Harsh Patel began the first MakerSquare cohort in June of 2013 with three friends who wanted to create a programming school with an emphasis on great teachers and a project-based curriculum in Austin. With his Teach For America experience and background in startups, Harsh has an intentional approach to coding education, and it shows when he describes MakerSquare. We talked with him about the challenges of finding great instructors, their expansion to San Francisco, and how they're making an impact on the local community around them.
Tell us about your story and how you got into this space.
I got into this space as a potential student. I graduated with an engineering degree, but wanted to learn web development after working on a startup I co-founded where I was not the engineer, but was leading a team of engineers from the product side. I got the itch to want to make changes and learn how to build things myself, so I started teaching myself web development. I’d written code on the research side, which was super math heavy, but never in the context of the web.
I looked into schools or courses I could take, and at the time, only Code Academy (now Starter League) and General Assembly in NYC existed. I was living in NYC, so I signed up for the only class GA offered back then, which was a part-time web development class.
I was extra critical of the course because of my experience with Teach For America. I knew what it looked like to have a great teacher, what a great curriculum structure should be, and what a great classroom environment should be. After about 4 weeks of class, I quit. The structure wasn’t for me. I already had some programming experience (MATLAB from my biomedical engineering days), was learning on my own prior to taking the class, and was learning night and day – unlike many of my peers in the class. There was also a lot of room for improvement in the teaching, curriculum, and classroom environment side of things. I gave them a ton of feedback, but they were focused on expansion at that point, so much of the feedback wasn’t acted upon, so I decided to quit and keep learning on my own.
But this left me with a huge itch to want to create something better. I can’t help myself. If I see something that needs to be improved, and I know I can improve it, I can’t help but do something about it. At the same time, a close friend of mine, Ravi, called me to ask about my experience, as he also wanted to learn web development. I told him if he’s ready to go all-in, GA wasn’t the place, and the only other school I knew of at the time was Starter League, which was also a part-time commitment. So he said “Why the heck isn’t there something like this in Austin?”. I told him… “Well, if you want to make something like this there, I know exactly how to train good teachers, structure project based curricula, and create good classroom environments.” And that’s where the snowball of – “Let’s start a school in Austin.” Took off. We couldn’t come up with reasons why not to, and the reasons for doing so kept growing by the day.
For me, I wanted to create the school I wish I went to. One with like-minded peers – people who had already had some programming experience, were ready to learn all day and all night, and were genuinely good people.
From there, Ravi convinced Shehzan to decline an offer from Facebook and instead help start this school, and a mutual friend of ours, Shaan, who had recently made a career change to software development, to move from Chicago to Austin. Once we all made it to Austin, we hit the ground running during SXSW, and went from there.
When was your first cohort?
June of 2013.
How many cohorts have you done since then?
We’re on our sixth one right now. Just recently in our last cohort, we capped our cohort at 18, and lengthed the course to about 3 months, 12 weeks vs. the original 10. We doubled down on making sure that every single person that walks out of MakerSquare is amazing.
Students love MakerSquare so far, even in the first three cohorts that we were running it. If you talk to the graduates, they’re extremely happy with their experience. But we thought the only way to ensure long-term sustainability was to always have graduates that exceed expectations for employers. So we decided to limit the number of students and lengthen the course so we could spend more individualized attention on teaching software and web development vs. only general web development.
Austin is a pretty small market relative to other cities out there. I was running the numbers the other day to answer a question on Quora, and it was asking if it matters what city you’re in when you’re doing a boot camp. They’re asking about San Francisco, Denver and Seattle. I was running through the numbers and Austin has the least number of available jobs if you look at those 4 cities, yet we have way more applications than we can sustain. And I think it’s a large part to do with how popular Austin is, and that people have just been doing really well out of MakerSquare.
Do y’all have any funding? From reading the website, it looks like your team is really built out.
No we didn’t take any funding. We started MakerSquare with basically our savings, and a whole lot of desire to create a great school. Our team is really built out because it takes a lot to run a proper school. That’s one thing I’m wary of when I talk to founders of newer schools – a lot of people don’t realize what it takes to run a proper school. We have 20 full-timers now for about 36 full-time students (juniors & seniors) at a time.
Who are your instructors?
We have a gradient of experience for our instructors. It’s something that’s important in a learning environment. You want to make sure you have senior people, mid-level people, and junior people, so people feel comfortable approaching someone from the instructional staff with questions – whether they feel like they’re “ahead”, “on-pace”, or “behind”.
We hire really talented engineers, and also make sure that they’re really good teachers. I also like to make sure we have people on staff with significant teaching experience. For example, we recently brought on another Teach for America alum who’s been a developer for about 5 years now, and he’s helping me take charge on teaching instructors and creating a good learning atmosphere.
