Shawn Drost – Founder of Hack Reactor

Shawn Drost is the Co-Founder of Hack Reactor, a coding bootcamp founded in 2012 along with his college friends Tony Phillips, Marcus Phillips, and Douglas Calhoun with the primary motive to set people up for success as software engineers. They envision themselves transforming higher education to be more transparent, accessible and outcomes-driven. Hack Reactor’s community involvement is remarkable as they continue to offer curriculum, volunteer support and training to their nonprofit partners in their conscious effort to bridge the gap between underserved communities and the tech industry.

For Breaking Into Startups Community, Shawn is offering free access to Hack Reactor Prep, which will prepare you to get into any coding bootcamp. Sign Up Here.


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Years in Tech10+
Grew UpHonolulu, HI
Current JobEngineer, Founder
Date Recorded6/30/2016

Key Points:

  • When choosing a bootcamp, choose one that has a high admissions bar to make sure you’re immersed in a rigorous coding environment and surrounded by students who put in 100%. Talk to alumni to know more about the school. Look into its placement rate and how it’s calculated.
  • Will power is an underappreciated character trait that is extremely valuable. When life tells you no, recognize it as an opportunity and find out how you can turn that into a yes.
  • Be one of the first employees at a small startup company and who knows if they become the next big thing? Bring value to them and you’ll see it’s a much easier way to break into.
  • Get involved. There still exists a great deal of social disparity be it gender, class, or color. Look for ways that you can contribute to the community and create an impact.

Show Notes (focus on the Stepping Stones):

[1:05] Started coding in math class with his TI calculator out of boredom

[1:32] Growing up in Hawaii. Moving to the Bay Area to work at a small Y Combinator startup as its first employee before getting a job at at OkCupid until starting Hack Reactor with his college best friends

[2:32] A CS degree carries weight in the industry but not a prerequisite because with software engineering, you can test if somebody knows how to program or not.

[3:26] How Hack Reactor education model is focused on motivation, project-based learning, and real world conditions focused around collaboration and holistic learning model (students learn both technical and nontechnical skills)

[4:19] Hack Reactor emphasizes pair programming, working with other devs on same code base, as well as industry-centered processes including code reviews.

[5:31] The Genesis of Hack Reactor: Shawn got back together with college friends Marcus, Tony, and Douglas to start the company so they could hang out more until working on Hack Reactor full time

[6:36] Parents of prospective students initially thought it was too good to be true so they needed to sit down with each student to explain that they’re legit and how the program can help change their lives. Their first student was a guy who dropped out of college to enroll in their program.

[8:21] The job search process: Hack reactor has dedicated staff to assist students with the job search to make sure they are able to land great jobs within 6 months of graduation (something that they’ve kickstarted early on that most bootcamps now offer)

[9:11] Unless you’ve demonstrated that its generating results, it’s better not to have a targeted approach when searching for jobs because it can lead to less application and less interviews. Instead, push for 10 applications a day after you graduate.

[11:50] Resources to position people to get in and do well after the boot camp:

Hack Reactor Prep
Codecademy
Underscore
Eloquent JavaScript
Coderbyte

[13:06] Student demographics at Hack Reactor:

  • Average student: mid to late 20’s (They have students from 17-late 50’s)
  • 75% have prior Bachelor’s degree beforehand
  • Very few CS majors (around 10% or fewer CS majors)
  • Typically moving from a field that they no longer enjoy or is not as lucrative (accounting, musicians, and college graduates not sure on what to do next)

[14:03] Paying it forward: Shawn shares a story of a student who peeled vegetables for a living while going through Hack Reactor Remote (online coding program)

[15:59] Hacker in Residence, works like a “Teacher’s Assistant” Program consisting of alumni doing stuff like answering help requests questions who want to be able to contribute to the next cohort of students

[17:05] Community Involvement and Partnerships: Hack Reactor hopes to overcome the current social barriers by partnering with various organizations and offering volunteer support and training as their means to connect people with pathways into tech.

Code Tenderloin (prep program offered to Market Street’s homeless people)
ReBootKAMP (a coding boot camp for Syrian refugees and Jordan nationals)
Operation Spark (a New Orleans-based campus offering curriculum and volunteers and training)
The Last Mile (a coding program offered to prison mates at San Quentin State Prison)
Telegraph Academy (a coding boot camp founded by Hack Reactor alumni focused on bringing underrepresented communities and people of color into the industry)
[23:45] Reactor Core is the parent company of several coding bootcamps such as Hack Reactor, MakerSquare, and Telegraph Academy as well as home to the pro bono work they do, etc.

[24:20] What you can do to contribute and get involved in their programs?

Hack Reactor does a lot of volunteer coordination, predominantly through alumni. Email Shawn personally through shawn@reactorcore.com. They need people (including software engineers and project managers) who can contribute their time.

[25:30] Hack Reactor’s Prep Program: Designed for folks who have full-time jobs to learn how to code and get into a coding bootcamp

[28:11] Shawn’s vision of the 21st century CS degree: Seeing themselves not as a coding education company but as an education company where they can branch out to greater programs across several expansive growth industries by developing different verticals in  5-7 different areas of focus and create prep programs for all of them – all running on one campus.

[30:08] The power of collaboration: Seeing his everyday work as an opportunity to be of service to people in a way that is meaningful and important to both him and them. Shawn gives a shout out to the entire community, people that have worked really hard to make that happen – staff, students, alumni, and everybody who is working together.

[30:58] Analyzing the market condition in 2016: Is there still a demand for software engineers?

Let’s do the math:

Currently, there are 400,000 open jobs for software engineers. By 2020, it’s projected to go up to about a net amount of a million open jobs for software engineers

  • College grads – about 50,000 per year.
  • Boot camp grads – 20,000 per year

Looking at these numbers, you can see it’s not enough. But there is a problem of getting jobs for people that are more at the margins.

