Eric Johnson started programming in the “dot-com” days, and has worked since February 2015 as a senior instructor and developer at LearningFuze, which is a web-development bootcamp and code school in Orange County (Irvine), CA. We talk to Eric about hiring developers without Computer Science degrees, the types of jobs LearningFuze students are landing in Southern California, and how the program has changed over the years to offer the most updated and relevant curriculum to future developers.
First tell us about your background and experience. How long have you been programming?
I started programming 17 years ago when I was bored and decided to experiment with a build-your-own-site platform to create template versions of certain websites. I saw that when I used the HTML version, I could see the results of changing code which was exciting to me. Soon after that, I had a mentor who was a computer programmer and got me more into computers.
I worked in several jobs to figure out what I was passionate about - from I.T. at a real estate company, to database work, to Flash animations. It wasn't until I went on Craigslist and found my first web position at a small company that I discovered what I really loved.
Did you get a traditional Computer Science degree?
I actually never thought about getting a CS degree. While CS programs do teach a lot of good things, they take a lot of time and money, and I think a lot of what makes someone successful comes down to the individual person. I’ve had experience hiring people who had CS degrees but who ended up not having practical knowledge and didn’t meet expectations. And I’ve hired people without CS degrees who have done really well. Knowing what I know now, if I had to choose between going through a bootcamp followed by getting 3+ years of job experience vs. spending four years getting a CS degree and no experience, I’d choose the bootcamp route every time.
That being said, one of our senior instructors has a CS degree, and we value students having one as well because they’ve already learned a lot of programming fundamentals. This reduces how much instruction they require in that area, so we offer discounts to people who already have a CS degree or who are part-way through a CS degree program.
Since you spent 17 years as a self-taught developer, did you have to be convinced of the effectiveness of the bootcamp model?
Actually, I was more into the idea of a bootcamp because I was self-taught. I know you can’t fit 12 years of knowledge into a 12-week bootcamp, but you can certainly fit a lot in, and it forms the basis for how you learn. When I was learning on my own, I was essentially learning the hard way. A bootcamp turns the lessons others have already learned into a curriculum to help jumpstart someone to becoming a developer way quicker than they could have done on their own.
Did you have teaching experience before teaching at LearningFuze?
My teaching experience before LearningFuze comes from managing a team of developers which entails a lot of teaching, one-on-one instruction, best practices, and knowledge transfer, and I’ve done that for many years.
Now that you’ve been an official instructor at LearningFuze for a year and a half, what have you learned about being a teacher?
I’ve learned that my passion for teaching actually is energized by the students’ excitement for learning to code and that I don't tend to give answers as much as help students find out how to ask the right questions. Instead of giving an answer, I look for ways to respond with another question to help reason through to the solution. Some people really appreciate that style because they know they’ll need to be able to learn the right questions to ask, to solve problems on their own in a real-world work environment. That’s not to say I never just give answers, but as the saying goes, if I can teach someone to fish rather than give them a fish, that benefits them more.
Are you involved in the admissions process at all? How do you filter for those ideal students at LearningFuze who are actually going to be passionate about learning?
Sometimes I am directly involved, but a lot of the time it’s behind the scenes work such as enhancing the process, upgrading the registration system or flow, changing how we assess people, etc. We want to admit people who we think will be successful in the program, whether they have little experience or a lot of experience, and we are continually trying to improve our assessments to gauge that.
In my job before LearningFuze, I hired probably 50 or 60 people over five or six years, and what I found after major modifications to the interview process is that there are certain questions and responses that are valuable in predicting someone’s success potential, and certain questions that aren’t very reliable.
How has the curriculum changed since you've been at LearningFuze and what warrants a change to the curriculum?
We change the curriculum every cohort and in iterative ways, not in wholesale changes. The students in each cohort learn differently, so we tailor and refine the curriculum with each cohort. We’re always trying to better engage students, make the projects even more interesting and relevant, or focus on specific technologies, concepts, and frameworks that we think will best benefit students in the job market. We cover a lot of things, but we spend the most time on technologies that are used by major sites like Wikipedia and Facebook and also are used by a huge percentage of smaller sites and are in demand both in the area and nationally.
Since I came on board at LearningFuze, we’ve also tracked progress better. We have our own custom learning system and a specific agenda for students to follow; whereas before, we just stuck to a verbal curriculum. We’ve built a learning platform that students log into and see their progress and how their skills are progressing, and we continue to build onto and enhance this so it’s more and more valuable to students.
One thing we have done to branch out to different topics, even more so recently, is host a lot of meetups for graduates. Those aren’t necessarily public meetups, but rather for alumni to be able to learn something specific that we may not have covered in depth in the program. Once we have enough graduates who ask about a certain subject, we’ll refine new projects and topics during a meetup, and then consider introducing it to future cohorts.
Do most of your students still get jobs in PHP when they graduate?
Do you have a student success story that stands out with you?
About six weeks into a cohort, one student was really struggling. He had trouble articulating what a variable was at that point. We had a serious conversation with him and told him this wasn’t going to get any easier, so if he really wanted to succeed, he’d have to put in time, energy, and effort. By the end of the program, he was middle to upper tier because he buckled down and put in the work that was needed. He has since graduated and now he gets excited about things on a daily basis, and sees those challenges as something fun to solve. It's cool to see someone come so far, and it says a lot about them as a person.
Is there an ideal student to teacher ratio at LearningFuze?
Our goal is to stay at 5:1 and to keep everyone actively engaged by having at least one or two senior level and one or two junior level developers per classroom. If a student has a question, a junior developer is there for them, but can also quickly escalate it to senior developers. What’s great about our junior developers is they’ve been through the program so they know the curriculum and aren’t just coming up with whatever they may think is best.
Besides myself, there are two other senior instructors. There’s our lead instructor who started programming before I did, who has professional experience with a lot of different programming languages and platforms. He worked for many companies including leading very large teams and companies. He also has prior instructional and educational experience and is really committed to the students. The other senior instructor has a computer science degree, certifications in PHP, MySQL, ASP.NET, and Javas, plus 10 years of experience at a digital agency where he was the director of web development and worked on a wide variety of sites for big name companies.
What resources or meetups do you recommend for aspiring bootcampers in Southern California?
LearningFuze also hosts the Orange County New Developers Meetup which we’ve tailored to very junior level developers. That’s a great way to learn what it takes to be a good developer (both technically and non-technically).