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Internal developer bootcamps and training programs can help companies drive long-term success

Dave Hoover, coder, CEO, and co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, talks about how developer bootcamps are evolving and why the best companies invest in their current employees.

Developer bootcamps aren’t just a way for job seekers to get into coding. Companies can use them and other training programs to invest in their people. In this episode of Dynamic Developer I talk Dave Hoover, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, about why it’s a good idea. Dave is also a coder, author, founder and CEO of Red Squirrel a custom software developer firm and CTO at GoLogic, about why it’s a good idea. The following is a transcript of our interview, edited for readability.

Bill Detwiler: So Dave, we talk about Dev Bootcamps. A lot of coders have experience with bootcamps, they’ve been around for a long time, for decades now, some may be better than others, and I know you’re working on something really interesting with a boot camp over at Red Squirrel, and as someone who is the co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, you have a lot of experience with this, tell me what you’re doing at Red Squirrel, this new project you’re working on.

Dave Hoover: Sure. It’s a really interesting and exciting opportunity that we have. It’s still early days, but strangely enough, we got contacted by some folks in Northern Italy last year, and they’re interested in us creating, basically a temporary bootcamp, so a transitional education program to help transition a good number of people, dozens or potentially hundreds of folks into a career in software development from a more blue collar to factory-focused work. It’s timely because we were finally ready to go and spend time in Northern Italy with them right as the outbreak began in late February and we had to cancel our trip.

Now we’re continuing to work with them remotely just like the rest of the world and it’s been an adventure to watch things through their eyes on the COVID-19 front, but also just to keep moving forward relentlessly towards this challenge of re-educating or transitioning all these folks. And so we’re excited, as folks who have experience, deep experience with the bootcamp learning model, who run a consultancy, we’re excited to be able to come and bring our expertise into a situation where we can come and create transitions for folks and then move on and do it again.

In this first case, we’ve got, potentially, hundreds of folks who are going to be displaced through just the factories getting moved to different countries basically, and we are going to be working with them in Italian through using translations of the curriculum as well as, we’re not going to be delivering the training directly, we’ll be training the trainers who will be bilingual and working with these folks to make this transition. And we’re designing the curriculum in Python, we’re designing the program, and we’re going to be working closely with this group in Italy to make this happen.

Building an internal Python bootcamp for an IoT company

Bill Detwiler: And what’s different maybe from bootcamps that you’ve done in the past, where it was designed to be more permanent? You said this is going to be like a popup, a temporary bootcamp. What’s unique about that type of project?

Dave Hoover: I mean there’s a lot of things that are unique about it. And we can be… One thing that’s unique in this case, we’re not just transitioning folks into the general job market, we’re actually transitioning them into a specific company. And so that actually gives us the ability to focus the curriculum because we know where they’re going. In a typical coding bootcamp, they’re preparing folks, just like universities are preparing folks, hopefully, for the job market.

And so you have to provide general skills and cast somewhat of a wide net for folks. In this case we can be specific. We know that this is going to be an IoT-focused company, so we will be focused on IoT, and thus using Python because it’s better at that than many other languages that are conducive to beginners. It’s also unique in the sense of… A bootcamp obviously is a school, and so you’re going to have teachers that are going to be there for years and years, potentially, and directors who are there for years and years to continue to run it.

In this case, we’re going to have folks just doing that for a year or two, maybe a year and a half, and then they’ll be transitioning into something else. So the whole endeavor is just more transitional. The nice thing though, is I’ve found that software, there’s a lot of software developers who love to teach. That said, they probably would have gone into teaching full time if they really want to do that. So it’s nice to be able to do it for a year or two, and then go back and be a full time software developer again. And so I feel like these pop-up experiences actually are nice for folks to maybe take a year long contract or something and focus on teaching.

Bill Detwiler: What makes a good software teacher? Not necessarily… You can be a great developer, or you can be a great chef, or you can be a great doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever it is, but you can be a lousy teacher.

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Dave Hoover: Right?

Bill Detwiler: What makes a good software developer or coder teacher?

Dave Hoover: I think that what makes somebody good at teaching is, first of all, just at the base level, I feel like it’s just a certain level of empathy for the person you’re working with who’s confused or struggling or just behind you in their journey. Now, you can be a good mentor to someone who’s just a few weeks or a few months behind you or a year behind you, you can distinctly remember everything that they’re right now learning. And there’s a lot of people who can do that. But I do think there’s a unique person who may be 15 years into their career and can work effectively with someone who’s just starting, who can cross that huge chasm in skills.

It’s very difficult for someone, once they reach a certain level to think like a beginner or even able to empathize with a beginner. They might have empathy, they might want this person to succeed, but they just can’t speak their language. And so I find that teachers, I bet this is true of all teachers, not just software teachers, have that ability, whether they’re working with small children or, teenagers or adults, they have that ability to cross that chasm between expert level and total beginner level. I’ve seen that in our best teachers at Dev Bootcamp, and our lead engineer at Red Squirrel is one of those people, Kevin Solorio.

How to build the curriculum for an internal developer bootcamp

Bill Detwiler: You mentioned that this has a definite beginning and will have a definite end. And you mentioned that you know what the outcome is going to be. So that makes the process of maybe designing the transition plan, the lesson plans, knowing those skills at the end that people need to have, but in a traditional bootcamp, you don’t have that. What are some of the ways that, I guess, maybe you’ve designed the curriculum here from taking someone who doesn’t have any dev background, they don’t have any experience, I’m assuming, and going into being masters of Python, which seems to be the language that everyone’s learning these days, especially if you want to have anything to do with IoT.

Talk a little bit about that curriculum process, and do you design the curriculum specifically for these people because you knew they had these skills coming in, like, “Oh, I don’t have to take English 101, or I can skip that because I already took that in high school,” talk a little bit about that.

