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Ashi started learning to code at age 6, and has since worked at NOAA, Google, Dev Bootcamp, and is now an instructor at women’s coding bootcamp Grace Hopper Academy in New York City. We spoke to Ashi about why it’s important for women to learn to code, the learning environment at an all-female bootcamp, why she likes pairing with students at Grace Hopper Academy, and the differences between teaching full stack JavaScript vs. Ruby on Rails to beginners.

Q&A

Tell us about your background and experience before you started at Grace Hopper Academy.

I studied computer science and writing at the University of Colorado. While there, I took a student assistant role at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) working on software for weather forecasters. I continued to work at NOAA for a couple of years after I graduated, and got to work on exhibits like Science on a Sphere.

After that I moved to San Francisco to work at Google in Site Reliability Engineering for four and a half years. After Google, I knew I wanted to teach. My partner went to Hackbright Academy, and I really liked helping her. I saw her go from, "I can't do this,” to working at Pinterest. So I moved to New York to take a job at Dev Bootcamp New York.

I worked at Dev Bootcamp for a year. Teaching was amazing, but I felt it had been too long since I’d worked as a developer. I started working at Hopscotch, a startup that teaches kids to code through visual programming language on an iPad app. I learned a lot there, including Swift, but I realized I missed teaching. I saw Grace Hopper was hiring, applied, and started in March 2016. It's been an incredibly rewarding experience. I love it.

You mentioned you learned to program early in life, did you know how to code before you studied computer science?

Yeah. My family had a Commodore 64 which was a big boxy thing that plugged into a TV. You have a few commands and you can run basic programs. My dad showed me how to write a program when I was six, and my first program printed “I love you mom” in an infinite loop in rotating colors. And then I just kept hacking on it. I used books about programming to write code, then tweaked the code so it would do more things – that's how I learned.

Then I moved on to learning QBasic and then Visual Basic. In middle school I ended up typing for a coworker of my mom's who had carpal tunnel and couldn't type. He was working on a language model for a speech recognizer, and he was a very natural teacher. I learned C, and Emacs. That was an incredibly helpful experience having that mentorship.

You mentioned that your partner went to Hackbright Academy – what did you think when you first heard about coding bootcamps?

I remember thinking it was a pretty good idea. I learned to program fairly early in my life. That can actually be a hindrance as a teacher because I take a lot of things for granted. It's like you learn a first language and you don't really think about the grammar. And I don't think about some of the conceptual things that are difficult about programming. Obviously as a teacher I'm forced to think about those things and that's good practice. So I was like, "Yeah, you can totally learn to code in 9 or 13 weeks."

Tell us a bit more about your prior teaching experience before Grace Hopper?  

My year working as an instructor at Dev Bootcamp was my first teaching experience. I'd done one-on-one work with friends who were trying to learn to program, so I knew I enjoyed that process. I used to be scared of public speaking and lectures, but teaching at Dev Bootcamp made me more comfortable with those parts of teaching.

When I started at Dev Bootcamp, I was still learning Ruby on Rails, which turned out to be an asset. When students had issues, I could teach them my process for figuring out the answers, so they would have more tools for how to teach themselves in future.

There are a few coding bootcamps in New York now. What about Grace Hopper Academy stood out to you?  

I thought the fact that Grace Hopper is for women was really cool. Learning to code has some of the same dynamics that exist in the tech industry that can make it very hard for women to succeed.

Women’s stories about getting into technology are often very interesting. There are so many hurdles for women and other marginalized groups, and tech skills are becoming increasingly valuable whether or not you work directly in tech. I emphasize to my students that whether or not you end up working in tech long-term, this is a valuable skill to have – to be able to understand how a huge part of the world works.

Right now, many groups are isolated from access to those skills, partly because of how society perceives software engineers as white nerdy guys who eat Cheetos all day. I obviously don't fit that stereotype, and I like to defy that stereotype and encourage people who are restricted in the industry to get into it and learn these skills.

How does Grace Hopper’s deferred tuition model impact that idea of accessibility in the industry?

I do think the deferred tuition plan makes the program much more accessible. There are students in the current cohort who have scraped together the deposit and are only able to attend Grace Hopper because they didn’t have to pay upfront tuition. As a teacher, that means that I have a lot of responsibility to make this valuable for them. But it also it shows me that the program is providing a lot of upward mobility for people who don't have the resources to get started.

There are still considerable costs to attend a bootcamp. You will not work for 13 weeks, which is not something everyone can afford to do. Living costs in New York for 13 weeks are expensive. The selectiveness of our program can be a confidence boost for the students. The deferred payment model means that our students wouldn't be here if we didn't think they could get a job.

