After 12 years of offering day and week-long classes at Boulder Digital Arts, Bruce Borowsky and Zach Daudert founded CodeCraft School, a 10-week coding bootcamp in Boulder, Colorado. Bruce, Zach and Bill Adkins, CodeCraft’s Campus Director, chat with Course Report about their decision to teach the MEAN stack, building a diverse cohort and their unique pre-work alternative that’s unlike any other bootcamp!
Liz: You started classes recently. How are things going?
Bruce: The first cohort started October 5th. We're really excited. It's interesting because we're nimble enough to adapt and adjust to things very quickly. We've been doing training for over a decade, so we've adapted this new curriculum to do what we've been doing well for almost 12 years!
Liz: Tell me about what you were working on before and how that evolved into CodeCraft?
Bruce: Zach and I were friends working at a video production company in 2003 and we started teaching digital arts. We offered classes and workshops — it was literally everything from Photoshop and filmmaking to web development and iOS/Android — and it was a creative process that progressed very quickly to something called Boulder Digital Arts. Today we have over 6,000 square feet in Boulder where we have over 300 events every year. And with the demand for developers being so high - particularly in Boulder, a coding bootcamp seemed like a natural progression.
All the classes at Boulder Digital Arts are typically one day or one week, and are more about learning one skill or tool. CodeCraft’s bootcamps are really focused on career transformation and are obviously much longer and in-depth, which is why CodeCraft is operating as a new company.
Liz: What was the process like, developing the curriculum for CodeCraft?
Zach: The 10-week bootcamp curriculum that we developed is brand new. We started looking into creating our own bootcamp about a year ago. We did a lot of research and talked with many people in the bootcamp industry as well as people who hire developers. That set the stage for our curriculum planning which took our two instructors about three months to craft. As Bruce pointed out, Boulder Digital Arts (BDA) classes are only a week. So in a way, what we're doing at BDA is a great primer for a pre-bootcamp process because you learn the basics of HTML, CSS, that sort of thing.
We invested heavily in the curriculum because what we've learned in the 12 years of doing this is to have a very solid road map and to make sure that it's presented to students so that they know where they are relative to where they’re going.
Liz: You mentioned working with a couple of developers to come up with this curriculum. Does anybody have a programming background? Tell me about how your team works.
Bruce: It's funny because I'm a filmmaker and Zach is a web developer. The two of us had all of our bases covered in terms of the digital arts when we started BDA. Zach follows trends and developments in the web world.
Bill: I have worked 20 years here in the Boulder startup community. Since I’ve been through a bootcamp myself, I can empathize with what individuals go through, what their expectations are and how to better manage those needs for the best outcome of the program. Our instructors have years of development experience across many coding languages so they are well prepared to adjust to needs of the students as well as emerging technologies.
Liz: What stack is CodeCraft teaching and what was the decision-making process behind that?
In addition, there's the pragmatic reality that learning just one language for server side and front-end development is much easier. We think that's a huge advantage in the 10-week time frame. From there, our philosophy of teaching the fundamentals to think like a programmer prepares one to learn something like Ruby on Rails, Python or another backend technology reasonably quickly.
Bruce: Right now we’re trying to gauge interest. At BDA it’s a tremendously popular topic, especially our one-week UI/UX Certificate class. In fact we often get people coming from out of state to Boulder to attend.
Liz: So how many students do you have in this first cohort?
Bruce: We're all about the student experience. That's at the forefront every second of the day. To that end, we limited it to 12 students for this first one so we could work out any kinks and have it all go as smooth as possible.
Liz: Are the students based in Boulder or are you getting people from out of the city or state?
Bill: We’ve had interest from all over. Again, Bruce's point about managing the experience, we have two instructors for 12 students to make sure that everything that we're doing is for the best student experience. For this first class, we wanted local students, to better manage the experience of the cohort. Out-of-State students add a degree of complexity and distraction that we’re now able to work with in future cohorts. What we have in this cohort is a diverse group, college age to mid-career professionals making a transition, a lot of gender diversity. It's a great mix of students and life experiences.
