Melinda Gates

She’s been one-half of the world’s largest private philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for the past 16 years – which we’ve historically associated with initiatives tackling health, poverty, and access to education. Yet, Melinda has just announced that she’s set her sights on an issue close to her heart – getting more women & minorities into tech. It’s ‘close to heart’ as Gates herself graduated with a Computer Science degree from Duke university in 1987, and then spent the next 10 years at Microsoft. She expressed her dismay (in her interview with Backchannel in September) at the decrease in CS degrees earned by women in the three decades since her graduation. I care about computer science. When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 percent of computer science degrees.” Now? The proportion of female CS grads has dropped to 18%. Gates knows “this has got to change”.

Having established a new office as the base camp for this project (separate to the Gates Foundation), Melinda asserts that they’re currently in “learning mode”. Following this period of learning, collecting information, talking to lots of experts, and looking at what research is out there”, she’ll decide where investments should go. She’s looking for input, and keen to learn and understand where her attention will be best placed. In a follow-up Backchannel piece, collating the ideas & opinions of readers, a particular comment gets a resounding ‘yes’ from me – Freada Kapor Klein advised “Please keep in mind the interconnections between race, class, and gender. We can’t just focus on women without specific interventions for women of colour — otherwise you’ll find that you’re only benefiting privileged white women, which is not the diversity that we’re looking for in tech”.

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Melinda Gates – Photo cred.

Areas of interest Gates has already identified include having role models (of all phenotypes), the ‘leaky pipeline’ in education when it comes to girls pursuing STEM subjects, and the perception of male-dominated fields (such as the gaming industry). She’s fixated on ‘Data, Data, Data”, and stresses that “anywhere you don’t have data, you need to have it. Data in this area will make it transparent”. And this is where the next woman comes in…

Tracy Chou

Tracy interned at Google and Facebook, before working as a full-time Software Engineer at Pinterest & Quora. I first heard her name when I stumbled upon a GitHub repo which she’d initiated to crowd-source stats on Women in Engineering. It’s a simple spreadsheet inviting companies to enter (thus, making public) the number of female engineers they’re employing. It was Chou who’d asked the question – “In raw numbers, are there actually more technical women in industry now than before? Is the percentage of women in engineering going up? What’s working? Is anything? Does anybody know?”

In 2013, she attended the infamous ‘Grace Hopper Celebration’, and following conversation around the lack of Women in Tech, she decided to look at the data, to understand the true extent of the problem. Yet despite the ‘data-driven’ approach to technology & start-ups which is preached non-stop, she was left bewildered as to why ‘data’ wasn’t driving this problem, and guiding a solution. So she penned a blog post on Medium, writing “I can’t imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we’re setting our goals against, are obfuscated.” It’s here that she welcomed tech companies to contribute their numbers to her public GitHub spreadsheet. With Pinterest’s blessing, she shared their ‘number’ – 11 female engineers vs. 78 men. Shortly after, hundreds more flooded in. Armed with hard figures, which can be viewed in their current state here, it’s confirmation that the technical arena is as white and male as everyone suspected.

Public diversity reports have become commonplace as result, but the numbers are slow to change. Chou left Pinterest this summer, and helped launch ‘Project Include’ who’s mission is to provide ‘meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for tech companies.’ They’ve curated a set of recommendations to accelerate diversification, hoping that the tech world will take note.

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Tracy Chou – Photo Cred.

She++

This non-profit was launched by Stanford students in 2012, hoping to ‘dispel the misconception that computer science is not a career for women and minorities’ by rebranding what it means to be in the technology industry. Through a number of truly engaging programs, She++ is enlisting high-school & college students to become diversity champions by organising events, mentoring others, and seeding discussion. These programs include the ‘She++ Ambassador Program’ and the ‘#include Fellowship Program’, all aiming to build a new generation of technologists who advocate inclusivity. The first She++ chapter outside of Stanford has just launched in London, based out of UCL (and I’m psyched to be the Community-Lead this year, alongside some amazing women).

