blog article

Meet a University of Denver Coding Boot Camp Instructor

Jess Feldman

Written By Jess Feldman

Last updated on August 20, 2020

Course Report strives to create the most trust-worthy content about coding bootcamps. Read more about Course Report’s Editorial Policy and How We Make Money.

Meet a University of Denver Coding Boot Camp Instructor

University of Denver Coding Boot Camp is training the next generation of developers with a 24-week JavaScript curriculum and a dedicated instructor staff. We caught up with instructor Sarah Cullen, who has been working in web development for over 20 years, about the support boot camp students can expect to find at University of Denver Coding Boot Camp and the importance of projects that hone real-life developer skills. Plus, she explains how University of Denver Coding Boot Camp continuously updates its curriculum in order to meet the demands of today’s tech world.

How did you get started in software engineering?

My father was the in-house electrician for a bank and would receive all of their discarded computers. That sparked my early interest in technology. Later, I joined a tech team in our school district and learned how to install hardware and software throughout the school. I also taught instructors how to use various software, like email (which was new then). We even created the first website for our school! From then on, I had a passion for design, development, and web production. 

Did you get a Computer Science degree or did you teach yourself to code?

Both! I went to a small Midwestern college for a Computer Science + Mathematics major. I didn't feel that I was learning about web development in my classes and wasn't satisfied. My college classes covered data structures and algorithms, but there wasn’t a course that touched on HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, or animation. After my first year at college, I decided to switch my major to Psychology, but I still used the original box set of VHS tapes and taught myself to code by trial and error. While my first web development internship was in 1995, most of my technical skills have come in the past 10 years either through jobs I held or through self-study.

What motivated you to teach coding at University of Denver Coding Boot Camp?

When the opportunity to teach a part-time boot camp came up, I was interested because I always liked the idea of being a teacher. I'm more of a people person than web development let me be. As soon as I was through my first week of teaching at University of Denver Coding Boot Camp, I was hooked! 

I really like being part of an educational program that offers opportunities to people who really need it. Whether I'm teaching the full-time, three-month course or the part-time, six-month course, the drive of the students inspires me most. Not everyone can take three, six, or nine months off to do this, so for motivated individuals who need to continue to work full-time, we offer the part-time, six-month course. I like that University of Denver Boot Camps can help people who are financially struggling by offering more reasonable costs for the programs. The tuition is a little over half of what other boot camps charge. 

How would you describe your teaching style?

I am very hands-on and engaging. It helps that I have a background in theater because teaching coding in an engaging way requires web development skills plus improv skills. The amount that every student is expected to learn over six months' time can make it easy to become overwhelmed, so a sense of humor and stage presence is a huge asset I bring to the classroom to keep students focused. It's my job to read the room and keep everyone engaged, active, and excited. I do a lot of call-and-answer because I want students to contribute and think critically. I also do a lot of live coding activities. I'll give students a fixed amount of time to work independently, and afterward, we’ll spend time coding as a class. We put our brains together to figure out what comes next. That way, even the weaker students have a chance to learn the syntax and get more comfortable with typing it out with me.  

What does the University of Denver Coding Boot Camp curriculum cover?

We are primarily a MERN stack boot camp, which means we specifically teach React, but we also have a heavy emphasis on Vanilla JavaScript. We make sure that whatever jobs our students go into, they have the JavaScript foundation to succeed with React, Vue, Angular, Svelte, Backbone, or whatever new thing that comes out; they have the underlying understanding of JavaScript to help them. We also cover MySQL, MongoDB, and IndexedDB systems, local data persistence, localStorage, and cookies, explaining how you can keep data persisting in a user's browser. Overall, we give students a comprehensive JavaScript education, emphasizing the full stack. We spend extra time on React to teach students the mindset and the syntax, allowing them to take a more advanced framework or library to layer it over their existing knowledge. We have one large homework assignment per unit with 24 units in the program, and three of those units are dedicated to projects. 

