Rahul Parmar is a cofounder and Director of Business Development at Lighthouse Labs, a thriving programming bootcamp in Canada that offers courses in both Web and iOS development. Between huge community events like the HTML 500 and their intense, project-based courses, Lighthouse Labs is making waves in the Vancouver tech scene, and we got the scoop from Rahul!
Tell us about how the Lighthouse Labs team started a coding bootcamp.
Khurram, our head instructor, actually runs a development shop in Toronto, he’s one of the partners there. He initially started teaching at a school called Bitmaker Labs, which was probably one of the first in Canada. We decided that we wanted to make a few changes to the model and we ended up coming to Vancouver to do that.
The main change we made is in class size; we really shrunk down class size. We only take 20 at a time. We have 5 students per TA and that number we stick to pretty tightly. It gets to 7 every once in a while. The reason for that is that we found that learning how to code is a very hands-on endeavor and you really need an environment where you have access to people to help you through the hurdle. A lot of boot camps run huge class sizes with very few TAs, and that ends up with students who are stuck for a long, long time. We didn’t want to drive our schools on students being stuck, we want them learning a lot of different things.
The team here is 4 of us on the ground. There’s myself, there’s Qaid who runs all our operations- who’s getting paid what, who we’re hiring, everything that isn’t education or sales. Jeremy runs our marketing group. Khurram handles our in-class experience. He hires all the TAs, sources all the TAs; he manages the curriculum, develops and executes on it.
Is Khurram your lead instructor?
Khurram’s our head instructor and we actually have about 17 TAs.
Wow, 17! Why so many? Do you cycle through those TAs?
We get our TAs from companies in the ecosystem like Bench, Hootsuite; there’s big players in the Vancouver market that give us TAs.
We hire TAs per hour, so we’ll have certain TAs on Monday nights and Tuesday afternoons, certain ones on Monday afternoons. The beauty of it is they’re all very different and not all of them are Rails developers because we don’t want to have only Rails people in the office. That’s because we focus on creating good developers, not so much just good Rails developers.
We just mix them up because different people have different learning styles, and having more TAs kind of allows us greater probability to hit everyone’s learning style as best we can.
Do those TAs have a hand in the hiring process once the bootcamp is over?
Yeah, for sure. One of the major benefits the companies have is they get 8 weeks to screen candidates. It’s not uncommon for us to finish a cohort and have TAs already knowing which students they want to recruit. It happens all the time. It’s a benefit for us, too; it helps us in placing our students and they get to source their junior talent in their company in a relatively easy way.
That’s really smart for both parties. Which cohort are you in now, and how did the first ones go?
We’re on our third. In our first and second cohorts, we placed 100% of our students. We’re in our March cohort now and there have been 6 in the class. They have 2 weeks left and then they have a May class starting on May 5th. That 100% placement definitely drives some of the applications for us. People are like, “Oh! There’s actually a career at the end of this, I’m gonna go check it out.”
How selective are you in the application process?
The applications have all been great and I would love more applications; the more selective I can be, the happier I am. We’re always looking for ways to increase our selectivity; I think right now we’re taking 1 in 3. I’d like that to get to 1 in 7 if I could.
Do you have students coming from the US to take the Lighthouse Labs course?
We actually will have some US students in our May cohort. We have students from Denver, Colorado and actually the UK coming in May.
Can you tell us about the Vancouver market, what the tech scene is like and what the market is for developers?
Vancouver’s a big draw; the city’s pretty amazing and the tech scene here is actually booming. There’s been 2 or 3 big financings over the last 6-12 months in Vancouver. Hootsuite raised about 165MM; Clio raised 18 million dollars, that’s another big one. So the Vancouver market is starting to get a lot of global prominence. We’re also a 2-hour drive from Seattle and a 2-3 hour flight from San Francisco.
We’re starting to see a lot of action; people are just starting to be attracted to us here. And the city is blessed with some really great companies. Mobify is huge but nobody’s talking about it because the company is completely bootstrapped.
In Canada, the tech scene is up in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal for the most part. And I’ve been in both Toronto and Vancouver; there’s pros and cons to both but I really do like the Vancouver scene.
What is the neighborhood that Lighthouse Labs is in?
We’re in Gastown District.
Can you tell us about the HTML 500?
It was a great, super awesome community-building event for us. It was basically our donation to the Vancouver tech scene. The articles coming out were saying that nobody knew how to code, and the university should be teaching that stuff. So we finally said, you know what? We’re gonna step up, we’re gonna take all these university kids and put them through a 9-hour primer basically, on front end code. At the very least, they’ll know who we are but more importantly, they’ll at least know what this stuff that they keep hearing a black box around is about. They’ll know that it’s not impossible to do it.
We sold out the event 4 times over so we had a 2,000-person list. We had 100 TAs there to assist, and 30 to 40 volunteers. It was a big production. It was great for the system and it brought a lot of companies together that wouldn’t necessarily have spoken to each other otherwise.
Since you worked with universities for the HTML 500, I’m just curious: have universities reached out to you for help incorporating coding skills into the curriculum?
They’re not against it. I think the problem with a university is bureaucracy; it’s really difficult for them to make those kinds of changes. There are a lot of professors that are very forward-thinking, that are very happy to recommend us to their students who say they’d like to work in tech.
Would you talk us through the curriculum at Lighthouse Labs?
