We recently sat down with Chris Beck, the head of mentorship at Bloc. With over 20 years of experience in software development under his belt, Chris was previously VP of Engineering at Privia Health, a DC health-tech company before joining Bloc. Chris has been a Bloc mentor for years, and joined full-time following Bloc's Series A funding announcement, to strengthen and grow Bloc's mentor community. Today, Chris manages a lead mentor team of 6, oversees the broader community of over 100 Bloc mentors, and has himself mentored 32 students.
Tell us a bit about your background- in education, programming, or both!
I started programming back in the early 80’s by going over to a friend’s house who had a little Timex-Sinclair computer that really just allowed you to do some BASIC programming and nothing else. Then for Christmas that year, I got a Commodore 64, and my love and passion for programming really took off as I built multi-user dungeons and simple sprite-based football games.
Many years later, I found myself starting a little web consultancy, building websites for the restaurants I worked for in college. That translated to a webmaster job for a startup in Silicon Valley after graduating. That was a lot of fun - I loved the culture and energy around tech in the late 90’s.
After that, I got a job doing web consulting, then later as a Java Architect for a Top-5 bank. After a few years (mid 2000’s), I found Ruby, and left the Java scene to pursue full-time opportunities in Ruby on Rails. I have worked for quite a few startups since then, either developing Rails code, leading dev teams, or both.
Other than taking junior devs under my wing and helping them increase their skills, I had never really worked in education until I began mentoring at Bloc about a year and a half ago. I believe I have found my calling, though! I absolutely love working in this space.
How did you get into programming as a career?
I was pretty much self-taught. I would consume books on programming and any other sources I could get my hands on. When I first started, we didn’t have any online bootcamps or classes - we didn’t even have the internet :-), so it was a lot of reading books and experimentation.
I majored in Visual Communications technically, at the school of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNC Chapel Hill. When I was there, even as a returning student in the late 90’s, there still wasn’t any kind of web development track in the CS school, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
How were you introduced to Bloc? Had you considered teaching with other bootcamps? What stood out to you about Bloc?
I was looking for some freelance income in the Fall of 2013 and saw a posting online by our Head of Curriculum, Mike Jewitt. I responded to the ad and we had a conversation - I thought the idea was amazing, so we decided to give it a shot. I took one student at first, really enjoyed it, then ramped up from there. I had never even heard of the concept of an online bootcamp before Mike and I spoke. I guess it just wasn’t on my radar.
Did you have to be convinced of the bootcamp "model" at all? What makes you excited about online education, in particular?
Before joining Bloc, I really wasn’t familiar with the model. Now that I am, I love it! I think it’s a fantastic and economical solution to the problem that has been plaguing the technology industry for decades: how to find well-prepared talent. Using this model, we can rapidly give someone the practical skills that they need, without having to wait 4 years before they’re ready for a job.
What is your position now at Bloc? What does it mean to be a "Lead Mentor?"
My position is Head of Mentorship. I run the team of Lead Mentors, who are responsible for helping me continue to improve the Craft of Mentorship by offering support, training, communication, and community to our talented pool of Mentors.
How do you help provide support and training to the Bloc mentor community?
My team is a little new, but over the last several weeks since we created the Lead Mentor team, we have begun pulling together a collection of Best Practices that have helped us over the last couple of years when mentoring students. We are sharing this information with our mentor teams.
Additionally, each of our mentors belongs to a Mentor Team now, so they have a designated Lead Mentor that they can go to with any issues they come across, such as curriculum suggestions, how to handle certain student situations, upcoming vacation schedules, etc.
And finally, we are trying to communicate more with our mentors by constantly sending out curriculum update notes, listening to their wants and needs about new tools that will make mentoring more efficient, and generally being available any time they want to chat about Bloc, mentorship, or anything else.
Did you help develop the curriculum for the course you teach? How did you decide what to include or exclude from the course curriculum?
I did not. Whereas at an in-person bootcamp, the instructor writes the curriculum between leading cohorts, at Bloc we have a dedicated team of talented Curriculum Developers, led by Mike Jewitt, that are iterating on the curricula every week. The mentor community provides feedback, but this way we can devote all our attention to our students.
What is the feedback loop like between students, Bloc admin, and mentors?
It’s pretty tight. Students have a variety of ways they can reach out to Bloc, and I know our Program Coordinators do a great job of proactively reaching out to them as well. Program Coordinators are guidance counselors or sherpas, who proactively reach out to students to do orientations, help them when they fall behind, and ensure they achieve outcomes. In addition, since a student talks to their mentor several times per week, we constantly get feedback regarding student experiences with the course, their mentor, the pace, etc. Mentors also are doing a great job of communicating with their Lead Mentors, so we can take action and reach out to others at corporate if necessary, should any kind of situation arise.
It doesn’t stop at graduation, though. We feature dozens of graduated students on our website, and love it when they tell us of the successes they have enjoyed since finishing the course. We may have a LOT of mentors and students, but we are still a small company, so spreading feedback around is pretty easy for us.
As a mentor at Bloc, you've seen and worked with a lot of students. Do you have an idea of the “ideal student” at Bloc? What type of person have you found really excels in the class? (And likewise, are there types of students that should not do an online course?)
I have mentored dozens of students, and the one thing I can tell you is: there is no one particular type of student that excels over another. I have had total newbies who never programmed a thing in their life really take off and excel. Conversely, I have had students with a good amount of programming experience who didn’t do so well.
To me, the “ideal” student is one who is really motivated to do something with the skills we are offering after graduation. Those students tend to fight through problems a little better, seek additional help when they need it, and put in the time necessary for success in between meetings with their mentors.
If there is one type of person who should avoid this type of program, I would suggest it’s someone who is not able or willing to put in the weekly work required, according to the pace that they have selected, in order to get the most out of the curriculum and the meetings with their mentor. Surprisingly, I have had a student here and there who treated the program like they were just trying to get a “C” in college; doing just enough to get by. That’s not an effective use of anyone’s time, and it would certainly be a waste of money.
How do you approach retention/attrition and ensure that students complete their course?
We try our best to make sure the students are having a great experience throughout the program. Sometimes a student finds themselves struggling, either because they underestimated the commitment required to be successful, or because life circumstances have changed for them. There are a number of tools we have in our toolbelt to ensure that we can manage a student’s needs, while keeping an eye towards helping them achieve their desired outcome.
For instance, if a student registers for the 12-week pace, but then finds the workload at their day job increase, making them unable to keep up with the required work for Bloc, we can help them slow down to a pace that will fit their new schedule. Or perhaps their learning style isn’t quite meshing with the mentor they are working with. We can assist them in finding a new mentor that fits them better.
Our Program Coordinators really act like a student’s guidance counselor, and have a lot of things at their disposal when a student feels like they may want to pause or drop out. We generally will do whatever it takes to make sure our students can be successful.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Bloc or bootcamps in general?
Bloc is an amazing company, and I strongly encourage anyone who is considering getting into the lucrative field of web and mobile development or design to give us fair consideration. The big difference between our program and the online-only bootcamps is the student-mentor dynamic, and you can’t overestimate the value in that. I’ve had many students come from some of the online only programs, who were able to take their skills to a whole new level just by having someone to talk to. A lot of times, a mentor can explain something in 5 minutes that a student may struggle with for hours if they are just reading the curriculum on some website on their own.
Additionally, I think what sets us apart from other similar mentor-led or in-person bootcamps is our people. Bloc is a small company full of people passionate about education, and it comes through in everything we do. Bloc has the best culture of any company I have ever been associated with, and I am proud to be part of the team!
By the way, we’re hiring :-) Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in joining us.