She++ is student-led, and there’s a clear understanding that by demonstrating computer science’s capacity for social impact and problem-solving, there’s potential to inspire and break down barriers. Thus, there’s an emphasis on hosting events that exhibit this. The upcoming London event – She++ Codes London – exemplifies this. It’s a hack-day for students from underrepresented groups to get together with mentors from industry, and learn as much as possible through a workshop series (for beginners) or a mentored code project (for those more experienced).

With sponsors such as Google, Palantir, and Sequoia Capital, there’s an endless runway for She++ to create an engaged community. The She++ documentary is probably the best I’ve seen on the subject of Women in Tech, and a must-watch if you haven’t seen it.  Join our London Slack channel if you’d like to hear more.

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You’re considering a Coding Bootcamp?

Last year, I made the decision to attend a Coding Bootcamp in San Francisco. I left my super stable job, said Adios to my friends and family, and moved country (with my life stuffed into a single suitcase). It’s almost a year since the day I walked through those doors on my first day, and it’s been one hell of a year. I’ve had countless people ask me for the lowdown, and many friends who are curious about getting into coding, so I’m gonna lay it out. Here’s an account of my experience of a bootcamp, and some factors to consider if you’re contemplating going for it.

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Location:

Should I stay or should I go?

The majority of coding bootcamps have sprung up in the States, particularly in the Bay Area. If you’re a California-native, great. If not, is moving to the West Coast a smart plan? This one is tricky, and really dependent on financial circumstances, and willingness to relocate.
Personally, it was 100% the right move. After living in Paris, I’d moved back to Ireland in 2014, and settled into Dublin life, amongst my big circle of friends. Whilst being a really happy and social period, when planning to do a bootcamp, I took the somewhat extremist attitude of ‘I know what I’m going there to do, and I’ll be more productive if that’s my only focus’. Instinctively, I knew that removing myself from what was familiar (and the (welcome) distractions of family and friends), being a stranger in a totally new place was the ‘all of nothing’ shake-up I craved.

The major challenge is the fact that rents in San Francisco are constantly ranked the highest the world, making this unrealistic for some. Fortunately, I’d a won a scholarship (supporting Women in Tech) to a ‘live-in’ bootcamp, which meant the whole ‘living’ situation was taken care of. For obvious reasons (being in the centre of Silicon Valley!), attending a bootcamp in the Bay Area is incomparable, and if financially feasible, I’d definitely say ‘do it’! Alternatively, research your options – I know people who’ve moved back in with their parents, maybe you have family in a big city, or possibly you’re single-minded enough to work & save until you can afford to move & rent in your chosen spot. Coding bootcamps are gaining attention fast, which means new ones are launching in a number of locations, so keep your eyes open.

Structure/Intensity:

What does a typical day look like?

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the intensity. I discovered the word ‘bootcamp’ is not thrown around lightly. We were mentally and physically exhausted most of the time. But in the best way. We’d signed up to an ‘immersive’ programme, with the desire to learn as much as possible in this relatively short period. And that’s what we got.

8am:   Wake up, feel like you haven’t slept. Eat the unhealthiest breakfast possible, whilst trying to fix one of the 5 bugs you’ve tossed and turned over all night.

9am:   Morning scrum – stand up and summarise your wins/struggles in doing last night’s homework. When it’s not your turn, have one hand on your keyboard, trying to deploy your assignment to Heroku.

9.30am:   HackerRank challenge – a coding problem, for which you need to come up with a JavaScript solution, within the time given.

10am:   Class begins, in the form of interactive lectures given by the bootcamp instructor, typically on a new topic each day.

12.30pm:   Lunch. Sometimes with a side of sunshine. (Getting outside for little walks was a simple pleasure, for which there was sometimes no time).

1.30pm:   Class continues.

5.30pm:   Homework assignment is given out and discussed. Panic / excitement ensues.

6.00pm:   Dinner.

