David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

Fullstack Academy — the Founders, the Philosophy, and the Future

Disclosure: Fullstack Academy, the coding bootcamp, has previously sponsored Hacker Noon. Many of their alums have already become top Hacker Noon contributors — you can view the collection of their alum stories at HackerNoon.com/Fullstack-Alumni

Today, we’re catching up with Fullstack Academy co-founders David Yang & Nimit Maru, who met each other on their first day of college in 2000. Since launching in 2012, Fullstack Academy has become one of the most successful and recognizable coding bootcamps.

David: Coding bootcamps have really taken off, but it wasn’t always that way. Why did you take a gamble on the bootcamp space? Tell us about your inception.

Fullstack Founders: When we started out, there was no bootcamp space to gamble on. Our goal with Fullstack Academy was simple: to create an effective system for educating adults to the point that they would actually be hireable software developers. To do that, we drew from our own experience hiring engineers. We started with all the knowledge and skills and best practices that we looked for in candidates, and sort of reverse-engineered a curriculum out of that.

It’s hard to imagine now, but even the idea of learning to code was new when we started Fullstack. No one, really, understood just how in-demand coding skills would come to be, so we were more banking on the trend we were starting to see around us — fellow MBA students coming to us asking for help to learn programming, the rapid growth we were seeing in the tech sector in our time at Yahoo! and Gilt and places like that — and gambling on that trend becoming a way of life instead of fading away after a few years’ time.

There was no Course Report, no SwitchUp; Codecademy had just launched; Marc Andreessen had just penned the famous “Why Software Is Eating the World.” It seems like such a short time ago, 2011, but the world has changed, especially in the tech industry, and coding is now something we’re teaching in elementary school classrooms because we recognize it’s a skill people need not only to survive in today’s economy, but to keep technology moving forward.

There’s some friction in the tech industry as a whole today around the idea of a “full stack developer.” Why did you originally choose Fullstack Academy as your name, and where do you fall on the issue now?

It’s interesting because the very fact that we just discussed — that tech is growing and coding skills are more and more in-demand — means developers will need to know more and more over time to operate successfully. What we wanted to do wasn’t just teach someone a coding language, but equip a developer with the tools they need to understand the full picture. Sure, maybe you won’t get a job where your title is “Full-Stack Developer,” but that’s not really the point. The point is you’ll understand how all the pieces fit together, and you’ll be able to do whatever job you end up in with an understanding of how your work fits into the technology as a whole — whether its an app or a financial system or a database or whatever. That’s going to make you a better developer and a more valuable employee.

The idea of a full-stack developer is also a metaphor for the kind of program we wanted to create. Unlike some bootcamps, we don’t actively cut students as we go along, and — at the other end of the spectrum — we aren’t just taking deposits left and right and giving anyone interested a certificate of completion. We see our program as a holistic, high-quality educational experience. Yes, you learn JavaScript. Yes, you learn the frameworks that go along with being a full-stack developer. But you also mature as a human being. You learn how to think and solve problems. You learn how to ask for help and help others. You learn how other people see you and how you can change that by pitching yourself differently or showing up with a different attitude. In the same way a full-stack developer understands how their work fits into the technology they’re contributing to, someone who enrolls in our immersive leaves with a better understanding of themselves and where they fit both in the tech industry and in the wider world.

What’s a day in your work life like? What do you like most about your job?

Running a bootcamp is pretty much exactly like running any other company. Our main goals are to make Fullstack the best environment it can be for students and staff; to figure out what’s next and how to get there; and to keep driving all of us toward great things.

A lot of our work is managing people. People are complex — too complex to understand entirely — so of course when you combine a bunch of them within a single organization, you find yourself working with infinite complexity. You can build amazing things if you harness that, but it takes a lot of time to recursively manage those levels of complexity from tier to tier all the way through the organization.

