Makers Academy is a highly-selective, 12 week full-time program that teaches web development in London. We talked with Rob Johnson, cofounder of Makers Academy, about their admissions process, teaching style, and impressive job placement record.
Tell us about your story and how you ended up in the coding boot camp space in London. Are you originally from the US?
Yes, I’m an American. I spent 8 years in the intelligence branch of the US Army and as I was transitioning out, I thought about developing iPhone applications because I was really excited about the iPhone. I started Googling around and found out that you needed to learn objective C, the language that iPhone applications are developed in, and I had zero programming knowledge at the time. I went to my local Barnes & Noble and bought a book on objective C and just started reading. I realized by the time I got to the 4th chapter that I had absolutely no idea what the heck I was doing.
When I looked around at the space, I noticed that if you wanted to be a developer, you really only had two options. You could try to teach yourself, which was what I was doing and having fantastically little success with it, or you could get a computer science degree and spend 4 years doing that. I didn’t really want to become a developer, I wanted to become an entrepreneur that knew how to code.
I got to the point where I published 4 apps on the App Store, but it took me about 9 months and 30 hours a week in my own time. When I moved to London, I got hired as an entrepreneur in residence at a VC firm and one of the partners at the firm was a senior developer that had been hiring developers for this big company for 5 years. He had a Bachelors degree and a Masters in computer science and he said when he started as a developer, he had no idea what he was doing. He would interview people and they could rattle off algorithm efficiency calculations in their heads but when you said “put together a repository with a simple Rails application” they would say, “I’ve never done that before.”
So essentially what we realized was that computer science programs were training theory, they were almost training people to become computer science professors instead of programmers. I remember the conversation started because I I’d heard about this great nonprofit organization in the United States where they take veterans who leave the military, where their skills don’t necessarily translate directly into a civilian position, and they’ll train them over a course of a couple of months and place them into a position and make a little bit of a placement fee. And the nonprofit organization is able to sustain itself through just those placement fees. It was such an incredible mission because it’s a net positive every way you look at it. I guess that’s what got the whole conversation started before we co-founded.
We started the first cohort about 4 months after that conversation.
So when was your first cohort?
February of 2013.
Do you cater to students who want to be entrepreneurs with a coding background, since that’s your profile?
We do cater to those individuals but we don’t give them any preferential treatment we wouldn’t give anybody else. The people we get on the course primarily fall into 3 buckets of people. The largest group is someone making £25,000 a year working a job they don’t like with people they don’t like. They have very little job satisfaction, very little autonomy and they’ve taught themself how to code a little bit online. And they’re looking for junior developer positions, primarily. The next group are people that are in the bucket that I was in- very excited about creating value, very excited about creating businesses that make tomorrow somehow better than today. But sick of waiting for a technical cofounder to build their ideas. The third group, they’ve done front-end development or some sort of design and they’re usually freelancers and they just want to add some expertise.
Are you looking for students who have programming experience even if that means going through Code Academy on their own? Or can people be complete beginners and simply have a passion for it?
People can be complete beginners. That being said, the course is difficult and we’re not shy about that. It works great; we’ve placed people at phenomenal technology companies like Pivotal Labs and Thoughtworks, but the course is difficult. So when somebody comes to us and says “I have absolutely zero programming knowledge. I haven’t done Code Academy.” Those people will probably have a pretty low chance of being accepted in the course and it’s not because we don’t feel they don’t have the capacity to perform well – but how well can you really know if you’re going to enjoy learning how to code if you’ve never actually tried? So when somebody applies for the course, if we decide to invite them to an in-person interview, we’ll always tell them to go through the Ruby track on Code Academy. It shouldn’t take you more than a few hours.
What will students learn in their weeks at Makers Academy and how will they learn? What’s your teaching language? Do you focus on lectures, on lab, projects?
