By John Sonmez June 2, 2015

Erik Gross is Teaching People How to Code

Developer bootcamps are a very popular topic today.

There is a lot of mystery around the idea of a developer boot camp and it can be difficult to figure out if it is something that is worth pursuing.

For example, if you are just starting out today, are you better off going to a bootcamp or going to a traditional college?

Which will prepare you better for the future, and which will result in a better job?

I had the opportunity to interview Erik Gross of The Tech Academy about boot camps in general, and his boot camp in particular.

The Tech Academy founder Erik Gross is a skilled .NET developer, consultant and mentor with many years of experience in the Portland IT community.

The Tech Academy founder Erik Gross is a skilled .NET developer, consultant and mentor with many years of experience in the Portland IT community.

Erik shares a wealth of knowledge and an interesting story about how he started his boot camp. You can find the video interview here.

I've also asked Erik to write up some answers to some questions, which you'll find below.

You might be wondering if I have some kind of financial stake in The Tech Academy, since I'm promoting it here, but full disclosure is that I do not. I just happen to like what Erik is doing and feel that he is doing the bootcamp thing the right way that will really benefit people and I wanted to share his story.

Hope you enjoy.

Q: What is your technology background?

I’ve been working with computers since I was 11 years old. My dad programmed IBM mainframes in the 1960s, and he told me how he and his buddies used to sit around and talk about how cool it would be if there could be a computer small enough that you could have it at your desk. So when personal computers came out in the early ‘80s, Dad went right out and got one.

I remember when he walked in the door with a VIC-20. It was about $300 if I recall, and that was something my family really couldn’t afford at the time. I don’t know how he did it, but I’m forever grateful to my dad for that.

The first thing Dad did was to pop open the machine and show me what was inside. So right off the bat I learned the fundamentals of how these machines worked. In hindsight, this was a pivotal moment – it took away any air of mystery about this amazing device. I learned what the computer was doing at its most basic level, so any layers of complexity on top of that became easy to understand. That understanding has helped me throughout my whole life – and it underlies the whole basis of our boot camp program at The Tech Academy.

As I want through high school, I learned a variety of languages and technologies – BASIC, Pascal, DBase and more. I actually taught myself BASIC down at my local Radio Shack store – they had a gorgeous TRS-80 there that no one would touch. It was literally on a pedestal. I went down there nearly every afternoon after school, working through the manuals until I could program the computer.

Moving forward into life as an adult, I entered the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Program and trained as an electronic technician. Part of the training included a deep dive into hardware and software on the Motorola 68000 chip. This further reinforced the fundamentals of technology. Every technological change that’s happened in the many years has since been easy for me to embrace and work with because of that.

It was in the Navy that I got my first opportunity to teach technology – classroom instruction in digital circuits, computer architecture, physics, electronics, nuclear power and more. I also had the fortunate experience of attending a highly competitive electronic troubleshooting course – maybe 10 or 20 people a year were accepted. I learned so much there about how to think like a developer, actually. It was very hands on and realistic – we were given reproductions of some of the most challenging defects that had actually occurred out in the fleet, and we had to fix them. I use those lessons every day – and this was about 25 years ago!

When I left the Navy, I became part of the technology boom preceding the dot com bubble of the early 2000s. I learned Java, Visual Basic, web development (and boy has that come a long way!) and more.

When the .Net framework hit the scene, I was impressed. Microsoft’s work in Rapid Application Development has always been a strong effort, and I am especially pleased to see where they are now – embracing open source, serving the developer.

My current stack includes a pretty diverse set of technologies – C#/.NET, MVC, Python, Angular, Node and a lot more. As the primary force behind keeping our curriculum current and comprehensive, I’m the lucky geek who gets to check out the latest and greatest stuff out there. At The Tech Academy, we can be pretty nimble as far as curriculum, so I’m constantly looking at the marketplace to see what’s gaining traction.

Q: How did you get involved in the coding boot camp industry?

The teaching experiences I had in the Navy opened my eyes to the joy and satisfaction that can be had in teaching others. I have held mentorship and training roles ever since.

As far as the boot camp scene goes, I hadn’t yet heard of it when I started training junior developers. What happened really is that I just needed more entry-level devs for my own side projects – so I started working out how to train bright people in the skills they’d need to handle some of the grunt work involved in projects.

That was moving along well when my youngest son came home from high school one day and told me he wanted to go to a developer boot camp. I said, “What’s a developer boot camp?” This was somewhere around late 2012 or early 2013, I think. So I Googled it and just about lost my mind. I saw what folks were doing in the Bay Area, New York – and I said “That’s it. Right there – that’s what I want to do.” So I sat down at my kitchen table and drew it up – the whole training model, technology stack and so on. For sure it’s grown a lot since then, but that’s how it started.