What we love most is probably that we have such a large impact on a small number of people. Until we started Fullstack, we’d both only worked at companies where the impact was scaled the other way around — a small impact on as many people as possible. In the 2D plotting of these variables — impact per person vs. number of people — every company probably at least claims that they want to be in the top right corner — most impact on as many people as possible — but the truth is that every successful business has to make tradeoffs, and the tradeoff is almost always smaller impact, more people. And the longer we worked in environments like those, the more we craved a job where we could each have a greater impact on individual people.

Just recently — and we are lucky enough to experience these moments regularly, which is what we mean by having a big impact — but just recently a student emailed us months after graduation to say how happy he is in his new position and how he never thought his life could change so much in such a relatively short time span. And that’s huge. We’d rather hear student stories of total metamorphosis from several hundred students each year than, you know, reach 200,000 people in a single day with a coupon code for 10% off an e-commerce purchase.

There’s so much great free content for developers online, and many free learn-to-code programs are emerging. Why is an immersive program with Fullstack Academy a better option than learning on your own? Are the two mutually exclusive?

Good question. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive, and in fact independent learning should supplement your bootcamp experience both before and after. As you may have heard, Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program, our all-women’s school, aren’t for beginners. Most students have spent time learning on their own before joining us — here’s a list of resources for anyone hoping to apply — and in fact the discipline and curiosity that gives people the drive to learn on their own will serve them well here at Fullstack. And like we said, the learning doesn’t stop when you leave. Our students continue to challenge themselves, attend lectures, watch videos, and practice coding on their own after they’ve graduated and are working in the field.

How come developers can be educated and trained in 12 weeks, but most other six figure jobs require years upon years of education? What is it about software development that makes it systematically learnable?

Well, let’s clarify: Developers can’t be 100% educated and trained in 12 — or in our case 17 — weeks. It would be nearly impossible for most people to go from zero to 100 in such a relatively short time span, which is why we always say — as above — that Fullstack isn’t for pure beginners.

We like to frame this idea in terms of a scale from 1 to 100, 1 being total beginner, and 100 being the most expert in your entire field. On that scale, Fullstack Academy’s Software Immersive can take you from 20 to 80. On the front-end, it’s sort of like human growth: You’re going to learn the most and need the most energy for the 1–10 learning, sort of like a kid. You’re not going to remember everything or be able to think very critically about any one concept, but you can get the lay of the land and understand the basics. Then you’ll move on to incrementally harder things — that’s the 10–20, and it’s about the spot where you’re not going to find as much free online content, but not remotely a level where you’ll be able to get hired.

So that’s where we come in with a deep, systematic approach that takes you all the way through the stack, so you aren’t limited in your job search by the kind of technology you know, but instead can set your own boundaries based on your interests and natural affinities, which you’ll now have a better understanding of, having experienced the full stack. (This goes back to what we were talking about up top — that the goal of a full-stack education isn’t to get everyone a job as a full-stack developer, but to expose our developers to a broad range of technologies so they can find their place.)

When you graduate from Fullstack Academy or Grace Hopper Program, you’ll have the skills to get hired as a junior developer — which is about that 80 mark as we mentioned. And programming is one of those situations, like losing weight, where the closer you get to your optimal self, the more difficult each degree closer becomes. You could spend years after graduating just getting experience and working your way from 80 to 90. Take us, for example: We have more than 30 years’ programming experience between us, and we’re still reading and experimenting and learning.

So to answer your question, there is no “instant developer, just add bootcamp.” What we do is solidify your foundation and immerse you in the material long enough and intensely enough that you know what you need to know to be one of the most qualified applicants for any junior developer job. And not only are grads qualified in terms of tech skills, but every graduate leaves with the interview skills, both technical and behavioral, that are essential in this industry. We are teaching you both the material and how to demonstrate what you know to an employer.

So there’s more to a bootcamp than just the programming curriculum?

Absolutely. Both the job search help like we mentioned — we have a whole Career Success team who help students with resumes, their LinkedIn profiles, how to pitch themselves, what questions to expect in an interview, what questions they should be asking in an interview, how to write a cover letter, how to negotiate an offer, and so much more. This team is really phenomenal. So there’s that aspect.

