Written By Liz Eggleston
After founding Notch8, a Ruby on Rails consultancy, in 2007 and working with several Epicodus graduates, Chelsea and Rob Kaufman decided to expand into education, launching Notch8 LEARN. We talk to Chelsea and Rob about the LEARN Ruby on Rails bootcamp, why they're excited to teach new programmers in San Diego, and their partnership with Epicodus.
Tell me about both of your backgrounds!
Rob: I founded Notch8 in 2007, but I’ve been working in Ruby full-time since 2003 and started doing Rails in 2005, during that very first wave of Rails. My goal at Notch8 was to work with startups as well as larger companies to build really cool web applications and get them out into the world. I care a lot about the craft of software development.
Chelsea: My background is actually in the theater arts; my degree is in theater education and arts administration. Most of my background has to do with community-building and bringing groups together and creating a community around a craft.
I am most excited about infusing the community with some new talent and then connecting some of the different communities with the tech scene. There is a thriving art scene and there's a thriving tech scene but they don’t connect often so that’s exciting to me. I’ll bring my education background into the school and support the community so that our students know that we are investing in this community and a making a long-term impact on it.
Rob, how did you get involved with programming and with Ruby in particular? Were you self-taught?
Rob: I’m a second generation software developer. My dad works in NASA and has been if software development since college days, so it was always available to me. I went to school for it and got a CS degree. Then I had to overcome that degree in order to actually program! That’s how I got started in it.
I interned for Johnson & Johnson and I was tasked with building tools for the developers to help speed up their efforts. I just knew too much about programming to write bash scripts for a living. I wanted a language that was good at integrating systems, and that was one of Ruby’s original purposes. At the time I started, there weren’t a lot of American Rubyists; it was a cool language but I was young and just finishing up college so it was the perfect market for something brand new; I got really into it from there.
What motivated you to create Notch8 LEARN, the coding bootcamp?
I run the San Diego Ruby user group right now, so people kept asking me about classes and longer courses. San Diego is booming as far as startup companies go and we just don’t have enough developers to fill the demand so we had to get busy training more.
We were looking to grow Notch8 and we had partnered with Epicodus in Portland. At the end of their program is a one-month internship, and we brought on six interns for a month. I work with these folks every day and they’re outstanding. That convinced us.
Tell us about the partnership with Epicodus.
Rob: Epicodus has been really fantastic about keeping their curriculum open. We went to Michael Kyser-Naiman at Epicodus and asked how we could arrange a partnership. Their curriculum is open, and he offered to give us advice. The key motivator is more about community building and location and less about hoarding that knowledge.
Is there anything that you decided to exclude from or add to the Epicodus curriculum?
Rob: Yes, we absolutely are expanding on it. One of the things that we feel really strongly about is working more with legacy code. One of the things about a class like this is that you build something and then you throw it away.
That’s really good for learning but a real world situation is working on an application that’s already started or has three years of history. I want to give our students more experience with that – because especially junior developers are often tasked with maintenance.
The class is four months long but does that include three months of learning and one month of internship?
Rob: Yes. We had some preliminary talks about who’s interested in hosting interns, their thoughts on the program and how can it serve the community; the response has been overwhelming.
There’s definitely some serious demand for interns in San Diego and everyone I talked to so far is really hoping to bring on several people, really get a good feel for them during that month and make some hiring decisions.
How many students will you have in the first class?
Rob: Our current target is around 15, though if we were to get overwhelming demand we would start adding assistant teachers. We want to keep the first class on the smaller side so we make sure the students are getting the personal attention that they need.
Tell us about the job market in San Diego and the Ruby community and what makes you particularly excited to do this bootcamp in San Diego.
Chelsea: I think that the community is really growing right now. Forbes named San Diego the best place to launch a startup last year so there are lots of small companies growing here and we want to make sure that they’re hiring local. By giving these companies quality talent I think that we will just continue to grow. And it would just be good for San Diego as a whole.
Rob: There are also some fairly large players in town that are doing national recruiting campaigns, trying to fill their open seats. Places like Sony and HP and Intuit all have Ruby teams now. They’re hiring headhunters and searching the world to get developers. The more of our folks that work there, the more engaged they are in the community. They tend to live in ivory towers a little bit so we want to break those walls down and get the larger companies more involved as well.