[33:53] How to pick a boot camp:

  1. Go to a boot camp that has a high admissions bar.
  2. Talk to the alumni to gather more information. (Find a way to talk to them. Get creative)
  3. Look at placement rates and how they’re calculated. (Check out how Hack Reactor calculates their placement rate at HackReactor.com/student-outcomes)

[36:03] JavaScript versus Ruby on Rails: JavaScript is a better language in primary markets (New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago) while Rails or PHP is a better language in secondary markets (But move to a primary market if possible)

[37:16] Shawn’s super tactic #1: Be an early employee.

Try applying to YCombinator startups or 500 Startups and try to be useful. This is much easier to break into. (not only applicable to techs but also, sales, customer reps, QA, product management, project management, etc.)

[39:33] Shawn’s super tactic #2: Attitude is key – refuse to fail.

If somebody tells you no, you can try telling them, “I thought about your refusal and I’ve decided you’ve made a mistake. I’m very convinced of this fact and I want you to hire me on a time-to-hire basis.”

[41:04] THE LIGHTNING ROUND

If you had to start all over again and you had $100, you’re in a new city, one of these competitive markets, what would you do?

  • Try Couchsurfing to get you through a couple of weeks. Go through the list of YC companies or 500 Startup companies or walk through any of the coworking spaces and just literally tap people on the shoulder and ask what they do and how you can help them.

Was there any music or a movie that you listened to for inspiration while building Hack Reactor?

  • Working closely with Marc and Tony and Doug (who played the guitar all the time)

What is one piece of advice that you would want people starting out on this journey to know before they begin?

  • Will power is an under appreciated character trait that is extremely valuable. It turns out that when life tells you no, it is usually possible to find a to turn it into a yes. Start listening for No and then develop a game of identifying it and turning it into a Yes.

What’s something that you fundamentally believed before you started doing this that you’ve changed your mind on after this process?

  • He underestimated human potential before starting Hack Reactor. The barriers between where someone is now and where somebody could be a year from now are surprisingly thin. The distances that you have to cover are not as great as you think and your strength is greater than you understand.

Articles Mentioned & Resources:

Cupid
Hacker News
Quora
Fulcrum
Codecademy
Underscore
Eloquent JavaScript
Coderbyte
App Academy
Dev Bootcamp
JavaScript
Ruby on Rails
Y Combinator
500 Startups
Couchsurfing

As part of our Diversity and Inclusion efforts, Hack Reactor will be awarding at least 50% of all scholarships to underrepresented groups in software engineering. Women, People of Color and LGBTQ community members are strongly encouraged to apply.

 Personal Projects/Partnerships: 

Hack Reactor
Hack Reactor Remote
Hacker in Residence
Code Tenderloin
ReBootKAMP
Operation Spark
The Last Mile
Telegraph Academy
Hack Reactor Core
MakerSquare
HackReactor.com/student-outcomes

Contact Information:

Shawn Drost
shawn@reactorcore.com
Twitter: @shawndrost
ReactorCore.com

Full Transcript: 

Intro: Growing up we’re told that in order to be successful, you have to be a banker, a doctor, or a lawyer. That’s what the gatekeepers want us to think. But we’re a part of something bigger. We’re part of a technological revolution. Either you’re at the table or on the table. Getting eaten. 10X.

Ruben: Yo, yo, yo, this is Ruben here so I’m here with the homies Artur and Timur Meyster and this is the Breaking Into Startups Podcast. Timur, can you please tell the people what we’re doing today?

Timur: Yeah, we have a very special guest. Do not miss this episode because there’s going to be a ton of useful information for you. We’re sitting out here at the Hack Reactor alumni lounge and Artur, take it away.

Artur: Yeah, today we have a phenomenal guest, Shawn Drost, who is a Founder of Hack Reactor. So all of you guys who have questions about getting in or the job search or just what the Hack Reactor is about, definitely tune in and take notes. Shawn, so you’re currently a Co-Founder of Hack Reactor but before that, you were an engineer at Cupid and even prior to that, you’ve learned how to program on a TI 89? Is that right?

Shawn:  TI 83. That’s right. I was bored in math class one day and I just started pressing every button and one of the buttons on that calculator is Program. And that’s how I started coding as I used to get in trouble for it in math class and figure out anything that I would do enough to get in trouble for and that’s a job like that’s probably my life path.

 

Artur: So tell us a little of how you got started and what led you to a career in I guess software engineering and then what led you to Hack Reactor?

Shawn: I grew up in Hawaii and was writing code just for sort of like I just gravitated towards it. I was very fortunate to go to a high school. That was like the high end classes and so that was very, very lucky for me because I got that support early on and majored on that in college and I just worked as a dev for whatever 6, 7, or 8 years before starting Hack Reactor. And I did a bunch of different types of work and throughout that time, I was also starting projects on the side, very entrepreneurial. And for that reason, I gravitated towards the Bay Area and ended up five years ago, a couple years before starting Hack Reactor, where I worked at this little, tiny Y Combinator startup. I was employee #1 and then after that at OkCupid. And then I started Hack Reactor with my best friends from college.

Timur: That’s an amazing story. So take us back a little bit to… you have a day job as a software engineer and you see a need, right? You see that there’s a barrier that there’s a lot of awesome jobs in startups but it’s kind of tricky to break in without a CS  degree, is that right?

Shawn: It was not a novel observation at that time or now for a hiring manager to be like, there are not enough engineers. This is something that every hiring manager is, if there’s any listening to Breaking Into Startups right now, they’re not in their heads because that is just so obvious and so painful as a hiring manager just trying to find us and like, it’s not actually, there is no real credential luckily. A CS degree is carried weight in the field but they’re not a prerequisite and nobody is really caring too much about that. Luckily, software is one of the things you can kind of test if somebody can do it. There’s a lot of things you can’t do. Some things like sales or software, you can just test during an interview if somebody can do it. And that makes all the difference. Unlike those fields, they get really easy to break into. That was an opportunity for us and that’s what enabled Hack Reactor to happen.

