2014-07-14

Co.Labs

Why You Should Learn Product Management Instead Of Coding

One dev shop in Brooklyn is trying to change an industry mantra. Will it work?



Apparently we should all learn to code. Men. Women. Children. CEOs. Everyone. Even President Obama is imploring his constituents to learn computer science already. But what if learning to code isn't the right mantra after all?

A 50-person Brooklyn-based dev shop called Happy Fun Corp thinks the pressure to program should be replaced by something else. Don’t just learn to code, HFC says--learn to make products.

With their upcoming HFC Academy, the digital engineering firm is using its experience to lay out a course that teaches product management. It’s no longer enough to learn some coding and call it a day. Thriving in tomorrow’s tech world needs training in taking your digital product from vision to uploaded, accessible reality.

HFC should know: They’ve spent a lot of time training new recruits. In a way, their HFC Academy is self-serving, teaching students to code, design, develop, and iterate a product through a project timeline just like they’ve taught their recruits.

“Selfishly, our ability to grow is based on getting smart people,” says HFC cofounder Ben Schippers.

University degrees have been the gold standard for decades, and their graduates often scoff at bootcamp graduates. Many academically trained programmers praise their computer-science education for expanding their problem-solving skillset. But Schippers sees a great disconnect between those programs and practical preparation for getting programming jobs.

“For people graduating now, what these expensive colleges are saying is, ‘You are now prepared for graduate school,’” says Schippers. “They’re not preparing you for the tech workplace. By the time they get to us, it takes just as long to teach four-year graduates as to teach a layman who’s really hungry to learn.”

Computer-science education teaches the abstracts of computer workings, but not the critical thinking to evaluate public-facing products, says Schippers. Liberal arts colleges teach more of the soft skills Schippers values, like communication and critical thinking. But as HFC Academy starts teaching interested students the practical project management and programming skills that Schippers says tech titans like Google and Facebook have been teaching for years, the hope isn’t just to sneak ahead of the competition--it’s to guide students into jobs they wouldn’t have gotten with yesterday’s code classes.

Coding in the Ivory Tower

Schippers isn’t going into the Tech Academy blind; he’s already taught a version of the course to college students. Schippers’ alma mater, Bates College in Maine, chose Schippers and HFC cofounder Will Schenk as part of its first wave of “Practitioner Taught” short courses. Bates is using the inter-term courses to bring business-savvy alumni back to explore the post-graduation world that’s nebulous to academia.

While HFC’s Technology Academy and The Flatiron School have similarly simple goals--educate professionals to find jobs in tech--Bates doesn’t view the Practitioner Taught courses as purely pragmatic or vocational. They complement Bates’ ambition for its students to find “purposeful work.”

“Purposeful work is a notion of discovering through coursework what really matters to you,” says Dean of Faculty Matthew Auer. “There’s no sense in getting a job with no way to grow personally and professionally.”

Like many Liberal Arts colleges, Bates stacks its faculty with long-term tenured professors instead of filling out the faculty with many higher-turnover associate professors and adjunct lecturers. While it’s a win for faculty, it means the expertise pool is limited to whoever Bates hires long-term. Since Bates has no computer-science department, any programming education is part of patchwork courses taught by faculty who happen to have related theoretical experience for courses on number theory, artificial intelligence, or robotics design.

The Practitioner Taught courses address that experience gap, as much about exposing students to new concepts as keeping their critical faculties honed. Schippers’ and Schenk’s course doesn’t just instruct how to build, but prompts students to ask if the world really needs this new product.

And as much as Bates shies away from the “pragmatic” label, Schippers’ and Schenk’s course had very work-practical elements--like mock interviews. According to the extensive student evaluations Bates collected, students raved about the workplace preparation that’s largely absent from academic coursework.

“This is what students really want. Let’s not pretend that they don’t know what they want,” says Schippers.

No matter how eager, Schippers felt the three days per week, five-week program was too short--hence why HFC Academy has been stretched to five days per week for seven weeks. On the whole, Schippers had to adjust his expectations of tech fluency. This is partially a generational issue: students grown on the app interface of iPads and iPhones were clueless about file system locations, for example. These are kids who may have never seen a DOS prompt. Schippers has separately taught Baby Boomers who missed the computer train and struggle to get on Facebook. These refinements don’t just help certain demographics--they refine the educational process of programming education as a whole.

