In this Live Q&A, we’re joined by Derek Fogge, the Front-End Development Career Path Program Manager at Thinkful, and Cynthia Kellog, a student in the course. We learned so much about the Career Path courses, including:
Watch the Q&A on video or read the full transcript below!
Derek, tell us what brought you to Thinkful and what your background is as a developer.
Derek: I was one of Thinkful’s first students. I was working in advertising for seven years as a designer at a traditional ad agency. Nobody wanted to deal with web stuff, so we outsourced everything and we were losing tons of money. I did a little HTML and CSS, so I struggled through the first few years, self-taught, and hit walls and had no one to turn to. I didn’t know any other developers. About 5 years into struggling with that, I saw a post on Hacker News for Thinkful and thought it was interesting, so I signed up. I did the basic Intro to Front End course. A couple of months later, I left my job in advertising and started freelancing. After 9 months of freelancing, I landed my first job as a full time web developer at an agency called Mint Digital. Around the same time, I also started mentoring at Thinkful, which I really enjoyed. They offered to let me start writing courses. At some point, I asked if there were any open spots there and they said they could make one for me. I became a mentor in residence at Thinkful about 9 months ago. Since then I’ve been leading course development and now I started the Career Path.
You’re sort of a classic Thinkful success story.
Derek: We have quite a few former students working for Thinkful now!
Do you still work on development projects as well?
Derek: Yeah, I have side projects and I pick up freelance here and there. I try to keep it to the weekends.
Cynthia, do you want to tell us your background?
Cynthia: Sure. I am a Thinkful student in the career path course. For the last 3-4 years, I have been the non-technical co-founder of a consumer-based gift giving app. About a year ago, I found myself without any technical co-founders because they both left for various reasons. That’s something you hear about a lot in the startup industry. You have people who don’t have technical experience and they need to hire technical help. At any kind of networking event, probably the greatest need is technical co-founders. I myself was at this juncture for the first time and I thought, “I can shut everything down,” which was not really anything I wanted to do. I could hire somebody and find somebody who could work for free because I didn’t have a lot of money, or I could just learn to code myself and I thought that was a really great option. That’s what I did. I signed up at Thinkful and I started with the Front End Web Development course because the Career Path course was still being planned out. Partway through that first course they opened up the Career Path, so I joined that.
Had you tried other self-guided teaching before you started at Thinkful?
Cynthia: Yes. I played around with Codecademy. Just that though. My only technical experience was in managing a designer and a back end developer. I did dabble just to understand what I was asking them. I knew just enough to be ‘dangerous,’ as they say.
Derek, can you tell us when you started working on the Career Path course and what’s gone into creating and designing that?
Derek: Sure. Thinkful has existed for about two years, so we have a lot of data points about our students. We really have a good understanding of our students and their goals. We noticed that there was a large percentage who wanted to make a career transition, not just level up as a programmer. So we also realized that many of them were willing to make a larger time commitment than what our previous courses had required, which was 10 to 15 hours. I started thinking about my own journey as a developer and what it took for me to be confident enough in my skills to get a full time job as a developer. One course wasn’t quite enough for me. It is for some students. I still wasn’t totally confident showing my code to a technical hiring person. The 9 months of freelance is what got me to that. I was thinking about that and talking about it. What if we could make a course that encompassed all of that experience plus our curriculum? We pretty much put all of that together. We wanted to formalize that experience.
Liz: What’s different between front end development and front end career course? Is it longer? More hours each week?
Derek: The biggest difference is the length. It’s a 6 month course. Some people have gone through portions of it faster than expected, but they gave a larger time commitment. We require 20 hours a week to sign up for the course. What it entails is that you get 3 mentor sessions per week, one hour sessions instead of our usual 45 minute sessions. It starts with the Intro to Front End course, but then it goes into an Intermediate Front End course, which is best practices and modern standards of development. Then an Angular course, but that is becoming very optional as things progress because some students want to learn Backbone or Ember. We’re trying to customize the course around the student’s goal and not tie it to any particular technology, as long as it’s still front end. We have some students learning Node too, so I guess they’re doing full stack.
After that, they go and do a custom project. That’s where my freelance experience comes in. I had a lot of experience with different code bases and projects outside of my usual small business and agency sites I was building. I wanted to let the students decide what they want to work on and what they feel passionate about and let them create custom projects. That’s the final step before they go into career services. They’re matched with a technical recruiter or a hiring manager who preps them with mock interviews and reviews of their portfolio and GitHub account to make sure they’re putting their best foot forward.
Do most of the students coming through know what they want to do when they graduate? Are the mentors also career counseling as they go through?
