First of all, introduce yourselves Dan and Harsh; how long have you been working in the coding boot camp world and what inspired you to start Thinkful and MakerSquare respectively?
Dan: We started Thinkful about 2 ½ years ago and I have been working on the education team basically since we started. When we started it was kind of the early days of the MOOCs and Code Academy was a couple of months in, and it was clear that there was something really exciting happening in both the spheres of adult technical education and online learning and we wanted to find the intersection of that and basically run this experiment, is it possible to deliver much, much higher quality online education than anyone else?
We thought if we offer every student a mentor and tons of one on one help and support, they’ll have their experience, they’ll learn faster, they’ll stay motivated. Everything we've done in the last 2 ½ years has been building on that foundation.
Cool. Harsh. How about you with MakerSquare?
Harsh: We started early 2013 in Austin, Texas, right after a couple of the major programming schools started. We started because a couple of us had good and bad experiences with other programming schools and we wanted to create a school that we wished we had gone to at the end of the day; the school that we wish we would have all experienced.
Some of us had a computer science background and even that, we wanted something that was better than computer science programs at universities and better than other programs that we had experienced.
So that’s when we got together in early 2013 to start MakerSquare. Recently we opened a campus in San Francisco and have been trucking along since then.
Cool. Well, you all are veterans in this young space so we’re happy to have you.
I guess this is a question for both of you. There are a number of mentored boot camps these days and there are so many immersive coding boot camps as well. Why did Thinkful and MakerSquare choose each other, how did you find each other and what makes you confident in working with each other in particular?
Harsh: Thinkful and MakerSquare have had a relationship for a while now. In early 2014 we invited Thinkful to come to a MakerSquare panel on the programming school industry and funny enough, the schools represented were Thinkful, MakerSquare and Hack Reactor.
That’s when we first started working with Thinkful; that’s when we first met Dan. It was pretty clear that we were on the same page in terms of having a good, high quality experience, which is something that I respect a lot in other institutions and other people. It was clear that we both wanted to create something that was very high quality, which is the largest barrier to a partnership and that barrier was lifted immediately when we started talking about a partnership at South by Southwest.
Dan: Just to add to that, we’ve gotten to know a few bootcamps at this point but I think I’ve found whenever I’ve sat down with Harsh that we think very similarly about growth, the core challenges to what we do, about the way that the two things are complementary.
I’m sure that as you talk to them, there are tons of bootcamp founders here with a wide variety of perspectives. We just think very similarly about what makes great education.
Harsh comes from a background in the classroom and I think half of our first bunch of hires had similar backgrounds. We respect the teacher in a way that a lot of programmers or even programming schools don’t, and that overlap was the foundation for feeling pretty good about working together.
There are so many nuances between all these programs that it’s pretty cool how you found each other.
Dan, tell us what this prep course looks like. What’s the rundown of what people are getting when they sign up for it?
Dan: The course is a month long and it starts yesterday and today and it runs right into the start date for the next MakerSquare fulltime course.
The idea is that students who are looking to get into that who don’t have the skills or just want to prepare more intensively will devote most of their free time between now and then while they keep their jobs.
The foundation of it is you’re working through a curriculum that’s all project oriented, and we’ll talk more about that later. You’re meeting online with your mentor once per week during the evening and then you have a Saturday in person session with your peers and with a mentor.
Harsh, it’s interesting to me that this is marketed as a way to get into MakerSquare in particular. I just want to talk about that application process. How many applications do you get to MakerSquare for each cohort?
Harsh: It depends on the particular cohort and the time of year and on how frequently we have start dates available. The answer I can confidently give is several hundred per class.
What was the inspiration to create this curriculum? Were you finding that there were specific things that a lot of the applicants were not coming to the table with?
When we started raising that admission bar since the day that we started, we started seeing more and more applicants needed a little more help before they were ready to tackle the technical interview and the programming challenges – which is completely okay, but we were looking for ways to help them out during that process.
In Austin in particular, we held in-person workshops for free to help students get started with programming. That just wasn’t scalable for the applicants we were getting across the country so this was a great way to collaborate on doing that.
