Julia Himmel was working in the wine industry in New York City before she switched to graphic design and then eventually web design. After attending Dev Bootcamp, she looked for a front-end position in Berlin and was drawn to the opportunity to enhance education at CareerFoundry. Julia talked to us about the front-end curriculum at CareerFoundry, her recent opportunities as a mentor, and the unique aspects of online, mentored learning.
What is your role at CareerFoundry?
I am a Front End Developer at CareerFoundry; over the past few months I’ve been working closely with Sue Li to develop the front-end course curriculum. I’m also helping her and Sean, our Head of Engineering, to develop the current back-end course.
Tell me about your background and your experience with programming or education.
Actually, I am somewhat new to education and programming. I worked in the wine industry in New York for five years, made the switch to graphic design and worked for a design firm that focused on print. I realized I was more interested in web. Web gave me more flexibility to work on projects that I was interested in and it made me more versatile and useful in general. A year ago now I actually went to an in-person bootcamp, Dev Bootcamp, to make that switch.
When you decided that you wanted to switch careers to graphic design, did you have experience in that field?
I didn’t have a design background but I had majored in art history and had taken some studio art classes. I was virtually self-taught, aside from a class I took in InDesign and a couple of continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts.
A friend from college was starting a company so I helped them launch by doing their branding, logo, and collateral. That was my first project that wasn’t for myself or for a class and that helped me build enough of a portfolio to get employed.
When you decided to do Dev Bootcamp, had you tried any of the online classes before like Codecademy or Treehouse?
I did a little bit of Codecademy and I had to edit a bit of HTML for a previous job in a Wordpress site. But really not much at all.
What was your impression of Dev Bootcamp?
I adored it; it was fantastic, but it was very intensive and very thorough. It was 9 weeks full-time and on-site; I averaged 70 hours a week and there are people who did more.
Students are onsite, and lock their phones away during the day to learn; it was a fantastic experience. I learned not only about programming but also about how people learn and how best to structure the material. I’ve been a beginner myself relatively recently, and have worked alongside other beginners. More experienced developers might not remember that a beginner doesn’t know the basics - I’m kind of closer to that.
How did you get introduced to CareerFoundry?
I was looking for jobs in Berlin, and just Googled "developer jobs in Berlin."
I applied to several front-end positions and I actually got to the later rounds of interviewing at another company but I felt a great connection with CareerFoundry. I am interested in education and in how people learn and how one builds that conceptual scaffolding that allows them to take in new information about a subject and actually make it useful.
In addition to working as a Front-End Developer for CareerFoundry, you’re also helping to rework the curriculum. What have you accomplished since you started?
In the first iterations of the curriculum, some developers sat down and wrote the course based on the process for building a simple website or simple Ruby app.
We realized there were a lot of gaps and topics that were unclear. Like I said, when you have developers with a lot of experience, they may have no idea that what they’re writing is unclear to a complete novice. We started by defining the skills that we needed the students to have when they finished and designed project-based lessons around those skills.
What are those skills?
We want students to first understand basics like variables, functions, methods, objects, data types, and data structures. Then they can understand higher-level concepts and not just graduate with the ability to cut and paste pieces of code and hope they work. That kind of conceptual structure is important to them when they go on to learn on their own.
The average CareerFoundry student finishes in maybe three months so it’s not that much time. They’re going to need a bedrock to allow them to easily take in new information and put it into a conceptual framework.
What is the difference between the Paced, Full-Time, and Part-Time options at CareerFoundry?
All three options consist of the the same content at different paces. If you choose to go slower, you have more spread-out Skype calls with a mentor. For the full-time course, you have a mentor call twice a week.
I would recommend the paced or the full-time options simply because the lessons flow so easily into one another. If you build a simple HTML page and then wait two weeks, you’re more likely to forget that information.
Do you ever get to mentor students?
I’m actually doing that now. I’m mentoring a coworker in our office who is taking the course.
What is the feedback loop and support system like for your mentors?
We definitely encourage feedback from mentors about the curriculum. We have a dedicated team member who works closely with mentors and addresses any of their concerns. As part of the latest revamp of the course we’re also working on more detailed materials for the mentors like rubrics that they can use to evaluate student work, guidelines for what should be covered in Skype calls, etc.
We do have a mentor handbook and we’re working on making it a lot more detailed and creating more consistency across mentor experiences for the students.
Tell us about some of the projects students complete during the front-end course and how you design those projects?
For the front-end course the students build a portfolio website. It ends up being a single-page scrolling website and students can add various effects to make it cooler, etc.
In the Rails course, students work on three projects. During the intro to Ruby as a programming language, they make a small Ruby program. The major portfolio piece is an e-commerce site that is going to have a blog or review component – we haven’t decided.
Would you say that the course at CareerFoundry is comprehensive enough to get a graduate a job?
This current iteration, in particular, is looking really good. Graduates will certainly be prepared to freelance and build websites easily.
What is the career support like at CareerFoundry?
Raffaela Rein and Martin Ramsin, the two cofounders, are available for calls regarding career advice. Mentors are required to have a minimum of 5 years professional experience in their field, so they're a great resource for career advice and industry knowledge as well.
Since you’ve had experience with in-person bootcamps (Dev Bootcamp) and online programs (Codecademy), how is CareerFoundry different from those types of learning?
One reason I actually wanted to work at CareerFoundry was that the challenges we face as an online bootcamp are really different from the challenges at an in-person bootcamp, and resolving those challenges is very rewarding.
The big difference is engagement and motivation. At CareerFoundry, we cannot make people come in for 9 to 15 weeks and lock their phone in a locker while they learn. We also don’t want to charge them thousands of dollars.
So keeping people engaged and making sure they are thoroughly learning the material is a challenge. We want to be responsible and accountable to our students and make sure that they’re graduating with the skills they need. That’s a different challenge when you’re teaching online.
At a self-guided online program, these engagement issues are amplified times a thousand. My husband is trying to go through Treehouse right now, for example, and when he doesn’t understand a topic, there aren’t real people to ask. When he’s discouraged, there isn’t someone there motivating him.
At Dev Bootcamp, students have already invested so much and are there all the time. Their rate of attrition is virtually none. The biggest problem that in-person bootcamps face is accessibility. Of course, it would be great if everyone could devote months of full-time, in-person attention to programming, but it’s something that should be accessible to people who don’t have that time or the $12,000 to spend on learning. Resolving that problem is a cool opportunity.