We Can Code IT has recently expanded and now offers its full-time and part-time full stack coding bootcamps in Columbus, Ohio, as well as at the original campus in Cleveland. We sat down with Lauren Holloway, the National Director of Education and Culture to learn more about the bootcamps’ focus on changing the ratio in tech to include more underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. We also learned about Lauren’s experience as a student of We Can Code IT, the reasons why the school is focusing on Java at the new Columbus campus, and how the bootcamp creates community and truly cares about their students.
What was your career and educational background before entering the coding bootcamp industry?
I studied sociology at Spelman College for undergrad. I got into tech after serving in AmeriCorps in Douglasville, Georgia. I had a position lined up in New York, but started to reconsider when I was in Cleveland to see family before starting my new job. My parents basically said, "You've always been interested in coding, and if you want to give it a shot, we'll let you stay here for free while you test the waters." I figured I may not have that opportunity when I'm 30, so I might as well take it now– so I ended up staying.
How did you get connected to We Can Code IT?
At that time, I was looking for an organization where I could volunteer consistently. I knew I wanted to be in the tech space and I knew I wanted it to work with diversity within the tech space. I went on Google and We Can Code IT came up as the very first search result, so I always joke around with our CEO Mel for having great SEO!
I reached out just to be a volunteer because at that time, I didn't know any coding at all. I was brand new to the whole thing, but I thought, "I have a DSLR camera. I can come and take photos at the events." At the time, We Can Code IT was more of a community outreach organization, so there was no coding bootcamp.
When did We Can Code IT switch to become a coding bootcamp and how was that transition?
We Can Code IT started in 2013, and it started as community outreach trying to get women and people who are underrepresented involved in tech. I will have been with the team two years in February. Shortly after I started volunteering with them, the model switched and we started moving towards the coding bootcamp. I ended up going through the very first bootcamp in 2015, and I've been teaching it ever since. Now my primary job is to ensure that the education and the culture of the program is being upheld, and opening up new locations as the National Director of Education and Culture.
It’s great that you were able to experience We Can Code IT as a student first and now as a staff member. How does it feel to now be on the other side, and what kind of perspective has it given you?
It feels amazing. When I first had the opportunity to learn how to code, my goal was to be a software engineer at a company. Making that transition into staying with We Can Code IT wasn't what I was expecting to do, but it's what I was supposed to be doing. Now every single day, I get to say to the students, "Hey, I really understand the struggle you are going through right now. I've been on the other side of that before and I'm going to pull you over to my side." Being able to do that over and over and over again for all these different students has been an amazing experience.
That’s great to hear! Okay, tell me about We Can Code IT’s new Columbus, Ohio campus.
It's been a whirlwind. The first cohort started on October 11th. We were not expecting to open in Columbus this early but we were pulled down to Columbus because of our employer partners, who were essentially saying they needed us now. One of our biggest partners in Columbus is a large financial company, and they were actually traveling up to Cleveland to recruit from our Cleveland campus. So they told us, "The quicker we can get We Can Code IT in Columbus, the better."
It has been exciting. We have our first cohort learning now, and we have an amazing group of people with great personalities, and the desire to learn. A big part of our culture is being collaborative, and being part of the team. From the beginning we tell our students, "You're going to make it through, but you're all going to make it through together. This is no longer just about you." This group has really grasped that idea. We have a great location, great people, and great instructors who have a lot of experience in the field.
Tell us about how the We Can Code IT team approached expanding to Columbus.
When we were first thinking about expanding, Columbus was definitely a clear choice, so the location was sealed. At that point, we didn't have a partnership with the aforementioned financial company, but once they came into the picture, it pulled us in even faster. Now that we have started the Columbus cohort, we are already looking at where our next location is going to be. Employer partners and other outside organizations are starting to pull us into these different cities.
What’s the tech scene like in Columbus, OH?
Columbus feels amazing right now. I recently spoke at the Women in Tech conference here and it was a great experience, as it's so rare to see that many women together talking about tech.
One thing I'm loving about Columbus is the diversity of the tech meetups. There's diversity amongst the actual technologies that the meetups are focusing on, but then there's also diversity that fits our We Can Code IT mold. For instance, there's a meetup called BlackHack, which is specifically for people of color. In a lot of cities, it's a lot harder to find these different types of meetups that are also going to fit our students. There's an upcoming meetup hosted by CrossChx, which is a pretty sweet company down here. Our students are already signed up to go to that meetup. They're definitely getting involved in the Columbus tech community – it's part of our program.