6.30pm:   Begin homework. This typically involved building a full-stack web application each night (meaning you have frontend webpages, a server, and a database which make up an application you can access online using a URL).

11.00pm:  Mid-project slump. Typically involved sharing a tub of ice-cream, and reassuring each other. (Others went the workout / wine / smoking route to relieving stress). There were teaching assistants to help with troubleshooting, and pointing in the right general direction, which was helpful.

Unknown:  Bedtime varied from passing out at 1.30ish, to making a valiant attempt at getting a working app until 4ish. Dependent on mood & level of exhaustion.

This was pretty much the routine for 6 out of 7 days. Christmas was such a welcome break, and a time to rejuvenate (I flew home to my family in Ireland).
Back in San Francisco for the second term, it was structured a little differently. Projects were usually much bigger, undertaken in teams (or as pair-programming projects), and lasting for about a week each. This meant there was a less rigid schedule, and time to explore topics you wanted to learn more about so that you could successfully apply them to the app you were building. There was also a shift in focus towards developing a personal website, updating resumes, and seeking job opportunities.
Our class became TA’s for the new cohort, so mentoring became a part of the weekly program too.

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Preparation:

How can you prepare? Can you be a total beginner?

This is one of the things I would have done differently. I worked for a crazy hectic Tech company in Dublin for a year & a half before the bootcamp, and finished up on the first Friday of October. I left for the States on Sunday. The bootcamp had provided a lot of pre-work to do beforehand, but juggling this with a full-time job and getting ready to relocate wasn’t the best lifestyle for preparation. (Over the prior year, out of interest, I had completed some CodeAcademy courses, and Harvard’s CS50 Intro to Computer Science course, while working. But this was at my own pace). The majority of those in my class had spent at least a couple of months getting ready, without the pressures of work / school. I remember berating myself a lot at the time, and thinking of how I could be excelling at a much quicker rate if I had spent some solid time getting ahead before I arrived. It was a constant game of catch-up. Despite how much I was learning every single day (and loving it), there was never once a moment of comfort where I felt I was adequately prepared. Any coding practice or experience you have will really stand to you. Thus, my advice is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Your chosen bootcamp should supply you with a basic curriculum or some guidance on the best way to do this.

The Fun Stuff:

What else do you do beyond coding?

Bootcamps aren’t all classes and coding. There are a number of other great activities that make them a brilliant insight into the tech industry. We took part in Hackathons (giant events where a bunch of coders & designers get into teams, and work intensively on a product or solution in order to win prizes). My team were actually winners in the first Hackathon we entered – with our (pre-Pokémon GO) speech-to-text Pokémon game. Being in the Bay Area meant it was possible to attend a number of tech conferences, visit the offices of some cool companies, and enjoy guest talks given by speakers from industry. All of this immersed us further into a community of coders, hacking away on their various projects, and into the tech community as a whole.
Travel. When the boot camp ended in March, being in California, and feeling it was as yet, unexplored, I rented a car and went on a major road trip. (I wrote a post about it). We did it really cheaply, so if you decide to do a bootcamp in a new place, and have a little money left over at the end, go for it.

Outcomes:   

What happens when you’re done?

The end-goal for almost all bootcamp students is to get a job as a developer. At the beginning, it seemed highly unlikely that we’d be ready for employment in as little as 6 months, but it’s easy to underestimate the amount of knowledge you’re absorbing in that environment. And ‘imposter syndrome’ is a big thing.
From my class, people have gone in a variety of directions – most have gotten jobs (at companies like Google and Accenture), some are working on their own start-ups, and some are still looking.

For me, I really wanted to keep learning, and feel like this is just the beginning. At the bootcamp, we learned purely JavaScript and it’s frameworks. (This is typical of bootcamps – they’ll have a particular ‘stack’ or ‘language’ which they focus on teaching. Python and Ruby are also common). I’m totally intrigued by Java, and C++, and the exciting projects one could work on if these are mastered (top of my list are Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning). For this reason, I decided to apply for Master’s in Computer Science programmes, as they focus on these. I received a tempting job offer for a Software Engineering position which I knew I’d love and learn a lot from, but decided to turn it down. I’ll be attending University College London (UCL) this year. I start next week, and I’m beyond excited.

