After managing the technical team at an education company called GameDesk, Dan Paschal caught the education bug and was hired as an instructor at Southern California bootcamp LearningFuze. Dan talks to us about programming being the new literacy, the three goals of pre-work at LearningFuze, and how their PHP curriculum continues to change.
Tell us about your background, your experience with education, programming or both.
I started programming when I was a kid, and I was self-taught because there were no readily accessible internet resources at the time. I went to college to study Computer Science, got really bored and actually had a few job offers. I dropped out and started working instead, mostly as an independent contractor. I loved the hours and I could be creative; it was really fulfilling in that sense.
After working as an independent contractor, I got into the private sector because I wanted more meaningful work, something that would have some impact in the world. After climbing the ranks to senior developer at a startup iOS game, my next path was a Dev and Technical Director at an education company called GameDesk, and I was really bitten by the education bug. I wanted to continue making that sort of difference, but I was a little hesitant to become a teacher because I wanted to affect more than just a handful of people at a time.
Before starting out here at LearningFuze, my teaching experience was with 11-year olds; but there’s a big difference between 11-year olds and Adults who are investing substantial time and money into changing their lives.
How were you introduced to LearningFuze?
I found it online through a job listing on Craigslist. It seemed like would either be really cool or an utter scam, so I explored it further, and I’m glad I did!
Had you heard of bootcamps in general before? Were you familiar with Dev Bootcamp or some of the other ones in San Francisco?
No, I wasn’t at all familiar with that concept. The only developers I’d known were people that went to school for it or people that taught themselves. The bootcamp model made perfect sense; I just didn’t realize that the rest of the world had figured that out!
Did you have to be convinced of the bootcamp model? Why did it make sense to you?
I’ve heard recently that programming is going to become the new literacy. By that, I mean that what literacy was to people within the last 200 years is what programming is to us today. It’s going to be required for interfacing your home heating system, your car’s system; everything’s going to start becoming more and more programmable because we simply can’t rely on a few programmers to make an interface that works for everyone; it just doesn’t work. Moreover, we can’t rely on others to tell us that something is safe or what it does. That puts us in the same position centuries ago when only certain people could read Latin and tell us what was in some of our most important documents.
Programming is slowly transitioning to a more common vernacular that we’re all contributing to; as programming languages evolve, they get simpler and simpler. Anyone who wants to spend the time and really double down on their education can learn. Career changers are learning to code, and more and more, we’re moving programming into younger ages.
When I went to college, one of my main problems was that the material we learned was at least four years old. The bootcamp model addresses a lot of those shortcomings.
Was it important to you that LearningFuze teaches PHP?
I’m sure that was important for them. I’ve done Ruby on Rails but I have more PHP knowledge than I do Ruby.
We focus on full stack development; of course, there are some aspects like Apache or server infrastructure that you technically need to know, but that we won’t teach in such a short amount of time. As a junior developer you most likely won’t be dealing directly with the server unless the job requires it specifically, then they can dive deeper into those areas and learn fairly quickly. PHP gives a readily understandable starting point that you can then enter other realms like Ruby or Python.
Is this the first cohort that you’ve taught?
This is the first one that I’ve taught as the lead instructor. I’ve been a guest instructor in past cohorts, and have done weekend tutoring and late night sessions. We’re “all hands on deck” so other instructors will come in earlier or later and on the weekends.
How have you been able to influence the curriculum?
The curriculum is always a work in progress because with each pass, we learn new things. The biggest change that I brought was probably simplifying the slides and the materials. Slides are a lot like billboards. If you have more than 7 words, you’re probably giving too much information at once, especially if you’re just beginning and being overloaded.
Can you tell us about LearningFuze’s approach to Pre-Work?
The purpose of prework is to give everyone some common starting point. I have not met a single person, no matter how well prepared they were, that at the end of a bootcamp was not fried from all the information. You don’t actually understand things until about two weeks after you learn it. It starts sinking in slowly and after three months, what was hard two weeks ago is now second nature and you’re now freaking out about some new thing that’s really hard at the moment. Meanwhile you’ve partially forgotten that you actually learned some things before, and it is floating around in your head, waiting for a context to be understood..
To facilitate that, the pre-work is designed to do three things. One, let you know what we’re going to be talking about in general so you can get some sort of glimpse into the future and use it for reference. Two: to give real world working examples to initially foster that feeling of success. Then – and this may seem counterintuitive – the pre-work wraps up fast, almost to a point where you feel like you’re being thrown off a cliff, with no choice but to fly or crash.
Do you have anybody who goes through it and doesn’t make it through and quits before they get through the pre-work?
