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With 19 years of experience working in startups in San Francisco and New York, David Friedman moved to Berlin, Germany two years ago to be the first instructor at SPICED Academy. David built out their JavaScript bootcamp curriculum from scratch and now leads the teaching team. As a self-taught developer, David believes that anyone should be able to switch careers, and immersive programs are the best way to learn. David tells us about the demand for JavaScript skills in the Berlin tech scene and how SPICED Academy supports students in the job search.

Q&A

What brought you to SPICED Academy?

I joined SPICED Academy in May 2016; before I moved to Berlin, I worked in San Francisco for about nine years at various startups. I spent three and a half years as a developer at Klout, almost a year at Digg, and I spent six months at Yelp. Most recently I worked for a health and wellness startup called Whil. Prior to all these jobs in the Bay Area, I worked at Razorfish for 10 years, primarily in their New York office. I started in web development back in 1997.

I came across SPICED when I was taking a German class in San Francisco. My classmate was a technical recruiter in Berlin and she put me in touch with the CEO of SPICED, Frederik Aldag. I was between jobs and looking to do something different, but still related to my experience in web development. Since SPICED was brand new at that time, the idea of starting a school from scratch was a big draw for me. I was more attracted to being the first faculty member at SPICED than joining a preexisting startup or bootcamp that already had a curriculum.

How did you become a web developer? Did you get a computer science degree?

No. When I was about 10 years old I would mess around with my home computer and program in Basic for fun. In college and graduate school, I studied the classics. I was going down that road until 1996, when I bought a computer – the web was just starting and it blew my mind. I decided to drop out of grad school and become a professional web developer.

One advantage I had was that web development was new at the time, and so there was much less to learn. After about a year of teaching myself, I learned HTML and some JavaScript. I knew enough to get a job, start working, and be surrounded by people who knew more than I did. Once I was in a professional environment, the learning took care of itself. I think most long-time developers have learned most of their skills on the job.

After teaching yourself to code and learning on the job for 18 years, what did you think of the coding bootcamp model?

I came across the bootcamp model when I was interviewing candidates for web development positions. My initial reaction was very positive. As someone who made a career change myself, I believe that the decisions you make early in life shouldn't always be lifelong decisions. I'm very supportive of resources which allow people to make a career change.

When I was studying classics, I joined a summer Greek language immersion class where you cram a couple of years of material into an 11-week class. I came away from that experience feeling that immersion – eating, drinking, and sleeping something for a few months – is the best way to learn something new.

Did you have any other teaching or mentoring experience that you bring to SPICED Academy?

I ended up teaching that Greek language immersion program, so I had experience being both a student and a teacher in an immersive program. The idea of teaching programming immersively was very attractive to me. I believed it would be a great way to learn what you need to be a professional web developer.

When I was in graduate school at the City University of New York, I also taught classical literature and translation, and a course on Greek and Latin roots in the English language.

How did you design the SPICED Academy bootcamp curriculum from scratch?

I started with the skills I needed to do in my previous jobs; the things I knew employers would want new hires to know.  Then I deconstructed those skills into smaller tasks that we could teach to beginners. I was also inspired by ideas from other bootcamps. I did a competitive audit and looked at other bootcamp curricula available online.

Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy! As soon as we started running the program, I found that I was doing too much of one topic and too little of another, and had to adjust the curriculum. So the curriculum we use today comes out of this evolutionary process over the last year and a half. What we taught on Day One bears little resemblance to what we teach now. At SPICED Academy we cover full stack JavaScript, HTML, CSS, JQuery, MVC Frameworks, NodeJS, databases, and more.

How do you and the other SPICED instructors iterate on and make sure that the curriculum is always up to date?

Overall, the latest trends guide us. We have to make sure that we are teaching the technologies that employers are looking for now. There are a couple technologies that are a little passé these days, but that we still teach because we think they're important. For example, I've always been a big believer in Backbone, which is now kind of passé, but it teaches some good lessons. When SPICED Academy launched, the Berlin market was particularly interested in Angular, so our team spent some time going back and forth between Backbone and Angular, and now both seem to have become outdated.

It's a balancing act as new technologies become hotter and bigger. As more job listings say you need a particular concept, it becomes more important that we teach them. The most recent change we've made to the curriculum was to use VueJS instead of Backbone and Angular in a project. I really liked how it went and I think we’ll teach VueJS for the foreseeable future.

A few technologies have come and gone, but right now I'd say we teach very hip things in our curriculum!

Do employers in Berlin look for the same skills/technologies that American employers look for?

I've never looked for a job in Berlin (except for this one), so my orientation is towards the United States. Most of what I know about the Berlin job market is from my graduates who report back to me about their job search. My overall sense is that Berlin is similar to what I know is going on in the United States. For example, when I first got here, React was not as big as it was in the United States, and Angular was bigger here in Berlin too. But now that doesn't seem to be true anymore, so I think the two markets are basically in sync and following the same trends.

Does SPICED have any plans to expand beyond web development?

Yes. We have new faculty members joining us to put together a data science bootcamp.

What can future bootcampers expect from your personal teaching style in the classroom?

My personal belief is that I should spend as little time lecturing as possible. We have discussions everyday, where I or the other teachers present new material and a new project to work on. The way you really learn these coding concepts is through doing. Once you're working on a project, you can come to me or other teachers with questions, so you can move forward. I think that's the best way to learn.

