Evan Charles and Dan Pickett founded Launch Academy to help build the tech community in Boston, and their immersive and intentional approach to learning has resulted in a high-quality, full-service bootcamp. We sat down with Evan & Dan to learn about the "Secret Sauce" in their admissions process, their commitment to outreach in underrepresented communities (woo!), and how they connect their aspiring software engineers with great employers.
How did you get into the coding bootcamp industry?
Evan: After coming out of school, I spent 10 years in high finance in LBO’s and ownership stakes in businesses with “hair” on them. Although it was fast paced and exciting, I was never able to rest my head on my pillow at night and feel like I had actually helped anybody do anything other than make money. So I decided to change course and started a promotional product company from which I used the funds via a successful exit to finance a company that actually helped people. While building this new company in the medical field I found out that I could satiate my desire to build something and help people at the same time. While doing so, I found myself now feelling fullfilled when I put my head on my pillow. After a successful exit in this business, I pondered my next chapter by considering the key variable I’d like to have within my next venture. From past learnings, I knew I wanted to build something that helped people. I also added a new wrinkle by including my passion for technology into list. In February 2012 I was sitting at a Starbucks at Harvard Square- this was a week after Shereef Bishay started Dev Bootcamp as a bet with a friend and I thought, ‘hey, I’d like to learn how to program’ and since I love technology- this would be a great way to enter the development industry. 30 seconds later, I thought, “actually, I’ll just start a program and make it the best.” The original bootcamp model allowed me to marry up my interest in building something, helping people and building relationships within the developer industry. Launch Academy was conceptually born. I’ll let Dan pick up the story of how we met.
Dan: I got my start in high school. I was fortunate enough to start doing some contracting and IT consulting early on in my career. I quickly realized that people only call you when stuff breaks. I had gotten a few wonderful opportunities to create small databases and pieces of software for our clients and I totally loved it. Around graduation from High School, I had a strong conviction that I would major in CS. I managed a few software teams and it was there that I really fell in love with building software teams and products that make lives better. I fell in love with cultivating this culture of continuous improvement. Gazelle grew to a place where I was really happy with, so I started full-time consulting, and started a small consultancy based out of Boston. That’s when we actually prototyped a lot of the methodologies that you see at LA. At my consultancy, I brought on two individuals who didn’t have computer science backgrounds, but they were passionate and interested. I took the time to teach them best practices and helped them level up. Soon, they were contributing valuable time to our clients. I also started to take some training engagements, and realized I really enjoyed those- we were exploring ways to see if recruiters might be interested in taking on some risk and helping developers with a PHP and .NET background transition to be Ruby developers, something more marketable to startups. It turned out, recruiters had no interest in that. Then, I got a call from one of my favorite people in the BostonRB, who told me about Evan Charles, this really smart guy who introduced me to the bootcamp model. We met for coffee and founded the company shortly thereafter. The founding team was complete.
Do you have Launch Academy cohorts in NY and Boston?
We looked at doing the landgrab that we’re seeing in the space, but we feel really at home in the community in Boston, and we hope to expand our marketing into different areas, but we plan for the learning to remain in Boston for the current time. Quality over quantity really resonates within our team.
When was your first cohort?
We conceptualized Launch Academy in early 2012. Our big thing back then was getting it right. We spent time with the guys at Dev Bootcamp to get their thoughts on the model. We were able to trial and test, and subsequently build out our curriculum in early 2013. Our inagural cohort started May 1, 2013.
How many students have gone through Launch Academy?
About 100 Launchers have graduated. We don’t do overlapping cohorts, we do one cohort, then we recalibrate during our “off-seasons” where we consider ways to reinvent the learning model. This process of consistent ineration on the education has really separates us as being unique within the space. It’s where we truly geek out.
Why did you initially decide to use Rails as your teaching language?
Dan: I am a recovering .NET developer, and I fell in love with the framework because you could do so much with so little time. I learned Rails before Ruby, which is what we now consider the “wrong way.” We teach Ruby first, and we believe that Ruby literacy is what makes a great Rails developer. When we started thinking about more teaching, we looked for what learning materials were in the market that we could use. I was thinking we would start with Python. But we found a book, Learn to Program (https://pine.fm/LearnToProgram/), and I felt really strongly that we should base our prework around this book. So between Pine and my natural affinity towards Rails, that decided it for us.
What are you looking for in potential students?
We take a lot of pride in the secret sauce of our admissions methods, but to share a bit about our methods, the main thing that we look for is internal locus of control. We’re looking for individuals who feel like there is an infinite wealth of knowledge and it’s theirs for the taking. It’s important for people to know that we are the best fit for those who want to own their experience.
Do you accept beginners?
In our competitors’ vernacular, we are a “zero-to-sixty” program, so we admit people with zero programming experience. The interesting phenomenon that we see, because we’re getting more and more applicants and because the market is maturing, we’re seeing an increasing level of technical sophistication before people are admitted. It’s important that people spend some time learning on their own to assure themselves that they are indeed passionate about the craft of software development.
What makes up the precourse curriculum?
We’re heavy on Ruby and Git, and there are two ways to develop Ruby literacy before you enter an immersive program. One is acquiring the knowledge. For example, understanding what the concept of an array. The other means is through practice. For example, how do I work with an array? We use Chris Pines’ Learn to Program because there are exercises for people to complete- it’s one thing to study, and another to practice it. We also incorporate sites like RubyMonk and CodeWars for additional practice. We do review Ruby fundamentals in the class, but it’s great to have everyone come in with a high bar of Ruby literacy.