Rob, are you the main instructor for this class?
Rob: I’m not the main instructor. We’re bringing on an instructor. His name is Guyren Howe. He’s a local San Diego developer and has been doing Rails for six years with other web experience before that. He wrote a book on object oriented programming for Real Basic once upon a time. He’s got a really great background for the day-to-day instruction. I’m going to be in the space every day as well, helping students. They’ll essentially have the equivalent of two fulltime teachers in that first class to make sure that we have more than enough person power to make it happen.
Chelsea: I think it’s really important that we aren’t the main instructors, so we have that outside eye. We can see the bigger picture and make sure that the course is excelling in the way what we want it to and the students are getting what they need out of it – and it’s really hard to do that when you’re the teacher. It’s hard to evaluate yourself and it’s hard to evaluate the progress of a class because you’re so close to it. It was important to have this outside eye to make sure that the class is really excelling in the way we want it to.
How will the class be taught? Will it be lecture-based or lab-based? What does a typical day look like?
Rob: We’re using an inverted curriculum so students will have a lesson plan that they can do either in the evening or first thing in the morning, depending on if they’re an evening or morning person. There will be a video and an explanation of what you’re going to learn and work on each day.
The majority of their time will be spent in the classroom working in pairs. Programming is very much about getting really stuck and then figuring out how to get unstuck. We joke about how programming is really 60% good Googling these days – and we want the students to experience that from day one because we want the curriculum to be as close to actually doing the work as possible.
Is the LEARN course intended to get graduates jobs? Can somebody do it if they’re not looking for a job?
Rob: The goal is to get students to a place where they can build Rails applications. That’s going to translate into jobs for a lot of people but we are seeing some students who are interested in programming as a hobby and want to just learn and get over that hump.
We’re also seeing some folks that are managing technical teams; serial entrepreneurs that struggle with finding technical co-founders, which is a common story. They just want to have a little more expertise because when you’re working with a dev team, just knowing a little bit about what you’re doing can go so far.
Are you looking for applicants who have experience or a technical background?
Rob: We’ve put together a really simple application process. It’s two essay questions and then a really straightforward programming exercise that we kind of guide you through.
It’s as much about desire as it is about technical knowledge. We’re not expecting students to start with a ton of knowledge but what we’re finding is that many students have some experience. I think before you sign up for something that’s this intensive, you try other things first. There are so many free or fairly inexpensive online resources out there.
But the truth is that not everyone is a solitary learner. Most people are social learners. Up until fairly recently, the most accessible way to learn programming has been to be a solitary learner. You can’t really expect the community to be super diverse if there’s that barrier in front of it. Your solitary learners turn out to be solitary workers a lot of the time. So we think that bringing a more social learning environment where you’re collaborating from the get-go will really help us bring a wider audience to development.
Will you assign pre-work that student need to complete before they start the class?
Rob: We’re going to keep that fairly minor. If we do have applicants that seem like they’re further behind, then we absolutely would assign prework. So far we haven’t had any applicants that don’t have any HTML experience. Almost everyone that’s applied so far has built a web page or two at least. But if we did have applicants that were starting from zero we will work with them.
Chelsea: I think it has a lot to do with aptitude. There are so many people out there that don’t even realize that web development is something that they would be good at. If you have that kind of aptitude then you can be successful in this class. The exercise we put together helps us see what their aptitude is and whether they’re able to work through the problem then we know they have the right skills in order to succeed.
Are you making an effort to get more women and underrepresented minorities involved with LEARN?
Chelsea: I’ve been very excited that we’ve had more women apply than we’ve had men. Honestly, I don’t know at this point why that is- it may have something to do with our marketing.
Rob: It’s subtle things, really. Our involvement in the community is strong, so the audience we’re pushing for hears about it. It’s also little things like making sure that our site has some female examples on it. We try to be really clear and open that this really is for anyone. It’s a hard enough thing to commit to and there’s enough social stuff out there that gets in your way and we want to make sure that none of our things are adding to the social barrier.
Chelsea: And I think that having the both of us working on LEARN makes it easier for either gender to come in, talk to us and see that it is a world for anyone.
Liz Eggleston is co-founder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students choosing a coding bootcamp.
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