A Day In the Life of App Academy Instructor Cynthia Ma

It’s July 11th, 2018 at App Academy’s San Francisco office, and Senior Instructor Cynthia Ma has a busy day ahead of her.

Cynthia is one of ten instructors at App Academy San Francisco that help students during the 13-week bootcamp. While at App Academy, instructors teach a fast-paced curriculum preparing students for careers as software developers. At the same, career coaches are also around to help students land high-paying jobs at companies like Google, Uber, Facebook and more.

App Academy is known as the top ranked bootcamp in the country thanks to the dedicated work of the instructional team. Instructors are in the office from 9:00AM to 6:00PM for the entire 13-week program to make sure students understand the material.

Cynthia is one of the instructors in charge of students succeeding in their day-to-day bootcamp experience. On this day, she lectures, meets with fellow instructors, and helps students with specific programming questions.

Check out her full day below!

8:30AM: Cynthia prepares for her lecture on user authentication

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As an instructor, Cynthia gives one or two lectures per cohort at App Academy. At this point in the course, students are in their fourth week and they’ve just learned the web-application framework Rails. Soon they’ll start on the Javascript section of the curriculum. Today’s lecture is focused on User Authentication, logging users in and out in web applications.

The User Authentication lecture, also known as ‘User Auth,’ allows students to apply their Rails knowledge from the week before. “They just learned about models and migrations, controllers and routes, and user auth marries all of it together,” explains Cynthia.

In the super-fast paced curriculum App Academy is known for, students start preparing for lecture the night before. They receive, among other things, access to the User Authentication curriculum, a Rails project, and practice coding problems. The students learn as much as they can before the lecture to stay ahead. Then, they use their lecture time to ask questions. During the lecture, students are learning from interactive code demos.

As Cynthia lectures from 9AM to 12PM, Stephen Pangburn, another App Academy instructor, opens the Rails project file on his laptop and projects it to the students. When Cynthia walks students through the technical process of logging in and out, she tells Stephen what to type on screen, so that the lecturer, herself, “can really focus on the content at hand,” says Cynthia. Code demos make the lecture interactive for students.

Students are in lecture four-to-five times a week for the first seven weeks of the nine coding-focused weeks of the bootcamp.

12:00PM: Meeting with Junior Instructor Rose Koron

At lunchtime, Cynthia meets with Rose Koron, an energetic Junior Instructor at App Academy to discuss their shared group of students from the Summer ‘18 cohort.

Students in the same cohort are placed into two to three smaller groups called “pods,” which are then divided into even smaller groups, called “circles,” of six to ten students. Each circle of students at App Academy is led by two instructors. This structure allows students to get the highly personal attention.

Cynthia and Rose meet every Tuesday to make sure students in their circle are on track to graduate. They talk about how their circle has progressed throughout the past week and which students might need help to improve. Cynthia explains to us how instructors identify these students.

“[We’re looking for] any students that mentioned they were struggling, or maybe wrote a report but it wasn’t as positive,” says Cynthia.

At this point in the course, instructors also teach students how to best collaborate on projects with colleagues, often through pair programming. When pair programming, two students share the same computer and work with each other to complete assignments. This improves communication and helps them complete their work.

Cynthia says circle leaders are also on the lookout for students that have specifically received reviews with constructive feedback. “When a student historically gets low [pair programming] reviews, we want to talk to them and let them know […] of ways to improve,” says Cynthia.

Because both had some time left at the end of their meeting, Cynthia and Rose reviewed new documentation from a future React 17 software release. Then they move on to answer student questions on the floor.

3:00PM: Answering student questions

For the rest of the afternoon, students pair-program to finish their assignments. Cynthia and other instructors are available to answer pairs’ questions in-person and on Slack.

“Anytime a student has a question, they post it in their chat room and people from their cohort and TAs will answer on the weekend and the weekdays,” says Cynthia. For more complex questions, Cynthia and other instructors help students in-person.

Often, students have trouble understanding why their code does not work, so Cynthia helps students understand what their stack trace tells them, which is the prompt that shows what line of code the program errored-out on.

Cynthia says it’s important to have an open dialogue about students’ thinking process when debugging. “I ask them, ‘What does the stack trace tell you right now?’ […] If they say ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ll dissect that stack trace [together],” explains Cynthia.

For a student to be properly prepared for a job in software development, they need to have the skills to debug.

6:00PM: On Teaching at App Academy

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Before she goes home for the day, we sit-down for a brief interview with Cynthia to get her take on the day. Instructors are available to students from 9:00AM to 6:00PM every weekday.  

We ask what her favorite part of teaching at App Academy is. It’s bug-hunting.

“Every single time we do a project, I would just imagine that I would get bored. But, there’s always new updates to the software and you hit the strangest bugs,” she says. Because she loves bug-hunting, she’s passionate about helping students fix code errors. By not telling students exactly what is throwing an error in their code, Cynthia guides them to be future developers.

“We help them decipher what the error is, so they can see our thought process so that they will, in turn, get better over time,” says Cynthia.

How Cynthia Ma went from chemical engineering to EdTech

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Cynthia Ma taught high school science in Southern California and developed a close bond with her students.

Cynthia was first introduced to coding in high school. But she decided not to pursue it because she couldn’t relate to it on a personal level. After all, she didn’t know anyone who did. “I didn’t know anyone in the class. I didn’t know the teacher and decided to say no,” she says.

While at UCLA, she had a second chance to take CS courses, but it also didn’t work out. While majoring in chemical engineering, she took an intro CS course on C++, but didn’t have enough support to push her in the direction of web development.

“I was trying to do homework and finish it quickly…and I kept on hitting the same bug and I didn’t have the tools to figure out why I was hitting the bug. My professor didn’t talk about what a stack trace was, so it was like we were coding in the fifties,” Cynthia explains. So she completed her bachelor’s degree in 2012 and became a high school teacher in South-Central Los Angeles.

For the next five years, she taught chemistry to teenage students before coming to App Academy as a student and then becoming an instructor. Like many prospective students, she was skeptical of the quality of education at a coding bootcamp. But by day one of the cohort she was sold on App Academy because of its alumni network.

“There are a lot of App Academy grads that are happy with their job and love what they do. And they love it so much they refer their friends,” says Cynthia.

In the end, Cynthia turned down a career in software development for a third time because she loves teaching so much. She says she wants to pursue a career in the EdTech industry in the future.

Check out Cynthia’s Day In the Life video below.

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