Ruben: So why did you guys build the program the way that you guys built it out or how’s your program structured?

Shawn: Our approach to education is focused heavily on motivation, focused on project-based learning, focused on approximately real world condition, and built around a really holistic learning model. So what we’re trying to do is put people into the real work they’re going to be doing and exercise those skills over and over. And a lot of that is really technical. And a lot of it is actually surprisingly non-technical. A surprising amount of what people learn in the program is non-technical. Somebody wrote me an email a week and a half ago telling me that Hack Reactor changed the way they interact with their kids. That was really deep for me and that was something that it came about through a series of decisions that we made. The whole program, we have an alum here, so the whole program like you’re working nonstop with other people and a lot of deep collaboration and work on that front.

Anyway, the program was structured and there’s two parts. In the first half of the program, there’s this series of projects where everybody is working on the same thing as preset curriculum and you’re pair programming all the time. It’s like in a half year working on a bunch of larger scale projects and you’re working in basically what are real software teams. You’re working with several other devs and you are all working on the same code base but different features and you all have this like industry-centered process involving code reviews and different tickets that are assigned to different people and there’s a project manager and then everybody goes into the job search which we don’t talk as much about but we actually offer a lot of support on that side of it too..And it’s sort of like somehow we put a lot of formal thought into and there’s a lot of curriculum around it and organized support and there’s like four people here, that full time work only on helping people jobs after they graduate. And say, that’s sort of like what the program looks like.

Artur: That’s awesome. We’re definitely cover job search and it’s going to be a big part of the interview. But tell us kind of the first chord. How did you get started/ What were you guys thinking about? What was your vision when you started out? Imagine like Hack Reactor wasn’t a big brand back then. So what was the pitch you gave to your students of why they should take the risk and commit three months of their life to learning how to code?

Shawn: The early days of any company are just so much fun and so much pain and so much fun at the same time. Our company is like that too. I told you that I started Hack Reactor with my best friends from college. And that’s true. We actually together. Just before I moved to San Francisco, I was living in Hawaii. Tony, my Co-Founder was living in Korea where he was running a language immersion school. Marcus called us up and he was like, “Guys, I’m bringing the band back together. Move to San Francisco. Let’s get an apartment together.” And we did and that’s where Doug, who this alumni lounge was named after is called The Douglas and there are beautiful black and white photos of Doug everywhere. They’re so perfect. And so we were all roommates together. We were working on… like we all had day jobs. We definitely wanted to work together. And that was like a big part of the genesis and big part of we seeded this community with a lot of genuine feeling because we just all liked each other. We started the company to hang out more as one of our many motives.

So we got together and started working on Hack Reactor full time and every single prospective student, they all thought it was legit but their parents who were generally going to be funding it all thought it was a scam. Every single student who needed funds. Not one student that depended on parent funding that had their parents think like, “Oh this seems legit.”

So we got started and we drew most of our first class from a Hacker News post and a few personal connects. And so we went through the process with each one of those students of sitting down with them like in a coffee shop or something similar and basically showing them, “I’m a legit dev and a great teacher. In this conversation, I’m going to source out where you are in your process and be really useful immediately. And I’m going to tell you exactly what the three months of the program are going to look like and how that’s going to make your dreams come true. And I’m going to sit here in front of you and put my personal name on taking you to success.” And we can do that because we had actually just taught Tony the code. We just got him his first job as dev. So we knew what the steps look like. We knew we could do that and nonetheless, it was a lot of responsibility.

The first student that we accepted was in college at that time. I called him up. For some reason, I just started to call him to accept him. And I called him up and I was like, “Great news Timmy. You’re in!” And we celebrated for a minute and he’s like, “So what, should I drop out of college?” And I was like, “Holy shit!” This is for real. And I was like, “Yeah, drop out of college.”

Timur: Wow! That’s an amazing story.

Ruben: And so that class graduated, you helped them out with that whole process, right?

Shawn: Yeah, so you’re referring to the job search. Yeah, I helped them out through… we focused a lot on the job search early on because we knew that what every student in that class wanted was a job. And so what we wanted to do is make goddamn sure they got a job. And when we thought about that, just as like competent people, obviously that meant helping them with the job search. I had an Excel spreadsheet where I’d be like, how many jobs did you apply for today? I was on them and that just seemed like common sense to me but that was something that I’v never heard of a school doing before. Now, it’s actually common in the bootcamp industry. I think we kickstarted a lot of momentum around that and I think most bootcamps have people on staff dedicated to that work now. And I think is a beautiful thing. Do that. Colleges please.

Ruben: You said how many applications did you recommend people send a day?

Shawn: It just depends on the person. Some people are really successful at working networks and doing a targeted approach. I never give people license to do that unless they’re demonstrating success at it because most people will take that as an excuse to slack off and so if you’re not doing that, I’m pushing you for like maybe 10 applications a day, something like that. Then you actually get off 5-7 and I’ll be happy with that.

Artur: Actually as an alum, when I was going through a program which was super intense and you’re working a lot of projects. You do a lot of pair programming. You have to explain your thoughts and the program feels and is super intense, six days a week, 9 to sometimes 8, 10. You’d come home at midnight. Crash and then wake up at 7 again. But what I didn’t realize is that once I was applying for jobs, like how all the skills that I’ve accumulated over the last three months just kind of came together and pair programming was a great skill to have when I was going through interview because some jobs ask you to come and pair program with them. So being able to explain your ideas, break down the problem, map out the solution is extremely valuable. And then having projects under your belt position you for talking about your challenges. Did you guys intentionally come up with that curriculum?

