After attending Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, Juha Mikkola was convinced that a coding bootcamp was exactly what the Miami tech scene needed. He and Johanna Mikkola launched Wyncode in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, emphasizing programming as well as entrepreneurship. We talk with Johanna and Juha about what they learned from their first cohort, what they look for in a Wyncode instructor, and their ideal applicant.
What went into the decision to start Wyncode?
Juha: For me, starting a code school was a really direct inspiration. I’ve always been a really avid user of technology and actively involved with the front end stuff on websites and then running e-commerce sites since 2002 when I started my own business. I was really excited about computers but never really understood what was happening under the hood and how you create things. That always bugged me. As I hit my early thirties and I decided to do something about it and I really got motivated to learn coding- I chose a code school instead of a MBA or a Comp Sci course in university for 4 years to learn coding skills.
I enrolled in Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, Canada. I loved their program; it was really cool and in downtown Toronto, where I was living at the time. They got a lot of great press. It was just really cool to see the format that they employed, learn from the instructors that they had and also see the success that my classmates had afterwards.
The Bitmaker class was 40 students, which is a pretty big class and I have been watching everybody interview, get positions and some have moved onto to their second positions already. That said, as an entrepreneur, being a Junior Web Developor wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do but being a part of the class and seeing how it worked got me really excited and validated the concept for me.
That really served as our inspiration to start Wyncode. Johanna and I starting talking about what I liked and also where I felt the program could be improved, and we came to the same conclusion that teaching core business skills as well as coding was so important. When you look at some of the people graduating from code schools or the stereotypical programmers type, one of the big pieces of feedback we get from their employers is that people are not necessarily in tune with the business side of things. In today’s workplace, developers have to be able to communicate their thoughts, present effectively, work well in groups and lead their teams effectively if they want to move to more senior positions. Johanna really brings the expertise there as a corporate management professional. We of course focus on the core programming skills, which are taught by Edward Toro, a MIT grad and veteran of six startups, including one that went public.
Is Wyncode in the middle of the second cohort now?
Johanna: We’re just wrapping up week seven of the second cohort. We had 14 students in the first cohort and we have 14 in this one as well. This is out of well over 100 applicants. For our October cohort we already have 15 people confirmed and we have a hard cutoff at 20 students per cohort to maintain a best-in-class instructor to student ratio.
Are you still the only coding boot camp in Miami?
Johanna: We’re still the only coding bootcamp that’s operating in Miami and Florida for that matter. We have heard that we have some friends joining us soon, which is a good sign for Florida’s tech ecosystem.
There are a few starting up in Tampa and Orlando.
Juha: Yeah, we have heard that a couple of locations are launching this fall. We’re proud to say that we came into the market first to set up a physical location and we’re also excited to see that there’s interest in other areas in the state of Florida as well. As Johanna said, it’s a good sign for the tech ecosystem.
Johanna: We want to make sure our curriculum is continually evolving to be better and we feel a key component is making sure the skills are ones that local hiring partners are looking for. We work very closely with companies to iterate on the curriculum and focus on various skills that the local market is demanding. Combining that with a business skills education and a series of awesome guest speakers, up to two a week, we want our grads to be able to ramp up quickly and get a job as soon as they finish the course. So far we are on the right track with a 93% placement rate from the first cohort.
How does Wyncode fit in with the Miami community?
Johanna: We’re really active in the community and want to make it stronger. Juha and I have been community leaders in various capacities as long as we can both remember. We loved the idea of coming to Miami as it really represented an opportunity where you could help build a burgeoning tech community.
We’re supporting lots of local groups that are here like Code for Miami, Refresh Miami and StartUp Grind for example. We have worked with Code Fever and CodeNow to help teach kids to code. Start ups in the ecosystem that are close friends include Live Ninja, CareCloud, MDLive, Rokk3r Labs, Learner Nation and many others; they’re all really fantastic and supportive which we love.
Companies tell us time and time again that the entry level developer talent is really missing in Miami so if we can address that need, we hope we can help the community get stronger!
How did that first cohort go? Did you find things that you changed for the second cohort?
Johanna: We don’t just iterate between cohorts, we try to change things as the cohort is going on to meet the needs of the students. Every cohort is going to have a different dynamic so we strive to be as agile as possible.
