sean-daken-refactoru-founder-spotlight

Sean Daken comes from a startup background and genuinely loves helping people pivot into careers that they love. So in 2013 he founded RefactorU, a Boulder-based bootcamp that specializes in Web Development. We talk with Sean about what he looks for in potential applicants, why JavaScript is their teaching language of choice, and what's next for RefactorU.

 

Tell us your story- how did you end up in the coding school industry?

I don’t have a background in education per se. I got the idea for starting Refactor U about a year and a half ago. I was running an Angel-funded startup in Boulder and trying to build a development team and we were having a hard time finding talented junior level developers.

I realized this was a big problem and started looking around at some of the other markets and saw that the opportunity was there; I looked at boot camps that had just kind of sprung up and a couple of others and asked myself is this something that could work in Colorado, could it work in Boulder? I did the math and decided that this is something that’s necessary and something that would probably work. I ended up talking to tech CEOs in the area and several of them said that they don’t hire computer science graduates because CS degrees don’t provide the skill set that the market is looking for. It made a lot of sense to me. I have a minor in computer science but it’s ancient now and totally irrelevant.

I’ve always been interested in education to some degree. I ran the Quickbooks training products business 8 years ago so I’m familiar with that world. My masters degree is in Strategic Foresight so I’m really interested in change and how markets unfold and the dynamics of change in various industries. Education is one of those areas that is changing so rapidly and I really wanted to be a part of it.

Lastly, I enjoy helping people pivot their careers to doing what they want to do – and I have no intention of being a career counselor but I really enjoy helping people take that next step in their career. Everything came together and made sense.

 

When was the first RefactorU cohort?

September of 2013. There were 19 students in the first cohort and 33 in the current cohort.

 

Is the Web Development course the one you started with?

Yeah, that’s our focus right now. Really, I want to be less of a web application development boot camp and more of a learning experience for companies where we focus on relevant technologies and helping people become creators and makers, not just in web development but in other emerging areas.

 

In terms of the web development course, what are students learning in their 10 weeks at Refactor U?

We’re core Javascript so we don’t have any Ruby on Rails; I think that’s something we did very purposefully. I looked at the market and at the ascendance of JS and all the various libraries associated with it and looked at Rails. Ruby on Rails is great for what it does. I think Rails has kind of slowed over the last year or two. Twitter migrated off of Rails to Node, LinkedIn did as well. Thinking about the market needs and where JS was going, it just made sense that we would focus on JavaScript. Also from a differentiation perspective, I didn’t want to follow the leader and just copycat.

It's full-stack, so front end, back end, HTML, JavaScript, Node, Angular, and Mongo DB.We teach folks actual development methodologies and daily standups.

 

Would you expect that after going through Refactor U’s program that somebody would be able to teach themselves Rails?

Yes. That’s actually the intent. It’s really less about what you learn in class. It’s more about the fact that you’ve got a broad framework to draw from. We have students who are in a variety of situations and they’re teaching themselves.

 

What is the Boulder like as a tech city? Where are you located?

We are on the east side of Boulder in our own 3300 sq. foot space not far from Upslope Brewing Company or Fate Brewing Company which is really nice. Boulder is one of our differentiators. We have more startups per capita than any other city in the country. Obviously, New York and the Bay Area probably have more but per capita, we have something like 200 – 300 startups in a city of 150,00 people. You can’t walk into a coffee shop without having an army of coders in the place.

There’s Tech Stars, there’s the Unreasonable Institute, a bunch of VCs that are top gear. There’s the university where there’s National Laboratories, National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic Administration, the Renewable Energy Lab, a ton of amazing federal science research labs and on top of that, we have Oracle and IBM, plus the startup ecosystem.

What’s also great about it the weather. It’s 60 degrees right now, I’m in short sleeves staring at snow-covered mountains and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. That’s pretty awesome.

 

What are you looking for in potential applicants for your web development course?

We look for a few specific skills and traits but we don’t actually require that people have a lot of coding experience prior to attending. What we look for is a combination of raw general intelligence, the intellectual horsepower to be able to learn quickly. That’s typically assessed by what they’ve done in the past, the fields they’ve worked in, the programs that they’ve come out of prior to doing Refactor U.

We also look for tenacity and grit; people who don’t give up easily and who really can push through frustration and get through those tough challenges because without that you’re never going to succeed.

The other thing is emotional intelligence; being able to work well with others, being able to work in teams, being able to express oneself in a way that is effective and tactful. Really knowing themselves, understanding their own strengths and weaknesses and what their thresholds are. Having great writing skills, being able to present, being able to articulate their thoughts and ideas verbally in a way that’s effective. They’re obviously critical to get a job. I really look at people through the lens of the hiring manager. I’ve hired developers before, I’ve led teams and I look for someone that I would want to hire as a developer.

 

That’s a great way to think about it- that you’re looking through the lens of a hiring manager.

We’re always refining the process- it’s different now than it was 3 months ago and it’ll be different in 3 months than it is now. We don’t focus so much on doing challenges and having people whiteboard stuff on the fly. The greatest particular success in one’s career is not the ability to do that. It’s not how smart someone is or how great a coder they are, it’s really the softer skills.

I’ve hired amazing developers that are very talented but they don’t last because they couldn’t get along with anyone else or they couldn’t communicate.

 

How many instructors do you have per class?

Our ratio is roughly 6:1. We typically have two full-time instructors in the class at all times. On any given day, we could have a range of 1 to 3 TAs. If certain people are having more challenges than others or of the whole class is lost, we’ll bring in more TAs. There’s never a time when somebody has a question that they’re stuck on for hours and hours and can’t get help. But we do encourage people to not raise their hand immediately, try to solve a problem on their own and if they get stuck, then turn to their neighbor or find an instructor.

