What’s your background and how did it result in co-founding Rithm School?
Originally, my background is in math, not in computer science or engineering. I was doing my PhD at UCLA when I realized a career in academia wasn’t for me so I worked at a startup after graduation. I was working on curriculum for middle and high school math teachers, but since it was a small team and technical challenges came up every now and then, I learned to code on the job to help out.
After about three years, I was looking for a change and missed being in a classroom environment. I started working as a web development instructor at Galvanize, where I met Elie Schoppik and Tim Garcia. After a year, we decided to start our own bootcamp and founded Rithm School.
Were you teaching the programming languages you used in your previous career or did you have to learn new skills?
When you started teaching at Galvanize, had you heard much about bootcamps and their effectiveness?
I had known about bootcamps like Galvanize and some online programs, and I had met some people who had done those programs, but was pretty neutral about them. I definitely saw potential in them, was excited for the opportunity, and believed in the mission of these programs to train people up. I just didn’t have information about their effectiveness yet.
Did you have previous teaching experience and how is teaching a bootcamp different?
As a TA during my PhD program, I led an undergraduate probability course where I prepared lectures, homework, and exams. Teaching at a bootcamp like Galvanize feels more like a startup environment where you can make changes or experiment, whereas a university environment like UCLA is a bigger machine and while you may have flexibility in terms of exercises, your syllabus is handed to you and you have to abide by it.
The class sizes are also very different. I was a TA for 80 to 100 students at college, but at Rithm we focus on small class sizes – we strive for six students to a teacher. If you need help, you won’t have to wait for a long time. It’s one of Rithm’s differentiators – students come here because they can quickly get professionally “unstuck” so it’s important that we keep that ratio low.
Do you teach a specific topic at Rithm or do you work with the entire curriculum?
I’m comfortable teaching everything. We have two to three instructors per class and there are some topics they prefer teaching, but I’ve essentially taught everything we offer to students. I like the variety so I won’t necessarily teach the same topic two cohorts in a row. Perhaps I’ll teach something I haven’t taught in a while or a topic that underwent some changes in its library so I can learn what’s new in the industry.
Have you developed a personal teaching style?
I try to make myself as approachable as possible. While teaching at UCLA, there could be a stigma against asking questions in class – students can have anxiety about asking the wrong question or looking dumb in front of their peers, which gets in the way of their learning. On the first day, I set a culture where we encourage questions and remind students that if they don’t understand something, they probably aren’t the only ones that are confused, so it’s a service to their peers by asking lots of questions. I want students to find me approachable and be comfortable talking with me about whatever is on their mind.
We have lectures at Rithm, but I try to get students paired with their partners for the day and working on exercises as quickly as possible. Students learn more when they’re actively working on an assignment rather than listening to me talk at them for a long period of time.
How have you and the team developed the Rithm School curriculum over the years and how do you keep it up to date?
Over time, the curriculum has evolved. We’ve added and removed things and libraries are always changing (especially React). As we were starting out, it took a few iterations for the curriculum to be stable – there were instances where I was writing curriculum the night before class!
Now, it seems like something is updated each cohort and many changes are informed by the market. When students return for alumni events, we pick their brains about what they are asked in interviews and which technologies they’re using on the job. Since we’re only located in San Francisco, it’s easy for us to tailor our curriculum specifically for this market. We also try to be proactive and anticipate whether a new language is just going to be a fad for a few years (or months!) and when it’s worth swapping out curriculum. We are a bit conservative but definitely pay attention to the market and decide what makes the most sense for a smooth learning experience.
How do you assess student progress in the bootcamp?
We give them weekly assessments the first 10 weeks of the program. On Friday evenings, we release a link to an assessment and they have until Sunday night to turn it in. Additionally, each student is assigned an advisor on the first day and they do one-on-one check-ins at least every other week (or more often if needed). The check-ins are a good time for us to sit down with them, talk through their assessment scores, how we see them progressing in the class, and talk about anything that’s not captured in the assessment, like potential burnout or teamwork issues.
What kinds of support are offered for students who may need extra assistance?