We also iterate to meet the needs of our partners and new hiring partners as they come on, making sure we’re incorporating their technologies and even including some specific projects or APIs to get our students experience with those platforms.
Perhaps the biggest thing we learned from the first cohort is setting the right expectations for an intensive bootcamp and having a robust orientation to set up the second cohort for success early on. The new class is really focused and determined and we are expecting big things.
Wyncode has a class in Spanish, is that right?
We fell Miami is a great market to launch something like this because of its position as a hub for Latin Americans. We’d love to help train developers who may take skills back to Latin America, where there really isn’t a code school culture yet, or they may create start ups that focus on issues faced by Latin Americans.
Can we talk about that logistically? How do you teach a class in Ruby in Spanish? Isn’t Ruby a very English centric language?
Juha: It is; you’re absolutely right about that and it’s one of the reasons Ruby is so cool. Even if we are teaching it in a different language, students will code in English. A non-native English speaker will be able to learn the context around what they are doing at a deeper level if the teaching around the coding is done in their native language.
Our curriculum is much more than just coding -- something that our head instructor Edward has brought in that we love is that a lot of the more difficult concepts are first explained in a historical context around an important figure that helped bring the concept to the mainstream. This helps the person learning the concept remember it since it’s more than just code. Hearing this type of stories in your native language will be awesome for those that speak limited English. Of course, we’ll also bring in Spanish language guest speakers, like entrepreneurs, angel investors, VCs and hiring partners to talk about their successes and challenges.
Our goal is being able to get people to that level where they’re proficient in coding and understanding what they’re doing, regardless of whether their native language is English or Spanish.
Who are the students who are part of the Wyncode cohort? Are they technical or are they complete beginners? What does the ideal applicant look like to you?
Juha: We have a wide range of applicants. Our averages age right now is early 20s to mid-30s, though we’ve had students in their 40s as well.
People really come from varied backgrounds. Generally, it’s people who are doing this instead of college and university as a way to kick-start their careers into programming; those people tried to teach themselves and found that it’s not something that works for their learning style. They may have also tried to learn on their own and done well but then had trouble finding a job as they have not been integrated into the tech ecosystem, which we really pride ourselves on helping our students with.
Then we have the career-changers who have been working professionals for a few years and have established themselves but they either have an idea for something that they want to build or they want to transition to startups as a web developer. Those people tend to move up company ranks very quickly because they have great work experience already combined with their new coding skills.
What surprised us a little bit in a positive way is how entrepreneurial Miami is. The city ranks tops in the Kauffman Foundation’s listing of entrepreneurial city in the country. There are a lot of people coming in with an idea who are willing to take a risk on a new idea. They’re using the course as a way to learn the skills to build a MVP. We put a lot of emphasis on the pitch at the end of the course as we feel it helps these students and also those looking to work somewhere, at it rounds out their business skills.
We actually have the students go out and prepare a whole presentation around the app that they’ve built. We had 180 people at the first event, in a room that basically had capacity for 80; so we were really excited to see the response from the community. The judges at the event picked the top student and he got a job at Rokk3r Labs starting the next day!
It’s always cool to talk to schools who are very supportive of the entrepreneurship mindset and people who want to start their own businesses, in addition to people who want to get jobs.
Juha: For sure! We don’t think they are mutually exclusive. We have seen people who have a very specific idea to build an MVP do it and then go work somewhere for a couple of years to get that job experience before they feel ready to go out on their own. On the other hand, some students looking for a career as a Junior Web Developer may get excited about the entrepreneurial spirits of the guest speakers and do their own thing.
We are definitely welcoming of entrepreneurs, perhaps more than some traditional code schools because of my background and Miami’s nature. Jo and I are both very entrepreneurial so we definitely want to support that type of student as much as we do somebody who’s looking to make a career out of coding.
We are based out of The LAB Miami, which is Miami’s first co-working space filled with cutting edge start ups, so that also feeds into the daily excitement that our students feel coming into class every.
How can someone stand out during the application and interview process? How do you prove that you are ready for Wyncode and ready to take this step?
Juha: That’s a great question. There’s a lot of things we look for. One of the main things is that you have tried to learn on your own. It’s very important, even if you haven’t been successful to the point of making a career out of it yet; the fact that you tried to learn to code is really important as it demonstrates your desire for it. We can help put together the complete package.
