Q+A: App Academy’s Eli Blair on the Job Search Curriculum, Negotiation Techniques, and More

Moving into a career in the tech industry in three months is hard. You have to learn difficult new technical skills and convince a company to give you an important job. It’s kind of crazy. But App Academy alums do this constantly and successfully. And while the learning-to-code bootcamp aspect is most important, the job search curriculum is also critical. According to independent analysts and former students, App Academy has the best job search curriculum in the industry.

Reviewers say the intensity and personal-touch of the job search curriculum makes the biggest difference. On the ground, this means the bootcamp uses a deep curriculum that improves behavioral interview skills, clarifies verbal and physical communication, and optimizes technical job search tools. Over the years, as App Academy has placed more and more students in top jobs, these techniques have been improved and laser-optimized to work for students.

But the success rate of the job search program isn’t something that’s new. From its start seven years ago, the bootcamp founders focused on improving ways people could get the best job as fast as possible because, remember, App Academy only gets paid when its students find high-paying jobs. It’s the crux of the reason for its great curriculum: It needs to be good and so it is.

Since there are many students interested in the course’s career program, we sat down for a wide-ranging interview with App Academy Career and Development Manager Eli Blair. Also known for his Ask Eli column, Eli discussed all of the major questions people have about the career part of the course. He always tells the truth, so pay attention.

Tell me about the specifics of the job search curriculum. We know the first 12 weeks are for coding mostly and then your career services team takes over. What happens then?

So let’s talk about what weeks 10, 11, 12, and 13 at the bootcamp are like, [following the coding focus]. We’re trying to get our students up to speed with a portfolio to show. Usually they’ll have two to three projects they’ll show at the end of their time with us. At the same time, they’re learning all these new technologies and zeroing in on [career training]. We work on resumes, on personal pitches. We talk about interview skills and we do a big deep dive into negotiation.

So those last few weeks are really intense. They have to be self-driven and there’s a lot of stress once they graduate. We want them to get out there into the marketplace. You have to fill your funnel in order to start to get noticed and so we are with them through that process, [sending resumes.]

Typically our coaching team will meet with students about once a week, every other week, to help them through. Whereas other companies might just drop a student, like “we got your money, good luck out there!” We’re a little bit better on our students. You know part of our agreement and our value is Student Success. We don’t get paid until they get paid and so we have a vested interest in everybody’s success here, whether they pay up-front or not.

And so with that in mind, we’re meeting with people all the time. For an example, if they have 15 phone screens that are not moving on, what can we do to sharpen them? If they have a ton of coding and take-homes — what are they’re not doing? What do we need to sharpen them on if they’re getting several on-sites and they’re not getting hired, what can we do to set them up for success? So we’re along that whole journey with everybody. And for some it’s a short journey and others are on a longer path and they take a longer time.

How do career coaches help students adapt to different types of interviews?

So [to start], there is a difference between people coming from different fields [into learning how to code]. We live in the Bay Area and also have offices in New York. What we see in major cities is that it’s a tough road, especially for entry level people. The [process] is very different.

First, you’re going to go through a quick phone screen. Then they’re going to give you a very tough technical problem. It could be an algorithm problem or something where you have to code for days to give them a sample. Then, if you do well on that, there’s the third round on-site. And that could be a technical interview [focused] on algorithms, data structures, as well as other non-technical [topics]. It can be an eight-hour interview with 15 to 20 people.

So it’s a tough road in this industry. Here in the Bay Area and in New York, Boston, Denver. The market is tough [because] there’s a lot of software developers vying for the same positions. But we have a really good placement rate. So we’re doing something right here.

What do you think is the biggest motivating factor for someone that applies and later joins App Academy?

I think the biggest motivating factor for people are two things: they love to code and they like the money. I think those are the biggest motivating factors here. People love what they’re doing. And to live in the Bay area, to live in New York, Seattle, you have to be making a bigger number in order to support yourself. So I think those are the biggest motivating factors — to get a really great paying job doing something you love.

You know, [also], people are staying at their jobs one to two years and then moving on. Once they start, we’re seeing that companies are now look for people with two or three years of experience. And so that’s a sort of roadblock we’re seeing for [all] students now. Whether they are four-year CS grads or not. They say “we want somebody who’s fresh and junior” but fresh and junior now means at least a full year in the industry. With that said, though, we are filling roles, people are getting hired. It takes work, but they’re getting hired.

