Jason Humphrey has been mentoring students from Thinkful’s programs for almost two years, including students in their newest course, the Full Time Web Development Bootcamp. When Jason isn’t mentoring, he is working as a Software Engineer at Fidelity Investments and maintaining his own open source framework. We asked Jason about the difference between Thinkful mentors and instructors, how he structures his mentorship sessions to maximize learning, and why he does whatever it takes to help his students be successful.
Can you tell me about your background in tech and coding and how you got involved with Thinkful?
I grew up building websites. In high school, I built my own little website to sell computers using jQuery and it did really well. So I've been doing web development for a long time. For the last four years, I’ve worked full time at Fidelity Investments as a Software Engineer. I have also built my own open source framework called MeanStackJS and I just became a Pluralsight author.
How did you learn to code? Did you teach yourself? Did you get a computer science degree?
I’m self-taught, but I also have a degree. It started in my freshman year of high school. I took one class of Visual Basic, and I was like, "I’ve got to do this." When I finished a couple of Visual Basic courses that my high school offered, I started teaching myself more. I read everything I could – documentation, projects and whatever open source code there was. Since then I’ve refined my skills to be able to teach myself things really fast.
I went to school at Marietta College in Ohio because I played college basketball. I graduated with an Information Systems degree, and a minor in Energy Systems Studies.
How did you get involved as a mentor with Thinkful?
A couple of years ago, I started to look at a few different enterprise training options for my tech team. That’s when I found Thinkful and got in touch with the team. My team didn’t end up working with Thinkful, but Thinkful still asked if I could review their courses. I started reviewing, giving them some feedback, and helping out with other stuff. They eventually asked if I’d like to work with them. I started doing Workshops and Q&A sessions, and then moved into mentoring sessions for both the Flexible and Full Time bootcamps. I’ve been mentoring at Thinkful for almost two years now.
Before you got involved with Thinkful, were you convinced by the coding bootcamp model?
Before I came across Thinkful, I was a little skeptical of coding bootcamps. I had a traditional view of education, so the idea of a coding bootcamp was foreign to me. But the model has grown on me now, because I really think students can learn a lot in a concentrated amount of time. I wish I'd been able to reduce my four years in college to one year or even six months – that would have been awesome. Thinkful has totally changed my paradigm of thinking about bootcamps.
What stood out to you about Thinkful, and drew you to become a mentor?
I honestly believe in their vision and attitude towards students: to do the best you can for them. It just makes sense to give students one-on-one time, and extra time if they need it. You do what it takes to make this person successful and Thinkful figures out a way to make it work. Their goal to give students the best product they can is something I absolutely love.
I also know that mentoring with Thinkful helps change lives. We take people from all walks of life and help them become programmers. For example, a recent student of mine who just graduated from Thinkful was Sean who was previously a chemist, and now he works at Intel.
You have a lot of experience as a developer – did you have teaching experience before mentoring with Thinkful?
No, I didn't have any formal teaching experience in the sense of professional training. But I kind of grew up teaching in informal ways. I've always been a mentor to other people, like when I played basketball, and in helping people younger than me. My dad, my sister, and some other family members are school teachers. So teaching came naturally because I watched them do it for so many years.
Also, I've taken the time to refine my skills. I research what helps people learn, how to approach situations with questions, and how to improve my teaching. I've also taken my own style of learning and tried to implement that in my teaching. I like learning how to teach people.
I'm interested in what the role of a mentor at Thinkful actually involves. How do you work with your students?
I have seven students right now, which is near my capacity. Every day I meet with them for at least half an hour. My role as a Thinkful mentor is to help guide the student in any way I can. Whether they get lost in the content, need career advice, want to build something new, or want to bounce ideas off me, I'm there. It's not limited to technical coding questions. You can ask me anything.
I also tell my students they can find me anytime. If you need to find me on the weekend, you can. If you want to book an extra session with me, I'll make time for that. A lot of students get stuck on weekends and I’d rather they don’t sit there stuck for four or five hours. My role is to be there for whatever they need. If some students need to be pushed, I push. If some students need extra time, I point, teach, and show. Every student needs something different. My role is a little bit of everything: a mentor and life coach.
How do you structure those regular sessions with the students?
In the scheduled sessions, the first thing I do is check in with how the students are doing and what's going on in their lives. A solid mentor builds a relationship with their students. Students don't spend that tuition money just to meet with a person they don't feel comfortable with. Then I'll ask what they are stuck on in the coursework, and where they need help, which will usually take a lot of time. Once we work through that, I ask, “How can we look forward to advance your learning? Where are you struggling?” Depending on the topic, some students learn quickly and others need a little extra help, so I focus on what I can do to make each student better.
What is your personal teaching style like? If someone is stuck on a problem, how do you guide them through that and teach them how to do it?
My own teaching style is very hands on. If a student is stuck on a problem, the first thing I ask is, “what do we know and what do we not know?” When you have an issue, you can always go back to the last known spot when everything was working fine – whether it's in a line of code or that the command prompt that won't work. Then I will help the student figure out what the problem is in that spot. We'll review the logs and try to figure out what the computer is thinking. If we can understand what the computer knows, we can find a solution.
Once we get a problem working, I will take a step back and try to give the student an analogy or another example so we can learn from the “aha moment” we just had. We will try to do it again or reproduce the error somewhere else and fix it again. At the end of the day I want students to know how to solve this again on their own.
I’m teaching my students how to be self-sufficient down the road and not have to see this issue again. I will re-ask them a couple of days later to make sure they have cemented that lesson in their mind. Near the end of the course, these students start to become really independent and don't need me as much. They've learned how to debug and how to research.
How does the Full Time Web Developer Bootcamp work in general?
