[As of October 13, 2017, The Iron Yard will no longer be operating.] As Director of Instruction at The Iron Yard, Sam Kapila is always thinking about the future of technology when working on curriculum and hiring new instructors. Sam was recently interviewed for the documentary “What Comes Next is the Future” where she talked about open source learning, and what it’s like for a beginner to see how the web is built. We asked Sam about coding bootcamps’ place in the future of tech, how The Iron Yard keeps up, and whether everyone needs to know code.
How has your career in tech and education led you to your role as the Director of Instruction at The Iron Yard?
I never actually planned to be in education. I have a BFA and MFA in design, so I started in advertising and worked for an advertising agency that worked with an NBA team- really fun!
When I went to grad school for my masters in communication design, I started teaching freshman and sophomore classes as a graduate teacher assistant. I’ve stayed in education from that point onwards.
The university asked me to help another instructor update the curriculum for the web design classes. So I built out one of the first university courses that was specifically about Responsive Web Design. And from there I joined The Iron Yard as a UIDesign Instructor before moving into my current role as Director of Instruction.
Now you’re the Director of Instruction at The Iron Yard – what does that entail?
My role has evolved over time. At first, I was helping build our instructor team as we opened new campuses and offered new courses. Now I have a team of directors who help me and our instructors create a lot of the standardized curriculum and city-specific needs as well.
For example, frameworks and technologies at each campus might vary depending on the location and what technologies are in demand in that city. I work on building resources to make their day-to-day a lot easier, coming up with new assignments, keeping up with what's going on in the industry, and training our instructors on it.
And finally, I'm part of the executive team, so I work with different departments across The Iron Yard, whether it's marketing or regulatory or operations.
When you are looking to hire instructors, what backgrounds and other qualities are you specifically looking for?
That's something I think about a lot. My team just did an audit of our objectives for instructors, and what we've learned as we've grown as a team. Most of our instructors are practicing in their field, which means they aren't necessarily coming from a teaching background or a university environment like I did. So we have a very extensive onboarding period that it includes a lot of hands-on training and best practices that we help them learn along the way.
We also have a mentor program. Every instructor has a mentor who is their go-to person on a daily basis on instruction and curriculum. There's a big support structure to help someone new who hasn’t formally taught before. For the most part, even if instructors haven't taught in a classroom, they've done workshops at a conference, or lectures at a meetup, or corporate training. A lot of times that extra community engagement part is a big thing that we look at because there's a lot to draw from that and bring into the classroom. But having real world experience is the most important thing we look for in new instructors.
Another really important quality is an instructor’s ability to empathize with a student who is new to a coding language. The instructor needs to understand that this is a big jump to go into a full-time course and basically change your life path. Can they be patient with students, and help explain things at a very basic level? Can they use analogies or illustrations or flowcharts to help explain things? Empathy is a big part of what we look for in our instructors.
We saw you in the trailer (below) for the documentary "What Comes Next Is the Future" – why did you get involved?
The director of that movie is Matt Griffin, whom I kept running into at different conferences like Converge Southeast and ARTIFACT. He mentioned that he was Kickstarting the movie and of course, I wanted to support my industry friend by participating.
For me, it was important to participate because I think that designers and developers are often told that storytelling should be a part of our process – and we do that a lot for our clients. But because the web moves so quickly, we haven’t had the time to go back and reflect on the story of the past 20+ years of the Web, how quickly things have changed, and how much a young industry has evolved in that time.
Many people who move into this industry may not know that Tim Berners-Lee started the World Wide Web and what conversations about the first website looked like. I think we're always focused on moving forward, but there are things that we can learn from history.
The documentary is called "What Comes Next is The Future." Does it talk about the future of tech or tech education?
My perspective for the documentary was to share the teaching side- what it was like to build a university class, responsive design, and how to teach it. I got to share what it’s like for a beginner to be able to access something like Inspect Element in Chrome and see how something was built. I also got to talk about The Iron Yard’s open source nature and being able to learn from each other. It's very collaborative; even though Open Source doesn't always mean that two developers talk to each other, the fact that their code is out there and viewable is a different type of conversation.
When I watched the movie I was surprised how much it focused on the past. My interpretation of it was that in order to look ahead, we need to look at what's already happened, learn from that, and iterate from that.
How did the documentary approach responsive web design?
Suddenly, we have all these different devices to design for (desktop, mobile, tablet, etc). What we learned very quickly was we had to move past planning for every single device. By changing a few key things, we can code things very efficiently, and in a way that was sort of like elastic transition.
