With a background in nonprofits, Wesley has paired his love for coding with a longtime passion for helping people, to become an instructor at Galvanize’s six-month coding bootcamp in Denver, CO. He is really enjoying seeing students succeed and find their dream jobs, just like he has. Wesley tells us about the difference between 12-week and six-month coding bootcamps, how he brings real-world projects into his coding classroom, and tells us about some of his most successful students.
Tell me about your background and experience before you joined Galvanize.
I have a degree in Philosophy and Anthropology from Columbia University in New York. After graduation, I worked in non-profits at Teach for America for a bit, and then at a nonprofit called New York Needs You, where we helped first generation college students find and secure their first internships. I loved helping students get a leg up, but I wanted something more challenging. My days were spent in Excel spreadsheets, (which I found I was good at) so I decided there was something to that.
Were you interested in coding before working in Excel spreadsheets?
I'd been playing around with the internet for as long as I can remember. My first website was a GeoCities Pokemon fan website. I was one of the first members of my extended family to go to college, and I didn't know people actually did coding for a living. However, to me, coding seemed like a great challenge and happened to be fun for me. So in 2013, I actually enrolled in General Assembly's third ever Web Development Immersive, and then I worked in the industry for about three years in New York. I moved to Denver about two and a half years ago to work as a developer for a company called Democracy Works.
Helping others has always been an important part of my career trajectory. Now, teaching at Galvanize has been like a great merger of all my passions. It brings together the technological aspect with teaching, and supporting students. I started at Galvanize in October 2015.
I think there are actually a few bootcamps in Denver, right? What was it about Galvanize that convinced you they were doing something special?
When I visited the Galvanize campus, you could tell how invested everyone was in the company and the students, and that was a signal that they really care. It seemed like other bootcamps were solely about technical skills, and at Galvanize we're really invested in teaching people how to learn and making sure that we're doing so in a methodological but exciting way. It's exciting to see the education realms and tech realms truly intersecting.
Where does your teaching experience come from?
At New York Needs You, we had biweekly day-long conferences where I led workshops on topics like How to Build a Resume, How to Interview, etc. Those were super exhausting and completely exhilarating. It was all the good parts of work where I felt spent and tired, but it was when I had the most fun.
What’s the teaching structure of the web development bootcamp at Galvanize?
Our last unit is dedicated to the students’ big capstone projects, computer science fundamentals, and the job process. We spend a lot more time at the end getting them to be beyond just developers, and hopefully good, competent developers.
Since you've been at Galvanize, what have you found is your personal teaching style?
One thing we try and do is engage students at all moments, as opposed to a lecture style where we're at the front of the classroom talking for 30 or 40 minutes. Students could expect five minutes of instruction, then three or four questions, then another five minutes of instruction, and then a group exercise. We're always trying to get better at doing less lecturing and more hands-on-keyboard work.
One of my favorite parts of teaching is bringing in both funny and real examples for students to use. Trying to bring things back to the real world with superheroes and tired TV tropes is super fun. We have a lot of fun, we're always laughing, and I think that’s the best way to learn.
As an instructor at Galvanize, how have you been able to contribute to the curriculum? Does it change often?
We are a curriculum-based bootcamp to start, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel whenever we do want to make changes. Typically, we'll create a new project for students that we think better elucidates a concept, or we'll build out part of the curriculum depending on where we are in that unit, for students interact with.
One example is that we just started talking about the server side, and getting students started on Node. And I was trying to talk about how servers interact with each other and what the interactions look like. So we built a little game called Castle Crashers and everyone had their own castle and when you hit different HTTP routes, it would shield the castle or do damage to it. We got everyone up and running on that so they could play around with each other and attack each other's castles.
My contribution to the curriculum is really thinking through different exercises and ways to teach concepts. All of these concepts can be super dry, but it’s exciting to figure out new ways to present content.
What differences have you noticed between the way people learn in a 12-week program like you did at General Assembly, versus Galvanize’s six-month program?