One of the best things that the bootcamp has equipped me with is the ability to learn on my own, which is immensely empowering. I had no idea what to do with the command line, GitHub, or the Docs before I started. And now I do. I’ve spent the past couple of months learning Java (aided by a great Udemy course and this book), and it feels like second nature.

If you’re considering doing a bootcamp, or are simply curious to know what it was like, I hope this was insightful. 🙂

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_____Photo Credit – http://madewithcode.tumblr.com/ ____

Bold problems for bold people.

“As some of the smartest people look at where to focus their energies next, they’re now attracted to the biggest problems facing humanity.” ~ Elon Musk.

If you’ve had the good fortune to have attended College, what did you study, and are you still inspired by it?

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I’ve been consumed lately by the book ‘Abundance – the future is better than you think’ (Peter Diamandis & Steve Kohler).  Having read their subsequent title ‘BOLD’ last year, it’s been a refresher on their unique worldview, and has re-injected me with optimistic energy. It also made me think.

I studied Chemistry at University. In the Irish education system, there’s no ‘dabbling’ in a variety of classes, or coming to an informed decision about your major/minor (something which blew me away when I studied abroad in the USA). In Ireland, you select your course of study in your final year of high school, and off you go. Without getting into the reasons why I chose Chemistry, the point I kept returning to lately was why I’d become disillusioned by it? Why had I become resolute in not pursuing scientific research, or gone the conventional route of submitting endless Masters/Ph.D. applications? All throughout ‘Abundance’, I was hit by numerous Chem-related problems, being solved in ways that got my heart racing… One example being the ‘Lab on a Chip’ (LOC) diagnostic technology which is addressing a root cause of 2 million deaths a year from acute respiratory infections (like Pneumonia) in developing countries – not because we don’t have cheap, accessible drugs, but because they typically go undiagnosed. Another example being ‘BioCassava Plus’, which is a genetic modification of a staple food crop, fortified with Vitamin A, iron, zinc and protein. Given that it’s a daily meal for 250 million people, the potential impact on human health is considerable.

Instead I’d turned to Technology, and began exploring Software Engineering about a year ago. Why? The only constant guiding my path was that I knew I wanted to work on problems that affected the world at large.

The raw potential that I saw in being able to understand computer code for taking on grand challenges, and solving the problems I was confronted with and cared about, was the overwhelming motivation.

The keyword in the previous sentence is confronted with.

As a teenager in high school, or a student at University, awareness of the possible (and wild & wonderful) use-cases for what we’re learning, would make learning take on a whole new meaning. Thinking back to the ‘college me’, like many others, I had nothing if not an appetite for hard-work and the desire to connect with what I was learning, but in my experience, there was a critical piece missing. The awareness piece. This is what I gain from reading, and what I was reminded of by ‘Abundance’. Time and again, it breaks down how clear problem statements (especially coupled with new technologies) can yield incredible solutions.

Many of the world’s grandest, and thus inspiring, challenges – clean water for all, sustainable energy, disease – still scream for our attention, and in this time of DIY Innovators, it’s fair game on who can make breakthroughs. Diamandis writes that these ‘solo tinkerers or groups of motivated individuals can achieve what used to be the province of corporations & governments’. As technology grew in importance, and this DIY culture caught fire, he says that ‘…success depended on one’s DIY capabilities, and those capabilities depended on one’s DIY capabilities, and those capabilities depended on one’s access to ‘tools’. These tools are information.  The little that I have come to know about the world’s challenges, and the technologies aligned to address them, I have gleaned from books, and the media I consume online. They weren’t dealt with in school or University. But isn’t this at the heart of why we learn in the first place? To figure out how best we can contribute to the world and the problem or movement we’re passionate about changing?

