Before becoming an instructor at Hackbright Academy in San Francisco, Bonnie’s career took her from astronomy, to teaching physics at a high school, then working as a developer for 11 years. She is absolutely passionate about teaching and jumped at the chance to help #changetheratio of women to men in tech by teaching at Hackbright Academy, an all women’s coding bootcamp. Bonnie tells us about why she likes the bootcamp model of education, her interactive teaching style, and the warm sense of community at Hackbright.
Tell us about your background and experience before you joined Hackbright.
In college, I studied astrophysics and computer science, and have always been interested in teaching. I actually really wanted to go into astronomy education after college, but I ended up doing computer work for an x-ray telescope in Alabama at the Marshall Space Flight center. I spent a year there, and then an opportunity came up for me to do education work for the telescope, which was more aligned with my interests. So I worked in that position, but it turned out to be more marketing than education.
I met some teachers at a conference who needed a physics teacher at their school. So I then interviewed and ended up teaching physics for a couple of years at an all-girls high school. I liked the all-girls environment, especially in physics. I liked that physics wasn’t something that girls didn’t do, because there were only girls and if there was a physics class, then girls were doing it.
High school teaching is a hard job. After a couple of years, I decided to move to California to be closer to my family. I worked at a planetarium doing education work, then I ended up working for some software companies. The first company I worked for was a really great company and I worked there for 11 years. The company got sold so I started looking for another software job. I didn’t feel like I was learning as much as I wanted to, and I really missed teaching. One of my colleagues was a Hackbright alumna and she told me they had an opening so I applied!
How did you learn to code? Did you teach yourself the fundamentals of software development?
When I was in elementary school, my dad got an Apple 2 and taught me how to code in basic. So I was pretty interested in that, and I would make little quizzes for my brother. In high school, I spent a lot of time tutoring other students. I was more interested in teaching than coding at that point, and to be honest I am probably still more interested in teaching than I am in coding. I like coding and I do it, but I really love teaching, teaching is my passion. It wasn't until I got to college that I started writing code again.
How did you become aware of the bootcamp model and what did you think of it?
For a while, I thought college is probably overpriced for what you get out of it. It’s good for social development, but as far as professional development, unless you’re going into medical school or academia, it’s not a great place to learn job skills. So I really liked the bootcamp model and how it’s focused on getting people the practical skills they need to actually be a programmer.
I definitely did have my doubts about the short amount of time, and whether people could learn to code that quickly. However, I’ve found it’s pretty effective. You give people the tools in the first half and then in the second half, they reinforce tools by working on a long project. Most women are ready to get a job when they leave, and some women have more work to do after they leave the bootcamp. Students definitely have a foundation in the fundamentals, and they’ve learned how to use other resources so they can continue learning on their own.
What made you excited to work at Hackbright in particular?
When I came here to interview, I could tell it was a really great place. You go into the bathroom and there are Post-Its saying “you got this” and “I believe in you.” It sounds kind of corny, but I got such a warm feeling from the place. I love that Hackbright really looks after its students’ emotional wellbeing, in addition to their academic learning. It really has a great sense of community, and when I came here I thought, “this is a community I really want to be a part of.”
What have you found is your personal teaching style?
My teaching style is very interactive. I like to stop and quiz the students really frequently. Firstly, because it’s more interesting and fun for them if they are participating, rather than just sitting there receiving; and also because it gives me a sense of where they are. If everybody just blurts out the answer, then I know that’s something I don’t need to linger on. If there are no hands up, I know it’s something I need to work on. Then I also like to have fun when lecturing so I make a lot of jokes and hope the students laugh!
What’s the structure of the program?
The first five weeks of the Hackbright fellowship are different from the second five weeks. During the first five weeks, there is a lecture and then a lab in the morning, then another lecture and lab in the afternoon. The labs are all done through pair programming which we find particularly effective because it allows the students to talk about what they have learned. They need to be able to communicate verbally as well as being able to code. On Fridays, we have a study hall in the afternoon where people can either review the week’s material or learn about some advanced material.
Then the second five weeks there is only one lecture in the morning, and the rest of day is working on independent projects. These are a big part of Hackbright and they allow students to pursue something they are interested in. Students solve real world problems, using the skills they have learned. The way I think people learn best is if I want to do this particular thing, I wonder how you do it. Every student has an advisor, so we work with them on projects, and they can ask for help in the slack channel. Students come up with project ideas themselves and then we often coach or guide them on scope.