Is teaching a cohort of women at a coding bootcamp different from teaching a co-ed group?

The first week I started teaching at Grace Hopper, I was so surprised at how different it felt compared to teaching at Dev Bootcamp or even at Fullstack Academy. I felt much more relaxed, and that might just be myself preferring to be in and teach in an all-female environment.

At Grace Hopper, I have yet to encounter students who ask questions unrelated to the lecture to flex their intelligence. There also seems to be less social clash dynamics. Not that they're totally absent, but at Grace Hopper, there is more of a communal support vibe.

Now you've taught at two different bootcamps, are there any really big differences you've noticed between Grace Hopper and other bootcamps?

Grace Hopper and Fullstack Academy are aimed at students with a little bit more experience compared with other schools. That doesn’t necessarily mean industry or programming experience, but it does mean students who have taught themselves a bit. Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper offer a Jumpstart class to prepare students for a bootcamp. That opens up more space in terms of what you can do with the curriculum.

The curriculum at Grace Hopper is really structured. The materials are well-designed, which as a new instructor, I really appreciate. For example, at Dev Bootcamp, the model was more flexible, and teachers had more freedom to structure each lecture.

Another major difference is that Fullstack and Grace Hopper teach only JavaScript, which I like, partially because I like JavaScript as a language, but also because you only have 13 weeks to learn to program. JavaScript is a little quirky and it's not quite as pretty as Ruby to some eyes, but I like the focus. Students graduate with a very strong grasp of JavaScript.

What differences have you found teaching JavaScript compared to Ruby?

The biggest difference is you have to deal with asynchrony very early on. JavaScript has futures or promises wired very deeply into the language and has this expectation that you're not waiting for functions to return for the most part. That’s a conceptual challenge that students face early on. I think it's probably ultimately good to face that challenge early because those are questions you'll hit at any kind of meaningful scale. Like how do I parallelize this set of operations, some of which may take a very long time, some of which may require network requests or talking to other machines. And it's sort of a roadblock for beginners to learn about callbacks and higher ordered functions. JavaScript makes you deal with that for better or for worse. I think it's probably a good thing to be forced to look at that.

Do you think JavaScript is a good first programming language to learn for beginners?

Yes. A lot of that is not so much to do with the language itself, but to do with the environments around it. Everyone has a JavaScript environment on their computer, and you can just pop open a web page and search things in a JavaScript environment. It gives you a lot of power upfront and it gives you a lot of power to do very visual graphic things.

What have you found is your personal teaching style?

The best way I've ever found to teach is to pair program and work one-on-one with the student. Obviously we don't have time for me to pair with everyone for 13 weeks, but I try to engineer as much of that one-on-one time as I can. Especially if a student is struggling, I'll try and walk through problems and talk about their thought processes.

It's a challenge for me to present lectures or course material and not call out sticking points and offer suggestions because I hate to see people frustrated, even though I know frustration can be a meaningful part of learning. I have grown to like lecturing considerably more, but I don't think lectures are that pedagogically valuable. They serve an important purpose but at the same time, I could talk about JavaScript for an hour and students’ understanding is increased by 1% maybe. Whereas if students are playing with JavaScript for an hour in a guided way - then they're going to learn a lot more.  

What's the structure of the Grace Hopper curriculum like? How is it divided over the 13 weeks?

It's two, six-week periods - the junior phase and the senior phase, with a one-week review week in between. Everyone says junior phase is more challenging. It's certainly more challenging for the instructors. Junior phase has all the lectures and a different workshop every day, where you're learning JavaScript, and then databases – SQL, as well as Angular and frontend libraries. We take you through that in six weeks and then there's a week to let it cement, and work on a personal hackathon project. In the senior phase they do a large group project called Stack Store which is an e-commerce site. Then the last four weeks of the program students work on their capstone project, which is a large full-stack application that’s presented to employers at Hiring Day. The capstone projects seem to get more and more ambitious every time.  

How many instructors, TAs or mentors are there at Grace Hopper?

We have two full-time instructors dedicated to each Grace Hopper cohort, and three full-time fellows who act as teaching assistants. For example, Terry is a fellow now. One of the options students have upon graduating is to apply for a fellowship where they'll stay here for another 13 weeks and go through the program as TAs and work on our internal dev projects, which is very valuable for them. Fellows are some of the strongest students - one of them just got hired at Google.

How many students do you typically have in a cohort?

It varies. Right now we have 22. The last one had 16. The next one will be around 18, I think. And those numbers are always fluctuating because people will defer, and more people will join in at the last minute.  

How many hours a week do Grace Hopper students put in? What's their schedule like?

