Despite having a computer science degree, and almost 10 years of industry experience, when Jarryd Huntley heard about coding bootcamps, he was sold on their efficiency and relevancy. He joined We Can Code IT coding bootcamp in Cleveland, Ohio as an instructor because of their emphasis on diversity and his passion for helping others break into the tech industry. Jarryd tells us about teaching with first-hand examples, helping We Can Code IT students stay on track, and his computer game side project.
Tell me about your background and experience before you joined We Can Code IT.
I majored in computer science at the University of Akron. Throughout my college career I did internships at a small company, a medium sized company, and then at a large enterprise. Once I graduated, I was hired at that last company I was interning with which was Sherwin-Williams. From then until I started at We Can Code IT, I worked for a number of different technology companies around the Greater Cleveland area.
How did you actually learn to code? Did you learn before you did your CS degree or during?
How did you first become aware of the coding bootcamp model? With your CS background, what did you think of it?
I first found bootcamps through GitHub. I was working on a project on GitHub, and I noticed one of the contributors to the project was an instructor at a coding bootcamp, and I looked into it from there.
When I first saw the coding bootcamp model, I thought it was awesome. Sometimes they don't cover as much theory or how things work behind the scenes as a CS degree. Yet in my CS degree program, there were extra program requirements, like taking two years of a foreign language, that didn't really correlate with my career goals. Whereas a bootcamp is streamlined, efficient, and designed to teach you the most relevant information.
How did you get in touch with We Can Code IT and start working there?
I met Mel, the founder of We Can Code IT, at a number of different networking events around Cleveland. She suggested I come teach at We Can Code IT, and I said yes.
I started out as a part-time substitute teacher. I still had my full-time software engineering job at a large enterprise and was teaching in the evenings. I was working a full eight hour day, then teaching for three or four hours in the evening, which was exhausting. I realized I really enjoyed this teaching thing, and decided to make the jump into teaching full-time.
Was there something in particular about We Can Code IT that made you interested in working there? I know there are other bootcamps around Cleveland as well.
Yes. We Can Code IT has a strong emphasis on diversity. They focus on getting women, people of color, and minorities into coding because typically those demographics are very underrepresented in IT. Having worked in a number of different technology roles myself, I've seen that first hand. I've been the only person of color in a team or a department, or the only programmer of color.
Being able to help other people start a career in this way, even just getting the idea out there that this is a viable career path, this is something you can pursue, was always something I was a big fan of. Even before I started teaching here, I was a big fan of We Can Code IT’s mission and their focus and emphasis on diversity. That was a big draw for me.
Did you have any mentoring or teaching experience before you started teaching at We Can Code IT?
In high school and early college, I taught private music lessons for six or seven years. Then in my first full-time job at the Sherwin-Williams Company, I took part in a Professional Apprentice Program where I mentored computer science students. I was working with a small team of interns, mentoring them and giving them projects.
What does your role involve as lead instructor?
I wear a lot of hats as a lead instructor at We Can Code IT. My primary responsibility is leading a cohort. I'm in the classroom with that cohort from day one, and teaching until they graduate. Every lead instructor is teamed with an associate instructor, who is responsible for helping out the students. Aside from that, I'll occasionally run info sessions where I answer any questions that potential students might have.
I’m also responsible for the curriculum. Every time I start a cohort I have a running document of notes that come up. For example, a student might find a slide that doesn’t quite make sense, so I’ll make a note of it. Sometimes the proposed changes are big enough that the education team will need to meet together as a group and work out how to implement them. Other times it's just little tweaks, like a different way of explaining something. If there's anything that needs changing, or any new technologies, we want to integrate those into the program. We don't just write the curriculum and then it's set in stone. We're always adjusting it. There is always something new we can integrate.
What have you found is your personal teaching style?
I like to tie things back into real world examples. Having worked in IT for close to a decade, I've seen real situations which make great examples for the students. I then enhance that with, "This is why we do x. I've seen when people don't do x and it turns out bad.” Or, “This will save you a lot of time and energy in the long run.”
Another thing I like to do is, if there's a student who is on the cusp of getting a concept and I've explained it, but they don’t quite get it, I tell the other students, "If you have a different way of explaining something, feel free to speak up." Everybody learns a little bit differently and somebody might have a different way of explaining it. And that helps people understand, plus reinforces that knowledge for the students who speak up.
That's such a cool idea. How else do students learn from each other?
We do a lot of pair programming. Students work on exercises in pairs where one student does the typing, and the other does the talking and the driving. That's another way of reinforcing that knowledge. They're verbalizing it, hearing it, then applying that knowledge.
What is the structure of the full-time program?
The first nine weeks are guided instruction. It’s like a traditional classroom, with the instructor up at the front, the students work through exercises, we do group exercises and pair programming. Then the last three weeks of the bootcamp are project-based where we have the students brainstorm projects they want to create.
What is your ideal student/teacher ratio? How many instructors do you normally have with how many students?
It varies. Right now I think we're at 12 to 1 including instructors and TA's.
Now you've been at We Can Code IT a little while, do you have a sense of the ideal student for the bootcamp? Is there a certain type of student who will do well?
We obviously have our entrance criteria. We have a logic puzzle which people work through when they come to open house sessions, then we have an online assessment. It's not a pass or fail assessment, but it gives instructors an idea of the student's background.
Some of the soft skills that we emphasize are making sure that students have a lot of support. When you're focused on a full-time bootcamp, that's your full-time job for 12 weeks. So students who have the support of their families, or have people to help pick up where they might need to commit more time, that goes a long way.
