We talk with gSchool instructor Jeff Dean about his history at Pivotal Labs, why he beleives six months is necessary to produce well-rounded developers, and how excited he is for the upcoming Boulder cohort!
Tell us about your story and how you got into the coding bootcamp space.
Originally, I went to school to be a music teacher, and left that to travel. I ended up teaching English to Fifth Graders in Argentina. I came back to the States and worked as a camp director and taught lifeguarding, swimming, environmental science, things like that. From there I transitioned into IT for these summer camp programs and moved into programming. Most recently, I worked at Pivotal Labs for several years. gSchool is currently contracting a Pivotal Labs developer, Mike Gehard, to instruct the next Boulder course. Mike put me in touch with Galvanize, and here I am.
What’s the relationship between Galvanize and gSchool?
gSchool is a program of Galvanize. The idea behind Galvanize is to provide a community for tech entrepreneurs. There’s a space to work, access to events, and other folks related to the venture capital/funding side, and then there’s gSchool, the education arm, which is potentially even grooming developers to work at some of the companies at Galvanize.
Do the companies at Galvanize get to interact a lot with students, and vice-a-versa?
They do. The physical space is such that there’s a big open floor, and companies have suites around the outsides with glass walls. So when the students aren’t in the classroom, they’re in the atrium. You can’t walk around without seeing gSchool students. There’s a bar and a lounge area - so in addition to the formal mentorships that we establish between gSchool students and people in the building, there’s a lot of “hanging out.” We host a lot of meetups here in Denver. The space we’re building in Boulder is similar, but it’s also right in the middle of the Boulder startups. It will be on West Pearl right by SendGrid.
Have you gotten a ton of applications for the Boulder course?
Yes, and the application process is closed for Boulder - we have 26 students and they’re starting on March 3rd.
You use Rails as your teaching language. What else do students learn in their 6 months?
As far as why we picked Rails, we did that because it’s a good starting point. There’s a high demand for Rails developers, which is easy, but there’s probably more of a demand for Java developers. Ruby is very welcoming- the meetups here are friendly and there’s an energy in the community. It’s not the most diverse community in the business world by any stretch of the imagination, but the people are friendly and open. The companies in Galvanize use Rails more than any other single technology, so that helps with mentors. This isn’t a statement that we think Ruby / Rails is the best language / framework, but we think it’s a good starting point. gSchool grads right now diversify very quickly once they get into the workforce. We think you need to teach one thing well in order for students to transfer that to other technologies.
Your course is six months long- one of the longest coding bootcamps. Why 6 months? What do students get out of those extra three months?
It’s funny that you say the “extra three months,” because we’re struggling to fit everything into the six months. Mike and I both worked at Pivotal Labs for a long time, and we know what it takes to build high quality software on a daily basis. What it takes is a set of habits and discipline, and that only comes with practice. We could teach Ruby syntax in a short period of time, but the rest of the course is when we rehearse. So when you start a job and someone gives you a complicated problem, you don’t have to think about it as much. There’s no judgement here about these other courses, but we haven’t figured out how to get that level of training and education in 12 weeks. We also recognize that when students leave, often junior-level positions don’t encourage pair programming and testing and being agile, so we like to give students that extra time.
What are you looking for in potential students?
We do take complete beginners. The cohort that is starting on March 3 is probably the most diverse from a skillset standpoint than we’ve had before. We have a number of students who have graduated from other, shorter form code schools. Some of them are coming in having deployed Rails apps to Heroku, but the majority are coming in with little to no code experience. Some have gone through Codecademy online tools and some have gone to meetups; others are just excited about getting in the field, but haven’t had time to dig into programming on their own. That diversity in skill levels completely scares me, but in a good way.
We look for drive more than anything- you need to know what a programmer’s day is and still be excited about it. There’s a bit of a myth going around about programming, that you have a super high salary, high creativity. We make sure that students understand that there’s a lot of sitting down at a computer, typing characters. And the salaries on the coasts may not apply here in the Denver - Boulder corridor.
In our interview process, we select for the ability to handle frustration and for a good mix of personalities and skills. Our current age range is 23-55 and we have everything from hungry, young people, but also people with families.
Since you have students from varying backgrounds, what kind of pre-work do you require before students start?
