The skills you learn in the classroom aren’t everything you need to work in a real tech job. Realizing this, Lambda School has launched Lambda Labs, a month-long final team project that gives students the opportunity to work in teams and build functioning products from start to finish. How do students in the online bootcamp collaborate remotely? And are these Lambda Labs projects helping students through the job interview process? We check in with Lambda School Instructor Ryan Holdaway and recent Lambda School graduate Cassidy Avery to find out!
What is Lambda Labs?
Ryan: Lambda Labs is the final experience for our students. Our goal at Lambda School is to train students to join dev teams and be able to contribute right away. We found that there was a gap between the kind of learning that takes place in a classroom and the kind of work that's done on the job. So we wanted to make that transition smoother and arm students with some of the practical skills they would need in their jobs.
Before Lambda Labs, students were split into teams for their final projects and could brainstorm and pick their own project ideas. A lot of times, those projects ended up being loosely defined, too ambitious, incomplete, or not practical to show to a potential employer. We felt like that was a pretty weak final experience for Lambda School students before we sent them out into the job market.
With Lambda Labs, we plan final projects in advance for students. We sometimes work with outside companies for that, or plan internal projects. The goal is for students to work on something that's useful from start to finish, professional and complete, and deployed to production on the internet. Our idea for Lambda Labs is to simulate a dev shop.
Is Lambda Labs offered with all the Lambda School majors – Web Development, iOS, and Machine Learning?
Ryan: Yes, it will be offered for all of the majors. We'll adapt it to each of the programs – web, iOS and machine learning. Students will work on practical, real-world projects that mimic a real job. Our long-term goal is to have students across different programs work together. For example, an iOS class and a web development class could work together where the web students write a back end system and the API, and the mobile students build a mobile client.
How does Lambda Labs fit into the overall curriculum?
Ryan: For the last month of Lambda School’s six-month program, students work on projects in teams of three or four, along with a project manager under the supervision of a professional developer. The project manager will lead students in daily stand up meetings where they'll discuss what each student was working on yesterday, what they accomplished, what they're going to be working on today, and any blockers that the team needs to resolve.
Students pick their own tools as far as technology stack and toolchain, and what to use for the database, back end and front end system. Teams follow a Kanban style project management system with tickets on a ticketboard that they progress through, including things in progress, things in testing, and things that are done and shipped. They'll have a Trello board with tickets and wireframes in the design document for what the project should look like, and they build it to specification.
We feel like that's really good practice for students going into their first jobs. When software developers start a new job, one of the first things they often do is build a project that somebody else dreamed up. We wanted to zero in on the skills needed for the job we were training students for.
What sort of projects will students work on? You mentioned company projects and internal projects.
Ryan: We have worked with a couple of organizations that gave out students projects. We have one month to work on a project, so if we find an outside project that fits within that scope, then we're happy to work with outside companies.
For our most recent cohort, we partnered with an organization that plans concerts and music events in Austin, Texas. They needed a platform to connect performers, venue owners, sponsors, and other vendors. A couple of Lambda School students build that over the last month.
If students don't have an external project to work on, they work on something planned by a member of the Lambda School team – a project that can be completed start to finish in one month. Ideas come from students, instructors, friends, and family. If students have ideas, we can work together to plan the project ahead of time so that preparation is done before the students start work. It's really important that they have work to do on the first day and are not wasting time planning a project and making product decisions.
For example, Cassidy's team built a standalone SaaS product that's a bingo card generator where people can create custom bingo cards for a specific event. It's a party game. Users can input different choices for their event, shuffle all the squares, and print out a bunch of cards. It was a fun project that students worked on for about a month, and delivered a nice, functioning, SaaS project.
Cassidy, can you tell us about your background and why you decided to enroll at Lambda School?
Cassidy: I am a pure career changer. Previously, my career was a bit all over the place. I started out doing software integration for a hospital as part of the medical records team. That experience initially sparked my first thoughts that I should be doing something more technical, because solving problems and making things work is really satisfying. I also did a lot of customer service management.
What made you choose Lambda School over another coding bootcamp?
Cassidy: Finding a good fit in a coding bootcamp was a little difficult. A lot of bootcamps require a lot of money up front, or they need you to move to another city. For me and my family, that was not something that we could do.
I heard about Lambda School in Spring of 2017. They were pretty new and small, but their goal was to align the school's needs to the students’ needs, and it was completely remote so you could do it from anywhere. They also don’t charge any tuition up front; instead you start paying once you get a job, which is really helpful to people that don't have the funding.
