founder-spotlight-shawn-drost-hack-reactor

Between their stellar instructional staff and impressive student outcomes, Hack Reactor is often described as the "Harvard of Coding Bootcamps." We talk with founder Shawn Drost about the conscious decisions they've made to be at the top of the class, why JavaScript is their preferred teaching language, and what exciting new ventures we can expect from Hack Reactor in the future!

 

​Shawn, what were you doing before you cofounded Hack Reactor and what convinced you that Hack Reactor was a viable business/education model to be involved with? 

Before Hack Reactor, I was a team lead at OKCupid Labs, which was a little in-house incubator building new dating products. I had started as a Ruby dev and I had to move over to JavaScript, because that’s what we needed to use to build modern web/mobile applications.  There was (and still is) this whole sea change happening on the web, and every app on the internet was being rewritten in JavaScript.  My cofounder Marcus was running an internal JS training program at Twitter, and enrollment jumped from like 15 to like 80 in a quarter.  Meanwhile, my other cofounder Tony had previously run a language immersion school.  We had been friends since college, and were living together at the time (along with my other other cofounder Doug, who had a really incredible beard going).  So, this thing seemed set up to be a really successful endeavor: we saw this trend coming because we were at ground zero, and we had all the expertise to build a great school and teach the first generation of engineers who spoke JS as a first language, and in any case we knew it was going to be a really good time. 

 

What does the Hiring Team do at Hack Reactor? 

I have to give a shoutout to the Hiring Team, because they are incredibly hardworking and smart people, and they’ve built out a really unparallelled system for connecting grads with great companies.  I’m seriously unaware of anything comparable… they make your college’s career services department look very sloppy, and they work harder and smarter and have more volume than any recruiter.

Here’s how it works: they collect all kinds of information about the open reqs at all of our hiring partners, then they really dig into how students should think about those companies and circulate information about them, the pros and cons and what kind of person should apply there.  They then survey students and staff and feed this all into JobQuery -- this piece of software that we built because the team’s spreadsheets became too arcanely powerful and we grew fearful of them -- which does all this matchmaking and follow-up and tracking magic.  It’s very beautiful to watch their meticulously-curated success metrics slope upwards.

On the other hand, they have kind of an easy job -- the students are great, and since word has gotten out about that, the companies are great (we can’t name most of them unfortunately), so they just get along well.  OH at our last hiring event, from a CTO to a tech lead: “If you're hiring from anyone but Hack Reactor, you're doing it wrong.” 

 

Does Hack Reactor require pre-work to make sure that students are on the same page? What does it consist of? 

The precourse work is a pretty complicated piece of the puzzle.  It has to be accessible to people that only recently started coding, but it has to be challenging to those well into a career, looking to update their skills or make a career switch, because we have a real mix of people coming into the class.  It has to be hard, because we want to give everyone early perspective on how hard the class is (before they quit their jobs, etc) but it has to be easy enough that they can do it before they have the full support of staff.  We’re constantly tweaking it and pushing content back into it from the course, to make room for other stuff.  Right now, applicants rewrite some existing libraries, go through a bunch of self-guided instruction and test-driven stuff on the finer details of JS, and work through a bunch of git and HTML/CSS resources.  It’s between 40 and 100 hours, depending on experience. 

 

Hack Reactor is considered the "Harvard of Coding Schools." Did you and your team make conscious decisions to keep the quality of your school high?  

Yeah, that was the plan from the start.  It’s an easy plan to have (who doesn’t want that?) but making it a reality is harder.  We’ve had to consciously decide to grow slower than others in the sector and turn away a lot of good applicants.  We had to put a lot of work into making hires and have a lot of hard conversations when staff were doing a B+ job.  More than anything, it’s the result of an insane amount of heart and energy from people at the school (most of whom never get any public recognition).  So, it’s really rewarding to see that work implicitly recognized by stuff like this question (which is actually quoting Steve Newcomb, CEO of Famo.us, who’s hired several of the alumni) or the recent WSJ article that called us out as a counterpoint to the downward trend in bootcamp graduate outcomes.

