blog article

Instructor Spotlight: Jamal O'Garro, Startup Institute

By Liz Eggleston
Last updated on April 9, 2014


Jamal O'Garro is a bootcamp pro- he has taught at General Assembly's Web Development Immersive and now teaches at The Startup Institute's Web Development track. On top of that, he runs Code Crew, a New York organization that encourages collaborative learning and coding. We got to talk with Jamal about his path to coding and the differences he notices between the GA and Startup Institute approaches. 


Tell us about your background and how you got involved with Startup Institute. What attracted you to the school in particular?

I have been coding for a little over a year, so I was one of those crazy people that decided to take the plunge to change careers, change my life, etc. Before I went into software development, I worked in finance for roughly 7 years. I decided to leave that industry because I wanted to do something I really enjoyed. I taught myself Ruby on Rails, Javascript, HTML, CSS, and then just started knocking on doors looking for a startup to hire me. I started working for a boutique dev shop and eventually started doing my own freelance work.

I run an organization in New York called Code Crew for people who are learning how to code. We host weekend collaborative coding sessions and form study groups around different programming languages and frameworks, give workshops, form hackathon teams and try to provide an open community for beginners. I met people from Startup Institute through my work with Code Crew and that led to conversations about how we could work together. Eventually they invited me to teach a few sessions for their web development track and that’s how I started teaching Ruby on Rails there.


Do a lot of people who participate in Code Crew also go to boot camps?

People come to Code Crew’s collaborative coding sessions to prepare their applications for General Assembly, Startup Institute, Fullstack Academy and other schools. We have a ton of students who are going through the boot camp process from applying, currently taking a course to recently graduating and looking for jobs.


Tell me how the Web Development Track is structured. What are students learning in their 8 weeks at Startup Institute?

They’re mostly learning the Ruby on Rails framework. They have several modules that teach various web development topics using Rails and labs to practice what they learned in the modules. Students usually complete the modules, readings, exercises and begin work on their projects before I would come in and lead a lab.

I’ll start with a basic lecture that covers everything they were supposed to cover during the week and then we’ll do a lot of hands-on exercises. For example, we built a database from scratch using SQL and went into Active Record queries. I showed them the actual SQL Active Record writes on the backend so they can get a clear understanding of the magic that happens behind the scenes.

Then there’s a lot of answering questions about what happens in the real world, how you actually use certain tools in production, how to scale applications, etc. It’s a mixture of lectures, hands-on work and then a lot of Q&A , answering student questions about what can they can expect in the real world.


A lot of courses at boot camps are between 12 and 24 weeks; but Startup Institute is 8 weeks. Do you think that that is long enough? Where are you finding efficiencies to create an 8-week curriculum as opposed to a 12-week one?

I think that 8 weeks works with Startup Institute’s Approach. At General Assembly’s WDI or the Flatiron School, two other programs that I’m familiar with, they cram a lot into that 12-week period. So you’re learning HTML, CSS, Javascript, Rails and Sinatra, Backbone, tons of technologies. They expose students to a lot of different technologies but I think with Startup Institute they really focus on teaching you Ruby on Rails and how to use it to build and scale applications. 

Startup Institute is more hands-on, it’s more project based. In an immersive program, you’re being lectured to from 9 to 5 then you have a ton of homework during the week and on the weekends. But with Startup Institute, we’re suggesting the course of action that should be taken, and the students work together in a collaborative environment while Startup Institute  brings in industry professionals to lecture, answer questions and help you work through the assignments. At Startup Institute, the curriculum is full stack but I would say it’s a little more backend heavy than some of the other programs.


The way that the instructors work with Startup Institute is that there are multiple instructors lecturing on different topics, right?

Yes. They provide us with a schedule and ask for instructors to teach particular topics; instructors sign up for a topic and then teach on their specified date.



Are you a fan of that teaching model?

I think it works for the right students. A lot of the students have some kind of programming background but I think Startup Institute’s mission is to take professionals and get them ready to do really well at a startup by making them “startup ready.” For example, if you have a computer science degree or if you’ve already been a developer for 5 years and you don’t know Ruby or what Rails is you can spend those 8 weeks learning that framework inside out; understanding what the best practices are and getting yourself ready to hit the ground running when working at a startup.

I think because the majority of the students have some kind of programming background, it works out. But take a group of students who never coded before like the people I have coming to Code Crew and put them into Startup Institute, it may not work out as well because you need to first understand the basics.


Well that’s good to know for potential students- if they have no experience, then Startup Institute is probably not the best use of their time and they probably need to do something before.

They could do it but they would have to understand that they’ll have to do a lot of the work on their own. A person like myself, I’m really good and teaching myself things and something like Startup Institute would have been awesome for me starting out as a beginner. Having the structure and having experts come in several times a week would’ve definitely been ideal for me but I’m more of a self-starter, so it really depends.


What do you think the advantages are for Startup Institute graduates that other bootcamps might not be able to offer their students?

You are working in a startup environment. You are there with people on a sales track or people on a marketing track, and you get to network with those people. After working at several startups and working as a consultant for startups here in New York, I’ve learned that you have to be a self-starter. Your learning experience at Startup Institute is all about being a self-starter, figuring things out and making it happen; it really prepares you for working at a startup.

I have experience working with graduates of bootcamps that have more of a traditional academic environment, and some of those people did have a rough time transitioning into working for a startup. I think Startup Institute really prepares you for the transition because it puts you in an environment that really resembles what it’s like to work at a startup company.


What’s been the most difficult part about being an instructor at a boot camp? Have you had any challenges or has it been all positive and rewarding?

If I can compare and contrast Startup Institute versus a program like General Assembly versus Code Crew… At Startup Institute, most of the students already have backgrounds in programming, at least this was the case in the cohort that I was teaching. They were professionals who know the basics already and were asking really good and difficult questions about the material.

It’s a little different when students are on a slightly different level. In the full-time web development program I taught, though we did have a few students that had programming backgrounds, for the most part, everyone was a newbie; no one had ever coded before outside of the pre-work. The challenging part about being an instructor in that capacity and what keeps it interesting is that you have to be good at explaining very complicated technical topics to non-technical people. It’s a different kind of dynamic. Same thing with the Code Crew workshops. We’ll produce intro classes on HTML and Javascript for people that never have coded ever before. The challenge lies in figuring out how to bring this very technical thing that everyone’s afraid of and intimidated by and make it sound fun, interesting and easy so they can continue to learn and not be discouraged. I would say that this is the most difficult and rewarding part of the job.


Are students at Startup Institute working on projects throughout?

Yeah; they’re building a clone of the website Open Table, so they’re rebuilding that from scratch and I believe they have their own personal capstone project. Open Table is a pretty good web application to rebuild when learning because there are a lot of moving parts to it, a lot of associations and a lot of functionality. You hit almost every aspect of building software for the web. At the very end of the program students participate in a demo day where employers are invited to see what they have been working on for the past 8 weeks.


Are you involved in the hiring day or the hiring process at all?

I’m not sure if other instructors are but I currently am not. Last cohort I stopped by the demo day and the after party to show support. I don’t participate in the hiring process except for when students have personally reached out to me for advice or to make introductions. I definitely have made introductions for graduates.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think Startup Institute is a really good place to be. I think all the people there are really awesome. The staff is top-notch, they’re very passionate about making sure students get what they need to succeed. The students are pretty awesome as well, the cohort that I worked with in the web development track and the other students I met in the other tracks all seem very passionate, enthusiastic, excited to learn and become part of the startup ecosystem.


Does the Startup Institute Web Development track sound like the school for you? Find out more on Course Report or by visiting their website

About The Author

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!

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