HappyFunCorp is a software engineering firm in Brooklyn that recently launched it's first 6 week Technology Academy to teach students the skills they need to succeed in the world of technology and startups. We catch up with founder Will Schenk to talk about the goals of the HappyFunCorp Academy, their curriculum, and what students can expect once they graduate.
How long has HappyFunCorp been around as an engineering firm?
Roughly 5 years, but Ben Schippers and I have been working together for a long time so the exact moment we started HFC is a bit vague. We had two other companies prior to this. Both of those companies were product-based startups and a lot of what we ended up doing was around technical management- deciding on which features to build with a certain amount of resources. We found that we were balancing business priorities, technology challenges, and then figuring out a clever way to resolve them. At HappyFunCorp, we sort of naturally pivoted to doing this for clients. We started out with helping other people who had a product vision but they didn’t have the technology expertise to translate that into a working product.
It was a smooth transition from originally managing our own products to helping other people doing it.
Are you working mainly with early stage companies or do you work with bigger companies?
We work with a big range of companies from twinkle-in-the-eye to Fortune 500, but the real sweet spot is that entrepreneur who has a blank piece of paper and a dream. We take that dream and bring something down from the clouds that you can actually build. Build something that will validate the idea in some way, whatever that means for the particular company.
So really, in the beginning there’s a lot of business strategy that goes into it to help translate that idea into something that’s actual, because you can’t build everything and you need to prioritize. And then it becomes a lot of engineering, and a lot of product and engineering management.
Why and when did you decide to start the HappyFunCorp Academy?
Two reasons. It’s based upon what we do with entrepreneurs: a lot of what we do with clients call “coaching,” throughout all of the stages of a product development build. Especially in the beginning of a project, people come in knowing their industry; say, they understand the legal world or e-commerce. They have a product vision based upon their understanding of their industry. What they don’t understand is how technology fits in, and we help them through that process.
The real challenge is to learn how to think about technology, how that relates to what they are trying to do and how you can break it down into smaller steps you can build upon. We’ve been teaching entrepreneurs on a very one to one basis. In many ways, the Academy is a kind of an extension of that; just trying to figure out how we expand that one-on-one back and forth to a more formalized process.
Would you say that the Academy is geared more towards product people then? Or to people who want to be developers?
I think it’s more geared towards people who want to understand how technology companies get created. Everyone in the company, from founder to investor to marketing, there’s part of it where you do need to know how technology works on some level. Maybe you want to focus on this part of the business or on that part, but everyone needs to understand something about technology and how it works and how it doesn’t work.
This class is not going to teach people how to optimize their database and it’s not going to teach people how to shard out backend services onto a cloud system. What this is going to teach you is how to break down a product design, turn it into a working prototype, and deploy it to a URL. In turn we will cover ways in which this process tends to break down, which are generally issues around having a common language, expectation management, etc and give people strategies to mitigate this. If you are on the business side, why is it that engineers are super annoying and act like they are the only people who really knows what’s going on and you couldn’t possibly understand? If you are on the engineering side, why is it that marketing can’t just make up their minds once and for all, why is there a steady stream of randomness that you need to deal with, and what don’t people have any idea of what they are asking you? And what is the big deal about a bunch of stupid colors and fonts?
It’s really more around making sure that people know how to build a working version of their site and are able to communicate to the people that they would need to bring in on the way -- to make sure that there’s a common language. We view it as more of an entrepreneur academy. It’s a very hands-on academy, and you are going to learn how products get built by actually building a few prototypes. You only learn by doing. It’s not going to be an MBA program where you’re talking about finance – although we will touch on that briefly, in the context of how fund raising will change engineering priorities for example – but the course is really more built around the things that actually go into building a company.
This is just the first of a whole bunch of different classes that we’re talking about. The other big trigger to start the Academy is that we taught a class at Bates College about digital innovation. That was in some ways a trial run of the academy. There was a technology lab component where we got people to build their own websites and to get a mockup. But it was also around entrepreneurship, what it means to network, what it means to go to a job interview, etc.
For this academy, what does your ideal applicant look like? Is it somebody who has experience already as an entrepreneur or is it somebody who’s a total beginner?
I think the ideal candidate is someone who wants to be involved in the tech world. They want to learn more about technology and they’ve dabble in it. That does include people that want to sit in the back room and crank out code, as well as people who aren’t completely sure of which part of the business they are interested in.
But I think a lot of the people that we talk to, even people that we’re interviewing to hire, are confused around what is involved with building out a product – especially when it comes to product decisions.
Deciding what to build is very difficult- you need to understand what the business is trying to do; you need to understand what the marketing milestones are; you need to understand how perfect the site needs to be vs. just getting something up and iterating on it later.
I think a lot of challenges with hiring junior engineers is that they have the tendency to try to make things perfect, and they make it perfect in a way that makes sense to an engineer but it doesn’t make sense to anyone who’s looking at the site.
You can look at a site and know that it was “designed by an engineer”. This isn’t a nice thing to say. The engineer was honestly trying to solve “the problem” but the problem that they’re thinking about is some sort of database problem, not a product problem where you’re trying to expose functionality to a user. Obviously that requires technology, but it needs to be done with a lot of awareness of design and a lot awareness of what it is that the business is trying to do. We spend a lot of time in that world trying to help people navigate that stuff. Now we’re trying to find a way to get that knowledge to other people, not just clients.
So the first academy starts on Tuesday; is that class full?
