As of December 8, 2017, Dev Bootcamp will no longer be operating. The DBC staff cultivated and grew their culture and community of students and alumni. In fact, the Dev Bootcamp culture was so integral to the school’s success that they even had a Director of Teaching, Learning, and Culture! We spoke to the man leading the campus and learning culture, Leon Gersing, about what made Dev Bootcamp’s culture special, how it was maintained across campuses, and why community was so important for both current students and alumni in the workforce.
What is your role at Dev Bootcamp and what are your primary responsibilities?
My primary function is to inform, design, innovate, and evolve both the student learning experience and our teaching pedagogy. That includes what we teach, how we teach it, how students learn, and the culture we create around those concepts. I spend time at each campus, make sure new teachers are trained in our teaching style and understand our culture. It’s a fun job, I really enjoy it.
What was your background before you joined Dev Bootcamp?
I was a professional software developer for about 15 years and worked writing software professionally for big and small companies. I did consulting, worked on product teams – everything from startups to Fortune 500 companies. I really enjoyed that part of my life, but right now I’m having more fun creating a community of other people who want to get into doing awesome things with code.
I joined Dev Bootcamp in 2015. I started as a teacher, then took over as the campus director in Chicago. In Chicago, we were making some innovative changes to the program’s delivery, and Dev Bootcamp decided to hire someone to look at program culture and how we build an effective, supportive learning community across all campuses; I transitioned into that role earlier this year.
As a software developer, what did you first think about coding bootcamps and what stood out about Dev Bootcamp?
I’m an avid community builder, so I do a lot of public speaking and teaching. When the coding bootcamp idea came on the scene, I think I was as skeptical as anyone. I questioned whether a short-term learning experience could be effective, but there was an underlying thread that they were doing really great things.
Dev Bootcamp co-founder Dave Hoover is a friend of mine, and I was inspired by his book Apprenticeship Patterns. I ended up guest lecturing for Dev Bootcamp, and taught one phase about a year before I joined the company. After watching the students and the experience, and seeing the staff’s commitment, I realized there was something wonderfully supportive about it. I ended up falling in love with the students and the experience, and became a big advocate for continuously improving curriculum delivery so students had the best possible learning experience.
How do you define the culture at Dev Bootcamp?
When I think about culture, I think of the philosophy, the guiding ideals, the ethos of a person, of an entity, or of an idea. At Dev Bootcamp, we’re interested in providing coding literacy and fluency, for a variety of people who want to join our community in a way that remains supportive, inclusive, and collaborative.
For me, Dev Bootcamp’s culture is apparent when I walk into any of our classrooms, or join the Phase 0 (Dev Bootcamp's remote prep phase) Slack channel, and see that people are freely talking about ideas, getting the information they need, challenging themselves and their peers in a way that isn’t demeaning, shameful, othering, or oppressive in nature, but is supportive, respectful, and inspiring. Do they feel supported enough to make mistakes boldly, learn from those mistakes, and continue forward? That, to me, is the Dev Bootcamp culture - an openness to diverse perspectives, free dialogue, a spirit of continuous learning.
One of our teachers coined a term recently, which is that we are a brave space – a space where you can try something you’ve never tried before, be someone you’ve never been, fail at it a lot without judgment or ridicule, and feel like your growth will be supported.
How does that culture and “brave space” help students succeed and thrive?
It empowers students to get involved, and not feel like they’re drowning. I’m always asking the questions: are our teachers inquisitive as well as demanding? Are our students curious and not afraid to fail? Are they free to express themselves? Do we have a path for helping them understand, get feedback, and then get better with practice? Our goal is not to help them prepare for a test but for a job and a transformative change in their lives.
Software is a creative endeavor, although it often gets lumped into this “mathematical or pragmatic only” sphere. Of course, programming does have those elements to it, just like a piano has mathematic and pragmatic elements to it, but the proof is in the playing and in the art and creativity. If you can’t create an environment where people are free to make mistakes with their piano playing, they’ll never make great art or great music, or great apps or libraries or compilers.
How do you screen for culture-fit in the admissions process? What sort of person fits the Dev Bootcamp culture?
When we talk about culture fit, we’re not talking about excluding applicants because they don’t say the right thing or they don’t have some requisite knowledge of coding before starting the program. Instead, our admissions process aims to bring to light the underlying reasons someone wants to attend Dev Bootcamp and to make sure that a person who is going to commit 19 weeks of her life to our program is doing something she really wants to do. My aim is to ensure that students see that Dev Bootcamp is going to help them enhance their future in a meaningful way; whether that is helping them to become software professionals or enabling them to use their software development skills to excel in another chosen field.
We do screen for culture fit, but it’s usually at a very high level. If a person is so acerbic that he’s not willing to listen, he’s not a good culture fit for Dev Bootcamp. If a person is so entrenched in his current identity that he’s not open to feedback, he’s not necessarily going to succeed in our 19-week immersion program, which relies on diversity of perspectives, collaboration, and teamwork.
How do you maintain diversity while screening for culture?
We’re hoping that anybody who has the desire to become a software developer will come to Dev Bootcamp, no matter their personal or professional background, creed, race, color, gender, age, etc. because we believe that a diverse array of perspectives yields better code, forms better engineering teams, and produces better overall products. In fact, we invite people with a broad range of learning styles, personalities, and experiences into our community through scholarships for people of color, marginalized groups, people who identify as women or non-gender-binary people. That is definitely not the kind of thing we’re screening for when we screen for “culture fit” – in today’s parlance they get a little confused.
How does Dev Bootcamp’s culture differ from other coding bootcamps?
