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Product Bootcamp Week Six: Worth It?

HFC Academy plans to aggressively expand its student access with product seminars galore.

Product Bootcamp Week Six: Worth It?
[Photo: Flickr user Ruiwen Chua]

After six weeks of rigorous 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday class time, HappyFunCorp‘s six-week long HFC Academy has taken a group with negligible coding skills and turned it into a squad of wee entrepreneurs-in-training who know their way around a website product. Now we ask the really important question: Was the class worth it?

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All coding bootcamps promise some level of proficiency by the end of the course, but what sets HFC Academy apart is its combination of coding lessons and product experience–especially when coupled with our final projects. The instructors pointed out time-sinks and places to strategically cut corners so as to sacrifice a minimum of polish in order to deliver complete products on deadline.

I entered knowing just the straggles of HTML from a 7th-grade class and left HFC Academy with the skills to build a website, and some product know-how to help navigate client negotiations and internal team management. Spending weeks struggling to get projects to function up to spec, I gained new respect for the need to protect engineers from the client’s whims. The tough love I got from the instructors about being too precious with code has prepared me to stare down my hypothetical engineer and tell them that the feature they worked on for three weeks is kaput.

Since this is the only bootcamp I’ve completed, it’s impossible for me to compare it to other programs. I believe the same is true for my fellow students, and in casual conversation they told me they were very satisfied with HFC Academy. They loved the product lessons and exited with some coding skill to build simple versions of the complex products HappyFunCorp builds for clients.

As tech entrepreneur Karl Hughes points out, bootcamps have become a “get successful quick” solution for folks who want to shift careers and perhaps throw their hat in the startup ring after just a couple months of intense instruction. One of the things that Hughes hasn’t seen these bootcamps doing is being transparent with how long it takes to become a good web developer. To HFC Academy’s credit, we were never given the delusion that we’d exit with the skills to walk right into a coding job.

Instead, the class did exactly what Hughes says bootcamps do well: introduced us to the product development world, introduced us to the startup and web development industry, and gave us entry to HappyFunCorp’s network. HFC Academy also delivered on exposing us to a wide range of product lessons, from professional product expectations and standards to bringing in guest speakers to speak about programming and startup culture. The speaker lineup was less robust than the continuous lessons taught by the HFC Academy instructors and HappyFunCorp developers (one guest speaker couldn’t come and wasn’t able to reschedule), but the course taught me lessons I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere–and likely not in the more business-agnostic coding bootcamps out there.

Bootcamps are somewhat new and difficult to compare, so the de facto rule with them is unfortunately still caveat emptor. Hughes emphasizes that all bootcamps are different, so do your research to see if one is better for you than another. Want a six-week intensive Ruby on Rails course honing product strategy? HFC Academy might be right for you–but you might want to look at what else HappyFunCorp has cooking before you carve six weeks out of your life.

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Parting Lessons

Our last guest speaker was HappyFunCorp cofounder Ben Schippers, who’d run the proto-HFC Academy at Bates College and developed the first HFC Academy’s curriculum alongside HappyFunCorp’s other cofounder, Will Schenk.

After weeks of guests and lessons about project and startup management, Schippers focused on the biggest obstacle standing in the way of success: ourselves. Over the years building startups and products for myriad businesses, Schippers keyed in on how good entrepreneurs take care of themselves. Some of this was quite simple–do what you love!–and like all simple things, very hard to stay focused on.

“One thing that’s very hard is figuring out how to move the needle for yourself, not for other people,” Schippers says. “Even if you don’t want to start your own business, this is where you tend to fall apart. This is where people ‘succeeding’ tend to do well.”

To maintain focused work on your personal goals, make an incredibly simple to-do list.

“When I’m starting a company, for the first two years, I’ll wake up and write down three things to do. I don’t put a fourth thing–don’t even kid yourself,” Schippers says. “Try to focus on three things that are really going to move the needle forward for you. You’d be surprised how hard it is to do.”

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Those shortlists, sleep, and time management are critical to maintaining focus, Schippers says. Make them priorities. Exercise and nutrition are also important. These are obvious cornerstones for personal health, but they’re also the corners people tend to cut quickest when the hours start ramping up.

“Get comfortable with knowing that you’re not gonna know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. If not, you’re never gonna push yourself to get off,” Schippers says. “It’s accepting the fact that you’re gonna have a lot of unknowns, which affects focus. Which is why sleep and time management and goals are important.”

Today’s tech landscape is different than the first dotcom boom, Schippers says. Things used to be much harder to build, but now you can make products with a handful of people on a team. The downside is that everyone has made those products and the market is saturated. There’s no guarantee anybody will use what you make. So unless you’ve got a technology-revolutionizing app, you need to differentiate your idea, or get lost in the sea of app stores.

