Aditya Narayan had a wealth of experience in technology companies- from starting his own online tutoring service to heading up IT security at a Fortune 500 company. He decided to team up with Harish Shadadpuri to found TurnToTech, a programming bootcamp in New York that trains students in mobile and web development. We talk with Aditya about the iOS course and decision to teach Swift, the program's unique structure, and how they create self-sufficient developers in twelve weeks.
So tell us about your story and how you started TurnToTech?
At age 15, I had to study for two years non-stop to get into IIT, one of the world’s most competitive technology schools. That experience taught me a lot about competing and winning in an intellectual arena. By the time I graduated, I had a few job offers in NY and started working as a software engineer and within 5 years, I was head of IT security for a Fortune 500 company. I also started a software company that built Linux management software, which did extremely well in its space. Next I co-founded an online Math tutoring company – which is still going strong – and in 6 years, we’ve tutored over 20,000 students. So I happen to have a background in education and in software development and have seen first hand what it takes to compete in this space.
Over the years I’ve probably managed maybe a hundred developers and architects, and I also hired a lot. Especially in our Linux company, we needed skills that weren’t readily available and that are when I figured that I just needed to hire people who were smart and intelligent. The rest would follow. And I developed an internal training program that would turn them into highly productive engineers within a matter of a couple of months. Then they would go on autopilot and keep improving their productivity and range of skills over the years.
One day, maybe in 2012, I read that the unemployment and underemployment levels for fresh graduates was some ridiculously high number and I realized that we could do something about it.
We got to work on the idea - we already understood the software engineering process, we had trained several internal employees over the years and in our education venture and we learnt about education and how personalized education mattered. And TurnToTech was born.
Which languages will students learn in their time at Turn to Tech?
In terms of languages – we do Swift, Objective-C and Java. But we try to stay somewhat language agnostic. We teach iOS & Amazon Cloud at the moment. We’re starting Android and Ruby on Rails course this summer. Even in our iOS program, almost everyone spends some time doing Java based backends. And since we’re talking about languages - it’s worth noting that we are the first company to offer a Swift bootcamp.
Tell us about your teaching style- do you give lectures or use a project-based approach?
We don’t do any lectures, not because they’re not good, but because lecture assumes that everybody’s at the same level, which is almost never the case. Sometimes if there are 5 or 6 people who want to understand a specific topic, maybe we’ll do a presentation of some kind but typically we don’t do that; that’s not how we progress here.
The way we progress is through a project-based curriculum. In our iOS course, we’ve created a set of 20 or so projects that students work on. They are supposed to create their own version of the product, but we don’t tell them how it works. They just get something that works but they have to figure it out on their own.
The things we encourage here are problem solving, finding information on the internet and reading documentation. Of course after they complete the projects, we do a complete code review and suggest improvements. We’ll also sit down with the students to debug some tough problems but we encourage independence.
And are students in groups when they do those projects?
No, not in the first 6 weeks because that would defeat the purpose- half of the group would work and the other half would just relax. So in the first 6 weeks – everyone has to perform on their own and they do and the hard work pays off in a big way.
How is your program structured?
Our program is structured in two parts- 6 weeks of training and 6 weeks of internship in one of our portfolio companies (TurnToTech is also a technology incubator). Students also spend time looking at code written by someone else. In reality, that is what a software engineer’s life is; they always have to work with code written by somebody else. And that is not something you get exposed to unless you work in a real place. So we give exposure to that right away.
In addition to this kind of project-based environment, we also constantly give them reading materials and presentation assignments.
As you can tell, we’re bringing our software development experience to the bootcamp. But it’s not easy… we work with every student on a one-on-one basis but we believe that’s the right way to do it.
When was your first cohort?
First one started in October of last year. We have essentially a rolling start date because of our project based approach. Typically, you can join on the first of the month or in the middle of the month.
How many students do you teach at a time?
We may have at most 6 or 7 who start together – but that changes quickly within a week as everyone moves differently. So at any given time, I don’t believe any two students work on the same topic.
How much programming experience does an applicant need?
We want to see that they’ve shown some attempt at learning to code. We see a lot of applicants who have spent a couple months learning Ruby, which is actually good enough because somebody who spends two month doing Ruby has to be doing something right.
Who are your instructors?
I do a lot of the instructing myself. We have other instructors – but they are actually software engineers. Remember that part of our instruction is an internship on a real product. We are engineers here and we know the kind of people we would like to have in our fields and that’s the kind of skills we try to give to our students.
If after 6 weeks, a student is not ready to go on to the internship, do you let them continue with class time?
Yeah. They need to finish their projects first. But the goal is actually to move into the internship as early as possible.