We try as much as possible to weed out the people who don’t have the commitment for it – not a disparagement against them, it’s just that not everyone is ready for this yet. More than just quitting, what often happens is that they will switch to one of our simpler classes like front end development rather than the full stack, so it’s less of a monetary commitment, less of a time commitment and then they can get a feel for it it’s really for them. We often encourage that, in fact, if we see them struggling too much.
Tell us what a typical day looks like.
It can be a bit fluid depending on the class and their needs. Recently, students have readings from the previous night called primers. In the morning, we have exercises that are heavily scaffolded. You start off with super simple examples that go off of what you read, then you have other examples that start building upon other things you learned.
Then the final questions will be much more complicated in that they’ll start building upon themselves, more combinations of what they’ve learned, maybe some trick questions; not meant to be cruel but to make you think about this, not blurt out an answer and think you’re done with it.
That’s probably the first hour/hour and a half. We cover the material, we go over questions, a lot of one-on-one time. Then we go into a full lecture on a new topic. We talk about that for not more than 15 – 20 minutes at a time. We really try to break down the speaking sessions to no more than 20 minutes because that’s when people start losing focus and not internalizing things.
After lunch, students work independently for a period of time and ask questions. We go onto a little bit of lecture about topics for the next day, go over what we have learned that day then the rest of the day is more work time for assignments that need to be done or any exercises that they didn’t complete adequately the first time. We really try to give good feedback on anything they turn in so that they can learn from each iteration.
Do you have students work independently on most of the exercises or are there times when you have them pair programming or working in group?
All of the above. We’ve had hackathons where 3 to 4 people work together. We also work in paired programming.
Most of the time it’s individual programming; however, there’s nothing that prevents someone from going to talk to other students. We encourage that because it really builds camaraderie with the students; they automatically group together to try to understand something and explore.
If someone is weak in one area and someone else is strong in that, they listen to that student and build bonds. It’s what they’re going to have to do when they get into the real world because they’re going to be working in teams. Of course, if someone is just gleaning answers and not bothering to understand then I’ll come by (with a stern eye :)). But most of the time, I let them ‘get away’ with collaboration as long as it’s healthy for them.
Do you have a teaching assistant working with you or do you have a co-instructor?
We have two other instructors/programmers that primarily are responsible for our infrastructure and curriculum. We’re continuously enhancing our infrastructure to support our lessons. I was also in that role before so this time I’m in the hot seat and the previous instructor is doing the programming. Then they come in to instruct on specific topics.
Also, we’re working on building our repertoire of advanced topics so that way if we have students who are quickly done with a project, we can throw them more complex bones so they can start working on that.
How many students are in this cohort?
What type of student really excels in LearningFuze?
The people who have succeeded, even if they weren’t naturally adept at programming, were the ones that worked their butts off. Those who didn’t put in the time are the ones that struggle. We haven’t had any attrition this time but I’ve seen it in the past where life creeps up – which happens – but you have to make choices.
You put all this time and money into it; this is very serious. This is your future we’re talking about. That’s the biggest determiner of success.
There is natural aptitude but with the programming world changing day by day, it’s not always that straightforward. You have to be able to sit there and work through your problems and be good at sleuthing and debugging; reading through instructions first before trying to ponder things.
Do most of your students have technical experience before they get to LearningFuze?
Only a few. In fact, those who do have technical experience didn’t necessarily get it from their job. They usually started getting into tech but they knew that they didn’t have either the time or the will to push themselves through it on their own.
We have one person who was an office manager, a couple of salespeople, a marketing person whose only technical experience was working with sound systems. We had a CS major who started web development and it was a rude awakening for him.
Are you able to find time to pursue your own projects?
It comes rarely because teaching is very much a full time gig. When I get some free time I work on outside projects, but there is so little free time. When the students are working late at night, usually that means I am too.
Will instructors start to rotate?
Yes. We have the idea of rotating through because it’s a 10-week intensive class, spending 8 hours a day in the classroom and you really get no time to take a break.
As we grow and get more instructors it will become easier but we also have that desire to branch out and get more classes in. We found that the ideal ratio is 1 instructor to 5 students.
Do you have any other advice for a future bootcamper?
One of the biggest things I would recommend to any student in any bootcamp is: ask questions. If you don’t ask questions, you will never solve the problem or take way too long. You don’t have the option to give up at LearningFuze, so you’ve got to get in the habit of asking good questions, even if they sound stupid. That’s what you’ll have to do in the development world, because no programmer knows everything there is to know on any given topic; best to leave your ego / fear at the door because in this world, you are the architect of your own destiny.