Yes. This one’s a smaller class; we’re doing 8 people just to make sure everything’s locked down. We have a whole range of people coming in so we’re trying to make sure that the pacing that we set is appropriate for everyone. There are going to be more instructors around to try and help bridge that gap if there are any challenges there. The next class will probably be a little bit bigger.
Who is teaching this first class and why did you choose them?
I’m going to teach the bulk of the first class and then we have another engineer who will be taking over the tail end. We’re still figuring the exact timing out. There are going to be a few designers that come in and teach specific courses.
How are you going to divide the 6 week course up?
The flow of the course mimics the way that we do our projects at HappyFunCorp. We have a very design-driven process. We don’t start any engineering until the design is done.
From there we take the design and get it into some sort of applicable demo stage where people can show it to investors and kind of construct a narrative around how this product works.
After that, we go through and take different parts of it and make it come alive. Meaning we start adding in the front and back end stuff, we create the database, and we flesh it out that way. The structure of the class mimics that. We have three different projects that we have designed and all have various different functionalities to them. The first one’s a little bit easy, the second one’s harder and covers different things and then the third one has all the stuff. The first few weeks will be focused on the design implementation, and then we’ll start with back-end implementation.
Are students working as a team on this project or will they be working individually?
The remaining part of the class is making it come alive. We’re explaining all the Rails features as we go so that you’ll actually have the knowledge that you’ll need to make a working version of it.
So at the end, everyone should have gone through the process of doing there different sites which are all in a prototype stage.
Will there be any lecture portion of the day where you’ll be lecturing at all?
It’s primarily hands-on. Mondays are going to be primarily lecture days where we’re going to go through all the concepts that we’re going to be hitting on and then the remaining days we’ll be working through those generally; probably an hour or so in the morning, and then the rest of the morning will be for the hands-on work.
Every week there’s a different theme that we’re focusing on throughout the week so that the projects get a little more challenging as we go.
Is the point of the Academy to get graduates placed in certain types of jobs?
A lot of the people that we’re interviewing to come work at HappyFunCorp don’t think about it in the right way. Engineers have their engineering stuff and they go off into some sort of engineering world and actually, there’s not that many pure engineering jobs out there. Most of the time, you’re trying to solve a particular business problem and if you don’t understand what that is, especially if you’re in a small startup, you’ll end up solving the wrong problem. You really need to understand the overall thrust of things. There aren’t that many backroom coding jobs where you pull a ticket off a queue and solve this one little problem and move on.
The Academy has come out of us not really being able to hire fast enough. That’s both on the engineering side as well as on the product side of things. That’s why we focus on how to help people properly frame things. It’s hard to find engineers that can make the right trade-off between building something from scratch on their own vs. being able to use a tool that solves the problem for them. It’s hard to comply with that because the engineers always want to build it on their own because that’s more of an interesting problem – and I can understand that, coming from the engineering side. That’s a solution to an engineering problem, not a solution to a business problem. That’s not a very effective way to build a company. It may be an interesting study exercise, but it’s not a useful way to work in a job.
I think from a job placement point of view, the biggest thing that we’re aiming for is for people to understand the startup world better and understand where they want to fit inside there. If we can hire people from this class, we would be very happy.
So HappyFunCorp would hire graduates of the Academy?
That’s definitely part of it. We’re focused on this one class right now but there’s a larger plan to cover more of the things that we do. This class is good for the base level for everyone to be able to build a website. But there’s also a whole bunch of other things that we do that this class doesn’t cover. So we’re working on a mobile class to cover the basics of building IOS apps for the new year, and maybe also Android for later on.
Will those also be 6 weeks long? Why did you choose six weeks for your course?
We wanted to focus on getting a concentrated bit of knowledge out to people. The 12-week length is a nice amount of space but it’s really long for people. We were trying to find a way to make it easier to fit into people’s schedules. I like 6 weeks at a time; I like how it fits in to other things going on in people’s lives. I don’t think we’re necessarily tied to that length, so if it turns out that another 4 weeks of student work at the end makes sense or whatever; we’ll adjust that as we go. But I think we’re really trying to find a way that fits people’s schedule a little bit better.
In the Beatbeat article that recently came out, it sounded like Ben, your cofounder, is claiming nobody gets hired from bootcamps. Is that how it was meant to come across?
I think it does boils down to a lot of not being able to hire enough qualified people fast enough. That is ultimately what it comes downs to. The demand for qualified people is out there, and the supply really hasn’t kept up. We’ve interviewed candidates from these schools. I’ve been to a bunch of different career days at those places and looking at what people do create there. They’re teaching something different than what we’re teaching, and here there’s a lot more emphasis on what we think the skills are that you need to work in the industry, based upon our experience doing this for so long. Like the final projects, for example; if you look at a lot of them, they look terrible. They “work” in some engineering sense, but not in a sense that we would let someone get away with at our company.
So the difference between the HappyFunCorp Academy and other bootcamps is that you all are focusing on design process as well.
Right. Because I don’t see any value in creating something that wouldn’t actually be convincing as a product. I think that’s setting people up with the wrong priorities and not the priorities that you need when you’re actually out there working on stuff.
We’re very focused on the startup world; we’re very focused on entrepreneurs and the early and middle stages of what startups are. So if you were to learn coding to go and work at a financial institution, then you would learn different parts of it.
Was there anything else you want to add that we didn’t touch on?
The only thing I would say is that this is an extension of what we do as a company, and I think this is the first class that’s part of that. There’s a lot more things we’re planning for next year like a mobile platform and a class around actual product design. Some of them will be longer, some of them will be shorter depending on the material.
The overall push for this is to take all of the things that we do every day for paying clients and get it out to everybody else.