Can you tell us about the technology stack that students are learning?
In the first 6 weeks, they learn the basics of any app development. The first week we spend on programming- not mobile specific, just writing code. We start with simple things but we end up with fairly complex things like making your own hash tables.
We move fast. In the second week itself, we build a geo-location app with a simple rails backend. Amazon cloud is also a big part of what we are doing here. Because we think these two are the future of mobile and cloud technologies – and cloud technologies not in the traditional sense that you’re just hosting a server on the Internet. There are interesting things that companies like Amazon are providing like S3, a storage service for Amazon that almost every new company is trying to use. We give them insight into all these different technologies that are developing.
We also analyze certain well-known apps like Instagram. We look at some of the Apple apps for the iPhone. We also emphasize why mobile is different from something like web. I want them to understand that doing mobile is not just a smaller screen, it’s a different approach. There are certain basic things. One is of course, screen space is limited. Another is that you need to be much more responsive that a typical app on a desktop.
So ours is a combination of a big-picture/architecture approach combined with deep programming skills.
Will Turn to Tech ever offer classes in Web Development?
Web development has its place also. Even if more users will be using technology from a phone, somebody has to still develop the back end. Rails is still a good choice for developing the back end. So yes, we’ll be doing that very soon.
Tell us about the 6-week internship.
We run another company where we’ve been developing apps for some time. We’re also an incubator and invest in early stage startups and we take ownership of development in some cases. We did math tutoring in our other business and in this company, we’re developing a very interesting math app that we want to run sometime soon. So we have projects like those that have been ongoing. Those projects give a great opportunity for the students to work on something real.
Sometimes somebody comes in with a great idea and then we decided to take an equity stake in that company.
Another arrangement that we have is when a third party comes to us with some idea. TurnToTech would take a stake in that company. TurnToTech has an agreement with its students, so if they get to work on a project, we’ll give out a little bit of equity to the students who work on it.
Are students able to then show these projects to potential employers?
They get to have two very tangible outcomes out of this 3-month experience. One is through our projects – usually as a part of one of our own startups. And second is their own app – some students become so good, they are able to launch more than 2 of their own apps by just working weeknds during this 3 month period.
Can you tell us a really cool app that a student has built?
One of our students was a day trader, and he built an option trading app. It’s really a mathematical app. He’s put it in the app store and it’s doing fine.
Another student did an app that helps you find a restaurant. So you start the app with your desired location, it starts a map and points out all the restaurants.
Another guy created a language-learning app and there’s a big server component.
When you’re learning a language and you need to get feedback from native speakers (let’s say you want to hear a phrase in Canadian French as opposed to Paris French). You can actually post your phrase saying, “I’m looking for somebody to speak this out in a Canadian French accent.” There will be users who will have set themselves up with those kinds of references and it will show up in their feed. If you’re a user and you speak that language, so since it’s your native language, you’ll just read that out and then it gets saved.
There’s also an instant messaging app that’s in development – which we believe will be competing with the big names very soon.
How are you helping students find jobs once they graduate?
We do three things here. In the space here we host meet-ups almost twice a week, and we have tech meet-ups, not necessarily iOS. We have PHP, Ruby on Rails; so that brings a lot of people here to our space and gives a chance for our students to meet up with these professionals. We want them to go and interact with these people, know what it means to work in a company. They get to understand how many IOS developers a company has, how many Rails people they have and so on, what their work is like.
We also have free co-working space here. That brings a lot of entrepreneurs. And just a couple of weeks ago, two of our students teamed up with two entrepreneurs and got funded.
Any Turn to Tech student you talk to, they don’t come off as novices. They have seen people who have launched companies, they have talked to maybe hundreds of people who were more or less aware of this field.
If someone does get placed with a company, do you take a recruiting fee?
No, we have not been doing that.
The average number of people in the Turn to Tech program is about 20; how many of them are women?
We have around about 7 women in the program.
Do you have a refund policy in place?
Yeah. If someone has to leave, tuition just gets pro-rated. But nobody has left our program so far. Actually, one guy left, but because he found a job.
Is there anything else that you want to add about TurnToTech that we didn’t touch on?
We are very focused on is getting our students the practical skills they need. We’re not doing anything theoretical or academic here. Everything we do is with the intent of our students going into a company. We have a lot of experience in the software industry and we try to bring that to our students.
We give them a time frame of 6 weeks to get trained and then move to internship but students also have the incentive that to finish sooner so they get more time on the internship. Our instruction approach is to make them self-sufficient. If they can get to that then we’ve done what we wanted. So that’s our main philosophy and everything is centered on that.