Corbin found his passion for coding in his late 20s and has worked as a developer in Minneapolis since before the dotcom crash. He always loved mentoring and with all his experience at startups and consulting, he was a great fit to become an instructor at The Software Guild’s Minneapolis campus. Corbin tells us about how he learned key coding skills on the job, why he wants to be flexible with his teaching style, and how quickly his students are getting hired with the high demand for developers in Minneapolis.
Tell us about your background and experience before you started teaching at Software Guild.
I’ve been in Minneapolis my whole tech career. My first jobs were startups back in the day, before the whole .com crash. I survived that and the last startup I worked on was acquired by SAP, so I became an SAP employee for a while. After that, I went on to do consulting. I’ve had a lot of different challenges, different projects. I started teaching at The Software Guild in April 2016. I finished my first cohort a week ago. It was amazing, I feel very lucky.
How did you originally get into coding?
I was actually a sous chef at a restaurant in my mid-to-late 20s but I knew I needed a change. I went to Japan and Southeast Asia, and tried to figure out what it was I needed to do. I came back, took some classes, and one of them happened to be an introduction to programming. I met a wonderful instructor, Mike B., who was very supportive. He helped me realize that coding was what I needed.
How did you go on and learn how to be a professional software developer?
I did get a Bachelor of Science degree, but I got a job first. I started at the University of Minnesota and graduated from Metro State University. In one of my classes with Mike, I asked him, “Do I need to wait until I have a degree or can I start programming right away?” He introduced me to one of his friends, and that’s how I got involved in the first startup. I worked and took classes at the same time.
How did you become aware of the bootcamp model and what did you think of it at first?
An old friend of mine saw that I really enjoyed mentoring and presenting. He knew Dave Clinefelter at The Software Guild. As I was transitioning from a gig, he recommended I check the school out. I sat in on a class, and before you knew it, I was teaching.
I’d definitely heard about bootcamps on Hacker News, and people had a lot of strong opinions. I was optimistically skeptical, because having worked while I was going to school, I certainly learned more about programming from my job, than I did from my academic classes. The only way you’re going to learn to program is by programming. You have to do the work. Bootcamps are fantastic in that they make you do the work. We write a lot of code, and students get to see it in action.
Did you have teaching or mentoring experience prior to teaching at the bootcamp?
I had mostly mentoring experience. Once I transitioned into a senior role, one of the things I really enjoyed was working with other developers, learning and teaching new technologies, improving coding techniques, and improving the development process. As a consultant, a lot of times a client would say, “hey we’ve got a good team and we know we can do something really great but we’re not firing on all our cylinders – what do we do?” Then and now, my job is mostly helping people get out of their own way.
What’s your background in C# and .NET specifically?
The Microsoft stack is what I’ve been using primarily for the last 10 to 12 years. But, I’ve also used Java, Python, and PHP. So I’m technology agnostic. For the next cohort I’ll be doing some teaching in the Java classroom as well.
What have you found is your personal teaching style?
I’m still learning for sure, but I really want to focus on the fact that everyone is coming at coding from different angles, and to have some rigid way of doing things can really hinder people. So I try to be flexible. If I feel like you’re going a different route than I would go, but you’re making progress, then I want to encourage that and I don't want to tell you what I would do it because maybe that’s going to confuse you in the long run. I try to be flexible, give a lot of feedback early, and make sure we’re headed in the right direction.
What’s the learning structure at Software Guild?
We really focus on learning by doing. There are structured lectures that serve as scaffolding. That’s very important because it gives us a place to start and build from. But then ultimately, to learn that material, you’re going to have to do the work, write some code, try some things out, maybe bloody your nose on a topic or two, and just keep working at it.
Have you contributed to the bootcamp curriculum? If so, what was your role?
We’re pretty agile with the curriculum, so as we go through the cohort we’re noting things that aren’t working great or are working really well. Sometimes we’re able to take ideas from something that’s working well and use it somewhere else. Right now, we’re reworking our Intro to Web Development course. It’s a free online course for prospective students that will be open to the public by the end of the year.
How many instructors, TAs and/or mentors are there? What is the student:teacher ratio?
We have two .NET instructors, a Java instructor and a TA who goes back and forth between the two classes. In this next cohort, I’ll also float between the classrooms a little bit, so we’ll have lots of support. In the last .NET group, we had 13 grads and that was with two instructors. There were 10 students in the Java classroom so that was 10 to 1, but then you also have the TA support.
We also have a system where anyone can book remote time with instructors or TAs outside of classroom hours. So we have TAs that are remote, and some instructors in Akron and Louisville who are available too. We’re hoping people take advantage of it because especially in the evening when you’re at home struggling with a problem, it would be nice to have a little nudge in the right direction.
How do you assess student progress? Do you give assessments or tests at the bootcamp? Why or why not?
