Gregorio Rojas co-founded Sabio in 2013 after a successful career in programming. And as a career changer himself, his goal is to get more folks past the gatekeepers and prepared for jobs in tech. Learn what makes Sabio different from other bootcamps, Gregorio’s teaching style (both in the classroom and remotely), and how students can thrive in an online bootcamp.
How did you break into tech, Gregorio?
I got my B.S. in Sports Medicine from Boston University many years ago and worked as an athletic trainer with Division I football at Boston College. It was a good gig for that industry, but one of my football players told me he was going into a career in software development making more money than top trainers in the NFL! That gave me pause.
I only knew one other person working in software development. I decided to give up athletic training and go into software development. I changed my life drastically to become a software developer. I took a night class, what we used to call “adult school,” to get an Information Systems certificate at Northeastern University, which took a year to complete. That showed me where to start and after that, I built an apartment listing website. That project got me my first job in software development. I was the 18th employee at a small startup called The Screen House. I was thrown right into a project managing websites for Ikea in the US and Canada. Right before the tech bubble burst, I moved out to California and started a job at an HR company, iBenefits.
What drew you to teaching the next generation of Programmers?
Helping other people learn how to code made sense to me. Programming is a good job, it provides benefits. I wondered why more people couldn't be in these roles. In 2013, my wife and co-founder Liliana told me to stop worrying about doing other people's work and do what we'd been talking about for so long – and we started Sabio in the summer of 2013.
I've heard people say, "You can't do a coding bootcamp just to get into programming for the money." Is there a balance between passion and making a living?
Mike Roe from Dirty Jobs made a great comment about this, “You don't have to chase your passion, you have to bring your passion to your job.” Everybody has a job – why not get paid well to do it? You should bring your passion and have fun with the work you're doing but programming doesn't have to be your one passion.
I didn't know anything about software development when I decided to look into it. I knew how to check my email and search AltaVista. Did I have a passion for this stuff? Absolutely not. But I took pride in what I did with myself and my time and I wanted to do a good job. I've never coded in my life for fun. I have fun with it and I have fun teaching and creating Sabio’s curriculum. It's rewarding and I have a positive experience, but that doesn't mean I have to die on the hill of software development. I would die on the hill of empowering other people to be in the position that I am – economically empowered.
Do you think this idea that passion needs to be present is one of the reasons the tech world is so exclusive?
Tech does a lot of great things. But it almost always comes back to that big group of gatekeepers who are hinting, "Don't try this at home." or "This isn't for you." There is this implication that only a certain group in society can be doing this amazing work but it isn't you. I don't like that and I aim to break that by teaching more people how to code.
How do you bring your own experience as a career changer to the students that you teach at Sabio?
When we started Sabio, I'd already been through a career change in my own world twice. I’m thankful that I had a couple of great mentors, and I know I can now empower other career-changers. I also had a great experience working at big companies here in Southern California. I had exposure to a variety of different folks, different opinions, different teams.
We're not just teaching coding at Sabio, we're teaching an entire career change. I'm prepared to talk to our students about corporate politics, moving up in the industry, negotiating salaries, etc. Some people have enough experience to know how to do those things in their previous field, but some of the rules are different in tech. Primarily, how much power you can wield as an individual whose skills are in high demand. That little aspect there is a game-changer for some people.
How is your teaching style different from other coding bootcamps?
Often, teachers at other bootcamps may try to condense a computer science degree, pack it in and deliver it quickly. That’s valuable in its own way, but the CS university system is broken in some regards. A lot of computer science graduates will tell you that they don't use what they learned in school or wished they'd learned something different in school.
I've been conducting developer interviews since 2000 and I know that adding value to a team and having a computer science degree are not connected. I’m taking that perspective and injecting it into our program. Someone’s functionality is what matters in an interview. You can have a dozen initials after your name with all of the certifications in the world but if you're not going to add value to my team, then I won't hire you.
At Sabio, we make sure that our students can get through the interview process and add value to a team once they’re hired. It is valuable to focus 90% of your day on pair programming. Recently, I was talking to someone hiring developers from CalTech and Sabio and he said that he liked Sabio students better than CalTech students. We help students find what's going to make them shine.
Are projects with real-world clients common at Sabio?
Yeah! Our students have been doing projects for real-world clients since day one! We've done projects for city governments, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs in Southern California. It helps students learn about a specific domain and how to work with a client. One of the nice things about the time we're living in now is that you can work on a global scale and gather multiple perspectives. I'm actually talking to an entrepreneur today from Georgia! Talking to someone in Georgia now is the same for us as talking to someone in Sacramento or Los Angeles! This global lockdown has shrunk our perspective and expanded it at the same time. These real-world projects have been nice because it builds our network and the student's network locally and globally.
How do you see your teaching style now translating online during Coronavirus?
Sabio had embraced remote training long before this happened, so our transition was pretty easy. As a school, we upped our engagement even more. We wanted to make sure that we were being diligent about monitoring how often our students are interacting with us and also getting them to interact with each other.
Aside from all the negativity a global pandemic brings, I actually think the online classroom has been great for our training. We were used to doing remote help with our students already. We have our curriculum set up for students to access remotely anyway.
A lot of bootcamps had their curriculum locked down to their IP address so that students could only access it on campus. I never understood that method. We never did that. We didn't have any problems and we didn't have to change anything.
What is the online classroom at Sabio like?
How do you collaborate with and teach students remotely?
Ordinarily, we spend a lot of time one-on-one in our classrooms in LA. When we were physically in the room with our students, the one-on-one interactions were visible to the whole class. If a student had to talk to an instructor 10 times a day, it was evident to the rest of the class that the student was having problems. The one-on-ones now are happening more privately because they're online in a Zoom room by themselves. Students are actually opening up to ask even more questions. There's a lot of internalization about being embarrassed to ask certain questions, but there's no outside pressure now.
It can also be challenging because we're building up those relationships virtually, but overall students' relationships with our instructors have only gotten stronger. You've got to take the good with the bad.
Sabio is not going to be online forever. Some people truly just want to be in a room with other people and we're happy to provide that. Our expanded reach to more remote students is going to continue, though.
Plus, we are currently the only coding bootcamp approved by the state of California to work directly with veterans. That funding requires a physical classroom in order for the state to feel confident, which means that we will need to reopen our physical campus after shelter in place ends if we want to continue working with veterans and their funding.
What’s your advice to a complete beginner who wants to get started in web development?
If you are an absolute beginner, please begin with some basic HTML/CSS online via W3schools, it is a great way to kick-off your coding career!