After a career in software development and an inspiring visit to San Francisco coding bootcamps, Torsten Ruger and his wife Raisa converted their bed and breakfast into a live-in coding bootcamp in the Finnish countryside. Web Dev Camp is now teaching their first cohort of future Rails developers in Finland, and aims to create a destination-bootcamp for students around the world. We spoke to Torsten about why he chose to teach Ruby, how students absorb knowledge easily at a live-in bootcamp, and how invigorating it is to study surrounded by untouched nature. Read more about Web Dev Camp's unique setting- and of course, a Finnish coding bootcamp wouldn’t be complete without a sauna!
What’s your background and why did you start a coding bootcamp?
I’ve been coding for 35 years and building web applications for 20 years or so. I found Ruby 15 years ago, and the language put the joy of coding back into my professional life. Ruby made the job that I was doing really enjoyable, easy, and fun.
I had been tutoring for Rails Girls over the last few years, and in Spring 2016 my partner Raisa Kaipainen and I visited a few coding bootcamps in San Francisco. We didn’t have a plan in mind, but after attending those meetups and meeting an instructor from Dev Bootcamp, the spark was ignited. I had been searching for an opportunity to teach, and we converted an old village school house (which we were operating as a bed and breakfast) into a live-in bootcamp.
What do you like about the coding bootcamp model?
It is so very different from traditional teaching, because we teach in small, immersive groups. What I dislike about traditional teaching, is this distance between the teacher and student, which inhibits actual transfer of knowledge. I studied physics and minored in computer science, and there is a lot of unnecessary bulk in those degrees. You don’t really learn the practice; you learn a lot of theory, and then you have to learn the “doing” on your own.
When did the first Web Dev Camp cohort start and how is it going so far?
Our first course started at the end of September, and students will graduate in mid-November. Then we’ll have a Christmas break, and in 2017 we’ll start the normal rolling system with courses every month starting from January 16th. So we’ll have two courses at the same time, overlapping, with eight students per group.
The first cohort of students are enjoying the class, and I'm really enjoying it! We are making progress that I didn’t think was possible. We’re building a real application and the students are really happy about that. After two introductory weeks, we are now basically working like a development team, where I’m spending more time helping than teaching. They’ve picked up the material quite quickly; I’ve been very impressed.
What tracks or languages are you teaching at the campus? Why did you choose those? Are they particularly useful in Finland and Helsinki?
I think Ruby is the best object oriented language for beginners. It’s easy to understand, and along with Rails, it’s the best tool for the web. There are discussions about other better tools to build high volume production sites, but to learn the concepts involved in any web application, I think it’s the best tool, and best language. It’s a good entry level language, it teaches a broad skill set and gives students a good chance to get a job.
What is the tech scene like in Finland?
In the Ruby world in Finland, there are a couple of larger consultancies, and a dozen smaller startups using it. Because our students live here for eight weeks, Web Dev Camp is really open to anyone, even people from America could attend. There is no extra cost- just one flight, and accommodation and food is included.
Will most of your students look for jobs in Helsinki? What types of companies are hiring developers in Finland?
It’s an international market, I don’t think the majority of our students will be Finnish; I think we will teach more English, German, Italian, French, American. And they will want to look for jobs outside of Finland. Nowadays in Europe the younger generation are quite flexible about where they live, especially after graduation, so we’ll definitely help them find jobs wherever we can in Europe. The Ruby community is quite small and relatively tight knit, so we know a fair number of people, and they are definitely approachable. Raisa and I have been going to Ruby conferences for many years and have built our network here.
What kind of career support or advice will you give to students?
Throughout the course, students have questions about careers, so we talk regularly about career advice. But towards the end of the course, we will have more dedicated help, like how to write resumes, how to approach companies, and how to find the right company. And in the future, we hope to find partner companies who agree to hire our graduates.
Why did you decide on eight weeks for the program?
