general-assembly-instructor-jeffrey-konowitch

Jeff Konowitch is a self-taught software developer who launched his career in an apprenticeship, so he can relate to his career-changing students. As an instructor in the Part-Time Front End Development course at General Assembly, Jeff emphasizes objective-driven teaching and learning by doing. Learn more about Jeff’s teaching style at General Assembly, and why learning to teach yourself helps students adapt to the ever-changing evolution of technology.

First, I'd love to know how you learned to code. Did you have a traditional path into tech or did you teach yourself?

I can definitely relate to most of my students in that I made a major career change. I did not have a traditional education; I was not a computer science major. I actually majored in theater and political science.

I had always been really into computers and I was working as a project manager after college, working with a team of developers to develop a new web application. I started to get really interested in what those developers were doing, so I started asking them more questions and then I would go home and learn on my own.

I was self-taught until I got an apprenticeship with a dev shop, which is where I was “professionalized.” I knew how to make products work, but I didn't know how to do it in a professional way, using the right tools and conventions.

Having been a self-taught developer, what did you think about the bootcamp model?

I had been freelancing and working at a consultancy, but I was looking for a change. When I heard that people were actually teaching coding, I was excited at the prospect of helping others become developers. This was pretty early on at General Assembly.

What makes you excited to work with General Assembly specifically?

I've been working with General Assembly since the Fall of 2013 in a variety of roles. Right now, I’m an instructor for the Part-Time Front End Development course, but I’ve also been an engineer at General Assembly, and a full-time instructor in the Web Development Immersive program.

The thing I love about teaching at General Assembly is that there's a lot of freedom as an instructor. I'm always very wary of one-size-fits-all approaches to education. There are benefits to standardization and quality control, but I also think that traditional education institutions can end up crowding out a lot of creative possibilities that can emerge when you have instructors who know what they're doing, and can improvise and expand the course as they go along.

Also, the students who come through our doors have always been great. I've always liked the students, so I was never really interested in working anywhere else.

Tell us about your teaching style at General Assembly.

It’s hard to boil down my teaching philosophy, and in some respects, it always evolves. I didn’t know a ton about teaching when I started at General Assembly, but the training that I got at General Assembly was actually great. I still use what I learned at the teacher training today. There are instructors on our staff who were high school teachers, and others who have PhD’s in education. Everyone uses the core principles at the heart of teaching, but applies them to this context.

The main teaching principles that I’ve embraced are objective-driven teaching and learning by doing. Objective-driven means that before I start a lesson, I know the exact skills and concepts that I want students to be able to use and know. I then design the curriculum plan backwards from there.

The other bedrock principle is that my lesson plans should emphasize students actually trying to use what they’re learning. I’m trying to minimize the amount of time that I’m talking and maximize the amount of time students are doing.

Do you think that it’s important to split your time between teaching and real-world dev work?

I think it is. Practicing web development tests your knowledge, especially when you start to teach the more complex principles of software design. Having fresh examples and recent work to refer to is important. As an instructor, you have to stay in touch with current technologies.  

One of the appealing aspects of a bootcamp is that you can be highly iterative and adapt to changing technologies. Can you tell us how you approach changing technologies as an instructor?

Changing the curriculum at General Assembly is more bottom-up than top-down. Because instructors are mostly all practitioners, they very much have their hands in the field. We're all aware of what's becoming important and what's becoming less important. We all react to those changes in real time and are supported in doing that.

Then, if there are really seismic shifts – like moving from Ruby on Rails to JavaScript – then General Assembly may make a top level policy decision as an organization. In that example, we noticed that JavaScript was becoming more important, but also noticed that our students were getting jobs in JavaScript. That was a pretty significant change that happened in that way.

Teaching web development is a living thing. You start teaching with a broad outline and materials from General Assembly, but inevitably you tailor it yourself. It’s based on how fast the class is moving. For example, the class I'm teaching right now is moving faster than the last one I taught so I'll get to go more in-depth this time.

What do you think will be the next big change in the front end class?

I’m seeing things settle down, but there are always new technologies on the rise. The Angular vs React debate is an example. At least amongst my developer friends, it seems like React will win. But I think ultimately things will settle down and it'll be a little bit easier to teach a specific tool. I always emphasize the skill of being able to teach yourself as opposed to getting concerned with a specific tool or technology. Because the field evolves so quickly, it’s way more important to be able to acquire new skills.

Can you tell us about the ideal student for the Front-End Web Development Course?

Everyone is working full-time, but there are three main types of students. The first type of student is the aspirational career changer. They aren't sure enough to commit to a full-time immersive program, but they take this part-time course, and then a lot of those people will either go on to self-study and change roles or even do the immersive bootcamp at General Assembly or elsewhere. The second type of student is someone who works a lot with developers at a tech company, or have interfaced with technology and will be better at their current jobs if they learned some HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. For example, a marketing professional who does a lot of email campaigns and wants to be able to get into those HTML emails and make changes. Or a product manager who wants to better understand what their developers are doing, or designers who come to the Front-End course wanting to know how CSS and HTML is implemented so they can be better designers and work more effectively as developers. Third, there are also entrepreneurs who want to launch their own website.

Would a student be prepared to start applying for junior, front-end developer roles when they graduate?

Usually, no. During info sessions, we’re pretty clear about that. Within each class there are a few students who have enough of a background that they probably could start applying for jobs. So there are exceptions to the rule. With another few months of self-study and maybe some extra courses or online tutorials, you could get to the point where you’re prepared enough to get an entry-level job.

Tell us about your favorite student project you’ve seen recently!

A lot of students will make a personal website– a portfolio site or their own site. They design it and implement it all themselves. There are also projects that are a little more JavaScript-heavy. Students in my last class made a little tool where you could look up a rating for any NYC restaurant to see why the restaurant received their health rating. The New York City government publishes all of that data and you can hit their JSON API. This class will make you solid with HTML and CSS, and you’ll learn enough JavaScript to make some interactive features. But some students get further with JavaScript, so there's a range of projects and it depends on the student.

Can a complete beginner take the Front End Web Development course?

We always recommend that people know enough about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to know what they're getting themselves into. Other than that, total beginners are welcome.

For our readers who are complete beginners, are there any meetups or resources that you would recommend for an aspiring front end developer?

A lot of my students have enjoyed this General Assembly tool called DASH. It’s a free, online tool that covers HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Start by trying to just build a simple, one-page website in order to piece together the experience. Meetups can also be useful.

Any advice to future bootcampers?

If you’re considering learning these tools, don’t be intimidated. I've seen so many students  who knew nothing learn a lot. I didn't have a traditional computer science background, and I had a lot of doubts when I was first learning. Those doubts are dangerous; you’ve never missed the boat.

Read more General Assembly reviews on Course Report. Check out the General Assembly website.

About The Author

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Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students considering a coding bootcamp. 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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