Let’s talk about negotiation. Why is it so important for our students to learn about this at the bootcamp?

That’s one of my favorite topics here. When people say “How much do you want to make?” and they blurt out $60,000 — I’m like, “oh my gosh.” Because there’s so much more money on the table. My favorite line is: “You can’t wink at somebody in the dark.” So unless you ask for that money, you’re never gonna see it. And typically we teach them the diplomatic tactics to negotiate [which leads to them] making about 10K to 20K more in their negotiation, which is spectacular.

[To make that happen, we say] first off: Don’t throw away the first number. Ask for time. We teach techniques of how to do that. Like getting things into writing. Because there are times in a negotiation where, I don’t know about you, I can get a little nervous or I might forget something. When it’s in writing, we have at least more time and there’s a diplomatic way to do that. And when we get multiple offers, well, that’s the icing on the cake because then you have a bidding war. We see that all the time here. That’s that’s when the fun really begins.

Do you teach students to approach certain interviews in a different way depending on their background, since some come with more technical savvy?

We break down our training into two: interview skills and technical skills. Interview skills are behavioral. On non-technical, we teach them how to do a really good phone screen, talking about volume, about energy. I spend a whole ton of time on personal pitch, which means “Tell me about yourself” because that’s the first thing most companies ask. We spend a lot of time on that and we also talk about the interview process itself or the on-site interview. We [also] do a lot of pair boarding. We study algorithms and data structures to help people on that side as well.

Career development is very important to our curriculum and to the success of our students. Can you explain why this is?

I think what we do really well here at App Academy is different than maybe what other universities colleges and bootcamps. We work with our students to zero in on interview skills, negotiations, resume skills, cover letter [writing], reaching out through emails, LinkedIn. So I think for App Academy, when we look at these skills, we go above and beyond and actually work with our students than what I believe other companies do to help them get their job.

Some people say that the job search coming from a bootcamp like App Academy is different than when you come from a university setting with a Computer Science degree. Is there a difference in your mind?

I think there’s a stigma at times with bootcamps. What I have learned over the time I’ve been here is that there are pros and cons for each.

If you have a bootcamp certification, we know our students are getting practical experience doing projects. We know they’re getting deep-dives into how to do things quickly and about how to learn. They have to [build] a full stack project quickly, a JavaScript project quickly, and then they get to create their own unique project at the end. We [also] teach them real-life skills of working with teams, developing their skills, getting feedback, and creating a good portfolio.

Here’s what I [also] know: Typically, we have a very high success rate placing students and I’d say the majority of companies that hire our students are pretty satisfied. So there’s a benefit to both. The students we place at organizations are doing well integrating quickly into teams.

I know that stigma — they don’t get everything that a four-year degree person gets — but I don’t think I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think it’s about the person. Whether they have a four-year degree or a bootcamp certification. [What’s more important is], can they start coding quickly? Can they integrate into the culture? Not every four-year degree person, no matter where they are coming from, is effective. I think people need to judge by the person and not so much by where they’re coming from. Can they do the job? 95% of the time, our people are doing the job.

Tell me about the specific networking skills App Academy grads work on during the career services portion of the course?

So during the last few weeks our students are working on three portfolio projects but they’re also working on resumes and on cover letters. They’ve never really had to network so we also teach networking and we give them practical experience.

We know software developers can be introverted and networking is not their forte. So we give them skills necessary to network. Because we know networking helps people get jobs quicker. We teach them skill sets for LinkedIn and AngelList and getting profiles up-to-date.

We teach them how to reach out directly to recruiters and how to speak with [them] and how to have really good interviews. So that’s a lot to focus on in a few weeks.

We know some of the skills students learn can not only just be applied to getting a job but also can help them in their personal lives and their professional development. Tell me more about this.

What we do really well, and I don’t know if a lot of universities teach them, but it’s soft skills.

Most people that we’ve graduated, they’re not going to stay at their jobs for 30-40 years. That’s not the reality. So what we teach them, how to do a resume, how to interview, how to negotiate — that’s going to take them on for their professional development for the rest of their lives. They’re going to remember [to] negotiate salary from now ’til the end.

[Other things we teach include] how to write a resume and what they need to do. “I’m gonna have to be able to answer questions. And how do I do that and talk about myself?” So we go the extra mile because we do a lot of mock interviews with our students. That’s what I love about my job. It’s going to take them beyond, into their lifelong careers.