Students go to class daily from 9am ET to 6pm ET. There are about 10 students per class with one dedicated teacher and two Technical Assistants (TAs). it's about a 1:3 teacher to student ratio. Throughout the day they'll go through workshops, watch presentations from the teacher, go over the course material for that day, and do pair programming.
Between 6pm and 10pm, students will meet with one-on-one with a mentor for half an hour. During the day, when students are working with the TAs and teachers, it's focused on code, code, code. But when they come to me, it's a more of an informal chat. The TAs will explain something, provide a solution, then the students will come to the mentors and say, "I don't get the solution. Can you help me out?" Sometimes students don't want to raise their hand in a class setting because they don't want to feel silly or ask what they think is a “stupid question” in front of all the other students. And that's where mentors step in and help out.
How do you actually communicate with your Thinkful mentees? Do you do a video call?
Thinkful has their own video chat system, in which students can log in and join a Session. As a mentor, I have my own room and my students just jump in my room when they want to talk to me. It's so easy because it's just a URL – you log in and you're there.
Are your students in different time zones and how do you coordinate with them?
I'm lucky to be in Texas, which is on Central Standard Time (CST). I have students in Washington, New York, Florida, and Illinois. They're all over. My availability to meet with students starts when I get off work around 4pm or 5pm CST. I stay up late, so even if people on the West Coast want to meet later, it’s really not an issue. The coordination is not that hard because I use a Calendly calendar. If students need something outside of normal meeting hours, they can check my availability on Calendly and book it.
How do you balance Thinkful mentoring with your other work that you do?
I plan out my days very well. I have goals, and I use a Pomodoro timer through Kanbanflow to constantly track what I'm doing. I work on Thinkful when I get home from work, generally from 5pm to 8pm. Some students need more time, some students need less – it depends on how the day goes. I save 8pm to 11pm to eat, and do my own thing. Then at midnight until 2am, I'll work on personal stuff like my MEAN Stack framework, NPM modules, and my consulting services. People think I'm crazy, but if you plan things out accordingly, eat properly, and have a little self-discipline, it's pretty easy to maintain.
You mentioned before how the Thinkful curriculum constantly evolves. Do you ever get the opportunity to give feedback or contribute to the curriculum?
I do. I used to contribute and do actual coursework writing for them, but once I started taking on more students, I didn't have time for that stuff anymore. But I can easily give feedback to some of the course managers and the curriculum team.
How do you help out with career coaching or job placement?
A lot of times when students ask me about careers, I'll first direct them to Thinkful’s career services, to make sure they know that's what Thinkful offers. When they ask me specific career questions, I will give them my professional opinion on what I've seen, what I do in my own areas, my experience working in corporate America, or even what I'm consulting on.
I tell them what I've seen working, what works for me, and what worked internally. I give my personal recommendations but also make sure it would align with Thinkful’s. I also give students my personal opinion on how I would approach the job interview, my thoughts on how to stay calm, or how to keep the conversation going.
Do you think there is an ideal Thinkful student? Do you find there's a certain type of student who does well in the Full Time Bootcamp?
I've seen a lot of students come through the full time bootcamp now. The ideal student is a hard worker. We've had smart people who crush Thinkful and get the job. We've also had students who jump into the program and then don't care anymore. I've seen both ends of the spectrum, but the ideal students are right there in the middle – the hard workers. They wake up early to study a little bit more. They go to bed studying what they're going to learn tomorrow. They put in the extra time.
If you can put in the time and work, the knowledge will come. You only do this intense bootcamp once. And if you crush it, you're more likely to get the job that you want. Hard workers generally take full advantage of their time and do a phenomenal job.
What would you say is the goal for a student who completes the Full Time Bootcamp? What kind of roles do they have the skills for?
They have the capability to be a full stack developer. But junior full stack developer jobs are hard to find, there are not a ton of those jobs out there. Most of the time employers want to hire developers for either front end or back end.
When you graduate, you can pick an area to focus on. Do you want to go more towards front end or back end? What do you like? By the end of the course people usually know whether they want to do front end or back end development. People who love both are very few and far between. I think I’ve only had two out of fifteen students who found full stack developer jobs, and the rest of them either took front end or back end positions.
What is your advice to someone if they are tossing up between doing Thinkful’s Flexible program or the Full Time program?
Ask yourself, if you had an eight-hour task to do, would you finish on your own by the end of the day or would you do better if someone pushed you? Are you the type that needs to be pushed? Or are you self-disciplined enough to do it by yourself? The majority of people are not. If I was to redo all this stuff and relearn, I would go to a full time bootcamp because I want to be pushed every day, so I feel like someone's watching over me.
If you're doing a part time or flexible bootcamp, you need to be able to sustain yourself with your own knowledge. Basically, if you need someone to push you, you need full time. If you don't, then do flexible or part time.
For any readers who are beginners and wondering if a coding bootcamp is right for them, what online resources or online communities do you recommend?
There is a lot of free content out there. I would say, first figure out what you want to do. Do you want to build websites? Do you want to build front end stuff? Or do you want to be able to build websites from front to back and do full stack? Once you figure out what you want, there are a lot of free online tutorials. Node.js offers free coding exercises, Angular has some free coding stuff, and MongoDB has some free courses to get your feet wet and see if you like it.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add to make sure our readers know about Thinkful and how the mentor program works?
There are a lot of great coding bootcamps out there. Find what fits you and your needs. The reason I work at Thinkful is because I know the type of service we can provide and I know what the one-on-one mentorship does. Three or four hours a week with me and you will be on the path to success. I know if I was going to go do a bootcamp, I would want that one-on-one attention and that's what I love about Thinkful. I believe in spending extra time with people one-on-one, not in a group. We'll get through this, but at the same time you have a ton of other resources in the community to utilize (office hours, Q/A sessions , Workshops & Thinkful community).