It turned out that everything I’d done from the age of 11 on ended up being the perfect preparation for this industry – the strong knowledge of technology fundamentals, the experience teaching and mentoring, the pragmatic attitude of a working software developer – so the training program we’ve created at The Tech Academy reflected all of that.

Where we really started to take off is when I brought on my co-founder, Jack Stanley. He brought the business experience and discipline needed to make this activity become stable, well-established and viable – and to grow it from there.

So we now find ourselves in a great position – we’re actually veteran members of the young boot camp industry, we are producing amazing results (every single graduate we’ve made has gotten hired in technology) and we are set up to scale with our fully remote training system.

Q: How do you explain the rapid success of the coding boot camp industry?

I see a few key factors that have brought us to the point where this unorthodox way to break into the industry has become viable.

First and foremost is the shortage of technical talent. While this is well-documented elsewhere, it is an observable fact that we have more technology jobs than we have talent to fill those jobs. I sometimes see the occasional article trying to say that there isn’t actually a shortage. I put that down to a poorly-disguised attempt to manufacture controversy. My experience has shown that we really do have a shortage, and that the industry is starting to face the fact that unusual situations may require unusual solutions. So we have all these successful boot camps springing up.

Another factor is the strong push to change the landscape of the technology field as far as diversity. There is a tremendous amount of work being done on this line, which I fully support. Since boot camps can provide a way to rapidly break into the field, I think they can be more attractive than traditional colleges routes to people who didn’t necessarily spend their early upbringing thinking of technology as a logical or viable career path.

Finally, boot camps can provide a way for a working professional or home maker to make a career transition without having to figure out how to get a four-year degree while they’re still working or maintaining a family. This is particularly effective if a boot camp offers a part time option – the student can continue working while they learn the trade and make the transition to technology.

Q: What sort of person should look at doing a boot camp?

The kind of people we see who succeed at the boot camp model of training have a few characteristics in common.

Usually they have tried one or two online training resources for learning to code – enough for them to realize that they like the challenge and feel some affinity for the subject.

We also see that they are people who are willing to learn – that is, they don’t automatically reject any new data or approach they see, insisting that they ‘already know all about it’. We’ve all known people like that. We don’t usually accept folks like that at The Tech Academy – we like to graduate people we’d be happy to work with, and I don’t really like working with people like that. So as far as the kind of person who should consider this route, I think the basic qualities would be friendliness and willingness to be nice.

Of course you should be a reasonably bright person. There’s a misconception out there that a computer programmer needs to be a bit of a math whiz. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most computer programming takes only the most basic math skills you can think of. If you can add, subtract, multiply and divide, you’ll be good. To be sure, some programming tasks may require advanced math knowledge – but the situation there is usually that the business need driving the creation of the software is dependent on advanced math – and in that case, the developer will usually be working hand-in-hand with an industry expert who has the math skill needed.

Q: What should an interested person be looking for in a boot camp?

I recommend looking for these things:

A bottom-up approach. This basically means that the training program will start by building the solid foundation of fundamentals in computers, programming basics and technology itself – only then proceeding on to teach specific complex computer languages and technologies.

The opposite of this would be a top-down approach, in which the student would be thrown right in using a complex computer language or set of technologies, trying to make software with it. The expectation would be that along the way, the student would be able to work out the fundamentals underlying the technology they’re using. Some can do this, many can’t – and meanwhile, you’re swimming along in a sea of misunderstood technical words, complex theory, data presented with no guidance as to relative importance, and other very real challenges to understanding.

This approach is all too common with boot camps – and it’s one I nearly fell into. Like The Tech Academy, most boot camps are created by experienced technology professionals. For us, it’s no real challenge to grab hold of some emerging language or framework and dive in, making a project over the weekend. We can succeed at that because we’ve got years of knowledge and experience that helps us work through the challenges of learning. A person who lacks that depth of knowledge and experience will have a very difficult time of it.

I would recommend, as well, a training model that is proficiency-based – that is, the criteria for completing your study of a boot camp section, or the boot camp itself, is whether or not you understand what you’ve studied and can apply it. The traditional academic model most of us grew up with is one where we trade time for a grade – it’s like we say, ‘twelve weeks studying Chemistry equals a B-level understanding of Chemistry’. This model is increasingly being questioned in educational circles, and for good reason. I wouldn’t want to drive over a bridge built by an engineer who got C grades in his studies.

If the boot camp has a training method that can make sure the student has genuine understanding of each subject as its taught, and also that the student can apply that subject in real work, then you’re setting yourself up well as a boot camp student. After all, one of the primary advantages to a boot camp is that they should be able to get you the practical skills in the in-demand languages and technologies that the market wants to hire for.

Finally, just see if you like the folks at the boot camp. You’ll be partnering with them to the end goal of helping you break into the field – it’s nice to work with people you like.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."