After graduating from Startup Institute in Boston and working as a Software Engineer for some time, Jeremy Branstad has returned to the coding bootcamp as a part-time instructor. The former English professor was surprised to find out how much his previous teaching experience would come in handy. Jeremy tells us why he wants to give back to the community that launched his coding career, how the new Startup Institute schedule allows more students and instructors to get involved, and his advice to novice coders in the Boston area.
Tell me about your background before you joined Startup Institute as an instructor.
Before I transitioned into a career in web development, I taught English at North Shore Community College in Lynn, Massachusetts.
At first, web development was something I did on the side. I volunteered for a lot of nonprofits and it started off with client writing, drafting pamphlets, promotional material, and eventually bridged into building out websites. I realized that I really enjoyed the time that I spent developing websites, so I decided to switch careers.
I enrolled in Startup Institute’s full-time Web Development program, graduated, and worked in QA with an automation focus for about a year, then at Ovia Health as a Front End Engineer, and now I’m a Software Engineer at Payment Works, a startup of about 10 people. After working for about a year, I also became an instructor at Startup Institute.
What motivated you to teach at Startup Institute?
First, it's a way for me to keep teaching. When I was an English professor, I really enjoyed the time I spent in a classroom. I was very good at engaging with students, so I didn't want to completely leave that behind.
The other reason I teach at Startup Institute is because I’ve gone through it myself and switched careers, so I know that it can be scary and challenging for students. Helping people who take a similar path to mine is something that I really enjoy.
Teaching at Startup Institute is a nice way to stay connected to the Boston tech community, which is pretty active. Being a part of this community is very helpful when you need to change jobs, for example, or even just to connect with other people who can motivate you to grow professionally. So even though I'm a volunteer instructor, I get so many benefits from being involved with Startup Institute.
Do students have one instructor for the whole Startup Institute course or a mix of different instructors?
Startup Institute really tries to introduce students to a variety of practitioners in the tech field so that we can form the beginning stages of a student’s network. So many people get positions in the startup industry based on who you know, in addition to the strength of your skills.
There's one Lead Instructor for Web Development, David, who is responsible for organizing the curriculum, keeping everyone on the same page and being the primary point of contact with students when they need help or have questions. Startup Institute has a number of different industry professionals, like me, who come and teach throughout the course. The classes are pretty small; between eight to 12 students.
David usually gets in touch with me to ask me how the class went. He'll share the curriculum materials beforehand, and I’ll supplement them pretty extensively and give input on them. We usually talk about what worked and what didn't.
How do you approach each class? What are your goals for your students?
I'm pretty careful about instruction. I want students to get a lot out of it when I teach a class, so I usually spend another two to eight hours per term putting together sample projects or presentation materials.
I teach in the immersive program, so in any given eight-week term at Startup Institute, I'll teach three or four classes. In addition, I meet students outside of the classroom for coffee or to answer questions.
For me, a success story is when a student graduates from Startup Institute and finds a position that they really love and enjoy, and are able to do well there. We've had quite a few students get hired at companies like Wayfair – and I would consider myself a success (my first job after Startup Institute was at Cazena)!
The Startup Institute teaching schedule has changed recently. What is the new schedule for the students?
Previously we were teaching between 11am and 1pm with students. But now the immersive program is an evening program, and students have class from 6:00pm to 9:30pm two nights each week, and 9am to 5pm most Saturdays.
Students learn via instructional time and experiential learning where they work on real-world projects for startups in the community. We do a lot of fireside chats where CEOs and leaders in the startup industry come in and talk about their company or give helpful advice. There's a lot of coaching around how to find a job in the startup industry, and how to cultivate the soft skills you need to be successful. There is also usually some time for students to work alongside each other as well.
As a graduate of Startup Institute’s full-time program (you learned full-time during work hours), how do you think this new schedule (evening, part-time class) will impact learning?
This schedule change allows Startup Institute to teach a different type of student. We can now teach students who are working full-time while they go through the program, if they are very motivated. When it was a daytime course, students had to quit their jobs to go to Startup Institute. It can be really difficult for somebody to quit a full-time job to make an eight-week commitment, in addition to spending a lot of money. With the evening courses, I find we have more working professionals in our classes and they provide a more diverse perspective. So I think that has been a very positive change.
Startup Institute can also work with more instructors, because instead of taking time off of work to teach, instructors can commit more time after work. I can now teach three to four classes per term, whereas in previous terms, I might have only been able to do one or two. I'm able to get to know students a little bit better and help them out, so I'm really enjoying the new time and structure.
Is there a specific subject that you teach?
Yes, I teach a class on how to build automated testing software. I'm a big automated test enthusiast and I'm pretty skilled in that area.
I also teach classes on Model View Controller (MVC) design patterns. When you look at web development, most frameworks and strategies that people use to solve problems are referred to as MVCs, so I walk students through that, how to break a problem into parts, and how to put those parts together in the context of a real application to perform useful work.