The curriculum is always changing but the web stack is pretty typical for us. You should be able to come out of here and pretty easily replicate a Twitter or Facebook in terms of application functionality and build. In fact, you should be able to come out of here, look at something you haven’t seen before and replicate it pretty quickly because that’s how we’re aiming to teach – is learning how to learn.
Do students work on their own projects as well?
Final projects for our students range from Rails applications that are fairly robust all the way through to Angular applications that have some pretty interesting functionality.
One pair of students actually built us an time-tracking application in Angular, that we actually use now for TAs to bill their hours. That was kind of cool.
Two other students actually took on the task of redeveloping our website and that’s actually launching in the next 2 weeks. We’re trending towards a place where any piece of technology at Lighthouse Labs actually has been built by students of the school.
Do you consider the majority of your learning to be project-based, or do you do morning lectures or something similar?
As it stands, we do a lecture every morning and that adds some routine to the day. It’s a way for us to inform students what they’re going to be doing that day. Then from that point on, it’s pretty much project-based.
We like to see them pair program, we actually encourage them to pair pretty regularly and then we’ll obviously shuffle those pairs up as the weeks go on so not everyone’s working with the same people. I would say it’s 90% project-based.
What sort of programming experience are you looking for in applicants and has that changed as you’ve gone through your cohorts?
We don’t look for experience – not programming experience, at least. We look for people that understand technology, so they know the tech industry a little bit, they’ve heard of some of the companies, they know why they want to be in this industry. They’ve probably spent a bit of time on Code Academy on their own but it’s not a requirement.
They’ve discovered that need for developers and they’re trying to figure out how to service that.
We don’t like jerks. We don’t work with jerks. We spend a lot of time in the class; I want people that I like to work with, that are interested in learning and not trying to detract from the experience. In this class, the students teach each other as much as we teach them. You want everyone to be approachable and comfortable in that kind of environment so that’s kind of what I’m looking for.
Out of your 20-person cohort size, how many have been women?
We get about a third women overall. We don’t do specific outreach and I think that’s interesting in that a lot of our referrals actually do come from our female graduates. What they liked about it was that we didn’t actually make a big deal about the fact that they were women. If you’re good enough to get in, you’re good enough to get in and that’s it. There’s really nothing else to it.
We have female TAs. Again, that’s not because we source them, it’s because there’s women in the industry that are interested in teaching. We don’t offer the typical discount that a lot of camps do. We just have our grads out there talking about the program and it seems to work.
Can you tell us how you prepare your students to find jobs once they’ve graduated?
We do a lot of that prep in-house. In fact, almost all of our students get hired out of our own office. They’ll actually be interviewed in our office, get their offers in our office and accept the offers in our office rather than travelling around to different companies. After 8 weeks with us, students are highly competent, almost junior developers. Employers will hire our students as a co-op with the understanding that if they pass the co-op (and obviously, you’re paid for the whole period), you get a fulltime offer.
Is the co-op very similar to the apprenticeship model?
Kind of, yeah. We have these really great, “almost” junior developers and companies have a need for junior developers. To get them from “almost” junior to junior, the employers will have to spend a bit more resources in terms of senior staff and coaching.
Instead of having the employer pay them that 60K full-in salary, they have to spend more money on the resources to do that stuff. We say, pay them as a co-op for 3 months, onboard them, get them ramped up on your product and then hire them as fulltime developers.
By the time they’re ramped up, the student and the company have figured out if they fit together. It works really well for us because employers are much more likely to take that jump than they are to offer this person 70K after 8 weeks of school. We have employers that come in Week 8 for our final week of the course, and those employers have actually guaranteed us a co-op. They come in early, interview all the students, rank the students and we place the students accordingly, kind of like a matching process.
Do those companies have a financial relationship with you?
No; what they’re essentially guaranteeing is a hire. They guarantee the hire and they’ll come into the process early. Then we’ll do an open demo day in week 9, before starting our next cohort and the students will show off what they’ve done, and employers will approach the students.
If an employer hires a student within your boot camp, are they paying you a recruiting fee or a hiring fee?
Are most of your students going to companies in Vancouver?
Almost all. We placed one student in Calgary and one student in Whistler but pretty much everyone else has been in Vancouver.
What’s your alumni network like?
We actually have an alumni coding night every Wednesday so all the alumni get together and work on projects of their own or projects for us, or whatever they feel like, thy bring it to work on. It’s a fun way for us to see how everybody’s doing. It’s a small community here, right? So we’re pretty hands-on with all the grads. We keep up to date on where they’re going, what they’re doing. A lot of them are now being actually approached by other companies.
Can you tell us about your experience with Canadian education regulatory agencies and how you became accredited with them?
It’s a lot of paperwork, to be honest with you. They reached out to us; we weren’t aware there was a regulator and when they approached us, we realized that we should register with them. It was pretty open. They told us upfront, they needed a training plan, rooms for your students or some kinds of admissions process, so we got it for them.
Their focus is reimbursing the student if the school goes under. That’s why they care so much; they’re really working for student protection. And if that’s the case, we’re happy to play by the rules because why would we want to screw students? That doesn’t make any sense. So we were happy to oblige. There’s a lot of paperwork, there’s a lot of reporting but that’s kind of the nature of the regulator and you can’t really change that. They stay out of our hair for the most part as long as there aren’t any complaints against us. So it’s been a positive experience. Takes a little bit longer than I’d like but that’s again, the nature of a government body.
How long did it take you to go through the process?
I think it took us 2 to 3 months to get fully registered.