General Assembly has campuses in over 10 cities and courses in topics from Digital Marketing to Web Development. We sat down with Paul Gleger, Regional Director of General Assembly in DC, and Jon Rojas, Programs Producer at General Assembly, to hear more about their roles at General Assembly and how the Washington, DC campus continues to grow.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you got involved with GA, what got you interested in the boot camp space in general.
Paul: I’m the Regional Director for the campus here in Washington, DC. I started with General Assembly in San Francisco as that campus was getting built out. Before coming to GA, I was with another DC startup that moved out to San Francisco. One of the things that I saw consistently was that it was extremely hard to hire developers and it took a long time. In San Francisco, it seemed like that was consistent across all companies.
As General Assembly was expanding, I was attracted to the skills-based learning environment; the topics were things that I tried to learn on my own and it was exciting that there was a community of people going through the same thing and supporting each other.
I joined GA to help build out the campus in October 2012.
Jon: I worked for consulting companies in the DC area, working in the federal sector mainly on projects around strategic management.
Last summer, I started thinking about becoming a web developer so I started going through Code Academy, Code School- all those free resources. Then I stumbled across Dash, which is GA’s online HTML/CSS tool, completed it in a couple of hours. I emailed Nathan Bashaw, the creator of Dash, and asked for more, and he told me that General Assembly would be launching an immersive program in April. I continued to teach myself. I quit my job in consulting and just spent hours a day to teach myself. Then I stumbled across a tweet from GA and saw that they were hiring for the producer role, and I knew that I wanted to be around people that wanted to learn web development as well as an environment that was creative and would allow me to learn development as well. That’s how I became the WDI Producer in DC.
Paul, at the time you started with GA, there weren’t a ton of established coding schools- how did you and the GA team define what the Web Development Immersive would look like?
Paul: We approached it like we approach other programs. First, we talked with employers to determine the skillsets they were looking for on the job and then we started with curriculum development. We thought through the most practical applications of what we would be teaching and how that would pair with the overall GA student experience.
We piloted the first course in our New York campus and learned valuable lessons from that initial program. Since that first launch almost two years ago, we’ve consistently collected feedback from instructors, students, and employers and made updates regularly. The constant iteration is what allows us to stay relevant with the quickly changing marketplace.
Were the employers asking for Ruby on Rails when you all started?
Paul: Yes; There continues to be significant demand for Ruby on Rails across all industries. It’s fast, it’s scalable; it’s what a lot of organizations are using. Also, for someone who wants to learn programming, Ruby on Rails tends to be a language that’s easier to understand.
Jon: I think it’ll change based on how the market changes. AngelList did a survey asking startups what programming language they use, and the majority was Ruby on Rails. But that could change next week or next month. I think we’re casual enough to be able to change the curriculum. I don’t want to lock GA into Ruby on Rails forever but I think as long as the market wants it, we’ll continue to teach it.
What is the team like in the DC office? Do you have a curriculum developer in DC?
Paul: Curriculum development is an overall GA operation that’s based out of New York. The DC team is composed of the Immersives Producer, Evening Course Producer, Instructor Outreach, Instructor Coach, Campus Experience, Local Marketing, Admissions, and Outcomes. Our outcomes manager/career coach has 15 years of experience in career coaching and career development here in DC – both from a recruiter side and working with a local school for several years in career services. He joined us and he’s helping students find their career pathway after graduation.
Because you mentioned outcomes, let’s talk about it! In DC, you have finished one Web Development Immersive cohort; how did the placement go for the last one?
Jon: We’re about 60 days out now. There were 19 students in the class and there were 15 that were seeking outcomes in the DC area. Since course completion, we’ve helped almost all of these students find their career path. We had a really successful meet and greet after graduation where we invited all kinds of companies and hiring partners to basically come to a science fair where the students have their computers set up to show their code. They’ve got their resumes and business cards and they’re talking to potential employers about what type of organization they would work at.
We had easily over 100 people come through the doors. We had 55 – 60 different companies at the last one.
And then when we did the UX meet-and-greet a couple of weeks after, and had an even better turnout.
When you say 15 people were “seeking employment,” what were the other ones seeking?
Jon: There was one student going to finish up law school so he wasn’t looking for employment yet. One student moved to San Francisco and was trying to start his own business, and one student was running his own agency.
General Assembly does not take a referral fee, right?
Jon: Absolutely. We tell students during admissions, you choose your pathway and we’re here to help you with the skill set. They choose the direction they want to go on and we’ll obviously be supportive whichever direction they want to go in. There is never a referral fee.
Are the Web Development Immersives still beginner-focused or do you think they’ve evolved? (What do you look for in the admissions process?)
Paul: There are a number of basic criteria we’re looking for. We look for people who have been experimenting with code on their own. This isn’t as if one day they woke up and though “I want to be a web developer so I’m going to go to GA.”
We look for a pathway- what got you here and where you want to go. We look for past experience; professional, academic; we want to see a pattern of experiences, you’re going to stick with something. And there’s pre-work that’s associated with the class so we expect them to complete a certain amount of pre-work before day 1. We check in frequently and if students don’t complete the pre-work, this might not be the program for them.
