Week 7 at an Unbootcamp

First week under the new model

As reported last week, Learners Guild in Oakland, California, has just made a major change in its software-development curriculum. This week was the first week of the new model’s implementation.

Under the new model, coding tests and technical interviews allow Learners to progress through 5 “phases”. This is the transition week. All 120 or so Learners are undergoing coding tests and interviews simultaneously. We were all tested from Monday morning until noon today (2.5 days), and then we are each getting a half-hour teleconferenced technical interview sometime during the rest of this week, followed by a decision on our phase placement. It is impressive that the Guild can handle this process for all Learners in the same week.

My own interview took place this afternoon. I was my interviewer’s first interviewee. I survived with my self-respect intact, unlike job interviewees in software who are often reportedly humiliated and demeaned by their interviewers (see, e.g., William Poundstone’s How Would You Move Mount Fuji?.) The interview was friendly and relaxed. As expected, I was mainly asked to explain how and I had solved problems and why I had done so as I did. Occasionally I was also asked what, if anything, I knew about related other methods. If I imagine how I would want to interview a person in the same situation, to help my organization decide where best to place the person in the curriculum, that’s how it went.

Before the interview I spent 2.5 days performing 3 assigned tasks that I doubted I could finish. Somehow, without losing much sleep, I did manage to complete them all. To do that, I had to look up a lot of new information and reawaken some dormant know-how.

I also had to make a decision to violate one of the methodological requirements. It said: Do X, using tool Y. Well, I tried, but after several hours decided I would not have time to figure tool Y (a new tool for me) out. I decided to do X with method Z instead. It’s like, I rationalized, deciding to serve baked potato rather than broiled ham to a customer who has asked for broiled potato.

I was tested and interviewed for admission into phase 3. Phase 3 out of 5? After only 6 weeks out of 40? Yes, because I took seriously, and trusted, the staff’s recommendation to choose a phase ambitiously. I appear to have been more trusting in this respect that my fellow junior Learners, who appear uniformly to have chosen to be interviewed for phase 2. Not terribly consequential, since, if I don’t get admitted into phase 3, I’ll be in phase 2, just like those who interviewed for phase 2, and we’ll all have 8 weeks to get into phase 3. Now that it’s done, I don’t regret trusting the advice to be ambitious. This test kept me doing research, testing, and debugging, and I wound up, probably, learning more from the experience than if I had been working on the prior test’s problems. If it turns out that I almost got into phase 3, then I’ll have the option to re-interview for it as soon as I feel ready.

The extent of the curricular revolution at the Guild became clearer today when the new curriculum’s outline was disclosed to the Learners. It’s a truly magnum opus, although still in progress. A plethora of interfaces have been consolidated into a portal, where we can now see all the phases, the skills they develop, the project modules that we can work on, which modules are good for which skills, an outline of topic lectures to be offered, a photo gallery of all Learners and staff members, a link from each gallery entry to methods for contacting the person, and the basic operation manual for life at the Guild (a.k.a. the Guide). As of this writing, there are 208 skills listed for phase 1, and 160 skills listed for phase 2. Click on a skill, and you go to a page showing which modules you can learn or exercise that skill with. Click on one of those module titles, and you get a page on that module, containing the skills it develops (classified into categories), a glossary of related terms, terms useful in searches for related help, links to many related exercises on the web, and links to many related resources. What you don’t find on the page is a set of instructions giving you a programming problem to solve. That’s the one thing you might have expected in a traditional teaching/learning institution. Its absence is a signal as to how the Guild differs. You’ll get programming problems when you apply to move into the next phase, but in the meantime you are doing your own learning, with published support from the curriculum, personal support from professional engineers, and about 120 other Learners you can always ask for help from.

Now that my interview is completed, I have Thursday and Friday to choose some topics to get familiar with. The new curriculum mentions about 400 such topics, and a few of them became salient during my test and interview. I won’t run out of topics any time soon.


7 Responses to “Week 7 at an Unbootcamp”

  1. Peter Catalano says:

    Interesting. This caused me to go look at a book on Java.

    No way.

  2. Janice Keller says:

    How much longer will you keep giving the Guild this free publicity? Are the other 100+ learners obediently blogging about their experiences, or are some of them doing the required “reflection” less publicly? (Is it still required under the new regime?)

    • Blogging for pay isn’t something I currently intend to do, and it seems vaguely underhanded anyway. A few other Learners are blogging in media (such as Medium [https://medium.com/search?q=Learners%20Guild]) that people actually read. I have seen no evidence of massive blogging by Learners, though. The weekly schedule under the new model has not been announced yet.

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