As the co-founder of Lambda School, what is your background and what inspired you to start an online coding bootcamp?
I was going to college for advertising and found that college was not a very effective use of my time. In fact, my co-founder and I both stumbled upon this idea. I was not in the financial position to afford a bootcamp, so I actually never attended one. I figured out everything on my own by reading books and building projects.
I wanted to create a more risk-free environment that was accessible to people that didn’t have $10,000 upfront. I had quite a few friends that did a coding bootcamp but didn’t have a good experience – $10,000 or more is a lot to spend at a bootcamp if you don’t get results. We created Lambda School because we wanted a bootcamp (plus a little more) that was free upfront and low risk for students.
Tuition is an important part of choosing the right bootcamp – explain why Lambda School chose to offer a deferred tuition model.
First, there are a lot of people who simply can’t afford to pay for a bootcamp upfront – that is obvious to anyone who has ever run a bootcamp. We’re so passionate about that idea that we don’t even require a deposit; it’s 100% free upfront. Even more than that, we wanted our incentives to be entirely aligned with those of the students. Part of our model is that if the student doesn’t get the job making over $50,000 a year, then we don’t make money. That’s very intentional. If we don’t do a good enough job, then we don’t get paid, and we think that’s fair. Bootcamps generally try really hard – but if a student pays $20,000 and can’t get a job, then that’s a really rough deal and we wanted to solve for that.
We knew we wanted to create a longer course with a lower price-point than other bootcamps. Deferred tuition requires upfront investment by a bootcamp. We could almost fund the deferred tuition model ourselves but partnering with Y Combinator to fund the model certainly helped. Y combinator has done a lot for us – we have about 50 hiring partnerships through them and they understand tech really well. They were primarily excited about Lambda School having a deeper computer science curriculum than the average bootcamp. Y Combinator companies will hire thousands of engineers a year and they need a deeper level of understanding if they’re building world-changing technology.
What should students expect with this new curriculum?
We spent a lot of time talking to different employers – we wanted to figure out why some employers will not consider hiring bootcamp graduates. We learned that the best bootcamps will teach data structures and algorithms, but most don’t, and that there are a lot of subjects that bootcamps don’t have time to cover. Subjects like computer architecture, operating systems, scaling – that was the knowledge that employers really wanted their employees to have. And bootcamp grads, almost by definition, don’t understand that material. It’s not that bootcamps do a bad job, but they literally don’t have the time to teach that material.
Lambda School is not just a coding bootcamp; we also include computer science as part of the curriculum. We’ll cover all the subjects that a bootcamp would, but we’ll also spend a few months giving a deeper understanding of computers and how they work, along with how to build apps to scale. Lambda School offers a more rigorous computer science lesson as opposed to just web development and web applications.
Has the Lambda School admissions process changed? Tell me about the ideal students for the new deferred tuition model.
When we were running a shorter bootcamp, we used the traditional interview and coding challenge.
Now, one of the most important parts of the Lambda School admissions process is that we are entirely race and gender blind. We’ve built an applications process that won’t let us interject our own biases as to which students we accept. We developed a logic-based challenge with behavioral scientists to determine which applicants have the highest aptitude for a technical career. The two things we really look for is innate technical ability and dedication, not necessarily how much you’ve programmed in the past. Can you think analytically? Can you think at a technical level? If you give us someone who is really dedicated and sharp, we know that 6 months later we’ll have a really solid engineer.
We also have pre-course work, and seeing a student complete that (especially quickly and thoroughly) also helps us know that they’re dedicated.
Are there time-zone requirements? Do students learn synchronously and need to be online at a certain time each day?
Yes. Students need to be available from 9 am to 6 pm Pacific. There is no way around this, because everything we do is interactive and live.
Do you expect students in different cities to see different outcomes?
