Nick built web applications to solve business problems for 15 years before he became a founding member of Coder Camps coding bootcamp in Houston, Texas. Now, three years later, Nick wears many hats including instructor, campus director, and CTO. We asked Nick why Coder Camps teaches .NET in Houston, how the team keeps the curriculum up to date, and why it’s important to give practical, real examples to help students learn.
Tell us about your programming experience before you got involved with Coder Camps?
In my professional career before Coder Camps, I worked for a company called Idea Integration, in business consulting for almost 15 years. I started there during college, working part-time, doing mainly web design, front end, and HTML. My first client was Compaq Corporation (now HP). I built their internal internet portal, and later worked on some of their Dot-com stuff.
What did you study at college? How did you learn to code?
I did get a degree from the University of Houston, but I began coding when I was in middle school. My family got a computer from my uncle, who was in computer science, so the computer only had programming languages like Basic, Assembly, and C.
When I started my CS degree, I was already working at Idea Integration part-time, and had learned about the web in terms of business solutions (ie. solving data problems). I enjoyed my job more than my computer science classes, which were a lot of math, algorithms, and low-level programming.
So I found another degree called Information Systems Technology, based around the “system development lifecycle.” It covered the whole cycle of doing analysis on a business problem – defining requirements, designing solutions, building, testing, and deployment.
How did you become aware of the coding bootcamp model- as a self-taught/college-taught developer, did you trust this model of education?
I left Idea Integration to work with a coworker on his consulting business. That coworker was David Graham, the original founder of Coder Camps! He noticed two things: first, his clients were always asking if he could refer junior level developers to their companies. And second, we had a hard time staffing our own consulting company to fill our projects. David’s very entrepreneurial, so he did the research, and realized that coding bootcamps were needed in Houston.
We talked about starting a coding bootcamp and I agreed it would be a really good idea. We would be helping solve this lack of good, junior web developers. David turned our office into a classroom and we started the first cohort.
So you were there from the start! What made you want to be an instructor at the coding bootcamp?
After the first class, I started helping with the curriculum, and got really excited. I then taught a class by myself, and I really enjoyed it. It was a new challenge to start a business, but it was also fun to meet new people and see them learn and have fun.
I understood the students’ struggles from when I learned to code. Originally, it took me a little longer to learn, so I really enjoyed seeing people like me, trying to help them, and giving them that vote of confidence.
Why do you think .NET is the best technology stack to teach in Houston?
I've used .NET in my career; I understand it and I know how well it solves business problems. I've also seen the demand for it here in Houston- so many of the oil and gas companies that I've worked with have used .NET.
What have you found is your own personal teaching style?
My personal teaching style revolves around how I like to learn. From there, I like to tweak my style based on students, their personalities, or what they're struggling with. Initially, I like to be very practical, and explain the concept I'm teaching. Then I need to see the big picture, and what that's going to do for me. So I build in a real practical example of it. And then to help the students learn these abstract concepts, I like to do analogies. I'll introduce an analogy that's kind of fun, but also brings and drives home the point to them.
Tell us about the Coder Camps curriculum- what do you cover?
At the end of the day, there is a homework assignment, which takes the day’s concepts and builds on a more fully-fledged exercise for students to do in the evening. Then the next day we review the homework together, and go through any issues students have.
From Week Two to Week Five, students work on individual projects. So as they learn new concepts, they can implement those into their individual projects. Then we give them a lot of help at Week Five to finish the individual project.
In the last six weeks, the students work on a group project. We do Agile SCRUM lessons, and then they get into groups and use the Agile process to build their group project.
How do you assess and keep track of student progress?
On Fridays, we do a little exam to test vocabulary, and ask interview prep questions. When you’re learning to code, you can learn the concepts, but still have no idea how to talk it through. As they learn the material, we also want to make sure they'll be capable of explaining their knowledge in presentations and interviews.
We do a live exam at the end of Week Five, where students build a little application in an hour or two. They use all the curriculum we’ve covered so far to build a small application. That gives us an opportunity to see where everyone's at, and it gives students more practice. We can then help them out before they move on to the Project Phase.
What happens if someone doesn't do well on those exams? Are they kicked out?
The weekly exams are more like quizzes, and students don't have to pass them in order to move on. If they are struggling with anything, it's a really good chance to review the concepts.
The live exam is a requirement to pass, and we do give students up to two chances. We'll do that on a Friday, and if students don't pass, we give them the weekend to practice. We talk about what they didn’t complete and why, and then we'll give the exam again on Monday. We don’t usually have any problems after we do it a second time. We never want to see somebody struggle. Anyone who's willing to put in the effort, we're willing to help.
How often do you iterate on and update the curriculum at Coder Camps?
Stephen Walther manages our curriculum from top down. All instructors and mentors have an opportunity to update and help with that process of updating the curriculum. We stay up to date with any changes to popular technology frameworks. If there's a major change to a technology, we update that curriculum as fast as it makes sense.
We talk as a group asking questions like, "Is this technology good? Is it worth using? Yes or no? Why? What are companies using?" We take feedback from our students and our graduates in jobs and ask, "Hey, what stack are you guys using? What are we missing?" We take all that feedback, and we constantly update and keep things on track.