We also have TA’s on staff who have graduated from MakerSquare. Some people like to give schools flack for this, but in my opinion, it’s pretty crucial to have “junior” level instructors that just went through what students are going through helping out. Often times, these instructors are the ones that can most closely relate to students – as they’ve just recently felt those same pains. They also come up with some of the best ideas for improving the school.
In addition to Austin, are there plans for classes in other cities?
Yup, San Francisco. We’re currently taking applications. Our first class there starts in June 2014 and we’re capping it at 10 students that have had prior programming experience. Imagine a class of ~10 students, and 4-5 full-time staff. We’re taking all the “Man, I wish we would have done X when we first started in Austin.”, and doing exactly that in San Francisco. One of which is absolutely killing it with our graduates in the first class. It’s really important to us that the first class is nothing short of amazing out there.
Since it’s in San Francisco, have you had to go through the accreditation process or work with the BPPE?
Yes; in Austin we did that from the beginning, so we already put in our application for San Francisco. The process is not that bad at all. The things they have you do are pretty reasonable for the most part, and if you talk to them about any differences you have, from our experience, they’ve been very receptive to this new kind of education in the tech space.
It was pretty reassuring; when all of that news broke a couple of months ago about accreditation, we were like, “Sweet! We’re ahead of the curve!”
MakerSquare has a part-time and a full-time course. What are the different outcomes that people can expect with each of those courses?
Once we started the full-time course, everybody in Austin was like, “I really don’t want to quit my job. I want to learn this stuff but I don’t necessarily want to be a developer, I just want to be better at what I’m currently doing.”
What are students learning in the full-time course?
Learn by (re) building
*Build your own CSS framework
*Build your own Ruby gem
*Build your own Sorting Algorithms
*Build your own Autocomplete implementation (like Google search)
*Build your own jQuery
Computer Science & Software Engineering Fundamentals
*SOLID design principles
*Describing Algorithm Performance with Big O
*How Programming Languages Work (interpreters, execution order, memory, implementing hashes)
*Natural Language Processing
*Building Graph Databases, Clustering Databases
You can see the week by week breakdown of the curriculum on our website if you’re curious.
What’s your teaching style?
Clay is the other instructor who came from Teach for America and the two of us are super obsessive about the teaching style. If students are learning fundamental stuff then there’ll probably be a 15 – 20 minute “intro to new material” then 2 ½ hours of exercises, followed by code reviews from instructors, if appropriate for that particular lesson or project.
A core principle of our teaching style is to build an experience for students, not just tell them or show them something. We build a way for students to learn a topic.
That happens with almost every lesson, and no “lecture” goes over 40 minutes, ever. Every single time any concept is introduced, the main focus is on building something with it. Usually it follows the process of writing code to make tests pass, then moving to writing tests yourself, then writing the code to make those tests pass, followed by code reviews from other classmates, and instructors.
What are you looking for in applicants or potential students? What can applicants do to set themselves apart?
First and foremost, we look for people that can work well with other people. This is a must-have. We’re not just looking to train solid developers, we want to make sure we bring collaborative and communicative developers to the developer community.
Second, we look for people who have some level of programming experience. It could be something research based, say you used Python to do super math-ey stuff in your research lab during undergrad. Or you’ve been writing PHP for some time just because that’s what you taught yourself when you got into web development. Or you’ve been writing Arduino code to get it to do cool stuff with LED’s. You basically have to know that you really want to become a better programmer. If you don’t have programming experience, it’s pretty tough to be accepted, but not impossible.
But students don’t necessarily have to have had a dev job.
It’s not a requirement but recently, a lot of people do. We don’t take people who are just getting started anymore, unless they’re brilliant.
Do you have an acceptance rate?
This is a vanity metric in my opinion. Our acceptance rate is hovering around 20%. On the surface, some people might say that’s too high, but if you think about it it’s actually more efficient than having an ultra low rate. Having an ultra low acceptance rate implies that the right people are not applying, because you aren’t accepting them. We aim to have as many qualified people apply, and if that makes our acceptance rate go up, that’s completely fine, because we’re being more efficient with our application process.
How many of your students have been typically male versus female? Have you seen a good amount of women in the course?
Our first class was 50-50 which we are super proud of. We used to offer a $2000 scholarship, except we found that wasn’t the reason that women were choosing to come here. We did a survey with our students and they were like, “Yeah, the scholarship was a good cherry on top but that’s not why I was drawn to you guys in the first place.”
We also teach a group of Girl Scouts over the weekend and we also run a middle school coding class once a month. Those are the kinds of things that have attracted women, the idea that we are actually trying to do something about the gender gap at a young age. I think that’s the only way that we can actually affect change. We’re always looking to do more to bring more women into the developer world.
How many instructors do you have in each class?
There are 8 instructors on staff. They spread their time between writing curriculum, teaching Juniors, teaching Seniors, and taking time off. Generally, there are 2 instructors in each class of ~18 students.
