Elie Schoppik is a self-taught developer, and after teaching at two coding bootcamps, he decided it was time to start his own. Along with two co-founders, Elie started Rithm School in San Francisco to provide smaller class sizes and a greater focus on the student experience. We chatted with Elie to learn about his software development teaching experience, the reasons for founding Rithm School, and his top tips for aspiring bootcampers.
How did you get started in software development?
I graduated from college in 2010 with a degree in finance and I knew nothing about programming. When I started an education company with a developer friend, I had to learn to code on the job in order to build our product. Teaching myself to code was really difficult, but I was lucky to have great mentors helping me through my learning process. I was surrounded by software engineers who guided me through the basics, and helped me learn how to write good code. That's one of the things I love the most about teaching students – it's very easy to just write code that works, but when you get into the real world, writing clean code is crucial. I try to instill in students the importance of writing good, clean code from the start.
As a founder of Rithm, what motivated you to start your own coding bootcamp?
My two co-founders, Tim Garcia, Matt Lane, and I all taught for about a year together at other coding bootcamps. We saw a lot of frustration with very large class sizes and a small number of instructors. As a teacher, it's really demoralizing to know that there are some students you just won't have the time to help. You know the student spent the time and money, and has made a commitment, but you're kind of powerless.
When we started Rithm School, we wanted to focus exclusively on very small class sizes. So we keep our classes at 12. The goal is to have a constant process of checking in with students, pairing with students, working with students daily and always knowing how they're progressing. Our fundamental theory is that for-profit education does not scale. We want to provide each student with the same interviewers, instructors, curriculum, and level of support. We're going to be constantly iterating but provide the same product and same quality.
As a self-taught developer, how do you feel about the “bootcamp” model? Did you have to be convinced of its efficacy?
I think it's a phenomenal model in general. The idea of being able to change people's careers and lives over the course of such a short period of time is unbelievable. As long as students have the mental picture of how hard it's going to be and how much work it will take, I think there's some incredible progress that can be made in this space. If they have that mindset from day one, they’ll be successful.
There are quite a lot of bootcamps in San Francisco – what makes Rithm School stand out?
First and foremost, the small classes. We keep our student to teacher ratio at 4:1, maximum. Tim, Matt, and I have experience as coding bootcamp instructors and have been teaching for over three years. Tim has a master's degree in computer science, Matt has a PhD in math, and I have teaching and industry experience, so we all bring unique perspectives to Rithm School.
We are striving to open source all of our curriculum. We have about 45% of our current curriculum available for free at rithmschool.com/courses. And at Rithm, by the time you start working with us, you have already taken advantage of some of our free online courses. Our goal is to be as transparent and honest as possible about the education that people are going to get. We focus on the student's experience, and we’re not trying to rapidly scale at this point. We want to keep our classes small, build a really good business, and provide the right kind of educational materials.
Is Rithm School working with the BPPE (Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education) in California?
Absolutely. When we first started Rithm, working with the BPPE was actually one of the most important things. We've submitted our application, and we're in the process of being approved. We actually need one year of audited financial statements, so once we’ve been operating for a year, we can submit the final application. Even though there’s a lot of bureaucracy, there's also so much value in transparency in coding bootcamps. We've seen coding bootcamps get shut down, so we respect the BPPE and what they’re doing.
Rithm School is now teaching your second student cohort. What did you learn from your first cohort?
We're always iterating on the curriculum. Our first cohort had two students and our current cohort of eight students is now working on company projects. Through our past teaching, we’ve seen what technologies are most useful for teaching and valuable to the job search. At General Assembly, I was teaching Node, Rails, and Angular – that has evolved at Rithm School to teaching Python, React and Node.
What have you learned about your own teaching style over the past three years? What can students expect in the classroom?
I try not to lecture with slides too much. Instead, I lecture in small intervals, then give students the opportunity to code. That’s the reason our classes start at 9am and end at 6pm. If you're coding all day, then you can’t do much past 6pm.