We know that Thinkful is amongst the best in terms of teaching people remotely through a mentor and we knew that they would be able to create an experience that was well crafted for students.
It just made sense when we first started talking about, for Thinkful to be able to teach remotely and have interested applicants come to MakerSquare during the weekend on Saturdays.
Yeah, and I’m sure that people were actually using all the different Thinkful courses to prepare anyways in their own way so it’s cool that this is really tailored to that experience.
Dan, can you give us a quick rundown of the technologies that are going to be covered over the four weeks?
Dan: In week one, students do a very fast introduction to HTML, CSS, jQuery, Github and the command line. That’s a lot for one week but most students that sign up have experience with those already. The focus is not on mastering those but learning enough to be comfortable.
One of the most important things that I hear admissions people and founders at bootcamps say is that they want to see a demonstrated effort and know that the applicant has actually built something. Does the bootcamp prep course help students build a portfolio or complete projects?
Dan: Yeah, it does. The baseline success case is about four small to medium-sized projects. It’s a small course; in our three-month front end course you build two or three times that.
But the projects here are still really strong and the most important ones from that made it into this one-month course.
We’ve basically distilled content into five assignment-types: introductory reading for when you’re first getting a completely new taste of a concept or a technology, a code-along tutorial for increasing familiarity, a drill for helping students to actively retrieve something from memory, a challenge which is bigger than a drill and might require two hours – possibly even two sittings to complete and then a project which is a full portfolio-ready piece that might take 10-plus hours.
This follows that same format and has a number of drills, challenges and projects that students can walk away with.
For this course are mentors part of the Thinkful network or are they part of the MakerSquare network or both?
Dan: The mentors are primarily coming from Thinkful although we have talked to a couple of early MakerSquare alum about joining as mentors as well but we haven’t yet interviewed them so they’re not going to be mentors for this course but if we do it again in the future, we’d love to get a couple of them on board mentoring future MakerSquare students.
Harsh: There’s one other programming boot camp that it can definitely prepare students for.
Oh, what is that one, Harsh?
Harsh: Glad you asked. Hack Reactor, in fact. We have similar admissions processes in our technical interviews. We realized we were very similar after learning what their technical interview was like this past week.
I anticipate that if people can get admitted to MakerSquare, get past the technical interview at MakerSquare, which is the exact same one as at Hack Reactor, they should be able to pass that one as well.
Just in case anybody watching doesn’t know, some recent news was that MakerSquare was recently acquired by Hack Reactor so they’re working together now, which is awesome. Harsh, will MakerSquare continue to operate as a separate boot camp or do you all envision Hack Reactor and MakerSquare combining in a more substantive way in the future?
Harsh: Good question. Brand wise, we’ll continue to operate as two different schools but essentially, we’re sister schools. We spent the last week in San Francisco holed up in a room with our founders and their founders to figure out what the transition would look like.
Essentially, from a student’s perspective the transition doesn’t really look like much but in the internals we now share the same curriculum and we will share the same admission criteria. We’re also different schools based on the teachers and the vibe.
Harsh: Ironically, it had nothing to do with MakerSquare. We hadn’t opened any conversation with them at that point when we made that decision. This is something that we’ve been talking about for over a year now so I’ll keep it brief so as not to sidetrack this conversation too much.
If we get back to the boot camp prep course a little bit; Dan, am I right in saying that for the first time Thinkful is doing an offline element to their courses as well?
Dan: It is our first blended course.
Why did you decide to require that in person element in this class?
Dan: It fits with MakerSquare’s fulltime courses, both being tailored for getting you in and preparing you to be a great student and timing-wise, it rolls right into it.
We wanted to experiment with this idea of blended courses; to basically try this idea of mixing what we do already which is really efficient, effective online learning with an offline community which no doubt has something special to it that can’t be or shouldn’t be replicated online. We do plant an online community and that’s an important part of even just the online courses.
But there is something special to offline and because we’re trying to get people to move through the course at a faster pace and we’re trying to get a lot done in just a month, we came up with the idea of let’s actually get students into MakerSquare schools on Saturdays and doing pair programming in person to absolutely guarantee that they’re going to be spending enough time to be successful in this month.