In the three years you've been working at Coder Camps, what’s the most interesting update to the curriculum?
The most recent big technology update we did was to the .NET course. The latest version of .NET Core came out earlier this year, and we rolled that into our new curriculum.
Years ago, when we originally started our .NET curriculum, we didn't use Angular or other front-end frameworks. One of our graduates suggested we look into Angular, and then we implemented Angular into our curriculum, which we still do today. Now we're assessing whether or not to switch from Angular to React. There has to be demand for it in the market, it has to be stable, and there has to be support for it. But it really doesn't matter what kind of stack we teach, as long as students are going to learn and understand how to do web development. If our students graduate, and they want to use React or a framework we're not teaching, they'll be able to pick it up very quickly.
Does Coder Camps have an ideal student to teacher ratio?
Every class has one full-time instructor and at least one mentor. We cap our classes at 15 students. Our mentors and instructors also manage student requests for help as they come in via email at night and evenings. We've got a really great group of instructors and mentors who are super sharp, dedicated, they learn very quickly, and they really enjoy helping the students.
Are you running one cohort at a time or does Coder Camps offer rolling start dates?
We have multiple cohorts running at the same time, which means that one cohort will start, and there will be another cohort working on their group projects.
In the project phase, the training wheels come off and the students are working by themselves, but we're there every day. We still sit them with the mentors, help them out, and the main instructor follows up to make sure that they're doing everything they need to do.
Have you found there's a certain type of person who does really well at Coder Camps?
If you've got the desire, the passion, and a great attitude, then you're going to have fun, and you're going to learn. Someone who is distraction free will do great here because not only will your mind be ready to absorb so much knowledge, but the rest of the people around you are also going to be just as committed as you are.
Class is from 9am to 5pm, but students who put in extra time on homework, studying, and practicing, are going to be the most successful, get the most out of it, and have the most fun.
Could you tell me about a student success story you've come across?
One of our students, Joshua, came to Coder Camps on a shoestring budget. Even though he was super nervous, he had the energy and the motivation. At the end of his first week, we went to Austin for the Microsoft Build Conference. On the way back, we sat together and went over the first week, and at first I was concerned. It was the first week, but I could tell that he was struggling and concepts weren’t quite coming together. But over the course of the class, Josh was there early every day, stayed late, worked super hard, asked questions, and by the end, he was answering questions, understanding concepts, and built a really awesome group project. He found a job immediately after graduating, but we later employed him as an instructor!
What’s the overall goal for a student who graduates from Coder Camps? What sort of roles will they be prepared for?
Students who leave here will be prepared for a junior level web application developer role. They’ll be able to jump in and work for a corporate company or a consulting firm to do project-based work at a junior level.
We also have students who are entrepreneurs who come in with a startup idea. They've already got an idea of software, and they want to be able to start creating. Other students are people who are already working or have worked as a developer, and they want to update their skills. They are not necessarily worried about finding a job afterwards.
Are you involved in career coaching for Coder Camps students and if so, what does that involve?
We have a career services team to help students with their resumes and the job hunt. The technical team, the instructors, myself, and our developers, schedule mock interviews with students. We go over scenarios that are likely to show up in an interview based on our experience. We'll whiteboard some problems and solutions and build up their confidence. I also use some of my real world experience and have students help think through those problems with me.
How do you stay in touch with students after they graduate?
A lot of students contact me after they graduate and follow up. It could be a phone call to say, "Hey, Nick, I'm stuck on this project. What should I do?" and I'll talk them through it on the phone.
What is the Coder for Life program?
That's a new program at Coder Camps, and the premise is we want people to have an opportunity to stay with us and keep learning. So if you've graduated from our program, then as an alumni you can come back for free and take another class or use our career services.
What sort of jobs are your graduates finding in Houston? Maybe you can give me a couple of examples of the sort of companies they are working at.
There are so many! Examples are National Oilwell Varco, HP, Accenture, Spark Hound, Kinder Morgan, Harris-Tech, City of Houston, Tek Systems, and Creative Circle.
Do a lot of your students actually get jobs outside of Houston?
Yeah, we usually have a mix of students from Houston and other areas. Some folks come in from Alabama or somewhere, then go home and find a job. Most of our career services help is for Houston. That's where we meet other companies and get them hooked up, but people are finding jobs everywhere.
For our readers who are beginners in the Houston area, do you have any kind of resources or meetups you can recommend?
Yeah, I recommend the Houston .NET User Group and there is a SharePoint User Group. We also may present at the SharePoint User Group in October or November. Both of those usually meet at the Microsoft Campus here in Houston.
At Coder Camps, we host a hiring or demo day (usually at the Houston Technology Center), for every cohort that graduates. We invite prospective employers looking to hire graduates, and prospective students who are interested. Anyone is welcome to come to those events. We also are planning to do more meetups and events here at our campus.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It's been a challenge, but a good one. It’s a lot more fun and fulfilling than always doing project work like in my previous job. I get to meet so many new people and I have something more encouraging to say that I did with my life, helping others rather than just helping a business make money.