 

Why has Hack Reactor chosen JavaScript as the main teaching language? 

I mentioned part of this earlier -- we were working at top companies, present at ground zero to witness a major trend in the web.  The decision raised a few eyebrows at the time (my friends thought we were nuts for not teaching Ruby) but in the time since then, JS has clearly taken over (eg check the graph on this post) and we’ve seen some coding schools retool their entire curriculum to use JS instead of Ruby/Rails (eg Fullstack Academy has switched over completely). 

 

Job placement may be one of the biggest variants between all of the coding schools.  Explain Hack Reactor's approach to helping students and graduates find jobs.

We’re big on data-driven education, and student outcomes are our ultimate measure of the quality of our school.  It’s the best way of measuring success, even for students that aren’t looking for a job: it’s the market saying “oh yeah, this place trains real engineers."  So we pay close attention to student outcome statistics, and a lot of our power comes from the years of continuous revision that happens:

  1. Someone has trouble in the job search.  
  2. We freak out and somehow solve the problem for that specific student if we can.  
  3. We figure out what went wrong: Hole in the curriculum? Error in student progress reporting/followup?  
  4. School levels up.  So, that’s the meta-answer.

Here’re some specifics:

  • We work really hard on admissions, and we have really good processes for determining how quickly people learn.
  • The curriculum team is incredible, and they consider student questions or assessment failures as evidence of things that need to get fixed for next time.
  • We cover the computer science fundamentals (data structures, algorithmic complexity) in great depth, both because they are fundamental engineering concepts as well as because they are the main subject matter of software interviews.  This is kind of a luxury we get as a result of being a 20-120 program (vs a 0-60 program, which is what most coding schools are doing).  We require that applicants learn a lot on their own, and then we have a longer course (more weeks, more hours per week).  As a result, we have space for an hour a day of “toy problems” that challenge students to assess and improve the algorithmic complexity of solutions to small problems, just like they do during interviews.
  • We have a lot of content throughout the course on blogging, portfolio management, resume review, conducting a successful job search, etc etc etc.  All the curriculum is on github, so they have like 20 learning repos, plus a couple of big projects, which are often real projects for real clients/companies.  When you google the students, they look like normal engineers.
  • After the course ends, students use our software to track their interview pipeline, and we know whether they’re set up for success.

TLDR: no magic, just lots of hard work and iteration.  Meat and potatoes stuff that somehow is not commonplace at any educational institution.  I foresee a world (decades away) where we can’t say that any longer as education changes to be more data-driven and outcome-focused. 

 

How is the job placement process structured? Does Hack Reactor get a referral/placement fee from companies? Does the student get a tuition refund once placed? 

I answered the placement process question earlier.  We get referral fees from hiring partners -- it pays the salaries of the several full-time people that do that work and overflows into the school’s general fund.  We don’t do refunds when students accept a job at company X instead of company Y, and we have an organized process to encourage students to apply for jobs outside of our partner network.  I find that refund model to be deeply weird: it offers soon-to-be-wealthy students a short-term, unimportant incentive for a decision that has critical long-term effects on the student.  The alternative is a pay-it-forward model: every current student benefits from hiring program revenues equally (our staff:student ratio keeps going up while our tuition has not risen in two years) and if the student feels like a partner company is your best choice, they take that job (which probably pays six figures) and the school gets a bunch of money to reinvest. 

 

What is the most current job placement rate? What goes into that rate? (ie. what's the denominator? do you only "count" students who indicate that they're looking for jobs?  

This is a great question -- there aren’t clear standards in our industry for how these numbers are tracked, although we are working with other schools on this problem.  Our current placement rate is 99% of job-seekers within three months of graduation.  The denominator excludes the following groups:

  • Students who enter the program with no intent to conduct a job search.
  • International students.
  • Entrepreneurs (eg the hedge fund profiled in Wired).
  • People that enter the Hacker in Residence program (HIR -- it’s like grad school) are counted after their residency ends three months later.