We mainly do weekly code reviews – there are assignments emphasizing certain goals every week. Then students submit assignments via a crucible code review, and present their code to the class. Instructors go through the code as much as we can, line by line, and try to find issues early. As we’re building up in complexity, we can nip bad habits in the bud.
Feedback also happens throughout the day. If we have a new topic, we’ll talk about it, and then work on a little lab and make sure everyone is moving forward. There are also optional quizzes. Students can take the quiz to self-assess, and instructors can determine if anyone is having a hard time. If you complete all of the assignments and have a professional attitude, you graduate.
What happens when someone is really struggling to keep up with the class and falls behind?
It’s definitely person by person, but right away we try to dig into the problem. If there’s a conceptual misunderstanding, we find exercises that emphasize that concept, and work on those. We book time with a TA or instructor outside regular class hours so you’re getting a little more attention. We have this idea that some big concepts just take a couple weeks for people to understand. So we keep plowing ahead as much as we can. Sometimes we find that a week later, all of a sudden that lightbulb will come on and students get it. It comes down to extra practice, extra time with the instructors, and patience. The final option would be to wait a little longer. Maybe a student needs a little more background before they’re ready for the bootcamp pace. If so, they’re welcome to study up and repeat the course.
How many hours a week do you expect your students to commit to Software Guild?
They are in class officially from 9am to 4pm. Most of my students were in the space between 8am and 8:30am, and then didn’t leave until 5pm; some stick around even longer. Most students are committing, depending on the week and the projects, a couple of hours a night and coding on the weekend as well. I had a group that booked a room at the library and they would get together every Saturday, which was a really nice peer support group.
What’s the goal for a student who completes the bootcamp? What kind of roles can they get?
We are shooting for a junior developer, someone who has been writing code for a year. There is enough experience in this program that you could safely apply for a job which requires a year’s experience with .NET or Java. But it’s a junior position, someone who knows the fundamentals, but who hasn’t used them in too many projects. Not only are employers looking for the technical expertise, they’re also looking for enthusiasm, and professionalism. Our graduates are going to be great team members as well as technical contributors.
Do you have a hand in job placement at all?
There is a dedicated person, Kipp, who makes contacts with employers, and tries to decide which jobs will be the best fit for students. Instructors are brought in to offer feedback on whether a student is a good fit, and if we think they have the skills for this position. I’ve had a few students use me as a professional reference, so I have employers calling, asking me about their background, and what I think of their work.
What’s the tech scene like in Minneapolis? What sort of jobs are students getting?
It’s an exciting time because Amazon just opened a development shop, and they are going to hire 100 developers. They recently had a meet and greet for software developers, with no press or recruiters; they just wanted to talk to software developers directly. So that was exciting. Then there are a lot of other tech firms, health firms, like United Health Group, Medica, and HealthPartners. There’s also 3M, General Mills, Best Buy, and other companies which have all been hiring. There are many cool small startups coming, so it’s pretty fun.
Tell us about your biggest student success story!
One of my students went to school in Madison and decided it wasn’t the right fit. He joined the Guild and before the cohort was over, had already interviewed and found a job. We have our own employer event, where employers come in and do quick interviews with all of our students, but this was outside of that process, he had taken initiative and found a job on his own.
About half of my recent cohort has already found jobs. Some students wanted to wait until they were completely done with their course work to look for jobs. For the others, since they had already met employers, there was an opportunity to accept positions in the last week of the cohort. A lot of people actually started the Monday or Tuesday after the cohort finished. The tech scene is out of whack right now, there’s more demand than supply.
For our readers who are beginners, what resources or meetups do you recommend for aspiring bootcampers in Minneapolis?
There are a lot of meetups, but they tend to focus more on the practicing professional. Off the top of my head, the only local group I know that really is beginner friendly is Girl Develop It. They have a mix of meetups, some focused on professionals with some intro to development.
There are a ton of free online resources like Khan Academy, Codecademy, and Coursera. They all differ a bit in what they teach and how they teach it. Depending on your learning style, they can be a great place to start.
Before the end of the year, The Software Guild will offer an online Introduction to Web Development with no assumed prior knowledge. It’s a good way to test the waters. We have an open classroom, so when potential students want to take a look, they are welcome to sit in for as long as they want to see what we do and how we do it. We want to be very open and let people get a feel for how we work.
Is there anything else that you want to make sure our readers know about the bootcamp?
I was very surprised by how dynamic the classroom could be, and how everyone learns from one another. It’s a very different experience than online learning. You can interrupt a lecture with a question. If an instructor sees a couple people struggling with the same material, they can pull an impromptu group together and hash it out. It’s hard to put your life on hold for 12 weeks, but if you can, I think a lot of people would enjoy the eye contact and how fast you learn when you can remove obstacles in real time.