After running in-person coding bootcamps in Nashville and Birmingham for a few years, Founder Matt Landers wanted to make Covalence more affordable and accessible to students. Enter their new, online-only coding bootcamps, the full-time Catalyst program and the self-paced Atomic program. Matt tells us why it’s important to keep the student:instructor ratio as low as possible, how Covalence classes differ from other online coding bootcamps, and what lessons from in-person teaching he is bringing to the online classroom.
What’s your role as the CEO of Covalence and how you are involved with the new online program?
I’m very hands-on when it comes to the program curricula. I work on the business side, but I'm also a developer – I was at Microsoft for 10 years. So if you take a Covalence course, you'll see me in a lot of the videos. We have a team of about eight at Covalence, and we’re all either developers or working in student success.
Covalence has been teaching immersive in-person classes for a few years in Nashville and Birmingham. Why did you decide to replace those with the Catalyst program?
One reason is that the overhead of an in-person class required us to charge a high price, and we don't want price to be a barrier to learning to code. The other is that we weren't able to focus on iterating the curriculum as much as we wanted to because we were so focused on the operations of the business itself. After expanding to five different cities, we took a step back and decided to just focus on the curriculum, and launch it online.
Because we're switching to an online model, we don't have rent to pay, we don't need to have instructors in every city, and students will get the same bootcamp experience where they will meet with a dedicated instructor live via web conferencing every day.
This model will be more beneficial for us and for students in the long run because we'll be able to impact more people's lives and make learning more affordable for aspiring developers.
What's the difference between the Catalyst program and the Atomic program?
The Catalyst program is designed to mimic an in-person bootcamp. You've got a dedicated instructor, and there's a strict timeline with things that we expect students to do on a daily basis. If you want to learn to code in nine weeks, you need an instructor available to help guide you through the initial learning curve of software development.
The Atomic program is designed for you to study on your own time, at your own pace. If you have a job and you can't dedicate all of your time to coding from 9am to 5pm every day, then the Atomic program will work better for you. It's the exact same content as the Catalyst program, you just don't have a dedicated instructor there to help you move through the content; however, we have a very active and supportive community (including Covalence staff) that will be with you every step of the way while you're progressing through the material.
What technologies are you teaching in the Catalyst program – the same curriculum that you were teaching in the in-person bootcamp?
We teach React, NodeJS, MySQL – everything from the back end to the front end. There's no way we can predict which technologies every single job is going to need, so we’re focused on teaching you how to pick up technologies on your own. A lot of our graduates work with languages we don’t teach, like C#/.NET and Java, so we give students the skill set to allow them to pick up those tools, frameworks, and languages really quickly.
Since we moved Covalence online, we have recorded our curriculum in video lessons. We're also starting to supplement that with additional content. For instance, I'm working on a C# and .NET course, which is what I used at Microsoft. Then we're going to add content for other languages and technologies like Python, machine learning, and AI.
Our content is always going to be new and fresh depending on what technologies are hot, and what feedback we get about what's working and what's not. In fact, we just redid the first week of Catalyst based on feedback from students.
Has your admissions process changed now that your courses are all online?
One of the most important things we look for in applicants is curiosity about technology and coding. Making money is not enough of a motivator to learn to code, because coding is hard. If you're going to learn it in nine weeks, and do it professionally as a job, you need to be highly motivated, curious and really love it.
We don't have any requirements for the Atomic program because you can just start and stop at will because it’s a subscription.
What is the time commitment and schedule for the Catalyst program?
It's a full-time, nine-week program running from 9am to 5pm CST. Our in-person coding bootcamp was 10 weeks, but that first week has become our pre-work, which you go through before the course. For the first six weeks, the instructor works with the 10 students in your cohort directly. There’s a daily schedule that students must follow, and each day the instructor will be available to help the students through voice chat and live streaming in our community. Students progress through the labs and exercises together and, if needed, can have coding walkthroughs from the instructor – just like we would have done in person. We have a 10:1 student to instructor ratio because when you’re studying online it’s very important to have somebody dedicated to you in an environment where they are not being stretched too thin. For the final three weeks of the course, students work in teams to build final projects using all of the things they’ve learned.
How often will students interact with other students?
They interact on a daily basis. Even the students in our Atomic program interact with other students. Our Covalence Community is in our Discord server, which is an instant chat service where people can get together, share their screens, ask questions in the general channel, or talk to somebody one-on-one. Everybody is constantly communicating with other students or alumni. We try to foster a community of developers who want to share with each other and help each other out. And that's truly what it’s like to be a real developer – being part of a community and enjoying seeing other people learn things.
How do students learn the curriculum? Are there videos or do instructors teach live?
Students go through the online content together with the instructor. For our last in-person cohort, we switched to our online content as well because we had multiple locations where we were delivering this content, but we couldn't control the quality of the instructor at each location. By recording it, and having our best instructors teach the content, we ensure that the quality of the instruction is always consistent.
Students watch the content individually, then come together as a cohort with the instructor via a video call on Discord to ask questions and bring the concepts together. That instructor can get you over any hurdles that you would have otherwise had to look up and figure out on your own.