“For those of you who think if you build a technology people will use it, they won’t. You need to be working on people,” Schippers says. “It’s not a technology problem, it’s a distribution problem.”

To build momentum, to stride in a saturated sea, you need to fail fast, Schippers says. If you spend $100,000 on a product that sucks, he says, move on. The great news is that you can make that $100,000 again. But you can’t get that time back, so iterate quickly and get feedback quickly. You need choice reviewers who will keep you honest and not just lavish you with platitudes.

“Do yourself a favor: Make sure you’re talking to people about your idea and make sure they remove one feature,” Schippers says.

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You don’t just need to pump your network for feedback, you need to pump your network. Go to events, connect on LinkedIn, go out for coffee. If somebody’s willing to have a meeting, take it, no matter who they are, Schippers says. Just make sure that person is going to make an introduction into their network. That’s how you create opportunities.

While you’re sprinting forward, follow the old adage of asking forgiveness instead of permission.

“Don’t ask permission, just move faster. As you begin to play chess with the world around you, you’re gonna piss people off. Get over it. If you really piss people off, apologize. I push that really far,” Schippers says.

It’ll take you time to build and iterate and sell your product. It might take four months to build, but it’ll take 15 months to get the product right. Remember that Instagram, Twitter, and Airbnb weren’t built overnight, Schippers says. Some are, but don’t try to be them: You’ll just feel like a failure. As an entrepreneur, it all comes down to grit and managing discomfort. This is where a lot of people fail, Schippers says.

“There’s interesting literature about people who are very successful: They don’t talk about business–they talk about managing the lows,” he says.

Exercise and social media vacations are Schippers’ bread and butter. Get away from the strain of communication devices (Schippers even considers email a social tool, and won’t answer past 7 p.m.). Pay attention to what you’re putting in your body: people drink coffee, eat a lot of simple carbs, and then hit spikes of energy and crash. Better to find an even keel. You will become more efficient, Schippers assures. That balance extends to work: Find hobbies. Take walks.

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And at the end of the day, you have to love what you’re working on. Schippers has never seen it end well otherwise. Find meaning. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Are you doing it for yourself or for someone else? Make sure you’re making this product because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I think money is a great reason. If money is what gets you up in the morning, guess what, it’s a motivator. Not everybody is gonna save puppies and kittens,” Schippers says. “A lotta people fail because they’re constantly off-track. If this is what you want to do, this is what you should do.”

Next Steps: For Students And The Academy

I asked the instructors what the value of a six-week product coding class should be.

“I would say it provides an accelerated way to understand problems you’ll face when building something,” program director Aaron Brocken says. “It helps build a skillset beyond being able to program, a real-world exposure to all the cuts and bruises you wouldn’t get coding online at home.”

Those bruises and cuts usually scare people off the coding game, especially if they’re learning at home without experienced programmers pushing them in a learning environment.

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Sadly, learning to code isn’t a magic wand. Most of it will still be forensic debugging of things that should’ve worked, but didn’t.

“The vast amount of ‘coding’ is debugging—trying to find a way to think around this thing,” HappyFunCorp cofounder Schenk says. “You do know the shape of things more as you get better, but you always start debugging the same way.”

The ultimate question for HappyFunCorp: Is this class worth putting on? The interest they’ve gotten since promoting the class proves that it’s filling a need. But instead of expanding their six-week immersion courses, they’re responding to demand at times and lengths working folks can access.

Six weeks is a long time to pull out of your life, Schenk says. So instead of filling the year with more immersion courses, they’ll be hosting more event and two or three week seminar-style evening courses to meet interest.

“We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries: ‘We love what you’re doing, but can you do it at night?’” Schenk says.

That lets HappyFunCorp serve a much larger student body while the shorter seminar length will let them dive into more topics at different skill levels. But that doesn’t mean the six-week immersion class is going away. On the contrary, it’s still there to possibly answer the million-dollar question: Can they hire someone right out of the class?

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They haven’t–yet–though they’re keeping an eye on the first class’s students and advising them on post-class projects. The bottom line: The students need more product experience.

“The reason people are not going to get out of this course and immediately get a job at Facebook is that they just don’t have enough product experience,” says HappyFunCorp cofounder Schippers.

Hence HappyFunCorp’s new focus on seminars and events that teach product lessons HFC learned over years of building websites and apps for clients. The shorter courses will also be attractive to prospective students who don’t necessarily need to learn coding—they may just want to understand it to be more effective in their workplace, Schippers says. It’ll provide exposure for people who don’t necessarily need to dramatically change their careers.

“We want product stuff that conforms to resources they have,” says Brocken. “So the after work bits and bobs events and after work seminars not only feeds people of different skill levels, it helps them in a safer environment by keeping their jobs.”

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