Tech Elevator has five campuses in the Midwest, preparing students from all backgrounds to transition into tech. We spoke with three instructors – Katie Dwyer from Cincinnati, Beth Campbell from Pittsburgh, and Margaret Green from Detroit – about the tech scenes in their cities, their teaching styles, and why they’re passionate about ushering more women in the tech space.
Thanks for joining us, ladies! How did you first learn to code and break into the tech industry?
Katie: Initially, I was double majoring in Computer Science and Math but realized the CS degree would get me further than the math degree, so I focused on that one. I then went back for my master’s degree in Computer Science to continue opening up doors and studying topics like algorithms that I found interesting. Since then, I’ve self-taught a lot of the newer technologies.
Beth: I started out with aerospace engineering, but due to some life changes I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree. I started working at help desks and in network and server support, and realized I loved development. Bootcamps weren’t available in the early 2000s, so my only option was to finish my degree. I got my degree in Computer Information Systems (CIS) while working full time, and I’ve been working as a developer since 2005.
Margaret: Three years into a bachelor’s degree, I took my first CIS class and just loved coding but I could only pay for four years of school. I graduated with a General Studies degree and started working in accounting. The vice president of the company and I talked about computers a lot, and I decided I needed to revisit the field. I found a job as a Systems Analyst at a pharmacy software startup. Everything I’ve learned since that first job – C, Java, HTML, CSS, etc – I’ve taught myself. Eventually, I ended up as a college instructor teaching Computer Science and now I’m working on a master’s degree in Software Engineering!
What inspired you to move into the teaching world and become an instructor?
Katie: Because I have a master’s degree, I’d taught the occasional night course while working. The big difference is that the material I taught over 16 weeks in a course is now just 4 weeks in a bootcamp. I enjoyed adjuncting and one of my favorite parts of my job as a senior developer was mentoring younger developers. I’ve always looked for those opportunities so when I found this opportunity with Tech Elevator it felt like the best of all worlds – I get to teach as well as mentor.
Beth: I always loved teaching, whether it was mentoring or tutoring in school. I had a college professor who inspired my desire to teach but I needed the “street cred” first. When I got into development, databases, and data warehousing, I was the one onboarding and training new hires. My sprint demos made sense to others and were recorded and reused. When Tech Elevator reached out about teaching, I was happy to have a conversation. I’m thrilled to be here and share my interesting background – I meandered my way through different technologies and development and have experience from all over the place. It’s fun to share that experience with people who are just starting out in the field.
Margaret – you taught programming for 20 years before coming to Tech Elevator. What’s the difference between teaching at a university versus a bootcamp?
Margaret: The students are awesome at a bootcamp! It’s incredible how motivated they are. Teaching at the college, when you told students they had homework and they could spend the remainder of the class working on it, they would leave. Tech Elevator students are loving the whole process of learning – that is what’s so exciting about being here.
Since you all came into software engineering through a more traditional path (ie. CS degrees, did you need to be convinced of the effectiveness of the bootcamp model?
Beth: I was first contacted by Tech Elevator when they were expanding into Pittsburgh – I had never heard of them and was definitely skeptical. I had heard only a couple of bootcamp stories (and not very good ones) and I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach there. However, as I did my research, I saw how committed Tech Elevator was to not only the technical chops but the social element, job hunting, and professional development portions as well. They were also making sure the students are good candidates, the right fit, and driven so the cohort is filled with peers who can support you. It creates a high-energy and driven environment and it’s a cool thing to be part of.
Katie: I agree 100%. I was super skeptical but was impressed regarding the number of people who applied versus who they let in. They’re not interested in accepting people’s money and putting students through the program unless they know they’re going to be successful. I was also impressed by the 91% placement rates they report using an independent reporting agency. When I was considering teaching, I talked with a friend and former coworker who was a Tech Elevator instructor and asked about his experience and personal insights. Those combined factors won me over.
Margaret: I taught at a different bootcamp but it didn’t teach the additional soft skills or help students sell themselves – Tech Elevator does a great job with that.
You teach at three different campuses – Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. What are the tech scenes like in your respective cities?
Margaret: Tech Elevator is currently in a startup incubator space here in Detroit called TechTown and it’s great because there’s a lot of activity and these are the companies that will be hiring a lot of our students. Detroit is also “Car Country” and they’re looking for a lot of employees who already have a bachelor’s degree – since 70% of our Tech Elevator students have a bachelor’s degree in some area, that gives them an advantage with the car companies.
Katie: There are a ton of companies in Cincinnati desperate for developers. If you’re on LinkedIn, you’re going to get an email a week from a recruiter – the need is so big. There aren’t many university graduates so Tech Elevator fills a need in the community so these tech companies can stay in the area and harness that talent.
Beth: I’ve been in Pittsburgh for just over a year and a half. Just as I was looking at moving here, I was noticing the software development jobs were maturing. The tech companies have been moving in as the city has reinvented itself from being the Steel Town to “Med-Tech-Ed”, standing for medical, technical, and education. It’s amazing to see this once-blue-collar steel town retain its approachable blue collar feeling but be a technical, educated, and kind community with a deep cultural element. It’s been cool to live here and be part of it.
Is the curriculum the same across your campuses or does Tech Elevator teach anything specific to the job markets in each campus?
Beth: We have a couple of hiring partners in Pittsburgh that focus on DevOps so we turn one of our scheduled review days into a DevOps day and teach Selenium. It doesn’t take away from the core curriculum, but supplements it.
