We recently sat down with David Wintrich, Chief Academic Officer and Lead Java Instructor at Cleveland’s newest bootcamp, Tech Elevator. David tells us why Tech Elevator teaches Java and .NET and the benefits of attending a bootcamp in Cleveland.
Tell us about your background and experience.
I’ve been developing software professionally for over 12 years. Immediately prior to Tech Elevator, I was the Application Architect for the the US Treasury Department’s Pay.gov project. Pay.gov is not an application that many people have heard of, but it’s basically like PayPal for the federal government. During my time as architect, we rewrote most of the application, which was quite an undertaking as it’s over 1 million lines of code. Today the application processes hundreds of millions of payments worth over $100BN a year for everything from National Park campsite reservations to federal student loan payments. Prior to Pay.gov, I worked for the Sherwin-Williams Company in a variety of roles, and before that I was a programmer at a small software product company.
Did you get a Computer Science degree?
I did, though it wasn’t my first major. I entered college as a broadcasting major, but realized within the first year that it wasn’t likely to lead to the career that I wanted.
My exposure to computers and software was later than most folks my age because we didn’t have a PC at home. During that first year in college I got my first real exposure to computers and got hooked really fast, so I switched to a Computer Science major.
The educational model has forced people who are 18 years old and just out of high school to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their life. I was obviously not equipped to make that decision; I thought I was going to be on TV! Fortunately, I was able to find my passion early on, but not everybody’s able to do that.
I’ve seen lots of kids come out of school having spent a tremendous amount of money on a degree that they weren’t excited about. That’s one of the reasons I was interested in the bootcamp model when I first became aware of it. I see coding bootcamps as an opportunity to give people a second chance to choose a career path that they can get excited about.
Did you end up teaching yourself the fundamentals of software development?
I will give my degree credit for teaching me some of the underlying theoretical concepts and exposing me to the programming language, C. Fortunately, the college I went to placed a big emphasis on getting work experience through internships.
Where did you get your undergraduate degree?
I went to Cleveland State University. At one of my internships after college I learned a lot of code by just teaching myself what I needed to do. I studied and applied the things that I learned in class on my own time because I had a genuine interest in the subject matter.
I don’t claim to be completely self-taught, but a lot of the practical skills that I was able to use on the job were self-taught.
You mentioned becoming aware of the bootcamp model. How did you get introduced to Tech Elevator?
I’d become interested in coding education options through working to grow the skills of my team and in my research for teaching methods had begun to hear more about the bootcamp model. Around the same time my company hired a bootcamp graduate from the Software Guild in Akron. Anthony Hughes was president and asked me to consider joining the team. They ended up selling the company and I decided not to pursue the opportunity with the new ownership but he reached out a few months later and told me that he wanted to start a bootcamp in Cleveland. It was such a perfect fit for me and the things I was looking for at the time so I jumped at the opportunity.
In working with that Software Guild graduate, were they a contributing member of the team?
Absolutely! That was one of the things that really validated the bootcamp model for me. Robert, the graduate, was a hard working and well-rounded hire. Everyone that interviewed him said, “How long have you been doing this? This can’t be true!” It was an experience that sold me on the model.
What is your role at Tech Elevator?
I’m the Lead Java instructor and Chief Academic Officer, so I’m responsible for the day-to-day teaching of our Java bootcamps, but at the same time I’m responsible for taking a broader view of everything we do academically and making sure we are maintaining a high level of quality and consistency. We also have another instructor, Josh Tucholski, who leads our .NET track. Initially, Tech Elevator will offer programs in both Java and .NET.
Do you have a class going right now?
We’re in the final week of our first Java cohort.
When building the curriculum did you start from scratch?
Yes and no. In general there’s agreement throughout the industry and amongst employers with regard to what’s expected out of a junior developer, so we were able to start from there. But in terms of the actual curriculum, the type of exercises to reinforce the concepts and the cadence of the education, we had to start from scratch.
In my previous position, working as an application architect we hired 15-20 new Java developers in two years, which was quite an undertaking. That experience opened my eyes to how hard it is to find quality talent. I had the opportunity to interview a lot of developers and work with a number of junior developers.
