Tariq Hook got his start in software development through an apprenticeship, so he can relate to his students at Zip Code Wilmington, who are drinking from the fire hose every day. Tariq is now Director of Education at the Delaware coding bootcamp, and loves working with future programmers at Zip Code because the bootcamp aligns with his passion for increasing diversity in the tech industry. We sat down with Tariq to find out about his teaching background, the Zip Code Wilmington curriculum, and why their unique tuition options boost diversity in their classroom!
I have been doing software and information sciences forever. I graduated college with a degree in Information Sciences, and I went directly into network engineering. I wanted to get more into software development, but as I interviewed, I kept hearing that I didn't have enough experience. Finally, I interviewed at a startup called Front Porch Video. I sat down with the CEO, who told me that while I didn’t have enough experience, I could do a three-month apprenticeship there and, if I did well over three months, then he'd hire me.
I interned at Front Porch for 90 days. It was like a crash course, a drink from a fire hose type scenario, where they would just throw some material at me for me to digest and give me assignment after assignment. It got to the point where I was like living there at one point because I just wanted to just work. They kept true to their promise after 90 days, gave me my first software development job working in C++. That's how I got my entry into software development.
So your software development training was very similar to a coding bootcamp!
At Zip Code, we take the same philosophy that I used to learn software development: you drink from the fire hose.
Did you have teaching experience in addition to your programming experience?
I started teaching when Temple University’s engineering department hired me on a diversity grant. My entire job was to get high school seniors and college freshman interested in programming. We didn’t have a very structured curriculum, but on Saturdays and weeknights, we would host an open night and ask students what they wanted to build. They would come in with an idea and we would help them build it. It became very popular over the years, and mentoring became a huge part of my life.
There are a lot of coding bootcamps now – what made you excited to work with Zip Code Wilmington in particular?
I believe that education should be as close to free as possible. This is not to shoot down for-profit bootcamps, because if you’re good at teaching, then you should be paid for that. However, you lose out on diversity when you charge $20,000 for a coding bootcamp. As an African-American man in software development, I’ve been attending conferences for 10 years, and would see the same four or five other African Americans at every conference. I could see that there was an issue, so mentorship has become a passion of mine. I want to see myself represented and see diversity in my field.
Zip Code is a nonprofit, and our primary objective is community workforce development. Our tuition is very low for the industry ($3,000). Plus, we offer unlimited scholarships to students whose households earn less than 200% of the national poverty level. We make our money to survive through partnerships with hiring companies. I think that our financial model helps us with diversity. One of the biggest barriers to getting into a coding bootcamp is the financial commitment.
Zip Code Wilmington was looking for a Director of Education, and saw that I had a mixture of experience working as a software engineer and teaching. I started two years ago.
What technologies do you cover in the Zip Code Wilmington curriculum?
What we’re really teaching is object-oriented development and object-oriented design. We're teaching you how to think like a software developer, and we're teaching you how to learn any programming language. My students often go directly into jobs that have nothing to do with Java except for the fact that they're object oriented. The reason why they can do that is because they went through this process.
Are you also teaching non-technical skills?
We also focus a lot on imposter syndrome. The only thing standing between somebody who is successful and somebody who's not successful at Zip Code is imposter syndrome. Our students have to give themselves permission to be successful. We see it time and time again: people have this misconception that software and computer programming is supposed to be hard, when in reality, it’s not. You look at a complex problem and deconstruct it into smaller parts. When you are looking at code you shouldn't be intimidated. Like Robert Martin said, "Good code should read like good prose." It should be what it is, explain what it is, and be what it says. Once students start to identify themselves as software developers, that’s when they start to excel.
How does Zip Code keep tuition so low for its students?
Zip Code’s total tuition costs $12,000. Only $3,000 of that tuition is due upfront (or paid by scholarships for those who meet the financial need requirement). The remaining $9,000 of the tuition cost is paid back by our corporate partners when they hire our graduates. Currently, 93% of our graduates are placed in paid roles within three months of graduating.
For a company, our placement fee is actually a little cheaper than a referral fee from a traditional staffing firm. And the quality of the investment is higher because we’ve vetted our students and our corporate partners have gotten to know our students during the course of the three-month program. There is also a higher probability of the company retaining that talent.
For a student, Zip Code is not easy. It's 12 weeks long and the average student is spending approximately somewhere between 80-100 hours a week studying and working hard. But when you start this process, you are potentially 1200 hours of quality work away from your next job.
After teaching for years, what makes the ideal Zip Code Wilmington student?
Passion! We're looking for students who will get hired into jobs. Employers want to hire developers who are naturally inclined to do what it is that you're paying them to do, and then give them a paycheck and get out of their way. We're looking for students who like solving problems, who like being challenged, and who fall in love with new technologies.
