Chris Aquino has taught web development for the last 7 years and today, he’s an instructor at DigitalCrafts in Atlanta. We caught up with Chris to find out why he loves teaching new developers at DigitalCrafts, his predictions for the next big coding curriculum updates, his personal teaching style, and how he encourages his students to discover their inner programming superpowers.
What’s your background and how did you become a programmer?
I went to college at Georgia Tech and was going to major in computer engineering, but I ended up with a Computational Media degree, which was still reasonably technical (instead of turning in papers, we had to produce a digital artifact like a website or interactive film).
I learned how to code by working in Customer Support at an internet service provider. Customers would complain about something and even though it wasn’t my job, I would jump into the code and fix things.
I started teaching most recently at Big Nerd Ranch, a training and consulting company here in Atlanta. They were an iOS/Android shop, and I developed a web programming course for Big Nerd Ranch – I created the course, built the team, and taught web engineering, and eventually became a manager as well. I decided that I wanted to teach for a smaller school with a different style, and chose DigitalCrafts.
There are a number of bootcamp schools in the Atlanta area. What stood out to you about DigitalCrafts?
I actually looked at reviews on Course Report! I knew a guy who had been a DigitalCrafts instructor who gave me the inside scoop and also had friends who had worked at other bootcamps – I decided I wasn’t interested in working with the larger competitors and some of the newer bootcamps weren’t as organized. DigitalCrafts hit the sweet spot – it was the right size, we can get to know our students and adapt to their needs, and I had the impression that everybody worked there because they wanted to – they were helping students change their lives. I found good alignment with DigitalCrafts.
How would you compare teaching at the DigitalCrafts bootcamp to your previous teaching experience?
At Big Nerd Ranch, 90% of those students are already intermediate or senior engineers and were just learning another platform. But all along, my favorite students were those career switchers who had saved up their own money to learn, and were ready for the intense bootcamp experience.
At DigitalCrafts, nearly all of our students are career switchers – they’re so hungry and enthusiastic, and I feed off of that energy. The bootcamp is 16 weeks long, so I really get to know them and I can adapt and change my approach if needed (and discover whether my dumb jokes are hits or misses).
What’s one way that you’ve adapted your teaching style for individual students?
Tell us about the DigitalCrafts teaching style. What can a student expect in the classroom?
DigitalCrafts starts with a solid foundation of the major topics and includes one project per major topic. So there are projects for Python, Front End, Back End, Full Stack with React, and then the capstone project. Other than that, the instructor has autonomy to shape the details of the class.
Personally, I like to do very little lecture and I tend to be more improvisational. I’ve adopted a slide system based on a plain text format called Markdown. I create my slides in Markdown during lecture – we’ll start with a topic, like “Promises,” and I write down a question in the Markdown which renders live into slides students can see it on their screens. And they can see my screen where we answer the question in the Markdown – the slide system can include code files, so I live-code the answers. When they see the answer, this encourages more questions and further drives the lecture and live-coding time. It’s web-based so they can see the slides the whole time and you can also export it to PDF to keep examples of the code slides we built together that answers the questions about the day’s topic.
I try very hard to get to know the students well so that with any topic or lecture, I can make analogies that anchor abstract concepts to concrete, real-world connections. Learning programming is a challenge – everyone who walks in our door is competent, capable, and smart. They just need someone to show them around and teach them the jargon. They’ve come to a foreign country, they don’t speak the language, and I’m their guide.
Can you describe the ideal student at DigitalCrafts? What type of student excels?
The ideal student is naturally curious and loves to learn. They let a problem get under their skin and they obsess over it (until I remind them to eat lunch and come back to it later). They tend to be very detail-oriented. Additionally, students have the best time if they’re a bit mischievous. It’s not a traditional classroom, so the ones that enjoy having some fun really enjoy the bootcamp.
Do students with previous technical experience excel more than beginners?
There are two different personalities that succeed in the industry – those who like to break things to see how they work and those who like to build beautiful things. For the artists, we cater to that spirit and encourage them that when things DO break, they’re safe and we have backups and version control.
