Jay Wengrow founded part-time web development bootcamp and apprenticeship program Actualize in Chicago in 2014 to make learning to code efficient and accessible. Now the coding bootcamp has campuses in New York and San Francisco, and in June 2017 they are launching their new online part-time program to further reduce barriers to entry into tech. We asked Jay about the format of the new online course (+ photos) compared with the in-person course, why no programming experience is required, and how Actualize prepares students to land new careers in tech.
What is your education and career background? What inspired you to start Actualize?
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teacher – even since I was in high school. I pursued my Master’s in Education and taught at various venues, but I needed a higher salary to support my family. I was fortunate that I did some basic computer programming as a kid, so I decided to go back to school and get my Master’s in Software Engineering.
After working as a software developer for a number of years, I found that my favorite aspect of my job was teaching and mentoring junior developers. I decided to meld my skills in both education and computer science to develop a program that would teach people to code in the most efficient way possible according to educational best practices.
What were some of the educational problems you were trying to solve?
Having received a traditional Master’s in Software Engineering, I knew that while CS professors might be subject matter experts, they had little idea on how to actually teach. I watched many of my classmates drop out of CS altogether because they assumed they weren’t smart enough to understand, while the truth was they simply weren’t being taught well. I was also aware of the coding bootcamp phenomena that began burgeoning in 2012, but found that many of these programs were not run by people with an educational background, and were structured so that the students would essentially have to teach themselves. While this latter approach can work for some students, it requires at least a full-time schedule and is long and arduous. I knew that I could create a school that could teach everything in a fraction of the time – by having an expert educator teach every concept, clearly, and in the right order.
One of my favorite anecdotes is when I was teaching a cohort which had one student who had transferred out of a full-time bootcamp. It was the second day of class, and he was shaking his head as I was teaching – which is pretty disconcerting, frankly! During the break, I asked him, “Why were you shaking your head?” He said, “You don’t understand. We had to learn the same concept in the previous bootcamp – but they gave us material to read on the topic, and it took me 5 hours to try to figure it out – and I still didn’t get it. And here you explain it in 30 minutes and it makes perfect sense!”
You’ve been teaching for a few years now – what’s been the biggest change at Actualize since starting the first campus in Chicago? Has the curriculum changed to adapt to new technologies?
I don’t get the chance to teach or code much anymore, but I only hire Lead Instructors who have a similar background to myself. They must have professional experience in both education and software engineering. I still try to find the opportunity to teach code in other ways – I host a weekly meetup teaching introductory coding concepts, and I recently published a book on computer science that explains data structures and algorithms in a simple, easy-to-understand way, without any math.
Actualize has been teaching in-person, part-time bootcamps in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco for a while now – what was the motivation to create the online bootcamp?
We felt that an online program was the best way to reach the audience of potential developers who don’t live in a big city. Educational accessibility is very important to us, which is why we offer a part-time program. This helps us reach people who can’t afford to quit their full-time job to enroll in a coding bootcamp. An online program provides even greater reach, as there are a tremendous amount of people who don’t live in a major city and will never have access to any coding bootcamp education.
What was the curriculum development process for the online course? Did you start from scratch or will online students experience the same curriculum as in-person students?
Our approach is to use the exact same curriculum as our in-person course. We don’t want the online program to compromise in quality in any way – our goal is for it to be as close to an in-person experience as possible. That means students in our online program will learn from the exact same curriculum, lead instructors, and format as our in-person bootcamp.
The online course is completely different than other online offerings – this isn’t a set of exercises that students log into and complete on their own time. Our program is an “in-person online” experience and there are set class times identical to our 12-week in-person program (Monday through Thursday evenings and all day Sunday) where a lead instructor is teaching and providing exercises throughout. Nothing is pre-recorded – students are able to communicate with other students and ask questions during each live class session. Everyone can see the lead instructor and all their classmates at all times even during the exercises.
Describe the new Actualize online learning portal and online student experience.
