With 16 years experience as a software developer and a hiring manager, Harrison Spain saw first hand how hard it was to hire competent software developers. To help fill this talent gap, Harrison decided to launch Redwood Code Academy in Orange County, CA. Harrison tells us where traditional education falls short, why he chose to teach .NET, and how his experience in the Marine Corps has made him a good leader and teacher.
What’s your background and why did you decide to start a coding bootcamp?
I've been a professional software developer for about 16 years, and a developing manager and hiring manager for the last 10 years. I've hired hundreds of developers, have been very involved in the Southern California tech scene, and I’ve worked with a lot of different startups and enterprise companies. Through those experiences of hiring, working and building teams, I saw a really big talent gap. It was really hard to find developers to hire.
Looking at traditional college education, I just didn't feel students were getting the skills necessary to succeed. So I decided to start Redwood Code Academy to fill that gap between traditional education and the real world skills that are necessary to get a software development job.
Why is the world ready for Redwood Code Academy now?
I had this idea about four years ago, but I decided that the market is right for this now. There's a really great need for Redwood, especially in Orange County where there are not many coding bootcamps. There are a lot of people looking for an education like this, and I've always had a passion for teaching, coaching, and mentoring.
How did you originally become a software developer? Did you teach yourself to code or did you get a CS degree?
I’m mostly self-taught. I've been doing software development since I was eight. I started out playing around with Visual Basic, then in junior high school I learned to program a TI graphic calculator. I went to UC Irvine for a computer science degree, but most of the skills I use day-to-day were learned on the job. I feel that a lot of learning happens by doing.
With that self-taught background, is that why you identify with the bootcamp learning style?
Yeah, 100%. If something like this was available back in 2000 when I started, I would have jumped on the opportunity to attend a school like that. It just wasn't around back then, and even now it's still kind of grassroots.
I spent six years in the Marine Corps as a tank commander. I feel my experience learning how to instruct, how to lead, and how to mentor a group of people in the Marine Corps is very relevant to software development in general, especially to a coding academy like this. I think it lends a unique perspective as well, because I don't see a whole lot of Military veterans in software development.
What technology stack are you teaching at Redwood Code Academy and why did you choose those specific technologies?
We also found that there is market need for .NET right now in Southern California. And we feel like if you know .NET, and C# specifically, you can really translate that to a lot of other programming languages, like Java or Ruby.
Is your own background mainly in .NET and C#?
Yes. I've been working with the Microsoft stack since 2000 when .NET 1.0 was released. I've worked with Objective-C, Java, Ruby, and others, but most of my experience is in .NET.
What was your curriculum development process like? Did you start from scratch?
I've been teaching and mentoring developers from entry level through senior level for the last 10 years, so I've learned quite a bit about natural progression between concepts and how to teach full stack software development. I use that experience as the basis for our curriculum.
I also looked at other coding schools’ curriculums and what was working for them. I talked to other bootcamp graduates and asked them what could have been done differently or better.
In the last five years, I've worked with dozens of employers. I know what skill sets they would hire for immediately if they could find developers. I'm using that information and incorporating it into the curriculum, so that when our students graduate, there will be companies that need exactly what we've taught here, which is really important.
Do you have a team with whom you collaborated to write the curriculum?
Redwood Code Academy is myself, plus a team of coaches, mentors, TAs and former bootcamp graduates.
How did you decide that 12 weeks was the right length for Redwood Code Academy?
Twelve weeks is a really good timeline to get a student to the point where they can do a technical job comfortably. It's not so short that there might be significant gaps, and it's not so long that you're wasting money and time before you could actually go land a job and learn a lot more on the job. I think 12 weeks is a good middle ground, and it's the average length of a coding bootcamp right now.
What's the structure and learning style of the program?
We're going to be doing daily instructional lectures. We have morning exercises, and then we go into a lecture that I will give on each day's topic. We will then have hands-on exercises in the afternoon, assisted by myself and the TA. In the evenings, the format will be like a reverse educational forum where students are either working on their portfolio project, or working on extending exercises from the day. They can specialize a little bit, they can ask questions they might be struggling with, or they can move forward a little bit faster.
How many instructors or teacher assistants or mentors will you have on campus at Redwood Code Academy?
For this first class, it is going to be myself as the lead instructor, with one assistant instructor. The assistant instructor comes from a Ruby background and has worked at a few different startups and on a lot of software projects. He went through General Assembly’s full stack web development course, so he has the experience from one of the tried and true courses. He knows what works, knows what could be done a bit better, and he helps out in that way.
What's your ideal cohort size? Are you aiming for a certain student to teacher ratio?
We're looking at 18 students per cohort, and so about a nine to one ratio. Our first cohort is shaping up to be a full cohort with 18 students.
Where in Santa Ana is your campus located?
We have our own space, which is about 4,000 square feet in the Red Hill Technology Center. It's right behind the Tustin District, off of Red Hill Ave and Barranca Parkway. It's a couple blocks away from the new SpaceX building. In the Tustin District, there are a ton of hip places to eat, drink, and hang out. We're right down the street from the John Wayne Airport tech scene. There are probably 200 companies hiring within a mile from this campus.
What's your classroom actually like in Santa Ana?
We have a classroom for 18 students with a projector, screen, and dedicated workstations for everybody. We have a break area where people can have lunch. We're setting up another area as a collaboration area, and an incubator for graduating students. Then we have a couple of conference rooms and offices for breakout sessions. It’s a work in progress, but our cohort starts on October 3rd and I think it's going to come together really well.
What are the admissions requirements at Redwood Code Academy? Are you looking for particular experience or knowledge of programming?
