Red Squirrel's Nuts

I constantly forget where I bury my nuts, but at least they sometimes grow trees.

Oct 27 2013

Precious Journey, Changing Gears

On the morning of April 22nd, a group of 6 co-workers welcomed 15 students into a large office space. One of these co-workers was the Director of the office. That Director was me, and I was scared. Together, those 15 students paid about $180,000 to be in this office with me and my co-workers. We had 9 weeks to launch their careers in software development. They expected jobs. It was on the news, so even my neighbors knew about it. My reputation was at stake.

We took them through a few exercises and talked at them for a few hours. The big goal was to get them “coding” before lunch. Through a combination of good timeboxing and my discomfort with listening to myself speak, they began working through their first coding challenges at 11am. I think this is where I started losing control.

The students worked in pairs. Our workstations are actually built for pair programming. Once those 15 students started collaborating, it was only a matter of time before they would take over.

Our teachers also work in pairs. Our program has 3 phases of 3 weeks each, and teachers pair-teach a phase with each other. So, once we have all 3 phases in session, we have 3 pairs of teachers. Because it takes 6 weeks to ramp up to 3 phases, it took longer for the teachers to take over.

I am inspired by people who choose a difficult or abnormal path. Admiral Grace Hopper is one of those people, and she liked to say that “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” That saying is written on the wall in our large office space. While they are in the space, the students and the teachers definitely live by these words.

Inside jokes started to happen. New challenges were assigned. Shoes started to come off. High fives began to break out. Students worked late into the night. Doubts began to creep in. Competitive edges started to sharpen. A generous spirit of helpfulness and collaboration emerged. Struggling students felt supported by stronger students.

Another group of students arrived. Two more teachers arrived. The helpfulness spilled over from the first cohort as they began to mentor the students behind them. These students, who were paying more than $1000 week to learn how to code, were taking the time to teach students who knew even less than they did. Their generosity brought me to tears when I first saw this “pairing board”:

With pair programming now happening across cohorts, the program was out of my control. The students were spending countless hours together, laughing, crying, hugging, fighting, forming deep relationships, and living together. But then something profound happened.

They began learning faster than we can teach. Being a self-taught software developer, I know how this moment changes your life.

We enjoy unleashing latent human potential. This means that we tend to encourage self-directed learning, even when it’s learning “dangerous” or ill-advised techniques. The fuel that drives their learning is enthusiasm, and that fuel is fed and protected at Dev Bootcamp.

The group of co-workers that do this work has grown beyond my control. As we ramped up to full capacity, the typical co-founder many-hat-removal process created jobs for 14 people from the work that just a few of us were doing originally. They are a remarkable team of people who feel safe to speak truth to power. It is an absolute privilege to work with Abi, Alex, Alyssa, Elliott, Jen, Jill, Jonathan, Kevin, Mike, Nate, Ryan, Tiffany, and Torey every day. They are learning, they are innovating, and they are the catalysts that create life-changing moments for our students.

I’m learning too. One of the biggest lessons of these first six months is learning to trust the collective wisdom of our students and staff. Time and time again, I find myself astonished and humbled at the diversity and brilliance that arise when I step back and let the collective self-organize. I’ve also learned that consensus is not the goal. I’ve learned there are times to delegate decisions, there are times to gather ideas, and there are times when clear decisions must be made by me. I’ve learned that constraints are powerful. I keep learning this. I’ve learned about essential stress and accidental stress.

Our phase assessments have taught me the most about constraints and stress. They’re painful for the students as well as the teachers. The essential/unavoidable aspect of our assessments is that they’re a judgment on someone’s progress. They could change your graduation date, and sometimes they even result in us asking you to leave the program. It’s a direct judgment of students, and an indirect judgment of teachers. There is no avoiding this stress if we want to graduate job-ready software developers. We try to be as supportive as possible so that the stress is manageable. As we find accidental stress in the process, we work to remove it.

As we begin to ramp down 2013, and I look at what we’ve accomplished, I am extremely proud. Our students are now working at Code for America, Pivotal Labs, ThoughtWorks, 8th Light, Clinkle, Treehouse, Braintree, BrightTag, Groupon, GiveForward, and dozens of other software development shops across the country. This is an amazing foundation for 2014.

While I am proud of what our students and staff have accomplished this year, there’s a growing dissillusionment among us. It creeps in at random moments when we step away from our keyboards and look around, and realize how unfathomably white and male we are as a school.

Don’t get me wrong, I think white guys are awesome. My dad is a white guy, and don’t even get me started on how great he his. I’m a white guy too, and so is my friend Yohanan. We think we’re pretty neat. Superman is a white guy. Lenny Pepperbottom is a white guy. My sons are both white guys, and wow, yeah, I’m a huge fan of them. And yet, if you stop and think about it, there is a lot more to life than white guys.

Latent human potential pisses me off. When I look at the demographics of Dev Bootcamp Chicago (currently 64% white male) and I look at the demographics of our country (approximately 31% white male), I can do some math and statistics in my head, and then I can’t not consider how many non-white-men there must be who would make astoundingly good software developers, and then I get pissed off that there is all this potential just sitting out there in a huge crowd of non-white-men.

I want 2014 to be a year that creates a statistically significant dent in the student demographics of Dev Bootcamp Chicago. This won’t happen through limiting the number of white guys. We won’t have quotas or caps or different standards or anything like that. Once a student applies to Dev Bootcamp, race, age, and gender are not something we consider. We accept people solely based on our belief that they will succeed in our environment.

This dent will happen through a strange and mysterious process called “marketing”. We have to spread the word to the non-white-guys of the world and let them know that software development is awesome: you can like your job, earn a good salary at the same time, and even work on projects that help people. Most non-white-guys in the world are women, so I’m planning to start with women.

Stay tuned.

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