Jesse Farmer, former cofounder of Dev Bootcamp, and John Davison, Dev Bootcamp alum, have teamed up to create an online, fully-mentored coding school called Code Union. Currently in their first cohort, Code Union offers several courses to help their students change careers, learn the basics, or upskill for their current jobs. We talk with Jesse and John about their experiences with Dev Bootcamp, why they decided to build their school online, and the types of outcomes a Code Union student can expect!
Jesse, what were you doing before starting Code Union?
Jesse: I’ve been involved in the coding bootcamp space since the start, having co-founded Dev Bootcamp. Before that, I co-founded an online retailer called Everlane, which sells premium basics online. Everlane is doing really well; in fact, some of their marketing team will be taking the Code Union SQL workshop. I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area for 8 years now.
Did you have education or engineering experience before starting Everlane and Dev Bootcamp?
Jesse: Both. I’m a mathematician by training, a software engineer by profession, and an educator by passion. I grew up in Northern Michigan, in the middle of nowhere, in a village of 1500 people. I’m a self-taught programmer; I’ve never taken a CS class in my life.
Most people in the Bay Area don’t quite understand what the level of access is like when you live in a village of 1500 people. Growing up in the 90s, most people in my hometown didn’t have a real conception of what “computer programming” was.
When I went to school at University of Chicago, I realized that there was a whole other world out there. Those are the experiences that informed my personal interest and passion, first starting Dev Bootcamp, and now Code Union. There are a lot of people out there who haven’t been served by the technology revolution over the last 15 years, and they’ll be left in the dust if they don’t get on board, so we should help them get on board.
When did you start teaching yourself to code?
Jesse: I got my first computer when I was 16, in 1999. It was an old Intel 486 that my mother's boss was going to toss in the garbage. The first "code" I wrote was HTML because I wanted to create my own "AOL Page."
When I learned more about how software was made, I decided to learn how to program on a computer. I picked C as my first language and it took me about a year to get "Hello, World!" to compile.
The web was a different place back then: no Google, no StackOverflow, not many beginner-friendly tutorials. Looking back now, it's amazing how much time I spent spinning my wheels and how valuable even the smallest amount of feedback would have been.
John, what’s your story?
John: I graduated in 2000 in Environmental Science. I had gotten into Internet SEO, so I knew HTML and CSS. I was also studying photography, so I knew some front-end layout stuff, but no back-end programming. As I was finishing my MBA in 2009, I had a ton of experience as a naval officer, I had a top MBA, and I felt mostly unemployable. The fact that I have mostly continuously been working since business school is amazing- most of the people I went to b-school with have not been able to work continuously. Ultimately, I wanted to go in a different direction. When I got to San Francisco, I started thinking more about Software products, and made my first software product in 2011- PitchKlub. A friend of mine built what was at the time an idea I really cared about, getting feedback on interpersonal communication. I realized that I enjoyed the process of making products; that naturally pushed me down the road to software development.
And you actually went to Dev Bootcamp!
John: As far as going to Dev Bootcamp, it just happened. Once I paid Dev Bootcamp, it was intentional, but the week leading up to me signing up for Dev Bootcamp, I wasn’t intentionally thinking I would be a programmer. I Googled coding bootcamps and Dev Bootcamp appeared. That was the first week of May. This was the second DBC cohort ever.
Jesse, were you instructing at Dev Bootcamp when John started?
Jesse: At that point, everyone was involved in the classroom. I was a frontline teacher, and I was especially present in that cohort. I wrote about 80% of Dev Bootcamp’s curriculum, and I was really involved.
That summer, we had a help request system that students could use from their workstations. I spent most of my day running from help request to help request. We would joke that I was the “chief flight attendant.”
John, when you graduated from DBC, what were your thoughts? Were you satisfied?
John: I thought Dev Bootcamp was one of the more transformational things I’ve done with my life. That being said, it wasn’t a cakewalk. It’s hard to get a job as a software engineer, and I’m not an ideal candidate for these companies. I had a lot of experience and an MBA, and I had really clear expectations. If you look at my background, it screams, “I’m looking to do something on my own.” I had to work pretty hard to get traction with companies, but I feel like the educational process was sound at DBC and they made me feel confident during the interview process. I think it took three weeks after finishing DBC for someone to say they would pay me to write code for them.
