Rob Camp graduated from the first cohort of RefactorU and got two years of experience at a dev agency before circling back and becoming an integral part of the RefactorU team. Now, as an instructor, Rob is involved in curriculum planning, lecturing and supporting students. We chatted about his journey into web development, his teaching style, and what students can expect from their 10 weeks at this Boulder MEAN stack bootcamp.
You were a graduate of RefactorU before you were an instructor. Back up and tell us what you did before you attended to RefactorU?
I was a bank teller at PNC Bank. I worked there for a little over a year before deciding to go to RefactorU. I actually moved out to Colorado from Florida to attend the bootcamp.
My undergrad was in sociology- nothing even remotely technical.
How did you learn about bootcamps and a career as a web developer?
Programming was something I was always interested in. Even when I was little, I would edit configuration files for video games. One of my best friends in college was a computer engineering major so I saw a lot of the programs he was working on. I was always a bit jealous but never really had the guts to switch everything and start over halfway through college.
I read an article in a newspaper about bootcamps in San Francisco and started doing research. Then did a blast of applications around the country and finally decided on RefactorU.
I was in the very first RefactorU cohort which started in fall 2013.
How did you decide to move states to go to RefactorU?
Another big factor was I could do a Skype interview with Sean Daken the CEO. Most of the other bootcamps were impersonal online applications, saying “We’ll call you when we can.”
Did you get a job as a developer after graduating or did you go straight into teaching?
I got a job as a developer. We graduated at the end of the 10th week and I started work on Monday of the following week, so I had a two-day break between bootcamp and a full-time job.
Where did you work when you graduated?
It was a small design and dev agency in Boulder called Human Design. We did a lot of work for a number of different organizations like Nike, Adidas, and the Racing Extinction documentary. I was there for a year and eight months.
What languages and frameworks did you use there?
Was it a good first job out of bootcamp? Were they helpful in providing mentoring?
It was really small when I joined. I was employee number four. There was only one other developer and he was a founder, so for the first few months I was there, I got to work a lot with him one on one. It helps to have someone to bounce ideas off of when you’re first starting out. Then as we had more projects come in, we grew to about 14 or 15 by the time I left. Now I think they have over 30 employees.
Has Human Design hired any other RefactorU students?
Yes, I think they’ve probably hired or at least given internships to somewhere between 10 to 12 RefactorU grads.
Something we’ve found is that a lot of the companies which hire our grads, continuously hire our grads. This is something that’s neat to see, because it builds like a network in those other companies in the Boulder/Denver area of not only RefactorU grads but also is a professional network for both employers and RefactorU students.
How important was that first job after you graduated?
Extremely important. A lot of the things you do in the bootcamp are kind of canned; you’re doing exercises or projects. Once you start working on full production-level code, the volume of code is enormous. So I was learning how to deal with larger code bases, how to interact with designers, how to sit in on client meetings, and interact with clients. Within my first four or five months, I probably learned three times as much as I had at bootcamp.
When did you decide you wanted to be teaching and what was the process like to get the job at RefactorU?
After I graduated from RefactorU, I was doing regular weekend hours as a TA. I heard RefactorU was looking for another instructor so I reached out to Sean. I’d always enjoyed being a TA on the weekends and going over concepts with people. I started in July of 2015.
Does RefactorU have policies about hiring instructors? Did you have to have work experience after you graduated to come back and teach full time?
Yes, we’re regulated by the board of education so all of our instructors, if they come from RefactorU, have to have 4000 hours of relevant work experience or a total of 10,000 hours if they’re coming from outside of RefactorU. So we won’t hire a graduate that graduated three days ago and slap him in an instructor role.
At RefactorU, what’s the difference between a TA and an instructor?
The major difference is the instructors give all of the formal lectures. Our TAs provide support for the students. One day a week, we have informal lectures called breakout groups which the TAs do if we need to divide the class up. But for the most part, our TAs are here as individual resources for the students when they’re learning material, going through exercises.
As an instructor do you contribute to the bootcamp curriculum at all and how iterative is the RefactorU curriculum?
We definitely make changes as we see necessary. We switched from a Node/JS/Express back end and a front end using JQuery, to MEAN stack about six months ago. It was a pretty major overhaul of our curriculum that I and the other instructor worked on to convert things over, and create new lecture content and exercises.
You said you were regulated by the DPOS. Do you have to submit a new curriculum to them and do they care when you change something like that?
There is very loose curriculum regulation. I think it’s more for if we change from a web development bootcamp to a basket weaving bootcamp; then we would have to submit. But within the confines of the way our curriculum is generally described, even a significant technology change is okay.
How did you decide you needed to switch to focus more on MEAN stack? Was it because of employment or because you had a pulse on trends in the community?