Our main message is to come well-rested and ready to focus. The pre-work is online, (students.gschool.it). One is the Five Elements of Effective Thinking and the other is XP Explained. They go through the Codecademy courses primarily to get familiar with the vocabulary. We don’t ask them to do code challenges or complete things before they get here. People do their best work when they’re awake and alert, and can work at a sustainable pace.
How many cohorts have you graduated and how large are your cohorts?
We graduated one last spring, another graduated February 28th. We like to stay between 24-26 students. Right now, we have two lead instructors and a TA for each class.
How many of those students are women?
The cohort starting on March 3rd is 46% women. With each cohort we’re seeing higher female applicant numbers. I think people are starting to realize that this is not a frat.
Do you get a lot of students from outside of Colorado?
We got more applicants from out-of-state than I would have anticipated and of those, not too many ended up coming. It’s a pretty big commitment for someone out of state, between the tuition and uprooting your life. As more code schools open in smaller markets, my guess is that more students will end up staying local.
Describe the curriculum at gSchool and explain your teaching style.
Days are typically structured similarly. In the morning, there are warmups in the classroom. Instructors will give an exercise to work on, we’ll review. There’s some new content, a short lecture. And then in the afternoon, it turns into project and pair work. In the beginning of the course, it’s more structured classroom time. As it goes on, the projects become more intense.
As far as content goes, we start with Ruby basics, Git, HTML, CSS, Rack and Sinatra, and then move to Rails, SQL and working with REST web services. We also cover topics like interview prep, personal branding, conference talk prep etc...
Who are your instructors at gSchool?
Right now Mike Gehard and I will be teaching the next Boulder class, and we’re in the process of hiring other instructors for the classes we’ll be running later in the year. Finding good instructors is difficult for us. The people who you want to be teaching are the ones in the highest demand in the industry right now. It’s hard to staff a class with instructors who are both personable and killer developers, and we’re really lucky to have Mike. Mike and I have been working a lot on figuring out what we value, and what we care about is helping people solve their own problems, so we’ve been designing a curriculum for that.
It sounds like gSchool is really focused on educating students, but do you also help students find jobs at the end of the course?
So far, we’ve offered a guarantee that we’ll help you find a job with a $60,000 salary or more, or we’ll refund a portion of your tuition. I think that Jeff Casimir added that guarantee originally because there were so many doubts about what we were doing. It seems like at a certain point, that will become less necessary. Job placement has not been super hard. We do a number of demo-days throughout the course and we hold it in the Galvanize space. We invite Galvanize employers and outside employers. We facilitate a lot of those relationships and we leverage our own relationships to arrange for interviews etc. We do interview prep and resume building (for companies that still think resumes are a thing). For example we’ve gotten feedback from some employers that women applicants do poorly in whiteboarding interviews, so that’s something we’re going to focus on more. We don’t think that whiteboarding is a good way to interview or figure out if someone is going to be a good developer, but if people are doing it in the industry, we’ll prep them for it. Our professional and social networks are mostly in the Denver area, although in the first cohort, about ⅓ got jobs outside of the Denver area.
Is gSchool considering going through the accreditation process?
We would love to open in California at some point, and so going through the BPPE is now a requirement for that, and something we’ll do happily. Internally, we consider ourselves more of a job-training program than a purely academic education. So when the California regulations started surfacing, that made total sense to us. I don’t know the extent to which we’ve been working with Colorado regulatory agencies since I mostly focus on curriculum. I see regulation as a good thing. I get the sense that everyone in the industry right now is really well-intentioned, but at a certain point, supply will start to meet demand, and these job guarantees will start to decrease and people might get less truthful in their marketing. I know there was a bit of a stir a few weeks ago when the story came out, and how this was “stifling innovation,” but it’s hard for me to imagine that a couple thousand dollars in regulatory fees and a couple of Word documents is the difference between being innovative or not.
If students come to gSchool and don’t want to get jobs, but rather want to start their own businesses, is that a red flag?
We’ve had a couple students in that boat. Our philosophy is that if you think this is right for you, we welcome you. But we make sure that students know that this is probably not the best way to spend money if you’re specifically focused on running your own company. We’re not focused on Lean Startup principles, customer development- things that are important to being a technical cofounder. If, after they know this, they still want to come, we say absolutely.