Mercedes Bent manages Web Development Immersives globally for General Assembly. The twelve-week, Rails-focused school employs their tried methods of teaching to produce full-stack developers who go on to get hired in the tech community or even launch their own products. Mercedes gives us the scoop on one of the largest and most established coding schools in the US- how she finds great instructors, what they look for in potential students, and some upcoming programs that will get you excited about General Assembly.
Tell us about your story and how you got into the coding bootcamp space.
I grew up in the Bay Area and started learning how to code in high school, and intended on being a Computer Science major in college, but found it incredibly difficult to learn. I switched over to economics, worked in finance for a few years, and decided that I wanted to get back into tech. My parents were entrepreneurs, so growing up, I didn’t know that there was a career choice other than starting your own business. So I decided to go to a place where I could learn more skills about running my own company and learn some coding skills, which was GA.
Why did General Assembly choose Rails as a teaching language and why do you think that was the right choice?
Do you ever think about doing a .NET or Python course in addition to the Rails course?
We might be looking for an iOS course before Python. .NET is a bit more older and out-of-use in startup land, not in general (generally it is still very widespread), but if we find that our students are being attracted to larger, Fortune 500 organizations that are a bit older, we might. Maybe we’ll have something in our job training program if that’s what employers need at the moment. There are a ton of jobs in .NET, but most of the developer bootcamps are at the front of the curve in terms of determining the languages that will be more popular later. Most of our students are on the younger side and are attracted to startups and are more likely to get jobs with startups than those larger Fortune 500 companies. Back in 2012, we did a lot of research with the employers in our markets who are open to hiring junior developers. We teach students how to learn to be developers, not a specific language, so some of our students have even gone onto using Python in their jobs.
What are you looking for in potential students? Can someone be a complete beginner?
We put a lot of thought into our education philosophy which guides how we select students. We do want to be a true beginners program, which is where we’ve kept our focus. We don’t believe in including a test as part of the admissions process. We’re an education institution, so we’re looking for traits that tell us the student will be a good learner. We’re looking for grit, motivation, and intellectual curiosity, being able to take feedback well. That’s been a really good path for us. I know that there are students who we would not have taken if we had a test, but they were really great learners and went very far in their three months. Had we had a test about prior knowledge, they might not have gotten in. We don’t want people who are solely self-interested, because we believe that teaching others as you’re learning helps build the skill set. We look for self-directed learners who want to be part of GA’s community.
Do you offer any scholarships at General Assembly?
There’s a great one that is being announced soon- look for an announcement in March or April. It will start out with fellows in New York, but will expand throughout the US and eventually will be international. I’m a black female and am deeply invested in increasing diversity in the tech world, but don’t think it should be done through check-the-box, tuition discount marketing ploys. I want to tackle this problem in a much bigger way.
Once a student has been accepted, what kind of pre-work do you require?
We take students through installing things they’ll need on their computers and we want them to get really familiar with Git and make sure they’re using the resources and frameworks that developers use in the real world. We make sure they can navigate their computers and focus on understanding the internet from a very high level. The bulk of what we focus on in prework is Ruby and Git. We want everyone to have the same baseline coming in, but that’s not going to be perfect. We have a “Week Zero” in most locations, where we have a study hall and instructors on site to help students get through the end of their pre-work.
What’s the average cohort size in New York?
It depends, market-to-market, but the average class size in New York is 20-25 students. In all of our markets, we keep a 7:1 student to teacher ratio.
How do you find your instructors?
It’s really difficult to find great instructors. Mentoring and teaching are not the same thing- teaching requires such an intense skill set. We have coaches on staff who train our teachers. We use inbound leads and outbound methods.
Does General Assembly have a refund policy in place and how do you deal with attrition?
We closely track the reasons that people leave the program. Half of the time, students who leave do so for personal family reasons. The other half- it’s a really hard program, and sometimes people just fall behind. We give them chances to meet project requirements, and if they’re not meeting those, then we don’t want to do them a disservice and send them out into the job field. Luckily, we have programs other than our immersion program, so we may send them to a slower paced class. Our refund policy differs from location to location so we are compliant with local laws. In NYC for example our refund policy is 75% in the first week, 50% in the second week etc.
Can you give us a quick run-down of the WDI curriculum and what the teaching style is?
There are a number of online bootcamps and classes, so why do you think that an in-person bootcamp makes the most sense for the Web Development Immersive?
One of the reasons is project based learning- being able to work on projects and being taught information that is timely for that project. We have a lot of students who have learned online, and I won’t knock online learning at all, but there’s something about being in a physical, classroom environment, treating it like work, having instructors to call on. The community is so important to success.
How does General Assembly help graduates find jobs in tech?
In Week 7 of the WDI curriculum, we introduce an overlapping job readiness curriculum, which is created and run by our Outcomes Team. There are two main events after WDI- the Meet & Greet, which is the large, science-fair-type event for employers to come and check out students’ project. The other event is for students who want to continue to train, and is a 3-month, paid apprenticeship with a real company. Monday through Thursday, you’re working with the company and on Fridays, you’re at General Assembly. The apprentice model is a great way to learn because the company taking you on knows that you’re a junior developer and we require outcomes partners to mentor the students while they’re there. Most of the students go on to get an offer from the company that they did the apprenticeship with, so they get a bit of an easier transition. If the student didn’t like that company, they have a second chance to come to the next meet & greet.
Do you have partner companies that you work with to get students jobs or charge a recruiting fee?
We don’t receive any recruitment fees from any of the outcome partnerships we have. I know that’s a large revenue stream for most of our competitors, but we specifically decided not to go that route. We did not want to create pressure on students to take a job that they weren’t sure about, but that would have been good for us to take. We want to have an equal view towards startups and established companies, and their ability to pay average or above-average salaries. We allow anyone to come to our meet & greets- we’re not restricting it to companies who will pay us. I’ve heard stories about students being strongly advised to take the first job offer, even when they’re hesitant to. In our apprenticeship program, the company pays the student directly.
If a student isn’t looking for a job at a company, but wants to start their own business, do you support that “startup mentality?”
We support that, and we’re able to because our revenue model doesn’t rely on students getting jobs. We’re still looking for the same learning traits in admissions.
Since General Assembly is in California, what is your approach to becoming accredited and why do you think it’s important to work with regulatory agencies?
Just a quick point of clarification - we're becoming licensed, not accredited. Licensure is mandatory, accreditation is voluntary. But yes, I run our program globally, and any best practices in one market, we’ll adopt globally. There are special things we’ve had to do in California, but we’re going to adopt those in the rest of our markets because we think they make sense. In terms of whether or not the regulation is good, we submitted our application a while ago. I think it’s a good thing because it’s really difficult to run a school. We take it very seriously that students are quitting their jobs and putting their livelihood in our hands- that’s a huge responsibility. The regulations may or may not understand our specific industry perfectly because we’re not the most traditional educational model, but we can still provide feedback and use their rubric. We’re happy to comply globally.
Tell us about the alumni network and how that’s manifesting.
If you want global jobs network, you have that with General Assembly. We’ve had people go to to all of our cities and be able to get a job. The alumni team is doing an incredible job thinking about how to infuse lifelong learning in our alumni and getting them special perks.