Erik and Jack are the minds behind Tech Academy Portland (formerly Prosper IT Academy), a software development bootcamp that has grown and evolved over the past year. We talk to them about the importance of professional preparation in finding jobs for their graduates, their impressive placement rate (100%!), and the need for diversity and flexibility in the growing bootcamp market.
Aside from the name change, how has Tech Academy Portland evolved over the last year?
Jack: In terms of the curriculum, we’ve added HTML5 and CSS3, Wordpress, and Python. The main reason we added Python is because it’s really in heavy demand right now and when you have graduates who know the .NET framework and Python, the job placement successes are incredible. We also have a mobile development course.
Erik: One of the things we’re happiest with is that our curriculum is a dynamic object – to be a bit of a programming geek. We’re picky about our students and who we let in the door; as a result, we get really bright, friendly people on the floor and some of the coolest things that we’ve been able to implement in the curriculum have been based on feedback or ideas from the students.
Other things we’ve added to the curriculum have been a strong emphasis on PHP, simply because the LAMP stack is so common. Wordpress developers who can build custom themes and custom plugins and work on the back-end are valuable and that comes out of PHP and MySQL.
We’ve also really fleshed out our live project program in coordination with a few consulting companies. The live projects are almost always with an actual paying client, working for them on a real production application with a deadline. Our students are rising to the occasion and they’re handling complicated MVC analysis projects and really challenging, unusual web projects for some interesting business sectors. That live project is really proving to be the point where students are putting their skills together.
How is job placement going?
We’ve added a job placement course which basically teaches the students how to do a job interview, be well-mannered and the soft skills they need. We can teach somebody how to code but they also need to know how to work in the environment, collaborate, what to expect as a developer in day-to-day life and how to interview.
The thing we’re most proud of is that every graduate has been hired. That’s the biggest deal to us.
The course is self-paced, but how long is it generally taking students to get through the whole curriculum?
Jack: Because it’s self-paced, a lot of our students will come in and do their work here but then work on it more from home. People are getting through in about 15 weeks. It’s a lot to cover but when you clear your life and you go flat-out on it, it works great for people.
We really stress the fundamentals so that when you’re learning these more advanced things, people blast through it a lot faster than if you throw them in their first day.
Do students go through all of the modules of the curriculum that you see on the website or are they picking a specific path that they want to go down?
Jack: We designed the program with a step-by-step approach. The fifth course will refer back to things we taught you in the fourth course. It flows really smoothly from one thing to the next because you don’t want to go from doing something like Wordpress to doing MVC or something – that’s a big jump.
Putting everyone through the whole curriculum has worked best. Even those who have some past experience are finding that when you’re self-taught, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Erik: Our approach is decidedly a “bottom up” approach rather than “top down.” A fair percentage of bootcamps have the philosophical approach to throw the people into a framework, start building immediately, and figure a lot of things out along the way.
There is a certain degree of wisdom to that viewpoint, but I personally have found that this works well when one already has a pretty strong sense of the fundamentals so they can sort out important data and lessons, and they can make those logical connections much more quickly. When you throw people into it who don’t have any technology background, it can be overwhelming sometimes. Our philosophy has been to build the fundamental blocks before we give them a specific language. We teach on a gradient where students are learning simple scripting or markup language, then they start gradually implementing object-oriented programming and web development. But we do it on a step-by-step basis.
You mentioned that you have been picky with your students. What have your students been like over the last year?
Erik: There’s lots of diversity; we’re all over the map. It’s really cool.
Jack: It’s great; we have all sorts of different ethnicities, we have several women attending, we have some older and younger people. I would say that 10% of the people that come in are pretty advanced, decent coders with technology experience but not able to get a job. They’re coming here to round out their skill set and get placed. I would say another 40% or so have dabbled in coding, and about half have no experience; they just know that being a developer is a smart career choice.
Erik: In 2015 we’re adding a couple other really hot technologies to the program. One of the elements we’re really going to stress this year is security. With the whole Sony thing, security is a big issue.
How many students have you graduated to date?
Jack: in 2014 we graduated 20 of our people and they all got placed. The other 40 will be graduating over the next month or two, and some of them have already gotten jobs.
What’s the philosophy behind the rolling start instead of having cohorts of students all working together?