We do pair programming primarily because that’s the way great technology companies write code. I’ve founded companies before, that’s how we coded stuff, and if you look at places like Pivotal Labs, that’s how they write code. It’s two engineers sitting side-by-side, challenging each other on why they’re doing something and why it makes sense. As a teaching mechanism it works really well because if you have two people, the person who grasps the concept faster has to solidify why they’re doing something to somebody else, which simultaneously is teaching the person that takes a bit longer to grasp a concept – which is a really powerful way of learning how to code.
So from day 1, they’re actually coding, hands on keyboard. Every week there’s a large project. The final two weeks of the course are carved out specifically for final projects, which can be pretty much anything the students want. We do require the final projects to cover certain prerequisites of the things that we teach. It’s our way of making sure that everything was drilled in correctly throughout the entire course.
Are those projects individual or are they working as groups? Do people pitch their ideas?
We do something very similar to the Lean Startup Machine. A student tells their idea to the class, and everybody votes on the top few ideas. We don’t spoon-feed people on the course. We don’t force feed information to people, we guide people as they’re force-feeding themselves. So if somebody wants to work on a project by themselves, which we’ve had many people do, they do the project by themselves. If they want to work in a group, they work in a group. Everybody’s an adult here, this isn’t grade school.
How many people are in each cohort?
About 25. We have five instructors - two lead and the others are TAs. My co-founder was the first instructor and still does a lot of the teaching. We believe strongly that the course will continue to excel while he’s constantly doing that because we can reiterate that learning back in. Our first full-time hire, Enrique, was the co-founder of a company called Path 11. He’s a bit of a developer evangelist. We have people who have worked all over the place. We have people that have worked in Silicon Valley and at a variety of the larger tech companies. We struggle with hiring developers like everybody does, but it’s funny to see people get excited when they come in and see that we’re teaching the next generation of coders… it’s interesting to see their reactions.
How many cohorts have you gone through?
We’ve changed the structure of our cohorts. Our first few cohorts were quite small. As of today, we’ve graduated over 100 students.
Of those 100 students, how many on average are male versus female, and do you do outreach to get more women involved?
We have a £500 scholarship to incentivize females to join because they are highly under-represented in the tech community. We partner with a lot of organizations; we sat on a panel last year for The Guardian, discussing ways of getting more women involved. We’ve partnered with a couple different organizations like Stemettes and Entrepreneur First, they have very strong outreach programs.
That being said, I wish I could say that the actual proportion was much higher - we just don’t get a tremendous number of applications from females, period. The sad thing is…the females we have had on the course have performed exceptionally well. The number one reason we feel that people (either gender) don’t even apply to the course is that they think they’re not going to be good enough to get in. We do have a low acceptance rate but I think people are not confident enough in themselves.
What is your acceptance rate?
It’s about 10%.
Do you get any American applicants?
Yes. We've had Americans that live in Europe attend, but also we’ve had people get accepted to US bootcamps but still decide to fly out and attend Makers Academy.
Could you give us an example of one of your students who has gone through the program who started off as very much a beginner but ended up doing really well?
We have a whole bunch of them. The easiest way as I say would be to scroll through our blog because we try to capture as many of those stories as we can. Nadia would probably be one of the top ones. She hadn’t had any kind of a tech background. She was on the normal corporate ladder trail of life. She did an internship at Deutche Bank, and was a really excited, incredibly smart girl but she realized that that was not the path she wanted to take. She saw Makers Academy, decided to apply not thinking that she’d even get accepted. She was accepted, went through the course, and excelled. She worked hard.
We open our office in the morning at 8:30 and close it at 9:30 at night. A lot of students will show up when class starts at 9 or 9:30 and then they’ll leave at 6. Some students are there when we open the office in the morning and we have to kick them out in the evening so we can go home, go to sleep and wake up the following morning. She was one of those people; she was there the entire time, she worked hard, she asked questions and she finished the course strong. I think a week after graduation, she had something like three job offers and now she’s working at Pivotal Labs, which is one of the best software agencies in the world. She didn't look back. She had an offer from Deutche Bank too but she turned it down to work for Pivotal Labs – and now she wants to start her own tech company, it’s incredible.