Shawn: Oh yeah. We did those interviews on the other side. We sat on that other side. We know exactly what those interviews look like and we know what it takes to get there. And actually those interviews are in some ways really representative of what the job is like. You have that experience that now. It’s not just getting into interviews that the pair programming helps you with. The reason they do that during the interviews is because of its help that matters during the job that matters during the day. In a lot of ways, maybe we can talk about this later if you want, engineering interview sucks. But in some ways, it’s reflective and we definitely knew exactly what that interview looked like. We knew exactly what those interviews you’re going to walk into look like and we built everything to set you up for success on that.

Timur: That’s awesome and I remember when I was considering the bootcamps, I went on Quora and by the way, if you guys haven’t been on Quora, it’s an extremely useful resource. It’s a question/answer format and you get awesome celebrities. You have thought leaders, everyone answering questions and then the really good answers get upvoted. And I remember when I was looking to select the bootcamp, Shawn, your name came up like the best and the most popular post were Shawn Drost, how did you learn how to code, how do you get into Hack Reactor, and there were a lot of really useful resources. So for our listeners who are considering bootcamps and specifically Hack Reactor, what would you recommend they do to position themselves to get in and then do well after the bootcamp?

Shawn: We have actually a program now for how to get into Hack Reactor. It’s called Fulcrum. So you can just google that. And if you are trying to do the same thing but you’re trying to do it on the cheap, go through Codecademy and then rebuild a library. I’m going to tell you the name of the library. It’s called Underscore. And what that looks like is go download Underscore. And then delete all the code inside the functions and then try to make the test task. That’s a really hard exercise that will take you a month or two. But to get to that point, you can just do a whole bunch of Codecademy and that’s going to probably get you through. If you need a bridge between Codecademy and rewriting Underscore yourself then you can practice either Read some Eloquent JavaScript which is a free PDF or go do some brain teaser problems. There’s a lot of different sites out there. I’m blanking right now.

Timur: Coderbyte.

Shawn: Coderbyte is the one I usually recommend.

Artur: So it sounds like at this point, you guys have been around for a few years. I think you guys have over 30 cohorts that have graduated. Can you just talk more about the type of student that goes through Hack Reactor. Do they have to be technical? Do they need a Computer Science degree? And then also, from which walks of life do they come from? If you can just share a few stories, they will be amazing for our listeners to hear.

Shawn: There’s all types of people go through Hack Reactor. I would say the median student is like mid- to late 20’s. About 75% of people have some kind of Bachelor’s degree beforehand, very few CS majors, maybe like 10% or fewer CS majors. And they’re typically moving from some field that they don’t like a lot or else that is not lucrative. We see a lot of accounting, a lot of musicians, and kind of a lot of people that used to teach abroad which I think is a step a lot of people to sort of like, “I graduated from college. I’m not real sure what to do.” So that’s sort of what the normal background looks like but there are all types. We’ve had students from every age, from 17 to late 50’s going through the program doing all kinds of stuff.

The stories that I think that are the most fun are the ones that are the biggest change. They had this sort of like biggest transformations going on in their life. So I love the stories and typically, they involved more pain. My favorite stories are the one that involved more pain and more effort on our side and the stories where people crash on our couch and stuff like that. I’m thinking of this one student, who before the program was peeling vegetables for a living and had earlier in his life, like in high school and stuff, just kind of messed around with programming. And I’m like, “You could have gone enough to contribute a little bit to game development, to do a little bit of hacking on game development.” But he has never worked or anything in that stuff and he was severely unemployed and he went through Hack Reactor. Actually, he went through Hack Reactor Remote which is the same thing as Hack Reactor. It’s just on the internet and we do everything via video conference. And so he did this program while working 3-4 hours a day so he could keep paying his bills. It was nutty. And after he got through the program, he had to get a… like just absurd raise. Just like a truly absurd raise. And after he went through the program, he moved to the Bay Area and assisted with the program which was just a really beautiful art on his part. And a really beautiful way to use that step that he made to take a base step up and then you pull a person up behind you and help a couple of people up. I really love to see that which is something I see a lot of alumni bringing in their people up and putting in their time and effort into often on a pro-bono basis.

Ruben: Yeah, that’s a beautiful story. And I know we talked a little bit about the job search process but from what I understand, it’s also this way where like if someone finishes the program, they can also become mentors or teachers there. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Shawn: We have this program. It’s called Hacker in Residence. It’s kind of like a TA Program like if you got to college, you’ll have grad students or TA’s and so it’s kind of like that where they do stuff like they answer the Help Request. If you’re working on our project, you get stuck and you hit the Help Request button, the person who shows up is an alum that just graduated and has already done all the material and knows it or at least has the first line of defense. Then they also do a bunch of other stuff like the 16:23 interviews for instance. And so that is a program in that you know when you ask HIR’s why they’re doing it, it’s basically like, “I want to contribute to the next generation. ” And a lot of times, they” mention by name some specific HIR that had an impact on them and they’re like I want to give that back to someone else. So yeah, that’s a program that a bunch of students do every, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 20% or something like that.

Ruben: Yeah, that’s really cool. There are several things that Hack Reactor’s doing in that regard. There’s different programs and different people that you’ve got partnered up, involved with the community, we love to hear a little bit about that too.

Shawn:  When you ask about the typical student going through, one thing that I didn’t mention but was on my mind is that it’s heavily skewed like the tech industry is towards, it’s pretty male-dominated and 80/20 or something like that, which is better than the tech industry person we want it to be. And it’s predominantly white nation people and under represents the Latino and the Black population in this country and I think that’s something that we want tech to have the doors open to a broader end to people. And also here in San Francisco, there’s a pretty clear divide between long time residents and the tech industry and it seems like there’s this invisible wall between them. So we try up to work into overcoming both of those barriers and so we partner with a lot of different organizations. We offer curriculum and volunteer support and training that are basically trying to connect people with pathways into tech which I guess is pretty 18:07  to this podcast. As an example, we’re a couple blocks away from where Code Tenderloin posts their classes. I don’t know if you folks know about the Code Tenderloin but if you don’t you should definitely get in touch with those folks.

