Erik Trautman attended App Academy in San Francisco, then created The Odin Project, a free online resource for students learning to be developers. After talking with students who needed more support in their online journey to code, Erik recently launched the Viking Code School, a selective online program complete with instructors and plenty of team work. We talk to Erik about his innovative model and how he's recreating the in-person bootcamp experience in an online platform.
Viking Code School is an online course, but students are working together in a cohort. How selective are you being in admissions?
One of the major differentiators of our program is that students are actually working directly with each other on projects; so the quality of your experience is affected by the other 7 people around you. Admissions is therefore very important and we’re highly selective about who we let in. We’re definitely trying to make sure that we surround students with the best possible classmates.
In general, admissions at Viking Code School looks more like one of the selective boot camps instead of the more open online programs, and that’s the intention. We’re more interested in focusing on quality and premium level outcomes than we are on appealing to absolutely everyone.
How did you decide on 8 students per class?
It was based on the number of students that we think an instructor is best suited to handle, as well as how many students it takes to feel like a part of a cohesive classroom unit. So there are enough students that you feel like you’re a part of something that’s strong and there are other students you can work with and bounce ideas off of but it isn’t too many students that you feel like you’re kind of lost. So I think 8 represented that middle ground for where you can achieve both those things.
Who are your instructors?
There are a half-dozen instructors, mentors and TAs on the website now. We’ve got a bunch of people from around the industry who are going to be on the mentoring side who will be providing periodic guidance and helping students out with questions that they have. Our TAs are going to be working more closely with the students directly and there are several of those as well. All in all, we’re going to end up having almost a 1:1 ratio of instructors, TAs and mentors to students.
How do you expect the community to form between the students online?
They’re going to be part of a classroom during the learning process so they’ll be attending Q&As together and some group learning sessions and helping each other with questions. The real meat of the program is actually having the students pair program on projects together. Every week is structured so that you spend some time learning on your own. But what we’re really emphasizing is at the end of every week, students are doing larger projects in small teams of students; they’ll work on those projects using remote collaboration tools.
That’s how we’re really hoping to help students get really close to each other and learn to work as part of a team as well.
What are these remote collaboration tools? Is it software that employees would use if they were remote developers to pair program with each other?
Yeah, and also video collaboration tools. There are all kinds of different software tools- they run the gamut from the beginner-friendly to the utterly obscure. We’re trying to gear towards ones that are a little bit more friendly on the beginner’s side so you don’t have to be too technical to understand.
I like that we’re also keeping things video-based because at least for me personally, I would rather feel like I’m sitting across from someone while we’re having a discussion than talking to a command line.
Do you see the Viking School as an extension of the Odin Project? Will the Odin Project still live on?
The Odin Project was always intended to be free and available and open to the people who want to use it. Viking Code School is designed to serve the groups of people who reached out to us saying they wanted more direct support as they went through the curriculum and to work with other students more as well. They wanted to have access to higher quality resources like exercise solutions and demos and the like.
The Viking Code School provides you with a lot higher levels of support and gives you access to much higher quality production level materials. We compress the timeline and squeeze what you might normally take a very long time with Odin into a much shorter time period and give you all the support and feedback that you need along the way.
Is the content of the curriculum the same as the Odin Project completely new?
There’s a little bit of crossover just because there are some resources that are the best out on the web and there’s no reason for us to reinvent the wheel. But there is a whole lot of content that’s newly produced, including instruction, demo and solution videos.
The Odin Project is a free resource- what does Viking Code School offer that requires students to pay for it?
For most of our students, the key thing is the support. A lot of students have said that they just don’t really have the motivation to stick with The Odin Project or want to get it done sooner or they want more feedback as they go through. Giving them access to the kind of support that we provide not only gives them answers when they have questions and increases the efficiency with which they can go through things, but also keeps them accountable for getting the work done, and that’s actually proven to be really valuable for people.
In the end of the day, there’s always a free do-it-yourself way of learning anything. What we’re trying to do is provide what you might get at any in-person school, which is a much more supportive learning environment that’ll help you get there more efficiently and with greater confidence in your path.
Who are the mentors and teachers that are working with you?
It’s a mix of different people. Some are people who have actually gone through the Odin Project and then taught on the Odin Project while others have worked as mentors or instructors at other bootcamps, and then others are friends that I know from around San Francisco in the industry who have something useful to offer our students.
What does a typical week look like? How hands-on is it?
