After working in animation for ten years, Chris Bradley was ready to head back to the East Coast and change careers. He was looking for a high-quality remote programming course, so he applied to Hack Reactor's newly announced Remote program. Check out our interview with Chris- it's full of useful information about the Hack Reactor admissions process, what to expect when learning online and how the Remote course compares to the in-person option!
What were you doing before you started at Hack Reactor?
I had attended an MFA program with an emphasis in computer animation. and then worked for about 10 years as a visual effects artist in Los Angeles. I created visual effects for commercials, television and film, finally ending up at DreamWorks Animation doing character effects.
What made you want to change careers?
Throughout my visual effects career, there was often some level of scripting involved. I wrote little tools to do certain things and worked with third party vendors to see what the current state of their technology was in order to decide between partnering up with them or writing something proprietary in-house.
So gradually, my career took me closer and closer to the development side of the industry. I never got to a point where I was actually a software engineer, but it seemed like a really neat space to be in.
So you were not a beginner when you started at Hack Reactor.
Probably not. I had done some scripting in Python, as well as MEL (Maya scripting language) and VEX (Houdini scripting language) but I always struggled to get good at scripting. I just never had the time to dedicate to the kind of thinking behind how to do it well.
When did you decide to start looking at bootcamps?
After being in L.A. for about 10 years or so, my wife and I decided we wanted to be closer to extended family back on the East Coast and I left DreamWorks without a concrete plan of what I was going to do. We ended up in Central New York, the flip side of picking a rural area being that there aren’t a lot of job prospects. I was looking at what the remote world had to offer wondering: “are there any viable career solutions or career opportunities?” I really felt that I could leverage a lot of my experience, interests and passions to create a good life for myself.
Did you look at other online bootcamps like Bloc and Thinkful?
Actually, I completed Bloc last year before joining Hack Reactor. As I did my preliminary search I looked at all the options and quickly honed in on the half a dozen or so that had credible reputations.
Did you look at any in-person boot camps?
No, I didn’t. I’m about three hours from New York City which at the time had the closest on site program. We had just gotten settled, so spending three months away from my family wasn’t really an option, and Bloc was the only boot camp that seemed to have a comprehensive offering that included some form of mentor or instruction, which I felt was important.
I spent some time on Treehouse and Code Academy and I think they’re great for getting introduced to programming, but you’ll never learn how to be a professional programmer through those sites. At the time, Bloc was the only one that offered one-on-one mentorship, which I think was a great initial support mechanism; there was someone you could actually ask questions and get a direct answer from.
The truth is, I picked Bloc because it was remote. Going to one of these places onsite for three months was kind of the opposite of what I wanted for myself and my family.
What was the application process like for Hack Reactor Remote?
Hack Reactor does its brand and its students a great service by being very selective with their admissions process. I’m going to speak about what I went through, although I think it’s changed a little bit since they’re constantly iterating based on feedback, which is really cool.
Once I submitted that, it opened up access to a chat application. They’ve got a chat bot, I think it’s on Firebase, that is just generating random chats and you basically have to interface with it using Ajax, JQuery and the like. It’s an exercise that’s intended to force you out of your comfort zone and to rely on your resourcefulness to get it done.
At the time, you weren’t even allowed to schedule a technical interview until you successfully completed that exercise.
After you successfully complete the chat bot you are allowed to schedule a technical interview. It’s probably a standard tech interview, about an hour long, with a few minutes of ‘why are you doing this?’ kind of thing and then it’s about 45 minutes of paired coding. It’s not for the faint of heart- it’s basically about getting very comfortable with anonymous functions and call-back functions and how to use functions as arguments to other functions.
Again, I think that by establishing that base level just to get in, they’re setting up their students for success in the long haul by accomplishing two things: setting the bar high from the get-go (last I checked, their acceptance rate was between 3 – 5%) and creating up a baseline that all students can start from.
This is important given that a lot of people with a wide variety of experience are going to be applying to the school. Some people come in with what I would call a moderate tech background, others with CS degrees, and others who were previously lawyers or whatever - with little experience in tech. Students come from all walks of life.
Other coding schools don’t really do this and consequently have to keep the curriculum down to the lowest common denominator, so you wind up spending a lot of time on basic fundamentals, which may not be appropriate for the entire class.
Was there anything that you were hesitant about or were you pretty much convinced during the interview and application process that Hack Reactor Remote would be a legit use of your money?
It’s a few hundred dollars shy of $18,000 which is the same price as the on-site program. That is psychologically different from most other coding boot camps that offer both onsite and online with a substantial discount for the online classes. In that case, the question becomes, why is the online version cheaper?
Once you get over the initial shock that it’s the same price, your expectations are that the experience is going to be as good as onsite. And once you start thinking about it that way, a more appropriate question to ask is, why are other places charging half as much for the online version? Is it half as much the experience? And if so, why are they doing it?