What kinds of projects are your students currently working on?

We have three main projects marking the end of each trimester. Projects are a great way to get a break from the normal curriculum, take the puzzle pieces from each unit, and fit them together into a cohesive whole. It also gives instructional staff time to help out students one-on-one.

The first two projects are group projects consisting of 2-5 people. The first of those is focused on front end technologies, such as HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, before they touch Node.js or Express; they may work with an API. The second project focuses on data while utilizing Node.js and Express. The second project also helps students’ wrap their minds around building an application that tightly interfaces with the MySQL database. In the second project, students have the ability to do CRUD (create, read, update, and delete), as well as take in user input to do something interactive with it. In the first two projects, students need to use at least one new technology. 

The last project is either a group project or an individual capstone project. We ask students to integrate with React, tying everything together with their final capstone. Students are also required to use at least two technologies that aren't included in the course or covered in prior homework or projects. How far they want to take it relies on them. The students of the full-time boot camp focus on their project for one week in order to build, plan, and work on agile methodologies. This helps them learn what it's like to work on a real-world development team. The part-time class has about two weeks of class time on any given project. Keep in mind that the size of the projects are the same for all students regardless if they’re enrolled in the full-time or part-time track. 

Have you ever changed the curriculum to meet the needs of your students?

I give kudos to our Trilogy curriculum team. They do a fabulous job at assessing the market and deciding when to jump on market trends, and there has been huge improvement in the quality and relevance of our curriculum over time. They have been responsive whenever I flex the curriculum, such as taking a diversion while sticking to the core curriculum to address student concerns or a market change. My TA and I also hold office hours or review sessions to cover supplementary concepts that we don't have time for during the course. We add things due to student interest or market demands in this way.

University of Denver Boot Camps has also supported and allowed me to mold the direction of the boot camp itself. For instance, I worked to create a women's only boot camp. It's a part-time program that we have run three times so far. We plan to run it again in December 2020. It can be very difficult to get your foot in the door as a female in tech, and once you are in tech, the next challenge is to feel comfortable being on a developer team that is at least 90 percent men. For that reason, I wanted to create a separate boot camp that encourages women to get into tech. 

Is there a certain type of student who does well at University of Denver Boot Camps?

I have recognized certain traits in students who succeed most, and those students are incredibly dedicated and diligent. They accept when they are not good at something, forgive themselves, and work hard to improve. You can be your own worst enemy, and in a boot camp setting, you don't have time to feel sorry for yourself. You have to be driven, have a sense of humor, and know how to walk away and take a break. Don’t underestimate what a great attitude can do for you!

Students who come in with prior experience need to be humble and approach the boot camp with a clean slate. Otherwise, when they begin to struggle, they are more likely to beat themselves up about it. The willingness to make mistakes is the only way to learn. 

Cooperation and teamwork are also key. People who are willing to ask for help and work together will find more value in a boot camp than those who don't. I once heard a speaker share this thought and it’s stuck with me: When you were a child you always wanted an infinite amount of turns to try something and become better at it, but as adults, we only want one perfect turn. Approach learning code like a child and never stop trying.

Tell us your favorite student success story!

Six months ago, a long-haul trucker joined our coding boot camp. He had a wife and two kids, and was no longer able to work as a trucker because he had been recently diagnosed with a medical issue. He told me, "I'm here because I have to make this work." He applied himself to the boot camp, and was hired almost directly after completing the program. Students like him are there to make a life change and can't take no for an answer. Those are the ones who will throw themselves into the program and do incredible things with it. Now that he has regular work hours and great benefits, his overall quality of life has improved; he has more time to be there with his family. Stories like that make the rough days of my job as an instructor worth the effort.

How many hours a week do you expect your students to commit to this boot camp?