What is your ideal cohort size and how many instructors do you have?
Dan: We’re at 35 now. I facilitate the program, and our 5 other software developers teach closer with students via our mentor groups. We try to keep ratios around 6 students to every 1 Experience Engineer (our teachers).
Do you have numbers on how many women & underrepresented minorities go through Launch Academy?
Evan: We take that really seriously, for two reasons. First, for the better good of the community and to diversify the community. Secondly, especially from the female side, the makeup of our cohorts, from a collaborative and helpful perspective, has dramatically improved as we’ve balanced those scales. It’s progressed- in our first cohort, the ratio was skewed male. In our second cohort, it was about 50-50. We work a lot towards those goals. We offer the same scholarships that most everyone else does, but we think that gender inequality is an issue that’s worthy of doing even more. We work directly with Girl Develop It- we hold a 5-part evening event for GDI which is purely voluntary from our part. The program is facilitated by Launch Academy alumni and has been a huge success this year. We wrote and facilitated the curriculum. Secondly, we work with RailsBridge, and I was told they had to shut down TA registration because there were so many Launcher alumni who signed up. It’s that involvement that gets us excited, and we hope the result is that we can play a small part in balancing the scales.
Dan: Somewhere between 35-50% of our graduates are female, and it’s trending upwards. We’ve found that the hiring partners in Boston love seeing this diversity, which makes Evan and I feel great that we’re working with the right companies here in the city.
Give us a rundown of your curriculum!
Dan: Our favorite topic! It all starts with the interactive prework- we want students to engage with each other and with the staff for 8-weeks prior to the start of the program. We use a tool to communicate with each other, form in-person study groups, and pair together before student’s arrival on-site. We also provide office hours, so when they get to their program, they’re in a great place. And of course, everyone can always attend our Thursday guest speaker series socials where they can mingle with alumni, hiring companies and current Launchers to learn more about the program or accelerate their pre-learning.
That’s a breakdown of the curriculum, but what we get most excited about is the andragogical approach that we have here; when we get all of the students in, we take them through our curriculum and processes, and then we get in this rhythm, where they’re consuming assignment material in the evening, and putting it into practice immediately the next day. There’s course content and our own produced video that they can consume in the evening, and we give them a pair programming challenge the next day. It’s the concept of learning on their own. We’re big on pairing because we believe that it helps level the playing field from a skillset standpoint; those pairs can help each other grow.
Evan: Dan and I really geek out on the educational aspect of the program. Previously, our program looked a lot like other bootcamps, and we had to think about whether or not that was the best way to learn. We started to challenge ourselves to rethink the learning paradigm. We have evolved over the years into things they’re doing in New York and India and South America- with learning through discovery. When I went to school, I attended big lectures with a teacher at the front of the classroom. There were very few questions, and those questions could derail the lecture. After twenty minutes, I would lose focus. The thinking behind learning through discovery is that students get a problem and resources. The magic of bootcamps in general is that there is human help available to get you unstuck quicker than you could through self-teach or online MOOCs in their current non-collaborative form. So, when you get good student:teacher ratios, like we do, it really accelerates the learning.
Dan: The program is equally focused on technical skills and problem solving. We challenge our students, sometimes to their annoyance, by not giving them the answers right away.
How do you help students get jobs in tech once they graduate? Do you work with hiring partners?
Evan: This goes back to our relationships with the students. This starts early on, during the admissions process. From there, we’re building that story of the Launcher. Our Admissions Director, who is also an engineer, starts to craft that story so we can understand their specialties and where their interests lie. Our full time Talent Director is involved in the process early on, understanding their goals. We do that with one-on-one time, soft skills practice, and interview prep. The other side of the equation is the hiring companies themselves. We typically have at least one opportunity for each student in the room on hiring day. We’ve had close to 100 hiring partners over the course of all our cohorts. Their feedback was that these companies wanted to get more involved earlier in the process. First, they wanted to give back to something they thought was good for the community. And secondly, they wanted the opportunity to get to know the Launchers earlier. We do that now via our weekly guest speaker series, by inviting guests to teach new technologies, provide overviews about their company, or explain their own personal stories from when they were coming up in the developer ranks. Our career day probably looks similar to most- we have a couple of tweaks to make it more efficient. A unique aspect to the program is our 6 months of post-grad support for every alumni. For six months, they have access to office hours with our engineers and career services with our Talent Director. They also get a lifetime of free workshare space after 2pm and all day on weekends. Our alumni group is very involved in the community- on Monday nights we have an alum who teaches yoga here at Mission Control. Alumni participate in our Ship-It Saturday hackathon events as well as many other events outside of Launch Academy in the community such as our involvement with the Harvard iLab, Railsbridge, Girl Develop It, etc.
Are those hiring partners paying upfront to be a part of your network?
We don’t charge to attend the hiring day.
Do you take a recruiting fee if students get placed with a company?
We do take a fee, and we share a portion of proceeds with the student.
Is there a published Job Placement Stat?
Our first two cohorts placed 94% of graduates.
If a student doesn’t want to get a job when they graduate, but they have entrepreneurial goals, do you support that?
We get most excited about providing a very unique learning environment to people that they can’t receive elsewhere. If they are willing to dedicate themselves and have an interest in continuing their learning post graduation by building things with other developers, then we want to support them.