Viking Code School will work in a very similar fashion to which you’d see at in-person boot camps; it’s more of a classroom model so we’re sort of expecting the student to learn on their own in a lot of ways using the resources that we provide in the early part of the week and then where we really want to be with them and where they ultimately need the most support is when they actually apply that knowledge by building projects or working on assignments later in the week.
Do you consider Viking Code School to be a Thinkful or Bloc competitor?
Not really because other programs like that don’t provide a complete and collaborative learning environment. What we’re trying to do is think more in terms of the whole package of what you would feel and receive in an in-person program, and just deliver that online. Other online programs are typically compartmentalizing mentorship and a curriculum without really bringing together everything in a structured classroom environment.
What did you learn from your experience at App Academy that you’ve been able to use with Viking Code School?
What all the in-person programs tend to do well is they provide a very focused curriculum, a whole lot of support, and a really build-focused environment, so that’s important for giving students a portfolio.
And they also – and this is the real key one that we’re really focusing on – they surround you with other students who are similarly motivated and qualified. And that can’t be understated because in some ways, you can fill a room with 20 students who are incredibly smart, motivated and capable people and just sort of point them in the general direction of a problem and amazing things will come out of it.
I don’t think the same is true of a random group of people. So the people you bring into your program and you go through your program with are very important in the ultimate outcome of the program, so that’s definitely another lesson that I’ve taken with me that’s informed the philosophy behind this new style of online program.
Will you be providing job support at the end of it or mentorships after the program ends?
Yeah. While we really don’t have the resources to offer a formal job placement program, we’re around after the program to help students take their next steps. We also have a “Week 13”, which is essentially pointing you in the right direction when you leave the program to achieve whatever the goal is that you’re ultimately hoping to achieve. Because obviously, we get a lot of people whose goal isn’t necessarily to get a job as a junior developer; we get a lot of people who are potential entrepreneurs, people who are already working in tech and just want to upgrade their skill sets as well, and them some people who are just really more interested in practicing their skills than getting a job.
That said, we do want to make sure that everyone has access to the right path so we’re trying to provide a mixture of a good set of resources, good support, and a good path forward after the program is officially ended.
For somebody who’s thinking about applying, who is your ideal student?
It’s more about the type of person than necessarily what their goal is or where they are in life. The way that we describe it is we want people who are capable, motivated and really good at communicating.
Students will come from a lot of different places. You don’t necessarily already need to know the technologies because we provide a lot of prep work as well to get people up to speed. So going into the program, we expect that you’ll already know a certain amount of things; but we give you all the resources that you need to learn those things – for free.
Tell us about the prep “mini-courses”…
I think those are another differentiator between us and a lot of the other programs- we’re really committed to giving away as much as we can to get people ready and able to come in the door with what they need.
One of our core philosophies in the program is that we want to produce not just code monkeys but we want to educate the whole engineer. What that means is you really need to understand more about the context of the products that you’re building. As an entrepreneur, you’re building products; you’re building websites for users so you need to understand how are those users thinking. That’s absolutely something that’s not covered in the vast majority of programs right now.
The way that we’re doing this is by providing them with a certain set of foundational building blocks in terms of contextual understanding.
Those building blocks are 4 different things: The web, design, engineering and coding. It starts with understanding the basics of the web and web development. The second prep course is on design because you need to understand the basics of things like UX which are terrifying to most new developers and coders. That doesn’t mean that we want to build graphic designers or build UX designers. We adopt the 80/20 rule and give you the opportunity to learn as much as you can and in a way which is relevant to your role as a developer.
Then we also have a course on engineering because I think again, from my experience going through an existing program and working with other students of programs has been that the singular focus on code has been at the cost of some of the broader engineering concepts. People come out and they feel like they don’t really understand engineering at all -- there’s a whole lot of “imposter syndrome”.
Our final prep unit is actually starting to get into the web markup and coding itself, which is a bit more self-explanatory. So like I said, you can get up to speed on important contextual knowledge before you go into the main program, which will focus more on coding within the construct of learning about things like teamwork and agile processes and the like.
Viking Code School requires 20 to 30 hours of work per week- that seems like more time required than most of the online programs.
The more focus you can devote to it, the more you’ll take out of it. You can do this with a job; you just have to make sure that you’re prepared to devote the kind of effort that it’s going to require. We don’t claim it’s easy, but it’s still easier than quitting your job and moving to a new city for a full time program.