We're not requiring any experience. There’s an interview process where we talk to every potential student to make sure each person is passionate about what they're doing, that they're dedicated to the program, and have some of the very basic fundamentals of understanding coding. We will start at the core of "here are the basics of HTML, or here are the basics of languages," but at the same time it's requires someone that at least understands what software development is in general.
Over my years of interviewing and talking to potential employees, I think I have a pretty strong sense of the mindset that it takes to be a software developer. So I'm using that interview process as as the main gate and the qualification to join.
Will applicants have to complete any sort of coding challenge?
No. We do ask some technical questions on the phone interview, but we don’t have a specific coding challenge at this stage.
Once a student is accepted into Redwood Code Academy, do they have pre-work to complete before their first day?
Of the students who you've been interviewing so far for the bootcamp, what types of people are being drawn to Redwood Code Academy?
For the most part, our applicants are people who have always wanted to do software and were just never quite able to put it together, but are drawn to the logical aspects and the career stability of software development. We have a few musicians, which is interesting. Musicians seem to be drawn towards software development. They would like a more stable career, a better-paying job, and feel like it would be a good fit.
You mentioned you have an incubator for graduate students. Are you hoping to see students who actually want to start their own business when they graduate?
I think for the large part, people who attend a coding bootcamp are the same types of people who want to start a business. They have that entrepreneurial mindset and are looking to do something new. That opportunity is there if they want it.
If graduates want to start up a company, and have an idea, we have about four or five offices and a co-working space built into our Redwood Code Academy space. It will be free, but they will have to apply for it. They have to come up with an idea, and a basic business plan, and it will be relatively competitive. We will take people who we feel are going to have the highest chance of success, and who have the highest level of drive.
As well as physical space, will you be giving those incubator students any other kind of support?
Yes, absolutely. A big part of Redwood Code Academy is the support that we’ll give to students and graduates. The founders of Redwood Code Academy and myself especially, have a lot of connections and relationships within the industry. Being able to make those connections and introduce people to different companies is going to be pretty big.
We also have quite a few ties into the venture capital scene in Orange County. By having an incubator in the OC, we can definitely make introductions to people who are ready to invest in startup companies, and people who are looking for our specific type of graduates.
Is your first cohort at Redwood Code Academy going to be local to the Orange County area or coming from other parts of California or the United States?
We are attracting students from across the country for our first cohort. We have students coming from places like Colorado and Oregon, but for the most part, it's relatively local. Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and Riverside are where the majority of our students come from.
Once people understand what we can provide post-graduation, the incubator space, and the level of instruction we can give, I think we'll pull students from a pretty wide area.
How are you attracting a diverse applicant pool at Redwood?
Being a veteran myself, I would like to offer scholarships to veterans. We're working with a group called VetNet that helps find jobs for veterans, so we’ll be able to get a diverse group of people coming out of the military, the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Airforce who are looking for a job. Veterans are a smart, motivated group, ready to dig their hands in; they just need the opportunity.
When I was a hiring manager, diversity was at the forefront for me. It’s important that equality is built into our application process, to see if they have the drive, the passion, and the understanding to do software development. I think that attitude of being impartial, really creates a very diverse group.
Speaking of veterans, are you considering going through the VA approval process so that veterans can use the GI Bill to pay for their tuition?
The accreditation process to do that is lengthy and expensive, but it is definitely something we are exploring. It would be a huge benefit to veterans to be able to use those GI Bill benefits to pay for the school, but there are other ways that we can make it feasible for them as well, until we can get that accreditation.
Is there anything special you’ve had to do to get licensed to operate in the state?
Yes. There's the post-secondary education licensing that we're going through right now to be fully licensed and official. We're filing all the paperwork with the city of Santa Ana, and the state of California
How are you going to help students prepare to find a job when they graduate?
Towards the tail end of the course, we'll dedicate time for resume preparation, and we’ll cover what you should say to land an interview, and eventually land a job. We’ll do interview preparation on answers to interview questions, how to speak in interviews, how to handle technical challenges, etc.
We'll also be hosting hiring days on campus where we'll bring in potential employers, and give the students the opportunity talk to them. It will be like a meet and greet or a reverse job fair. We’ve already lined up a number of interested employers.
We’re interested in the job market in the Santa Ana and Orange County areas. What sort of companies are hiring and what sort of skills are they looking for?
In terms of company types, it's really all sizes and types of companies. I know at least six different startup companies that are picking up steam, and I know for a fact they're having a hard time filling out their development team. Orange County is really heating up in terms of venture capital money. There are also stable Fortune 500 and enterprise-level companies, the majority of which are also using the .NET framework.
Now that .NET has been open-sourced, it's also really opening up itself to the startup scene. We see a lot more startups using it, especially because the tools are very inexpensive if you are using C# versus some of the other competing languages. There's a lot of need across the board for graduates.
There are other coding bootcamps in Orange County like LearningFuze, Sabio, and Orange County Code School. What do you think sets Redwood Code Academy apart from those bootcamps and makes it stand out?
I think a few things make us stand out compared to those schools. Our campus has a lot of space dedicated to learning; plus, we have a dedicated incubator within the campus. Also, the level of instruction, some of our instructors have 20 years of teaching experience, is high. And we have great relationships with the Orange County tech scene. Plus, aside from Sabio, there aren’t other code schools teaching .NET, so having a full stack .NET curriculum will be a really big selling point.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned in launching Redwood Code Academy?
Once I started promoting Redwood Code Academy, I realized that the applicant pool was larger than I anticipated. There's a ton of support behind Redwood and a ton of interest in it. So I've learned to think big, and work out how we can accommodate more students.
What sort of resources or meetups do you recommend for aspiring developers in the area who want to find out more about coding?