I think Hack Reactor, over the course of their two years, had opportunities for expansion. They could have gone to satellite locations and opened up offices, or almost franchised the school. They were very, very concerned about the quality control of the curriculum and they felt that it would be much easier to manage from one central location and distribute it over the web as opposed to opening up satellite branches. I think they had just as high expectations for the remote program as they do for the onsite program and based on that, they charge the same. It did take a little while to process that but at the end I think it makes total sense.
Everything’s going to be a leap of faith and I think a lot of it is tempered by their placement statistics. So you have that to offset any kind of the risk. You have to do your due diligence and make sure that you’re clear on what you’re getting out of it.
I want to talk about logistics for a bit- tell us how the remote classes work?
Hack reactor is 6 days a week, 11 hours a day of scheduled activity. That’s basically the minimum expectation, and you wind up spending, on average, a couple of hours more per day. Hack Reactor wants to make sure you never run out of stuff to do - they provide so much structure and so many opportunities for activities and stuff to work on that you could never finish it all.
Do they put a camera in the lecture room for you?
Initially, it was exclusively recorded lectures. What they’d been doing is recording the lectures from previous cohorts and giving us access to those. It’s an interesting format; we don’t get the benefit of actually being able to ask the instructor a question in live real time – but at the same time, we get the benefit as remote students of being able to pause, rewind and replay the video, which onsite students don’t have, so it’s a little bit of a trade-off.
What’s phenomenal about Hack Reactor in general is that they’ve taken an innovative iterative approach to teaching and their curriculum. Durring the first six weeks in the junior class, the 6 days of the week are broken up into three two-day long sprints. The first day in the morning, the topic will be introduced. You’d get a brief introduction lecture to a topic and then they’ll give you to a couple of hours to pore through the project documents and do some background research. Next, there’ll be a specific targeted lecture that’s kind of the meat of the project and then we pair up and hack away for the rest of the day.
At some point the following day there’s a solution lecture and then you have the rest of the day to finish up your project based on the best practices you learned about in the solution lecture.
This would be on a two-day cycle (called a “sprint”) that finishes with a sprint reflection that starts with about 5 or 10 minutes of just throwing out ideas on what you liked or didn’t like about the sprint. The class then votes on each topic to achieve consensus and pick 2-4 of them to discuss in detail.
And you were able to participate in that feedback?
Yes; this was done with the remote students just as it is with the onsite classes.
Would you use Google Hangout?
Yes. We heavily relied on Google Hangouts to come together and share a screen to have these kinds of dialogues. An amazing part of the class is that, if something was not working, Hack Reactor would come up with a fix within a few days. It was a very iterative process in that way.
As the course progressed, we started to get more access to instructors. There was some feedback saying we felt we were not getting the same experience as onsite so they would bring instructors in and give a lecture over Hangout. It was just really cool that they were able to adapt to our feedback immediately and import modifications to the program to address those concerns.
Were you ever able to interact with other students, remote or in-person?
There is a ton of interaction among your remote classmates and the Hack Reactor experience is completely built around the idea of pair programming, so there is very little time where you are doing anything by yourself.
So pair programming was an easy process even though you were remote?
I’d never done pair programming before and I feel like that whole experience translated very well to the web interface. We were using a really cool service called Floobits which basically allows you to synch up tech Sublime Text sessions. It’s a live code-sharing system so as you were typing, you see what the other person’s doing.
Once you have that combined with something like Skype and Google Hangouts, it really is just as good as sitting right next to somebody. So that experience translated incredibly well to the web.
How are the Bloc and the Hack Reactor remote programs different or similar?
I think you have to take a step back and look at the intent of each program. A year ago, Bloc positioned itself as “zero to web developer in 12 weeks.” I think they’ve reframed their expectations and now they say ‘learn the fundamentals of web development in 12 weeks.” Their intended results are just different.
Because the intended outcomes are different, the experiences are choreographed to be different. One of the ways Hack Reactor measures themselves is in their hiring placement statistics. They’re really making sure that they’re investing a lot in the program to develop those kinds of people. Since employability, for those immediately seeing jobs, is a big goal, they’re also concerned with recreating what it’s really like to work as a software engineer and recreating that experience. There’s an emphasis on pair programming, as well as thinking about the more theoretical aspects of application design like time complexity, algorithms and that kind of thing. I think they’re aiming for different results.
How were the instructors and how did you interact with them?
It’s the same instructors for the whole school. When we were watching the recorded lectures, they were recorded from the onsite presentations with the exact same instructors. I should mention as an aside, Hack Reactor probably has easily some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered anywhere. They clearly have mastered the discipline and they have also mastered how to teach it. Even the recorded lectures far surpass most of the live lectures I’ve had in all my education up to that point.
I highly recommend that you go on YouTube or Google anything that Marcus Philips has presented and you will see what I mean; it’s incredible.
Hack Reactor also has one of the best Angular developers on staff, Scott Moss, who wrote the ngFX library. He’s onsite and actually came into our class to teach a live lecture over Google Hangouts when we had our Angular sprint. They’re very much experimenting with the format and trying to figure out which works the best. That’s really what they’re concerned about; providing the best experience possible.
