Dan Oostra has been programming and working with computers for 30 years, and was a NASA applications developer when he decided to join Coding Dojo. Now he is Lead Instructor and Site Captain for the new Coding Dojo DC campus which opens on June 20th. Dan tells us how he first got into coding with the US Air Force, what the new Coding Dojo DC campus is like, and what sort of jobs programmers can look forward to in DC.
Tell me about your background and experience and how you ended up where you are now.
I started out working with Commodore 64s, TRS-80s, and Apple computers in 1983. Even before the internet, I was working with electronic bulletin board systems. After high school I joined the US Air Force and worked with satellite control at Space Command, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and after one term I moved to Bratislava, Slovakia in Eastern Europe. In Slovakia I worked for a number of different companies, including Softmedia, LLC where I developed interactive CDs and DVDs.
For the last six years, I've been working to further data science by creating data visualizations that provide real insights to audiences. My focus was to create "aha!" moments; I would consider myself today as an “aha”-aholic, which is one of the reasons I'm at Coding Dojo. Now I can help others create “aha” moments in their lives and in their futures on a daily basis.
Did you learn how to code in your CS degree or did you have to teach yourself some of those programming languages outside of class?
While in school I learned C++ and Java, but everything else I had to learn on my own – including all of the HTML5 frameworks and languages we use today.
How did you find out about Coding Dojo bootcamp?
I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities and was focusing on good things coming into my life and being ready to accept any opportunity out there. I came across the Coding Dojo web development instructor job posting on Indeed.com, and as soon as I saw the job listing, I knew it was for me. If I was going to choose any job title for myself, that was it. I was completely blown away that that job even existed. I submitted a resume that night. It was serendipity and good fortune that put me in touch with Michael Choi, Coding Dojo’s founder.
What made you want to take that step and move from NASA to teaching?
Working at NASA was probably the best job I've had in my life. It’s a really amazing environment to work in, being surrounded by cutting edge technologies and extremely smart people. It helped me develop my skills as a programmer and provided me the means to build a life and family. The move to Coding Dojo is huge, but it's something that I am ready for – I feel like I outgrew what I was doing at NASA. Today, I’ve been given the chance to open a new Coding Dojo in the DC area from the ground up. It's an exciting place.
What's does your role involve at Coding Dojo DC?
My role at the dojo encompasses all responsibilities for opening the facility, leading the instruction team, and managing the day-to-day operations at the DC dojo. It’s a big responsibility but I feel ready to take on this new challenge.
Why do you think DC is a good city for a coding bootcamp?
The DC Coding Dojo campus is in Tyson’s Corner. We're surrounded by government tech support offices, and there are a lot of people here looking to upgrade their skills or to learn how to code or maybe start a career in programming. With this, along with the White House’s TechHire initiative, I believe we are in the right place at the right time.
What is the technology scene like in DC?
The DC technology scene is pretty cool because there are a lot of tax advantages for opening a tech company here. In the last few years a lot more private software development companies have moved to the area, and there were a lot of technology companies here already. I'm looking across the street here and can see a number of tech companies who’ve made DC their home. Coding Dojo DC is near companies like Monster, Cvent, and Ironworks.
The scene here is pretty vibrant. There are a lot of millennials, and younger folks are moving into middle management and upper management roles right now. The DC technology footprint is growing and we are here to support that growth, and people making career transitions.
You said Coding Dojo DC is in Tyson’s Corner, what's the campus going to be like? What kind of feel is it going to have?
We’ve secured a modern and newly refurbished office space here. It's in a beautiful location and a professional environment. I think the DC campus environment is going to be very goal-oriented, to the point, and will match the attitude of the people living here.
How big is it? How many students do you think you can accommodate?
We have a pretty big space. Right now we are in a temporary space that can accommodate around 20-30 students. The total square footage is close to 20,000 square feet. We're going to have the largest dojo within the Coding Dojo family. We're pretty psyched about what we will be able to achieve here and the number of students we will be able to teach.
How do you think the campus will be unique or different from the other Coding Dojo campuses?
In terms of teaching approach, there isn't going to be a lot of difference. But in terms of the culture, we’ll adapt as much as we can to meet the needs of the folks here. The students are what makes a campus unique.. Having been a programmer for many years, and having gone through the bootcamp, I feel like the course itself is unique and we're going to try to maintain that as much as possible.
What sort of teaching experience do you have?
I actually have a lot of teaching experience. When I worked at NASA, I would lead workshops to teach teachers and educators how to use NASA data and the tools we developed. Throughout my career I've also taught graphic design, some light coding, and even rock climbing and whitewater rafting. I've always been a guide, and I love helping others reach their goals. I think that's why I'm perfectly suited to be a Coding Dojo instructor.
What sort of training did Coding Dojo give you?
Coding Dojo put me through a stack of the bootcamp at the Coding Dojo Seattle campus. It was really challenging to keep that balance between trying to learn the material, learning how to teach, and helping the students at the same time. They let the cat out the bag right away that I was an instructor, so that added some pressure. It was intense and I spent long nights learning the material and going over stuff, so that when I did lectures, I would be able to talk and teach using the methods that are taught by all the instructors at the Dojo.
