[As of October 13, 2017, The Iron Yard will no longer be operating.] The Iron Yard campus has been thriving in Austin for over a year, graduating dozens of students who go on to find exciting jobs at Austin companies. But we had questions about what makes the Texas coding bootcamp’s campus culture special. So we spoke with The Iron Yard Austin campus director Karly Borden about their ideal students, why their team decided to add UI Design to the curriculum, and the tech scene in Austin.
When did The Iron Yard Austin Campus open?
The Austin Campus started in January 2015. We've run several cohorts now – we usually run a spring, a summer and a fall cohort. Right now we're in week 10 of 12 with our spring cohort and it’s going crazy (in a great way)! We have 28 students right now.
What is the tech scene like in Austin? Why is Austin a great city for The Iron Yard?
Austin has a really great tech scene. What stands out to me is that it’s very communal and supportive. There are a ton of meetups and free get togethers where people from the tech community hang out and connect with each other. I've heard in San Francisco and New York that it might be a little more cutthroat, but the community feels very generous in Austin.
There are also lots of Junior Developer positions open here, and I think that’s why all of the other coding schools are in Austin. Big companies and startups are both moving here, and startups are beginning to grow up in Austin, so there's a lot of really great opportunity to train up people who want to step into the industry.
What are Iron Yard students like in Austin? What do they like about The Iron Yard Austin?
Most of our students are career changers. Our age range is 20 to 55 but most of them are in their 20s to 30s. One of the most helpful things to them, in their own words to us, has been the sense of community as they step into the technology scene.
I went to a coding bootcamp panel a few weeks ago which featured students or graduates from each of the eight coding academies here in Austin. There are a lot of options and they're all great options. All the students had raving reviews about their respective bootcamps, but what stood out to me was how The Iron Yard students on the panel always referenced the sense of community. They come to get technical training but they get embedded into a cohort and a community as they're entering the tech industry.
What’s your background and how did you get involved as the Campus Director at Austin?
I have a degree in English, with an emphasis in creative writing. Towards the end of college, I became really interested in gender studies and women's studies. After graduation, I joined a Women's Business Center, where we educated and equipped women to start local businesses. It was a similar format to a bootcamp, where women created their business plans over 12 weeks. I realized I really liked working with people in transition who are reaching for a goal or dream that they want to attain.
When I moved to Austin, I knew I wanted to join an organization that had a goal and mission beyond traditional education and I came across The Iron Yard. The bootcamp style makes training a lot more accessible to a lot more people. I realized it was exactly in line with what I wanted – working with people in transition.
After working to get women into business, are you still focused on getting women into tech at Iron Yard?
Yes. That is a huge goal. Right now, we have an average of 39% women in each cohort here in Austin, but we’d like to get that a lot higher. The Iron Yard offers a diversity scholarship to make training more accessible to underrepresented groups including women.
I’m tasked with informing more women about what the world of programming and development actually entails, and the creativity it involves. Some people think programming is only accessible for a particular type of a person, but that is not true. I've just accepted a few women into our program who are linguistics majors with a background in writing and they see that coding is just learning a new language. It's syntax and grammar.
What is your campus like in Austin? Is it in a co-working space? What neighborhood are we talking?
I love our campus. It's in South Austin which is a really cool area with a great culture. We're in a complex called Penn Field which used to be an airbase. The building is very industrial in terms of aesthetic. We have exposed brick and metal, and this space feels clean and crisp in a way which inspires you to make things. We're also near so many cool restaurants.
The layout is really reflective of how we want students to work. We have tables, classrooms and then communal space where students do their lab time after lectures. It looks like a co-working space, and allows them to work in groups or pairs. On top of teaching space, they have a kitchen space for their comfort, and a lounge space for hanging out.
Students spend so much time here and often pull all-nighters. I think that's a large part of what contributes to that sense of the community or belonging. I walked in the other day, and there was a student who brought in his Vitamix and he was making everybody smoothies!
What tracks are you teaching at The Iron Yard Austin?
We started with a Front End and a Back End course, and then added a UI Design course. We're now offering the whole spectrum of courses. We're one of just a few Iron Yard campuses which offer the UI course, so we always get a handful of students from other cities coming to Austin, either for the three months to take the course, or they move here with hopes for a job thereafter.
Why did you choose to offer those particular tracks in Austin?
Do you run the three tracks concurrently or do you stagger them?
They all start at the same time, and we try to teach parts of them together. We bring a guest speaker in once a week who speaks to all the students. On Fridays we do huddles where all the classes come together and we remind each other that we're human. We cover soft skills, important industry topics, and expose students to the industry. It's really great bringing all the classes together as opposed to isolating them.
You said you've got 28 in the cohort right now. Is that split among the different tracks?