Students need to be focused on the end goal of learning the material, completing a final project, and graduating from the bootcamp. We want our students to know upfront that they'll have high highs and low lows. You'll feel like, "Oh, I'm totally getting this," and the next day you're like, "this is too much information," and you're freaking out. All of our students go through that. Students need to be ready to really push themselves. But on the other hand, we don't want someone freaking out or feeling uncomfortable the whole 12 weeks.
How many hours per week do you expect those full-time students to commit to the program?
We're in the classroom with instruction from 9:30am to 3:30pm. Then we recommend studying, reviewing the material every night. And then they have projects every weekend that they work on based on that previous week's worth of material. We tell the students to expect to spend one to two hours a night during the weekdays to study, and five to seven hours over the weekends for working on projects.
How do you assess the student progress and make sure they are keeping up with the material? Do you give assessments or tests?
For every concept we're delivering we do “thumb checks.” I'll stop and say, "How's everybody feeling on this? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs middle?" That gives me a gauge of how people are absorbing the information. If it's mostly thumbs up, people are feeling good. If it's thumbs wavering, maybe let's review this concept. If it's thumbs down, maybe people need a five-minute break to reset and come back to review this. We have optional homework that students can work on to refine those concepts. We also have roundtable tutoring twice a week led by associate instructors. If everybody has a ton of questions about the same material during tutoring, we know that there's something we can adjust.
Our primary means of assessment are the projects. Every Friday during the first nine weeks, we assign a project for the weekend. It's basically the student's opportunity to apply all those concepts that we've given them during the week. Then the last three weeks of the bootcamp, the students are working solely on projects, making web applications from the ground up. Those projects are a really good gauge as to what the students' affinities are and gives them a chance to explore their skills and something that they want to produce.
If a student is falling behind, how do you help them keep up with the class?
They need to keep their grades above a certain point. If grades drop, we have different resources like tutoring and additional work to help the student get back on track. Sometimes it's just talking with the students and figuring out one-on-one what they're struggling with. We always make an effort to touch base with that student and figure out how we can help them.
Are you involved in career services or giving students job advice?
At We Can Code IT, we have a career coach who is focused on teaching students how to look for a job, how to present themselves in an interview, how to respond to an email, how to network, and how to figure out what they’re worth. It’s not just finding a job for them and saying, "Oh, you're well on your way."
As an instructor, I'll give a lot of practical advice like, "This is what you might expect in a tech interview." I conducted a number of job interviews at the companies I've worked at, so I know what an interviewer might be looking for. I also provide real world examples of what your first day might look like or what your role in a team might be, and answer questions about tech positions. A lot of our students don’t have a background in tech and are wondering what a typical day in the life of a programmer looks like.
We also do a lot of whiteboarding during tutoring and encourage students to practice whiteboarding a question in pairs. You might feel perfectly comfortable solving a problem on a keyboard, but even if you know the information well, it's a completely different process writing on a whiteboard. Being familiar with that process can help somebody avoid becoming overwhelmed in an interview.
What is your goal for a student that graduates from We Can Code IT?
We are preparing our students for jobs as junior developers. We emphasize that we're equipping them with these skills, but this is really the start of their career. We don't say, "Oh, you're mostly equipped for a job in banking." We've had students placed in all kinds of companies, all types of roles, all centered around a junior developer position.
We Can Code IT mentioned that you're involved with a game developers meetup. Can you tell me about that?
I help run a group in Cleveland called the Cleveland Game Developers. I do game development on the side. It's a large meetup group of artists, writers, programmers, and anyone interested in game development. We have a lot of members who work at large enterprises, or as programmers, and do game development on the side. It's a cool way to apply their skills as programmers to a different type of project. I also travel around the country to give different talks at game development conferences.
Do you have a game or project that you're working on right now?
The game I'm working on is a mobile game called Art Club Challenge, which teaches people to make minimalist art and then lets them share said art with their friends. I'm also co-authoring an introductory programming book for game development.
I speak about game development at various universities and expos around the country, including this year's Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.
Do you ever work on game projects with your We Can Code IT students?
Yeah. We teach C# in our bootcamp here in Cleveland, and there's a game programming language called Unity which is based on C#. So if we have time, we'll do a half a day or a full day teaching the students the basics of Unity. The students are learning C# concepts mainly in terms of business applications, and web applications, so this is an example of how they can apply it to something completely different. That's a really fun class for the students.
As well as the Game Developers meetup, do you know of other meetups around Cleveland that would be good for aspiring beginner coders?
We also do something in Cleveland called GiveCamp. It's like a hackathon over a whole weekend where you put a project together to meet the technological needs of nonprofits in the area. Rather than donating our money, we're donating our skills as developers and making real world changes for these nonprofits, which is pretty awesome.
GiveCamp does a really great job of putting the teams together, making sure people are either equipped for the project, or they have people that they can learn from. It's a great experience to learn a new technology and hit the ground running. The best way of learning things is to just do them.
Is there anything else you'd like to add to make sure our readers know what they need to know about We Can Code IT?
As an instructor, one of the things I emphasize to all of our students is that our goal is to see them succeed. Sometimes they have a really good job and want to move to the next level, so they take a bootcamp. Sometimes they're unemployed, or an empty nester, and want to get back in the workforce. Other times, they're ready for a career change. We are ready to work with each student individually and see them succeed to the best of their abilities.