Sep 02
2013

Hack Reactor Review—life at a hacker school

Many prospective students have been emailing me and asking about how various programming boot camps compare. How does Dev Bootcamp compare to Hack Reactor? Where can I find an App Academy review? Should I consider doing Hack Reactor instead of a four year degree at Stanford or Berkeley? Most of all I’ve been asked, “What happened after you finished the program? Could you find a job?”

I’m happy to say that Hack Reactor exceeded my expectations in pretty much every way possible. I learned far more than I ever expected and it was the most intense twelve weeks of my life (Except maybe that time I started a business with no capital in a foreign country).

The curriculum

In the first part of the course, our work was broken up into two day modules (AKA “sprints”). A typical module would start after lunch with a lecture from Marcus, after which we’d break into pairs and work until dinner time. After dinner, we did quick student talks and sometimes a longer talk from an industry expert (these included people from Twitter, Uber, Pinterest, top consultancy shops, framework designers, etc). After that we’d get back to work until at least 8:30pm, though I often stayed much later and so did the instructors helping us. The following day we’d work pretty much straight through on the project, but have a longer lunch break so we could go to the gym or do some other exercise. Then the next morning, Marcus would go over instructive parts of our code with the group, talk to us about what we could have done better and then give us until lunch to refactor it.

About half of these 2-day sprints were very applied. These were things like learning to use Backbone.js to make a web app, making a Node.js server for chat clients or learning enough D3 to make a multiplayer game. The other half of the sprints were much more like what would be found in a traditional computer science course—we implemented hash tables from arrays, we wrote binary search trees, we dug deeply into the famous N-Queens problem and we reimplemented a popular functional toolchain library. Based on my occasional conversations with a meetup-attendee who has graduated of a competing hacker boot camp, I believe Hack Reactor gives students a comparatively strong background in CS. By the end, we had a solid foundation in JavaScript, jQuery, and Node.js as well as experience with multiple frameworks and other two other programming languages—CoffeeScript and Ruby.

Personal Projects and Group Projects

Later in the course we took a few sprints to use what we had learned and build a more substantial personal project. Quite a few of my classmates went far beyond the scope of what had been covered officially in our curriculum. Some did Ruby on Rails projects. One who had really enjoyed our Meteor lessons went all out and made a library other developers could use to add rooms to their apps or games. Another, made Instahood. I designed a scheme-like language, wrote an interpreter and put it into an HTML 5 robot fighting game prototype. WAT? I simply would not have believed myself capable of that before the class, or even up until the moment our teacher Shawn urged me to take on a harder project. If you’re reading this, thanks Shawn!

Towards the end of the class we did even larger, more ambitious group projects in teams of 3-5 students. Some of these have been absolutely epic! My classmates Howard, Coleman, Andreas and Tatiana made an online PVP air hockey game that you control by moving your head. Their project included Node, express, sockets, facial recognition, and a lot of other cool stuff.

Since my graduation, Hack Reactor student projects have only gotten more impressive. Tim, Ruan and John from the jr. class that overlapped with mine, made a supercomputer to challenge the world record for N-Queens and made the front page of wired.com! The following class of hackers had an equally stunning break-out success that earned them an spot on Tech Crunch TV—Reddit Insight.

Interview Preparation

Towards the end of the course, hiring became the main focus for those of us not working on our own start-ups. My classmates and I worked on coding challenges most mornings. We helped prep each other for phone screens and interviews. We shared our experiences, encouraged each other and pushed each other to keep working hard even after months of a brutal schedule.

We got some great coaching from Marcus and the other instructors about how to evaluate job offers, what kinds of things to ask at interviews, how to find a team where we’d have a great learning environment and even some more philosophical conversations about the larger trajectories of our careers and lives, even. At this time, I felt a profound shift in my outlook. For half a year since returning to the US I had been struggling as a contractor, spending a lot of time looking for jobs and even running into difficulties collecting final payments after completing them. Then all of the sudden everything changed.