Jesse: John, it's funny you say that. Many students have an expectation coming out of a coding bootcamp that there's a job buffet waiting for them. I would say bootcamps vary even more in their ability to help students find jobs than they do in their curricular and pedagogical approaches.
I've heard stories from plenty of students from every bootcamp who didn't find work or struggled for months to find work. You don't hear these stories often for many reasons, and not just because bootcamps might want to sweep them under the rug. Who wants to come forward and announce, "I can't find a job!" In my opinion, the best bootcamps are transparent about these outcomes and, regardless, students should feel absolutely entitled to this information.
John, tell us about Ruby on Rails Tutors and why you were motivated to start teaching in that format after Dev Bootcamp?
John: In November of 2012, people in the coworking space I was working in started asking me to debug their code. I looked at a bunch of code and realized that they didn’t understand anything about Rails. I made a small Meetup group to teach all five people at once, so that I didn’t have to repeat myself. I randomly made a Meetup group called “Ruby Whitebelts” and 250 people joined it without any promotion in 3 weeks. That’s probably the single largest signal that I’ve gotten that the world needs something I’m doing. I tepidly started doing events, teaching people Ruby on Rails, throughout the Spring of 2013. Honestly, I didn’t have a huge affinity for it; there are a lot of people, expectations are weird, I didn’t have any free time, and I’m still struggling to establish myself as a junior dev. By May, I wind down my involvement with that Meetup group, but some people in the coworking space introduced me to a designer who wanted to learn to code and would pay me. We met, and it seemed like it actually made sense. It ended up being pretty a solid experience- I got him to the point where he was working on his own apps, and could pair program with other Senior Engineers. He understood the intersection between technical software and what it means to actually put that in front of people and solve their problems. In the process, I realized that I enjoyed teaching people and that I could be pretty good at it. It’s hard to make a lot of money in one-on-one teaching, and that’s what got me thinking about Ruby on Rails Tutor- small groups, online, remote pair programming. It also made me think a lot about what worked and what didn’t work at Dev Bootcamp. I had a good experience at Dev Bootcamp, but some attributes of DBC were not for me. The huge outlay of money at the beginning, not having any input into the education process. I felt relatively burned by business school, in terms of commitment and feedback cycle. That was a huge issue, to have zero input into the experience.
In this world of startups and technology, Dev Bootcamp was empowering. I gave it something and it gave me something of 10x greater value back. I wanted to deliver that kind of empowerment to other people, and if I could do that, then the format would be irrelevant. That would be a huge entrepreneurial success. If I could figure out how to do something like Dev Bootcamp and a fraction of the financial outlay, that might have massive scalability, I can deliver my own signal to people all over the world.
How many students did you end up teaching through Ruby on Rails Tutors?
John: About 10.
How did you both hook up to found Code Union?
John: Well, there I was, eating a falafel, and I saw Jesse walking down the street. When we talked about what we were doing, it was like two guys with blueprints that perfectly overlapped. We realized that we should be working together.
Jesse, what drove you towards online teaching? Once you left DBC, why not start an in-person bootcamp?
Jesse: I’ll give the business reason. One of the things that Everlane and Dev Bootcamp have is a brand. That brand was deliberately constructed, backed up by real quality. You have to understand the lens through which potential customers see what you’re doing, and you don’t have to be better, but you have to be different, than your competitors. There are 70 programming bootcamps now, and Dev Bootcamp was the first of it’s type. I don’t know how I would differentiate!
Because I spent so much time interacting with students and potential students, I knew that there were plenty of people who wanted to learn how to code but wouldn't be a great fit for a coding bootcamp. For example, I have a number of product manager friends I have who wanted to do a programming bootcamp. I’d tell them: You have to understand that this program is designed to train people to be professional software engineers. You’ll get a lot out of it as a product manager, but if you go into it expecting it to be 50% pure engineering, justified in terms of your job as a product manager, it won’t work that way. If you’re paying attention, it will be a really intense exercise in applied empathy. The next time you’re in a room full of engineers, you’ll have their respect in a way you didn’t have before. You’ll never say that thing PM’s always say, “How hard can this be? Is this a quick ask? Can we just slip this in to the current roadmap?” You’ll see and feel how the sausage gets made.
Are those the types of students you’re looking for? People who have touched technology, but haven’t been in technical roles?