When thinking about how to structure the curriculum, I drew on my personal experience and what I looked for in a junior developer. If somebody walked in with this skill set, what would make me happy?
Really, we started with the end goal and asked the question, “What does the ideal junior developer look like and what do we need to teach him or her to get there?”
I think that’s really smart because some of the best bootcamps design their curriculum with the employer in mind.
That’s a big emphasis for us. At the end of the day we’re not successful if our graduates are not getting jobs that they’re happy with and can grow in. Everything we do is geared towards what we can do to make sure our graduates are successful when they land their first job.
What does a junior Java developer look like?
A junior developer is somebody that has a good grasp of the Java language, understands CS fundamentals, object-oriented programming, data structures and related concepts. They know enough to hit the ground running. In other words, I don’t have to sit down with them and teach them source control. They can teach themselves the particular technologies, frameworks, and architecture of the system they’re working on.
We expect our graduates to be able to write a web-based application from scratch using Java – which is actually more than I can say for my classmates and I when we graduated from a CS program. We try to give them as much exposure as possible to the tools that they’ll use on the job, like Eclipse and Git.
How long is the bootcamp?
Our program is 14 weeks.
The average bootcamp is 12 weeks, how did you decide that you need an extra two weeks?
A lot of the bootcamps are teaching Ruby, which is a little bit easier to learn than something like Java or .NET. Maybe 10 weeks or 12 weeks for Ruby is just fine, but with the extra complexities of Java and .NET, the additional two weeks is a big help for us. Beyond that we get the chance with the extra time to hit on some of the things that are increasingly being sought after by employers like data security and cloud configuration.
Did you register and become regulated with the state? Tell us about that process.
Yes. Having someone hand us a worksheet with all of the things that we should do to start a school was actually helpful. We were doing it in a fairly condensed time frame because by the time we realized that we needed to do this, we only had three weeks until the submission deadline.
A lot of the things that we had to do for the regulation process would have eventually come up anyway. Rather than waiting for a problem to create a policy, we were forced to do it right at the start. I don’t really have any complaints about that process.
The state gets a lot of flak for being a huge bureaucracy, but it was all fairly easy to understand. All in all, we actually appreciate that Ohio mandates that new schools go through this process, and we found it helpful to go through it.
That’s a really cool perspective. How many people are in the first cohort?
There are six students in this Java class, which is exactly the number we wanted. We intentionally kept it small because we wanted to use this as an opportunity to put the curriculum through its paces.
Can you tell us a little bit about the ideal student for Tech Elevator? Are you looking for somebody who has a little bit of experience or a total beginner?
All of our students go through an interview process. The kind of people we’re looking for are those that have a genuine interest in the field. Someone that says, “Well, I heard that coders can make a lot of money,” is not the type of person we’re looking for.
We’re looking for someone who’s history or background suggests that they’re interested in the work itself. Prior experience is not necessary to join Tech Elevator, but if students have shown the initiative to learn on their own, that’s certainly to their credit. In other words, someone who has experience with programming through self-teaching and would like to take it to the next level by attending an in-person bootcamp is ideal.
Is there a coding challenge during the interview?
No, there’s no coding challenge, but there is pre-work that we assign to everyone that is accepted. We look for folks that have a genuine interest in the field. We’re looking for people that can demonstrate creativity in their backgrounds, whether it’s being a musician, photographer or gourmet chef.
Someone that can overcome challenges and has fortitude to survive what can be a pretty intense experience is also important. Learning to code from scratch in 12 to 14 weeks is not easy and it’s not for everybody. There are a lot of different ways to learn how to code. We think the bootcamp model is a really good one, but it’s not necessarily for everybody.
How many hours a week are these students putting in?
Between class hours and after hours study time, it’s probably around 60 hours.
What have you found is your personal teaching style?
I try to keep a mix, so we do some lecture and of course students are assigned projects. It’s a very hands-on course.
On a typical day, we introduce a new concept in the morning, a little bit of lecture and group work and we walk through an example together. In the afternoon it’s labs, assignments, challenges and things like that.