The motivation here is to provide job-seeking students with the clearest picture possible of their likely outcome.  We’d like to see better standards/transparency for the industry (eg cohort reports, third-party verification, total counts for different outcome categories, student-assessed outcomes, standard processes to establish prior job search intent) and we’re working to make this a reality as the industry grows up.  It’s early days yet and we’ll see a lot of changes in this specific area. 

 

How does Hack Reactor continue to help alumni after they've graduated and been placed in jobs? 

We kicked off an incredible alumni program about three months ago.  It’s only just beginning, but it’s already a source of pride, and is starting to draw people to the program through word-of-mouth.  The long-term-vision is to build out the strongest network of brilliant engineers/CTOs/etc in the Bay Area and build out ongoing education programs.  It’s already the best alumni network around (in my unbiased opinion) and we are really just getting started.  Some awesome initiatives:

  • We dedicated two different rooms at the school, exclusively for alumni.  There’s a lounge/meetup space (pool table, giant TV, comfy couches) and there are several events every week (movie nights, side project Saturdays, the first-ever Tessel hackathon, etc).  There's also a coworking space, where at least one startup is hacking on something world-changing.
  • We’re collaborating on volunteering projects, like supporting Mission Bit (which was started by an alum) and building out an as-yet-unannounced learn-to-code program for prison inmates.
  • If an alum decides to switch jobs, they come back to us and we loop them into the system for mock interviews, portfolio review, Hiring Day, etc -- same stuff we do for current students.
  • We have a newsletter that informs alums of speaking opportunities, upcoming events, and so on.
  • We’re launching an alumni mobile app soon that can tell alums who’s in the alumni lounge, or which alums are at which companies (if you need help on an API).

This is all paid for by the referral fees (although maybe only half of the alums that go through our process take jobs with our partners) so it’s long-term-viable and we have a budget to do all of this as well as the stuff we have planned in the future.

 

In your time at Hack Reactor, have you noticed that companies and hiring managers are getting more comfortable/confident in graduates of Hack Reactor and other boot camps?

We’ve definitely made a name for ourselves.  The biggest factor is that alums act as a viral agent, either because their bosses are like “where can I get more of you” or because they end up in a role with hiring authority themselves.  

I think coding schools as a whole have established that they’re putting out quality candidates, but that result varies by institution and within institutions (as with any educational sector).  There’s still a long way to go towards educating engineers that went through a four-year program about how much you can accomplish if you structure a three-month program right.  Word is getting out, but most engineers/hiring managers would still be surprised to compare the volume of coding experience of a coding school alumni vs CS degree-holders.

 

Where can we find Hack Reactor alumni today?  Do you have any cool stories about students who landed a really neat job?

Oh man. Plenty.  Our alumni can be found at pretty much any big-name company you care to name (Google, Adobe, Amazon, Uber, Beats Music, SalesForce, Pandora, Groupon) as well as the awesome startups that you might not have heard of unless you’re paying close attention (famo.us, NodePrime, Class Dojo, Backplane).  One grad moved up to CTO in really short order at a really fantastic startup, Keychain Logistics -- kind of a savant.  Another ended up rewriting a 70kloc front-end app (including selecting the framework) after six months at his startup, taking it all the way to successful launch.

It’s not all about jobs, either: I mentioned the alum that started Mission Bit, an incredibly inspiring non-profit to teach coding skills to high schoolers in public school.  Another pair of alums went to France to work on meditation software with Thich Nhat Hanh.  Ultimately, we’re not here to shuttle students into jobs, we want to empower them to have incredible lives and accomplish whatever they want.

 

Want to learn more about Hack Reactor? Visit their School Page on Course Report or 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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