Written by Michael Peck
When bootcamps debuted more than a decade ago, they aimed to solve a big tech industry problem: there were not enough software engineers to fill the increasing number of open software engineering roles.
The solution then was a trade-school model, designed for those who’d already had some coding experience but who’d never formalized their interest with a degree. Since the initial bootcamp students were already grounded in some software engineering concepts and could learn in a fast-paced environment, the instructors could take more of a facilitator or mentor approach.
But times – and technologies – changed. As cultural awareness of software engineering continued to grow, the pool of interested students moved from those with experience to those with no coding experience who wanted to find a way into the industry.
This shift necessitated changes in both the curriculum and who was teaching it. Our team quickly embraced the evolving marketplace. We immersed ourselves in how our Fortune 100 partners were approaching learning and development, as well as in the best practices that educational institutions were using to teach technical skills and concepts to beginners in healthy, lasting ways.
What it takes to be a beginner Instructor at Galvanize
Part of the challenge of teaching beginners involved curriculum development and eventually the launch of our Beginner Coding Bootcamp, but another part (a huge part) is about finding the right instructors.
“It’s already enough of a challenge to find good software engineers to teach because their time is in demand,” said Mike Rudinsky, Galvanize Vice President of Product. “But it’s even more difficult when you need people who also love mentoring. They’ve got to be able to engage students, manage the room, and manage a cohort. We look for folks who can do all that.”
Jay Wilson Jr., one of our beginner program instructors, deeply enjoys the connection he builds with students.
“The reason I’m in this is because of the bond we form with our students…” Jay said in a recent interview with Career Karma. “The beginner program…reminded me of how I started and how the bootcamp makes transitioning a little easier for people with no tech background.”
Professional software engineering experience
Jay transitioned into teaching after more than a decade as a professional software engineer. We require this type of real-world experience for all of our instructors.
Typically, instructors have 4-10 years of software engineering experience under their belts, and some have up to 20. Extended time in the market is key because while the early years of a software engineering career are generally spent as an individual member of a team, in later years, engineers are managing others and have likely hired people. This experience allows them to provide valuable perspective to students who will soon be hunting for their first software engineering jobs after they finish the program.
“These folks have hired software engineers,” Rudinsky said of our instructors. “That gives them a really interesting viewpoint on what junior software engineers – like the ones who come out of this program – should be able to do, along with what companies are looking for in new hires.”
Some code schools make a practice of using their own graduates as the sole instructors before they’ve built up any real-world experience.
“Recent graduates might know the content, but it’s like a baker who can follow a recipe but can’t answer questions about it, address any variations, or understand how to substitute parts of the process,” said Rudinsky. “Facing students, that instructor has to admit they don’t know about a given point because they’ve never actually done the work in the real world.”
At Galvanize, we do hire our graduates to serve as teaching assistants to our instructors. They help students with technical problems as they go through the lessons and projects. While they lend valuable support to the students, they never serve as instructors.
A flexible attitude, along with perseverance
Teaching requires quite a bit of flexibility and stamina. It can be exhausting to accommodate so many different types of learners. Terra Taylor, another one of our beginner program instructors, likes to share personal stories with her students to ease their fears and find common ground. One such story is about how she failed a college course and was told to switch to an easier major than computer science.
“When my students feel like they’re doubting themselves, I like to tell that story and to show them he was wrong, because I’m now sitting in front of you teaching software engineering, and I’ve been a software engineer for 15 years,” she said.
Additionally, instructors like Terra need to know when to hold students accountable so they can think for themselves and be autonomous by the time they graduate. The way we structure the beginner program helps her and other instructors accomplish this.
“We move the instructors from facilitating everything at the beginning of the program – being very hands-on – into more of a coaching role, and then into the role of acting like a senior software engineer in the real world because that’s what’s waiting out there for these graduates,” said Rudinsky.
It takes a lot of work to get beginner students ready for their new careers, and an instructor has to prove that they have the required skills and talent to get the job done before they teach their first cohort of students.
“Teaching is really hard. To find those who are passionate about teaching others, who won’t get frustrated, and who won’t get impatient is challenging,” said Rudinsky. “But we work hard to find the right instructors for our beginner students so that everyone – the students and the instructors – can reach their goals.”
This is the first article in a series about beginner bootcamp instruction. Our next will focus on the details of our hiring standards and why they’re so important to us. Stay tuned.