gSchool is a unique six-month, intensive program based inside the exciting Galvanize community of start ups and innovators. gSchool student Rolen Le dishes the details on how he made sure he was committed to a career in coding, why he chose a six-month school, and how practicing your LSAT review can actually help you ace the gSchool interview!
What were you doing before you attended gSchool?
I was at LivingSocial for three years, during the startup stages, watching it grow, and I really saw how Ruby on Rails could really make a big impact especially in the e-commerce space and that really sparked my interest.
Did you have any technical background before you applied?
None at all, I went to George Washington University to study marketing and that’s how I got to LivingSocial. But it’s something that’s always been interesting to me. I guess the people in my generation, mid to late 20s, grew up seeing the dot-com era. Ever since then it’s always been a passion of mine, learning about online businesses and what differences you can make with that technology.
Did you apply to other boot camps? Why did gSchool stand out to you?
I made a very conscious decision in early 2013 that by the Fall I wanted to be in a dev boot camp or a program of some sort. I was looking around and I had known Jeff [Casimir] earlier from Hungry Academy; I saw him every day and was able to talk to him. Also, he and a couple of the other staff members at gSchool do a lot of conference talks, which really clued me into how engaged they were in the community. So it’s not just a school, but you’re also being invited into this Ruby community that’s already really close and you’ll be able to talk with people in the industry that have practical experience.
Did you apply for Hungry Academy when you were at LivingSocial?
Yes, I did. Not getting into that program is what really inspired me to go to gSchool. I decided to take a couple of years and think about this seriously as a career. Then at the beginning of 2013, I went down that road of teaching myself Ruby, teaching myself Sinatra, which is a smaller version of Rails and teaching myself Rails and some HTML and CSS. I wanted to make sure that if I was going to be doing this for the next 20 years of my life, I needed to be able to do it for 4 hours a night before I go to bed for 4 months.
I was able to make a small project; it pulled from a Gem that another LivingSocial person made about the Nationals and I would track if the Nationals had won that night or not.
In the bootcamp world, 6 months is on the longer side; did that concern you with gSchool or was that a deciding factor for you?
I would say it’s a deciding factor. Even if other schools teach the same material in 12 weeks, just doing something for 6 months in a learning environment where you can get feedback will make you better at it. I’d rather take the extra 3 months to make sure I’m proficient and be in a solid position coming out of it, have better opportunities, and just increase my exposure to things. I saw that it had a major upside. I know not a lot of people have the opportunity to just take 6 months off, but I’d rather like, go in debt than trade in 3 months of valuable learning time that could drastically improve my coding ability.
There’s people in our program that didn’t hit their stride, I would say, until month 4. And when they hit that stride, they were able to catch up with the upper echelon of the class. It’s not linear progression, like, week 1, week 2, week 3 but there are different points in time where people just get it. And the longer they have that environment to make sure they get it, they’re going to be set up for success.
What was the application process like for you? Was there a technical test, did you feel like there were culture questions?
It’s very similar to the Hungry Academy process. There was a 5-minute video answering 5 questions. Then from there you had to either give a writing sample or a code sample. So I gave them the code sample I did for my project, “Did The Nats Win?” walked them through that. Then they get back to you, if you got in or not.
How long was the interview process from start to finish?
From start to finish I would say that it was a little under under a month. So you get the video, you get the code review or a short essay. Then they contact you for a Skype call interview. Then you solve an LSAT logic problem together; they are problems like “ X, Y and Z, X came before Y, Y came before Z “; just so they understand how you function in understanding logic problems, which is one of the easiest non-programming interpolations of how to program, I would think.
Once you were accepted to gSchool, what was the pre-work like? Did you have a pre-course curriculum that you had to complete?
There wasn’t any pre-work. I think a lot of people are familiar with the Flatiron pre-work. I think that’s become the gold standard of things people should do before a boot camp, which is something I worked on myself just as a guide to learn. But really what we focused on was more of the idea of mastery of something. So we read a lot of books like, How to Think Like a Programmer and Drive.
One of the things they wanted us to do before we got to gSchool was to do 20 minutes a day of typing on typing.io. If you’re a hunting and pecking typer then getting the code from your brain to your fingers is probably one of the most crucial things. If you can’t type out your thoughts quickly and concisely, you’re at a disadvantage. Practicing typing takes time and it makes you a better developer because you can move faster.
So if there was no technical pre-work, what did you think on the first day? Did it seem like all the students were at a different level? Did you notice that your cohort had a diversity of background or did you all start at square one on the first day no matter what level people were at?
No matter what the level was we all started at square one. There were people came from computer engineering backgrounds and some people were coming from blue collar backgrounds. But we did all the same tutorials together the first week. Day two, everyone did the same exercise: Ruby in 100 minutes. You kind of get the basics, and instructors are there to help you out if you don’t understand anything. That’s where people who are already strong can get ahead because there’s a series tutorials that they could do on their own if they wanted to- you can move at your own pace because you work individually or with a partner.
Describe the teaching style and the curriculum.
I think the course is structured amazingly because Jeff, the head of curriculum has a Teach for America background and he taught in DC Public Schools for a couple of years, and was the principal of the Hungry Academy. He has experience in education so he’s really good on pedagogy, how teaching affects learning. It’s not just the material, it’s how you present the material; what are the best theories on how to learn and how to teach.