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The free flow of information is so important to us that in 2011, the UN declared ‘access to information’ as a fundamental human right. Diamandis founded the X-Prize, partly to raise the visibility of grand challenges, and to help create a mind-set that these challenges are solvable. I think the ‘X-Prize worldview’ should go global. Where do school or University students go to hear about the biggest and boldest ideas & problems? Who explains what ‘A.I’ means, or how 3-D printing works, or how the Internet of Things is shaping the products they’ll soon come to rely on? There’s infinite potential for how these technologies can be utilised to make breakthroughs. I think awareness could be a game-changer. These topics are the brain-food that imaginations crave.

A guide to the ultimate California Roadtrip on $250.

Disclaimer – you’ll be sleeping in your car.

If, like me, you’ve had lifelong dreams of the Big Sur and an epic roadtrip (shamelessly inspired by Thelma & Louise and Jack Kerouac), then I’m here to tell the tale of how it can be made a reality on $300.

Last month, my boyfriend & I, having finished a coding bootcamp in San Francisco, were craving an escape. With a long distance relationship on the horizon as I was returning to Ireland, we made the spontaneous decision to rent a car and go on an adventure. Having spent all of our savings during this 5-month period as students in one of the world’s most expensive cities, we pooled our collective funds & had a total of $600 – $300 each…

We did one night’s worth of research, printed a rough 2-page itinerary & packed up our lives. It turned out to be a mind-blowing, never to be forgotten experience. I would not have thought it possible to do such a trip on this budget, and in fact, to have had perhaps more fun being broke.

He did the driving, while I took photos & kept our travel journal. I’m sharing the details of our journey, budget, stopping points, and tips if you’re thinking about your own roadtrip.

Driving route & destinations:
I’ve created a Google Map of our entire trip (with each day’s driving routes color-coded). You can find it here!

Budget Summary:
Gas:                                                     $83      (total distance = 1500 miles).
Coffee Shops:                                   $30
Dinner:                                               $168
Parking:                                             $22
Air B’n’B (2 nights):                       $112
Snacks (Ice-cream & Wine)         $69
Other (incl. Yosemite fee)           $34
                                                           $518  ÷ 2 = $259 each

Trip Summary:
1,500 miles driven.
8 days on the road.
6 nights sleeping in a car.
Most played tunes: Drake, G-Eazy, and this Spotify playlist.
$259 spent each.
1,200 photos & videos taken.

Pre-requisites:
1. An awesome roadtrip partner. Goes without saying.
2. A car.
3. GPS (we used Google Maps on our smartphone).
4. Pack as much food/snacks as you can squeeze into the back seat.

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You can find it here!

DAY 1
Estimate of driving hours:      5 hours
Miles:                                             220 miles
Noteworthy places:                   Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Big Sur, Morro Bay.
Highlight:                                    Mc Way Falls!

We left Fremont (SF Bay Area) and the first leg of the journey brought us to our coastal starting point – Monterey. It was about 9am, and on Monterey State Beach, we toasted our decision to hit the road with already warm orange juice. There’s nothing like the first time dipping your toes in the Pacific Ocean.

It was just 10 minutes drive to the sleepy little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. We stopped off for coffee at a spot on the main street called Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. Best scones ever. We strolled around the streets, the lady in an art gallery told us that Carmel was a place filled with ‘old money’ and lots of elderly people. #retirement.

Leaving Carmel, the Big Sur began. We put Bixby Bridge in Google Maps, and Siri took us to the infamous starting point. It was mind-blowing. We were stunned, and after Brixby Bridge, we must have pulled over at least 10 more times to take photos. The weather was perfect. It was mid-March. In the car, I sat back and took it all in – cruising along a cliff edge, endless blue sea, and open road. We were honestly speechless. We stopped briefly at the Henry Miller Memorial Library – a quirky little place, honouring the writer who inspired the writers of the Beat Generation. A little further on, we came to Pfeiffer State Park & across the road – Mc Way Falls. Photo opportunity! Whoa.