In terms of background, we really see everything. Our current cohort is probably the most diverse group that we’ve had… Everyone including an 18-year old who just finished high school who’s a super whiz in programming
Jon: We have 3 students that deferred a semester and one student that dropped out completely out of Emerson. He sat down with his dean and said, “Hey, listen; the college really needs to have incubators and places where students can go create and be graded on real world things as well as just sitting in classroom lectures and taking notes.” The dean responded to him saying, “Oh, you’re just here too early because in our 10-year plan, that stuff will happen.”
Another student, Sal, was an auto mechanic for the last 4 years so he’s been working on cars. He built out a Rails app that basically helps you track all your car maintenance.
What was it like when you expanded to DC from San Francisco? Did you see the same sort of demand in DC?
Paul: Initially, there were people interested in the program but we just didn’t have the ability to offer a Web Development Immersive at that point. For our early programs, the workshops and evening courses, there was tremendous interest; programs like front-end and back-end web development, UX design, Data Science, etc.
I was surprised; I was a little bit nervous moving back to DC. I knew there was a demand for it, I just didn’t know how large it was. It’s been a very positive surprise across all of our programs.
We have people coming from government, contractors, a lot of nonprofits, NGOs.
A really interesting difference between DC and San Francisco: in San Francisco we had a lot of students coming on their own behalf. In DC, we’ve actually seen quite a few people whose companies are paying for them to take the program.
I love that.
Paul: That’s great, the fact that companies are accepting and actively moving towards this sort of education.
Jon: One other thing I’ll mention which is just an interesting trend, there’s definitely quite a few companies in DC that are running their own internal training programs and I think that’s just something to think about.
Which companies are doing that?
Paul: One that was purely an internal school was LivingSocial doing Hungry Academy. Now, Wedding Wire is doing one and Motley Fool is also doing a program. We actually had a student graduate from New York and she joined Motley Fool’s internal training program afterwards.
You said that you now have someone who’s going to be a junior instructor. Is that common to hire into those positions from the classes?
Jon: Our first class that we launched in April graduated in July when we were staffing the August class. The team and I started having discussions about bringing in alumni; to have somebody there who had been through the class, and understood what the students were going through.
All the feedback we received confirmed our hypothesis that alumni are able to empathize and help students faster. Students thought this set up worked very well because the junior instructor understood what they’re going through. I’m not aware if all the other campuses do the same thing but here in DC that’s something that’s worked very well.
That sounds like a great resource.
Jon: It helps with the planning because alumni know what’s worked in the past. We really try to make it almost like a 40-40-20 balance where they’re at most doing 20% of the instruction. Their role really is going to be walking around helping the students.
Do you have a time limit for a Junior Instructor? Like can they only do it for one session?
Jon: Yeah; it’s just a one time contract, we want them to head out and apply their skills on the job.
What’s the instructor-student ratio right now?
Jon: I try to make sure that we don’t go higher than 8:1. So we had the 3 instructors for a class of 18, 3 instructors for a class of 19 and the September class is 24.
When does the next course start?
Jon: September 22nd. The students will come in next week for an install-fest and orientation.
What does a typical day look like?
Jon: The typical day is lecture in the morning along with “code-along” and maybe some exercises as a group. We really focus on making sure there’s as much participation as possible. So there’ll be a little bit of instruction with putting concepts out there and some code-along stuff where they’re practicing those concepts. Then they might have some type of assignment like a mini project in groups so again, there’s more repetition of that concept.
In the afternoon, there is a little bit more instruction, not too much, and then they break out into labs. I’d say that’s typical but they try to mix it up as much as possible- some mornings students will come in immediately dive into working on errors in homework and then go into instruction.
Has the curriculum changed at all between the first cohort and this one?
Jon: Absolutely; one of the best things about our curriculum is we have these standards and goals that we adhere to globally. But it’s really at the discretion of the instructors when they’re planning how they’re going to meet those goals.
Having gone through so many WDIs, we have resources out there that instructors can pull from but they really make the lessons their own. In the last class, they were really interested in Node but it wasn’t part of the curriculum so they added that as a mini framework and a mini project.
So if the students all want to learn something that’s outside of the curriculum, we try to integrate it wherever possible.
Have you had attrition at all in the DC courses?
Jon: In DC, we haven’t had any yet. Globally, it definitely does happen. But we’ve been fortunate enough to not run into that yet. Part of my role as a producer is to interview potential students. The Admissions team interviews them first on the phone and after going through that phone screen, if the admissions producer thinks they’re a good match, they’ll pass them on to me for an in-person interview.
During the in person interview, I talk to them about their background; I see what they’re pumped about and then we go through some small code exercise stuff.
Can you give us any insider info about the code exercise?
I also like to do brain teasers for fun just to see how they handle problem-solving.
We just saw the UX Design Circuit, the online, mentored program. Is WDI going to do an online version soon?
Jon: WDI will remain an in person program, but in the future there might be components we ask students to complete before they start the course online. For just HTML, CSS, and Visual Design we recently started something called Circuits which is a mentored online learning experience.