Timur: Tell us a little bit more about it.

Shawn:  Code Tenderloin is the greatest organization. I love these people. They basically just work with people that live in the Tenderloin and their mission is all about what they call “helping people across Market Street.” So if you’re not a Bay Area savvy, it’s like South of Market is where all the tech companies are and Tenderloin is just north of Market, Market Street. And so Code Tenderloin is basically like their doors are open, any old Tenderloin resident could walk in and they make it their mission to help connect those people into work in the tech industry. And that can mean a lot of things but what we do with them is we lent them the curriculum for the prep class that I told you about. And their first class just graduated two weeks ago. I went to the graduation party and it was such a good feeling in the room. There’s all these people who are just like one person stood up during their graduation ceremony and he was like, “I intentionally decided to become homeless to be able to participate in this program because I had to step out of a job that was keeping me afloat. I feel very liberated because I gave up a lot of comfort for this short time frame and I got a lot of knowledge and I see now a path forward.” And that’s predominantly through the work of Code Tenderloin. We put enough our 19:37 to them. We contributed our curriculum and usually when we do that kind of thing, we also line up alumni volunteers so a lot of alumni do the HIR program which is paid and then a lot of alumni volunteers with no compensation.

Earlier on when I mentioned an alumni named Yan Fan and she’s working with another partner of ours. It’s called ReBootKAMP, which is a coding bootcamp for refugees in Jordan, Syrian refugees and also Jordan nationals, it’s really like an unification effort as well as a learn to code program. It’s such a great organization that’s up and running right now and that’s another organization we work with. We run a campus. We partner with a non profit organization to run a campus on New Orleans called Operation Spark and they’re running a new class right now. Their first class was 100% and they got jobs. And they’re just such a great organization. And again, we offer curriculum and volunteers and training and all that.

Timur: The last time I spoke with you last week, I think you were on the way from Last Mile. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

Shawn: Yeah. The Last Mile is a beautiful program that is up and running inside the San Quentin Prison. We have a classroom that feels a lot like Hack Reactor. It’s all prison inmates. All students are prison inmates and they’re just killing it out there. It’s so amazing. Their community is so great and they are opening a dev shop this month. Instead of making license plates, they’re going to be making apps.

Ruben: That’s awesome! And mass incarceration is a big problem that… have you had anybody that was in that program that left that had a record and couldn’t get a job but because they had demonstrated that they can work on software, they were able to get jobs as software engineers?

Shawn: Oh absolutely. There’s people who have graduated from The Last Mile who came out and got jobs in tech and jobs as programmers. And it’s really cool to see. And there are some wicked sharp people in that classroom. For the first class, I did the lectures and getting up at 7am or the starting lecture is 7am every other day for four months. It was brutal. And then I go on and visit sometimes and like, that class is now, this happened with Hack Reactor as well. The first class is the hardest because they have to learn it on their own with just instructors. the second class gets the first class to help them. And the first class is so motivated because they just went through it and they know how hard that is and they know everything you need to know. And so they help you move out and that’s what that first class of graduates is doing. They’re carrying and now there’s this entire population. Actually these study groups are going on outside of the program for people that are trying to get in and they’re just learning to code.

Timur: Do you have to get into prison to be…

Shawn: There was a student who literally asked for his release state to be pushed.

Ruben: Interesting.

Shawn: And then also we have out on the East Bay, Telegraph Academy killing it, which is a group of alumni that went out and decided to start a coding bootcamp focused on bringing underrepresented communities and people of color into the industry. And they’re just out there right now with a brand new class of students killing it like they always do.

Ruben: Their demographics are very different. I don’t have the stats with me right now but I know he has a significant percentage of women and minorities in there as well.

Shawn: Yeah. They’re a majority Black and Latino classroom. It’s the East Bay.

Ruben: Yeah, love it.

Artur: So it sounds like what you guys are doing with Hack Reactor Core, it’s more than just teaching people how to code. You’re building a movement of giving people opportunities. It doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or in prison. As long as you can learn how to code and you guys are providing them with the instructions on how to do it, it changes their lives. They can fulfill their dreams. They can provide for their families. I guess for people who want to help out and get involved, what are some ways they can get in touch with you or get involved?

Ruben: But also break down. We talked about all these programs. What is Hack Reactor Core? How is Hack Reactor structured?

Shawn: Hack Reactor is the school we started back in 2012 and about a year and a half ago, we started a parent company called Reactor Core and we did this at about the same time as we started acquiring other bootcamps. So we acquired MakerSquare. We opened up Telegraph. And so basically, Reactor Core is the parent company with a bunch of different coding bootcamps. And also, the home of a lot of the pro bono work that we do. And sort of like the central hub for a lot of the work that goes on in terms of curriculum and back of house stuff and engineering.

For folks who are listening and want to contribute, we do a lot of volunteer coordination, predominantly through alumni. So that’s not something that obviously you can plug into. What you can do is you should email me personally shawn@reactorcore.com and I’ll hook you up. We are especially in need of folks who can contribute big chunks of time for as little as four weeks and for folks, software engineers are really useful right now but project managers are totally helpful as well.

Ruben: Got it. There’s something else that we didn’t talk about in the pre-interviews or during this conversation that I’ve been personally curious about. A lot of people are talking about things like Silicon Valley rising where even though the numbers for demographics on a minority perspective at tech companies are smaller, the service workers happen to be significantly or predominantly Black and Hispanic. Do you have any vocational programs at Hack Reactor thinking about teaching people that are in the companies that have their foot in their door but they might be able to do night classes and drop one of their three jobs that they’re doing to be able to become engineers at that tech company that they’ve been washing the dishes for?