For the full-time program, we are in class for 20 hours a week (30 hours if you include office hours). Full-time students are expected to do 30 – 40 hours of work outside of class. Some of our strongest students do much more than that. The part-time course spends about 13 hours in class per week including office hours. Part-time students should expect to do 20 – 30 hours of work outside of class at the bare minimum. The part-time course goes for 6 months rather than 3 months, and there’s less time spent in class, but we expect the same commitment from our part-time students outside of class. 

How do you assess student progress? How do you help students if they fall behind?  

At University of Denver Boot Camps, we don't have quizzes or tests. Students receive grades for homework assignments and projects, but we primarily assess students through careful observation of how they engage in class. My TA and I have regular discussions about our students, including those who struggle, and devise plans to help them. If we see a student who was formerly engaged, and they lock up, we need to check up on them. Most of the assessments fall onto the instructional staff being in touch with the student body and intuiting their needs. Sometimes a student just needs to talk to us and receive extra attention and direction. We also offer remote tutoring. Part-time students qualify for one hour a week for a 45 – 50 minute session and full-time students qualify for two sessions per week.

For each class, a Student Success Manager manages the day-to-day student concerns. She hooks them up with tutors, schedules extra review sessions, gives them recommendations, and steps in during conflict. Typically, if a student is falling behind because they are nearing the maximum absences, receiving poor grades, or missing assignments, the Student Success Manager checks in with them. Ultimately, we don't eject students from the boot camp, but we will assign them to an active non-participatory status. This means that they can attend class, complete the assignments and projects, and access our school resources, but they are no longer eligible for a Certificate of Completion unless they work with the Student Success Manager to get back on track. We have had people drop out because of health issues, family tragedies, or an inability to handle the rigorous expectations of the program. We encourage them to stay in the class, but give them the option to plot their own course and take from it what they can without certification. Oftentimes, those students just need more time to have it click. Even after completion, they still have access to the videos and other school resources on the website and can continue to study.

Do you have a hand in job placement at all? 

There are Profile Coaches from the Career Services team who help students work on their resumes and LinkedIn services. I am not involved directly in the career services portion of the program, but I do give my students references through networking and by making my connections available to them.

What types of jobs do you expect your students to be qualified for after they complete University of Denver Coding Boot Camp?

Students who complete the boot camp are qualified for roles as junior full stack developers, front end developers, or back end developers. They’re also qualified for a developer-adjacent role, such as a scrum master, email marketer, or project manager. Some people use this boot camp to add to their skill set in their current career in technology.

What are your favorite resources for complete beginners who want to start their career in software engineering in Denver or online?

My preference for online resources would be for articles on the latest trends in technology and coding. For free educational resources, I suggest freeCodeCamp, Codecademy, and Udemy. I tell my students to wait for sales before purchasing a course on Udemy and to check that the course is well-rated, relevant, and easy to understand. Some courses are well-rated, but two or three years out of date. In the Denver market, we have Denver Devs, which is a huge network of developers that embraces the diversity in the field and helps people learn new skills. Networking in general is something I highly recommend to my students.

What is your advice for those looking to get into web development in 2020? Is this the right time for a career change?  

This career may be as close to recession-proof as you can get. I don't want to call it totally recession-proof, but it is more secure than other industries. One bonus of the time we are in is that students can cast a wider net geographically. Employers are finally starting to realize that developers can work remotely, and it can be more productive than if they are in an office. That said, I prefer that every one of my students finds a role where they can work directly with their team. 

Find out more and read University of Denver Boot Camps reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with University of Denver Boot Camps.

About The Author

Jess Feldman

Jess Feldman

Jess Feldman is an accomplished writer and the Content Manager at Course Report, the leading platform for career changers who are exploring coding bootcamps. With a background in writing, teaching, and social media management, Jess plays a pivotal role in helping Course Report readers make informed decisions about their educational journey.

Also on Course Report

Get our FREE Ultimate Guide to Paying for a Bootcamp

By submitting this form, you agree to receive email marketing from Course Report.

Get Matched in Minutes

Just tell us who you are and what you’re searching for, we’ll handle the rest.

Match Me