Liz: How did you get a diverse applicant pool? That can be difficult for a bootcamp.
Bill: I give Zach and Bruce credit for that. BDA’s legacy has generated a lot of attention for CodeCraft even in our early days. So we were in a position where our primary admissions criteria for our students was "Are you committed to making it through 12 hour days, plus weekends, 10 weeks full-time? You really have to be serious about where you want to go in your career." Everything else took care of itself. And what we ended up with is 12 amazing, focused students.
Liz: How many of the students in your current cohort had taken a BDA class before?
Liz: Where are you located in Boulder?
Bruce: We’re located in central Boulder. We're not downtown, which we chose purposely because parking is difficult to find there and limited to only three hours, so here we have plenty of parking. We’re just a couple miles from downtown, but we have a lot of perks because of that—we're right on the bus line, and also much easier to access for those coming in from the Denver metro area as well. We have a large open space with multiple classrooms, meeting spaces and social areas, so students have plenty of room to spread out.
Liz: You mentioned filtering for students who have the grit to get through a 12-hour a day intensive program. Is there any requirement in terms of programming experience?
Bill: Students who are interested in our bootcamp can start off with zero experience. That said, we do encourage them to have some familiarity with the basics of HTML and CSS. Our instructors’ curriculum is designed to get somebody from zero to junior developer by the end of the 10 weeks.
About 80% of our current cohort had some familiarity with HTML and CSS. The other folks did some online tutorials. We began the class with a well-prepped, motivated cohort. This allowed us to move quicker than we thought through the first week’s fundamentals.
Zach: That goes back to one of the benefits of being able to take the BDA classes for free up to three months prior to the first day of the cohort. They're able to take a lot of HTML and CSS classes as part of their pre-work.
Liz: Students have 3 months to take BDA Classes?
Bill: The BDA offer of free classes is valid for a paid CodeCraft student, up to three months ahead of their cohort. They can also take classes during and up to 3 months after their cohort ends.
Bruce: It depends on when they sign up for the bootcamp, but once they're a paid CodeCraft student they have the opportunity to take BDA classes at no charge if they want to strengthen their HTML and CSS skills, for example.
Liz: Have you had to do anything in terms of accreditation or approval with CodeCraft in particular or because you have BDA is it not required?
Bruce: Since CodeCraft is a separate entity, we had to get approved by the state. We are regulated by the state of Colorado. It was a fairly rigorous process. We submitted about 100 pages of documents, including the full curriculum, very detailed. Before we submitted the curriculum to the State for approval, it had to be signed-off by four external web developers that we didn't know.
Liz: Skill Distillery, a bootcamp that did corporate training for a long time, was able to go through the VA (Veteran’s Affairs) approval process because they had been in operation for many years. Students can use their GI Bill to take courses there. Because CodeCraft has several years of experience, is that something you’re able to pursue as well?
Bill: We’re looking at that, and some of the grant programs would require federal accreditation. We’re currently State regulated. We’re talking to the Federal accrediting bodies about that, which would allow students to use their GI Bill or 529 Savings Plan. We’re absolutely interested, but it takes time. The Department of Education is also looking at what they can do to release the red tape, so that students can use funding for coding programs like ours. We’re hoping it will be easier for a veteran in career change or a student that doesn’t want to get a four year degree to meet their needs.
Bruce: This concept of alternative, nontraditional education is something we've been doing for almost 12 years now and I'm happy to say we're very good at it. We know the nuances, we know what students are looking for; we really bring a lot to the table in terms of how we do training.
Liz: Do you have standards, a particular placement rate, for example, that you have to meet to stay approved?
Bruce: Yes, they review our records couple of times a year. We have to keep accurate records of student attendance and similar things. I think there's a specific percentage that they’re looking for that we place, but regardless it's our goal to get 100% of our students placed.
Liz: Are you noticing that the students applying are looking for a career change and want to get a new job after they graduate or do you have students who want to start their own business when they graduate?