Shawn: We structured the prep programs so that it works for folks who have full time work and we think of Hack Reactor as being that. We are moderately successful at Hack Reactor being that already. We see that happening even within the walls of our program. We have actually several different staff members that did that exact thing here at Hack Reactor. So we have a bunch of people working for instance in space operations where it’s like, make sure that the room is lit out right and fix the keyboards and whatever else is going on and several of those people when through that program and then eventually, worked here in that capacity and then went through the program eventually and now work as devs. That’s where we’re out on that. I feel really great about the prep program and the progress we’ve made on that so far, I don’t feel like we’re at a 100% right now.

What the key thing I wished that we had was financing. All of the prep programs that we run with non profit partners are at no cost. But the ones that we run ourselves, we pay the people that are on and then we don’t have really great financing yet for that. So that’s something that I have, by my side, it’s something I want to improve better.

We’d opted basically a two-phase model for bringing people into the software jobs. Phase I is you got to get the first 10% or 20% either on your own or through our prep program because you need to know what your interest level and aptitude is before you dedicate a lot of resources and a lot of your time and effort and our time and effort into bringing you into that field. And then the second phase is then a really safe step where 98% of job seekers in 2015 got jobs. And so, the first phase is I think where a lot of working to be done. There’s a lot of beautiful opportunity there. And we’re seeing some of that happen right now with the work we’re doing, lending that curriculum to partners. And that’s where I want to see that ramp up. For instance, Telegraph is doing a killer job with that. Telegraph has put like 400 people through that prep program.

Timur: I guess you guys are growing and there’s probably over a thousand students now who graduated Hack Reactor. I guess I’m super curious to hear your vision for the 21st century CS degree? And you guys are obviously a huge player in the space in making a big impact. Where do you see it going in 10 years? What’s going to happen to the 21st century CS degree considering there’s four-year universities, there’s bootcamps. You could absolutely learn online for very little cost. Where do you see all of it going?

Shawn: I see Hack Reactor as my vision of what the 21st century CS degree looks like. I think it’s already there. I think it could be about a month longer, but the job market right now does not ask for that. The job market right now is saying, actually we’ll hire them there. I would like for it to be longer. As a hiring manager, I would like for it to be longer. But it’s hard to justify raising the price and the tuition and raising the length of the program and the length of time that people have to stay unemployed. And it was when the hiring managers are not requiring that of us. But I think we’re already mostly there.

Actually though, a university is different from a CS degree. A university has to accommodate folks who do not know what they want to do and they’re out of the doors. And that’s what I think is really interesting in what our vision at Reactor Core over the long term is. We don’t see ourselves as a coding education company. We see ourselves as an education company. We’re not going to start branching out for sometime but at some point, we’re going to want to have really great programs for a lot of different types of people and a lot of different types of really expansive growth industries. Stuff that is up and coming. Stuff like biotech, Stuff like sales, stuff like marketing, stuff that is really important work and really rewarding work and work where you can grow and move up in the world.

So my vision, what we see happening over the next few years at our company is develop a couple of different verticals where we have like 5 or 7 different areas of focus and really great prep programs for all of them. And all that running on one campus. You’ll have something that makes sense for an 18-year old that doesn’t know what to do with their life as much as it makes sense for somebody who’s 25, 35, and wants to get out of accounting.

Ruben: I think it’s remarkable that you have started 2012 in the same amount of time that it would take to get a CS degree in four years, you’ve graduated thousands of people into I don’t know how many different companies that people are all vying for.

Shawn: Yeah, it’s a remarkable thing to be a part of and what I really appreciate about coming into work everyday is an opportunity to be of service to people in a way that is meaningful and important to me and important to them. And I love that and I want to give a shout out to the entire community. There’s a lot of people that work really hard to make that happen – staff, students, alumni, everything.. Everybody is working together as a community effort.

Artur: I might put you on the spot but I know a lot of people that have reached out to me like my friends or people who want to do a bootcamp, they’re asking about the market condition in 2016 and they want to know, there’s a lot of bootcamps like App Academy, Hack Reactor obviously, Dev Bootcamp, Telegraph Academy, all of them are producing graduates for the last couple of years. Do you feel like the demand for engineers is slowing down? Or is it still a market for everyone to go in and there’s plenty of jobs out there?

Shawn: The tech industry, like any industry, has ups and downs and early 2016, saw a dip that is threatened to be major but actually turned out to be minor so far. It could ramp up and so there’s a couple different parts to your question. One part is the macro economy. The macro turned slight downturn in 2016 so far. We thought it was going to be bigger. It’s being like up and up and up and up since 08 when Groupon died and there was an associated downturn. But it’s been up and up. You can’t go on like this. 8 year-run just never happens. So the macro is going to rise and fall. When it dips, it’s going to be hard to get a job. That’s going to happen for sure. If I were a prospective student, I would not be worrying about that. I would just go through it and just not worry about the macro.

Separate topic, are there too many bootcamp grads? Answer – Kind of. So here’s the deal. There are about 400,000 open jobs right now for software engineers and that’s predicted to go up. We’re looking at by 2020, there are going to about a million open jobs for software engineers and this is net open jobs, not like total jobs that some of those jobs are going to get taken by college grads. College grads, there’s about 50,000 in college grads per year. And that’s just not enough. That’s not anywhere close to enough. And there are, right now, about 20,000 bootcamp grads per year. And that also is not enough. I think when we just look at all those numbers, you can see it’s not enough. It does not matter. It’s not enough.