Just this last week I was pointing out to my students that they were three months through Galvanize and at the end of the unit you'd be where most bootcamp grads are, but you actually have another three months. One of my students came up to me and said, "I can't imagine being done with the bootcamp at this stage!"
I think what students get out of having a longer timeline is just a little bit more breathing room. That’s something we try and stress. We shove so much information at them, there's no way they're going to get 100% of it, and some of it just needs to sit on the back burner while the students figure out "what other questions can I ask to understand this concept?"
I think the 6-month timeline gives them some security. I hope that helps students in terms of their stress level.
Do you think with the slightly longer program, that students don't feel a need to put in such intensive hours or are you seeing students still putting in the same kind of hours that you would have when you were doing GA?
I think it's a little bit less intensive, because we really encourage that during the class. We say "If it gets to be 9pm or 10pm and you're still working or frustrated, go to bed. If you're tired your brain cannot absorb anything new." I do think it allows students to lean off the gas pedal a little bit, so they’re not just accelerating at such a fast pace.
But we still push our students super hard, and we expect them to be working throughout the week and on weekends. Ultimately they do get more breathing room, but they also end up learning a lot more throughout the six months. That's the balance we try to find, and I think we do it well. We want to make sure students have time to mentally recover from a really tough week, while ensuring they get the most they possibly can out of the six months that they're here.
What kind of hours do you normally see Galvanize students put in each week?
It definitely depends on the unit and of course the student, but I would say once we reach the middle of the class, students are doing at least a couple of hours of homework every single day, and working for four or five hours on a bigger project in the middle of the week.
The idea is that they have one day on the weekend to rest and nothing, but the other day they're coding the entire day.
Our core hours are 9am to 5pm. Typically instructors and students show up earlier. I know students who get here as early as 7am, 7:30am sometimes to work on stuff in the morning. My hours are usually 8:30am to 5:30pm, just helping students who are there before and helping students a little bit afterwards.
How many instructors and mentors are there in a classroom, and what's your student teacher ratio?
I think we are currently at our ideal student:teacher ratio – we have four instructors for a class with a max size of 28 students. There's usually one TA, who is usually someone from the prior class who we've hired, then an assistant instructor, an instructor, and a lead instructor.
How do you assess student progress throughout the program?
We assess progress in a number of ways. We do assignments during class. We check for understanding throughout the entire lesson to check where students are at. And we always have some sort of project or homework that goes over the ideas from before.
Finally, at the end of each unit, students have their own project where they get to build whatever they want with the tools we've taught them. They need to use things like servers and databases, but the requirements around that are pretty loose in terms of topic or subject.
Grading everything is tough. We try to distinguish between practice projects where we give them very minimal feedback. And then for some of the bigger projects we’ll have them create pull requests and give them notes on GitHub. Or we'll give them notes in our learning system called Learn, where we give feedback like, "Here are some ways you could restructure this program," or, "Hey, your indentation is off here, you're using a weird syntax.”
And then do you do any kind of tests or assessments?
Yes. Our assessments are still project based. Usually when we come back from a break we’ll have an assessment that relates to the prior unit, but those are still project-based. So we’ll give them essentially a whole bunch of Pivotal cards and they’ll have to finish those within a time limit.
What happens when someone starts falling behind and then struggles to keep up with the program? Do you have methods to help that person catch up?
It definitely depends on the situation. If someone's having health issues or family troubles, we will try and accommodate the student as much as possible. But if they need to leave, then we are as supportive as possible about them leaving.
If they're not understanding the material or falling behind, we have a process in place called a PIP, a performance improvement plan, which is a way for the instructors and students to sit down and say, "Let's identify the ways in which you're struggling and identify some ways you can catch up." That usually includes some extra work or redoing some exercises.
For a lot of students, the overwhelming part is trying to figure out how to prioritize their learning. “If I don't understand two things, what's the most important?" Those conversations usually just go down to "Here are four things we really need you to know now so we can move forward in the class. These are the three complex topics worth more time to catch back up on later on."
