Launch School Core Curriculum Review

Or — how I learned to accept the fact that I won’t become a programmer in three months and decided to go with the guys who told me it would be really hard and take a really long time to finish their program.

My setup

Prelude

I was learning how to code for about three months. I was having a lot of fun learning on my own and it was a wonderful and rewarding experience. Around the two month mark I started feeling like taking programming to the next level and - some day - making money doing it, required some guidance. I wasn’t sure what the next step was but bootcamps came to mind.

About a month and 3,670,023 forum messages later and I stumbled across Launch School. It was definitely the smallest program and the one I’ve heard the least about. But it offered something different from the other Bootcamps and its students seemed very happy with it and had a different air to them. Like they weren’t freaking out about things as much. So I decided to investigate, and go… to their website.

What is a Launch School?

The Slow Path for Studious Beginners to a Career in Software Development

These are the mysterious words that appear before you as you enter launchschool.com

But what does it mean?

Is it a Bootcamp?

Well, you already know it’s not your regular bootcamp when the motto has the word “slow” in it.

My thoughts probably went something like — “Slow? But I wanted a really quick transition from ‘a guy who doesn’t know the first thing about programming’ to ‘a greatly terrific programmer’!”.

Well, unlike some other bootcamps (most, honestly), LS doesn’t offer you a cash-cow of a job waiting right around the corner. Most bootcamps I saw did 3–4 month 12 hour a day courses. LS said it would take 6–12 months or more to complete their core curriculum.

But is it a Kind of Bootcamp?

Maybe. They teach you how to code, and you start at the very beginning, so similar audience. But at LS the focus is totally different — They use what they call a Mastery-Based approach. The idea is to learn towards becoming a well-rounded web developer. Not a million languages and how to cut corners to achieve a task, but the a-z of web development. Starting at the very beginning, mastering the basics and progressing until you have the required knowledge to start learning how to use the tools that will make the job easier. Not the other way around.

So no Terrific Programmer Soon?

The thing that really scared me was the time it would take. It’s funny, I spent 29 years not really thinking about coding (well, once for a month), and then, all of a sudden I was in this huge rush and couldn’t comprehend making this huge transition in more than a few months’ worth of work.

You see, up until that point I was thinking of programming has hacking your way ‘in’ somehow and learning on the job. Which is one way to think about it I suppose… But… I’m also older than some people (like, a couple of people), not the world’s most likeable guy (I’m trying!), and… Oh, I should probably know what the I’m doing before I ask someone to hire me…

Yeah I know.

Brilliant, right?

Decision Time

It sounds like a no brainer right? But I was still considering the bootcamps. You know, try to get in and figure it out from there — I’m sure there’s some other bad coders I could blend in with. And the bootcamps that started flooding me with emails and phone calls were making some intriguing arguments.

So I eventually settled on one bootcamp (that didn’t sound totally insane) vs. Launch School.

Why I Chose Launch School

  • LS is cheaper: Remember the cash cow from before? Well in order to get it most bootcamps require that you already have one to fund this cash-cow getting adventure. LS is $200 a month, and even the cheapest 3 month Bootcamps I found ones were ~$10,000 more expansive than an entire year of launch school.
  • LS is no commitment: Spending a burrowed 16 grand on a program I wasn’t totally sure of seemed a little much compared to the 600 bucks I would spend if I thought LS sucked after three months.
  • LS is not sales-y: I liked LS’s relaxed attitude regarding wether or not you go there. They didn’t have a sales team that would hit me up every day, I didn’t start seeing their shiny ads on youtube every day. They seemed to be focusing on something else — teaching people perhaps? That might be a personal thing but I tend to trust institutions that focus less on self-promotion and more on whatever it is that they claim to be doing.
  • LS does not offer miracles: This is all over LS’s website so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that advertising a shiny career in a very high paying field after three months of learning is really sounds a lot like a get-rich-quick scheme. 
    I know some people who finished it and landed jobs, and I am aware that BCs are not a pyramid thing. Personally I’ll be always inclined to go with whomever tells me there’s hard work and time to be spent doing whatever it is I’m considering doing. Might just be me though.
  • LS is good: (this one is actually important) I was doing the free portion at LS and at some online BC, and the difference was staggering. From the very first course LS provided interesting, challenging and hands on content. The other BC… didn’t. It really made my choice quite easy.

