Steve Kinney spent seven years as a high school and middle school teacher in NYC before moving to Denver, CO to teach web development at Turing School of Software and Design. Steve is now the program director for Turing’s new Front-End Engineering program which launches in June 2016. We spoke to Steve about how he learned to code, the new Front-End Engineering curriculum, and how different the new program is from Turing’s Web Application Development program.
Tell us about your background before you started at Turing in Denver.
My whole career has been in teaching. I have a Master’s in Special Education and started out as a special education teacher in New York City. Towards the end of my teaching career, I was a technology coordinator and started teaching web development, which became more of a full-time job.
I was wondering what your Computer Science background is like. How did you learn to code?
I’m self-taught. When I started teaching in 2006, data collection on student performance involved taking hand-written notes, which was difficult to process. Even once we switched to spreadsheets, processing that data was still very clunky and took teachers a long time.
At that point I didn’t know how to program, but I knew we were spending too much time on this, and that there must be a better way. I had heard of relational databases, and decided to teach myself how to write a program to do all the data crunching for us. It worked, and that’s how the slow transition from social education teacher to web development teacher began. I slowly built more programs for the school, taught coding classes and built up my skills over about five years.
How did you become aware of the coding bootcamp model and the type of teaching at Turing?
By 2012, I’d been learning Ruby and doing data crunching for a few years. I thought about going to a bootcamp myself, but my teaching (and new fatherhood) schedule made that impossible at the time. I actually took a free code school course on JQuery taught by Turing bootcamp founder Jeff Casimir. I really enjoyed it and discovered he was a former DC math teacher. I followed Jeff’s career as he started Hungry Academy.
Jeff and I got invited by mutual acquaintances to a discussion on programmers with teaching experience. We reconnected and when he offered me a job at Turing, I broke my lease, quit my job and moved my entire family to Denver.
You started out teaching the Web Application Development course and now you’re working on the Front-End Engineering program. How did that transition work?
What parts of the Web Application Development program do you teach?
Why did Turing launch a Front-End Engineering program?
Over the last year and a half, the role of the front end engineer has almost exploded. And with that, the demand for jobs and employers’ demands for front end developers has also exploded.
Our school was always called The Turing School of Software and Design and that design piece is not really prevalent in the existing program. Part of our goal for the Front-End Engineering program is to have graduates become Front End Engineers, but with an understanding of design, user experience, and UI concepts as well.
We did a bunch of research about the largest demand and interested employers. Once we crunched all the numbers, it was obvious that the next step for us would be front-end engineering. We get to build that curriculum from the ground up and rethink everything along the way.
Tell us about how you’re building the Front-End Engineering curriculum?
Step One is to do a whole bunch of research, take copious notes and begin to distil those notes down. Step Two is to put something a curriculum together and get it approved by the state of Colorado. We build out the entire curriculum and then have professionals from the field review it and sanity-check it.
We had a bunch of companies like Universal Mind in Denver and IBM look over the curriculum. I think the most humbling thing for me was that more than one review said, “I wish I could take this program.”
By the end of the program, students will be able to build great websites and user interfaces in the browser but they’ll also be able to build desktop and mobile applications as well, which I think is one of the most exciting parts. For any platform out there, they’ll be able to hit the ground running and build really great applications that not only look good but also feel good to use.
Can you give us a brief overview of the technologies you’re going to be teaching?
We have four modules:
How different will the two Turing immersives be? Will graduates of each program get different types of jobs?
There’s definitely an intentional overlap between these two programs because we think our graduates should have a broad set of skills, with specialization in one. I think there will be a little bit of self selection. But the programs are different – during the Web Application Immersive, students have exposure to front end frameworks for two weeks at the most.
We do our best to help prepare graduates for the jobs they’ll be happiest in. I think over time, those students who would be happiest as front end engineers will be in the Front-End Engineering program. I do see them taking different jobs and some of that will be set by interest, because all graduates come out with a versatile skill set in a number of different frameworks.
You mentioned that there would be some overlap. Will there be instructor overlap as well between the two programs?
I’m planning on only teaching the Front-End Engineering program. Our main goal is to get the program started and running smoothly. Long term, I would like to figure out how to have the two programs collaborate, with a team from one program focusing on the front end and a team from another program focusing on the back end and the API. I think that’s an ultimate goal.
Both immersives will be together for all the community events but students will be onboarded and taught separately.
What’s your own personal teaching style? What can your Front End Engineering students expect?
Our approach at Turing is to have multiple projects and topics going on at any point so if you’re burning out on one, you can switch to another. There’s always a mix of direct instruction, a project you’re working on in teams or on your own, as well as smaller assignments focused on a given skill.
On the instructional level, I tend to be a morning person so I give lectures in the morning. We do a lot of code review, and one of the things we’ve been looking at is pulling in UX designers and graphic designers to come in for design and UX review of projects. I want to have a lot of professional involvement from the outside so students get real world experience.
How are you going to be assessing students’ progress throughout the course?
Assessment will be similar to the Web Application program. At the end of each module there is an assessment that takes slightly different forms throughout the program. For the first few modules you sit down with an instructor and pair on a project and show how you would approach a problem and solve it.
Students are working on small individual projects as well as larger team projects. During every module, students put together a portfolio and do a presentation of everything they have achieved. Every quarter of the program we evaluate students to understand if they are ready to move on, or whether it would be best to review the previous module before moving on to the next one.
How do you advise potential students who are not sure which program to take?
It really comes down to interest. One of the metaphors we use is building a car. Do you want to start from the engine then work outwards? If so, then the back end program is probably for you. But if you want to focus on all the controls and modify how the car performs, then the Front-End Engineering program is probably more for you.
It’s really interesting with our current students because they get exposure to both and they almost always click with either front or back end. It’s very rarely that we have a student who is indifferent.
To be honest, one of the reasons students join Turing is to find a job that pays really well. But they’re also looking for a job that they’re really passionate about that they enjoy doing every day. So I think it’s better to steer students towards what they’re more passionate about doing, rather than focusing on their previous experience.
Is there anything else that you think our readers should know about the Front-End Engineering program?
If we think you have what it takes to be a really good software engineer, there’s no prior experience necessary. Some of our most successful students have been former teachers or bakers with no programming experience. We’ve seen very little correlation between previous experience and success.