Back on the road, we drove through Lucia, then San Simeon, and decided to continue on to Morro Bay. Thankfully, Morro Bay was a town as opposed to the previous two strips along the road-side. We saw a glowing ‘Pizza’ sign on the main street and rushed in.

So let’s cover the little fact that we’d decided to sleep in our car… With life-savings of about $350 each, a blowout splurge on this trip was not an option. Realising it was a choice of either not going, or essentially living out of our car, we went with the latter. (Might I add, I’d never slept in a car before. Ray had, once).  The process of finding a parking spot for the night became a hilarious game, as we’d debate the various criteria, such as lighting, safety, proximity to coffee. I just remember repeating over and over again that night – ‘this is real. Oh my god, this is actually real’. This first night we settled in the parking lot across from Mc Donald’s. Feeling classy, brushing our teeth outside the car, wondering if pyjamas would be a thing. Note, they’re not.

DAY 2
Estimate of driving hours:       2 hours
Miles:                                              90
Noteworthy places:                    Moonstone Beach, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo.
Highlight:                                      The Thursday night market at St. Luis Obispo.

Waking up, we shook ourselves off, and spent a couple of hours at Top Dog Coffee bar on the Morro Bay main street. As we were both in the middle of searching for new jobs, we’d agreed to try and spend some time being productive. We each had an interview scheduled for that morning, so were grateful for a little quiet.

First stop of the day was Moonstone Beach. We sat on the high cliffs at the seafront, and read. It had been so long since we’d had time to indulge in a book, so this was such a novelty. Ray was reading Ken Robinson’s Do school’s kill creativity? and I had finally gotten to start Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg).

I’d taken a sneaky little browse on Air B‘n’B whilst we were in Carmel the day before, and had booked us a place to stay tonight. I surprised Ray, so off we went to Arroyo Grande. For $50, my expectations were low, but we were so surprised by this place, it was glorious. There was even a giant hammock in the garden. The inability to shower that morning was probably the toughest thing about sleeping in the car, so that was our first port of call.

We happened to be in this area on Thursday night, and it turns there is a really popular weekly farmer’s market on that night in San Luis Obispo. (It’s on from 6pm, and finding a parking spot is tough if you arrive later than that). It consisted of endless food stalls, and our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs. We had churros to start, a burrito, Thai food, and amazing ice-cream from the Ice-Cream lab’ afterwards.

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DAY 3
Estimate of driving hours:       3 hours
Miles:                                              150
Noteworthy places:                    Santa Maria, The Butterfly Preserve, Santa Barbara, Malibu.
Highlight:                                     Santa Barbara pier & waterfront.

First thing in the morning, we set off to Santa Maria (about 30 minutes from San Luis Obispo). Third day on the road, it starts becoming somehow like normal life. We got some work done in Starbucks, but didn’t stay long in Santa Maria. We arrived in Santa Barbara in the afternoon & explored the Coronado Butterfly Preserve. We didn’t locate the butterflies, but a couple told us it was probably a little too early in the season. It’s a cute spot for a walk, and about 10 minutes through the forest leads you to the sea. Next we drove to Alameda Park (I’d read on TripAdvisor that it was cool), but it was a let-down, with nothing of interest there. Next, we parked close to the Santa Barbara pier, and took a stroll to the end. The sun was setting, so we got gorgeous photos. The pier was lively, but every eatery is pretty expensive. We got some delicious food at Farmer Boy – would definitely recommend it. (On the Alley is another Santa Barbara food spot, which looked even nicer, but it was closed when we got there). You know shit is real when you drive to Mc Donald’s to use their wifi so you can finish downloading the movie you’re going to watch in your car that night. This is how the night ended.

DAY 4
Estimate of driving hours:       2.5 hours
Miles:                                              65
Noteworthy places:                    Bel Air, Beverley Hills, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood.
Highlight:                                      Hollywood Boulevard is a weird & wonderful must-see.