For those in person sessions with they working with MakerSquare staff or will there be Thinkful mentors?
Dan: There’s a Thinkful mentor who will be there in person, although at that point the line between Thinkful mentor and MakerSquare is blurred because he’ll be familiar with what MakerSquare is doing. He originally came through us but at that point he’s helping out both.
Harsh: We’ll have classes on Saturdays now as well so there’s going to be students and staff that are there. We don’t have any intention of purposely separating students in this course from students in our immersive course. They’ll be separated by the coursework that they’re doing obviously, but physical space-wise, we want to create a community between the current MakerSquare students and people that are looking to prepare for MakerSquare.
How many students will be in this first class or what are you expecting?
Harsh: There are five students who are in now and we’re capping it at eight; so somewhere between five and eight.
And when does the next class start?
Dan: We don’t have an exact date right now. We need to talk about that separately.
Are there admissions standards for this class or is mostly location?
Dan: No, anyone can sign up for this. While in-person boot camps in MakerSquare have to be selective, the thesis of this and the promise of this is that it’s accessible. It promises to prepare anyone, no matter how much of a beginner you are, to join a fulltime course.
I love that. Accessibility is huge right now in online courses and offline courses so I think that’s an awesome step.
Dan: And because this is the first time we’re running this course, we wanted to make sure that we learn exactly how to do it properly so Dan and I will be talking as this course goes on to determine when the next start date will be, based on how confident we feel that we can deliver an amazing education experience for this first class.
So I’m confident that there will be another one but we just want to leave it open for us to determine the specific date for later.
We have a question from Kirsten and I think we might have answered this throughout but she’s asking: Have students gone through Thinkful before attending a tech boot camp in the past and if so, have you found that this increased their success during the program? Dan, have you all tracked those outcomes?
Dan: We’ve gotten a decent amount of feedback on it and I guess we’ve had over a hundred students who once they decided they wanted to go to a bootcamp, came back and said okay, how do I make sure that I’m going to be the best student at that bootcamp? And turned to us for that.
The feedback we have consistently heard is first, ‘it prepared me because I built more projects than any of my peers.’ Second, ‘I mastered one or two or maybe three of the technologies or concepts and that meant that a third or a quarter of what was being taught I was already really comfortable with so I had a lot of slack to go deeper into other concepts that were being taught or to spend more time on projects. That meant if I fell behind on something, I could catch up and if I had particular interest in one concept I could spend extra time on it.’
So we’ve gotten a lot of feedback on that and it seems to work pretty well for that purpose.
All the students that I talk to, I always ask how you avoid burnout at a coding bootcamp because they’re so intensive, and that’s the number one answer that I get; making sure that if the school is giving you pre-work make sure you do it all or do as much as you can before you get there so that you’re able to keep up.
Dan: We found a similar sentiment with students who had done Thinkful before MakerSquare. There’s no question that they are better prepared, which helps them take better advantage of the pace of the class. I think it’s a resounding yes – students are better prepared and therefore it increases their success during the program.
Very cool. You heard it from both sides. Harsh, you all had a cool announcement with the acquisition with Hack Reactor but Thinkful also had a cool announcement this month with their latest fundraise so congratulations to you, Dan.
Is this prep class maybe veering into an offline endeavor? Is that a goal of the new funding?
Dan: The goal behind these fundraises is that we want to do more to fulfill the entire student journey. This is one iteration of that one possible expression of it. The other big thing that we’ve launched so far is career services for all Thinkful students to help them with whatever job search they’re taking on.
We have students across the spectrum from taking a course to learning a new technology or pivoting from dev ops to web development or any number of paths. What we’re developing with career services is basically a program to help people run a great job search.
We’re testing it privately with a number of students right now and we had a pretty overwhelming response when we first told our students and alumni about it so we’ve got a long wait list now for the next couple of months.
From Lindsay: If I understand correctly, the Thinkful course is starting today and then it’s TBA.
Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!
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