In my experience, people making career changes with less technical experience are just slower to ramp up compared to someone who’s comfortable with computers. If you haven’t been around computers and you just bought a $1,000 computer and are running cryptic commands in the terminal, naturally you can be afraid you’re going to break something! We jump right in at DigitalCrafts – day one, an hour in, you’re in the Terminal writing commands - we try to dispel that fear through an immersive experience. Once you get over the fear of “I’m going to break it,” you’ll gain so much momentum.
Do the instructors help shape the DigitalCrafts bootcamp curriculum? What’s changed about the curriculum?
We want to make sure that we're delivering the highest-quality education that we can, so our instructors regularly take a look at what we're teaching, and how we teach it. We all have years of experience as programmers with real-world experience, which is incredibly valuable when we're making these decisions.
The instructors discuss different industry trends, like how important JQuery is in jobs and the industry, despite the fact that it’s not hip and trendy. We also keep up with our alumni and ask about their experiences and whether DigitalCrafts should incorporate other technologies like a Cloud-native segment on Docker.
One more thing: because each instructor has so much autonomy and passion, we all bring our own interests to the curriculum. If a student is into robotics or the Internet of Things, I want to make sure that every instructor can easily find information on those topics. So I’m now consolidating the best topics from each instructor and putting it all in one student-facing system so they will have access to tutorials.
Are you planning any new curriculum changes at DigitalCrafts soon?
We don’t implement huge changes to the core curriculum. Libraries and frameworks come and go, but the fundamentals and engineering principles stay the same. That said, we tailor our curriculum toward market demands, or toward the topics that will give students the most latitude and transferable knowledge after the bootcamp.
One upcoming change will be around Cloud-native architecture – back ends are made to scale massively, so we’d look at the technologies that enable it and how we write our code for that environment. Another one is instilling a security-first mindset in our students.
How do you assess student progress at DigitalCrafts? Do you give tests or quizzes?
Every instructor handles homework and exercise assessments differently – many create a repository in Github that each student forks and then sends a pull request with the finished exercises. This way, they can get code review using Github, a tool they’re going to use in their career.
The second kind of assessment is looking at how they work in groups. The instructors can tell who’s taking responsibility, and how students collaborate and communicate, and how they talk about their project when they demo to the rest of the class. Programming skills are important, but they’re not the most important part of being a working engineer. It’s about being respectful, supportive, honest, and straight-forward. Successful products are built by effective teams. All these intangible elements are necessary to contributing to an effective team, so I try to instill those soft skills into my students.
At DigitalCrafts, we find out your goals and motivations and we try to be very honest about recommending the tech industry. Some people will realize it isn’t a fit. Life gets in the way at times, but we always look to help a student succeed at every chance we can.
In your experience, what are the benefits of an in-person versus fully online courses?
Not everyone can succeed in an online format and the in-person environment really supports learning. The speed at which an instructor can respond to a question, or the ability to turn to your partner and ask to pair program on an exercise is valuable – you can do it over Slack, but that can be hard when you’re first learning. We’re humans before we’re engineers and when the human next to you sees that you’re frustrated, they’ll respond to that and help you immediately.
That's not to say that we won't ever teach fully online courses, but right now, we think the best way to help our students learn is through in-person classes.
What types of jobs do DigitalCrafts students land after graduation?
When they graduate, I expect my students to be extremely effective junior developers who can take the fundamentals they’ve learned and apply them to novel problems. I’m careful with the word “junior” – it’s not always the most popular term, but the reality is that students have only had a certain number of weeks with the material, so they haven’t yet developed situational intuition of a senior developer. We put additional emphasis on soft skills in our bootcamp – you need to feel comfortable asking a senior developer a question or requesting mentoring over coffee. And this is effective: Some of my grads who work at a startup here at Atlanta Tech Village have become managers within a couple of years!
We have chosen our campuses really well, both in Atlanta and Houston. If you’re learning in an environment that feels like a startup, you can go down the hall to the break room and people from other startups are talking about their products and their standup meetings, so you can learn outside the classroom as well. We’re launching in Tampa in early 2020, and we’re looking for a location that will allow us to give our students there the same kind of experience.
Do you have suggestions for meetups or resources in Atlanta or Houston for future bootcampers?
Do you have any predictions for the next big changes in the coding landscape?