In addition to the stack training, I also was exposed to the culture of Coding Dojo, probably one of the most important aspects of my time training. Finally, I spent time with the leads, and all the staff so I could understand their methodology for management and how to implement the new Dojo in DC. The Dojo training provided me with strategies for managing cohorts, setting up the new facility, and how to keep students challenged.
What is your personal teaching style?
My teaching style will be very interactive. I want to make sure our graduates leave our campus as truly independent developers. I hate using the cliché “if you teach a man to fish you can feed him forever,” but I think that touches on an important value, and that’s figuring things out on your own. Our students should be struggling, challenged, and making mistakes. That’s when the real learning begins. I've got a military background – I'm not going to make people do pushups – but I'm going to be very firm and to-the-point. My style will be stern but loving. My number one goal and mandate is to develop these skills in our students, so I'll make adjustments based on whatever is best for them.
How many students are you expecting for the first cohort? What will the student-instructor ratio be?
We're expecting at least 20 students. The ratio between students and instructors will be close to 6-to-1, but we’d like to think that as the students work together, they’ll be training each other during the time they spend with us. Currently, we have Minh Nguyen and myself as the instructors for DC, we are constantly looking for new talent to fill our ranks.
Which programming languages will students learn in DC? Will you teach all of the stacks Coding Dojo teaches or just start with one or two to begin with?
Students will learn Python, Ruby on Rails and MEAN. Eventually we’ll add iOS to the mix.
Why did you choose those languages specifically? Is there more demand for those in your area?
Yes. Those decisions are made based on what we think the demand will be and also our feeling of what we think we can teach the best. The business team has done a lot of work to figure out what we should start with. But it really comes down to, what are these folks signing up for? If they come in and they're looking for Python, I think that's definitely a language they can learn a lot from.
Have you worked with Python very much in your career?
I have, but I didn’t work with Python exclusively. I used Python to create a web scraping tool and some other content oriented tools with the language. Generally speaking, I’m learning more and more about Python each day as I learn from my students and colleagues.
Will you eventually be running simultaneous, multiple cohorts or are you going to stagger cohorts?
We'll start a new cohort every month. So yes, it looks like we will be working with a couple of staggered cohorts at the same time.
Who is the ideal student for the Coding Dojo DC campus?
The type of student who will be the most successful is someone who has clear career goals and knows what they want to do after the Dojo. If they can't see a future for themselves, I think it will be challenging to focus and stay motivated on the Coding Dojo curriculum.
People who will be successful are highly motivated to succeed, internally motivated to carry on, can persevere through challenges, are willing to be humble, can accept when they don't know something, and are willing to ask questions. People who ask questions and figure things out on their own will do well not only at the Dojo but in their careers.
It's not hard to learn something new but it's really hard to learn in an environment where you have to learn every day for your job. If that's not what you've been doing you may struggle a bit. That’s why I’m here, to help with that side of things.
What sort of jobs do you think you'll see students getting in DC? What kinds of jobs are being advertised in DC?
While working for NASA, I was looking at a domain list last month with over 3,800 websites. NASA alone has 3,800 websites. When we add up all the government websites and all the other industry websites based in DC, it's in the tens of thousands. First and foremost, there's a huge need for web designers and developers to manage existing websites. I also think there's going to be a big push for new products and apps. So you're going to have a lot of maintenance work and then you're going to also have a lot of new app development.
Will you be providing career support for those students to help them find these jobs?
Absolutely. Every Dojo has a career advisor who is stationed at that location. Along with having a dedicated person for that, I'm working one on one with students. We're also in the midst of connecting with some of my old contacts in government to create a pipeline for the demand they have for developers and application engineers. Not only are we throwing our own personal contacts into this, we are also doing meetups and finding different ways to provide opportunities for students. That's our number one goal, to help students transform their lives.
We're also working on another stack which is a post-Dojo careers stack. If you want to be an entrepreneur and learn how to start your own business, we will provide you with the tools and knowledge to help you make that choice.
There are a few other coding bootcamps in DC- what makes Coding Dojo unique?
There are a couple of other bootcamps. I think the biggest difference between us and our competition is our focus on the student experience. Michael Choi, the founder of Coding Dojo, said it best when he told me, "Just put the student first." We make all choices at the Dojo based on what we think will be best for students, and that's it. That kind of approach is unusual in the business community because it's not a business-minded approach. That really caught me off guard. One of the biggest reasons I joined the Dojo is because Michael told me it's not about the money or finances, or anything other than each individual that walks in looking for a path to the next phase of their lives.
What resources or meetups do you recommend for aspiring bootcampers in the DC area?
I think the best types are meetups are where they learn how to stay focused on stuff, or environments where they're learning something new. Learning how to program is a lot like learning math. If you don't do it for a number of years you're not going to be as good at it. The more you do it, the better you get. I think if students do some pre-training in an environment where they're actually computer programming on their own, with a team in a meetup situation, or just with friends, that's going to help them get their minds in the right place and ready to be really expanded when they get here.
There are also regular Coding Dojo meetups in DC, including intro to coding sessions and open days.