I don’t know a ton about the London tech scene; can you describe it? Where are you located in London, what’s the job market like in London for a developer?
I think the job market in London for developers is pretty much the job market everywhere for developers: they’re massively in demand. We’re located right off of Old Street Roundabout, which is the center of “Silicon Roundabout” so we’re right in the main area where all the other tech companies are. The tech scene is doing well. It’s very different than the tech scene in the Unites States. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the New York tech scene. I know the San Francisco scene pretty well and I know the differences between them. I would say that the businesses in London are slightly more conservative than startups in San Francisco – and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The reason I say that’s not a bad thing is that there are companies that are funded in San Francisco that should not be funded. If these companies were in London, they would not be able to raise a dime. Some people want to say that’s a bad thing but there’s a bit more of a barrier so the companies that you actually do see get funded are usually pretty solid.
How do you help students find jobs once they’ve graduated if that’s their reason for being there? Do you have hiring partners or hiring days?
We have something like 200 hiring partners now. The guy who runs the entire placement side of the business (and also runs our operations) is an absolute superstar who never sleeps. He’s probably reached out to every London tech company that’s been in existence for more than a year. In the final 3 weeks of the course, we start going over the students’ CVs with them. We make sure that they’ve got pictures on their Github profiles,that their Linked In and everything is all up to date. We don’t introduce them to hiring partners before they graduate because that’s going to be a distraction. But on graduation day, we do a science fair style day. Apparently in London they don’t do science fairs so I had to explain what an American science fair was.
Like I said before, Ruben is in charge of placements; he does a really good job of getting a feel for what a company is looking for and then he spends a lot of time with the students on the course and tries to match them up not just on technical skills but on things like culture fit.
Do those hiring partners pay a certain amount upfront to be a part of that science fair or is anyone allowed?
Anybody’s allowed to be there but we do charge a placement fee if they hire somebody.
And do the students get a tuition refund if they take a job with one of those hiring partners?
They don’t. We toyed with that idea for a little while, but it just became too complex to track. I don’t want to sound overly altruistic but we don't want to erect barriers to our graduates being hired. We want to help as much as possible, but if they find a job through some other means - we don't want them to have a financial incentive to go with one of our partners.
Do you have a job placement rate that you publish?
It's a difficult question because it can mean a lot of things. 100% of the people that have graduated looking for a job are in developer positions right now. The reason we don’t just do a blanket placement report is the question is quite flawed. For example, do we include people that never were looking for a job and they want to be an entrepreneur? What about people that freelance?
Even though you’re in London, I’m sure that you have been keeping up with the California boot camp news- is Makers Academy concerned at all with becoming accredited or working with London’s regulatory agencies?
We don't really care about accreditation. The credit ratings agencies had "approved" sub-prime mortgages - how did that work out? The stamp of approval of somebody going through Makers Academy is that they get a job with companies like Pivotal Labs and Thoughtworks. If I’m Pivotal Labs or Thoughtworks, I’m not going to be a nice guy and hire you. People hire staff because they are going to provide real value. It’s supply versus demand. As long as we continue to train great developers and they continue to get great jobs, that's all the accreditation we need.
Anything you’d like to add about Makers Academy, Rob?
Just one thing. We get contacted all the time by people who ask, “Should I come to Makers Academy or should I go to General Assembly or should I fly to the States and go to Starter League or one of those other ones?” There are a large number of absolutely incredible boot camps out there. I always tell people to contact two or three people that have graduated from each course that you’re considering. Talk to them, grill them, find out how they learned. Ask them what the major negative things were. Ask them what they loved. You will quickly see how different courses are positioned in different ways.
There’s no one course that fits everybody.