While TJ Hawbaker wasn’t a fan of the college experience (he dropped out of two undergraduate degrees in nuclear engineering and computer science), he knew he loved making games and programming. After travelling the United States and doing his research on coding bootcamps, TJ was impressed with App Academy’s unique deferred payment option. TJ met his current employer at App Academy’s Demo Day and now loves his job as a software engineer at social media news aggregator Banjo. We chat about the appeal of App Academy’s payment structure, the positive pressure of weekly assessments, and how he’s ramped up at his new job.
Tell us what you were up to before you started at App Academy.
I dropped out of school twice, each time after just one semester. I studied Nuclear Engineering at University of Tennessee and Computer Science at a small school called DigiPen in Seattle, then I spent three years traveling around the United States.
I was teaching myself programming but didn’t know how to make the jump from hobbyist to a career and that’s why I sought out App Academy.
After you dropped out of college and were travelling, were you teaching yourself to code were you using Codecademy or other online platforms?
I’m definitely the exception relative to others that went to App Academy. Most people have very little coding experience. I was used to the concepts already because I had been teaching myself. I studied to program video games at DigiPen so when I dropped out, I continued coding for fun.. I made lots of very simple games like Bejeweled and little shoot-em-ups.
When did you decide to do a coding bootcamp?
I decided a full year before attending. I realized that I really wanted to code for a career and I saw App Academy as a perfect opportunity for me. I’m not the kind of student who wants to sit in a classroom listening to lectures all day. At these bootcamps, you’re learning something new every single day that you’re actually putting to use.
Was your goal to get a job as a developer once you finished App Academy?
That was definitely my goal at the time. Ultimately, I wanted to get some professional experience under my belt, but in the near future, I want to be working as a cofounder.
Why did you choose App Academy? Did you look at other bootcamps?
I looked into Dev Bootcamp and Hack Reactor. They seemed to all have good track records, but I only applied to App Academy. A lot of it came down to the payment structure. App Academy is the only bootcamp that students can attend for free, because the school only gets paid if the student finds a job.
That made a big impact on me, first because I didn't have money to pay for an expensive bootcamp, but also because, I felt like if these guys wanted to get paid, they would have to get me prepared.
What was the application process like for you? Did you have to do a technical interview?
It started out as a simple application process; I sent in my resume and told them why I should be admitted to the school, then there were a couple of coding challenges which they provided prep material to study for.
After those coding challenges I went on to interview with one of the cofounders and had a final live coding challenge. We did all of that over Skype.
The tuition structure at App Academy is unique, and you chose the tuition deferment option- what was the agreement?
The job that you accept after App academy is your choice completely. You can get multiple offers and accept the one best for you. The payment structure for App Academy is that they take a percentage of your first annual salary. There are tons of companies out here that are hiring engineers so I think it’s more important to find a cultural fit than to choose the highest starting salary or accept the first job offer you get.
How many people were in your cohort?
I believe that we had about 45 of us. The size of the cohorts varies. From my understanding after speaking with some of the cofounders, App Academy accepts as many people as they feel are qualified for the class.
Was there enough space and instructors for 45 people?
Yeah, there was definitely enough space. They have a very good system where they hire TAs from the class that just graduated. These are people that just finished the class and know the material – usually some of the most talented people in the class. There was always someone available if you had questions!
How many head instructors did you have that weren’t TAs?
I had two head instructors. One of the cofounders, Ned, and CJ, who has been the head TA for two years now. They were both fantastic teachers and truly smart guys.
What did a typical day at App Academy look like?
A typical day usually started with a lecture on some of the more complex subjects. Sometimes they would run up to one hour but generally they were pretty short- 20 minutes or so.
Then we would start pair programming, where we would work on a project or set of problems for the whole day with a partner.
Were you assigned those projects?
That’s right. It was at least 90% hands-on training every single day. We were learning so much so quickly. We had to study for the material that night, so everyone came to the class prepared each day.
Was everybody in your cohort on a similar technical level? If not, did it even out over time?
Everyone starts App Academy with different expertise. You’re going to be pairing with people who know more than you about certain things or less than you about others, but you can learn from both experiences. If you don’t quite understand the concepts, having someone work through them with you is essential. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t understand a concept, you get to teach them and it reinforces those concepts in your own head.
Did you feel it was a diverse cohort in terms of age and gender and race?
Our cohort was diverse in terms of race and age, but less so in terms of gender. I think we had 6 women.
I think App Academy is very selective in the type of people that apply so that factors into the cohort makeup more than anything. All of my classmates who were able to go through the program successfully were all highly driven, highly motivated people, who were willing to take risks. I think that is the single most determining factor of who was actually in my class.
How many people graduated with you of the 45 who started? Did a lot of people drop out?