Why I stayed

My first impressions did not fail me. LS continued to supply excellent material and studying with them was challenging, fun and interesting. Their unique, mastery-based, teaching style really keeps you attaining knowledge as you learn.

I say it’s unique because it’s unique when it comes to learning how to code online. As a musician for many years, and someone who did Kung Fu for… not so many years - this approach is quite common and is a very good one to employ if you’re trying to teach something technical. It’s not the only way, but it has its fans, and for a good reason.

But what is it? Well it’s a lot of things, and you can find a lot more about it on the website. To me, with regards to this process, the things I couldn’t find elsewhere were these:

No black boxes

Learning in other places felt a lot like this:

You learn some basic things, like I dunno, array sorting and what’s a string. Then, a split second later, you are building a website with libraries and frameworks that you know nothing about.

That did not feel like progress to me. I kept trying to go back and figure out the steps in between but that’s usually not the focus at most programs.

At LS everything was always in context, and starting at the very bottom. Every library, framework and technology that was looked at throughout the course came after first building a crude version of it so that you know how and why it works, and only then using it, and only if there is a good reason to do so.

Understanding not just how to do something but why doing it works is what LS does best.

Having Clear Learning Goals

Learning alone and with some half-assed online program can feel like you’re self assessing very freely, moving forward when you feel like it, skipping things when they seem irrelevent etc.

At LS, due to the strict assessments that occur after every unit, there is really very little chance of getting through a unit without really understanding its contents. The teacher assistants at LS will catch every wrong word you write in a test, and will get you to rewrite your answers until they know that you understand. It’s not about the right answer as much as it is about understanding the material.

Moreover, the live coding interviews / assessments are something you have to prepare for. They are stressful, and they take time, and you might sweat profusely - but when you’ve passed, it’s because you know the material. No two ways about it.

Even if you don’t care about grades as much as I do (argh, that one A-…), it’s good to know that someone is really testing your knowledge and setting solid learning goals. It helped me stay focused and not cut corners, and also filled the learning process with accomplishments and goals and grades grades grades. I love grades.

Focusing on the big Picture

A typical day at Launch School

As mentioned in the what is LS section — The point at LS is not to memorize the syntax for a bunch of arbitrarily chosen languages and technologies, but to understand how programming works and learn how to learn new technologies and languages on your own.

It’s super cliche, but at LS they actually teach you how to fish. When you’re starting out it’s really easy to get terribly confused with what language to start with, what technologies and frameworks to learn etc. etc. Some bootcamps really take advantage of that beginner confusion by offering to teach you 15 full stacks in three days, when really, you should probably just learn one stack very well.

I know I’m saying it like I’m an expert when I’m not, but I believe that, say, the time I spent trying to decide which language to learn starting out, would have been better spent just learning whatever random popular language I happened across first.

Understanding why things are happening, and really understanding the concepts behind them, is the most important thing as a beginner in my opinion. LS strives to do just that.

More generally

I could probably find five more reasons why I stayed with the program, but I think the reasons above are the most important. I will also mention that at LS they:

  • Are very responsive to questions and very on schedule (with grading and what not).
  • Do not seem to have arbitrary requirements. Everything feels thought out and carefully planned.
  • Have great TA’s
  • Keep the material up to date.
  • Actually exist! At first I thought maybe the whole thing was some guy in a basement trying to get me to buy random books on Amazon just to see how far people wanting to learn code will go. Or something.

The Bad

This title is a little misleading — I don’t really have a lot of bad things to say about the program.