There is a problem. There’s a slight problem which is that there are a lot of bootcamp grads out there that can’t contribute, that are just not at the level yet. So if you are sort of like in the bottom area of your graduating class or if you went to a program that is shorter or started earlier on, it can be harder. And I don’t actually have as much insight into that because Hack Reactor doesn’t start at zero. It starts in like I said, it’s a two-phase approach. It doesn’t start at zero. It starts at 20. And it doesn’t end at barely employed. It ends at like solidly. Our grads generally get jobs that require 2-3 years of prior experience. And so I would say that the programs like Hack Reactor and App Academy, another great program, are less… I’ve heard the same kind of like mumbling that you have about grads are having trouble getting jobs. I don’t really see that as much in the actual employment numbers. But that could be a problem moreso for folks that are more at the margins. Graduates of our programs that are more at the margins or especially, I would worry more if I was going to a much shorter bootcamp or a bootcamp that started at zero, if I was also starting at zero.

Timur: What kind of things would you look at when you’re deciding to pick a bootcamp because there’s a variety of them and some are pretty easy to find out information on and look at the alumni numbers and figure out that they’re pretty good. They also tend to be more competitive to get in and sometimes you have to apply a couple of times and it takes a little bit longer. What kind of traits you would look at when you’re determining what school to go to?

Shawn: Here’s how I pick a bootcamp. First of all, go to a bootcamp that has admissions bar. I’ve described the two-phase approach a couple of times. Basically, if you go to a bootcamp where everybody in there has already learned the first 5 or 10 or 20% of the material, then you have at least some level of confidence that there’s going to be fewer people in the class that are holding the class back. And that is real and that’s a problem. It’s really rough when a classroom is at different levels and it makes the whole experience very rocky.

Thing number two. Talk to alums and get the skinny. Alums will sometimes speak openly about the quality of the program. But they’re more open about it when they’re not speaking publicly. I hear all the time people that gathered a set of different bootcamps to network and they sort of like know what the ranking is and they’ll tell me what the ranking is but they won’t post what the ranking is. So it’s interesting. Talk to alums. Find a way to talk to alums. Hit them up. Do a LinkedIn search. They’re pretty accessible. Look at placement rates. It totally matters. Worry about them. Try to find out how the placement rate is calculated. So we wrote down exactly how I calculate the placement rate, who counts in the numerator, who counts in the denominator and why; and what all of those different breakdowns are. And I feel really good about our work on that front and you can check it out at HackReactor.com/student-outcomes.

There is a lot of work to be done on transparency on that front in the industry and behavior varies widely. So check into that, not just what the placement rate is but how it’s calculated and whether or not that makes sense to you. And I think that’s it.

Timur: Yeah, that’s a really good point like do your research. Speak to alumni. Find them on LinkedIn. Send them an email. Tell them that you’re considering Hack Reactor or Dev Bootcamp or App Academy and say, “Hey, just want to ask you a few questions.” So definitely do that. In terms of picking a bootcamp based on the language that they teach, I know you guys do JavaScript. App Academy does Ruby on Rails and a little bit of JavaScript. What would you say is the more competitive skill set you have on this market and also, how does that factor in or should that even factor into a decision to do a boot camp that does Ruby or JavaScript?

Shawn: To the extent that it matters, if you’re in a primary market, JavaScript is a better language. If you were in a secondary market, Rails or PHP is a better language. You should also, as a part of your breaking into tech process, move to a primary market unless you have timely or other sort of non professional reasons not to move to a competitive market.

Timur: And by primary market, you mean places like New York, San Francisco, right?

Shawn: Yeah. SF, LA, New York, Chicago.

Ruben: Chicago.

Shawn: Boston, Chicago. Yeah. There’s a short list.

Ruben: Maybe Atlanta.

Shawn: Yeah. (laughs) Where are you from?

Ruben: I’m from Atlanta.

Timur: We have stories about that. So the next part of our podcast is going to be the Lightning Round. So we’re going to ask you a few questions and please try to provide short answers but also include a lot of strategies or tactics that helped. You start Hack Reactor. You succeed in this industry and also, some questions are going to be geared more towards people trying to learn how to code.

Shawn:  I want to jump in but I feel that this is about to close. I’ve been thinking that there are two stories that I want to tell your listeners.

Timur: Take it away.

Shawn: These are really practical because I want more than anything for somebody to listen to this podcast and actually be able to take stuff away upfront. And so, side note, if that’s you and you take something away from this, add me on Twitter @shawndrost because that will totally make my day. But two tactics that I want to mention that are super useful for you folks out there listening. One is how I got my first job in San Francisco, which I said I was employee number 1, a little tiny Y Combinator startup. This is a great approach that I highly recommend. Right now, there are 80 companies or something like that and 80 new startups in Y Combinator, none of whom have any kind of recognition. None of whom are getting any kind of attention. If you either apply or just walk into their space, and just start trying to be useful and just become this go-getter to them, you will be the first person of that kind that love seeing and there will be a 10% chance that that company is going to become the next Dropbox or what have you. And so, I highly recommend that approach. Those companies are tiny and a great place to learn and network and more likely to employ you than whatever big startup you’re thinking about right now as being the place you really want to break in. Don’t do that. Instead, go be an early employee at a little tiny Y Combinator startup or whatever. I’m not a YC zealot or anything. Do the same thing at 500 Startups. They got like one big office. It’s a lot easier to break into.

Artur: And just to add to that, it applies to all kinds of worlds, not just engineering. Because a lot of startups wanted just sales or they want to work on partnerships. So if you’re passionate about startups, go to YC. Find a way to add value. And then get your foot through the door.

Ruben: The worst they could say is no. And then you just move on to the next.

Shawn: Yeah, there’s 80 of them. So i really want to emphasize that. It’s not all about engineering. I think a lot of breaking into startups is engineering-focused. We employ maybe 40% engineers at Hack Reactor and there’s a lot of tech companies like that. Absolutely, sales, customer reps, QA, their products, project management. There’s a lot of stuff going on and if you are a go-getter and you can just somehow get your foot on the door, it’s not about coding necessarily.