Are you one of the instructors?
No, not anymore.
You talked about making sure that the instructors you hire are technically proficient but also good educators. How do you do that? How do you find instructors for those courses?
I asked Gilbert, one of the instructors who has been with us from the beginning, how to recruit more people like himself. He said, “Just continue being awesome.” There isn’t any particular outreach that we did, we didn’t run an ad or use a recruiting service. His feedback was, “I saw that you guys were real, genuine, awesome people so I really wanted to work here.” and then he reached out to us. Every single one of our instructors that are with us today had reached out to us in some capacity or another.
That’s very cool and it’s a testament to your program.
Yeah, it was awesome hearing that from him, but at the same time I was like, “Well damn, do we just have to sit around and wait for more awesome instructors?”
To describe the process a bit more, what we do after people reach out to us is we have them do a sample lesson, both writing curriculum as well as teaching. I talk to specific students in the class and ask them to keep an eye out. The instructor usually stays for half of a day or a whole day so they have a chance to write curriculum, teach, as well as help students one-on-one. Then we get feedback from students, other instructors, and other staff members to make sure they’ll fit well with the entire team of 20 staff now.
How do you help students if they come to you looking for a job? How do you help them find jobs once they’ve graduated?
That’s the most important part of what we do. Very few people come to MakerSquare who are not looking for a job. We invest a lot of time and research into the career portion of the course.
We work with students as soon as they’re in their admissions interview, we’ll start collecting information about what they’re looking to do, where they want to end up, what motivates them, things like that. Then once they’re accepted, Jessica, who’s in charge of our talent team, will interview you one-on-one for a while and figure out exactly what you’re looking to do. That happens early on in the process and she’ll start talking to companies on your behalf while you’re going through the course. Then towards the end of the course, you’ll do another one-on-one with Jessica and she’ll do a resume prep; make sure that all your public-facing stuff is good to go. She’ll help you figure out how you can leverage your past experience and get a higher salary or get a job that you want to end up in for the long run. We’ll make introductions, as well as push you to submit a lot of applications to a bunch of different jobs.
Does MakerSquare have hiring partners?
It depends; what would you define a hiring partner is?
A company that pays an upfront amount to be a part of your network and gets first dibs on your students.
We don’t have hiring partners in that sense. Up until now, we haven’t charged any recruiting fees to employers at all, while we get our name out there in Austin. But now if you come to our career day, there’s over a 120 different companies that are there. Now it’s a problem to actually figure out which companies are good for students, so we’re doing a lot more work. We’re working with companies and acting like a traditional recruiting firm. In San Francisco, we’ll use the traditional finders’ fee model and in Austin we’ll be starting that soon as well, likely for alumni though. I have to emphasize though, we do not push a student to join any particular firm. We make sure that our students can find roles that are the best for them.
When you start the Finder’s Fee model, will students get a tuition refund if they get placed in one of your hiring partner companies?
We’re still figuring that out. What we’ve found in talking to other schools and to students is that most students don’t care about getting a couple thousand back - the thing that really stresses them out is actually having a job. As long as they’re placed, they don’t care whether they’re getting money back (for the most part). One thing that I’m really big on is that anything that we do has to be run by students first so nothing is a surprise for them.
I just read a blog post that MakerSquare posted about hiring coding school grads. Have you found in the last year that it’s been a challenge to work with companies and convince them that they should be hiring coding school grads on principle?
There’s this one story that I like to tell. When we first came to Austin, one of the top employers in town, Mass Relevance, was turned off to hiring any of our students because they had experience with someone from another boot camp that interned with them, and they were completely not ready.
We had a lot of uphill sliding to do to convince them otherwise. But what really convinced them was when we had one of their engineers come do a guest lecture on Tries, which is a data structures/algorithms topic. The challenge was to create an algorithm that replicates the autocomplete you see on Google a lot. He noticed that one of our students created a more efficient, and more accurate algorithm than he did. He went back and talked to one of the founders and he was like, “These guys are not messin’ around.” And now they’re our biggest advocates.
The way we’ve changed that mentality is to involve people in the community and invite them to come to the space, come talk to students and do a guest lecture. They’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Since I personally want to convince everybody to move to Austin, can you tell us about the Austin tech scene and what makes it special and unique?
The only reason we exist in Austin is because two of our founders were here. They had a positive experience with the Austin tech scene already. The reason why the community’s awesome is that there’s not this aura of competition between companies here – it’s really collaborative.
When we went to San Francisco, our first thought was to go talk to Shareef from Dev Boot Camp and Doug from Hack Reactor and people at Hackbright and Kush from App Academy. The feeling that we got after talking with them was that no one else really talked to each other and it was kind of cutthroat between the schools out there. That’s completely different from the Austin mentality. I guess we breathe that collaborative atmosphere, and I think that comes from the way Austin has raised us over the last year and a half.