At Startup Institute, a variety of "tracks" let students specialize in areas like Sales, Web Development, and Product/Design, creating an environment that mimics a real startup, and instructors work together to teach each course. We sat down with Giles Phillips, one of the instructors in Startup Institute's Product & Design track who has been involved with the program since it's inception.
Tell us about your background, how you got started with Startup Institute, and how long you’ve been working with the school.
I got involved with Startup Institute around the time that it was conceived. I was working at Brightcove at the time and and Bob Mason, one of Brightcove's founders, introduced me to the team and described their mission. They were in the process of building out their first curriculum for their first class, they had the idea all established and they were searching for people who could help structure curriculums and break apart the different topics and key learnings in each of the different areas of the boot camp that they were designing.
So Bob introduced me to Aaron O’Hearn, the CEO, and we started working on design-focused curriculum for the product track and it really grew from there. So I’ve been involved as an instructor, occasional speaker and also I’m a hiring partner with Constant Contact so I’ve been a part of the Startup Institute community for a few years.
Startup Institute is an 8-week course, right? Can you tell us how the 8 weeks are structured and how 8 weeks is enough to learn all that information?
I think one of the operating theories around the 8-week model that they’re implementing is that you gain a lot of benefit from an intensive curriculum. I have a lot more experience with the Product/Design track and there has been an interesting evolution over time. Initially, we would spend a few weeks looking at fundamentals of design and product strategy, thinking about things like user personas, how to formulate a market strategy, and interaction design. How do you implement a good, elegant workflow, what different parts of the user experience do you need to think about in formulating a product? We started with just basic theoretical fundamentals over the first few weeks and then quickly got into more of the advanced and applied concepts.
Lately, we actually found it to be more performant to start with the traditional jump-right-into-coding techniques at the beginning of the boot camp to make sure that students have sufficient foundation in the technical skills to be able to actually generate functional prototypes or working code to deliver their product concepts.
So there is this notion of applied learning. We do a lot of intensive learning sessions. For example, my regular touch point with the product students is that I’ll come in for a few sessions to talk about wireframing and navigation in flow; those will be structured as basically half-day or day-long intensives where I’ll work through some content and the students all have done some pre-work and then we’ll talk about some of the implications of their work. It has a very studio-based mentor model in terms of the way the instruction is delivered. Which is probably a unique component compared to a lot of the boot camps. It was interesting to be involved in the curriculum over such a long period of time, it’s evolved some, so we’ve definitely be iterating it. We found it to be better to give students the skills upfront.
When was the first cohort at Startup Institute?
It would’ve been around mid-2012. One thing that’s been fun for me, being involved as an instructor and curriculum architect is that Startup Institute really employs an iterative model. So being a few cohorts deep into their own evolution, there’s been a lot of refinement in the way they go about trying to deliver instruction and content and learnings into the student cohort.
You are mostly focused on the Product and Design Track but there are a number of different modules with Startup Institute. Can you explain the differences and how they interact with each other?
There’s the core curriculum that all Startup Institute students partake in. That involves a lot of networking and soft skills and just general readiness and preparedness for a career within the startup ecosystem. Then each of the students are focused on one particular track that guides a lot of their intensive work over the course of the boot camp. Those are Product/Design, Sales, Technical Marketing, and Web Development.
There is a lot of cross-functional work that occurs. One of the things that happens is every one of the individual students is part of a cross-functional project team. That team is comprised of people from across the full spectrum of tracks – which if you think about it is really compelling because it emulates, in its purest form, the startup ecosystem. You’ve got a product person, you’ve got an engineer, a sales guy and a marketing person and they’re kind of getting together as a working group trying to create and craft out a solution that’s addressable to the market. That creates a lot of really compelling opportunities for our students. For example, a student who’s in the developer track to get insight into the sales side of things and the marketing side of things.
How many students are in a typical cohort?
It’s about 60 and in each of the tracks, around 8-12.
Is Startup Institute looking for applicants who have experience in their respective tracks that they’re applying to or are you looking for beginners?
That’s been something that we have certainly seen evolve. We’ve had students of so many different ranges of background experience. One thing I can say, and this is just my own perspective as an instructor, I’ve seen that there are two large populations in the cohorts. One of them is fresh grads and the other is career-changers.
Both of those subgroups don’t necessarily have a lot of applied domain knowledge in whatever tracks that they’re learning within, so I think it’s safe to say that there’s not necessarily an expectation that you have a lot of applied work in the domain. For example, one of my students in one of the product courses was a marketing guy who wanted to get into product- he had a lot of domain knowledge, just didn’t have necessarily as much applied knowledge. Those student types are really interesting because they’re highly-motivated and highly-focused.