It’s true that sometimes they will phrase a question in a way that makes it more confusing than it should be. And some one or two subtopics were explained a little unclearly and sent me on my own search for answers. And also maybe the many (ungraded) quizzes have a lot of annoying trick questions that I don’t really see the point of.

But honestly, it’s peanuts. This course has been better written and planned than many college courses I have taken.

How Long How Many Hours How Many Days Etc.

I have seen these type of questions repeated like a million times (about LS and otherwise) and was curious myself at different times to get some first hand accounts, so I’ll add my data.

LS takes time: It took me about 7 months to complete the CC. I had a ton of time as I was working very part time (3 bar shifts a week at most), and so could study 4–6 days a week, 5–10 hours a day (excluding some two weeks of visiting family and some other irregularities).

If it sounds like I was forcing myself to sit down and study for hours on end -that’s only partially true.While I was on some sort of rush to finish asap, you can’t really rush it with LS. Eventually I also didn’t really want to — It was just interesting so I was doing it whenever I could.

I also didn’t have a full time job or a band anymore, so what the hell else was I supposed to do with all of this free time?

Well I guess I was swimming a lot too. I’m in much better shape now thanks for asking.

Here’s M. Spitz pondering refactoring some JS code

Since LS

Since finishing the program I have been taking some Advanced Electives at LS and doing some freelance work like building an accessible YouTube app for an Israeli company, and some other projects for friends and family.

I am not sure whether I’m very employable or how to get a super great job and nail a technical interview and all of that. The LS Capstone Program seems very promising in that regard, and I am applying for it right now.

I don’t know, personally, I find it pretty cool that I can build things now. I know I’m not doing it perfectly, but less than a year ago I would have been entirely lost had I attempted something like the project I am currently working on. I feel like LS is to thank for that.

Should You LS?

It depends.

If the debate is between LS and another generic bootcamp: As I mentioned, I wanted to get into programming not to enter the tech world in some general capacity, but to become an engineer. I can’t think of a three month program that could teach you how to do that well.

Furthermore, when I look at what bootcamps are selling in my post-ls days (they never stopped spamming me), it seems weird that you would want to learn all of that in three months, and even weirder that people actually end up getting jobs graduating from there. Personally I would always prefer LS’s slower mastery-based approach.

With that said this program is not for everyone — It requires time and work, and while I wouldn’t say it’s particularly hard (more than programming itself is hard), it does require a certain temperament.

Some thoughts to consider regarding that temperament:

Do you like having people around you?

On the social side, LS is pretty isolating. Seeing as that’s fine by me I’ve also never attempted to speak to anyone else learning there at the same time as me, so it might not be as isolating as I think it is.

But physically, at least, you will be alone. So if you need people around you to keep you from, I don’t know, doing a thing on a device I’ve never heard of, this program might not be for you.

Oh I know what the kids are doing

Are you motivated?

If you need someone else to motivate you to study and solve stuff for you as you hit roadblocks LS does not (formally) provide that service. Again — I didn’t try to communicate with the school beyond what was necessary, and I do know they are attentive and answer questions on forms etc. I’d say that you should get into the mindset of figuring stuff out yourself (google) though.

I know for myself that at different points in life being motivated to study programming for hours a day is not something I could sustain for months on end.

Can you stay focused for many hours a day?

Time wise, doing those 12 hours a day bootcamps and trying to learn 14 languages (for no apparent reason) sounds pretty hard. With LS you can spread it out however you like. If your brain is gone after a 3 hour class maybe LS is a better option.

Do you want to really know what you’re doing?

I know some people are okay with learning just enough to get by, but if you’re not one of those people LS is by far the better option.

Summary

Launch School was, all in all, a great experience, and I feel like it provided me with the knowledge I need to start programming more seriously. It’s a focused way to learn how to start becoming a web developer. I know it doesn’t sound as great as what some other bootcamps will tell you, and no, you likely won’t be working at Google within 6 months. But you’ll learn a lot, and it’s definitely worth the time and the money.

Well? What are you waiting for? Put on some of that new smooth jazz sound and… launch your slow path towards a career in software development?