My Journey through Dev Bootcamp
Note: This is part 2 of my recollections of my Dev Bootcamp Journeys. You can read part 1 here.
In 2010, I was in Malmö, Sweden to speak at Øredev. As I tend to do at conferences, I’d quickly worn myself out, and had retreated to my hotel room for some rejuvenating solitude. It was in that little hotel room that I re-read one of my favorite patterns from A Pattern Language. The “Network of Learning” pattern asserts the following:
“In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students — and adults — become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.”
And then advocates:
“Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city.”
I had read these same sentences in 2003, but they finally struck a chord in 2010. These became my internal rallying cry as I gradually found my way into my role as one of Dev Bootcamp’s co-founders. In 2012, just a year before Dev Bootcamp Chicago’s first students arrived, I realized that my life’s purpose to “decentralize education” wasn’t actually a great purpose. A TEDx talk by Simon Sinek inspired me to ask myself, “Why? Why do I want to decentralize education?” And the answer came to me immediately: “To unleash latent human potential!” This motto helped guide me into a situation where I believe I maximized my opportunity to make the biggest improvement on the most people’s lives (while still providing for my family). That situation was launching Dev Bootcamp Chicago.
Emphasizing learning instead of teaching
Between October 2012 and April 2013, I found six midwestern software developers willing to give teaching a shot. But I preferred not to emphasize the teaching, and instead focus on the learning. It was a struggle to balance these two concepts. Great teachers can make a huge positive impact on people, and in my experience, great teaching is synonymous with facilitating learning. Yet, less-than-great teaching can still be sufficient, as long as learning is happening! The learning is literally all that matters. The teaching is just a means to an end. And by the end of the 9 weeks, we expected the students to be learning faster than we could teach.
Out of the network of wonderful people I’d become connected to over the first dozen years of my tech career, I hired Mike Busch, Jen Myers, Kevin Solorio, Alyssa Diaz, Abi Noda, and Nate Delage to help our students learn how to develop software professionally. All six of them were coming from full-time software development roles, and none of them had any full-time teaching experience. And yet, with the help of Tanner Welsh (visiting Dev Bootcamp San Francisco teacher), Alex Botsford (program coordinator), and Elliott Garms (Chicago co-founder, employer liaison), this group of people formed the most inspiring learning environment I’ve ever seen.
Bringing your whole self
Countless students have told us that Dev Bootcamp didn’t just teach them how to code, or launch their career, but the program actually made them a better version of themselves. I could tell dozens of stories to illustrate this, and I’m afraid to tell any of them and exclude others. Perhaps I can just point at Abraham Sangha, a 2013 grad who went on to speak about virtue at a programming conference.
Thinking of Abraham, I’m reminded that one of the magical things about the culture we created was an invitation to truly be yourself while you were at Dev Bootcamp. Abraham already knew a lot about virtue and public speaking before he walked in our door. After he walked in the door, we invited him bring his whole self into the space, to tell us something quirky about himself. He felt safe enough to do that, integrated his existing expertise into his new tech skills, and our community became better for it.
Students as Teachers
Our first cohort, the “squirrels”, arrived on April 22nd, 2013. Three weeks later, the “foxes” arrived. On June 3rd, the “otters” arrived and then the space was finally full!
We wanted our students to feel ownership over the space, and co-creators of the program with us. We were extremely fortunate that our “squirrels” took that seriously. The staff didn’t work weekends, but the students nearly always did. And the first weekend that the “foxes” were at Dev Bootcamp, the “squirrels” created a Weekend Pairing board, later entitled Pairing is Caring. The “foxes” could sign up for time with a “squirrel” to get help. It was spontaneous, inspired, and beautiful. And as far as I know, every Chicago cohort has continued paying that original squirrely gift forward.
One of the most humbling aspects of launching Dev Bootcamp Chicago was the skepticism I heard from software developers that I looked up to. Most notably, Dave Astels and Corey Haines were initially turned off by the concept of launching people’s careers with only 9 weeks of on-site learning. I had spent 12 years growing my career, and had earned some respect in the community. It was a tough blow to the ego to have these two great technologists think poorly of my new endeavor. But my purpose was intact. I was convinced that Dev Bootcamp unleashed copious amounts of latent human potential. So I hoped that it was just a matter of time before they’d see its merits.
A year later, Dave became a strong volunteer mentor for us, and posted about how his mind was changed. (Shout out to Kevin Solorio for working on winning Dave over.) Corey eventually got so involved that he spent three weeks with us as a visiting teacher. It was gratifying to watch these two appreciate the same things I did about Dev Bootcamp when I first saw it in action.
I should also take a moment to note that we had a legion of volunteer mentors, and eventually another legion of alumni mentors, who spent countless evening hours with our students. The Chicago developer community has mentoring in its DNA!
Establishing a Holacracy
In late 2013, the leadership of Dev Bootcamp assembled in Tiburon, California to begin a new chapter for the company. At that retreat, we:
- formed the leadership team that would launch Dev Bootcamp NYC
- hired Jon Stowe to replace Shereef Bishay as our CEO
- rebooted the company using a new self-organizing governance model called Holacracy
This was a lot for the company to digest all at once. While 2014 was another great year for Dev Bootcamp Chicago’s students, it was a hard year for the company.
Learning how to use Holacracy effectively takes significant time and effort. We eventually got the hang of it, and I grew to appreciate the clarity & autonomy it provided, and its processes for resolving our tensions. But it was a hard road for many of us, particularly for our new CEO and our new NYC team. The complexity of their jobs alone was daunting, but to add a new governance model to that mix was extremely frustrating at times.
Dev Bootcamp at the White House
I had the privilege to represent Dev Bootcamp in a White House initiative called TechHire. It was an incredible experience, giving me the opportunity to travel to Washington a half dozen times in 2014–2015. I spent time with White House advisors and and other bootcamp leaders to help push the initiative forward. I could tell some fun stories here, but nothing compared to getting to be there and listen to President Obama talk about the opportunity that coding bootcamps represent to our country.
In June 2014, Kaplan acquired Dev Bootcamp. I don’t actually know what I’m allowed to say about that at this point, so I won’t say much. I will say that Kaplan and I eventually disagreed about how to expand the company, and eventually that disagreement led to me fading into an advisory role in mid-2015. Looking back now, I don’t actually think I had the right approach. I do believe my approach was less wrong than their preferred approach. Regardless, I don’t think Dev Bootcamp would have survived with either approach.
I have more to say about how Dev Bootcamp could have survived, and my hopes and dreams for coding schools of the future.