Another thing that we look for is what the student’s expectations are. No matter what your background is, the whole group is moving towards a common goal and that’s learning the skills to build a full stack web application. We really push this path from day one and ending with our pitch day.
We want to make sure that we get the feel from our applicants that they’re ready to put whatever else they’re doing on the back burner to focus on coding for 9 weeks.
It’s a huge commitment but we find that students who make the commitment are succesful. We have found it helpful that we are based in the middle of Wynwood, which is a very artistic and inspirational area with incredible street art, great food, craft coffee, art galleries and much more around us. We want people to come here and be inspired every day to put in the time and change in their lives.
From our end, we’re constantly striving to build an environment that really motivates people to do whatever it takes; and that trickles into our application process. We’re looking for people who have a strong desire and are ready to go and put their heads down to do something really special with their lives.
Did everybody in the first cohort graduate or did anybody have to drop out?
Juha: Everybody completed the course. We had one student who was very entrepreneurial and actually ended up going to work on his own project before the pitch day.
What’s different about our course from a couple of other schools is that we have a two-week period after the 9 weeks where our students are welcomed back in our space. We have instructors and TAs there so they can continue working on their applications. They can come in and talk to us about how to prep for interviews. They can even do their interviews in our space if they want to, with potential hiring partners.
We really want to support them and it works out to be more like an 11-week course than 9 weeks. This is because one of the things I felt from my experience, is that is all ends pretty abruptly. You go from this intense experience to all of a sudden, there’s a new class in the space and you don’t really know what do with yourself. So we wanted to make that transition as smooth for people as possible.
And even today, we have some of our alumni coming back to the space almost everyday. After a long day at their new job, they’re coming in to talk to the current students. We just had a student step up and start the Wyncode alumni association and we’re going to do a hackathon where all the students work on a platform that the first cohort built to manage our code school. It’s really exciting; we want to build a community that’s just reinforcing and building on itself and helping build the Miami tech ecosystem at the same time.
So cool! I love that students wanted to contribute to the alumni association.
Juha: It’s an awesome story. The student really taking the lead didn’t go to university, so he considers Wyncode his alma mater, a place where he can give back and make a difference, and I know students like him are and his classmates are going to help build something amazing. It’s really cool to see people respond this way to the course and we couldn’t be happier about it.
Are most of your graduates staying in Miami and in Florida or did any of them get jobs outside of the city or the state?
Johanna: We are definitely focused on the Miami area and our hiring partners are concentrated in South Florida. We were really fortunate that everybody who went into the work force and got jobs did stay in South Florida. We had people interview as far as San Francisco and elsewhere in Florida, like Orlando. But all of them landed as junior developers in and around the Miami area.
Do the students all come from Miami?
Juha: The student that came from the farthest away in the first cohort was from Tampa, so they made the move to Miami. We’ve had global applicants at this stage but that was the furthest student in the first cohort.
Is there anything else that you want to add that we didn’t touch on?
Juha: I think one thing that’s worth mentioning is the experience of our teaching team. We wanted to have a fulltime instructor right away who has been a senior developer in the working world in Miami. We’re very lucky with Ed also being a passionate and skilled teacher and MIT grad so he’s got that theoretical background as well. We were really excited about making him a core member of the team when we started.
Our TA team is really diverse. We have people who are self-taught all the way to a University of Miami computer science professor who helps out in his spare time. He understands and sees the value in the code school concept and how he can implement some of that into more traditional education.
There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in terms of the teaching team, and we hope all of our students find somebody who teaches in a way they can really understand. We definitely value that a lot and we look look to the teaching team to help us iterate the curriculum and as much as we do look at the contribution of our hiring partners. The TAs in particular can help make sure we’re always on the cutting edge as they are working full time in the field outside of teaching at Wyncode.
We’re basically trying to get constant feedback on the educational model and the curriculum so we can make it really effective and in line with what employers want.
Johanna: The last thing is that we have a really exceptional ratio of students to teachers. That’s something that we’re really big on as well, in addition to having those senior developers involved in shaping the local climate here.
What is your teacher:student ratio?
Johanna: 1 to 4 or 5, depending on the day. We find that it makes a big difference in the learning process. And really, when it comes down to it, the reason people come to a boot camps is so that they have the instructor at their fingertips and we want to make sure that’s the case at Wyncode.