The student learning experience centers around video conferencing into each class session using software similar to Skype or Google Hangouts. Each student will be using both their laptop as well as an external monitor attached to it. With an in-person class, a student works on their laptop and looks upward to see their lead instructor, lead instructor’s screen, and classmates – the same happens here as well. The student does their actual work on their laptop, and the video conferencing platform remains on the external monitor, where the students can see both their lead instructor and classmates like in the image below:
Like our in-person format, we constantly flip back and forth between instruction and exercises. During both instruction and exercises, the lead instructor can see each student, and all students can see each other.
During instruction, the lead instructor’s face is the main focus on the external monitor while introducing the new lesson, with the classmates off to the side. Below is what the student will see on their external monitor:
While demoing code, the lead instructor shares their screen while the classmates’ faces are off to the side, and the student’s external monitor will look like this:
The lead instructor and all the students remain in the virtual classroom as they tackle the exercises, just like an in-person class. When students need help, they can send a chat message to the Lead Instructor and the Lead Instructor jumps into a one-on-one video conference to privately answer student questions. At this time, the students can share their screen with the lead instructor, and can even grant access to the lead instructor to remotely type into the student’s computer. This means students can ask instructors or each other for help and get the immediate feedback that is critical to learning.
By designing our program as an in-person-style online experience, we eliminate the need for specialized learning management systems, which can be a barrier to optimal learning. Having classes nearly every day with a high-quality instructor is what helps students stay organized and be held accountable, and provides the formative assessment opportunities that get lost in typical asynchronous online experiences. In this way, our online offering maintains the high level of educational quality that embodies Actualize.
What type of student is an ideal student for the online course? Are you looking for someone with experience, a certain background, a certain culture fit?
The ideal student for the online course is the same for the in-person course – we don’t require any specific programming related experience, but we do look for people who have the right mindset. An ideal student is someone who is excited to change careers to become a web developer and is determined to put in the work. Like all coding bootcamps, Actualize is not easy – so we specifically look for students who will give it their all.
Has the admissions process for the online course changed? What can applicants expect?
Our admissions process for the online course is identical, except that you meet with our Admissions Advisor over video conferencing instead of in a physical location. The process is to apply on our website, then an Admissions Advisor will reach out to schedule a series of two interviews to make sure that we’re the right fit for the student, and that the student is the right fit for us. We do not conduct any coding challenges during the interview – after all – that’s precisely what the student is coming to us to learn! Instead, we look for people who are ambitious and committed.
How do you attract a diverse applicant pool? Do you have diverse cohorts? Is that important to you?
Diversity is important to us, and in addition to diversity scholarships, we always try to have a diverse set of lead instructors and teaching assistants so that all students can feel like they fit right in. We also hope that we can increase the diversity by offering our course to people outside of our original three metro areas.
Let’s talk about getting students placed in jobs. What will Actualize’s job prep curriculum look like for online students?
Our job prep curriculum for the online program is the same for the in-person program. It is integrated into the 12-week program, where we teach students both soft and technical skills necessary to get a job. We feel that the soft skills, which consist of networking and personal branding, are just as critical and teachable as the technical skills. Students leave the 12-week program with a complete understanding of how to land a job and be successful in an interview, and they will have begun the networking process before they graduate.
Online students are also able to take part in the apprenticeship at The Difference Engine once they complete the 12-week program. They will join remotely and meet with their teams twice a week. In this way, the online students get the same advantages as our in-person students, where they build their development skills and ability to work in a team on real-world projects for nonprofits.
What is your advice for students embarking on an online bootcamp course? Any tips for getting the most out of a course, especially if they are trying to change their careers?
The best advice I can offer is – don’t doubt yourself. We truly believe that anyone can learn to code, and we have worked with many students with all different types of backgrounds to help them successfully transition to a career in web development. We hope that our online program opens doors for people who would never have had access to a high-quality coding bootcamp experience. For some people, the final barrier is self-doubt – they believe that they aren’t capable of learning web development and changing careers. We have a track record that proves otherwise, and we are truly looking forward to helping a whole new audience on their journey to a new and exciting career!