Jan 18
2013

Hacker Schools in San Francisco

Since my arrival in San Francisco last summer, I’ve become aware of the new “hacker schools” popping up around the city. Their stated purpose is to take smart, motivated people who may or may not have a strong technical background and turn them into world-class junior developers in a short time.

The Starter League

The first school of this type that I ever heard of was Code Academy in Chicago (renamed as The Starter League due to name confusion after the online school Codecademy launched). Their system was pretty unique– students spend 8 to 10 hours per day for 2 months, working in pairs as they learn a stunning amount of ruby, HTML/CSS/JS and Ruby on Rails. At the end of this time, they have an interview day in which they demo their projects to various tech companies, including some of the hottest local startups. The school has only been running since 2011, but results have been excellent and even DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails, is a fan of the program.

SF Hacker Schools

With that kind of success, it wasn’t long before similar schools started popping up in the Bay Area. The demand for top notch developers is extreme here, but very few companies are willing to train and they take only a tiny fraction of their applicants. A program to quickly bring students up to speed in the technologies that local start-ups are using is the perfect solution. It’s an incredible learning experience for the students that opens doors, the companies can hire solid programmers to join their teams and schools can earn money from either or both of the former two groups. From what I understand, Dev Bootcamp‘s first class was hugely successful–Over 90 percent of the students landed jobs shortly after graduation (at nearly double the average US salary) and of those who didn’t one opened a similar school called App Academy that focused on iOS development and the other opened Hack Reactor, an even more intense school with a stronger focus on JavaScript and front-end technologies. There is also another school, which I know less about since it doesn’t accept men.

In contrast with computer science degrees at universities, these schools have less of a focus on CS theory and more of a focus on building things. Students write a lot of code, and they use newer languages and frameworks. Another feature is heavy use of cutting edge tools and various automated testing frameworks that are commonly used in bay area start-ups, but not so common yet at larger, more traditional companies. Most striking to me is the intense nature of the study. No college I’ve ever seen puts students through 8 class hours of computing classes per day.

The bay area hacker schools remind me more of high-end intense language schools! There are a number of 6 hour per day intense language learning programs in which students work in pairs or small groups, work hard, and acquire a great deal of vocabulary, speaking skills and reading skills in a short time. In my experience learning mathematics as a teenager and then later learning Japanese and Chinese in my 20s, working at something 4 hours a day isn’t just 4 times as good as 1 hour a day. It’s probably closer to 10 times as good. So even before encountering any students of such programs, I was bullish about the idea. But when I did finally some students from App Academy and saw how much they had picked up in only a month of classes, I knew I had to join.

My quest to get in

They had only been in class for a month or so, and their class was free since they were the inaugural (i.e. guinea pig) class. In that short time, they had already picked up enough to start making some kind of fun iOS projects! Beyond that, I hung out with a bunch of them and played a cool board game called 7 Wonders or something like that. It was a fun group and they were genuinely excited about what they were learning. I had some background in iOS. Not fully aware of how rigid the program was, I bought a Macbook and started working on the materials they were using hoping I could get into the program in some way. I realized pretty quickly it wouldn’t be possible, so I didn’t press the issue. But I did ask the instructor what other materials they used and I applied for their next batch, which they said would be focused on web development with rails and importantly would only charge tuition for students successfully hired.

Next, I started learning all I could about similar programs, what it would take to get into them and how expensive they were. Unfortunately, for the most part, they’re pretty expensive. Dev Bootcamp, for example, costs 12k. That’s more than I spent on tuition for all of my B.A. at one of the better public universities! They’re flooded with applicants and pretty difficult to get into, also.

When it came time for winter applications, I applied to multiple schools. I talked with former students to get as much of an idea what they were looking for. One of my major difficulties since coming back to the US has been much of what I accomplished in Asia (language learning, running a business in a foreign country, etc…) doesn’t really translate into much social proof here. It’s awesome for social settings, but in interviews or people evaluating my professional abilities, my background looks a bit meandering. So, I focused on my track record of learning hard things, my adaptability and my genuine interest in education. I think it went fairly well. I made it to the interview stage with 100% of my applications in which I followed this strategy.

Interviews

Hack Reactor had a pretty extensive process. Of all the schools I applied to they were the only one to require a video. They asked me to teach something I was interested in. What a perfect thing for me! I put my heart and soul into teaching for most of my 20s! The challenge was not to teach something I wasn’t so interested in anymore, such as Chinese learning or something that would likely be boring to them, such as phonics. In the end, I decided to explain what spaced repetition systems are and their strengths and weaknesses. After that, there was a general interview. Last was the technical interview, which was kind of hard. It was an interesting system, though. The interviewer actually taught me some useful things about prototypical inheritance in it, and I had them down pretty solidly by the end. I felt good about my showing, but they clearly had a high bar technically. Still, even if I got a rejection letter the next day, I had learned how to monkey patch Javascript classes!

The technical interview with App Academy on the other hand, was terrifying. I knew they were the only program I could afford, and my hopes were pinned on it. I started out pretty confident, but then the interviewer asked me the scariest possible question– Fizzbuzz! Before he’d even finished explaining it, I felt my heart sink. Knowing how ridiculously high their applicant to student ratio was, with a question that easy I’d probably have to solve it as quickly as I could type. Who knows what else I’d be filtered on… language choice? Running correctly the first time? I decided to use ruby since that’s what they use, and typed as quickly as I could, made a few errors, corrected them and ran my program through a fizzbuzz grader I just happened to have made a year earlier to ensure it was correct. For a moment the instructor thought I’d made an ordering mistake with the mod 3, mod 5 and mod 15 conditionals but then realized all was good and said as much, sounding pretty upbeat. What a relief! The rest of the interview was mostly questions about why I was interested, whether I’d be able to devote my full attention to the program, etc. I asked a few questions of my own and all seemed to go well.