Bruce: I would say exactly that mix. The vast majority are looking for some major career change. We have college age students and this is their postsecondary education. We have adults in career transition. We have entrepreneurs who are staying within the company that they founded but want to be more in tune with their developers. Boulder has a very strong entrepreneurial tech community. One of our students is co-founder of his own startup. He wasn’t as technical as he wanted to be and took a sabbatical so that he could acquire deeper skills and coding abilities to meet his company’s needs.
Liz: When you start to think about your job placement statistics, would the business co-founder not be included because he's not job seeking?
Bill: We haven’t thought about it in those terms. Knowing that he got the education he wanted that would put him on a different career path within his company, I would consider that a success. The thing that brought me to working with Bruce and Zach, besides the fact that they have an amazing legacy, is not everybody is looking to be a full stack developer and they respect that.
I think a lot of schools do themselves a disservice by not calling it a success when they help someone with a full career change, not just a “developer” career change.
We have students who want to be product managers so we’re bringing in product managers as mentors to help them learn how they can take their customer facing skills and turn that into user stories to work with developers. They feel much more fulfilled and say, “Someone’s listening to me. This is really what my career change has been for, not sitting in front of a terminal all day.”
Liz: We’ve seen this funny life cycle in bootcamps. In the beginning, everybody’s goal was to get a job as a developer afterwards. As the space has grown, those goals have varied and it doesn’t always make sense to limit placement statistics to developer job placement.
Bill: It’s not necessarily about developer job placement. We put attention on all the students to help make sure they’re getting where they need to be.
Liz: Do you have hiring partners? How are you planning to get people jobs in the roles they want?
Bill: There’s a number of places that we’re looking for that. Boulder is a very strong tech community, so all of us have relationships here. We’re just raising awareness in the community that we’re going to have 12 rock star candidates available, and they’re already expressing interest.
One of the projects the students did in the beginning was build a profile page because employers here are eager to meet these folks. It goes along with the point you made earlier about employers not necessarily caring if they’re LAMP or MEAN, they want somebody that’s got a good foundation that can be molded in their culture.
Liz: Are there other bootcamps in Boulder?
Bill: There are a couple of bootcamps in the area. TechStars was founded here in Boulder. That’s an example of a single place with a lot of startups seeking employable talent because they’re the folks who are getting out of the “garage” and eager to hire people. Our students come in with good educational and work backgrounds and now have this really solid skill. They are perfect for a startup that’s looking for someone that can wear many hats.
Liz: What’s been your biggest roadblock or challenge that you had to change right off the bat?
Bill: Before we had our first student walk through the door, we were updating the curriculum to reflect the latest technology in the MEAN stack, on the fly. In the traditional education path, that would never happen. All of their curriculum is locked in an iron vault and that’s how it lives.
We had to give these students the most current, employable mix so that when they’re talking to a hiring manager they would be up-to-date with the most current technologies and skills. That was a major focus for us and we’ve already seen it take place prior to the cohort starting.
I think right now the other thing that we knew was there and I think every cohort is going to have it, the class is a living breathing body itself. It’s like an Aspen grove; it’s “many” and it’s “one” at the same time. You have to adapt the curriculum to your cohort’s experience and ability level, whether a slower pace for people new to the technology or keep a faster pace for more experienced developer groups.
Liz: How did you decide on 10 weeks?
Zach: We strived to find that middle ground between the time required to teach people to be a junior developer and getting them back in the workforce as soon as possible. We realize it’s tough because effectively stopping their life to attend a full-time bootcamp requires a real sacrifice. They have to quit their jobs, save up, potentially borrow money and in some cases relocate to Boulder for this cohort. Our 10 week program is long enough to properly train them and short enough to be manageable for those focused on a career change.
Bill: In our opinion, there’s no reason to prolong it. Our job is to give them the right web-development skillset and our 10 week cohort accomplishes that. If you chart a curve from their “before salary” to their future income potential it’s imperative to get them in and out as quickly as possible with employable skills for their new careers.