Yes. Front End is generally the biggest class and then Ruby on Rails course and Design course are generally about the same size. There are usually between 6 and 10 people.
We're interested in maybe adding another class by the end of the year. Our sweet spot for instructor to student ratio is around 15 and we always bring in a TA for classes over the size of 10.
How many instructors and TAs do you have at the moment?
We have three instructors, one for each class, and then we have an associate instructor who works very closely with our Front End instructor. And then we have one TA for our Back End course.
What kind of hours and schedule do students put in at Iron Yard?
There is a lecture in the morning, then lab time from 12pm to 5pm. During the lab time instructors are there in person to answer any questions and work with students one-on-one. Since the campus is open 24/7 most students stay beyond 5pm, and then instructors hop on Slack to keep in touch. Students usually commit 60 to 80 hours of work each week.
Have you been to many of the other Iron Yard campuses? Can you tell me how your campus is similar or different to the other ones in terms of culture?
We just got back from a company-wide conference at The Iron Yard headquarters in South Carolina, where the original campus is. It was great to see the origin of the bootcamp and how well we've been able to transfer the core culture, with enough room to interpret the local flare. I've been to Houston's campus also and it's set up in the same way. Aesthetically, we have the same chairs and tables, so it looks very similar.
How many students have graduated so far from the Austin campus?
Once our current students graduate, we will have graduated about 90 people in Austin.
What jobs have you seen your Austin graduates getting? Are they staying and working in Austin?
Because Austin is a growing market, a lot of people are willing and able to move to Austin. So it just takes a little longer for students to get jobs here. But our students who are from Austin often want to stay in Austin. All of our students who leave Austin generally get jobs faster than our students who choose to stay in Austin.
Most of our students are entering the field as junior developers or creative designers. And we have a small handful of students who start as interns with the hope or expectation of becoming full time thereafter, which is a really nice way to get their foot in the door at different companies around town.
What companies are they getting jobs at? Are they startups or bigger companies?
You have the whole spectrum here in Austin and our students have landed in various different companies.
We try to help our students work out the company culture fit they prefer, and a lot of that has to do with the size of the company. For instance, a high priority for many graduates is to have strong mentorship. So in that case, we'll prompt them to look at bigger companies who have the bandwidth and the structure to provide mentorship. For students who are more interested in wearing multiple hats, or they have a background in business, then we’ll talk about startups.
How do you help students find jobs?
There's a lot of coaching involved. We help the students understand and articulate what role they want or the position they could have as a junior developer at a company. We want them to find companies that line up with their values, their mission, their skills, and strengths. We do mock interviews with people from the community, both technical and soft skills, and we do cover letter workshops, resume reviews, portfolio reviews – the whole gamut.
What do you think separates The Iron Yard from the other coding bootcamps in Austin? What's unique about it?
In my own research, I've found there are two nuances to the different coding academies here in Austin and across the board. The first is the career support and the second is the lecture to lab ratio. I tell students who are interested in The Iron Yard to ask different code academies how they approach those two things because it's a matter of priorities. Here at The Iron Yard we provide career support as opposed to job placement. It’s a custom-developed career support curriculum tailored to our students, so rather than simply placing graduates into a job, we provide mentorship while they are still in class, after they graduate and as they continue throughout their careers. We have no financial stake in placing our grads.
The majority of our day is lab time. Our lecture-to-lab ratio is lectures from 9am to 12pm each day, then lab time from 12pm to 5pm. So it’s three hours of lecture time where students live code alongside their instructor and classmates, but the majority of the day is that lab time. Iron Yard students are not just regurgitating what they're learning, they're having to solve problems.
Is that something that you've seen other coding bootcamps doing differently?
Yes, it just depends on the structure. If bootcamps are part time, they'll have more lectures and then shorter assignments between the lectures. Some bootcamps have lab time in the beginning and the lecture at the end of the day, so that students are working on their assignment, then they see how to do it at the end of the day. It just depends on the student's learning style, and their priorities in terms of part time or full time.
Are there specific meetups that you would recommend for a complete beginner who wants to know what coding is before they enroll in a coding bootcamp in Austin?
Absolutely. Every month we offer free Crash Course meetups for anybody who wants to know what coding is, what does it demand of me, or how I have to think. We have one Crash Course for each of the three disciplines that we offer. They are all three hours long and we try to mimic or give students a taste of what the first lecture at the bootcamp will look like.
Prospective students can also come along to our Demo Day at the end of the 12-week program where our graduates present their final projects. They can talk to the graduates, pick their brains, and picture what things they could do with the language they learn. It’s also a great way to meet people in the tech community – we generally have about 200 people to 250 people there including community members, advisory board members, hiring partners, friends, and family.
Girl Develop It is a great meetup and they host a lot of inclusive technical sessions. And Refresh Austin is really great at showing the climate of the Austin tech scene.