What is the learning platform like?
Our learning platform is called Gravity (continuing the science theme).
Students can watch videos in the portal, and see the layout of the curriculum. As students go through the online platform, they are checking things in GitHub, speaking with instructors, and receiving feedback on their code. Every module has assignments, from drills, right up to a full-scale project. Students submit all their labs and exercises through GitHub and give the instructors access to that so that we can check it. That also helps students build a portfolio on GitHub so people can see their code and what they’ve been building, which is really important when you start to look for your first job.
Instructors also use the platform to make sure everybody's on the same page. We can take notes, see where each student is at, which videos they have watched, and make sure that we're giving each student all the support they need during their journey. If you’re struggling with something and we see you haven't watched the video, then we'll follow-up to say, "Hey, you missed this video which might help you get through it." If you're in Atomic, we have the option for you to buy one-hour mentoring sessions where we connect with you and help you through whatever hurdles you might be having.
How is this learning platform different from a free, self-guided resource like Codecademy?
A lot of the online training you get out there is very guided and hands-on. The way that we designed our curriculum is to get students to actually write code. But it’s not in a little editor with hints on the screen – at Covalence, students have to constantly understand what they are learning. We've designed the curriculum to give students a thorough understanding so they can become professional developers.
But you absolutely can go and learn for free on the internet. I taught myself using a book! But I didn't do it in nine weeks. Without a team to support you, connect with, and ask questions, it's going to take you a lot longer.
Plus, there's more to becoming a developer than just learning to code. We cover a lot of problem solving in our labs, and ask you to do things that you never learned. As a developer, it is so critical to learn how to be resourceful and effectively search on Google or Stack Overflow to solve problems. When you get out there in the real world and land that first job, there is nobody there to say, "Hey, here's all the answers.” That is what will make you a self-sufficient developer who has the skills to succeed.
How will career services work for Catalyst? How will your team help students find jobs in many different cities?
Our student success team is there to help you build your technical resume, find jobs and prepare you for what to expect after you graduate. We're also working on adding a feature to our portal to allow employers to engage with students. Employers will be able to create accounts and post jobs that only students who have gone through our curriculum will be able to see. A big problem for employers now is that when they post a job on the internet they get inundated with tons of unqualified resumes that they have to sort through, so it can be hard to find a good developer. Our platform will give employers more confidence that they’ll get more qualified applicants.
Right now, we put the power in the hands of the person going through the course and give them all the tools they need to get a job. We can't have a job waiting for each student; that’s not how it works. Even the schools that guarantee a job have a list of criteria that you must follow in order to get that guarantee at the end. We tell students that they need to be actively engaged in the application process (writing code, building projects, checking in to GitHub, writing a blog, reaching out to employers, and applying to jobs). At the end of the day, getting a job depends on the person who’s going out to get the job. I don't want anyone to be under any assumption that we're going to find you a job.
When you're networking with employers, is there an emphasis on remote jobs, since these students are learning remotely?
These days, even working as an in-person developer, you're going to work with remote developers – it's inevitable. There are too many positions that need to be filled. As you go through the Catalyst program, build your project using Agile methodologies and sprint planning, and work alongside other virtual developers, you are really getting set up for success in a remote environment. I’ve talked to employers who say they really need people who can work in virtual environments.
What are the biggest lessons your team learned while operating the in-person class and how you're bringing those to Catalyst?
There are a couple of different lessons. One of them is finding the right person for this type of fast-paced learning environment. It's not for everyone. If you think you've had a hard class in college, you have never done anything like this. It is intense. It's all day, every day. People come to us crying like, "I don't think I can do it." Being a coding bootcamp instructor is, at times, almost like being a psychiatrist because students are panicking – they've spent all this money, they’ve quit their job. So we learned to set the expectations upfront of how hard it's going to be, but how worth it will be in the end, and how much you will learn.
The other thing is making sure we allow students the freedom to figure some things out on their own. As an instructor, it's tempting to just answer all their questions right away. But you're really doing students a disservice because although they are finding the answer to a question, they're not truly learning the material, and don't know why it works. When they go out and research on their own, they learn so many ancillary things by researching that answer.
I'm excited to take everything we’ve learned and apply it to our online platform in order to have a bigger impact on the developer community. There’s a huge need for development skills, and a lot of people can change their lives and benefit from learning these skills. If we can make this work in this remote environment, we're going to be able to impact so many more people. We're really excited to get in there and change lives.
What’s your advice for students who are embarking on an online coding bootcamp?
The main thing we see is that you can't take big breaks. You're learning so much, so fast that if you take a break, you won't allow the content to accumulate on itself and get that deeper understanding. Even if you're just doing an hour a day, that's better than doing 10 hours each weekend. Keeping it fresh, thinking about it all the time is really important, especially in an online scenario.
As soon as you get to a point where you've learned enough to actually build something of significance, start to work on a project you care about on the side while you're still learning. You’ll always spend more time and more effort building something that you want to build, and little projects like that really solidify the concepts and ideas in your mind. It also means that when you graduate, you're really ready for a developer role and you've done a project or two that you care about.