Hiring Day and Interviews

We had a “hiring day” speed-dating style interview event in which representatives from many different companies came by and interviewed us 5 minutes at a time. My personal project blew them away! A couple even said things to the effect of “We don’t have anything interesting enough for you,” gave up and left. Others lead to in person interviews. At the end, I had interest from Google, a few mid-sized companies, a consultancy and half a dozen start-ups. Disappointingly, I didn’t get any sort of social proof for being a Hack Reactor grad. The school was just too new. Nobody had heard of it. Nobody knew the depth involved in our curriculum. Most people just assumed our program was like Dev Bootcamp or App Academy. And none of that mattered! I had the coding skiils to build things worthy of presenting at local meet-ups and to run the 5 hour interview gauntlet of top-tier Silicon Valley tech companies.

Making a decision

It was a really hard choice with so many great options. In the end, Groupon was the best choice for me. I didn’t really want to leave San Francisco for the south valley but the company size and culture was right in the sweet spot that I was looking for. It offered great benefits and resume plating while still being small enough that I could make a visible difference. Another important thing was being able to use cutting edge technology that exists in the greater tech company ecosystem instead of being siloed on some internal tech stack that I couldn’t talk to anybody about!

The Hack Reactor network

One of the best things about Hack Reactor has nothing to do with web programming. It’s the network of fellow hackers who have invested heavily in 21st century skills and have outsized ambitions in life. Every class has a “late crew” of students who stick around after finishing their sprints, determined to make the most of their 12 weeks just like I was. Now, I know just about all of them. The people whose projects have blown up on wired and tech crunch are friends. Some were students at the same time I was and saw the crazy ride I went through. Others, I met later at social events or even through this blog. One thing is very likely though—when I build a tech start-up, it will be with a cofounder from this network and we’ll probably hire hackers from the new classes.

Masters Classes

It’s still super early days, but alumni and students are starting to form groups and work on other topics only some of us had time to delve into in class. I’m coming back for a machine learning weekend later in the month. There’s a pretty neat compilers class (with an external teacher) coming up soon, too. It’s hard to say where everything is going for sure, but this is an industry where constant learning is a fact of life and I see learning with my fellow HackRs in the future! Heck, I may even be teaching some classes of my own.

Final Thoughts

Choosing Hack Reactor was a huge win for me. My total yearly salary is more than 100k more than it was last year. I have more interesting work and great co-workers. I saw my code live on a huge international site within a week of starting work. The return on the three months I invested on learning how to hack ideas into being has been phenomenal. In retrospect, it was fortunate that I was rejected by App Academy. If I had been accepted into their “free until you’re hired” program, I never would have come to this crazy intense school. It may just be the pain and rejections I went through in 2012 that gave me the desire to really take advantage of the amazing opportunity at Hack Reactor. I’m grateful that the team was able to see past standard filters like pedigree and background to go for a relentlessly determined candidate like I was.

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2 Responses to Hack Reactor Review—life at a hacker school

  1. Jennifer says:

    Would you mind sharing if graduates from your class actually received job offers at $110k? How many were in your class? Did you get a job with a company that interviewed at hack reactor or did you find your own job?

    Also what would you say was the one thing that you found missing from your education at hack reactor that you wish was taught?

    Thanks!

  2. admin says:

    Jennifer, I’ve covered my HR experience pretty thoroughly on this block and programming youtube channel. If you’re very interested in the topic, the link might be useful.

    To answer your first question, yes. Hack Reactor is extremely transparent about its student and alumni body. Every single student in my class (as well as any of the first 6 classes) is listed on their site’s student page. Groupon didn’t attend my class’s hiring day, but they did attend those of later classes for a while. I found them through the student project I made while at Hack Reactor.

    That last question is a really hard one. I want to learn everything! It’s obviously not possible to cover everything in any schooling program, though. I think they did a pretty good job of exposing us to the things we needed to know, but I think the some modules they’ve added since my graduation would have been nice—especially the ones on AngularJS and workflow tools.

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