Jack: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that we hate turning people away and we found that when we did three or six-month cohorts, our scheduling didn’t work for certain people. We didn’t want them to lose out on the opportunity.
We’ve had a fair amount of people whose lives wouldn’t have allowed for this program if we didn’t offer open enrollment. Our main philosophy is that we want to make our program available for everybody. Also, we have five people currently doing the program remotely from their homes. We have a full remote setup; our instructors use Skype and screen share.
Since the course is “self-paced,” could someone work on it part-time for 30 or 40 weeks?
Jack: That’s a good question. We’re open from 9 a.m. in the morning here till 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. We do have people working 40-hour a week jobs so they can come here on weeknights and work from home on the weekends and those students are doing great.
What does a typical day look like? Is there lecture? Are students working one-on-one with an instructor or going through the curriculum on their own?
Erik: It’s actually a mixture of all three of those approaches. Every single course has its curriculum and a series of steps that need to be completed in order, without jumping around. For example, when students learn HTML and CSS, they learn through a combination of recorded lectures, textbooks, code exercises, pair programming and practical assignments.
What doesn’t happen in our course rooms is live lecture. We don’t do live lecture for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that if you miss one word in the middle of a live lecture, you’re in trouble. You can either keep interrupting the instructor, or you can hope you’re going to figure it out along the way.
We do filmed lectures so students can watch when they need it.
Tell us about a success story!
We had a guy who just got a job last week- he's a young kid who was working as a bagger at a local grocery store. He had to go through a lot to get through this program; not just intellectually, but he also matured a lot and gained a lot of personal responsibility. The degree of change that happened in this man’s life over the last three or four months is profound.
We make Tech Academy Portland as accessible as we can because ultimately, this industry opens up a really great life for the right type of person.
Have you had many younger students or students who didn’t do an undergrad degree at Tech Academy Portland?
Erik: Oh, yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a 24-year old kid on the floor who will be done pretty soon. His entire tech experience involves playing a ton of video games, and he had no post-secondary education at all.
On the other hand, we taught a guy who got a CS degree, tried to get a job for six to eight months, wasn’t getting hired anywhere. He did our program and got hired two weeks before graduating. We really teach people the skills they’re going to need in the marketplace. Their resumes reflect what employers are looking for and they have real coding experience in these areas.
How are you attracting a diverse applicant pool?
Jack: We had some aspirations to network and market with diversity groups in our area but it hasn’t shown to be needed because of the signups we’ve been getting without marketing. I would say 40% of our students are under the age of 24, and 30-40% of them are over 40 and the rest of them are in the middle.
Erik: We have seven women currently enrolled, and we really want to be a part of the women in tech movement that’s happening right now. We’re looking to get involved with the Chicks Who Code organization in 2015.
What kind of jobs are students being hired into? Are they full-time developers now, freelancing, working for startups or enterprise companies?
Erik: The most common outcome is that they’re getting hired full-time as developers - 40 hours a week at companies in the Portland area. Most of them are companies that have been around for a while. There are a couple of graduates who went to startups. The average annual salary is currently a little over $60,000 – which is higher than we expected. For the Portland market that’s a really good salary.
Jack: I don’t think we’ve had anybody go into freelancing yet. We have a couple of students currently attending who say that they want to freelance when they graduate. But most of them are getting run-of-the-mill 9 to 5 jobs.
Are you both mentoring and instructing, or do you have other instructors?
Jack: Right now Erik and I tend to concentrate on curriculum and business development and we have three instructors. The instructors handle virtually everything; they’re all graduates of our program.
Erik also sits down with each student at least once a month personally to interview them and see how they’re doing.
How do you see the bootcamp industry evolving over the next five years?
Jack: We’ve been involved with a lot of local bootcamps, and we have aspirations to be a national bootcamp. I think over the next five years you’re going to see five major national boot camps that are everywhere. And we hope to be one of the major boot camp names in America and to be a national company this next year.
Are you planning to expand to other cities?
Erik: We want to have classes being delivered in 10-15 of the major cities in America but we’ll be based in Portland. We do want to continue to offer that remote online option. We’re actually going to be running a bootcamp in Seattle starting in April! We’ll learn from that expansion and hopefully we’ll just continue emulating that plan throughout the US.