What do you think is going to make We Can Code IT stand out in Columbus?
I think what makes We Can Code IT stand out, and what will make us stand out as we're expanding across the country, is our focus. Our bootcamp is different because we're not just about training people. We are really focused on changing the face of technology, which the majority of bootcamps aren't doing. The fact that we are targeting women and people of color specifically, that we're graduating cohorts of on average 80% or more women and people of color – you're not getting that in other coding bootcamps.
What is student life like at We Can Code IT?
We're creating a space that feels inclusive, that feels like home, and we're building communities. Even after our students graduate; once they're part of We Can Code IT, they're always part of We Can Code IT. We have a "houses system" where our students are randomly sorted into one of the four different houses which are named after iconic people in tech. We have Hopper House, Turing House, Easely House, and Lawson House, and even within our houses, we're showing diversity. We have people of color and we have women. These houses allow our students to have a community so that once they're part of that house, once they graduate, they have this spirit that will maintain throughout.
So even if they're at these various companies, they're always part of something really special. They always have a home base. The other piece is that we have a career pathways program with an amazing chief career strategist. She's getting our students training and jobs, and also teaching them skills that they can take away. It's that idea of teaching a man to fish.
Within that career pathways program, our focus is understanding we're not all going to hit the same wall. There are certain walls that people of color, women, or people without bachelor’s degrees are going to hit when they're searching for a job and transitioning into the tech industry. So we're making sure that we are focusing our career pathways so that all the information we're giving is specific to the people who are in our program.
What is the new Columbus campus like? Are you in a coworking space?
We're in a historical building in Clintonville in the North Ohio State campus area. We're with Launch Labs and the team here is the nicest ever. They've actually renovated this place themselves by hand, so it's gorgeous with exposed brick, and tons of natural light. We looked at several locations in Columbus, and this was actually my number one pick. We're not in a co-working space as we have our own space that's separate from the Launch Labs Space.
The space really felt like the energy that I'd want our students to feel at We Can Code IT. Having this natural light, and this lightness to it, was really important to me.
How is the new Columbus campus cohort?
This cohort actually is a little bit different in the sense that we have quite a few students who weren't born in the United States. Actually, the majority were born in East Africa, which is quite a bit different. We're still having a mixture of people. I’ve really enjoyed the way they're able to bring in different perspectives.
For all of our cohorts, the very first day is all about breaking them down, breaking down barriers and rebuilding them back up as one team. We start off with three specific, interactive problems that they have to solve. For instance, how do you get through a maze with your entire team? We do breakdowns of what did you guys do well as a team? Where can you improve after every activity? They start to get it and it starts to click. This cohort is so strong.
Does the Columbus campus of We Can Code IT have the same curriculum as Cleveland?
We're doing something a little bit different actually. We take a very project-based approach to our curriculum and our delivery of it. In Columbus, we're going even more project-based than we ever have. The way these students are picking up the material, and the amount of material they're picking up is ridiculous. It's unheard of the way they're doing this! The fact that we can move into object-oriented programming within the second week with them is crazy, especially starting from zero.
What technologies are you teaching at the Columbus campus versus in Cleveland?
Where do you anticipate your student finding jobs in Columbus?
It's going to mirror Cleveland quite a bit as far as types of jobs that our students are going to be getting. One of the big differences between Cleveland and Columbus is really the tech stacks that the cities are looking for. We build our curriculum in-house, so it's all original– we test it out, and we're always coming up with new iterations for continuous improvement.
The curriculum is based on the market– the skills, the tools, and the languages that the industry is using within that city. So that’s why our students are going to be coming out with Java skills in particular here, versus C# up in Cleveland.
We also have our employer partners checking up on our curriculum. They'll say, "This looks good for what we need." We want the transition to be smooth for our students, so we don't see the point in training them in technologies that are cool to learn but not helpful for job placement. So we make sure we're teaching and creating simulation experiences, as far as development goes, so that they know what they’re getting into, and they'll be prepared for our employers.
What is We Can Code IT’s mission when it comes to students?