What’s it like teaching a group of only women?
I’m used to teaching women from teaching at the all-girls high school. I did teach in some summer programs in college, and there I taught both girls and boys. Most of my teaching has been with all women and I like it. I think it’s probably different for adults, but in high school there is definitely less posturing and showing off to the boys or trying to be a certain way. I think most adult women are over that, but I do think it is just more of a collaborative atmosphere, and less competitive than it might be if men were present. At Hackbright, part of that has to do with all women and part of that has to do with the very deliberate work that Hackbright does to foster community.
Is being surrounded by women in your job different from other experiences you’ve had working in tech?
Yes. Usually my colleagues have been men, and I actually like working with men, they tend to be fairly easy to work with. I haven’t had experiences where people have been down on me because of my gender. At Hackbright, our hashtag is #changetheratio, and that is what really makes me believe in working with just women. I really do want to change the ratio, I really want it to be half women and half men in software. This is something I can contribute to here, that I wouldn’t be able to do at another school.
How many students are you teaching at any one time? How many instructors are there?
It’s a small group of women. We have cohorts with anywhere between 30+/- students, running simultaneously. The teacher to student ratio is 4 to 1.
How do you and other instructors contribute to the Hackbright curriculum? How often do you update it?
How do you assess student progress?
We have weekend assessments. Every weekend, students get one or two assessments where they do the work on their own. Then, they turn it in and their advisor reviews the assessments and gives very specific feedback. Students meet with their advisors weekly.
What happens when students are struggling to keep up with the pace?
I’m responsible for people I advise, so I watch them in labs and in lectures, and make sure they are keeping up. If it seems like somebody is having a hard time, then I can schedule extra time with them.
In general, we will give students guidance about how to study on their own, and their advisor will spend time with them. I’m meeting with a student this afternoon, even though it’s not her advising time, because she had trouble with last weekend’s assessment. We scope the students’ projects based on the level they are at. So by the time we get to the second five weeks of projects, we try and set every student up for success at her own level.
How many hours per week do students usually commit to Hackbright?
The students are asked to be here 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. Then they tend to spend another hour or two in the evening on homework and review of lecture notes. On the weekends they will probably spend 6-8 hours on weekend assessments. Some of them will only work on projects during school hours, some work on their projects outside of school hours simply because they are so interested in them.
Who is the ideal student for the bootcamp? Are Hackbright students mainly absolute beginners?
We do require that you have some coding experience, at least 20 hours of experience before coming. We give pre-work – some online courses, reading and exercises. But in general we start pretty much from the ground up. Hackbright isn’t for somebody who has been programming for years and just wants to learn about web programming.
We look for students who have interesting backgrounds that they can use to distinguish themselves when they are looking for jobs _ for example lawyers and accountants. We also look for students who are going to have the tenacity to stick with the program. It’s not an easy program. It’s a lot of material and not a lot of time. We really need people to be self motivated to keep up with material and to do the work necessary to be successful.
How does Hackbright prepare students for job hunting?
We have a great career services team. It’s a 12-week program. Ten weeks are academic and then the last two weeks are intense career development focused weeks with career services. Throughout the academic portion, students also get career service coffees every Tuesday where career services does a presentation. Students receive salary and negotiation, equity, and career development workshops, technical interview preparation, whiteboarding practice, mock interviewing, and more. We also offer field trips to tech companies and employer meet and greets during these two weeks.
What sort of jobs are Hackbright grads prepared for when they graduate?
Most graduates of Hackbright are prepared for junior engineering jobs. Because it’s a junior engineering job, the employers are not expecting them to be at the level of general engineer, so the employers know students need some mentoring and other support.
Is there anything else that you want to make sure our readers know about the bootcamp?
Every Friday night we have a social. Some of the socials are hosted by staff and some are hosted by students. It’s a really nice opportunity for the students to get to know each other better socially. We say that your first job you’ll get through Hackbright career services, but your second job you’ll get through your network, so it’s really important to form strong connections with your fellow students. Plus they're really fun! You haven't lived until you've watched a bunch of grown women playing musical chairs.