So we spent the first month and a half just learning Ruby. We didn’t touch Rails, we didn’t touch any kind of web framework. We were solving small puzzles, parsing CSVs and not relying on a lot of stuff Rails did for free.
Then from there we moved into Sinatra; it’s the very same framework so we were writing a lot of things Rails would give you for free, to understand why we were writing these things. There’s lots going on under the hood that if you’re doing this with just Rails, you’re not really learning, you’re just waving a magical wand without any appreciation of how it’s running underneath.
Then the remaining 3 months we really flipped the focus on Rails and how it works. We started off with a basic blogging app, a content management system for posts. Then we moved into creating an e-commerce store then creating something that’d be similar to a Seamless where it’s one site that has multiple stores then from there incorporating APIs together to flesh out full products then finishing it with building multiple apps, making them tie together and having a service oriented architecture.
Did you work on a capstone project at the end of your program? What did you choose?
I’m actually working on it right now. There’s two of them. There’s the curriculum capstone which was the last one of building a service-oriented architecture of different apps. Then it’s your own personal/mastery project, and mine is going to be a small mobile app that tracks your table tennis scores.
In table tennis, there’s always some guy telling us he’s the best or whatever and you want to keep track of all those statistics. Obviously you want to keep it on your phone so that’s a cool challenge; integrating Twitter so you could tweet at somebody like “Hey, do you wanna play? Meet me at the table in 20 minutes” and stuff like that.
Could you partner with a robotics person and do a physical table tennis set that actually links to your app?
Yeah. That’s another interesting thing that we do at gSchool. We do have “hardware days.” So we get to play around with that. After we finish a big project we’re all tired. There’s always cool, neat things we’ll do like go to a code retreat and talk about code or like, “Hey, we’re gonna do hardware today because you’re probably sick of doing Ruby after doing it for the last 4 months.” So there’s always little outlets like that. It’s interesting.
Describe your experience towards the end of gSchool. Have you been interviewing with companies? Do you feel like you’re fully prepared to be interviewing?
I’ve been on a couple of interviews so far, I think they’ve all gone well. We do a lot of – I wouldn’t say interviewing prep but doing things that will make you a strong candidate.
We write a lot of technical blogs or solve computer science problems. I’m working on this very simple encryption that all programming languages give to you for free. You just type in 4 characters and it’s done. But it’ so obscure under the hood that you have no idea how it works. Then I think there’s a smaller project I’ll be working on, on my own and it’s probably writing a blog post and hopefully getting more discussion around that.
I think there’s a lot of encouragement to first be a good member of the community; to open source, help out other people, mentor. If you’re a good person and you work hard, the jobs will come to you. You’ll gain trust, people will like you, you’re doing good and that will also attract the right companies too, companies that you want to be a part of because if those are things they care about, those are things you care about, you’ll probably align.
What’s one difficult part of interviewing and how do you prepare for it?
There’s a lot of these bootcamps coming out and all of them are different. What is special about what I learned have learned through my program will not only separate me from the computer science kids coming out of MIT or Harvard or Stanford, but also the other boot camps. Also, I think from an industry standpoint we need to work together holistically.
We’re all kind of in the same boat right now, we’re all junior developers and there’s all this stigma that we’re needy or we need to be supported. We need to think about what we can do as a group to make that better. Overcoming the obstacle of people not hiring junior developers is something as a community, we need to figure out how to solve.
A lot the bootcamps offer a partial refund to the student if you end up accepting a job with one of their partner companies. Does gSchool have partner companies and has that been a part of your experience?
No; Jeff has made a very explicit choice and once he explained it to me, I really agreed with him. That’s why the tuition’s a little higher than the other ones, because it’s a single payment model as opposed to creating a marketplace. The main thing is he wants you to be happy; he wants you to do what you want to do. So if he has some incentive to say you should work at a certain company, you may not be getting a fair deal.
I now know 100% if I ask him where I should work, I know he’ll give me a honest answer without having to worry.
Actually, gSchool’s network is very strong because the instructors are so ingrained into the Ruby community that the last few cohorts have gotten jobs all around the country. And the support afterwards is amazing. People from Hungry Academy always stop by- they’re mentors. It’s more about caring about the network than just the job placements.
What kind of person would you recommend attend gSchool or even a bootcamp in general, but particularly gSchool, and what kind of person do you think won’t really succeed?
I think there are a lot of blog posts talking about these kinds of schools. I think the students who will succeed have a very high “locus of control.” At the end of the day, you’re building things that have not been built before and you have to just believe in yourself. That sounds very cliché and cheesy but I think it’s true.
You’re going to fail a lot and you’re going to feel a lot of pain; so having the perseverance to get back up is important. I think a successful student also has to have the passion for learning because it’s not like other careers; you’re going to always have something to learn because no one knows everything as a programmer and you have to sometimes realize that and just keep going. You may not get it as easy as you did in your last career but if you keep working hard it, you’ll make headway.
Thanks so much to Rolen for sharing his experiences as a student. For an exclusive look at the instructor staff, check out our interview with gSchool instructor, Jeff Dean. For more information about gSchool, visit their website or their school page on Course Report.