The web was flexible before responsive web design existed. We are the ones who made it static and boxy, and now there has been an elastic effect that stretched it out, then came back to its core. I think that was an underlying theme of the movie; that when new languages and new technology comes out, we go crazy with it, and then we scale back once we create a best practice. An overall theme was that the way that we think about building for the web will continue to evolve past what we think is possible.
It sounds like you were able to dive into the history of the internet in that documentary, but what do you predict will be the biggest future changes in technology?
Over the past two years, the conversation has been about performance. We have a ton of new technology, but that isn’t necessarily accessible to everyone for one reason or another. Someone may not be able to access it because of an incompatible device or bad Internet connection or a slow load.
That conversation is going to continue because we're finally thinking about design in a more global way. For a while, designers and developers were only designing for other designers and developer- not necessarily for users. We’ll continue to get smarter about design tactics or what possibilities exist within programming.
As that conversation about performance continues, how will The Iron Yard keep up with changes?
We schedule weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly conversations throughout the year with our mentors, teams, and directors, to discuss these changes. For example, there's an Apple announcement today, so I know our mobile instructors will be discussing next steps in their Slack channel.
Using mobile development as an example, when Swift first came out as a language, that group got together and said, "Okay, we've been teaching Objective-C, and now suddenly there's a new language. How do we add this to the curriculum?" Instead of waiting to teach it until they had mastered it themselves, they actually brought it into the classroom environment and started really great conversations with students about how we react to Swift as developers. Then the instructors and students learn it together, with the instructors guiding the students, and the students adding another language to their skill set, as well as learning how to learn something new. The students learn about how to exist as a developer and how to get used to those constant changes rather than being perfect at it right away.
What will the role of The Iron Yard and coding bootcamps be in the future of tech?
What's really interesting to me about The Iron Yard is the idea of iteration. We do that on a daily basis using Agile Methodology when building a project. After coming from a very traditional university academic world, it’s amazing to also apply that methodology to education – to try something, iterate, learn from it, test it again, try it again, fix it again.
That’s something that I hope coding bootcamps across the world will never lose. And I think if we all continue to do that, we'll all be able to keep an eye on what's changing in the industry and then incorporate that into our classrooms.
Do you see coding bootcamps competing more with computer science degrees in the future?
I think in some ways that has already happened. Updating curriculum on the university side, especially if you're a state institution that has to go through the state to make significant updates, can take 5-10 years. In the technology industry, that's a long time. At a code school, we can update curriculum differently because we are licensed in a way that allows us to iterate a quickly if we need to introduce a new course.
However, one of the benefits of a computer science degree is getting a theoretical CS foundation and getting the university experience, dorm life, and enrichment. I think there are pros and cons to that experience; and at the same time, the camaraderie that comes with spending all day with your classmates at a bootcamp for 12 weeks can balance that out.
I don't know if one will necessarily replace the other, but anyone applying for a computer science degree should research coding bootcamps to find what makes sense to them, their lifestyle, and their goals.
Do you think in the future everyone will need to code or is that an overstatement?
I definitely agree with the statement that everyone can learn to code. I think anyone who has learned a spoken language, whether English or Spanish or Portuguese, absolutely has the ability to learn how to code. Whether everyone should learn to code is a different answer.
The reason that someone should learn how to code is more about learning problem-solving skills, process skills, how to interact with other people, and building empathy for users. Those are things that apply to any job, whether you work at a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a bike repair shop. I think those are the true skills that come out of programming.
With the increase in coding bootcamps and over 18,000 coding bootcamp grads this year, how will The Iron Yard make sure its grads are still competitive and employable?
We work really hard on our curriculum, so students are not just learning a programming language, but they're getting to see the concept of how all the processes are put together. An Iron Yard graduate could be a project manager who knows how to code and knows how to work with their team, but they prefer the project management side more, and they're familiar with the technical side so they can better communicate with their developers.
Our teaching method goes past the code. We really teach the lifestyle of a developer, what it means to communicate, what it means to build, what it means to problem solve or work on a team. Those are skills that apply to many jobs in tech.
What’s your best advice to students learning to code?
This is a personal lesson that I would want to tell someone who is interested in tech: don’t be afraid of coding! Code has a history of being very objective. If you type a command correctly, you expect an output. Even if you get error messages, that's still part of the learning process. Error messages get a bad name because they're associated with red exclamation points and capital letters. But I think errors are just as important as our successes, and sometimes we learn more from error messages, console log errors, and breaking things, than we do from getting the expected output on the first time.