All I remember from last night is not being able to find a good parking spot to settle for the night, and Ray saying ‘f*** it, I’m driving to Malibu’. I burst out laughing when I opened my eyes the next morning. It’s not often that you get to wake up in a completely different location to when you fell asleep. (And 50 meters outside Starbucks). Armed with coffee, we drove to Point Dume Beach. It’s a gorgeous cliff-side walk, and when you reach the edge, you can climb down to a little secluded beach. (We were thrilled because it’s one of the primary shooting locations in the Iron Man 3 movie). We drove around this area, and then around Bel Air, marvelling at the incredible houses, discussing how rich these people must be, and sketching out our future we’re going to be this successful plans. After Bel Air, we arrived in Beverley Hills. It was strange, actually being in all of these places, which previously I’d only heard of from movies and shows. We walked the length of Rodeo Drive. Window-shopping was fun. Both of us are into fashion, so we entertained ourselves discussing what we’d buy if we had money.  Hollywood is close by, so we headed in this direction, and found parking so we could explore Hollywood Boulevard. It’s the most commercial place I’ve ever seen (second being Miami), yet it’s definitely a must-see. We saw the stars craved into the pavement, held a giant snake, and managed not to buy a single tourist souvenir. There are great views of the whole boulevard if you climb to the very top of the Hollywood & Highland Center.  We grabbed some food and ate it here, with the Hollywood sign in sight, far off in the distance. Hollywood was a much too sketchy place to settle for the night, so we drove to Santa Monica a little before midnight. It was popping, with a ton of bars & clubs with blaring music. (Note: If you want a lively party spot, Santa Monica is it!)

DAY 5
Estimate of driving hours:      1 hour
Miles:                                             25
Noteworthy places:                   Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory.
Highlight:                                     Low-key chilling on the beach in Santa Monica.

Waking up in Santa Monica was perfect. We picked up our morning coffee and headed straight to the beach. There’s something so wonderful about just laying out a blanket, having a good book in your hand, and the sun blazing overhead. We were about 20 meters from the sea, and I think we could have stayed there forever. We got crazy excited the night before as we approached Santa Monica in the darkness – all we could see were the glowing lights coming from the amusements on the boardwalk. We strolled over in the afternoon, and restrained ourselves from wasting money trying to win a teddy bear. It would be a great date spot! (Venice beach is about 5 minutes from here, but we didn’t check it out.) We set off again. L.A. bound. I’d cheated, and booked us our second Air B ‘n’ B of the trip. The drive into L.A. is cool. Lots of tall grey building, big city vibes.  We ditched our things at the Air B ‘n B, and headed off for the Griffith Observatory. We drove far up into the steep hillside (there’s free parking up there!). There are lots of trails you can do up to the Hollywood sign, which I’m sure are great, but we arrived an hour or two before sunset, and the shortest trail is about 1.5 hours. The Observatory has incredible views. (I whipped out our selfie stick with absolutely no shame.) We got dinner that night at the Grove, which is a big mall outlet, more like a shopping village. We hit Blaze Pizza, and Veggie Grill, then stocked up on candy ( ‘sweets’ to us Irish folks) and spent the night watching movies on the deck of our little Air B ‘n’ B studio.

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DAY 6
Estimate of driving hours:     4 hours
Miles:                                            200
Noteworthy places:                  L.A. City Hall Observation Deck, The Last Bookstore, our car.
Highlight:                                    Driving endless miles. On a whim. Freedom!

We decided to spend the day exploring Los Angeles, so ventured deep into the city (there’s no such thing as free parking in L.A). Our first stopping point was the City Hall. There’s an Observation Deck on the 27th floor there, and you get a 360° view of downtown. Afterwards, we visited The Last Bookstore, it’s Cali’s largest new & used bookstore apparently. It’s quirky!