Recently, a few students were interviewing for an ETL job in data processing and warehousing for BNY Mellon and since that’s my background, I offered a review afternoon for anyone who was interested.
We keep the same curriculum across campuses but provide additional knowledge based on the instructors’ background or what our hiring partners want at the time.
What is your personal teaching style at Tech Elevator?
Margaret: I’m definitely a hands-on instructor; I like to jump in and help everyone. With the Tech Elevator students, I can just pose a question and they already know the answer. Even though there’s a lot of material coming at them, they do a great job of staying on top of things. It makes it even more fun for me and I can show them other elements and nuances of the language.
Beth: I’ve always been the one-on-one onboarding person. I’m more talkative than other developers and think a bit more visually, so I’m able to approach concepts from a different angle, especially since many of our students are non-traditional coming in from different careers. I can frame things in ways that aren’t always brought up in the curriculum. It’s fun to watch the “light come on” as everyone’s trying to understand, especially in the first 4 to 6 weeks, and I get to support and mentor them.
Katie: I’m also very hands-on, I feel like code examples are the best way to teach. I trace through a concept on the whiteboard. I also really like engaging the students during the lecture. If a student asks a question, I’ll ask questions back to them about what’s possible, how we could approach it, and ask them to fix my (inevitable) coding mistakes!
How have you seen the representation of women in development change over the years and how can bootcamps like Tech Elevator impact diversity in tech?
Katie: We’re teaching more women in this current Cincinnati cohort than in all the years I taught at the university-level. I feel like the bootcamp model allows for more diversity than the typical college student and the typical CS student. It’s difficult to be the only woman in the room and as an instructor at Tech Elevator I feel like I’m helping to normalize it. It’s normal for a woman to know what she’s doing – that’s beneficial for both for the male and female students to see. I feel like it’s getting better as an industry and bootcamps like Tech Elevator are really having a positive influence on diversity altogether.
Margaret: I totally agree with Katie! It’s great to have women in these leadership roles for the students to see. I’ve taught in a college classroom with 40 male students, and in my first Tech Elevator cohort I have 2 women out of 9 students. Tech Elevator helps students consider the soft skills as well as the technical skills so they can become a complete, well-rounded employee. I think that helps our female students.
Beth: Normalizing women in tech is huge. I was the first woman on a team of seventeen at my first job. I was 23 years old and while they were a great team, they were initially terrified of saying the wrong thing around me. It can also depend on the company – I’ve seen some teams that are 50/50 and are comprised of all races and ages and created real value. Some women at Tech Elevator are coming from being stay-at-home-moms and are trying to establish a career.
Some companies have gotten on board right away and made it a priority. We’re so out of balance that it’s going to take an intentional effort to get fixed. I’ve also gotten to speak to a STEM middle school and encouraged them to pursue tech, regardless of what they look like and who they see are already in the room. I love that we’re encouraging and making it easier for people who don’t look like everyone else to jump into tech so we can change the industry and make it more diverse – it’s fun to be part of it.
Have you been able to contribute to the Tech Elevator bootcamp curriculum? Tell us about the last big curriculum change at Tech Elevator!
Katie: I started at the tail-end of the previous 14-week session and during their capstones, I noticed they were “using” Agile – but not really. So I incorporated using a Kanban board in with our daily sessions and have written out stories highlighting what we wanted to cover and moved it across the board. It only takes an extra 30 to 60 seconds per day, but they’re getting used to the more regular software development lifecycle and they’ll be better able to use Agile in their career and understand its value.
Is there a specific type of student who is most successful at Tech Elevator?
Beth: This cohort has three psychology majors and it’s the first time I’ve had anyone in a scientific-based field. There have been a lot of liberal arts degrees, one person was a heavy lift operator, one person was a caterer – no matter what the background, whoever is self-driven to learn more, likes to problem solve, can push through difficult times, and is self-reflective, those are the students who are amazing to watch. You see how they work, think, and adapt into being software developers.
Margaret: It goes back to that desire to learn. You have to be willing to go for it, and even fail if needed, but just keep trying over and over again.
Do you have a student success story?
Beth: We’re all pretty new to Tech Elevator, so I don’t think we’ve had a cohort graduate yet. But one thing I’m proud of is that Tech Elevator is involved in the community with hiring partners. We started Women, Wine and Web Design in Cleveland or Columbus and it’s now spread through all of the campuses. We partnered with Dick’s Sporting Goods recently and I had the privilege of being the first Tech Elevator instructor speaker. I like the community involvement – we support the local developer community in addition to our students. One evening at a networking event, I was able to connect a female bootcamper with a hiring partner and now she’s about to start as an employee soon! We use networking to empower and uplift women in the tech industry – it’s a great collaboration of Tech Elevator, our hiring partners, and the local tech community.
For any aspiring bootcampers looking to get involved, what are your favorite meetups or resources in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland?
Beth: When I moved to Pittsburgh, I started working with Code & Supply, a developer organization with a community and coworking space here in the city. I actually met a fellow Tech Elevator instructor through it! They have community events where they present new technologies, people can practice presenting their products, it’s a really supportive environment. All the Nerdy Ladies was a spin-off group – it’s a place for women of all nerdy areas to join, not just tech!
Katie: Cincinnati has a lot of great resources for meetups as well – whatever your passion is, basic .NET or anything more specific, there are a number of resources out there. You can also do some online pre-work with Tech Elevator to see if coding is right for you!