Phil Spitler got his start in web development through an apprenticeship with a system administrator at his company, who guided Phil as he learned Perl. When he saw the Lead Mentor position open at Bloc, Phil was impressed by the software craftsmanship approach at the online coding bootcamp. We talk with Phil about his role as a Lead Mentor, the feedback loop between mentors and students, and why Bloc is his most rewarding career experience to date.
Tell us a bit about your background- in education, programming, or both!
In the mid 90s, an afternoon on a warehouse/club rooftop with a friend would forever change my life. My friend asked, "you're good with computers right?" I was a DJ at the time and working on tracks of my own using a PC and various pieces of equipment, so I said "yes.” He asked if I'd like to interview for a position as a customer service representative at the ISP he worked for. I was currently working at a pizza shop so I replied, "absolutely."
I interviewed, got the job, and began happily helping people sign up for dial-up internet access and resolving connection issues with our service. A few months in, I noticed there was a workflow that was inefficient which affected me directly. I asked one of the system administrators what language I would need to learn to back a web form to help streamline the workflow. That’s when he told me about Perl. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I was entering into an unspoken agreement as his apprentice. Over the next couple of months, I obsessively worked my way through Perl books requesting his assistance as I'd get stuck. He was happy to help, and we were both having fun. When it was finished, I demoed it for the company and we started using it in place of the paper based system for that process. The company was acquired by a larger telco which eventually had an opening (3 years later) in their web department. I applied, and with a little assistance from the former president of our ISP, they gave me my first full-time job as a web developer.
I've been challenging myself to learn new things and grow as a software developer ever since.
How were you introduced to Bloc?
A former co-employee I am Facebook friends with posted about mentoring at Bloc. What stood out the most about Bloc is how they embrace the software craftsmanship paradigm. Bloc supports mentors expressing themselves as individual thought leaders. Their framework fully empowers mentors to deliver unmatched course material, and support the growth of each of their apprentices.
Did you have to be convinced of the bootcamp "model" at all? What makes you excited about online education, in particular?
I didn’t need to be convinced of the "bootcamp model.” The way Bloc approaches online education is what makes me excited about online education. As a mentor in Bloc's system, you will witness moments of growth in people who questioned their abilities merely days before. They’ll suddenly have a breakthrough, and understand that you, as their mentor, will be their support system, helping them achieve their goals. To be a witness to that is amazing, and to be a part of that experience is humbling; it’s the most rewarding feeling I’ve felt working anywhere.
What is your position now at Bloc?
My position currently with Bloc is Lead Mentor. As a Lead Mentor, I assist our contract mentor base in any way I can. I also contribute useful content and tools to support and promote software craftsmanship. Additionally, I have the opportunity to continue working directly with apprentices to continue my growth as a mentor and their growth as programmers.
Do you help provide support and training to the Bloc mentor community?
I play a key role in disseminating information supporting software craftsmanship to mentors, apprentices, and hiring managers.
Do you ever get to influence the curriculum for the course you teach? How?
Our Curriculum Developers are not only open to feedback on the curriculum, but actively pursue it in order to provide the best possible course material. I have forked the repository and submitted pull requests via GitHub. It's the quickest way to assist the Curriculum Developers on getting something into the curriculum.
What is the feedback loop like between students, Bloc admin, and mentors?
The feedback loop is extremely tight. It's almost easier to describe it as a process or a service that's constantly running and nearly immediate depending on the circumstance.
Do you have an example of a student who created an exceptionally cool project?
Although not completed by one of my apprentices, excitement is buzzing at Bloc over an exceptional project completed by a recent Android graduate, called moneyLens. moneyLENS is an app that scans money and identifies the name and value of the currency. It also automatically converts this money to your "home currency." It can be found in the Google Play store.
As a mentor at Bloc, you've seen and worked with a lot of students. Do you have an idea of the “ideal student” at Bloc?
Students that excel in the Bloc program are individuals that have minimal exposure to web related concepts (HTML/CSS). Successful students embrace continually not having solutions to problems they’re working on, and finding some level of joy in grinding through possible solutions until they find the one that works.
How do you approach retention/attrition and ensure that students complete their course?
Mentoring is a very personal thing for me. Building a rapport with an apprentice and gaining an understanding for their unique situation allows me to provide them with the assistance they need during their course with Bloc and beyond. The relationships built through Bloc, for me, aren't limited to an apprentice's course length. I'm always open to past apprentices reaching out to me for guidance or to bounce ideas off of. Many actions driven by these values have had a direct impact on apprentice completion.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Bloc or bootcamps in general?
Crossing the Rocky Mountains as I flew into San Francisco to visit Bloc Headquarters as their newest Lead Mentor, I found myself getting a little choked up. I'm incredibly grateful Bloc has chosen me as someone to help solidify software craftsmanship as the best approach to start filling the United States’ technology skills gap.