You were saying the first 6 weeks is more lecture-heavy. Is the second week more project-based?
Yeah, I’d say there are more lectures in the first 6 weeks but you’d still have most of your time to spend hacking away. They’re basically done in the form of test-driven development. They give you a skeleton project with a bunch of failing tests and it’s up to you to look why the tests are failing and try to make them pass. Then you transition from the junior class to the senior class, which is the project phase of the course.
We did one solo project which was a two-day sprint and then a pair project which was another two-day sprint, then two more small group projects, about a week in length, and finally a large group project which took up three to three and a half weeks.
Can you tell us about one of the projects that you did that you’re particularly proud of?
One that I had a lot of investment in was a Spaced Repetition review app. Spaced Repetition is a method for studying and reviewing material. It’s essentially like flash cards on steroids with a really powerful method and a ton of data to back up its effectiveness.
The premise is basically that you get a flash card, it asks you a question which you answer, and then it reveals the answer and you rate how easy it was to recall the answer. Based on how well you rate yourself, the application has an algorithm that determines when the next time you’re going to see that card is. If you have a really hard time answering the card, it’s probably going to bring it back at a shorter interval. But as you get more confident and your ability to answer the questions becomes easier, it’s going to start staggering those intervals out to longer and longer intervals.
We did this project in Meteor, which was a ton of fun to work with. I got to implement the algorithm, which was really cool and hands-on.
There was another really cool project I didn’t get to work on but one of our other groups completed for their thesis project. We were using Google Hangouts for the whole class and it’s not the greatest. So they wrote their own Video Conferencing library Google Hangouts with much better video quality and much better audio quality and much more reliable in general. So there were some pretty cool projects.
How does the remote program incorporate job placement and job readiness?
I can speak to this to the extent that I’ve got experience with it but I should also say that I was invited to participate in the Hacker In Residence program, which pulls me out of the job hunt. It’s basically a post-graduate fellowship with the school. I’ll be doing that starting Monday. This last week is the actual week of the job hunt where they have a job day hold a hiring day. This is basically like a job fair where 30 or so companies come in onsite and each student interviews with about 6 companies. They’re currently setting up a similar hiring day experience for the remote students.
Leading up to the actual day when you’re face to face with prospective employers, all of the job preparation is identical to the onsite in that you get tons of experience doing mock interviews and help on how to craft your resume which includes an audit to ensure the most effective presentation of your personal story. Remote students received over two hours of live lecture time with a recruiter from Microsoft, getting real hands-on feedback on our presentation skills and how to pitch our selves. The experience is identical to what onsite students get.
You had mentioned a hiring day. How do they do that for the remote class?
I didn’t get to participate in that because I took the Hacker In Residence position but my understanding is that they’ve lined up five or six employers to do a series of hangouts throughout the day for the remote students, trying to replicate the onsite experience as much as possible. So they have an allotted time for the hangout with the particular employer; you talk to them and then you move on.
For your Hacker In Residence program, are you going to be working on the remote program specifically?
It’s basically part-time work directly for the school. In my case, I’ll be doing admissions work. The rest of the time we’re just expected to work on projects of your own desire and if it benefits the school and is something they wind up using, they’ll actually pay you for it. Hack Reactor’s only concern is that you’re working on something to continue your development as a software engineer. They’re very supportive and encouraging of personal projects and if it benefits the school, that’s fantastic and if not that’s also fantastic.
Once you’re done with the Hacker in Residence program, do you see yourself freelancing or being a remote employee?
I haven’t really thought about it in terms of what kind of employee I’m going to be. I’m more interested in working on projects – this sounds corny – that I’m passionate about. Personally, I’m not interested in working at a social media company coming up with another button to tell somebody that you like them. That’s not what I’m interested in.
Given where I am geographically, remote is probably going to be a big criteria.
After going through the program, have you noticed any traits that you’ve found you needed in order to really be successful in online learning?
I think that Hack Reactor has established a very good gating factor. Their application process is very selective in who they admit because they don’t want to waste anybody’s time. They don’t want to waste your time as a prospective student and they don’t want to waste their time as a school with accepting people who aren’t going to be a good fit.
What’s really interesting too is they put just as much emphasis in on being a culture fit as they do an aptitude fit. Not only do you have to be willing and able to do the work, you have to be willing and able to work with people. Also, you have to to be kind of comfortable with not knowing what you’re doing (and having confidence that you’ll figure out how to find the answer) because that’s a big part of software engineering.
Just from the schedule alone, it’s not for the faint of heart. I have three young kids and it was definitely incredibly difficult to see them for 15 minutes a day. I’d wake up and get them out the door for school because it is Hack Reactor is on a West Coast centric schedule. Being on the East Coast, my day would start at noon and not finish until midnight, one, or two in the morning. There’s nothing about the program that you do on your own time.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It was definitely the most challenging academic experience of my entire life but that being said, it was more than worth it just in terms of a sense of accomplishment. It’s just a very gratifying experience. If anybody’s looking for a challenge and they want to push themselves farther than they think they can go, Hack Reactor’s the place to be.