Since you’re teaching in a German-speaking country, do you ever have to deal with translation issues or anything like that in class?

Occasionally. We're an English speaking faculty, we conduct business in English, and we don’t admit students who can’t conduct business in English. But we do have many students for whom English is not their first language. The technical subject matter is difficult to put into words and to discuss, even for English natives, so I think when two parties do not speak the same first language it just gets more challenging. So far we've never had a case where it was insurmountable. Sometimes I’m told to slow down or to repeat myself which I'm always happy to do, but it's never been a major blocker.

In Berlin, most locals speak English. Whenever I attempt to speak German, people can detect it, and switch to English right away, so I never get real practice speaking it!

How many teachers and instructors do you have at SPICED Academy and what kind of student-teacher ratio do you aim for?

We have two other faculty members who teach the course. I recruited one American instructor who is a graduate of an American bootcamp. There weren't many bootcamps in Berlin, and I wanted to have someone with that perspective. We just hired a new teacher who is a graduate of the SPICED Academy program in 2017. She is teaching her first cohort and it's going well.

We aim for a ratio of around eight to 10 students for one instructor – that’s optimal. It varies depending on our cohort size.

What makes the ideal student for SPICED Academy? Is there a certain type of student who does well in this class?

I’ve noticed a couple predictors of success. Generally, people who ask a lot of questions do very well. When a student gets stuck on a project, they can ask for help. If you're not willing to ask for help, you'll stay stuck. So curiosity is good, but the willingness to ask a question is critical.

The other core predictor is the desire to code night and day. If you don't get a little enjoyment out of it, there's not enough reward in this career. If it doesn't thrill you to make something appear on the screen – it's going to be tough like climbing a mountain when you hit a roadblock. Overall, if you're interested in coding, be prepared to show up to class, and do what it takes to get the answers you need. That's how you succeed.

How many hours a week do you expect the students to commit to the bootcamp?

My expectation is that students will be physically working in the classroom during normal business hours. I assume there will also be work to do when they go home at night, so I try to make myself available as much as possible after-hours and on weekends. The time commitment will vary from person to person. It's not like I want everyone to work 60 hours a week; my expectation is for students to be able to get these projects done.

Throughout the bootcamp, how do you assess student progress? Do you give assessments or test students to make sure they're keeping up?

We don't have quizzes or tests – there are no grades. The criterion for success is that you can complete the current task. If you're able to complete the actual project that we're working on, everything is fine. When a student can't perform or do what we're currently doing, that's a problem.

This actually causes some consternation with students because it’s tough to know that you understand a concept. As far as I'm concerned, if you did the project, you know the material. Even if you feel like you didn't understand it, it sinks into your mind through an unconscious process. Things that you found difficult the first time – the third time you do it, it just snaps into place.

What do you do if a student is falling behind and is unable to complete a project?

It's a very tough situation. We try to identify those situations as early as possible so that we have more flexibility to fix them. My first instinct will always be to help a student catch up. I have to really believe that catching up is impossible before I recommend any other solution.

If we feel a student has fallen too far behind, but it’s early on in the course, then it's viable for the student to restart the course in another cohort.

Overall, what's the goal for a student that graduates from SPICED Academy? Which jobs are they prepared for?

My belief is that someone who is able to complete the projects that we do here could add real value to companies as a junior, entry-level developer. Most startup companies I worked for hired developers with an understanding that they’re new to the industry. I think SPICED graduates would be a perfect fit because they have what I looked for when I was interviewing developers for technical positions.

What jobs are you seeing your students get?

I can say with great confidence that there is a very large demand for JavaScript-focused developers in Berlin who can work in the Node environment and in React. That seems to be what employers are looking for. Most graduates seem to go to startups, and we've certainly had a few that got into very well established older companies such as Babbel, Soundcloud, and Geeny.

Do most students stay in Berlin to work as developers or do they move to other cities?

It feels to me like the majority of students stay in Berlin, but we do have a large number of students that are not from Berlin. We've certainly had no shortage of students who are coming from America and only have the 12-week or the 90-day visa which fits in nicely with our 12-week program.

What sort of support do you provide to students during the job search?

During the course we run a career development program, which aims to help students develop their online profile, their CV, their interview techniques and more. After the 12 weeks are over, students are invited to conduct their job search from our offices, and it’s a great pleasure to have them here during that period. It's rather informal but we're available to answer any questions, and help with resume polishing. The most frequent questions I get asked are about projects students worked on which they want to troubleshoot and deploy, and how to do salary negotiations. Everyone on our staff can help out where needed.

For our readers who are beginners, are there resources or meetups that you recommend in Berlin?

Choose something you want to build and then work backwards to create it. SPICED Academy is certainly a course for beginners and we welcome people who are learning everything for the first time, but having some familiarity with the subject matter is an advantage. If you're interested in becoming a programmer, then start programming!

Before the course begins, we require students to complete exercises on Codecademy and Free Code Camp. We also give them a little assessment, which consists of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript exercises to complete at least one week before the course begins.

If you're interested in a bootcamp, I am personally very excited about what's happening at SPICED Academy!

Find out more and read SPICED Academy reviews on Course Report. Check out the SPICED 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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