High Tech Gap Year: I’d Hire These Code Campers in a Heartbeat

This is the 3rd article about me and my 18-year-old son enrolling in a code camp program in San Francisco. He’s taking a gap year before college, and I’m coming along for the ride. Both of us are learning to be full-stack web developers!

Last Friday we finished week four of the 12-week Web Development Immersive (WDI) program at General Assembly in San Francisco.

My son and I have settled into a steady routine:

Every day we get up early. Make breakfast. Make lunch. Water the plants (no automated irrigation at our house). And then rush out to catch our bus.

Matthew makes Eggs!

On our ride into the City we work on our coding homework from the night before. This can be challenging because we often need an Internet connection.

The bus is supposedly Wi-Fi enabled. However, most of the time the connection is so slow and flakey as to be nearly useless. They should just cover up the “Wi-Fi”. Or change it to “Wi-Bother”

Our days at General Assembly follow a regular pattern:

  • Lectures and code-alongs in the mornings
  • Soon our heads are threatening to explode, but thankfully the minutes zoom by and soon it’s time for lunch
  • After lunch it’s more head-exploding lecture time
  • Finally lecture is over and we get our next homework assignment
  • The end of each day is spent applying our new skills to our homework and asking teachers and mentors to explain the more confusing bits again
  • Then we run to the bus and code all the way home

I can’t remember having ever been so mentally maxed out. Each day I think, “maybe today will be a slack, easy day.” And then it’s not. It’s pedal to metal for another cycle. And another, etc.

Two weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times about programs like General Assembly.

Web-Era Trade Schools, Feeding a Need for Code by Tamar Lewin.

While the piece gave a good overall picture of code camps, there was one part that especially jumped out at me.

Victor Kovalev, VP of Engineering at Indiegogo, said he had hired six people from code camps and described them as “awesome”.

Lewin asked Kovalev why the code campers were so great: “It’s very impressive to put your life on pause and learn engineering in a boot camp,” he said. “The boot camp engineers tend to be very sharp, very driven, very excited to be engineers.”

This got me to thinking about my own experiences hiring people for technical roles and how I might advise someone who is looking to hire from programs like General Assembly. After some reflection I came up with 5 quick reasons to hire code camp graduates:

1. You need People with the Latest Skills and Tools

At General Assembly, our instructors have come right out of industry. A key part of their promise is to get students working with the very latest tools and methods.

Example: local tech companies recently asked for a greater emphasis on JavaScript. While Ruby and Rails are still important there is growing demand for developers who are good with JavaScript. Our instructors verified this and changed the curriculum just in time for our cohort. Now the program centers around JavaScript first with Ruby and Rails coming into play later.

Additionally, General Assembly focuses on introducing students to the latest libraries and developer tools that are being adopted. Programmers are constantly creating new tools to make programming faster and more effective. Every day the students are introduced to new tools that make for more readable code, faster coding, and better collaboration.

A student who finished the program two weeks ago and just landed a job with a major software company in San Francisco shared with me a comment made by the woman who hired her. She said, “I have a building full of people who know C++ and Java. We don’t need more of that. We want the ‘younger’ languages.” And that’s why this General Assembly graduate got the job. Her skills reflect what employers today are asking for.

2. You want People who will Carry Projects Across the Finish Line

Most managers know how great it is when you can hand someone a project and be confident that they are going to own it and see it through to completion. There’s this huge sense of relief when you hand off a project to someone you know you can trust to get it done.

This is a core part of the General Assembly approach. Student learning centers on projects that students own. The idea is that all of our work should be available for people to look at and review. It should be complete, polished, and ready for inspection. In fact, hiring managers can take a look at the work past graduates have done. Projects are posted on the General Assembly site.

3. Onboarding at your Company involves Learning a lot of Things Quickly

One of the most impressive things about my fellow students is how they deal with the tsunami of new information coming at them every day. It is truly inspiring.

For example: one morning last week we learned how to set up databases in PostgreSQL, create tables with many-to-many relationships and connect them to our web sites. By the end of the day we had also learned how to retrieve and parse data pulled from 3rd party api’s. We closed out the day with a homework assignment to create a web app, connect to a 3rd party api, and store retrieved data in our own databases. Every day is like that. Learn some challenging new material in the morning and put it to work the same day.

In my career I have worked on some incredibly complicated products in areas such as 3D modeling, animation, and mechanical design. I’ve also been at companies through periods of rapid realignment and change. However, I have never experienced anything like the pace of learning at General Assembly. If the work you are doing requires people who can digest new information and put it work quickly, this is an excellent place to look for talent.

4. People who Solve their Own Problems.

Teaching students to solve their own problems is a core part of the Web Development Immersive program.

One of the great things about doing web development is the profusion of material online that can help you figure things out. But it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know what to look for, where to look, and how to use what you’ve found.

A standard thing we do in class when issues come up is to look online first to see what we can find. Our instructors help guide this process by highlighting which types of online services are reliable and easy to work with. Day by day students are building up the right habits to find and evaluated solutions on their own.

I’ve met some recent program graduates who have come back to mentor current students. What’s immediately apparent is that even if they don’t know the answer to a particular student’s question, they know how to get an answer quickly and test out what they have found.

5. Motivated People who care about the Work

This point loops back to the New York Times article and the Engineering VP’s observation that graduates are “very excited to be engineers”.

I’ve interviewed a number of my fellow students to understand why they enrolled and what they hope to get from the experience. While people mentioned the obvious reasons of getting better pay or turning away from a career path that wasn’t a good fit, there is always a deeper reason that is driving them. My fellow students (and myself included) talk about wanting to make things, to be on the inside of the process of turning ideas into usable products.

One student, Laura Kemp, left a promising career in the UK in investment banking. She liked her job, especially the part where she got to research and learn about the markets her entrepreneurial clients were working in. She struck me as potentially an excellent fit, in terms of abilities and interests, for a product management job. I asked her why she opted to take the Web Development program rather than one in product or digital marketing. Her answer was that she “wants to make things come to life”. I’ve heard essentially the same thing from all the other students I’ve talked to.

These code campers are genuinely excited about learning to be developers. Despite the fact that the workload is intense and the mental efforts can be exhausting, they are hanging in there, keeping an upbeat attitude, and genuinely making the most of the program.

Hiring Managers are Figuring it Out

I’ve spoken with a few recent graduates of the program. And it’s clear that San Francisco hiring managers are waking up to the reality of what great hires code camp graduates are.

The trends fueling the growth of code camps are powerful and aren’t going away anytime soon.

Hiring managers, like the Engineering VP at Indiegogo, are realizing that the rigor of programs like General Assembly are excellent filters for finding great employees. At General Assembly you will find people who:


I’m thoroughly enjoying learning with these sharp, driven people. This is a great gap year so far.

Matthew explains a solution…

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