Q+A: App Academy’s Jeff Fiddler on Programming Languages, Updating the Curriculum, and the Business Model

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The impact educational institutions have on their students can be measured by the quality of their teachers, the depth of students’ preparation for real-world problems, and the strength of the curriculum. Professional schools in particular focus on the quality of their curriculum because they fit large amounts of information into tight schedules and have to update any changes to match real-world jobs.

But what does a modern curriculum look like at a code bootcamp? Some of the well-known ones teach one language while others, like App Academy, teach multiple languages. The reason behind those choices is connected to the technology companies that use languages like JavaScript.

In order to provide incoming students with in-depth understanding of the choices behind the curriculum, we spoke to App Academy curriculum head Jeff Fiddler. We asked him about the core tenets of the course, how they teach fundamentals, and what makes App Academy’s choices different.

The conversation has been edited for time and space and we’ve added a few videos throughout.

App Academy teaches different programming languages. But other bootcamps teach one. Why did a/A do that and what’s the benefit? 

We’ve always produced engineers that are prepared for the market as much they possibly can be. That requires good breadth of skills and to be able to be successful with different tech stacks [languages]. The majority of our curriculum uses JavaScript as the main tool but many go on to build with Rails, Ruby, Django, or others. We want students to be comfortable with object-oriented programming. Not every company [they’ll be working for] has a new app that they built in 2018. Some will maintain stuff they built ten years ago.

But we require them to understand the philosophy on the way apps are designed. So no matter what it is, they’re going to be able to become leaders of their team regardless of whether they have exposure to a particular programming language. We teach strong fundamentals so that no matter what tech stack you’re going to, you’ll be prepared.

We’ve always emphasized a deep understanding. No matter how complicated the system is, it’s made up of basics, and the better your understanding of fundamentals, the more successful you’re going to be digesting and working with any level of complexity.

Currently, we teach Ruby, SQL, JS, HTML, CSS and the frameworks are Rails, React, and Redux. React and Redux are front-end JS frameworks and Rails is a full-stack ruby framework.

[A negative about only learning one language] is that if you’re suffering from impostor syndrome and…there’s a language that is totally different from what you did, then they’re going to think they’re not up to the challenge. When the fact is that they’re good enough. [This doesn’t mean] that we compromise the amount that we teach. We hold them to a high standard even more. We try to make sure they are the best fit for as many roles as possible.

[We chose these languages] because they are extremely popular. JavaScript is the most popular programming language. It’s on everything and that’s why we emphasize it so much in our curriculum. Rails is a popular framework.

If teaching people how to learn is at the core of what you do, what does that look like?

We know people have so much more potential before they came here to us and we teach them how to reach that. People are put into situations [during the course] where they have to solve their own problems and come to their own solutions and build strategies for overcoming problems. And that takes a special kind of thinking. We teach, for example, the fundamentals of debugging and push them to solve their own problems by looking up information, about where to learn things.

Tell me about the history of the curriculum. How’d get to its current state?

Our first boot camp taught iOS but after looking at market trends, we figured out the best thing would be to teach Rails, the most popular full stack tool. So we rewrote the curriculum. Then we saw students had a need to learn intense programming and we started teaching the front-end engineering framework Backbone, which was hot at the time. The great thing about BackBone is its simplicity; if something goes wrong you can send students directly to the source code.

But over time, the complexity of web apps people were making exceeded what Backbone [could do] and so companies started to adopt new things like React. So once again monitoring market trends, we saw it was winning the front-end market war, that knowing React was an asset for students looking for jobs. So we added it to the main curriculum. Then, over time, people found that state management was a challenge on the front-end with React, we needed a good framework to keep track of state so we adopted Redux, and starting teaching that two years ago. Redux and React together are the fundamentals of our front-end engineering stack.

In the future, when we find the market is requiring people to know a certain tech, we’ll be happy to move on and use that. It’s important for us that the future is built with good, reliable code. So we want people to write the best software they can.

Which resources do you use to find programming languages?

There are a millions ways to find out. Stack Overflow does a great job reporting on what tech people use. Github makes it easy to figure out what’s rising and popular. On NPM, you can see the most important modules that are rising and falling. Another place is StackShare. It’s a great place to find tech stacks that companies are using.

This is a great tip for anyone looking for a job — pretty much any website is on StackShare and you can see which technologies they use. If you want to work for a local startup or a specific company, you can see [if they have] Rails backend, React and Redux. Maybe they are using Amazon’s AWS and Slack and Jira to manage their business. That might be useful to know before getting into an interview.

Additionally, we have an awesome network of alums in the industry. [So] we can get good insight. Currently we have a lot of students asking for jobs and we work closely with them and their job coaches to keep a close eye on the type of questions they are being asked and then we can use that to guide our curriculum development.

Tell me about business model, the reason you teach what you teach.

App Academy has alway been built around giving people jobs as effectively as possible. That’s what our business requires to be successful. Our curriculum needs to follow the market so that everyone that follows our program is going to get a job as soon as possible. All of our curriculum is designed to get a job as quickly as possible.

Because of that business model, it’s crucial our curriculum is the perfect fit for the market where we exist. So it’s essential for us to know what hiring managers and recruiters are looking for when it comes to hiring our students.

We put everything on the line. We say that if our program doesn’t work for you then you don’t owe us anything. So we have to make sure that our curriculum is going to hit the target and that target is getting you a job as soon as possible and it has to be true. And it is. And it works again and again. We have crafted this curriculum over years and are sure we are producing the perfect curriculum for the tech scene currently. Our business requires it.

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