Their official schedule is Monday to Friday 9am to 6:30pm with lunch break from 1pm to 2:30pm. Many of them come early, many of them stay later. All of them are working at home and on weekends. We also have CS Saturday from 10am to 6pm which many students attend to learn about advanced computer science topics. They learn about things like writing a parser and cryptography – the sort of subjects that you would get in a CS curriculum that you don't necessarily get in a bootcamp. Those are combined with Fullstack students.

What is the Grace Hopper campus like?

We have this amazing, huge space on the 11th floor of 5 Hanover Square – the same building as Fullstack Academy. Half of the floor is totally open and we’re using half of it for the students to work in. We're setting up another work area on the other side and there's a slightly smaller presentation area in the middle. Then there's a whole bunch of conference rooms and two kitchens.

How would you describe the ideal student for Grace Hopper Academy?

At Grace Hopper, I've noticed some percentage of students with math backgrounds, some percentage of design- especially UI Design backgrounds. We do target incoming students who have a bit of experience. You can acquire that experience on your own. We offer a “bootcamp prep” course as well, which is a 4-week, part-time course that takes you through the initial stages of learning JavaScript, as well as coding challenges and intermediate-level concepts.

I think the most important qualities of the successful Grace Hopper student are that motivation to learn and goal-oriented. For example, a student who wants to build an idea that they have or knows that they want to learn a specific aspect of programming.

What’s the Grace Hopper Academy application process like?

When you apply online, we send you resources so you can learn the skills you need to complete the coding challenge. Anyone who's thinking about attending Grace Hopper Academy should apply and get those resources, and then work with them and see how it feels. Try it out because you might take to it very easily. Students who do well get some insights into their learning style.

How do you track students' progress as they go through Grace Hopper?

We have checkpoints every couple of weeks where we grade students and provide feedback. Those are an opportunity for students to get feedback on their code. We schedule blocks of office hours so students can ask questions and find out how they're doing. When we give feedback we tell students the concepts they need to understand and then we work with them to find new strategies for understanding.

What happens if students get really far behind? Can they repeat part of it or how do you help them get to the right point?

If a student seems to not be picking up the material we will typically ask them to defer. If you defer, you get six weeks to study and then you start again with the next junior cohort. This only happens in junior phase. We've had a few students defer at the foundations checkpoints. The senior checkpoint is coming up. And those are the only two points where you might be asked to defer. You're never asked to straight up leave.

What sort of jobs have you seen students get after the first cohort?

I know that one student recently got a position at Stack Overflow and one got a position at Crisis Text Line. We also had a graduate recently hired at the New York Stock Exchange.

How do you help students prepare for the job search?

I do some technical interview preparation, and in senior phase students start doing REACTOs. It's what you should do you in a technical interview whiteboard problem. Students do those every morning as practice for technical interviews. Then a couple of weeks before hiring day and graduation, we sit down with students and give mock interviews for hiring day.

With learning JavaScript do you think they're going into more frontend jobs or are they getting full stack jobs?

In the industry front end work is sometimes unfairly maligned, but it's actually incredibly important. If your server crashes, your users might never notice – you have five more of them. But if your frontend crashes everyone will notice immediately. There's no safety net at all and it has to be responsive, it has to run in all these different environments. It's actually quite a hard problem. Overall the focus on JavaScript shouldn't shutter them towards a certain path. JavaScript is increasingly being seen as a very versatile language.

Preference-wise I think half of them really like doing frontend stuff and half of them want to do backend.

Do you have any resources or meetups you would recommend for aspiring female developers?

There is Women Who Code NYC which does a bunch of meetups. Also Algorithms Practice which is slightly more geared towards people with some programming experience, but going there as a beginner you would meet people and solve interesting problems, even if you don’t understand everything. They have other meetups that aren't as technically targeted, so they're a good group. Shanna, the dean at Grace Hopper is quite involved with them.

There is also the Lesbians Who Tech meetups which are open to women who are not lesbians as well. Those are good networking events. I think the vibe is very nice there.

Does Grace Hopper itself have a meetup or events that anyone can come to find out about it?

We share a meetup with Fullstack Academy and offer info sessions which are open to the public. There you can get an insight to what you would learn if you attended Grace Hopper Academy.

Is there anything else that you would like to add about Grace Hopper that we haven't covered or you want to comment on?

I'm just so happy to be working here. All the instructors and staff are wonderful. I like that it's all in this building. It's basically still a startup. There are about 30 people who work here and that feels really nice. It still feels small.

Find out more and read Grace Hopper Academy reviews on Course Report. And check out the Grace Hopper Academy website.

About The Author

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Imogen is a writer and content producer who loves writing about technology and education. Her background is in journalism, writing for newspapers and news websites. She grew up in England, Dubai and New Zealand, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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