In terms of students based in different locations, our main goal is to give as much access to as many people as we can. We originally wanted to host the bootcamp in San Francisco because that’s where the majority of our hiring partners are, but living costs here are expensive so it just didn’t make sense. We offer our bootcamp online so that people can attend from their own city without having to move and pay 6 months of SF rent.
There are more jobs in bigger cities, but there’s also more competition from them, so we’ve had a lot of success in smaller markets as well.
Is there required pre-work, or would you recommend taking a pre-course before Lambda School?
We’ve designed our own pre-course curriculum in-house. We actually want you to apply first and then we send you the pre-course work after your application. Once you’ve completed that pre-course work, then you can begin the application. You don’t need any coding experience before Lambda School – the pre-course material will take you through the basics. It may take you a little bit longer to get through based on where you are in your knowledge but we wanted to create a course where you can just get started and we’ll get you through the rest.
Do you have assessments or a way to track how students are progressing through the curriculum now that there is a new tuition model?
We bake that into the curriculum. Everything is live and interactive. We know that there are self-paced, online programs that show you a bunch of videos- we’re not that. Everyone learns through pair programming and working together with other instructors and students. We have a pretty good pulse on our students’ progress- we have daily challenges, and we’re working in Git, so students submit assignments to instructors and we’ll get those pull requests. Each weekly challenge is designed to see how students are doing in the class so that we can dedicate resources where needed.
Online education has a reputation for low completion rates. How do you keep students engaged while learning online?
It’s hard to discipline yourself when learning online – if you get stuck there’s no one to turn to and it’s easy to schedule your way out of the course. With Lambda School – we know when you’re online and we monitor when you’re working. There’s no difference between this and a formal classroom because we understand what people are doing throughout the course.
What types of instructors are teaching at Lambda School? How do they ensure success for their online students?
Our instructors have taught computer science at Stanford, come from the math program at Berkeley, and others have taught at coding bootcamps. We are matching Ivy league computer science knowledge with coding bootcamp expertise. We look for instructors who have experience teaching. There are a lot of people who are really good developers, but not as knowledgeable when it comes to teaching computer science. We do a good amount of training around ensuring our instructors know how to instruct. We usually give new instructors a trial run during our free mini-bootcamps that are open to the public. That gives us a good idea on whether we bring them on full-time.
Your incentives are pretty aligned with students getting jobs – how will career services work for students?
In the last few weeks of the course, we do resume preparation, update portfolios, practice for interviews, and code challenges. We have a career services team that’s there to help students find and land a new job. It all depends on geography. In the Bay Area we have a lot of connections and more partnerships. Outside of the Bay Area and New York, we do not yet have developed partnerships with every single geographic location, but we teach principles that help you find jobs.
What’s the biggest lesson your team has learned at Lambda School as you’ve been developing this new course?
First, don’t underestimate people. We’ve met some students who score well on the logic challenges, but for some reason when we talk with them we feel a little uncertain. Those are the people that always outperform. The people that you have to take a risk on and don’t have any other options – they prove that they’re really dedicated.
One of the biggest misconceptions that we battle is that applicants believe that Lambda School is too good to be true. They even think we’re a scam because it’s different to see a bootcamp that only gets paid if people land a job. Our team would love for everybody to completely understand the bootcamp world, but not everyone has exposure to this learning model. We were surprised at how many people were concerned with degrees and certificates as opposed to skill. If you spend enough time in Silicon Valley, you forget that that’s the way most people think. They don’t understand that degrees are not what matters anymore.
What is your advice for students embarking on a new online coding program? Any tips for getting the most out of it, especially if they are trying to change their careers?
Be honest with yourself about what you need. We see a lot of people who say they can teach themselves and that they are dedicated and hardworking, yet two years later they are in the same spot. My biggest recommendation is to understand that it’s okay to have help. It’s okay to have someone else write the curriculum. It’s really hard to learn things when you don’t entirely understand what you need to learn. Have humility, work hard, and be honest with yourself if a self-paced program isn’t working for you. Don’t be afraid to make the changes you need to provide a structure that works for you.