Alex is the Director of Operations at Claim Academy in St. Louis, and Arjun worked at Starter League in Chicago before moving to Claim to work on their curriculum. Arjun and Alex tell us about the importance of building a developer community in St. Louis, the rising interest in QE and QA classes, the makeup of their ideal student, and their outreach in the wake of Ferguson.
Arjun, tell us about your background.
Arjun: Before Claim, I worked at Starter League and did partnership work for them. A lot of the work I did was helping other organizations set up coding programs. We worked with Chicago Public Schools as well as some charter schools, private institutions, and universities in the area.
That was a really great transition into the work that I’m doing here with ClaimSTL; making sure we get high quality instructors, a good curriculum, and structure for our classes so that students have a solid, engaging experience all around.
Since Claim Academy is set in the Claim coworking space, is the motivation for Claim Academy to drive developers into those startups or to get them into the St. Louis community?
Alex: I think it’s inevitable that there will be connections between the co-working space and the school. I think the main driver for Claim Academy was to jump start the St. Louis development community. There’s a lot of demand for developers.
The short term goal is to help close that gap a little bit and increase the supply of potential developers to entry level positions. The longer term goal is to build up the St. Louis community and be one of the pillars of the development community in the city.
What are the types of companies in St. Louis that are hiring for programmers? Is it startups or big enterprises?
Arjun: The answer is both. We’ve seen interest from startups and lots of interest from a lot of the larger companies that have a base here in St. Louis looking to train those entry level programmers that they can then turn into full level programmers and developers at their particular company. We’ve also gotten interest from one or two people looking for technical co-founders or small development project work that’s just a one-off project.
We have a great startup scene here in St. Louis that really needs developers but can’t afford them at the rate that the larger companies can pay. And of course the larger companies need more entry level workers that they could train in their own companies rather than hiring them out from outside the city; they always prefer to hire local too.
It looks like Claim STL is offering a lot of different bootcamps: Java, Ruby, .NET, QA.
Arjun: A lot of the classes are in languages and topics demanded by local businesses. We had someone come in specifically and ask for a QE (Quality Engineering) class that was geared not just towards quality assurance but also quality engineering; not to mention the specific Java or .Net classes that we think are integral to a successful career. Each of these bootcamps are 12 weeks long.
Which language will you be focusing on in your first bootcamp?
Which class are you getting most interest from?
Arjun: Right now that would be QE. The way we’ve been developing it at the moment is by focusing on enterprise partnerships, so we ask businesses what kind of classes they need and QE was the first one that popped up. We just expected that there would be more interest in Ruby and Java from an individual level.
Can you tell us about the curriculum for that QE Class?
Alex: We’re still working with our instructors to flesh out a curriculum. Sometimes QA or QE can be written off as the “boring testing side” to tell programmers what they’re doing wrong. But we like to think about it as a full-fledged career opportunity in its own right. A developer or programmer who might fit a QE or a QA position would be more of a broader thinker. Instead of thinking about small systems, they would think about how every piece fits together as a whole. They’ll probably also have a stronger interest in working with people than the average developer position, so there’s more soft skills. A solid QA engineer would need to be able to talk to developers, talk to users, talk to managers and integrate all of their needs, and make sure that there’s no gaps throughout the entire process.
The curriculum will focus on smaller case studies as well as developing a general philosophy of quality assurance that really takes students across industries – because QA can be really different in the aircraft industry vs. software industry. Quality engineers will also need to have some working knowledge of programming, so basic Java will also be woven throughout the course.
Are you developing the curriculum by working backwards based on what the local companies say that they need in an employee?
Alex: It’s probably a mix of that as well as what our instructors think is important based on their experience as well as what the local market is actually looking for. We combine both of those pieces into a beginner-friendly format that students without much technical background can succeed in.
Can you tell us a little bit about the instructors?
Alex: We don’t have the instructors finalized right now, but I can tell you that we’re really excited, especially for QA, about the instructors we’ve got lined up.
Will the QA class be project-based? Will students be working on projects as they learn or will it be more lecture-based?
Arjun: Absolutely. At this point, it’s pretty clear that most people learn best by doing as opposed to sitting and listening. So while there definitely will be lecture components, the types of lectures we would like to have are not necessarily 60-minute blocks where students are watching someone talk at them. We’ll give interactive “type-alongs” as well as lecture combined with lab where you learn about the topic and put it into practice right away with dynamic, interactive questions throughout. Then we’ll have more focused labs to supplement the lectures so student can really explore the material at their own pace.
Alex: It’s important to us in doing this curriculum that everyone leave our classes with some real, tangible final projects. We’re in the process too, of getting smaller and medium-sized businesses to offer a project for students as that final project so by the time they actually leave our program, they will have worked on things that are applicable to the real world.
Do you have formalized hiring partners set up?
Arjun: We have a variety of relationships with access to our students and candidates; everything from companies offering scholarship opportunities during the initial interview process to offering projects during the class itself. Other companies will have access at the end of the process to our students at the job fair. Then of course, any company after that job fair can hire our students.
Do you imagine that once you start the Ruby course that you would get applicants who are maybe working to build their own startup or be a technical co-founder?
Alex: Oh, absolutely. The physical space we’re teaching in is Claim, which is a collaborative workspace. I can absolutely see someone who is one of our Claim members deciding they want to learn Ruby, jumping in for eight weeks with the intent of being a technical cofounder of a smaller startup.
Do you all have an idea yet of the ideal student for Claim for this first course? Do you have technical requirements?
Arjun: I think the eventual goal is to have the course open to students regardless of background. But for our first cohort the ideal students will be college grads or non-grads with some technical experience. It could be either math or engineering, one of the sciences. Someone who is transitioning into a career in development but doesn’t necessarily have full experience in programming just yet.
What else are you looking for aside from technical background? What else do you look for in the interview process?
Arjun: It’s a quality that is hard to quantify, but students that really want it are the ones that are going to succeed. When I was working at Starter League I would often find that students with less technical experience who just really wanted to get an app built and were really passionate about their projects ended up doing the best after the class ended.
It wasn’t even necessarily that they did really well by the end of the class, but if you looked at them two, three, four months later the ones who really wanted it at the beginning kept up the momentum.
That’s really the kind of student we’re looking for; a student who is interested in development and cares about it and is willing to put in time to learn independently. All of these bootcamps are really good at getting students from “zero to one” but they get themselves from one to five or however far they want to go. Development isn’t something that’s static. You need to keep learning once you’re done. So the student that is able to keep learning afterward is the ideal student for us.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add about Claim Academy or bootcamps in general?
Arjun: One big thing is that at Claim, I think it’s really important to reduce and lower restrictions for students. We want to make it really easy for students to make the decision to come work with us, which is why we take a heavy scholarship and financial support approach. We just want to lower the financial barrier as much as possible.
How much does the class cost right now?
Arjun: The 12-week program is $8,000
Are you doing anything to get specifically women and other underrepresented minorities involved with Claim Academy?
Arjun: One of the consequences of what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri is all of these initiatives like Ferguson 1000 Jobs, Hands Up United, and other initiatives are pouring into Ferguson and there’s actually a lot of great ideas on how to provide for that community through jobs or training or even a bootcamps like ours. So we’re working with Ferguson 1000 Jobs to potentially provide some training. We’re not just doing minority outreach, but also other estranged sub-communities.