Online coding bootcamp Thinkful is launching physical communities across the US to provide students with more support and networking opportunities. One of those communities is in Portland, Oregon, where Program Manager Emma Holland matches local students with local mentors, organizes “Family Dinners,” and encourages students to go to meetups. Emma tells us how this extra support, on top of Thinkful’s remote mentorship, is key to helping students integrate into their local tech communities and find meaningful jobs.
How did you get involved with Thinkful?
I’ve been working in the Portland technology scene for about four years, I'm very connected to the city of Portland, and I wanted to figure out how I could make a bigger impact on the goals of individuals in the tech and startup communities. I started as Thinkful's Portland Community Manager, creating a blended online and in-person support space. I’m now the Portland Program Manager. The idea that a skills-based learning platform like Thinkful could support people from non tech backgrounds into the tech workforce spoke to my own background, and the kind of openness Portland was already supporting.
As an online bootcamp, why does Thinkful want to have physical classrooms?
The cost of education is quite high, and a huge part of why people seek professional development opportunities is to build and engage their networks. In a city that is densely populated with technical professionals, like Portland, job seeking is more about who you know than applying to jobs posted online. The easiest way for our career coaches and mentors to encourage students to build a network is to help them get to know other people from the tech space. If you go to a meetup and see other Thinkful students, you have an immediate sense of comfort knowing there are other people who are at the same stage as you. You can feel empowered to ask the questions that you need, and won’t feel intimidated by a bunch of devs who have been doing this for 8 to 15 years.
Why did Thinkful want to establish a physical presence in Portland, specifically?
We started growing our city locations based on where our students were naturally gathering and where our mentors were. We realized there was an opportunity to create support that goes above and beyond the online student experience. We decided to go to the cities where those communities already existed and amplify those.
In Portland we saw a swell of gatherings and new students. Local prospective students were continuously asking our admissions counselors, "Do you have any mentors in Portland?"
When I started, my job was to get feedback from students and figure out how to present an experience that would connect them to a greater student body, or additional mentorship, without encroaching on their other commitments.
Why should a student choose to learn to code with Thinkful in Portland rather than going to an in-person bootcamp in Portland?
It all depends on the individual's opportunity costs, because every single learner is different. We believe that the one-on-one approach of having a mentor, while also having a local community, allows students to have an experience tailored to their specific learning style, and their availability. But if you're the kind of person that needs that extra level of accountability, and you have the time to drop everything to go to a campus for 40 to 50 hours a week, then an in-person bootcamp might be what you need.
When we chat with students, we’re figuring out how to meet their overall goals and optimize their success. If a student wants to create a FinTech startup, then we will do our best to match them with a local mentor who is an entrepreneur working in financial tech. My job as a program manager is to figure out ways to connect students with specific niches in the Portland Community – it is very tailored to the one-on-one experience.
How many Thinkful students are currently in Portland? What career backgrounds do they have?
There are 54 Thinkful students in Portland. We have eight graduates so far from the data science, web dev flex, and engineering immersion programs.
We are constantly onboarding new students in the Pacific Northwest area and their backgrounds are incredibly diverse. Occasionally, we have people who are very technical, but mostly we have people who are not technical but have an aptitude for jumping into the technical space. For example, our students are flower shop owners, a former literary assistant, a theater set technician, photographers, and former medical practitioners. We have people who came out of retirement to start their own businesses by learning the technical skills to launch a new company. So the backgrounds are all over the place.
How many staff do you have in Portland and what sort of roles do they have?
I am the Program Manager, then we have a career coach who's in Vancouver, Washington, which is just very slightly north of Portland. One of Thinkful’s internal lead recruiters is based in Portland, and then we have 28 mentors who are active in the local community.
What events and initiatives is Thinkful leading in Portland?
In Portland, it's about people getting together to meet one another to hear the diverse perspectives in the technology industry. We use a local coworking company called Centrl Office, which has three locations around Portland, to host and support students.
We do bimonthly Thinkful Family Dinners, where we get students, staff, and mentors together to discuss a particular topic with food and beer. We invite speakers from different companies to come and talk about how to make yourself stand out in a candidate pool, how to ace a technical interview, or about implicit bias that graduates will face in the technology space. We talk about how to hack your productivity and get the most out of your learning, as well as things that are very realistic for people coming into technology – the current tech climate, expectations, and how you can advocate for yourself in your first job. We also talk about imposter syndrome, and how to combat those thoughts to get the most out of your course.
We also occasionally accompany students to meetups. We'll have 10 to 15 people join, say hi to one another, and start building their own professional network. Students can then ask us, "How do I effectively reach out to this person for an interview or an informational session or hear about their company?”
Mentors do remote one-on-one mentorship with students – do they also attend events and provide in-person support?
Yes they do both – it's an awesome blend. Our local mentors engage both online and in person with students. Mentors come to family dinners, conferences, and events that they teach with our partner organization. We have one mentor with a background in fine art who worked as a developer for 15 years, and she still participates with the local arts community. She teaches with us at the New Avenues for Youth, a training space for homeless youths, to teach basic technical concepts, if that's the path they want to go down in their education.