For the most part, coding bootcamps have very similar goals - help people get jobs in the technical industry - but we all have different ways in which we implement them. I’d argue that most bootcamps agree that there should be coding challenges, that the tools and technical stack we use should be modern, and that graduates of these bootcamps should be ready to join programming communities.
There are three main things that distinguish our culture from other bootcamps. One is the way we engage students in collaborative learning - through pair programming, team projects, a simulated agile workspace, and a SCRUM environment. The second is the way we create greater access for a wider community of learners with the scholarships we offer and the demographics we reach out to through our partnerships with community groups like #YesWeCode and Lesbians Who Tech. Third, because we integrate soft skills training into our program and have made Engineering Empathy part of our curriculum, our culture is one that encourages honest and kind feedback, open communication and self-awareness, all of which enhance the ways students build self-confidence and work with each other.
The best way for students to work out if a coding bootcamp is right for them, is to visit one. At Dev Bootcamp, we encourage people to come take a tour or come to one of our events.
How do you instill the culture in new staff, and maintain it across Dev Bootcamp’s various campuses?
All of our teachers will spend time at another campus before starting at a new location. They’ll spend a phase or two seeing what the classroom is like, what the students are like, and what the interactions are like between staff and students. They are not just observing, they are participating. A brand new teacher will be paired with a seasoned teacher to help guide them through our pedagogy and culture.
The team members at Dev Bootcamp love our mission - to transform lives by teaching people of all backgrounds the technical, cognitive, and interpersonal skills used in software development so they can thrive in the tech economy - and will share feedback with me on how we can improve. Our culture is intentionally a guiding philosophy, rather than a strict rulebook. I’m lucky to have a whole bunch of empowered people all around me to help me with my job, to help us continually improve upon and evolve our culture.
How does the culture differ between different Dev Bootcamp campuses- like between Chicago and NYC? Do you think that certain types of people would fit better at different campuses?
Culture is a living, growing thing; it’s not something set in stone. The culture in our more mature campuses, those that have been around for a few years, like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York have their own gregarious cultures, fed by the nuances of the local communities. They’re big and welcoming, and sometimes even collegiate in the level of camaraderie shared by the students, staff, and alumni. The newer campuses share the same ideals of culture, discipline, practice, expert feedback, and guidance, but on a smaller scale, so it feels more intimate.
How does the Dev Bootcamp community support students who are struggling with something?
Everyone from teaching staff to support staff gets involved if we see someone who’s in pain or crisis. We want to maintain a brave space, not an uncomfortable space. If we sense someone is genuinely uncomfortable, isolated, withdrawn, or acting out, we get involved. And it’s things like Engineering Empathy, our onsite counselors, our informed staff, and our alumni mentors, which students can embrace and leverage to position themselves for success after Dev Bootcamp. We also organize extra study groups with alumni mentors, and students organize pairing and study sessions on weekends to help those who are struggling with course material.
What are some examples of regular activities or events held at Dev Bootcamp that help cultivate the culture?
It starts way before students come on site and continues well after they graduate and enter into the technical community. Every campus has a Community Marketing Manager, a person who organizes events and creates a welcoming space for people in the software community to congregate, network, talk, and get their questions answered. We’re constantly doing hackathons, group education events, and guest lectures and panels.
We’re particularly proud of the partnerships we’ve cultivated with community oriented groups such as Lesbians Who Tech, Girl Develop It, ChickTech, and Black Girls Code. We regularly give them a space to carry out their efforts to support marginalized groups in technology. That’s something we at Dev Bootcamp think the industry should be doing more of, so we’re happy to play some part in the fight, and create that space.
We can’t forget about alumni mixers and other events that allow our current and prospective students to mingle with our vast and vibrant network of alumni, who play such a crucial role in the community we’ve built. Our alumni, along with our community of employer partners, form the foundation of the professional connections our students will have when they start their job search, and we want to make sure that the support they provide is clear to students from the get-go.
And, we also do about seven different allyship (the process of building relationships based on trust with marginalized groups of people) lunches to help create a stronger onsite learning community for the students in the immersive portion of the program. There is a gender-inclusive lunch, an LGBTQ lunch, a people of color lunch, all efforts initiated either by Dev Bootcamp staff or by students to help create a culture of inclusion. We also often bring in a lunch-and-learn speaker who can talk to the students, then hang out, network, and share their experience.
How do alumni benefit from Dev Bootcamp’s culture and community? How do those benefits continue when they get into the workplace?
Everybody’s experience is different. But what I hear from alumni is that the act of going through Dev Bootcamp and feeling supported, especially during their job search, is extremely helpful. It’s very difficult to break into any field without experience, and much of the time the only experience a Dev Bootcamp grad has is her Dev Bootcamp experience. The most valuable thing that alumni can do is go out and be hired and be successful so that employers understand that coding bootcamps are a viable avenue towards technical proficiency.
Many times alumni want to continue the culture of support they felt on campus and “pay it forward” to the new cohorts with advice on technical interviews, research resources, job openings, conference opportunities, etc. We help facilitate that community of sharing with methods to keep alumni connected to current students, each other, Dev Bootcamp staff, and the broader tech community using platforms like our alumni Slack channel, various private Facebook groups, Meetups, and free passes and paid entry fees for hackathons, trade shows, etc. We also have all kinds of events where alumni can come back and mentor. At mentoring.devbootcamp.com any mentor can sign up to teach students. When I say “community,” I mean it. I don’t mean “community until you graduate.”
Our San Francisco campus has been in operation for over four years now, Chicago for over three, and New York for over two, so we have hundreds of alumni who are now mid-level developers, who are out running teams, who are out being international public speakers, really supporting our community and our craft. They are great examples and great role models for our students, and just amazing to watch. It’s incredible to watch someone go out there and really become the thing she wanted to be in ways she couldn’t have predicted.