So how does it work to be an instructor at Startup Institute? I’ve heard that there are multiple instructors for a course; how does that work?
The instructors are focused on the specialized tracks. So as an instructor, I come in and teach some subset of the concepts around Product. I think for Product there’s probably about 15 or so instructors lined up to deliver content just for the product track alone. As an individual contributor, you have the pieces of content that you’re responsible for but you have to think about that in a broader picture. So there’s an interesting negotiation that happens between instructors and you have to adapt your learning module around the relative readiness of the group. But it also creates this instructor ecosystem, which is really interesting, where you throw ideas off of each other, and you challenge each other.
I think that’s one of the things that’s made the Startup Institute really resilient- all the different instructor voices that have been compelled to come together around this unified mission.
What I picked up on anecdotally from the students who I’ve stayed close with, is that it’s been a compelling part of their experience because every day, you have a new instructor, and some of us really resonate with some students and in other situations maybe less so; there’s something interesting there around the diversified experience, a lot of perspectives and voices. And it creates a networking opportunity as well.
Is there one mentor that stays with a cohort throughout the eight weeks?
Across each individual track, there’s a dedicated Program Manager who is available and present and creates that stabilizing and guiding presence. They really become the go-to person for any work-life balance or bandwidth challenges or questions around the track is going or uncertainty coming out of a specific session; so they do have that consistent guiding presence.
And you have a full time job with Constant Contact in addition to SI.
Yeah, I do!
Do you leave work to go give a lecture?
Oh yeah, absolutely. From Constant Contact’s perspective, there’s a tremendous amount of value in these touch points. For one, it creates access to a really interesting, talented and passionate community of potential prospects. The actual teaching time commitment is not necessarily full day. Sometimes it’s as short as 4 hours but I usually carve out the whole day just to be onsite and engage in longer conversations or follow up conversations, so that I’m present. We treat it like a really high-value external engagement into the local startup community, which is really what it is. It helps Constant Contact to be seen as part of that community.
Because instructors are not full-time, It makes it totally manageable for professionals in the field to come in and teach. It keeps the instructors fresh, so we’re a group who have applied skills and are actively working to build stuff.
What is your teaching style? What does a typical day look like for a student?
My undergrad experience was all studio-based design learning so I suppose I bring some of that. One day before I teach, I’ll send out some focused pre-work. Some subset of that work will be flagged as the really important stuff that you should try to get to. Based upon how far students get, we’ll essentially kick off a learning lab. Usually it’ll start with just introductions and then a few minutes of dialogue with the students and then 30 minutes or talking about some of the key challenges they experienced with the pre-work. Then I like to get really hands-on, so less lecture and more applied, hands-on learning. And for a lot of the product and design stuff, we’ll actually embark on low fidelity prototyping and user testing. We’ll break up the class into small groups and they’ll design product concepts then leverage each other as small testing cohorts. That gives them a chance to develop applied skills and not only product formulation but prototype development as well as user testing methodologies and then findings, analysis, things of that nature. Then there’s discussion and reflection on the heels of the actual applied learning. You reflect on the things that you did and discovered and learned about.
How does the hiring process work? Are all of the instructors coming from companies who are also hiring partners?
All of the instructors are not hiring partners, some of the instructors are. For example, I’m a hiring partner and I come in and do instruction. There’s a lot of other touch points for hiring so I typically don’t approach class as a hiring point at all. In fact, I find it better not to. But there are a lot of networking touch points for the hiring partners. They’ll organize a hiring day where all the hiring partners come in and get a little bit of a pitch. Hiring managers and recruiters actually get on a panel and talk about how they go about trying to source and find candidates, which is a tremendously insightful session for the students usually.
Hiring partner’s also have a cross-functional group of Startup Institute students from each of the tracks – they’ll come out to the partner’s office every Thursday of each week so they have a full day of immersion with one of the hiring partners over the course of the boot camp. It’s actually part of their diversified learning experience. Here at Constant Contact, we set them up with one of our innovation projects- an open-ended but very relevant problem statement and give them 8 weeks to formulate a product proposal. Even though that’s part of the work, it feels like a potential hiring or recruiting touch point. We’ve had students that we’ve hired out of that, we’ve had students who’ve expressed a lot of interest in joining Constant Contact on the heels of that experience.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would just add that being involved in this has been really rewarding for me as a professional to get engaged as an instructor and to find ways to give a little bit back to the broader technology community. But honestly also, I’ve been challenged a lot and learned a lot. Startup Institute does an amazing job at finding talented students.