Dave Hoover: Well, we’re still in the early days, so we’re still learning about exactly what we’re dealing with in terms of what the skills that already exist for folks, but we’re doing a couple of things. We’re doing one, or a couple of core things, very similar to Dev Bootcamp, which is challenge-based learning. We were talking before about different certifications that seem popular, maybe they still are, but often that was just multiple choice or, “Just get the answer right and we’ll certify you.” And bootcamps can’t exist in that way of working. It has to be actually coding, working hard, working through challenges.

And so that’s going to be exactly the same in the sense of we need our students to be actively working through problems, multiple challenges a day. So that’s the same. What’s different is we’re going to take a little bit more time. We’re not rushing them through quite as much as we did a Dev Bootcamp. And that’s just because we know who our end customer, I guess you could say in a sense of who’s going to be trying to bring these people on board and they’re willing to take a little bit more time to make sure that they’ve got the more specialized skills. Those are some of the things.

Just getting as much out of your talent in the short term as you can “tends to be a vicious circle that ends in a rough culture that doesn’t necessarily create a lot of innovation.” David Hoover, Founder / CEO, Red Squirrel Technologies

Bill Detwiler: And how long do you think it’s going to take someone to go from the beginning to the end of the bootcamp? I remember back in the old days, you were talking about the dangers of paper certs, things like that. So I remember there were week bootcamps, there were two-week bootcamps that you could go to, usually for people that had a base understanding of a given technology but they we’re just looking to pass the cert. How long are the folks, the students in this case, going to be going through, take to go through your boot camp? Or do you know yet?

Dave Hoover: So this is… I do. We know. It’s going to be a 12-week immersive bootcamp.

Bill Detwiler: Okay.

Dave Hoover: So three phases of four weeks each. We also have a four-week prep, part-time remote prep program. And so there’s about 16 weeks of curriculum that people have to work through. It’s a lot. It’s different in the… I went through the same week long programs 15 years ago that were just leveling you up in one specific skill, which can work, and sometimes it’s just a waste of time. But these programs are really meant to immerse somebody in a topic, in a whole craft and just completely transform their brain when it comes to this sort of occupation.

Dave Hoover: By the time they get out of it, suddenly, it doesn’t feel sudden to them, and it feels like a long slog, but to the rest of the world, they’ve just gone from being semi-technical or maybe they knew how to use Excel pretty well, and now they can code apps and Python, connect to APIs, even write APIs. So that’s the transformational experience that these things create.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free TechRepublic PDF)

Bootcamps help companies “level up” employees

Bill Detwiler: If you had any advice to give to companies that were maybe looking to do something similar, if they’re looking to whether to up-skill their current employee base, if they’re looking to start a program like this, what’s some of tips that you would offer them besides just, “Hey, come in, hiring at Red Squirrel?

David Hoover: Sure. Talk to me. I think a fully immersive experience is expensive, in the way of… It’s very expensive but people’s time. So somebody, and probably many people are going to be paying a lot, at least in time, if not money, to go through this experience. And so it’s quite an undertaking to create a true bootcamp-like experience. But interestingly, almost every big successful consultancy ends up creating one of these things so that they can hire semi-expert college grads who are really sharp and smart and put them through boot camps to prepare them to be strong consultants at Accenture or ThoughtWorks or wherever, IDEO.

And so most professional service firms at scale, these technical ones, tend to end up creating these things as their onboarding programs. And they’ve existed for a long time, it’s just that these boot camps are open to the public as a means of just general education, not general education, but open to the public as a very specific education. And so that said, I think for companies that are interested in leveling up their employees, I think you can create quick hit programs that are more like one week or two if you can afford it. A lot of companies can’t afford that at the moment.

And so you have to make do with like if you do want to build skills, you’re going to have to do that through asking people to take shorter little hits, like over part-time courses, and people squeeze it into their after hours and things like that, which is what so many of us have done for so long. Just what these bootcamps do is they, they just shortened the calendar time to from when you start learning to when you’ve achieved a certain level, a sufficient level of expertise that you can start getting paid to do for this basically.

And so that’s what it’s really squeezed then, that’s the real innovation. It just squeezes that like, okay, you’re literally going from semi-technical to, “I can get paid to be a software developer in 12 to 14 weeks,” which is unique.

Upskilling employees is less costly than hiring new talent

Bill Detwiler: So if you have the luxury of being able to do this, it’s great. If you don’t, then doing these quick hit training sessions, upscaling sessions, looking for ways to do that, something though I think is interesting that you might be able to talk about, whether you’re doing a bootcamp or whether you’re doing these upscaling things, you talked about the cost, I’m wondering in your experience though, if, yes, it’s expensive, but it’s less expensive than hiring new talent. And in the long run, so the short term, it’s expensive and you’ve got to devote time and effort and energy and maybe even money to the process of up-skilling, but on the backend you have someone who’s more loyal or who’s more valuable as an employee. So in the long run it pays dividends. Has that been what your experience is?

Dave Hoover: Absolutely. And I again, I find that consulting companies tend to have an easier time making that investment because their people tend to be their product. When you’re upscaling someone who’s a consultant, someone who’s getting paid for their time, it’s a direct, it’s usually a fairly quick ROI. Tougher when it comes to product companies and startups and tech companies whose product of course is their software or their software services and it’s not as a direct ROI when you just invest in the people.

Now that said, I think some of the best companies out there do invest in their people, but it requires leadership to take a long term view as opposed to the short term talent consumer view of just, “Hire the best people, pay as much as it requires to find them or find them wherever you can in the world and just get as much out of them in the short term as you can.” And that tends to be a vicious circle that ends in a rough culture that doesn’t necessarily create a lot of innovation. So it really just does come down to that short term, long term view about talent.

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