We looked at the lengths of other coding bootcamps, wrote out our curriculum, then worked out how long it would take to teach. We decided on eight weeks because of the intensity at Web Dev Camp, and because it’s a live-in bootcamp, students absorb knowledge more easily here. We determined that in eight weeks, students will reach our goal of being able to land a Junior Developer job, or join a team without needing a separate mentor.
Do students need to have any programming knowledge before they start Web Dev Camp?
A little bit. Somehow people need to know that this career is for them. The biggest factor for success at Web Dev Camp is actually motivation instead of skill, which a difficult attribute to test for. We find that the easiest way to see if someone is motivated, is to ask if they have sat down on their own and tried out coding already, and know for certain that they like it and want to code full-time.
What kind of time commitment do you expect students to put in?
We’re teaching six days a week, and it’s about 7 hours of learning a day (including the breaks it’s almost 10 hours a day). We start at 9am, then we have two 90-minute sessions in the morning, a lunch break, then three one-hour sessions in the afternoon, then an hour of self-study in the evening. And some students actually do more study than that.
How many instructors and/or mentors do you have?
We have one instructor per group of eight students. At the moment we only have one group, so I am the instructor. And in future I’ll still be teaching, and then we’ll have one tutor per group.
For the bootcamp, we are looking at two groups of 8 maximum, so 16 people, so that it’s not too crowded. And we have off-site accommodation for teachers.
Your location is about an hour outside of Helsinki. Why do you think it’s a great place for a coding bootcamp?
Yes, it’s an hour’s drive. But being in nature gives our students recuperation, decent breaks, and less distraction. When you go out for a break, you come back refreshed. That experience is what we wanted to share here. I used to work in an office before, but I’ve found working in this type of environment, where one can have a good break, go out, get fresh air, see trees and sky and come back and be actually refreshed, makes the work much more productive. You come back from lunch break and it’s as if the morning never happened, in terms of your concentration and ability to take things in. It also makes the learning more productive, so our students are all enjoying it.
What other options are there for people to learn to code in southern Finland?
In Finland, the idea of a “bootcamp” is not very well-understood, because universities are free, so people have a tough time paying for education. But they still have living costs for four years while getting your degree, even if the actual university is for free. So choosing a more condensed program still saves you a lot of money. And once you graduate from a coding bootcamp and get a job, you start earning straight away.
Give us an idea of the campus – how large is it and what can students expect?
Because the campus used to be a bed and breakfast, the bedrooms are nicely decorated. The rooms are shared with two or three students per room, and are quite spacious, mostly with their own shower and toilet. The house used to be the village school, and we use the old classroom (70 sqm) as our workroom, which we have decorated with beanbags, tables and monitors to be a very relaxed working environment.
I teach lessons with an iPad and a monitor, not with a whiteboard. I draw on the iPad with a 55-inch monitor. For work we have lots of monitors to share for different size tables, different size monitors. We have bean bags for people to sit on, so it’s all very cosy.
Since this is Finland, we also have a lovely sauna and a little pool to dip into after the sauna; it’s very nice. Also we have a lovely garden, with several terraces to work at.
Since Web Dev Camp is a live-in bootcamp, how do students take breaks? Are they able to get away from the classroom?
We are in the countryside so there are a couple of farms with horses, and a lot of forest where one can walk, and three lakes within walking distance where you can swim in summer. We have a rowing boat, eight bicycles, and cars.
In the winter, there is cross-country skiing really close to us. We are used to the cold so when it gets cold we just put on more clothes, and life continues. It’s very beautiful because we have so much nature and untouched snow everywhere. The lakes freeze over so you can walk or ski on the lakes.
Close by is a famous artist village, Fiskars, which has nice restaurants and cafes, so civilization and a cappuccino is is only five minutes away.
Are all meals included? What sort of food do you have?
Yes it’s all included. We have very healthy and delicious vegetarian and vegan food. Raisa is an experienced cook, and she makes a warm lunch for the students. Then there is a fridge and kitchenette with ingredients for the students to make morning and evening meals themselves. We also have an outside kitchen and grill.