 

Of the 140 or so students that you’ve had in your program, how many have been male versus female? Are you doing outreach towards females and unrepresented minorities to get them involved?

Yes, absolutely. We're at about 20% women overall. We'd really like to get it to 30%.

We are working on developing scholarship opportunities for underrepresented groups, which is an ongoing process, and we actually provide a 20% discount for military personnel (active, retired, and spouses).

 

Once a student has been accepted to Refactor U, what kind of pre-work is required?

It really depends on how much someone has done prior to coming to Refactor U, but there’s about 40-50 hours of curated content. We ask them to do the web fundamentals course on Code Academy so I think that covers basic HTML and CSS. Also the Javascript course on Code Academy, and as much as they can get through on Code School.

 

Can you give us a quick rundown of the teaching style?

It depends on the day, but a typical day might start at 8:30 in the morning, grab some coffee and snacks and sit down. A lot of times, the day will kick off with a quick meeting with people’s peer groups of 4 to 5 people.

There’s typically a lecture in the morning, which may last up to an hour. If it looks like it’s going to be a longer lecture then it’ll typically be broken up into multiple parts with an in-class coding challenge in between. You go to the lecture, you do the code, you have a challenge that you have to do then everybody does it then everybody regroups for the solution sess. and talks through it together.

Typically, people break for the second half of the morning and you’re either working on an individual assignment, that may be done individually or in pairs. There’s a ton of pair programming and we reassign pairs each week, so you work with a new person each week that’s typically outside of your peer group. So you get to experience not only being the driver and the navigator within that peer group but also working with different people, with different styles; it’s really simulating what it would be like in the real world.

Lunch is an hour and a half; gives people a chance to clear their minds, go to the gym, whatever they want to do.

Then the afternoon is similar; it may be a follow up lecture or it may be coding all the way through. We have a ton of speakers that come in so each week. We’ve had weeks that there are 3 guest speakers. There are sometimes events in the evening that we host, like local coding meet-ups, code for America meetings, etc. So it just really depends on the week.

 

How does RefactorU help students find jobs once they’ve graduated?

In the first cohort, we had a meet and greet at a local hotel which was an informal social gathering for the local hiring managers to meet our students. We had more hiring managers and recruiters than we had students, which was great. We have an open house every quarter, so bring in the community, let people meet and greet. We encourage people to attend meet-ups, that kind of thing.

We have recruiters come in from local companies, from recruiting firms, we have hiring managers come in, we have local developers come in and talk about their experiences. Today we have someone coming in from a local company to basically review people’s resumes. The director of talent at a local tech company came in and spoke for two hours. We’re constantly building relationships with the companies not only in Boulder, but we’ve got companies we’re working with nationwide. We’re probably actively engaging with upwards of a hundred organizations. We share all that information with the students. 

 

If a company hires one of your students do they pay you a recruiting fee?

No; and that’s a really key point. What I care most about is students doing what they want to do after boot camp. So if they want to get a job, we’re going to help them get a job. If they want to start a company, I’m actually planning to start an incubator to help people bootstrap their ideas but that’s another conversation.

We invite anybody and everybody who's interested in hiring people with the skills that our graduates have. Our advice to students is to go wherever they feel impassioned about, do what you feel will continue to help you grow in learning your career. We don't ever prevent people who have an interest in our students from making those connections.

 

Have most of the students who have come through your program been looking actively for a job or do you get a lot of entrepreneurs that want to start their own business?

I would say it’s 80 – 20. Most people want to get a job. A lot of people say, “I’d like to work for a couple of years but then I want to go do my own thing..” In every group there are a couple of people who say, “I don’t want to get a job, I want to go freelance” or “I want to go travel after this cause I’m already taking 10 weeks off and moving across the country…” The statistics on a lot of these boot camps are kind of suspect because not everybody wants to take that path. I’m happy to accept someone who doesn’t want a job right afterwards… that’s okay!

I’m not here to trash other schools – but there are other schools that have kicked out students. I have a no kick-out student policy. Unless there’s behavioral issues, if someone is struggling, I am not going to kick them out just because they’re struggling. What we end up doing is just throwing more resources at them.

I just think that if you’re going to put your life on hold and move across the country and pay $13,500, getting kicked after 2 weeks because you’re a little bit too far behind or you’re not keeping up with some artificial benchmark, is not the right thing to do.

 

Do you have a refund policy for students who may realize that they can’t finish the course?

That’s a really good question and it’s very much in flux. We do have a firm refund policy right now in our contract. Typically, it’s kind of a case by case basis. A lot of these schools are now being scrutinized by their states’ regulatory frameworks. In Colorado, we are now on the radar of the state regulatory/ statutory framework. We’re doing all that we can to comply as an educational institution. We don’t really agree with the fact we’re being regulated but at the same time, it’s the right thing to do.

So because of that, from a refund perspective, we have to comply with the state’s rules and those rules are much different than our current practice up to this point. There have been no students that have asked for refunds. There have been a couple of students that have signed the contract and said they were coming and didn’t show up and they paid our deposit and they want a refund – which by the way, makes it really hard if we can’t keep that money; it makes it really hard to run a business.

 

Anything you’d like to add, Sean?

I’m really trying to not identify Refactor U as solely a boot camp. My vision for the organization is much broader – and we’re always going to have our boot camp – but it’s much broader than just being a web application development boot camp.

What I want to do is really empower people who want to pivot their careers.

 

Want to learn more about RefactorU? Head over to their School Page on Course Report, or check out their website here

About The Author

Liz pic

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students considering a coding bootcamp. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube

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