IronHack is an 8-week coding bootcamp with campuses in Madrid, Barcelona, and soon, Miami! We talked with cofounder Ariel Quinones about their Rails curriculum, how they attract American students to "study abroad" in Spain, and what sets Ironhack apart.
Tell us about how IronHack started.
I come from a finance background- I’m originally from Puerto Rico, but spent 5 years in New York. My cofounder Gonzalo comes from the construction industry; he’s a civil engineer and he built all sorts of major infrastructure projects in Europe. Having said that, I come from a household of educators. Both of my parents were teachers when I was growing up and my father actually started a private university in Puerto Rico 20 years ago that started with 15 students and now they have 6 campuses and over 10,000 students enrolled.
I think education was always a part of my DNA and I wanted to do something after completing my education. I met Gonzalo during our MBA; we were both at Wharton. He also wanted to do something in education in Europe and possibly in ed-tech as well. During those 2 years of the MBA we were iterating ideas, constantly and I think had the same issue that most non-technical founders have in the U.S., which is having brilliant “ideas” but once you get to the point where you need to execute them and produce an MVP, you’re not able to do it. It’s incredibly challenging to find a cofounder and it’s incredibly challenging from a cost and also from an operational perspective to outsource the development.
Gonzalo and I took a 2-day course at Wharton where they taught us to do very basic Rails. Even though we didn’t acquire the skills necessary to build our MVP, we were excited about the possibility of teaching both technical and non-technical people these skills through a highly intensive and compressed time period. After that experience, we started looking at the boot camp model. At that point, the earlier ones were starting to get a little bit of traction. We thought it would be interesting to do this somewhere abroad. I’d done a lot of business in Latin America so I had some ties to the region. Gonzalo, my partner is Spanish, so our first bet was Spain.
Would you say that IronHack is more geared towards makers or technical cofounders as opposed to people who want to get a job at an established company as a junior developer?
We’ve had both profiles. We’ve been selective in the people we admit from a technical background. We’ve been hesitant so far to say “go from total newbie to professional web developer in X weeks.” Our approach is appealing to folks that are maybe already in close touch with technology and code. Developers that want to professionalize their skills and take them to the next level, or people that are very smart, analytical and are looking for a hardcore experience that will allow them to learn from these types of people.
When was the first cohort?
The first cohort was in October of 2013. Each course is 8 weeks long.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned after running your first cohort?
One thing we learned is that the 8 weeks just fly by. When you plan for people to be coding 10 to 12 hours a day- that seems like a lot but every day goes by so quickly.
The other thing we learned was that no matter how much you filter to make sure you don’t have disparate levels prior to arriving, people just learn differently, at different velocities with different learning styles. So within the structure of 8 weeks we needed different exercises and flexibility to give people the chance to learn right at their own pace, while ensuring that everyone’s learning fundamentals.
Do you have students do pre-work before they get to IronHack?
Yeah, they do 100 hours of pre-work.
What cities are you live in now?
We’re live in Madrid and Barcelona and we’re launching in Miami in September.
Could you tell us about the tech scenes in the locations that you’re live in- Madrid and Barcelona?
People love to come to Spain and study abroad. It’s a country that has a lot to offer from the lifestyle perspective; you know, you have great food, the parties… study abroad in Spain has been an integral part of Spanish society for many years, within the traditional higher education arena. In our case, we’re trying to position Spain in a similar fashion. In the first cohorts we trained a lot of people from Spain, but going forward we want to make it attractive for foreigners to come over and enjoy everything that Spain has to offer and at the same time, learn how to code.
Barcelona is very exciting because you have people from all over the world that are launching startups there. Obviously within the EU there’s a lot of mobility; if you’re a European Union citizen, you can go anywhere without any sort of visa requirements. And I think a lot of northern Europeans and people from Germany for instance, love Barcelona for weather reasons, the great beaches, the lifestyle… so a lot of them are coming over to Barcelona to launch their own ventures here. In Barcelona, the tech ecosystem is thriving and it’s very international. There’s a lot of mobile startups that are getting traction over there.
Madrid is still very much a cosmopolitan city and we’re seeing a lot of traction in the startup space. It’s obviously an emerging ecosystem, nowhere near Silicon Valley, but we’re seeing early stage companies get either acquired or go for substantial rounds of financing here in Madrid, which is ultimately a driver for our type of business. Companies need funding to employ engineers and we’re seeing that capital flow to early stage projects.
Do you get interest from people in the U.S.?
Yes; right now we’re getting a lot of interest from people all over the world, including the U.S. I interviewed a few candidates from the Northeast, we have another student from California who’s enrolling in our June course.
Is it possible for someone from the U.S. to complete IronHack and then work in Spain or in the EU?
Yes, it’s definitely possible. It’s not as challenging as someone from Europe to go to the U.S. For sure, there’s still costs that the employer has to incur but it has nowhere near the costs and all the red tape that you have to deal with in the U.S.
Has IronHack raised any money?
No, right now we’re bootstrapped and we want to keep it that way as long as possible.
So tell us what programming languages students are mastering at IronHack; tell us about the teaching style.
