After several years teaching algebra and biology, Mark Bann was turned on to programming, so he used his summer break to learn Java at Detroit’s Grand Circus Java Bootcamp. We sat down with Mark to talk about why the bootcamp model appeals to him as a teacher, the feedback loop at Grand Circus, and his final project improving riders’ experience with Detroit’s People Mover.
What were you up to before starting at Grand Circus?
I graduated in December of 2012 with a degree in secondary education, specifically math and biology. After that I took two long-term substitute teacher positions, which turned into a full-time job for the two years teaching algebra and biology.
This past school year ended June 12th and then the Grand Circus bootcamp started the following Wednesday.
So you did not take a summer break.
No, no summer break at all!
During your undergrad, did you ever take a computer science class?
No; May is a rough month for teachers. My cousin who is in the computer science world and has a Masters in Computer Science heard me complaining and told me to looking into computer programming. He also knew someone who had done the Java bootcamp at Grand Circus before.
I was talking to another student at Grand Circus who has a CS degree and he said that a bootcamp might even be a better way to learn because it seems like in a computer science bachelor’s program, they talk a lot about theory but don’t actually get their hands dirty with coding. We’ve talked about theory during the bootcamp but it’s been more hands-on actual programming.
Is your goal to get a job as a junior developer after you graduate?
I’m starting to apply and am looking for jobs in the software development world. I love everything that I went into teaching for but there are things I’ve learned that make it less appealing.
If I can get a job in software development and even use my educational background to stay in the world of education, I would love that. But my goal is to get a job where I’m going to continue to learn, hopefully at the same rate that I’m learning now and just progress in this career.
Did you look at any other bootcamps when you were doing your research or just Grand Circus?
Well, in Michigan there aren’t a lot of options. There are certain workshops like Girl Develop It and Black Girls Code, but based on their names, I didn’t think they would be a good fit for me. Plus, those are workshops, and in terms of actual bootcamps, there was nothing else I could find unless I was willing to move. I have a house and a pregnant wife; I wasn’t going anywhere!
What was the application process like for you at Grand Circus? Did you have to do a technical interview, was there a coding challenge?
They were pretty sly about some of those things. Looking back, the answer is yes, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
The first step was an application online. The question I specifically remember is “How would you explain to a robot how to make your bed?” I probably wrote out 40 steps. I think that was a somewhat “technical” interview because it’s designed for people like me who had absolutely no experience.
After that, there was a group interview. First, a phone interview that felt like a fairly casual conversation or a culture interview. Then a group interview where we were given a challenge: three minutes to make a Ping-Pong ball launcher with three other people.
Had you done Codecademy or another online course before you applied?
Was the fact that you were learning Java important to you? Grand Circus teaches an iOS boot camp and a Front-End Bootcamp too- why did you choose that class in particular?
The number one factor was that it fit perfectly during my summer vacation, so I could keep a nice safety net of my teaching job.
Any language they would’ve offered over the summer, I would’ve taken. That being said, when I was researching, it seemed like you could start with any language and learn from there. So I wasn’t as concerned about the language as I was the timing.
I could also use what I learn at Grand Circus in the classroom if I want to go back to teaching, so it just seemed like a no-lose situation for me.
How did you pay for the class? Did you have savings or did you get a scholarship?
I had savings. They do offer some scholarships here. It seemed like there were two for minorities in coding and another that was for if you have plans for bringing up Detroit.
How many people are in your cohort?
13, including me.
Did it feel like a diverse cohort in terms of age, race, gender?
Yeah; there are only three women in the class. When one of them is absent, you can really see the difference! Someone from Grand Circus made a comment at the very beginning of our bootcamp that our breakdown wasn’t really indicative of their typical bootcamp demographics though. As far as age goes, I would say there was a 15-20 year range.
Is everybody on a similar technical level?
Who were your instructors?
The instructor is Jayashree Ravi. She has taught courses at Wayne State and she does web development as well. She’s awesome and does a really good job.
It can be frustrating at times because she doesn’t hold your hand through things and if she did, we wouldn’t get nearly as much out of it.
As a teacher and an education major; what do you think of the teaching style? Is it completely different than traditional education?
It’s basically how almost every teacher wants to teach. When students need more time on a topic, we spend another day on it, no problem. I would love to do that when I’m teaching high school but there’s just no time.
I think it’s fantastic. I think the model is very good. Basically, once someone finishes a task, she’ll give us a little more time for the person to go a little bit further or for other people to catch up and then she has someone present the project. We’ve definitely done a lot of learning from each other. It’s a very student-centered classroom.
How many hours a week would you say you’re spending on Grand Circus?
This bootcamp is 10am to 5:00pm every day with a half-hour lunch. There are plenty of times when I’ve got the project fully done and ready to go for the next day and I don’t have to do anything, so I look for jobs or whatever, or just practice old assignments. There are other times when you need to put in a few hours outside of class.
I would say on average between 40 and 50 hours. I don’t feel like I’m working as hard as when I was teaching. Maybe that’s just because I’m enjoying a lot of things more.
Is there a set curriculum? Do you know what’s coming up the next day?
Yeah. Usually the program director will send us a message on Friday and tell us what the outline is for next week. It has the book pages that we should read if we want to.
On one day the pages could be in the 180 page range; so there’s no way you’re going to actually read everything ahead of time but we have an idea of where we’re going, always.
What’s the book called that you’re using?
It’s called Programming Java.
Are there things that you didn’t expect or that you would change going into the next cohort and what’s the feedback loop like?
It’s almost scary how quickly they implement feedback. That’s probably the thing I’ve been most impressed with; we have a Wednesday survey every week. Then on Friday typically we do one-on-one meetings where they pull each individual and have a conversation about what’s going well, what’s not going well, any problems, any concerns, what we hope for – and they are actually listening.
We have instructors and two programmers just for the Java bootcamp and like I said, there’s 13 of us in the class, so that ratio is incredible. There are a lot of ears listening to things that we’re saying.
Can you tell us about the project you’re working on?
Yes, this is our final project. We all made our pitches today and then they gave us our group assignments. My group of three is building something to make the People Mover more useful.
What’s the People Mover?
Oh man! The People Mover is Detroit transportation. It’s like the subway but it’s floating up in the sky and it goes in one direction in a nice, continuous loop all around Detroit, and has 12 or 15 stops.
Our application shows exactly what you can do at each station- restaurants, entertainment, parks etc within walking distance from that station.
Will you work on that for two weeks?
Right. We are all presenting on the same day in August. Grand Circus does a really good job at getting companies to come in and watch the presentations, even if they have nothing to do with what we’re presenting.
You said that you had been looking for jobs after class. What are you finding? What is the Detroit tech scene like and what’s the job market like for developers?
Well, I’m still learning. Companies include HP, GM and other auto industries. Then there are a ton of startups. Detroit has a lot of opportunities. StubHub is actually right downstairs, Fathead is just down the road.
Within metro Detroit, there are a lot of options. It seems like every week I get an update and it’s got another 15 jobs that have been posted just for the search terms of “Junior – Java”
I’ve been using Dice and Glass Door. There’s also Indeed and Monster and aggregators like that. Dice is specifically catering to tech jobs so that’s been the primary one that I’m going to.
Even if you go back to your job as a teacher and don’t get a job as a programmer, do you think that it was worth the money?
Absolutely; it’s weird, the air conditioning broke the other day and I was thinking about it the same way was thinking about debugging a program. And it worked, we finally got it figured out. The skills are transferable to so many other things. It’s just logical thinking; so it’s totally worth it.