We have a “separate ways” clause in the contract which states that within the first six weeks of the program, if either party feels it’s not working out, they can walk away without paying the full program tuition. We haven’t had to implement that beyond the first six weeks, but we have had discussions about a student’s outcome, if we were concerned they were on a path leading towards a potentially challenging job hunt. Sometimes the conversation is around their goals and setting realistic expectations about their skills and abilities. We’ve encouraged students to look at tech-adjacent jobs as a way to get their foot in the door and gain more experience. If students are open to that type of guidance, they’ll have an easier time finding work instead of strictly gunning for an engineering job at Google.
How would you describe the ideal student who does well at Rithm school?
Students have different abilities. The student that is the most technically proficient isn’t always the first one to land a job (it’s always interesting to see who it is). There are a number of things students can do to optimize their chances for success. We really try to foster a culture of asking questions and some students run with it, some less so. Successful students aren’t afraid to fail publicly, look strange in front of their peers, or admit they don’t understand. If a student is asking too many questions, we can point them towards additional resources, but it’s a lot harder to pull unsaid questions out of a student. Being unafraid to ask questions and fail publicly is important.
It’s also important for students to maintain life balance. Sometimes they work really hard, come in early, stay late, and come in on weekends, and when the program ends, they’re completely burnt out. Rithm School isn’t the goal – Rithm School is the step that gets them closer to the goal. Balanced students reach the end of the program and have enough energy to do the next (arguably, harder) step of finding a job and being successful.
Do you have an example of a student bootcamp success story?
I do! A recent student came from a non-traditional background as a music teacher for a few years with no tech experience. She did the things I mentioned – she asked a ton of questions (she brought a notebook of them to her one-on-ones!) and maintained a healthy work-life balance. When the program was winding down, she started doing outreach through LinkedIn, asking for informational interviews. She not only reached out to the Rithm alumni network but also other bootcamp grads coming from non-traditional backgrounds, figuring they would be willing to have a coffee or phone call with her. Because of that outreach, she found a job as a full-stack engineer at a mid-sized startup about two weeks after the program ended. I was really excited for her.
How does Rithm School help students find jobs, and how are you involved?
We have three weeks of Outcomes material in the curriculum and two of those weeks are focused on non-technical aspects of the job search. Students are usually fixated on the technical aspect because they like solving problems, but about 75% of the hiring process is non-technical. You’re speaking with recruiters, talking to hiring managers, and presenting yourself. That stuff matters, so we have resume and cover letter workshops, mock phone screens, and mock salary negotiations.
We have a career coach who has ownership over those aspects of the program, but I’ve enjoyed teaching it in the past and still enjoy reviewing resumes and helping students practice their stories. We can lean on Rithm alumni for open positions at their companies and I’ll leverage my personal network if we have a student who would be a good fit. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding. Once students graduate, they can come to open office hours for graduates every Friday – they are invited back to the space, they can work out of here, and we have an open group discussion from 4pm to 5pm if there are any technical topics they want to review or a take-home assignment they want to discuss.
What is the ultimate career goal for a Rithm School bootcamp grad? What type of skills will they have and what types of jobs can they land?
What types of companies are the grads working at?
A couple of Rithm students have landed roles at Google as full-time and contractor roles, such as Hinesh. A number of students have gone to Pinterest because they have an apprenticeship program, a student is currently at LinkedIn, one is at Palantir, and a bunch are at Walmart Labs. And then, since it’s San Francisco, there are also a lot of alumni at smaller and mid-sized companies that could be the next big names.
For readers who are beginner coders and are considering a bootcamp like Rithm School, do you have any suggestions for resources or meet ups in San Francisco where they can learn more?
Look for Learn To Code meetups and we have events at Rithm School a couple times a month that are relatively beginner-focused. Finding a peer group is important because it’s really hard to learn on your own. If you can find others who are in the same place as you and have similar goals, it’s a great way to hold yourself accountable.
If you are seriously considering a program, try to get as much information about the day-to-day experience, meet the instructors, and sit in on a lecture if possible. The more information you have, the better you’ll be. All of these programs are intensive – they’re equivalent of a full-time job at least – so you want to make sure you have as much information as possible about that environment before you commit to the bootcamp.