So Los Angeles was definitely the toughest destination to be without money. There was so much to do & see, but most of it, we couldn’t afford.  Our spirits were pretty low. Ray pulled over and bought 2 massive bags of fruit from a Mexican street vendor. Nothing like fresh pineapple to cure bad vibes. We decided to bail L.A. there and then. We’d both been blown away by the Big Sur, so decided to head back up North, and do it again. I was back on Cloud 9 within 10 minutes. So it turned into an evening of driving. (Arm yourself with great playlists before you go. We had the same 20 tunes on repeat most of the time!) It was a perfect few hours of driving, both of us deep in thought for most of it. (We had a ‘wine o’ clock’ routine, where it was time for me to have a glass whilst Ray drove. It was wine o’clock early that day!) We continued until we got to San Luis Obispo, and our dinner spot was Thai Jasmine Palace. It was an early night, both of us exhausted.

DAY 7
Estimate of driving hours:       7 hours
Miles:                                              320
Noteworthy places:                    San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Monterey.
Highlight:                                      Round II on the Big Sur!

San Luis Obispo is an amazing little town. I get such a great vibe from it. We spent the morning at Scout Coffee – a hipster spot, great for people watching. We caught up on emails, and had some downtime. We decided to treat ourselves to a Wholefoods visit afterwards. We bought falafel, hummus, pizza & salad, and had a delish lunch whilst watching TED talks on our Mac. We set off to do the Big Sur again, and it was just as good, second time round. The divine coastal drive is so…soothing somehow. (Going south is a slightly better route, as you are on the sea-side of the road, not the inside lane). We were much calmer this time around, but still pulled over at the side of the road multiple times to take in the views. We got to Monterey about 9pm, and stopped by a weird food joint/sports bar called Taste of Vietnam. We’d planned to visit Yosemite the following day, and were still 3 hours from it after dinner, so we decided to pull a late-one. I fed Ray the Ben & Jerry’s we’d picked up at Safeway for the first leg, and there were constant jokes about ‘street races’ as we followed the endless highway. It felt strange going inland, away from the coast, and much of the drive was deserted streets with no lighting. Cue ghost stories. We spent the night in a town called Oakhurst, really close to Yosemite.

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DAY 8
Estimate of driving hours:       3.5 hours
Miles:                                              180 (excluding driving around Yosemite Park)
Noteworthy places:                    Yosemite National Park.
Highlight:                                      Finding a real-life rainbow!

Waking up in Oakhurst, the air felt fresher already. The drive to Yosemite National Park only took about 25 minutes. Entrance for one car to the park was $25 (it’s $30 for the months of April-October). We were handed a map, and welcomed into this massive expanse of natural beauty. We entered the Park close to Wawona (here is the official park map) in the bottom south-west corner. I had no idea how big the Park actually was, and I would 100% recommend travelling around the it in a car (otherwise you’d be relying on the shuttle buses). The contrast in conditions was bizarre – in parts, the ground was covered in heavy snow (with cable cars, and people skiing), and elsewhere was warm & sunny. We drove North – past the Badger Pass Ski area, and Grouse Creek. The views at Inspiration Point & Valley View are incredible. Perfect photo opportunity’s. We came across a giant waterfall that was attracting lots of attention, and pulled over. We climbed towards it, and there was a tiny little rainbow that had formed, right in front of us. I for one, didn’t know this was possible! I was only aware of the Irish myths about finding leprechauns & pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. (See photo for proof!) In Yosemite, you feel surrounded by tall cliffs and mountains, or deep valleys all the time. We took an unplanned nap lying in a meadow, surrounded on all sides by postcard views.  We explored only about one-fifth of what Yosemite has to offer. We managed to catch the beautiful sunset as we were heading towards the exit about 7pm. It was the perfect ending. The drive back towards San Francisco was a quiet one. We stopped in Oakdale, famished, when we saw a flashing sign saying ‘fine Mexican food’. We arrived back at Mountain View around midnight.

If you’re debating embarking on an adventure in California, I say ‘do it!’ This was my first long roadtrip, and even with a really minimal budget, it was probably the best trip I’ve ever taken.