Jesse: If people want to learn something, they should have an amazing educational experience available to them, and it shouldn’t require throwing their life into disarray to make it happen. If people want to make career change, it should be more transitional in nature as opposed to a line in the sand with significant risk.
The two biggest buckets for us are current employees who don’t want to become full-time software engineers and people for whom the opportunity cost of a bootcamp is simply too high. For example, a product manager who wants to become a technical product manager, or someone who has a full-time job and a family to support, so they can’t quit their job and uproot their life to learn how to code.
Tell us about your classes now.
Jesse: We have four workshops up, and we think of them like tracks. We have three in the Web Development sequence right now; fundamentals is the first class, then one dedicated to professional skills like test driven development and collaboration, and the final class is dedicated to topics in Computer Science.
At first, we were only doing the Fundamentals to Web Development course. But there are so many people who want to become hirable, and based on our skill sets, we should be giving people the opportunity to pursue that level.
Is the expected outcome for someone who has completed all three tracks to become a junior developer?
John: Without question. The third class in the series is also about job coaching, navigating the waters. We have a huge network in San Francisco, and we can make introductions.
Jesse: We have a range of students. One said that they like their job, and they do want to become a professional engineer, but they don’t hate their job and want to quit.
How many people will be in the first cohort?
John: 4 or 5. We really want to over serve with our time, because this is our first time.
Are you two both the instructors?
Yes, at least us. If an amazing instructor expresses interest to us, we’ll cross that bridge. People ask us what our student to teacher ratio is…it’s a pretty serious ratio now.
Do you see employers warming up to the bootcamp industry and seriously considering graduates in their hiring pool?
Jesse: The duration of a bootcamp, and this is definitely unfair, but employers will say things like- how can you learn this is such a short period of time? I had to study for Y years.” I think that’s bullshit, but that’s the reality.
John: I will counter that a bit. To be as effective as Hack Reactor and Dev Bootcamp have been in a 9-week span, is a non-trivial educational hurdle to jump over. It is difficult to deliver in 9 weeks, and I think there is evidence in the market that not all 9-week programs are delivering graduates at a level that is technically competent enough for all organizations to be interested in. There is some validity to the opinion that 9 weeks is not always feasible.
Jesse: Oh of course, I’m just saying that when the employer only knows that the applicant went through a bootcamp, it can be unfair. There is so much brand confusion on the employer’s side.
What’s the application process for Code Union?
Jesse: Students reach out to us and we’ll schedule an interview with them. Every student gets interviewed, and we structure the interview like we would structure a remote session: show and tell.
John: We put them in a simulated software environment and give them some technical challenges. We’re also seeing how well we communicate and learn together. We don’t want to see if they’re “good enough.” We want to see if their communication skills will allow us to be effective for them.
Jesse: We think of learning as a feedback loop. You have an idea in your head, you see or experience something that contradicts that idea, and then you have to update that picture in your head. A teacher’s job is to accelerate that process and explain how you’re confused more quickly and accurately than you could yourself, giving you the right feedback.
There’s a famous quote I love by Israel Gelfand: “Students don’t have any shortcomings, they only have peculiarities.” I would like to hope that if there’s a student with whom we can’t get that feedback loop going, with enough time and patience, we could figure it out. But there’s a point past which we’re not going to be able to service the student.
Do you consider Code Union in the same category as Thinkful or Bloc.io?
John: Only if that category is “non-programming-bootcamps run with mentors.” When you look at Thinkful and Bloc’s products, they’re actually quite different. If you take our three workshops, we will help you get placed in a job, and we’re even still offering financial incentives if you get hired through us.
Thinkful and Bloc aren’t, as far as I can see, really driven towards placing people as engineers. So from an outcomes perspective, that’s the difference. But there are similarities like small groups, mentorships, real-time, online interaction, and the ability to do this and maintain their lifestyle at the same time.
Jesse: The answer you expect is for us to explain the ways in which you’re different. On a superficial level, the lists of things we teach are probably similar. Of the students we’ve been talking to, though, very few have mentioned Thinkful or Bloc as alternatives. There are aspects of an in-person bootcamp that are better for them and they know it, but it would ultimately be a poor fit.
To us, the goal is that our students feel that they have a relationship with someone who is actively invested in their success. Code Union is about the quality of the teacher. At Bloc and Thinkful, you’ll learn with a mentor. At Code Union, you’ll learn from us- two teachers who will blow your mind.