One of our interview questions is, “You’re left with a billion dollars and never have to work another day for the rest of your life. You also have all the talent and information needed to build something technical – what do you build?” If an applicant doesn’t know what they would build, that's a problem for us. And when they do have an answer, it's exciting to see what they’re passionate about, and how they would employ technology to help solve a problem. Those are the people that make the best students because the only thing standing in between them and their goals is experience.
Do most of your students have bachelor's degrees? Are they career changers or were they unemployed before Zip Code?
All of the above. We’ve had students from the ages of 18 to 53, with the average age being around 28. We teach students who are directly out of high school, people who have their PhDs, and people who have worked as doctors, truck drivers, chefs, and artists and want to transition into a new field. We have students who were underemployed, unemployed, or took years off because they wanted to raise their children. Zip Code accepts all scopes.
One of the appeals of a coding bootcamp is that you can adapt to the needs of students. Could you talk a little bit about how and when you iterate on your curriculum?
We take input from everybody: employers, alumni, coworkers of alumni, etc. We're always trying to identify the comprehension gap. So, we have a Steering Committee comprised of technology leaders from our partner companies and a student alumni advisory council of graduates from the program.
And at the end of every cohort, we take a hard look at what we delivered in that cohort. We look at all the labs that we gave in a cohort, all the lectures that we gave and then we adjust and refactor every single cohort so that our curriculum remains relevant. We also love hearing from students who are currently at their jobs who say they’re struggling with X, Y, and Z, and wish they had covered it.
How else do you see your alumni community staying involved with Zip Code?
Every evening there are at least 3-4 alumni at Zip Code tutoring and going through labs. Our alumni network is very tight because they spend a lot of time together, they work together, and they hang out together learning about new frameworks. All of that is a community that's built around our school and really helps with our student success. It's even gotten to the point where employed alumni are sent back to us to hire other graduates.
Every previous student has a responsibility to come back in the evening and tutor the current class, and that’s been a consistent commitment.
How do you assess student progress at Zip Code Wilmington? Are there tests? Can a student “fail out?”
We cover 3-4 units per week, and every two weeks we give a large assessment in order to keep the pressure on and keep our standards high. If a student fails two large assessments, we ask you to leave the program.
Here’s why: we're not in this just to give you an education. We're in this to get you a job. If you fail two assessments, then that means that you missed one-third of the material that we teach, and the probability of you getting a job (and being ready for it) is low.
At the same time, we also believe that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. So if you fail one assessment and are in the danger zone for being removed from the program, you get maximum attention. We sit you down, slow the pace down a little bit, and try to fill in all the gaps that we can. This extra attention makes a big difference - to date, only 8 students (4%) have failed two assessments.
If it takes you six months to get a job, then it takes six months to get a return on our investment. We can’t afford to keep people unemployed. When you're feeling that hunger, we're feeling the hunger right along with you, and that’s why our placement rates are so high.
That’s really important to know, and sounds fair as long as you’re being transparent with students that they need to pass those assessments.
The final step in our interview process is a conversation between me and the applicant. I'll look you in the eye and say, "Look, this is going to be a lot of work for three months. We're not going to be your friend; it's going to be hard." We're going to be supportive, but we're not going to spoon feed you. We're going to make you fish every day to get your meal. We're going to give you the tools, but you have to go out there and get that fish.
Is there an ideal student to teacher ratio at Zip Code Wilmington?
We aim for 1 instructor for every 8 to 10 students.
What do you think about Wilmington as a tech city? Are most of your students staying in the area after they graduate?
Wilmington is an interesting city because we have a number of financial institutions based here, and they have built out highly regulated, highly scalable, highly technical platforms that operate and function with efficiency and accuracy. There are hundreds of coders in each of those companies, including many of our graduates.
There are a lot of jobs in tech, and a lot of initiatives, especially for younger people, to keep young people in Wilmington. You could be making $80k in New York and living with five roommates and struggling to make ends meet, or you could be making like $70k in Wilmington and living very comfortably in a very nice apartment or a house with a nice car. It's about quality of life.
What do you suggest for an aspiring coding bootcamper and total beginner in Wilmington?
Pick a language and find a meetup for that language and start going to the meetup. But before you do that, let go of the fact that you're a beginner. Everybody is a beginner at something. Think about something that you want to build and don't let your current knowledge handicap your idea. Think about what you want to build and think about it as a technology agnostic. Really lay that out, and then figure out how technology could help you build it. You're not a developer until you just jump in.
If you really want to learn something, decide to build something and then let that dictate what you learn.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Zip Code is a community project. Once you’re accepted as a student, Zip Code is yours. All of its successes, all of its advancement, everybody has a part in it. I encourage you to choose a coding bootcamp that fits you, but if you're looking for a community that will be there for you, support you, and invest in you as an individual growing with technology, then Zip Code is a school that you should strongly consider.