But there’s also the culture of the organization. Just like every college or university has its own culture — you know, some are party schools, some are very STEM-focused, some have a more artistic vibe — bootcamps each have their own culture, too. And in the same way your college of choice’s culture probably factored heavily into your decision to attend, a bootcamp’s culture should be a big part of your decision. Remember: You’re going to spend 13 weeks, 10 hours a day, five or six days a week with your classmates and bootcamp staff. It’s really important that you feel comfortable where you end up because while the process is ultimately very rewarding, along the way it’ll intense and frustrating and scary.

Like we mentioned, some bootcamps actively cut students along the way; that’s not us. When we accept you, we have already done a rigorous review of your application and your interview, and our guiding principle is: No assholes. We don’t want toxic, me-first individuals in our classrooms, on our teams, or in leadership positions here, because we want a community that, especially in this intense period of everyone’s life, is going to go the extra mile for each other. So when we accept you, we want you to say yes, and we want to work with you for the next 17 weeks — from the remote pre-work section we call Foundations, to Junior phase, all the way through Senior phase and your job search. And we want you to come back and be a fellow — mentor others. We want you to come back and speak on alum panels. Come back and give guest lectures about getting hired at Google. So we’re very rigorous, but we’re also very supportive, and we want to be a part of your life for a long time.

Speaking of a long time, what do you think learning to code looks like ten years from now?

A big concern of ours, as tech gets more and more polished, is that our culture is exposing young people to much less of how tech actually works. An iPad, for example, is a very different learning environment than a computer, which is itself very different from the computers of 10 years ago. A lot of what we learned, ourselves, came from messing around installing games, sort of like what kids get today from Minecraft on the computer, but again, not what they get from Minecraft on an iPad.

If you think about it, the hard part of programming isn’t the language or the frameworks, but learning how to think in an abstract way and understanding the flow of information. So when you hide from kids all the inner workings of tech, all the systems, you’re keeping them from the core of programming. So as computing environments get more and more hygienic, they attract less and less the kinds of people who want to tinker with things — and those kinds of people make the best programmers.

In that same vein, we’re definitely starting programming education too late. The more programming is recognized as an essential skill for job seekers, the more our early education systems will incorporate it into the curriculum. We’ll see middle schoolers learning to program, and we won’t have such a glut of 20-somethings desperate to learn a skill that’s suddenly necessary and that they only started learning several months before applying.

The problem with starting to code in college is that it’s too high-stakes: With GPA so important, lots of potentially great developers give up on coding if they get a B in their first-ever class. That’s no way to approach learning an entirely new field; you might not be able to be an A student right away, and the system doesn’t support a real learning journey from C to A in the course of a year or two.

What we’d like to see is a more systematic breakdown of the higher-education culture in general. If we had 18-year-olds right now, for example, we’d encourage them to take a gap year and take several bootcamps, you know, come to Fullstack, build your own software, apply to Y Combinator. You’ll learn more in one of those years than you will in a year of college, but you’ll also be more prepared for a college experience because you’ll have a scaffold in place around which to more intentionally construct your education.

And we’d like to see more of that — more pre-college options, more post-college in continuing education courses, more instead-of-college options. The economy has changed: There’s more turnover at companies, so they provide less training, so there’s a greater demand for the specific skills people need to get jobs, rather than for a broad degree that gives people a foundation for a wide range of jobs they’ll be trained more specifically for later. We’re seeing now that they won’t be trained more specifically by the company that hires them, so there have to be ways for them to get trained themselves.

Ultimately, though, we’ll write software the same ways. AI isn’t going to be doing it for us, we don’t think, though security and AI and the intersection of people and tech will be at the forefront of people’s minds in ways they haven’t been until recently. But Fullstack Academy was designed to be agile: We update our curriculum regularly and will continue to do so as the industry shifts, so we plan to be along for the ride, whichever direction things go. In fact, how about we meet back here in 10 years and test our predictions? We’ll add it to our calendars.

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