James Schaffer - Learning to Code After Years of Social Advocacy


James Schaffer is a founder, strategist, product designer, and currently a freelance software engineer. He has over a decade of experience managing small organizations including a social justice advocacy firm.

James is skilled in entrepreneurship, planning, curriculum design & development, data ETL and financial modeling. James is committed to leveraging excellent product design and data engineering for social equity and progressive policy.

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A word from Grant

A few episodes ago, we had on the show Geoff Harcourt, our first history major turned CTO. Today, we’re going back into the liberal arts, in fact, you might say way back, and bringing on our first Latin and Classics major turned full stack engineer.

Today we are featuring James Schaffer. After getting a degree in Literary Theory and Classical Latin from Harvard University, James started his own bookkeeping firm. He followed this by starting his own legislative advocacy firm, called The Advocacy Institute, before going back to school to retrain as a software engineer.

These days, he’s a freelance full stack engineer. While Latin, the language, may be dead, it’s still useful to study and learn about it. Perhaps, it will even make you a better programmer! We’ll find out next, as we connect with James Schaffer and hear his journey from the classics to full stack development.

-–Grant Ingersoll

Episode Summary

“The core thing was providing training and tools for community organizations and social justice groups to be more powerful in their lobbying work.”

“I loved what I was doing but I wanted to be closer to the code. Software engineers would say ‘this is hard to do for X, Y, Z reason’. And its not that I didn’t believe them, but I just didn’t understand why.”

“Flatiron bootcamp is a bit different than university computer science. I think its way more applied and way less theoretical. We did basically no algorithm work.”

“10 hours of email coaching has been more impactful than years of psychotherapy.”

“Try not to write emails that are longer than 5 sentences.”

—James Schaffer

Key Milestones

  1. Why fascinated James about Classical Latin? What did it teach him about himself and his learning style?
  2. James has had at least 3 different inflection points in his career so far: bookkeeping, social justice advocacy, and now programming.
  3. Why did James get into full stack engineering and why now?
  4. How did James decide to go to a boot camp? Why did he pick Flatiron?
  5. What was the Flatiron bootcamp experience like?
  6. After graduating from a bootcamp, James started freelancing. How does he find clients?
  7. Why is email coaching and inbox zero? And how has it been a game changer for James?

Additional Resources

James learned to code at the Flatiron Bootcamp - https://flatironschool.com/

Geoff Harcourt on Develomentor – CTO of Literacy Non-profit, CommonLit #48

What is inbox zero? - https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/inbox-zero