blog article

Employee Spotlight: Grae Drake, Thinkful

By Liz Eggleston
Last updated on September 29, 2015


So you’ve graduated a bootcamp, now what? We recently had a chat with Grae Drake, Head of Education at Thinkful, to discuss their newest offering for bootcamp grads and working engineers. Thinkful Workshops offer bite-sized, project-based learning opportunities in the newest JavaScript frameworks, Node and React. At the end of every workshop, developers will have a new project to add to their portfolio.

What is your role at Thinkful and what do you work on day-to-day?

I’m the Head of Education at Thinkful, so I lead the mentor teams, the content teams and the operations teams. ​I joined Thinkful originally to build the mentor team (we’re close to 300 now), so I’m very closely involved with the mentors (and I even mentor students myself!)

Thinkful now has three offerings: the flagship one-on-one course, the career path courses and now these new Workshops. Could you tell us more about the new Workshops?

Our new product is actually serving existing engineers, so this is not aimed towards beginners. We assume these students have built working software before, know how to use a text editor, all of these things.

We’re looking to serve a market of people who are working in development but want to stay at the cutting edge of technology or build out their skill set to what they really want it to be. Each workshop is about one hour.

How much does access to the Workshops cost?

It’s a monthly subscription, comparable to sites like Code School. It’s $49 a month. That includes unlimited access to all of the workshops that we have and other resources including our community, general Q&A sessions with our mentors and course library.

What can someone expect to accomplish at the end of a one hour Workshop?

Generally, the workshops are led by a mentor and a small group of students attend. The mentor will talk with everybody at the beginning, understand what their level of expertise is, what their goals are and then they’ll dive into making the project.

Mentors are screen-sharing while building the app, talking through what they’re doing, explaining the decisions they’re making, prompting the students and asking questions - “Is everybody on the same page? Is anybody stuck? Is there anything I’ve done that doesn’t make sense?”

At the end of that, the student will have some functioning software if they have been coding along. If not, then they have the course to reference later on their own time.

At the end, mentors wrap up with a discussion of the topics covered, concepts learned and the next steps. That’s always the question - “Okay, I can build a shopping list app, that’s great. What do I do next?” That’s how we close the workshops.

What are some use cases that students have been using the Workshops for so far?

We’ve been doing workshops for a few weeks now.

One example is a team of engineers that need to learn React.js quickly and they need to skip directly into best practices and not make mistakes that are going to cost them down the road.

We also see people who are graduating from boot camps who have the skills they need to land a job but know that there’s a whole universe of technologies out there that they want to master to continue their career past the junior level.

And then we see people working on teams that just don’t have access to expertise. In the most ideal workplaces, you’re working with other developers who are incredibly smart and skilled in the technologies that you want to learn. If you’re working remotely or you’re working on a small team, maybe you don’t have that, so we see people joining in on workshops to access this expertise.

Are you using Google Hangouts? How do the Workshops work logistically?

We actually use an app that we built specifically for workshops. It shares a lot of similarities with Google Hangouts. A limitation of Hangouts is that you can’t share your camera feed and your screen at the same time, so we added that solution- we’re really excited about it.

What product exists right now that you would you compare Workshops to?

The Workshops are probably closest to what you see at really good conventions or meetups.

You may be familiar with Front End Masters, they do recorded video content by experts on niche topics which are great. But, I have not yet made it through an entire 4 hour video, and I always have questions along the way.

Code School and Treehouse are putting together fantastic quality content but it’s all static - it’s all recorded content or written content. You don’t see anything live at this scale.

Who’s coming up with Workshop topics? Are they topics that students are asking for? Are they things that mentors want to teach?

It’s a mix. Internally we decided we wanted to cover specific modern technologies at first, so we launched with Node JS. We have a number of workshops on the topics that those courses cover. Also, React is getting popular and the growing JavaScript library epitomizes where you see the web moving to, so we specifically decided to include those courses.

And beyond that we’ve also been soliciting courses and workshop topics among mentors. We say, “You’ve been working with students in our courses.  What do you wish you had time to cover? What had you seen students struggle with that you would love to spend more time on?” We’ve seen a number of workshops and courses developed on those topics.

One of our mentors just made an amazing course on manipulating SVG graphics in React. The animation that he’s doing is mind-blowing. You could never add something like SVG animation in React into our set curriculum because only some people are going to be interested, but it’s so fascinating to have the option to learn that.

What have you found makes a really good mentor, especially in the workshop context?

It’s an interesting mix of skills that you don’t find together very often. It’s a deep understanding and passion for technology, an interest in sharing that passion with other people, and interpersonal skills to get other people excited about it.

We get a lot of questions asking about how bootcamps like Thinkful and other mentor-based bootcamps train their mentors. Do you have specific training for mentors?

Absolutely. We have an ongoing training process that mentors go through, including best practices, the Thinkful platform and any particular challenges that our students encounter. It’s a learning process for everybody.

We have mentors who have been with us since the very beginning. They love what they do and they are, and I’m not exaggerating, world-experts in the area of online mentorship because they’ve been doing it as long as the technology has been around.

What have you’ve learned in doing these workshops?

We've learned that recorded video isn't a replacement for live interaction with real people. And you don't see much in the way of live interaction on the web because connecting groups of people in real time is hard! We thrive on feedback from users, and have been consistently getting 9-10 out of 10 about our users’ experience. We've been doing online sessions for so long at Thinkful and we're always looking for ways to improve.

Interested? Find out more about Thinkful’s Workshops.

About The Author

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!

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