Are you involved at all with the jobs placement aspect of the program?
Not as much. It's the outcomes team that brings in people who are hiring as well as guest speakers throughout the class. But of course as instructors, we're with students the entire time, so we end up helping them as much as possible. We are definitely involved in terms of making sure they're ready for interviews, that they can talk about code, and they can solve coding challenges.
What's the goal for a student that comes out of a six-month bootcamp? What kind of roles are students prepared for and are they more prepared than someone who's done a 12-week program?
We want them to be ready to be junior full stack developers and start in the industry at an entry level. With that said, students want to do a variety of different things. The large majority of them will start as developers, but some will also find tech adjacent roles, or find they're doing more testing, or if they have a passion for Design, then they might want more front end roles. We're really trying to leave it up to them in terms of where they want to be because ultimately this is about them getting a first job they love and will learn a ton in.
In terms of whether our students are more prepared than a 12-week bootcamp, I hope so. I think a lot of our students get jobs that require Angular or React, and they've had actual, extended practice with that in the classroom, which I think is super helpful for them on a very practical level.
The other thing we do is in unit three we talk about application analysis in an unfamiliar environment. We show them code they haven't seen before and have them try to figure out how to use it. That gets towards Galvanize’s core mission of teaching people to learn how to learn so that if they work somewhere where they know three of the technologies not the fourth, they're not terrified of having to pick the fourth one up. They have so many different tools available, and feel comfortable saying, "Great, I can learn Python! It can't be any worse than trying to learn Java for a week and a half or something like that."
Do you have a favorite example of a student success story that you've witnessed?
Everyone has an interesting story, which is one of the most fun parts about this job.
One that comes to mind- and that I think is very indicative of Galvanize- is a student called Kevin. He liked being in our Atrium, which is our member and student shared workspace, and just chatting to people. He made a lot of friends in the building and met this guy, Nick, who's working remote for a company in Boston. After talking for a long time they started working together on weekends and he eventually got hired by Nick at his company.
Another example: Galvanize Golden Triangle accepts the GI Bill so we have a lot of veterans come through Galvanize and do really well. One student, Tyler, was expecting a child and the due date was our graduation day! He was able to graduate with an amazing job in Colorado that actually utilized his previous top security clearance, and a new baby. And so that was just very emotional and amazing.
Another student Lina, who you can actually read about in our Galvanize blog, is from the Ukraine, and has an amazing story of how she came to be here. She is super smart and is now working for a cool company that's having her travel all around the world.
Do you have any recommendations of resources or meetups in the Denver area that would be great for beginners?
I would say the first places to start are Code School, and Codecademy, or do a Udemy course. I think those are great because if you start to do those and don't like it, that's a good sign that maybe coding is not for you.
For in-person meetups, come to Galvanize! We host a ton of different meetups, and many of them are super accessible. The HTML5 meetup in Denver is particularly accessible to beginners. The Node.JS Meetup is run by one of our instructors, so it's a great place too. Even if it’s a more advanced topic just talk with some students who will usually be there, and people are excited to talk to newbies. In Denver at our local library, there are usually little free coding sessions where people come and learn some code. Girl Develop It, Rails bridge or Clojure Bridge are great places to start as well. There are plenty of in-person events, but I think finding some hub like Galvanize with tons of events is a great place to start too.
Is there anything else that we didn't talk about or that you want to make sure our readers know about Galvanize?
I would say come to our classroom and meet the instructors at the place you're going to be at for multiple hours every single day. Meet some prior students, and talk to them about what their experience was like. There's nothing better than getting a real life perspective of a student’s experience, and at least at Galvanize, we're 100% open to doing that.
Creating a diverse classroom is another thing Galvanize is passionate about, so we’re continuing to push for and create spaces where everyone can come to learn. I want to see more ladies and people of color and queer people in my classes- so apply!