Andrew Jensen is a university-trained software developer with degrees in English and Computer Science and more than 20 years of experience in education. When he met Bobby Davis, who was preparing to start Coder Foundry, the idea of a bootcamp made sense to Andrew, and he joined the Coder Foundry team. Now, after more than a year teaching the Coder Foundry Master Class, Andrew tells us what appeals to him about the bootcamp model compared to traditional academia, developing and updating the curriculum at Coder Foundry, and the role bootcamps can play when filling the needs of a job market.
Tell me about your background and your experience.
I worked in the software business for about 12 years before I went back to school. I worked as a corporate trainer, a technical writer and software developer at a number of software companies.
I discovered at that time that I loved teaching. In 2001, the tech market hit a bottom and I found myself out of work. I decided to go back to school, eventually making my way through a PhD program in Computer Science.
It’s neat that you come from an education and technology background.
I’ve spent a lot of time teaching, doing research, and building software projects.
I was teaching in the UNC Greensboro Computer Science department and Bobby Davis, one of the founders of Coder Foundry, walked into one of my classes one day; he was there for an “entrepreneur day.” The school invited local businesspeople to come and talk to students in various classes about what they do.
He showed up at my class one day and started talking to my students and I found myself awfully interested in what he had to say. He talked about the other two companies that he’s involved with, Advanced Fraud Solutions and Core Techs. Then he started talking about this new idea that he had called “Coder Foundry.” I met with Bobby and his business partner Lawrence Reaves and they offered me a job.
Coming from a Computer Science PhD and a fairly traditional education background, did you have to be convinced of the bootcamp model at all?
Actually, it made all the sense in the world to me. I had honestly become disenchanted with academia as a whole. I was discouraged by the fact that the curriculum I had to teach my students was dictated by accreditation and not by what the students needed. If the university wanted to be accredited through the Federal Department of Education then they had a certain criteria that they had to meet and it just happened to be that 85 - 90% of the curriculum is Computer Science theory.
Over a four-year period of time, Computer Science students have very little practical coding experience. The thing that I liked about Coder Foundry is that it’s based upon learning as a science. The science of learning has proven for the last 150 years that people learn best by doing. They don’t learn by sitting in a lecture. They learn by getting their hands dirty, and that’s the way Coder Foundry functions; that’s our business model.
We teach all of the students that come through our courses the skills they need to get their careers underway. They’re going to learn more by applying those skills than they will ever learn from me lecturing to them for eight hours a day.
How many cohorts have you taught now?
We’re on our third Master Class- that’s our full-time class, eight to ten hours a day. We also offer a part-time, evening class. It runs for 24 weeks and covers the same topics as the day time course, but it is targeted towards working professionals that want to further themselves without leaving their current jobs. I taught the first session of the part-time course, but now I focus on the Master Class. We brought on another instructor, Thomas Parrish to teach the evening class for us now.
Is there a difference in the expected outcomes between the evening class and the full-time class? Do you expect people to be at the same level when they graduate?
We do. Really, the only difference is the length of the program. Most people have jobs that they’re interested in keeping while they go through the part-time class.
Can you take us through the technologies that you cover in 12 weeks?
In the beginning of the course we introduce students to some basic web development skills. We assume at least a basic knowledge of HTML, but we do introduce them to the Twitter Bootstrap framework and CSS classes.
We also have students start a blog page on their personal website that allows them to journal while they’re going through Coder Foundry. At the end of each week they write about things they learned, questions they had, impressions and milestones.
By journaling, there is a written record of their thought processes. We can see areas where they’re struggling, things they’re excelling at; it gives us a better idea of how to work with each individual student.
It also lets potential employers look and see their progress from day one and see how quickly they move through our curriculum and how much they learn.
Do you assign pre-work before students start the class?
We do if we feel they need it. We want everyone to start our program having similar background knowledge so that no one struggles in the beginning, or so that our more experienced students don’t feel like their time is being wasted on the basics.
Do you expect the average student to start with some technical experience?
We really prefer that they have at least a basic understanding of coding. Specifically, we want a student to have experience with object oriented languages; if they’ve worked in C++ and Java, that’s fantastic.
Our curriculum is really rigorous, and with the amount of work that we’re covering between C-Sharp, AngularJS, and web API, we just don’t have time in 12 weeks to teach everyone object-oriented programming from the ground up.
Do you have resources for people to look at before they get there?
During the application process, students complete assessments and we evaluate their code and conduct personal interviews to assess their abilities to succeed in the course. We don’t want to take anyone’s time and money if they’re not going to pass.
What type of person have you found really excels in the Coder Foundry class? Sometimes it surprises me. It’s tough to make a judgment call during an interview. What I have found is that the people who do best never miss a class; they’re always there. We cover so much information so fast that if you miss a day, you’re going to have a really difficult time catching up.