Derek: Some students do come in with a goal, usually a short-term goal like getting a job as a web developer. That usually gets honed as they go through the course talking to their mentor and seeing what the possibilities really are. It tends to change as they progress.
Why has it been important for Thinkful to focus on job prep and career placement now as an online bootcamp that didn’t necessarily start thinking about placing jobs?
Derek: The timing is just right. It’s been 3 years listening to students and assessing their goals and now we feel like we know how to get them there. The ability to customize the curriculum. A lot of mentors have written curriculums so they can help the students craft these project briefs. It’s just the right time for it I think.
You talked about the big transition after you graduated from your Thinkful class being that 8 or 9 months of freelance work. Are you setting students up for freelance work during the class? What goes into those 6 months?
Derek: They consider themselves the client. It’s not necessarily matching them with freelance clients, but they’re working on ideas from their own minds. They’re not following a curriculum. They’re working with their mentors to craft a project based on what they’re interested in. I personally find the best ways to learn are to get a job and convince somebody that I know how to do it, or to have an idea that I’m passionate about and I want to see exist. We’re working with the latter there. Students are taking their hobbies and interests and applying them to these projects.
Cynthia, how far are you through the Career Path now?
Cynthia: I’m most of the way through it. I probably have another month depending on how much time I can dedicate to it. I’ve been in it for a couple of months.
How many hours on average are you devoting to the class?
Cynthia: I do work part-time. I am dedicating about 20 sometimes 30 hours a week. As I get better and more proficient at writing code, I find myself getting more excited and spending more and more time on it. I’m starting to actually build things that I really love.
You’re still working on your startup as well, right?
Cynthia: I shut down what it was originally was when I started the course and now I’m retooling it, so that it’s something completely my own and something I can manage and use my new skills to build. It’s going to be my pet project. It’s going to turn into this tastemaker, gift giving blog. My core is trying to help people be better gift givers. We had one take on that and it didn’t really take that well. People weren’t all that into it, and so now I just want to start a new version of that. I’ve integrated one of the Thinkful projects into that gift giving theme. I’m able to take the curriculum and build it and modify it and that’s what’s great about having in-person mentorship. You get a project outline and you can see how everybody’s doing it and you can decide what’s interesting to you and tool it in that direction.
Have you found that you’ve been able to choose the technologies to learn and what technologies have you been learning over the past few months?
Cynthia: Yes. Absolutely. Anyone in tech knows that there are constantly new things coming out. Instead of learning Angular, I’m going to be focusing on Backbone, Ampersand, and maybe a little in React. That’s what’s so great about having this extended mentorship period because you really get to know your mentor and what their strengths are and what your strengths are and you can suss out what’s interesting. Over six months, tech changes so much.
Has Derek been your mentor for this career path course?
Tell us about your favorite week of Thinkful so far.
Cynthia: That’s a really hard question because there are so many parts that I do like. I was building my gift giving quiz, “What kind of gift giver are you?” and it was the first time I was coding something of my own. The moment it started to work was a really big moment. This week I’ve been working on my gold build environment and I couldn’t get it to work for a week and a half and then in our last mentor session I finally got it working. Constantly you’re being challenged and you can’t figure something out and then you get it. As I learn more, my abilities keep growing, which I get super excited about.
Logistically, are you going through a curriculum throughout the week and then meeting with Derek three times a week in addition to going through curriculum by yourself? Or are you doing most of your learning together?
Cynthia: There is a Thinkful curriculum that I follow online. It’s broken down into units that each have lessons and projects and stuff within that. Like right now I’m learning how to draw on canvas and we’re building a little replication of Flappybirds. We’re learning that game build environment. I have resources and links along with that. As I go through it, if I get stuck or don’t understand something, we have mentor sessions and Derek helps me with whatever the issue is. There’s no set topic for the mentor session, but Derek is there to help me when I need help.
Derek, I imagine there are two sides to having a very flexible curriculum. Do you feel like you get to learn as well as you’re mentoring? What do you do when someone wants to learn something super new, do you have to learn it also?
Derek: Yes. I definitely am learning as I mentor. I try to stay a few steps ahead of the student if I can. I try to talk about what they want to learn next. With Cynthia, she wants to learn Ampersand instead of Angular. One of the mentors on Career Paths is really deep into Ampersand and I’m pretty new at it. We’re informally calling it mentor swapping. She’s going to be assigned to that mentor and I’ll probably take on one of his students, or they’ll give one of his students to a mentor who wants to teach Angular. He doesn’t want to teach Angular. I help out the students in Slack, which is a chat application, every morning with any problems they’re having. I’m definitely being exposed to a lot of stuff I’ve never done before. It’s been great for both sides.