Another mentor is also a technical expert with Thinkful. He teaches one-on-one Q&A sessions each week, where students can join him at a coffee shop or a bar, and he will do code reviews, pair programming, and mock interview prep. Students come from all over to sit around a large table, and talk about their code. It looks like a mini meetup. We try to provide an organic, supportive environment so that students will feel comfortable taking part.
Do you try to match Portland students with a mentor based in Portland?
It depends on what the student wants. Our matching process can be very intentional if that's what the student wants. At Thinkful we try to figure out the student’s intentions and needs, then try to meet that need. When I onboard local students, I ask very specifically about their goals and intentions with this program: “Since you're based in Portland, you're going to have a local community. Are you interested in having a local mentor as well or are you working to build your national network?" Our mentors come from all over the place, but they have the same levels of experience and often work with well-known companies that some of our students are want to hear about. In Portland, we do have some of that, but not necessarily as much as Silicon Valley, New York, DC, or Los Angeles.
One student told me she wanted to work for a local dev shop as a front end developer, and wanted to hear from a local mentor who had started their own company. So we partnered her with a mentor who could talk about launching their own company and how they felt in that space. Once the student graduated, the mentor also gave her a lot of information about how to network in that independent dev field. She's now working as a front end developer for a small Portland design shop. She's the first woman on their team of 10 people.
How does Thinkful support students with job seeking? Do you have relationships with local companies?
Our career coaches work similarly to how the mentors work with students – one-on-one. They meet with students either in person or digitally to talk about the intentionality behind the student’s job search mentality. When a student comes in, we have very specific goals that we ask students to follow. Our career coaches make sure we set that tone of accountability, and encourage students to reach out and go to meetups, and also occasionally provide introductions to hiring partners.
We have relationships with a number of local companies. I believe you spoke to Marcus from local company Cloudability not too long ago – he's one of our Portland career partners and is guaranteeing students interviews for a paid internship that could lead to full-time offers. We also have agreements with other local companies around interviewing, projects, and portfolio reviews.
Tell me more about the Portland tech scene. What sort of tech companies need developers?
We have a very dedicated startup community here in Portland, where even developers who work for larger companies have a side hustle or something they want to build. Portland has a focus on being very independent, very local, and very driven by the people who are here. There is a lot of intention around genuine creation that will meet a need in our community, rather than trying to be the next big thing in Silicon Valley. Local companies include Cloudability, Jama Software, Puppet, and New Relic. Those are the companies that a lot of our students have their eyes on and want introductions to. So we try to make sure they have access to those intros.
Then we do have larger brands – Adidas and Nike are both headquartered here. Expensify is here and Intel has an office on the outskirts of the Portland metro area.
Do you have any examples of specific jobs that Portland students have landed? Are they staying in the city?
Most students are staying in the Portland area. I've had only a handful of people who have moved to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle, to work for big tech companies.
One student is currently working as a remote engineer for a company based in Prague that has a Portland space. Every two months, he's flown to Prague to continue learning with this team! I was pretty jealous of that offer once he got it. Another student is working on a back end development project for a very large athletic wear organization based in the Beaverton area, which I cannot name for contractual reasons. We also have a data scientist who was hired at Cloudability to work in the cloud automation software space. He is building data structures and doing a lot of analytical work.
If you're going to be joining a company in a junior position, we want to make sure that you have continued mentorship and that the company believes in professional development so that you can see growth potential in your first role.
How does your presence in Portland improve the student experience for local Thinkful students compared to that of a student in a city that doesn't have a physical presence?
I like to make the bet that if you have an in-person presence, it's just another layer of accountability that makes you feel successful. A couple of our students went through the program and said that they felt like they probably wouldn't have been able to stay with the full stack flex program, or would have stopped believing in themselves, if it wasn't for the community that they were building in Portland.
Students have many opportunities to have additional in-person development conversations with mentors to share their woes and their worries. They have study sessions with other students to prepare for mock interviews. I’ve received feedback from students that building accessible and safe spaces to share when they felt like they were struggling is just as important as sharing their wins and successes digitally with their mentor.
Which other cities does Thinkful have a community presence in? Do you recommend that people who want to do Thinkful move to a city that has a community?
Currently, we are in Washing DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, and San Diego. We are actively building these communities in many other locations, including Boston, Detroit, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis. I wouldn't say they should move to a city where we have a community but even if you are in a commutable region, it could be beneficial.
What meetups or resources do you recommend for a complete beginner who wants to learn about Thinkful and coding in general?
We have a Learn to Code Thinkful Portland meetup – that's a great space to hear a little bit about Thinkful, but also actually put your learning into practice. This meetup meets on Mondays and Tuesdays at Centrl Office from 6pm to 8pm.
We also partner with a few local organizations as a community education resource. One of the largest tech nonprofits called Free Geek has an education space particularly for community learners. We teach free 2-hour introductory learning courses on Tuesdays from 3:30pm to 5:30pm with Free Geek in their classrooms with our mentors. People can come through and build their first website, and utilize this free space to figure out if coding is what they want to do.