We have two courses that are live right now: Web and Mobile.
I’d say 90% of our content is practical. We’re big believers in the flipped classroom model, so we want to make sure that we reduce the amount of theory time to the extent possible. We get them all the resources, videos and exercises to complete at home prior to arriving here. While they’re here we give them homework and assignments for the weekend so we can reduce that theory time.
The technology demands in Spain are very fragmented. It’s not like San Francisco where you can produce a gazillion Ruby on Rails grads every year and they’ll be hired by Rails startups. Here, we’re seeing some demand for Rails startups – but also Python, PHP, etc.
Do you expect that after completing your course, a graduate would be able to learn Python or PHP on their own?
A hundred percent, and we’re seeing that. Even though love the technologies we work with, we’re not obsessed with them either. To us they’re an instrument to teach good development practices. I think one thing that differentiates us from boot camps is our focus and obsession with good coding practices. We’re obsessed with testing, clean code and good design patterns. We’ve done our job if the student get a good background in technology but more importantly, take away those good coding practices that they apply to whatever language or framework they use.
Is the mobile class structured the same way?
Same format, exact same structure; slightly higher requirements to be accepted. In order to be accepted into the mobile course, you already have to program with another object-oriented language. Our first course is focused on IOS development.
Do you think you’ll ever do an Android course?
We’ll probably do Android in the near future.
How many students do you have in each cohort?
Right now we’ve capped at 20. We can probably go a bit more than that but we don’t want to do more than that.
How many instructors do you have per class?
We always like to have a ratio of at least 6 students per teacher. So when we have 15 students, we have one main professor and two teaching assistants. Our view is that if we’re going to teach you one technology, we want to make sure that the person that is instructing you is the best, most capable person and is highly specialized in that language.
How have you found instructors?
We went to the best companies here in Spain and other parts of Europe and basically found the best people there. They work part time for us. It’s very different to have someone who’s fulltime boot camp professor versus someone who is a developer and is teaching at a boot camp for 2 weeks.
And also from a recruiting perspective, a lot of our students have been hired by their teachers. Also, our students have a network that goes beyond their peers and the Ironhack staff; they have a network that connects to all these companies that these professors are coming from.
You said that potential students should have some vested interest in programming and should have some background and be able to prove that they can really handle the material. What’s the application process?
We have a 3-step application process. The first part is a written form that we screen and then we do two 30-minute Skype interviews. The first 30-minute Skype interview is to get a sense of who you are, why you want to do this, and get a sense of is you fit within our culture, and if you have that intrinsic motivation to make the most out of the 400 hours that you have here.
We say “Listen; you’re going to be coding Monday through Friday, 10 hours a day and then you’re going to have work every day on Saturday/Sunday…” When I tell them that, we want someone who beams energy and positivity. If they make it through that interview, we have a second round, which is basically to assess technical skills. We’ve actually accepted a bunch of people that have never programmed before, but we want to make sure that you have the motivation and the analytical skill set to be able to catch up prior to arriving to our camp.
In some cases, we have people that we think are very smart and incredibly motivated but have never coded in their lives, have never even worked with HTML. We admit them subject to another valuation post that second interview. So we’ll get them to complete 60 hours of pre-work and then see where they are.
How does IronHack prepare your graduates to find jobs?
The demo day is a great way to showcase our talent to our employers, and you have all sorts of employers there from the founding stage where they haven’t raised any money or are still pre-product, to tech employers who have technical teams and more than 30, 40 employees
On top of the core curriculum we have speakers like employers come in during the 8 weeks to present their products and also it serves as an opportunity for them to get in touch with their students and identify potential hiring leads.
We also bring in leading HR people from some of our top tech employers here to offer workshops on how to set up your CV, how to optimize your LinkedIn profile, SEO and all these things. And we coach them on how to conduct an interview. Right now we’ve had the luxury of being small so we’re all very involved in the process.
Are those companies paying a fee to get into the demo day or are they paying a recruiting fee once they’ve hired someone?
Right now we’re not charging employers. We’re focused on placing 100% of our graduates and giving access to great companies (even those that wouldn’t be interested in paying a recruiting fee!).
Have you been successful in placing your graduates?
We’re starting to place a second cohort but in our first cohort, we placed nearly 100% percent of our graduates. I think in the first cohort we placed 60% of the people 3 week after the first course, and then the rest over the next 2 months.
Is the accreditation buzz that’s happening in California anywhere on your radar? Do you get any pressure from the government in Spain or are you thinking about going through the accreditation process when you expand to Miami?
We’re definitely going to pay attention to this in Miami. We’re all for it if it helps the student, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the model and doesn’t limit the ability of these institutions to offer education that’s agile and that can adapt to the times and the technologies.
Are you planning on expanding beyond Miami anytime soon?
I think for the next year or even beyond that, we’re going to focus on Miami and Spain. However, we’re going to use Miami and Spain as hubs for other regions. We’re getting a lot of interest from Latin American Students to come to Spain, so for those who would rather come to Miami because it’s closer, we can offer that as well.