I want to say there were 4 or 5 people that didn’t complete the program. App Academy has a 10 – 15% attrition rate every cohort; and I think it’s for a good reason. It’s such a fast-paced environment, you can’t afford to be pairing with people who aren’t as motivated to keep up with the rest of the class.
Did you have exams or assessments?
Yes, we had an assessment every week. If you failed two of these assessments, you would be out of the program.
Was that a lot of pressure?
It was! It was a good pressure. It kept us motivated throughout the whole program. Every day you’re learning something brand new that is completely different than the day before – and the assessments kept you on track.
Were you tested on material from that week or tested cumulatively?
Each test was on material from just that week. Usually the assessments were on Monday mornings so you had the whole weekend to do some practice tests, reinforce the ideas in your head. You would be fine as long as you paid attention and studied the material. It sounds scary that you can get kicked out, but they actually made it very reasonable.
How many hours a week were you spending on App Academy in total?
It was pretty much all of my time. I moved in from out of town and I was living with a bunch of other people that were also going through the program.
Even though the classroom hours were 9 to 6, when I got done with class I was just coding more with people who were also in the class. I’d say at least 14 hours a day, 5+ days a week.
Aside from the teaching style and the environment, were you satisfied with the curriculum and the actual material that you were taught in the class?
Honestly, I feel like App Academy gave a very good overview of web development. You may be learning Ruby on Rails for two weeks in the program, but it’s not really about learning how to use that framework. It’s more about learning how to learn any framework.
They teach students how to teach themselves. In this industry, that is certainly a key to success. Since leaving App Academy I’ve picked up a few other languages and a ton of different frameworks; it’s a nonstop learning process.
Are there things that you didn’t expect or that you wanted to change about the experience? Were you able to give App Academy feedback?
Every student has access to the curriculum and could make suggestions and offer ways to change it. That’s how the curriculum has grown to be what it is today.
Was the curriculum changing as you were going through the class?
Yeah. Each cohort they’ve iterated on the curriculum to see what works and what doesn’t. The curriculum has changed since I went through it but it’s definitely moving in an even better direction than when I was there.
Besides pairing with individuals on assigned projects, did you also do a capstone project?
Yeah. We spent 7 weeks pair programming, then we had two weeks or so where we built projects from scratch.
Can you tell us about your final project?
Mine was like the game of Telephone but using drawing instead of whispering. A user would draw a picture, then the next user would have to describe that picture with words. The next user would have to draw that description without any context of the original drawing. This would continue for 10 - 15 users. It lead to some pretty hilarious chains!
What technologies did it use?
It used things we learned in class: Ruby on Rails for the back-end and Backbone for the front-end framework.
When did App Academy start prepping you for interviews and resume building?
That happened after week 9. Once we’d finished final projects, there was about three weeks of nonstop prep work. Every day you were updating your resume, creating your personal website, and fixing up projects to show employers. We also had daily algorithm lectures and practiced whiteboarding problems.
What are you up to now? Did you get a new job?
I’m working as a software engineer at a company called Banjo, which captures and organizes all the public social media data in the world that we can get our hands on. We do this in real time and by geo-location, so users find out about events as they happen all over the world. I love what I do.
How large is the team that you work with?
Our engineering department right now is about 20 engineers
Did you feel supported at your new company when you started at Banjo?
I wouldn’t say there was any hand-holding by any means, but there were senior team members who I could turn to if I had any questions.. The whole industry in general is very cooperative and because of that it’s very easy to grow once you start a job.
Did you get the job through your own networking or through App Academy?
App Academy does a demo day where employers come and check out your projects. I knew that because my resume was sparse, I would have to wow employers with my final project.
At Demo Day, the Banjo team loved my project, wanted me to come in for an interview and I eventually got a job.
How long did it take you to actually get hired after you graduated?
For me it was about 5 weeks. Compared to the industry that’s pretty good. But there were people in my class who got hired within a couple of weeks. There were also people who struggled a bit and didn’t get hired for a couple of months but eventually found a job that they really enjoyed.
What is App Academy’s approach to alumni support? Are they tracking your job search?
Simon, the COO, helps people find placement. Because App Academy is very selective in the sense that the only people who apply there are highly motivated, generally those kinds of people don’t have trouble getting jobs. Every once in a while people can struggle and that’s where Simon comes in. He’ll help you set up interviews or he’ll bring people in to interview.
What types of people do you recommend App Academy for?
I would say App Academy is for people who don’t like the traditional schooling system. It’s more like a trade school. You should be motivated to learn about something that you actually want to use.
App Academy gave me the opportunity to work in an industry that I love, doing awesome stuff every day, which is an opportunity that I would never have had otherwise.