What differences have you noticed between teaching English and teaching coding?
It’s interesting – when I taught English, it wasn't really about grammar or how to structure an essay. A big part of it was asking interesting questions, conceptualizing a problem, and bringing domain knowledge to those problems.
Teaching at Startup Institute is similar in a lot of ways. Software engineering is actually not just about syntax or typing into an IDE (integrated development environment). In a similar way to English, it’s also about asking good questions, thinking through a problem, and being able to conceptualize that problem.
Before I transitioned careers, I thought that English language and web development were very dissimilar. And there are differences. But in a fundamental way, it's about how you think about a problem. I think that that part of my teaching transferred over pretty nicely.
What is your personal teaching style? Has it changed at Startup Institute?
As an English professor, my teaching style tended to be very experiential – figuring out what students could do, and how I could support them in doing it more, rather than just giving lectures all the time.
At Startup Institute, students tend to be at all different experience levels, so the teaching style tends to be very experiential as well. Because I've been teaching for quite some time, I'm pretty comfortable adapting to what the class needs. With that being said, there's a flow to it. For the first part of the session, I introduce a concept. I'll usually give students time to ask questions throughout, then students work on an activity, and we have a debrief about the topic. That’s pretty similar to what I experienced as an English professor, and one that I think is specifically effective for helping people apply knowledge; especially for learners at different levels of ability.
How do you assess student progress at Startup Institute?
The assessment is between classes. There's usually some sort of challenge students do in preparation for the next class. It’s not very formal but when I see them again I can ask them, "How did you solve the problem? What issues did you run into? What questions do you have?" That gives me a gauge so that I can pivot if I need to address areas where they lack understanding.
Have there been any changes to the curriculum since you started teaching?
As a graduate of Startup Institute and now as a teacher, have you found there are a certain types of students who do well at Startup Institute?
I think students at all levels can be really successful at the Startup Institute. The students who are most successful tend to have – not a deep background in development already – but definitely some familiarity with it.
What makes a good junior software engineer is being independent, being able to ask questions but also able to take the initiative to answer those questions to the extent that they can. They need to enjoy solving problems, interacting with coding languages, and be really motivated. I see a lot of people transition into software development, but it's not the easiest thing in the world, and you need to be really committed to striking out for what you want.
What is the goal for a student who completes the bootcamp? What sort of jobs will they be prepared for?
I think Startup Institute prepares students towards a variety of roles. I've actually started to see some product management students go through the Startup Institute’s Web Development track just because they want more technical grounding.
A very typical entry-level career for recent bootcamp graduates can also be Quality Assurance with an automation emphasis. We definitely see some students go into QA. And then we see students get hired as Junior Software Developers at companies around Boston both big and small.
You mentioned that some students juggle 40 hours of study with a full-time job. How do you and Startup Institute help students balance their commitments?
In general, as instructors, we give students a lot of information very, very quickly, which can be a challenge. There are two aspects to helping them through that. First, we help them focus on understanding and prioritizing what skills they need to be a junior software developer. You're not going to go through an eight-week program and come out the other end as a Software Architect. You're going to come out as a Junior Developer. So we try to help students understand what that skill set looks like so that they can focus carefully on it.
The other thing I do to support students is meeting up for coffee and chatting things through. It's a chance to have a conversation, answer their questions and provide advice.
What’s your advice for students when they're looking for a job?
One of my biggest pieces of advice to students is to utilize Startup Institute staff. The people who work full-time at Startup Institute tend to have pretty deep connections in the startup industry. They know companies that are hiring, people who have been hired, and people working in the field. So often times, if a student is interested in a particular company, they might be able ask program staff, "Hey, do you know anybody at this company? Can you make an intro?"
The other advice I have for students is when you're transitioning careers you need to be pretty targeted with your job search. It might not be effective to just send your resume out to a bunch of places, because you might not look like a typical candidate. I advise students to use the resources around Boston to figure out what companies you are interested in. You can utilize Built in Boston, AngelList, BostInno, and LinkedIn to search for jobs. You can also find out if any of their employees graduated from the Startup Institute, or from a bootcamp, and see if you are already connected with them on Linkedin. Be proactive and find the companies that you are really passionate about and speak to them.
Would you consider hiring a Startup Institute grad?
Oh, yeah, for sure. If I was ever in a position where I was looking to hire a junior talent, I'd absolutely hire from Startup Institute. It's a good way to find smart people.
In general, bootcamps are important because they improve diversity in the tech workforce. The bootcamp graduate demographic tends to be more diverse than the computer science graduate demographic, which is something really important for people making hiring decisions.
For our readers who are beginners, do you have any resources or meetups that you might recommend for aspiring web developers in Boston?
My general advice is, if you're transitioning careers, get in front of people. Getting to know people is by far one of the best things you can do to network and find that first opportunity.