Disappointment

But I didn’t get in. That was rough. After having sought them out last summer, talking to the students of the first batch and clearly being so motivated it was a blow to get rejected. Worse yet, when I emailed back to see what I should work on to be a stronger candidate for their next batch, they told me I was out for six months. For someone in my financial/career state, six months was dream killing. All over a stupid fizzbuzz interview! Still, I have to say that Ned and Kush were incredibly kind, far beyond the call of duty. They gave me a good amount of feedback, and were helpful in a number of ways. I’m sure they were flooded with applicants, too. Ned even went so far as to offer to intro me to other schools whose owners or instructors he knew. Unfortunately, all of them had 10k+ tuition fees taken up front instead of after job placement like App Academy’s system.

Around that time I heard back from Hack Reactor, asking how much financial aid I would need to do their course. The amount I told them was pretty much undoable. Still, though… it made me wonder. If they were contacting me again and they already knew my situation from the previous interviews, maybe there was still a shot. It was an exhilarating feeling! Of all the schools I’d visited, Hack Reactor seemed to have the highest bar in terms of everything. Other schools went five days a week, they did six. Other schools had nine hour days, they had eleven hour days. Other schools went for two months, they went for three. Also, their focus on JavaScript frameworks was a plus to me. Studying at a school with such a tough entrance filter would not only give me skills that would greatly improve my ability to do more interesting tech work in Silicon Valley, but it would also impart much needed social proof to convince various gatekeepers to give me opportunities. It was time for extreme measures.

Tenacity

I went out every bank I could find in the city. I knew a loan wouldn’t be easy since banks are big, slow-moving, conservative behemoths that would almost certainly have no loans for non-university schools that have only existed since 2011. The fact that I have essentially no US credit history for the last 10 years didn’t make things any easier. I channeled everything I’ve learned about sales from my entrepreneurial experiences going back to the house-painting franchise I ran when I was 20. I found bankers who had heard of the new hacker schools and showed them statistics on previous graduation classes on my Macbook. They said no. It sucked, but I kept looking for more creative ways of funding the class I scraped together just enough. And I got in.

It was a thrilling moment. It’s a little terrifying as well. This is my shot. It took a lot of tenacity to get it. I have 12 weeks to make the most of it, and it starts tomorrow.


I’ll probably be way too busy to write in detail, but I’ll be keeping a log of notes, study tactics and observations here. Expect to see projects showcased here as well.

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6 Responses to Hacker Schools in San Francisco

  1. Pingback: Hacker Schools in San Francisco - Toshuō

  2. jose reyes says:

    What bank did you get the student loan?

  3. Tareq says:

    Would it be possible to get accepted at Hack Reactor without having any JavaScript experience? I only have html and some php skills

  4. admin says:

    Yes, it’s possible. They would give you pre-course work that involves learning the basics and you’d have to complete it to get in.

  5. Anthony says:

    Hello, I’m Anthony.

    I began the admissions for Hack Reactor. for a July 2014 cohort.

    It’s possible that the admissions process has changed some amount since you applied but I wanted to know more about your experience. For context, here’s my experience this far for the admissions process:

    1) On the website there’s a application app that requires basic javascript syntax knowledge at which, upon success, emails you a project called ChatBuilder.

    2) Chatbuilder requires you to leverage some mobility around browser dev tools, jQuery, AJAX(JSON, callbacks), and I’m sure you can imagine the rest. The backend is provided by PARSE and HR sets up some details for you. It took me a full weekend.

    3) The in-person technical interview was a half-hour paired programming session by an Alumni going over some functions Scott called map(), reduce(), filter(); I didn’t have much to ask or think about them until I got home. I completed them but perhaps not in the most elegant or creative ways. My brain turned into spaghetti at the beginning.

    4) Presently, my concern is this:
    possibly pay $2000 to begin 4 weeks worth of course-work preceding the 12 week program. And possibly lose $2000 for not being a good fit.

    I’m poor as poor can be. I have poor friends and my family as per usual refuses to aid me. I acquired a B.S. from University but my current career is stagnant, boring and has no future prospects. I am super super poor.

    I love javascript. I’ve enjoyed scripting before I knew you could make a living at it. I’m probably not smart enough to be a mathematician or physicist. I can already leverage web technologies in small amateur ways(as long as I have google). I’m scared heavily of having to do a video where I teach something I love. I could probably get a front-end
    position but my eye for design is lacking and CSS is my least favorite thing. Though if all my CSS scripting was in addition to famo.us, angular, and logic/structure based design then I could tolerate it. I’m assuming. I know neither of those things.

    From stranger to stranger. Do you think I should take the risk assuming I can acquire the funds?

    Some questions:
    So how are you doing employment-wise after Hack Reactor? Do you and your employers have an understanding on what to expect in performance for only about 3-6 months worth of guided experience? For some students that didn’t quite get what they hoped, is there anything about them you could tell me about that might help me make a decision about myself?

    You can email me and I’d be very receptive to whatever advice you have for me.

  6. Matt says:

    curious – how do the SF hacker schools stack up?
    Anyone else have a comparison between them?
    Sounds like Hack Reactor is the best according to the OP, but does anyone else have any opinion?

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