Co-Founder and VP of Education Gives a Glimpse of Code Fellows' Past and Future, Part 1

Brook Riggio, one of the first Code Fellows instructors and the VP of Education, sits down with us to talk about why he loves to teach, how Code Fellows started, and what he’s excited for with the launch of our new program.

What courses do you teach at Code Fellows?

I’ve taught a little bit of everything at different times. Right now, I’m teaching a Ruby on Rails Development Accelerator. But I’ve also taught Foundations I, the Computer Science & Web Development Bootcamp, and Foundations II: JavaScript.

Brook Riggio

How did you first get started with programming?

When I was about eight years old, my dad brought home this huge box that went under the Christmas tree. It was very intriguing. When we finally opened it on Christmas, there was this huge IBM XT personal computer there. That thing had a 20 MB hard drive! But it could run DOS just fine, and it had the BASIC programming language on it.

My Calculus teacher in high school mentored me in learning a little bit of the Java programming language. And I took a few college-level programming classes in C. I thought about majoring in Computer Science but I decided to go with engineering instead. But I definitely had an interest in software throughout my time in college, which came into play as I began to freelance and then work full time as a professional software developer.

How were you introduced to teaching?

Some other software developers and I put together a one-day workshop on Rails that we ran that here in Seattle—I also volunteered with the Rails Bridge program and got to teach through that. And then the opportunity came up to teach with the University of Washington through the Ruby Certificate Program in the Professional Continuing Education Track. Ivan Storck and I designed a 20-week Rails curriculum for a class that met once a week in that Ruby Certificate track.

How did this transform into teaching at Code Fellows?

Ivan and I were looking at that curriculum and were really frustrated with how slow the iteration process was. We could only teach this curriculum once or twice a year, because it was so long and the course wasn’t offered very often. It was really hard to get feedback and to be able to improve it and make it better. So we started thinking about putting together a course in the bootcamp model, which we saw working out well in San Francisco. We thought Seattle really needed a bootcamp as well.

Andy Sack, then the managing director of Techstars, got in touch with us because all of his Techstars companies had the same issue—they just couldn’t find enough technical talent. Instead of teaching them how to poach engineers from Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, or somewhere else, he decided that he could instead find a way to inject more developers into the Seattle ecosystem to help the startup scene. He talked to us about running a class and we talked to him about the bootcamp model.

We took our curriculum and compressed it from 20 weeks down to four weeks and put our first class together in early 2013. It worked fantastically. We had two people who were hired by graduation—it was very exciting to see the model work. So we knew we were on to something at that point, and quickly expanded from four weeks to eight weeks for those intensive classes. And Code Fellows really grew up from there.

What do you think of the model, now that you’ve taught it for a while? What is really exciting about it, and what are some of the hard parts about trying to pack so much information into two months?

The first thing is that we immediately benefitted from being able to iterate on the model. It was awesome to be able to make changes and update and tweak our curriculum, almost month-to-month. We could take very rapid steps to improve every time we offered the course to make it better and better for the next cohort. That was huge.

That’s one thing I still really enjoy about this model—we get great feedback from our students who can tell us if things are working or not. That lets us adjust and make a difference. We have the freedom to make our curriculum whatever it needs to be to work for our students. We make a lot of adjustments based on what we’re hearing from them. We also have a number of companies that we talk to about their hiring needs, and we can integrate a lot of that material into the curriculum as well. So all of that kind of flexibility and ability to iterate is amazing from an instructional side of things. And it’s rare to find in larger institutions where things just happen a lot slower.

What kind of results have you seen as students come through the program?

One of the greatest things is seeing the model work over and over again. I still feel super excited every time I hear about one of our students getting a job somewhere. It’s a fist pump and a high five for those around us whenever someone else lands a great gig because this is absolutely why we do what we do. It’s why all of us, on staff here, get up in the morning and are motivated to put in our time and energy into this company because we see it make a huge difference in the lives of our students.

Continue to Part 2!

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