As I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve introduced more pair programming. Our instructors actually sit behind students and pair program with them all day. Since we have a small class size, we can divide our students into three groups of four. And between each instructor, we can sit behind those groups and just watch them code all day. With pair programming, we see students’ learning accelerate so much more than in traditional lectures where students move more slowly and get bored more easily.
Since our curriculum is online and available to all students, we encourage students to read ahead to the next section and practice a couple of exercises. Then the following day we flip the classroom and work on projects most of the day.
After working with so many bootcamp students, can you tell us what makes the ideal bootcamper?
Before you enroll in a bootcamp, one of the most important things is to understand the commitment. Reading about programmers, having friends who are programmers, hearing how exciting it is, and learning about the salary potential can be wonderful. But that’s not the point. Some people really don't realize the intensity of a bootcamp until they’ve spent the time and the money, which is dangerous. It’s important that students understand what they're getting into, and that's why we have our curriculum online. You can chat with us on the site as you're working through the material, and the goal is to be really personable. I advise students to be very honest about what you're getting yourself into.
The best students have done the research and have tried coding. People who have STEM backgrounds will naturally pick this stuff up faster because they have previous exposure. But other students have been Lyft drivers, massage therapists – we've seen students from all walks of life be successful. It's really about the student’s ability to problem solve and to be intellectually honest and transparent about how you best learn.
What types of jobs are you expecting your students to be prepared for when they graduate?
We encourage our students not to have an assumption about their first job after a bootcamp. Some students graduate and are really excited to take an internship at a larger company, while other students want to start their own companies. We also have students who are interested in working in nonprofits. We don't mandate that students work with any specific company.
After 13 weeks of our program, we connect students to four weeks of intensive data structure algorithms and behavioral interview prep with a company called Outco, with whom we’ve partnered to help with this prep. The focus is to make sure students are ready for the job search – it’s a very different skill than learning to program.
Rithm School recently raised money from a venture firm called Slow Ventures with the intent of sending our grads to their portfolio companies. We expect to graduate about 60 students this year, and we have about 120 portfolio companies with Slow Ventures, plus the entire Outco network. So we have a lot of hiring companies to work with our students. We're focusing on figuring out students’ goals after class and tailoring our curriculum and projects to those goals. We respect that some students don't want to work at big tech companies.
How do you assess student progress throughout the bootcamp?
Since students are coding most of the day, towards the end of the day students will submit a pull request, push their code up to GitHub, and we review it. Having such a small class of students means that we can do pretty thorough code reviews on a regular basis. We also do more formal assessments every second or third week.
A differentiator of Rithm School is that if we find students are falling behind or we've made a mistake in the admissions process, we encourage students to apply for future cohorts, but they receive a full tuition refund. If we did something incorrectly, we should not punish them for that. They’ve made the time commitment, and we will do our best to make it work with students. At other bootcamps we saw a lack of guidance past a certain point. Rithm School is doing it differently; we really focus on the student experience. In the first six weeks, if it's not working out, we go our separate ways. If students complete our program and don't find a job in six months, then we do the same thing – students receive a full tuition refund.
For our readers who are beginners, what resources or meetups do you recommend if they're thinking about a coding bootcamp?
Do you have any other tips or suggestions for aspiring bootcampers?
Make sure you get the answers you need and meet the people you'll be working with on a daily basis as early as possible before you invest time and money. If you get an opportunity, it’s essential to know who's going to be teaching you and potentially work with that person before you make that commitment. In Rithm School’s interview process, the first phone call is with me, then you’ll speak with my co-founders and our Director of Operations.
The more you can learn on your own, the better, but there is a certain point where you’ll hit that ceiling, and you’ll need to accelerate your learning by attending a bootcamp. When Rithm School published our online courses, a lot of people questioned why we would give away our curriculum. Our response is that if you can't afford our school, or you're not able to come to the San Francisco area, who are we to stop you from learning with us? After that, if you want to accelerate your learning, and skyrocket your growth as a developer, we'll be here to help you do that.