As for my personal style, I like code. That was one of the reasons teaching a coding bootcamp was so appealing to me. I had become an application architect which was very interesting and challenging, but I was not coding very much on a day-to-day basis. I still get a kick out of writing a line of code.
In the classroom, we write code as much as possible. In other words, my lecture notes are comments in code. I don’t have PowerPoint slides or anything like that. We talk through an example and I write code with them and comment on it in the way that professors write something on the chalkboard.
Do you give assessments or tests at Tech Elevator?
During the admissions process there’s an aptitude test where we try to suss out natural problem-solving ability.
Throughout the course, we don’t have graded exams, but we do give a quiz first thing in the morning on the previous day’s material. As an instructor, it’s an opportunity gauge “Did you get it yesterday or are there still some areas that we need to go over?” We don’t do it for grading purposes.
What about attrition? If somebody fails a certain number of quizzes are they kicked out?
No, no because that’s not the point of the quiz. It’s not to pressure them, but more to get information from them.
That's a really great idea, to check in every morning to see where students are at.
We also give a survey every morning to assess the pace of yesterday’s class—was it too slow, just right, too fast, was it interesting? Again, we want to make sure that what we’re teaching is relevant and interesting.
Sometimes when you ask people, “Did you understand everything from yesterday?”they’re a little reluctant to raise their hand and say, “No, actually that didn’t make any sense at all.” By giving them a quiz you get real feedback.
How are you approaching job placement? Obviously, that’s one of the goals of the bootcamp. Do you have hiring partners?
We have over 40 local companies in our hiring network and we’re continuing to engage local companies as well as national placement firms. On Monday afternoons or evenings we have speakers come in to talk to students about careers in technology, interviewing advice and a variety of related topics as part of our Pathway Program™, a career development program we developed to run parallel with our coding curriculum. The speakers are all real-world developers working at the types of places our students want to work, or career professionals that can help build students’ soft skills.
We’re continuing to grow and there’s usually a couple new hiring partners every week. We’re also looking outside of the area to companies on the coast that we can partner with. It’s extremely important to us because at the end of the day, that’s why students are coming to us. We consider job placement as important as the actual Java or .NET curriculum.
I feel like a mother hen! These are my babies and I want them to all do well. I think they’re all great and I’m sure they’re going to do well in the workforce. I’m excited to see it happen.
Is there anything that you want to make sure our readers know about Tech Elevator?
One thing that we think is an advantage for us is being in the city of Cleveland. It’s kind of gotten a bad rap. It’s part of the rust belt renaissance, you know? Cleveland’s really got a good story to tell and from a bootcamp perspective it’s great because it's got a super low cost of living. Students who come here can get an apartment for $500 to $1000 a month and can live on less than they could at a bootcamp in San Francisco or New York.
We’ve seen a number of people come from outside the state to attend bootcamps in Ohio and about 50% are staying. Once people get exposed to what we have to offer on the North Coast, they like what they find. Cleveland was long overdue for a bootcamp so we’re really happy to be here and the city’s very excited about having us.
Are the majority of jobs in Cleveland Java- centered?
We chose Java and .NET because even nationally the most programming jobs are in Java or .NET by far. It’s kind of strange to us that everybody’s teaching Ruby. When you look at the number of jobs available, Ruby’s just a tiny fraction of Java or .NET.
In Cleveland or northeast Ohio, .NET actually has a slight edge over Java in terms of the number of jobs, but like everywhere else in the country, those are the two most prominent types of programming jobs.
Programming jobs are growing faster in the Midwest than in any other part of the country. Traditional companies that you don’t think of as software companies are employing tons of programmers. For example,Progressive Insurance is local and they employ over 3,000 developers. There’s a huge demand for developers here.
I think that's something that people forget about or don’t realize, that every type of industry is looking for developers.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about this field is that I have the ability to get into different industries and learn so much. I think good developers tend to be people who like to learn, so the opportunity to work in different industries is a very interesting and rewarding thing about being a developer.
Interested in learning more about Tech Elevator? Check out their Course Report page!