The second story that I wanted to tell, this is a tactic that I hope becomes so overused that it’s ineffective but I think right now, it still works. It turns out that when somebody tells you that if you try and get a job from somebody and they tell you no, you can just tell them no. You can just tell them, “I thought about your refusal and I’ve decided you’ve made a mistake. I’m very convinced of this fact and I want you to hire me on a time-to-hire basis.” It turns out this works. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Ruben: I like that. I never tried that but I like that and I could see it working.

Timur: And that’s a great point because what you’re telling your hiring manager is, “Listen, if you can’t give me a full-time job, hire me as a contractor. or give me a job for like two months like an internship and that will prove to you the value that I can add.” And then that will make their decision a lot easier to make.

Ruben: And it’s consistent with the other things that the roles that you mentioned with sales in persistence and even with learning to be an engineer, you’re going to hit roadblocks that might cause you to not want to keep trying but you keep pushing through it.

Shawn: That attitude is a key in any field of effort, in any endeavor. Just refusing to fail at where you’re supposed to do is the key to any human endeavor and people recognize that. And if you just internalize that or even if you just cheat and use this tactic that comes from that mindset, it’s a great approach. People will recognize it as being very real.

Ruben: Yeah, I love that and I think that’s a great way to go into the first Lightning Round questions, which is – if you had to start all over again and you had $100, you’re in a new city, one of these competitive markets, what would you do?

Shawn: That money is pretty short, huh?

Ruben: That money is short.

Shawn: Let  me think about that for a second.

Artur: Let’s assume you do have a laptop.

Shawn: Let’s assume I have a laptop, first thing I’d do is like…

Timur: Maybe you don’t need to think about shelter but in terms of getting back to where you are today.

Shawn: You’re listeners are actually going to need to think about shelter and turns out there’s an easy solution that will get you through two or three weeks. And that is Couchsurfing. Check it out. That will get you through a couple of weeks. You’ll need to prep with a couple weeks of effort but you’ll be able to get through a couple of weeks of crashing on people’s couches. And that I think will get you through to having something longer term, at least some odds of that. That was part of how I made my way into the Bay Area as well although I had a lot more means than $100.

The next thing I’d do is, I kind of already covered this. I would go through the list of YC companies or 500 Startup companies or walk through any of the coworking spaces and just literally tap people on the shoulder and be like, “What are you doing? How can I help?” That is I think the most direct path into breaking into tech in a new city.

Artur: Yeah, awesome.

Ruben: And when you were going through any of the frustrating things that you were doing like building Hack Reactor because I know it wasn’t very easy to do in the beginning. Was there any music or a movie that you watched or something that tells you “this isn’t impossible for us to create this big program” that you listened to, I don’t know, Eminem, One Mic, or something like that.

Shawn: For me, it was my friends. It was working close with Marc and Tony and Doug and we’d crash at the office a lot and that was really what kept us going. And if I think about a musical experience, it was Doug playing a guitar which he did all the time.

Ruben: That’s beautiful.

Artur: So another question that we usually to ask is for people who are just starting out on this journey, what is one piece of advice that you would want them to know before they begin?

Shawn: I think that will power is an underappreciated character trait. I think that it is extremely valuable. It turns out that when life tells you no, it is usually possible to find a way for it to become yes. Start listening for no and then develop a game that is like “Aha! How does it become a yes?” That’s something that I started doing in my early adult years and it’s a habit that they Bay Area teaches you that’s a part of the culture here and it’s something that I highly recommend that you develop as an independent effort.

Ruben: And going through this process, and this is the last question, what’s something that you fundamentally believed before you started doing this that you’ve changed your mind on after this process?

Shawn: I’ve changed my mind about, I feel like I underestimated human potential before starting Hack Reactor. I feel like I underestimated human potential. I would have told you at that time that I believe that anyone can do anything. But I misunderstood how true that is. It turns out that the barriers between where someone is now and where somebody could be a year from now are surprisingly thin and they’re flimsy. It’s really just that we’re kind of like there’s darkness all around you and you don’t know exactly which direction to head in. And that’s the hard part. The hard part isn’t to find a good direction to move in and to move steadily. But to move steadily forward. But it turns out that the distances that you have to cover, they’re not as great as you think and your strength is greater than you understand.

Artur: Wow! That’s very meaningful and I think our listeners will appreciate the advice that you shared throughout the podcast. I think the biggest takeaway is just don’t give up. Don’t take no as an answer. And even if you’re trying to break into a sales role, find a mentor. Reach out to people. Find out how you can add value and that could be your first step through the door. On that note, what would you say is the best for our listeners to get in touch with you. You mentioned Twitter. Are there any other resources or any ways they can get in touch with you?

Shawn: You can shoot me an email as I shared earlier and at ReactorCore.com. Wait. I’m going to close with one more tip, which is reach out to random people that are in the middle level of a particular role, people who are just okay at sales or product or dev because they never get inbound email and they feel very special when they hear from you being like, “Hey, I noticed that you’re a dev on such and such project and I think that’s cool. Can we meet up for coffee? I want to talk to you about whatever.”

Ruben: I think that’s a great point especially out here with all the happy hours. You should treat everybody with respect just like a janitor could be treated the same way you treat the CEO because you’ll never know people’s stories you think you can learn from anybody. So I think that’s awesome.

Shawn: True fact.

Ruben: Well thanks man. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Shawn: Oh for sure. It’s such a pleasure to be on the show with you.

Ruben: And do you have Snapchat?

Shawn: No.

Ruben: Okay, well get a Snapchat and we’ll get people to follow you on Snapchat.

Artur: Thanks a lot man.


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