Lambda School is also an excellent school. They've been trying really hard to bring in some of the best and brightest instructors from top companies like Google, Apple, and NASA, who have worked in the field and have really impressive resumes. In addition to teaching us, they can also mentor us and tell us what to expect when we’re looking for a job. I thought their team was really impressive, so I jumped in.
What was the learning experience at Lambda School like? Can you tell me about a typical day before you started Lambda Labs?
We spent about eight hours a day, hands-on coding. During our lectures, we were coding along while we listened, and we had sprints where we would also code along. Then we would have small projects to complete, either independently or paired. At the end of the week, we would have individual projects to reinforce what we had learned that week. It was a lot, but it was really good. We had many opportunities to reinforce what we were learning.
Tell me about your experience working on your Lambda Labs project. What was your role and what sort of team were you working with?
Cassidy: I worked on a three-person team with a project manager who was a Lambda School employee. Just like in a real dev team, we had someone who would check our project every day, we did stand ups every morning, and we would check in with each other.
I did the full React + Redux build of the front end. I also started the database, got it to a bare-bones skeleton stage, then one of my teammates took it over and hooked it up to the other parts of the app. Our third teammate actually built the bingo card generator, and used a PDFMake at the end.
We all had our own little parts, but regularly throughout the day, we were checking in with each other and saying, "Anyone need any help?" Even though we were working from all over the country, we could still communicate at any time via Slack, so all my team members were available at my fingertips. If one of us was stumped about something, or wanted feedback about an aspect of the project, it was so quick to hop on a Zoom call and have a quick chat.
How much help did your team need from Lambda School staff?
Cassidy: For the most part, we were using the knowledge we already had to build the project, or doing a lot of research, which is what you would do in the real world. For example, our third teammate was doing a lot of research, and trial and error learning, to use PDFMake, to make it work appropriately and correctly with our project.
Just like in the real world, you don't know everything. It's impossible to know everything because the field is growing and changing all the time. We did what we knew, we learned what we had to learn on the fly, and if we got really stumped, we could always go to our project manager, and he might be able to guide us or point us in the right direction.
Did you learn new technologies or skills during Lambda Labs, outside of the regular curriculum?
Cassidy: The biggest skill we learned was how to work on a developer team. This was the first time we had worked on a project where we had different personalities coming together, making decisions together, and building things that would work together. We really learned to work with other developers in a different way.
It was really helpful to have a project that was basically given to us by a “client” that had goals, a structure, and a clear idea of what we needed to work towards. We didn't have to hit our heads together about what we were going to build, but we still came together to make decisions on how to build it. Lambda Labs was definitely different than working on projects on our own and I'm absolutely glad that we had the experience.
What was the outcome of your Lambda Labs project? Is it finished? Were you able to deploy it?
Cassidy: Absolutely. It’s hosted on Heroku. It's a functioning product. It's bangarangbingo.com.
That's awesome! And what are your plans now? How is your job search going so far?
Cassidy: I'm based in Charlotte, North Carolina right now. I've applied to a few jobs here, and to a few remote jobs, and I'm starting to expand up the Eastern Seaboard a little bit. I've had some interviews and nothing's really panned out yet, but it's been a really good interviewing experience so far. I am actively looking, and hopefully, I'll land that first job soon.
I’m looking for a role where I can use these new skills. I really like being able to do a little bit of everything on a project. So I am basically trying to find something that will give me more of that full stack experience and a chance to learn more on the job.
How did the Lambda Labs project prepare you for interviewing?
Cassidy: As Ryan mentioned, we used a Kanban board for planning our project. Now that I'm interviewing, I’m realizing that a lot of the companies are using the exact same sort of workflow that we used in our Lambda Labs project – Slack, Zoom, Kanban, and Trello or something similar.
On top of those tools, it's great to show off a fully-realized, well-executed project that was built and deployed by our team in 22 days. Now we can all say, "We have these skills just like a normal engineer out in the field, we know how to work together, we know how to follow the lead of a project manager, we know how to use the same sorts of tools that are used in the field to manage projects, and we understand how to build these sorts of projects." I think it's really important to be able to show that we know what we're doing.
As well as having that project to show employers, how else is Lambda school helping you with your job search?
Cassidy: They have a dedicated Career Services team, who are awesome. During the last month and a half of the program, we had mini "brown bag sessions" every other week to discuss everything from how to structure your resume and how to use LinkedIn, to how to focus your job search. We also did mock interviews, and regular mock whiteboarding to prepare us for interviewing.
Now that we're in the search process, we have regular follow-ups with the Career Services team to keep us on pace and make sure we're doing the right things. We check in with a career counselor at least once a week. And if they come across anything good for us in our areas that they know about, then they share that with us. So long as we're actually out there doing our due diligence and trying to find a job, Lambda Schools is also helping us find a job.