We genuinely care about our students, and they will never be just numbers. That's not who we are at all. We also understand that our students are often coming from situations that they're trying to get out of. They need more money. They hate their job. They can't support their family – and there is some vulnerability that comes along with that.
When you have people who have not been invited to the tech party before, you have all of these other things on top of the basic needs of life. There’s the imposter syndrome, the feeling of, "I don't see myself in this field. I’d never seen myself in this field, am I going to be able to do this?" All of these inferior feelings are happening, and we really take those into account. It's a big part of why we build students up as team, because they need each other for support.
But the other piece is, we realized they are trusting us with a very valuable time in their life. They're trusting us with money, and for a lot of our students, compared to college it doesn’t seem as expensive, and in college they don't even really help you get a job. But $10,000 is still a lot of money and we take that very seriously. We want our students to be taken care of because we really care about their lives. We care about who they are, and we understand that there's a very special trust relationship that's happening.
How many instructors and mentors are in the Columbus campus? Is it the same as Cleveland?
We’ve started with one cohort, and then in January we’ll start our second full-time cohort, and our part-time cohort starts on February 6th. There are two instructors per cohort. So it'll be some combination of an associate instructor and a lead instructor. We offer the same great, practical, innovative classroom instruction in both campuses. We also provide free tutoring, and special topics to our students.
How is the admissions process for the Columbus campus?
Admission is the same. Our administrative tasks go through Cleveland.
Has your prospective student’s profile changed at all now that We Can Code IT is in a new city?
What we're looking for is pretty similar. We're looking for women and people of color, and that's not going to change. So far we are getting a different type of diversity within those two things, but we're still getting the same basic student profile. The average age is about 31, the majority of them have a bachelor's degree in something that's not computer science related. Once in awhile, we'll have students with master's degrees in business or some form of engineering who want to switch to software. It just looks a little bit different as far as the type of diversity that we're getting within our diversities. Otherwise, what we look for is about the same.
Does the 180-day job guarantee still apply for the Columbus campus?
To clarify about the guarantee, you cannot guarantee people jobs. You can't do it. What we do guarantee is – if you don't get a job offer in tech and you're going through all of our steps, we're working together and you're still not getting employed, then we did something wrong. And at that point, we give students their tuition back, but it's not something that we're running into.
Our students are getting placed; the money-back guarantee is a security. We want students to know this is how serious we are about transitioning them into a new career. So we'll give them all their money back if they want to get placed, but don't. However, we don't see that happening.
Students need to put the work in too though. They have to work with our career services. They need to check in, do the homework, pass class. We’re taking this very seriously, and if a student doesn’t show up to an interview, for example, they aren’t going to get a job offer, so it’s a combined effort. We strongly facilitate the process, but there is work to do on the students’ end. It’s all spelled out clearly in our money-back guarantee agreement. Students need to sign the agreement and do their part of it in order to qualify.
What types of jobs have you been seeing your students receive in Cleveland? Are they relocating?
The jobs we're seeing usually depends on the company, but it'll be software developer, junior developer, or software engineer. We’ve had a couple of students who chose quality assurance (QA) jobs, or experienced students who have taken business analyst and managerial or executive roles. The majority though are still junior developers, or software developers.
As far as location, in Cleveland the majority of students are staying in Cleveland. We have had a few who planned to leave, a recent student from New Jersey just received a job offer in Seattle from Microsoft, but for the most part they stay in the area. I expect to see about the same thing in Columbus. But no matter where students go, We Can Code IT will help.
Any final thoughts about the launch of the new We Can Code IT Columbus campus?
If prospective students are looking to do something different with their lives, transition their career, and want an environment that's not going to be the traditional "I'm going to sit in front of my computer by myself and go through the struggle by myself," then we're your people. We Can Code IT is here to take care of you and we take it very seriously. It's really close to our hearts.
The fact that people on our team have gone through something similar speaks volumes. Our CEO is a woman, and she studied anthropology and psychology in undergrad and didn't transition to tech until after she graduated. We have instructors who have gone the same route as well, who maybe studied computer science in college, but have felt some of those same walls or boundaries because they are people of color. We're a community. So if you're looking for something that's more than just learning to code, if you're looking for a community, and a bootcamp that's really going to take care of you, that you can trust – we have your back.