Do you notice MEAN stack is transferable in terms of if somebody graduates with a MEAN stack background, can they get a job as a Rails or Python developer?
RefactorU is 10 weeks. In any other city that would be average but in Denver and in Colorado, you’ve got this crazy spectrum between 9 weeks and 40 – so why did RefactorU settle on 10 weeks?
We think 10 weeks is the optimum amount of time to learn the language, get used it on both front end and back end, and have the tools necessary to come out as a successful junior dev. The other thing we consider is, it’s a lot of work and it’s a fast-paced program, so 10 weeks is also to avoid burnout. I’ve heard people talk about longer bootcamps and how by the end, they sometimes feel really burned out and feel like they need a break before starting a job.
There’s also that opportunity cost where you’re at a bootcamp for X number of weeks then job hunting. The idea is to switch your career, so we want to give people a fast option and something that won’t cost you $40,000, plus six, seven or eight months of your time.
Is that the general demographic you see take RefactorU? Is it mostly career changers who want to get a job as a junior developer?
Yes, I’d say most of our students are coming in to change careers. We have also had students with CS degrees who just don’t know web development, so not a huge shift for them. We had a student finish high school early so he could meet the deadline for a cohort to take our course rather than CS at college. At 17, he was the youngest student to do RefactorU and got an internship when he graduated.
Are you doing rolling starts? What’s the classroom like?
For this year 2016, we have rolling starts every six weeks, so we’ll have a total of eight cohorts going through our bootcamp. Last year we did four cohorts, and those were pretty full so we’re expanding the number to accommodate more people. This year we have two classrooms. One can hold between 30 and 35 and the other can hold between 20 and 24.
The cohort that’s going in right now has 29 students. The last one for 2015 had 33.
How many instructors do you have for a class?
We have two lead instructors, myself and another instructor, and plus two full-time TAs. If we think a week will be content heavy and the students need more help, we’ll bring more TAs on board.
Do you have any hand in the admissions process? Do you have a say in who gets accepted to the bootcamp?
We don’t as instructors, but we’re starting to be more involved. We’ve done a little bit of arm’s length stuff where we’ve come up with some pre-work or objectives that students should apply.
Once people are accepted, we’ll reach out to them by email or phone to answer any questions, and discuss any fears or worries about coming to the bootcamp. But final decisions of who’s getting in are up to our admissions staff.
Who is the ideal student for RefactorU in terms of experience, background, knowledge?
I definitely think the students who are the most curious probably end up doing the best, and oftentimes are the most interesting students to work with. They’re the ones going out there and finding stuff that’s not part of the core curriculum, asking questions, and trying to integrate these new things into what they’re working on.
Something we try to drive home is you get out what you put in – work smartly and utilize instructors. The students who are willing to do that are the ones who excel.
Does that correlate to hours per week they’re putting in? Do people spend a typical amount of time in the classroom or does it vary?
Our core hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., then all of our students have 24-hour access to the classroom. I don’t know if success directly correlates to number of hours. I think there might be a loose correlation there. It also drops off very quickly once you hit 50 or 60 hours a week because your brain can only take so much.
What is your personal teaching style? Are you hands on, do you like to lecture, do you let people get stuck and figure things on their own?
A large part of our curriculum is lecture so I think that’s something that is necessary but isn’t the most interactive way to go about teaching. We do live coding on projectors so students see it as it’s happening, then we post it on our Github so they keep it for later reference.
There are some things we try to integrate into lectures where we can, like in-class challenges, which gives everybody a way to practice. During lectures, I often get ideas for examples from the students to make it more interesting. It wakes people up and gets them more engaged.
When we’re helping students working on exercises, I try to prod them in the right direction rather than saying “here’s how you do it.” It’s important they learn how to think their way out of coding problems and to learn on their own.
Do you give assessments or tests at RefactorU and if so, what do they look like?
We don’t do tests or assessments. We are a bootcamp that will not cut a student. From week two onwards, we do code reviews twice a week where one student presents their code, other students ask questions and instructors provide feedback. It’s a discussion about what they did and how they solved problems or had issues, and is helpful for everybody.
What are your student employment statistics?
From an employment perspective, 96% of our grads get jobs within the first three or four months. That’s one of the first impressions people have about bootcamps. The first thing they look at is are the graduates actually getting jobs when they get out? Bootcamps are expensive and people want to have that security.
Do you have favorite meetups in the area that you recommend to people who are beginners and aspiring bootcampers?
Most meetups are beginner friendly and welcoming. Even if the subject matter goes over their heads, it’s great being able to meet people and talk to people in the industry. In Boulder and Denver, JS meetups are well attended and you can meet a lot of people. We host the Meteor JS meetup which is welcoming and encouraging.