For Bates, the five-week length was a great testing ground for integrating programming in future courses. The faculty have talked about applying Big Data analysis to microeconomics and health courses, or even Dean Auer’s own bioinformatics courses. And while those talks have a long way to go before implementation, Bates is seeing an uncommonly high number of faculty on the verge of retirement. Now is the time to plan for integrating programming in courses for the next 20 to 30 years, says Dean Auer.

Even Learning To Code Can Benefit

Of course, there are brick-and-mortar Learn To Code schools that see just as much opportunity--and prove their worth by getting their graduates employed. For The Flatiron School’s offshoot Brooklyn campus, that number stands at a staggering 98 percent of job-seeking graduates getting placed at programming jobs in New York City within three months.

Flatiron doesn’t venture into the product management that HFC Academy is exploring, but its focus on employment-centric skills sets it apart from online and theoretical coding courses. While it doesn’t pioneer project-management skills, the Brooklyn campus exists to innovate a different aspect of America’s next generation of coding classes: educating the less-skilled and unemployed.

Through a deal with the city, Flatiron’s Brooklyn campus holds tuition-free classes exclusively for students who are unemployed or make less than $50,000 per year. In addition, the school goes out of its way to enroll women, veterans, and minorities. The Brooklyn campus runs a 22-week course including a four-week job-placement externship that extends the course past Flatiron Manhattan’s 16-week standard, but the instruction is otherwise identical. The Brooklyn students are held to the same standards, says the Brooklyn campus instruction lead Blake Johnson.

Flatiron Brooklyn has graduated one class and are in the middle of their second. Despite drawing an experience range from computer-science dabblers to students who didn’t know what a URL was, the school found employment for all. It’s a testament to the concept that literally anyone can walk into the right bootcamp’s doors and walk out ready for programming work--even those with extensive obstacles. Poverty increases stress levels, Johnson says and decades of studies have supported, and there are very unfortunate moments where students can’t afford a ride to class on public transportation.

And yet, Flatiron found them jobs--including getting one student a programming gig at Etsy.

The Argument For A Classroom

Flatiron’s job guarantee is a great carrot in a still-challenging economy, but the benefits of a brick-and-mortar classroom have always been teacher facetime and peer support. Students aren’t just building a peer network in the classroom--they’re training for tomorrow’s group-oriented programming culture.

“That cliche of the cowboy coder in his parents basement--it doesn’t happen anymore,” says Johnson.

Those cowboy coders have always been the determined few who can learn on their own with minimal support. The classroom provides the space and authority for everyone else to learn. This includes the teacher facetime and the confidence of following structured learning.

“The most important thing you can give people is a map,” says Johnson. “You say, ‘Trust me. Do this now and do that tomorrow.’”

Obviously, having a structured timeline stretched over weeks is reassuring, but Johnson finds himself coaching his students through the difficult process of gearing up to learn again as much as he’s actually teaching skills. Acting like a combination psychiatrist, priest, and parent on top of teaching means Johnson’s troubleshooting his students as much as he’s troubleshooting their code.

“One of the biggest obstacles is that programming makes you feel stupid. It’s really crippling. The emotional aspect is the hardest thing,” says Johnson.

It’s especially hard to admit difficulty in tech--one doesn’t want to look weak and unable to keep up with technology’s progression. But that obstructs learning and builds poor communication habits. Part of Flatiron Brooklyn’s program is Feelings Friday, a circle-up confessional period. Students vent--and nobody gets to respond. It’s not just cathartic for the confessor. Chances are, others around the circle are relieved to discover that they aren’t the only ones having trouble. That’s the safe space and personal exchange that builds strong networks among the students themselves--something difficult to grow in online courses.

For their part, HFC Academy wants to keep their students in contact after graduation by launching a concurrent Academy Network. LinkedIn comparisons aside, HFC is setting up the Academy Network to be both an alumni hub and a job board stocked with listings by companies that trust the HFC name.

That’s in addition to the business personnel HFC has lined up for facetime with students--connections HFC has made through years in the NYC tech scene. In a digital age, the future of programming education is in the human connections to learn, collaborate, and improve.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]




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