There are a lot of people afraid that they’re not good enough mentally to be in a bootcamp. So what’s the mentality a coding bootcamp student has to go through, and later, that helps him or her get a job?

People who are out there hustling have better results. We have to work with all sorts of personalities to get their motivation up. There’s a lot of work. It’s a full-time job to get a full-time job — we’ve heard it a million times. But it really is. If you send out four applications a day, what kind of results are you going to get? So we try to help people with their motivation.

One of the exercises I do is I ask them this question: what would it mean for you to get a job as a software developer? I say: Bring it down to three words. It could be Freedom. Finance. Stability. It could be any word. Put those three words up somewhere you can see them everyday and [ask yourself]: Is the work I’m doing every day putting me towards or away from those three words? And so we talk about that as part of motivation. What motivates you to get a job as a software developer? We have students who live at home. Your parents love you but they want you out.

The other thing is that they walk into our doors and want to change their lives. To do something they’re passionate about. We work with that. What brought you through the doors? Maybe they were a server and worked in retail. They wanted something different in their lives.

You’ve been doing this awhile. What’ve you learned about students and yourself?

This has really put my coaching skills to the test. I have placed nearly 200 students into positions and I’ve coached even more than that over the last year.

I’ve coached hundreds and it’s the different personalities. And it’s the different types of problems that each job seeker has. I’ve loved this job because it has stretched me more than I have ever thought. It’s busy here and you get people who get a job quick in 30 days, 60 days. And then there are some who, you know, are going to need extra work.

And they need the extra help both technically and non-technically to get that job. My life is dedicated to helping people professionally and personally, so for me, the beauty of the job is when you have a student who can barely pay for a subway ride, who’s been looking for a long time, and when they say “oh my god, I got this incredible six-figure job,” you know that life has been changed forever.

You know, about maybe six or seven months ago we had a student who was looking for a very long time and at day 364 or 365 is when that person got hired. So imagine the peaks and valleys that person went through, right? And when that person got hired, finally, you know, that’s the icing on the cake. It took a long time but that life is changed and he is loving his new role.

And so the challenge of this position is a lot. You deal with different personalities, work with different problems, different motivation levels, and it dwindles and comes back up, but that’s the challenge.

So at the end of the day when they get hired, that’s what I’m here for.

App Academy is known for listening to feedback from the students. How does our bootcamp job search and career curriculum adapt exactly?

Technically we’re looking at what’s going on in the job market. What do we need to add or delete into our technical program and training so that we give our job-seekers an edge when they’re looking for work.

On the non-technical side. We’re always learning. I’ll give you a great example. We used to have a whole section on cover letters as we’ve always been told [to have]. You have to have a resume and a cover letter. But here’s what we learned: We interviewed about 30 recruiters recently and asked how many were opening and reviewing cover letters? Only 40 to 50 percent are. So we’ve changed our focus a little bit.

We still teach cover letters. It’s not as huge a focus but what we’re teaching now is how to find the emails of recruiters, engineers, and what kind of letters to write in email. It’s different than a cover letter. An email is a short, sweet, concise letter [that’s] to the point. Have a great subject line.

When I first started, you had to have a fancy resume. Then I came on, I was like, “Hold it. How about for applicant tracking systems, which most companies have?” Are these resumes getting through? So we changed our format. Recruiters are saying all they need is a resume that is parsible, [one] that can go through our system. We’re always learning and whatever edge we can give our students, we want to do that. If you told me tomorrow, hey, this is going to be something that will help them to get better and to get them in the door quicker, let’s do it. We’re always learning because the industry is changing. 

Sometimes it takes many months to find a job. How does App Academy career plan help students months into their job search?

Here’s the thing: looking for work is a pain in the butt. Nobody likes working for work. It’s a reality and what we do know is it has its peaks and its valleys. And as coaches, we support our students. And we want to hear from them when they’re not getting phone calls or interviews.

Someone may have four phone screens in a week, coding challenges, and two on-sites and then three weeks, nothing. And so what we see they had that great peak and now they’ve gone into the valley and I think that’s where we do really well and shine as coaches because we want to talk with our students during all those times, right?

We do work with them through it all and we want to see what they’re doing. We do ask: How are you applying? What are you doing for applying? What are you doing for networking this week? What have you been doing to fill your GitHub? What are you practicing? What projects are you working on to keep them fresh and to keep them going? What are you studying?

So we want to check in and keep their motivation level up throughout the whole process.

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