In 2013, Gregorio Rojas and Liliana Monge started Sabio, a full stack coding bootcamp in L.A., with the goal of helping more Angelenos get access to programming skills. Now the bootcamp is well established with a new campus in Orange County, and dozens of successful alumni working as developers. Gregorio is head instructor/CTO and spoke to us about launching their new iOS program, finding the best instructors, and the importance of maintaining relationships with alumni for five years after they’ve graduated.
Tell us about your background and what brought you to found Sabio.
I actually don’t have a degree in computer science; I have a Bachelor of Science in sports medicine from Boston University. I’ve been doing software for more than 15 years so I’m in the same position as most of the people who come to Sabio, which is that they have a degree but it’s not in CS. So I’m intimately aware of the path it takes, the work it takes, the focus one should take in getting from zero and into a job because I did it myself – and I did it wrong.
How did you learn software development?
I did it mostly on my own. I took some night classes at Northeastern University, but they were not that awesome. It wasn’t really software development, but I had to do it because it was part of the course. We were supposed to do two chapters in this programming book. But I did the whole book. I was at home struggling by myself. But in the end I did really well at it. I put a lot of time into it and after the program, I was the only one in my class who got a job.
My first job was supposed to be a junior developer position. It turned out to be a QA (quality assurance) position. I was there three months.
When did you and Liliana start Sabio?
It was about three years ago. It took us about 10 months until we actually started training. We were trying to get support to do a Monday through Friday program, do a full-blown campus/co-working space, all sorts of stuff. And that was just too much to start with. So we ended up starting with a weekend program. We ran two cohorts over 20 weekends. I ran the cohorts on Saturday and Sunday – while still working at my job Mondays through Fridays – then met up with the students Wednesday night. We did that for two cohorts, which was basically a year before we transitioned to what we have today as the Monday through Friday programs.
We no longer offer part time classes. We’d love to but it’s just really hard to find developers who want to work every weekend for 20 weeks.
You were a developer working in the field for 15 years or so. What have you found is your personal teaching style?
Most of our lecturing happens at the very beginning and the very end of the 12 weeks. At the beginning, we get you warmed up, and make sure everyone is moving forward at a good pace. At the end, we prepare you for the job market with interview prep, resume prep, and send you on interviews.
In the middle eight weeks, it’s a lot of one-on-one. sometimes we’ll stop and do some lectures if people are having a similar problem. But usually I come in each morning and start fielding questions, one after the other. If you’re working faster, I’ll give you more work. If you’re going through work slower, I spend more time making sure you’re learning what you need to know. We focus a lot on actual code delivery. So if students don’t have questions, I go around the room and pull them out and say, “Show me your code, show me what you’ve been doing.”
We do a lot of computer science theory towards the end. It’s theory that could be necessary for you to get a job, and to accurately describe what you’ve been doing for the past 10 weeks. You need to be able to communicate with a computer scientist in a manner they can appreciate.
How many cohorts do you have going at once? Do you teach them all?
We have three cohorts going at once, each with maximum 10 students. Hopefully soon we’ll have four or five running at the same time. It just depends on instructors. I’m responsible for teaching one class in L.A., and I oversee all three of them, including the one in Orange County. Liliana makes trips back and forth to Orange County. The short-term goal is to get me bouncing from room to room; whether that be two campuses then I’ll do that. Right now, we are aggressively looking for other instructors.
Tell us about the Sabio instructors? Who are they?
The other instructor here in L.A. with me has been programming a really long time. He’s had tremendous experience and used to teach at one of the local colleges, a UCLA extension. The instructor in Orange County was with us in L.A. for an entire year and is someone who I’ve worked with before. We always bring in top quality people to train our students.
We train them thoroughly on how to teach, how to present the materials, how to field questions, the tone, the direction, or the amount of information, and when to present it. An instructor comes in and they shadow me for 12 weeks. We pick people who have a lot of experience in mentoring and speaking to other developers. People who can get in front of a room and explain things about code in a knowledgeable and clear way.
I have regular meetings with the instructors whom I’m not teaching with to see what’s going on.
Do you hire Sabio graduates as instructors or TAs?
No, we do not hire them to teach our full time course. It doesn’t make sense for me to hire someone I just trained. That’s one of my biggest questions marks – I don’t know how that is a value proposition for anyone. Our oldest fellows have been out in the industry about 22 months and I'd love to hire them in another three or four years, let them get all of that experience. There isn’t a very detailed curriculum playbook that we distribute, so what I need at the front of the room is someone who can teach whatever comes up.
When you started the fulltime program, the curriculum was .NET, right? What are you teaching now?
Some of our fellows have found jobs doing Node and PHP, and we have people working in Python. When they graduate, they leave here with the toolset to do what they want. We have two fellows who have deployed their app to the Apple store. They’ve got a little startup running and they’re touring the country competing in and winning hackathons to fund their startup.
We like to have a very open curriculum, we don’t like to be limited in what we’re going to do.
How is the job market for .NET in L.A and Orange County?
Because we’re in California, we’re always the afterthought to Silicon Valley. But we do really well. I’ve been here 15 years and I never had a problem getting work; plenty of work choices and great pay.