A successful student also takes advantage of our Friday lab days, and they do work outside the classroom. We have regular instruction Monday-Thursday and Friday is optional. We have instructors and mentors here to answer questions and help with coding problems and we encourage all of our students to be here for those Friday lab days.
Do you all give assessments throughout the course?
I’m not a proponent of exams. I’ve given enough of them over the years to learn they are just not an accurate representation of somebody’s ability.
Instead, we evaluate our students’ work. We treat them like employees instead of students. We give them project specifications and deadlines. Each of their projects has to be complete according to the specification by the deadline or they simply don’t pass that project.
If they don’t “pass,” what happens?
If they don’t pass a project during the course, we’ll allow them to continue working on it with us. So at the end of 12 weeks, all projects have to be finished and we consider you to be a success.
We can absolutely get them a job at that point because they have demonstrated the ability to meet project deadlines, demonstrated the ability to do the projects that we’ve asked the to do them and stayed on top of things.
You’ve done this course three times; what have you iterated on?
That’s one of the great things about a bootcamp: we’re not tied to a set curriculum. The things that I’m teaching this third class are quite a bit different than what I taught our first class.
We’ve learned a lot with experience. We learned things that needed to be taught a little bit differently, elements we needed to add to the projects, and we’ve found that we could strike some unnecessary elements. Nothing huge- just little things here and there that we needed to do to modify the curriculum. We try to do that after each class.
Being a bootcamp, we have the flexibility to change, which is incredibly beneficial for our students in the long run.
How many students do you have in a class?
We’re steadily growing; right now, we have 11 students in the full-time Master Class, which is more than twice the size of the first Master Class. We have quite a large number of applicants waiting for the next one, which we’re very excited about.
Do you find that most of your students want to get placed in a job once they graduate or is anyone starting their own business?
I have one student right now who is doing Coder Foundry so that he can start his own business. He wants to hire developers, but he also wants to know how it all works.
Other than that student, everybody that we’ve taught has come to be placed in a job. That’s a big selling point- we do have staff on hand that actively work with companies in the area and across the state to get these students placed – and we’ve been very successful at doing so.
Do you have a role in job placement or is there another staff member who is placing students?
We have a full time, in house Placement Office that places our students. The guy in charge of it right now is T. J. Jones; he’s fantastic. He’s doing a great job for us, working on building relationships with coding houses across the country. He’s the primary liaison between Coder Foundry and these potential employers.
We work on making sure students have a portfolio of work to show in job interviews, and we coach them all along the way. Bobby and I meet with each student every Monday. They demo the work that they’ve done the previous week, we quiz them on possible interview questions and coach them on soft skills; how to conduct a great interview, how to succeed in interviewing for a job. Bobby is a master at that. It pays off- these students are a lot better at interviewing by the time they’re finished than they were during week one.
What does a typical day look like at Coder Foundry?
Typically, I will lecture in the morning- not for very long, though. What I’ve found is that if you give students too much information at once, they get lost or become less engaged. I strive to teach what is required to accomplish the next set of tasks. They’ll figure the details out on their own as they work their way through each project.
When there are big questions coming up, or universal confusion, we address them on the spot and do spontaneous lectures to help clear everything up. Everything we do is project based.
Do you find teaching full-time to be manageable and sustainable, or do you get breaks to take time for other projects?
My original employment contract includes three 12-week teaching sessions and a fourth 12-week session to work on anything of my choice, whether it’s additional projects for Coder Foundry or sharpening my skills and keeping them updated.
That’s for us because we pride ourselves in staying on the leading edge of the technology that we’re teaching. We don’t want to teach something that’s out of date.
Coming up this year is a new version of Entity framework and Visual Studio that is completely different, a complete change from what they’ve been doing in the past, and we need to be on board with that. We’ve got to take the time to train ourselves and reinvent the curriculum.
Why did Coder Foundry decide to teach .NET?
.NET is what businesses want. (include Indeed graph here). Businesses are looking for C-Sharp and .NET developers- and that is just not what is being taught in universities. If businesses are looking for it, we need and want to provide it. We teach .Net because we are working with companies that want to hire .Net; there is a huge demand for .Net coders.
Is there anything that you wanted to add about your experience at Coder Foundry?
I love being here! I honestly think this is the best company in the world. I think that we’re doing a fantastic thing for the industry as a whole and especially with our connections here locally in the Piedmont Triad.
There are a lot of businesses here looking for strong coders, so what we’re really filling a void in the market. It’s one thing to teach somebody how to write code; it’s great to teach people syntax, but if they can’t learn how to evaluate or solve a problem, then the code skills won’t do them any good. We really work hard at Coder Foundry to teach our students to be problem-solvers – and we feel that is a large part of what makes them great developers.