How large is the Thinkful mentor network now?
Derek: It’s pretty big. I think total we have about 300 mentors on file. At any given moment, 200 of them are active and maybe 50-100 on hiatus. People get busy. It’s a part-time thing. We keep it loose.
Cynthia, you mentioned the project that you had worked on, the gift quiz.
Did you work over Google Hangouts basically?
Derek: That’s something I did want to bring up. That’s one of the biggest differences. I mentor in Intro to FEWD and Career Path FEWD and the differences between how the sections go is drastic. In basic FEWD, since you haven’t seen your mentor in a week, they’re accessible via Slack or email or something, but a lot of students don’t take advantage of those things. They come to the sessions with a week’s worth of questions and they’ve been lost for a week, so they might be losing momentum. Career Path you meet with your student almost every other day. There aren’t a lot of stacked up questions. It’s questions about they’re working on now. What ends up happening is we pair-program right in session, which is pretty rare in Intro to FEWD, just because you don’t have the time because it’s 45 minutes and most of that is just for answering questions. With Career Path it’s usually here’s a question; we screen share; we write code together; I point out issues and she catches stuff. It’s really interactive. I found that to be the case too when I was working on Midigital. I was trying to learn Ruby on Rails forever by myself and in an hour or two sitting with a senior Ruby developer, everything just clicked. That is definitely the biggest difference. They get unstuck as fast as they get stuck. It’s constant progress.
That’s really cool to build that working relationship.
I know that you’re not entirely through the program yet, Cynthia, but do you feel like you’re getting more comfortable as someone who will emerge as a technical cofounder as opposed to a non-technical cofounder like you were before?
Cynthia: Oh yeah. This morning I spent my morning getting an SSL certificate for my startup and doing that all myself and I’ve been going through and getting all the docs and getting everything set up. In the startup world, everyone’s constantly asking for a tech person. Especially people I know who are new to it are constantly asking if I can build them a website. Now I can finally say yes. I can build most of that. As with everything it takes a couple of people and minds to build a fully scalable app. I absolutely feel like I’m at a point where I can start saying yes.
Do you think that you will do freelance or contract work when you graduate, or do you want to relaunch the business?
Cynthia: The business I’ll keep as a side or pet project. In the meantime, I’ll probably take on some freelance clients to start making some serious money.
Derek, will the Career Path course hook people up with job opportunities afterwards in a tangible way? Will you be making connections either to contract opportunities or employers or doing interview prep, things like that?
Derek: So that is possible. It depends. Some students don’t live in tech cities and it might be a little tougher for us to find job leads for them, but we will ensure that they’re ready to do interviews and get jobs. For students like Cynthia, she lives in Silicon Valley, so she shouldn’t have any trouble finding work with the skillset she currently has. The bigger tech hubs like New York, SF, Atlanta, Austin, we do have the ability to find job leads directly for you and prep you.
How will you be keeping up with alumni success?
Derek: One of the benefits of being a Thinkful student is that you get access to our Slack community forever. I’ve never seen anything like this as far as code communities go. Everyone is helping everyone. Students are helping students. Mentors are helping students. Students have helped mentors. I’m just seeing every variation of that. My hope is that everybody stays on there and keeps growing and keeps the network together. I do check in with students with who have left. My students so far have been in the basic front end course. I still stay in touch with many of them to make sure that they’re still growing and learning and seeing if they need help.
I love that Thinkful is thinking about job placement and job prep. Is there anything that we did not cover on logistics or when the next course starts?
Derek: There was a lot of demand for this course. I think it overwhelmed our capabilities a little bit initially, so we did go back to the cohort model. If you enroll within the week we try to match you with a mentor by Wednesday. Otherwise it’s open enrollments. Like I said before, this course is sort of becoming full stack, so we might start to formalize that and allow for Ruby on Rails front end or full stack and Node front end. There are actually a couple of students learning Ruby on Rails in this course too. I’ve seen every variation and I just want to get those out and make them known on the landing page that it’s up to the student with what their goals are.
Cynthia, anything we didn’t cover on your end? Any advice for people looking to do a Thinkful course in the future?
Cynthia: No, I think that we covered it. I’m super excited to be able to build what I want to build. I have ideas all the time. The only thing I wish is that I had done this earlier. It just takes time. I’m thrilled.
Liz: It’s so great to see someone go from non-technical to technical and acquire those skills. I can’t wait to see what you end up doing in the next couple of months. Awesome. Thank you so much for joining this live Q&A.