We actually started in Orange County because of the demand we saw from the hiring managers there, and the fact our fellows in L.A. would keep going to Orange County to interview. So this year, we made the effort and we were able to expand to Orange County.
What are your job placement rates like?
We’re at 90% with great placement rates, great salaries coming out of the program. The outcomes inform what we do. It’s twelve weeks of study, and then in seven weeks on average, you have a full time job. We have plenty of people getting a job right out of the program as well.
What does the pre-work look like?
Anyone who applies to Sabio can start the pre-work. It starts with a simple onboarding process. Day one of pre-work is the first Monday of every month here in L.A. You start pre-work with me, then you get two weeks for free, to see if this is going to make sense for you – not at home by yourself because that could be so frustrating. From our third cohort on, we’ve had an instructor there to lead this pre-work and prep students in person. You have actual interaction, and the instructor can give you a lot of context before you start the program.
And if it makes sense and you like us, you go through the registration process and sometime in the future, depending on scheduling and logistics, we’ll get you into a full time training program.
Tell us about your new iOS program.
It’s an intro program for people who are new to programming. A lot of trying to learn to code is getting past this hurdle, getting oriented, overcoming a lot of fears. This program is intended for someone with no programming background, and one of the big takeaways from the course is you will publish an app to the app store – that is the goal. We’re going to take you through building a simple iOS application and actually take you through the steps of deploying it. We will be teaching both Objective-C and Swift.
What does the partnership with Antioch University look like?
The easiest way to describe it is you can now essentially enroll to be an Antioch student and take what they’re calling their CS 101 and CS 303, but those two courses are run by Sabio instructors.
The CS 101 is a little bit more formal and structured than what we normally do in our bootcamp, but we had to make it work with the academic system. The CS 303 is the same full stack intense training that we do in the bootcamp. It isn’t a modified one we’re cutting up across four semesters and breaking up. It’s being taught by our instructors under my supervision. The difference that would make you go through Antioch instead of directly through Sabio, is you can transfer to Antioch with college credits and finish your degree with them. And you can get university-standard financial aid, including GI bill. You can pay the bills and grow your career while finishing your degree.
Who would you say is the ideal student to study at Sabio?
Come to us with zero. Our job is to get you to learn to code. If you know how to code, we’re not going to turn you away. But so far no one's ever come to our program who has a CS degree.
What do we look for in a person? They have to be motivated, have a good attitude as far as dealing with frustration, and be very positive. That’s something we try to coach them on throughout their engagement with us.
But really, the most important thing is how coachable they are. You’ve got to be able to ask for advice, take advice, consume it and do something with it. I’m bringing 15 years of professional experience in programming, and how to get from point A to point Z in an efficient manner. If you come here and think your opinion might carry more weight than us, that’s not going to fly. What I tell folks is, we have a plan. We’ve been training, making contact with this plan for close to a hundred people. We modify it all the time to try to make it better.
How do you mentor fellows once they graduate from Sabio?
After we teach you those skills and get you into a job, we have a five-year commitment to get you more CS material and share it with you over that time period, because trying to squeeze this into 12 weeks is really hard.
We also do monthly meetups. That could be an intro to a new topic, it could be a deep dive in an old topic. We also do professional development, talking to folks about how to deal with their managers, peers, entrepreneurship, the tech environment in general. I get a lot of phone calls from fellows about negotiating a new contract or an offer. The value of the mentorship aspect of professional development is well established.
We really try to build a big sense of community so we have really good relationships with some of the folks who have come through our program over the last two years. They tell me they’re doing really well at their jobs.
How do fellows interact with current students? What is the alumni network like?
They come back to help out our younger ones or people who are about to graduate when we do our hackathons. We encourage everyone to come, and we mix up the teams so in each team, we have someone who’s been out in the industry two years, someone who’s been working 6 months, and maybe someone who’s still training. So there’s a tremendous amount of networking that goes on, as well as learning.
What has been your greatest lesson as a coding bootcamp founder? Tell us about something you’ve changed about Sabio over the last 2 years.
I’ll tell you about the most impactful change we made. Week one and week two used to be really intensely stressful, because it was such a huge learning curve. Now week one is a fun time, because we have updated and continue to update our pre-work formula to make it less stressful, get them more knowledge and get them better prepared for that intense period. We changed it to be more comprehensive, more focused, and project based.
Our past fellows actually changed my opinion in regards to our pre-work – the amount, the quality, and the delivery. As we collected more and more similar feedback, we changed our pre-work to be consistent with what the fellows asked for.
I know Sabio has always made a huge commitment to opening up the applicant pool to untapped talent, getting underrepresented minorities into the doors. Do you look back at the last two years and think you’ve been successful in that goal?
The short answer is yes. This comes from the fact Liliana and I are both immigrants and Latino. So when we talk about focusing on specific groups, why wouldn’t we focus on ourselves, right?
The biggest way we do that is, we just invite anyone. Everyone who wants to learn, you can come to us but you’re going to have to pass our process. We need to make sure you’re the right kind of person because we’re going to have a five-year relationship with you. When you come out, you’re going to be a great developer; that’s what we’re focused on.
We don’t reject anybody. We let you figure that out. When you go through our pre-work and it’s not something that’s sticking, then you’ve made that decision. Or when you are confident that you can learn at Sabio, then we’ll take you there.