Q+A: App Academy’s Anastassia Bobokalonova on Bootcamp Life, Why Programming Is for Everyone, and More

She knows what she’s talking about.

Anastassia Bobokalonova_programming

Some people say the coding bootcamp life is not for everyone. The pace is fast, the amount of information is significant, and the emotional toll is real. That is true for our full-time course at App Academy — we expect our students’ best efforts for 15 consecutive weeks. The reputational effect of said effort is huge since it results in students that get the best jobs. But Anastassia Bobokalonova believes those features can also be motivating carrots that anyone can accomplish.

A former App Academy bootcamp student-turned teaching assistant, Anastassia has been around the App Academy program for more than a year. She’s gone from working at a lab in the biological sciences post-college, with a limited knowledge of programming, to becoming someone who’s been looked at by tech companies as a major asset. She’s confident, smart, and always thoughtful, qualities that led her to further develop her tech and leadership skills at App Academy.

She also has a high bar for the emotional alertness needed in workplaces — both at App Academy and at companies students are placed. She believes bootcamp teachers’ empathetic approach helped her get through the program and now works to develop the same support for students.

Before she left to join a Silicon Valley startup, we sat down with her to talk about important aspects of her time at App Academy and why she feels it’s the best option for potential coders.

The conversation has been edited for time and space.

You’ve been at App Academy awhile. Tell me what people learn.

We teach Ruby in order to use Ruby on Rails as well as JavaScript to be able to do front-end development. By learning both, a backend language and frontend language, we are able to teach them a full-stack. 

Please explain what a full-stack is.

When you visit a webpage — some are just static, they show some content and the user can’t interact with the webpage at all. A full-stack web application means that when you visit a webpage you’re able to interact with it and the program stores and remembers the way that you interacted with it. So for example being able to make a reservation at a restaurant, to create, delete, update things, interact with the application requires having some sort of storage system. Like a database. And it requires having a server running able to respond to the request [and] having a front-end the user can interact with. So a full-stack means all the layers of the stack: a database level, an API level, and a front-end level.

Tell me about the first four weeks of the programming course, which is what the rest of the course relies on. 

We start off by teaching Ruby, [which is] a friendly language to learn. In fact, it was designed for that purpose. The first two weeks are for [building] basic programming challenges and basic games and projects all in Ruby. After that, we teach them SQL, which is the language of databases and information storage. We do that to allow them to interact with databases. And then we teach them a Ruby version of SQL called Active Record. So they are able to go back to using Ruby but they [now] understand the Ruby methods better because we taught them how SQL works and how to use SQL. So that approach is really important because we teach the underlying way of how [web development] works, how databases work, how querying works, [all] before we give them a much friendlier way to go about doing the same type of code. So you could do it in SQL or in Ruby. So the first four weeks are devoted to Ruby and SQL so…you are able to create an entire application that has a front-end a backend and has a database.

The only thing missing is more responsive design on the front-end. So after that the course goes into teaching JavaScript and the React library. What React allows us to do is build single-page applications, which means even though the URL might seem like it’s changing at the top, you’re actually not requesting the page each time you navigate. It’s just that the app loads once, and when you use it, the app moves much faster. So typically before when you clicked through sites it would reload the page each time on a network and was very noticeable. And now you load the app once and, clicking through it, doesn’t have that lag time.

What’s the learning process like? Does it change over time?

The learning process through App Academy definitely changes over time. The meat of the program has a similar structure where the students have nightly homework, have to prepare for new material and lecture the following day. After lecture, the students have a series of projects specific to that day that they work on with their partner. That is the bulk of the work. We do have solo days, where they work independently and where they can ask questions if they are stuck. The learning process becomes a little bit different after we teach the core parts of the curriculum. It transitions to independent learning and to the direction the student wants to take. So we have several projects where the student has a lot of freedom in choosing their technologies or the design of their project and there’s a lot of self-learning involved with that.

App Academy is known for its rigor — tell me about that. 

App Academy is an extremely fast paced program. We promise you can be a software engineer in three months. That means that every week is very rigorous and we need to ensure students are on pace every week. As you mentioned, that means pretty strong deadline and tests to ensure [students] feel comfortable enough with the material to move on. So everyday there’s homework, and every week or so there’s a small exam.

So it’s not easy. But from what I hear from students, social dynamics are really great here and make more of a difference that in other bootcamps.

We try very hard to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels welcome and becomes friends over time. When you’re working with people every day for the entire day you really get to know them. Students work every day [with a new partner] so over the course of the program, [they] get to meet every student. Additionally, we break students up into smaller groups so they can have more intimate connections, and are also paired with a teaching assistant that helps them succeed. And every Friday we try to have social events that encourages the students to just wind down after a hard week and get to know each other better. So I think that we intentionally try to cultivate a welcoming culture. There’s some camaraderie in working hard together.

A lot of students thinking about taking the course fear they won’t make it. Can their anxiety actually lead to self-confidence over time?

It’s a pretty scary thing to risk changing your life and to change your career path. And there’s a lot of fears that comes with that. “Am I smart enough, will I be successful, is it really worth the risk to try to change my life?” I think when students enter the program, a lot of fears start to become overwritten.

But they see when they come in, that one, their partner is in the exact same boat that they are and everybody’s learning new material at once, conquering that fear together. And by working through it and struggling, they actually can do it. They’re empowered to learn. They see that in such a short period of time they were able to go from zero programming experience to knowing how to build an entire full-stack application in two months. That’s incredible and it’s super empowering. I think that if you can see that you can do that, then you can do anything.

Tell me an example of a student with intense fear that made it.

There are many students that came in with nothing, going through the program, and really struggling. [Some go] through the program and we’re not necessarily certain of them while they were in it but when entering the job search, they work hard and land the job they wanted.

One of my students came into the program with no coding experience and was very nervous every single week. And every week I checked in with her and she felt like she was always behind. I told her that based on her performance, I reassured her she was doing absolutely fine. She was working well with the material, was demonstrating it, and was working well with her pairs. But still there was self-doubt. But as she entered the full-stack [part] of the curriculum and started building her entire application all by herself, she saw she was able to create everything she thought of [in her mind] and implemented features that weren’t even required. And she enjoyed the process of building the project. That continued as she went into the job search and eventually got a job doing this exact thing she loved. I’m really proud of her and happy she was able to build that self-confidence.

How did the teaching staff’s empathy help you personally? 

Working for App Academy has been fantastic. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of what is important to learn and grow at a job, and what is important to be successful and happy. I feel like the team that we have here teaches [as] a really cohesive unit. It’s a team that’s great at empathy but also at solving technical problems. And I feel like I’ve learned what is pretty important to me. [As I move forward] I want to join a company that I feel allows me to [similarly] grow both very technically in a role and continues to push the boundaries of what I know every day but also has a lot of interpersonal interaction, communication, and collaboration.

A lot of people come to App Academy because of the great network. Explain how it helps students, specifically. 

I think a lot of opportunity comes from joining the course because you enter with a group of individuals working really hard and motivated to learn the content and to enter the field, so when you bring together individuals like that, then, in addition to everything the course proved, you get a strong network of people who want to keep learning and keep growing and pushing each other. So that is how you get a lot of students going to hackathons and winning [them] completely outside of App Academy. You have students going to networking events and being fearless about it. So I think a lot of opportunities come from both sides of that.

You believe strongly programming is for everyone. Why is that?

I think that programming is in general a creative process, just like writing or making something. There’s a lot of power that comes with being able to write simple programs, being able to understand how computers work and how computation works. So I think everyone can benefit from learning programming because it just empowers them to solve problems and to make things they might have ideas about.

What do you think?

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