The first eight weeks consist of practical workshops covering full-stack development principles. Working in pairs, students tackle coding problems and present their findings back to the class, discovering the merits of different solutions along the way. During the second half of the course, they split into small teams and use what they’ve learned to build Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) for social enterprises.
Anna, James, and Sam graduated in July 2019, after successfully demoing their completed MVPs for an audience of product owners and prospective employers. We caught up with them to hear about their experiences on the projects.
Social impact work is clearly important to everyone here. Who are the organisations and individuals you partnered with? What were you making for them?
Sam: We worked with a nice chap called Beach. The problem he was trying to solve was that a lot of people don’t really know what they can and can’t recycle. A lot of recycling ends up getting contaminated because people put items in the wrong bin, and the whole bag has to be thrown away. We made a game to teach primary school children about the recyclability of everyday items.
James: Our project was for an organisation called Groundworks. Alex, our product owner, wanted to help college and university students develop employability skills while earning a fair wage. We worked with him to create an online marketplace where students can sign up, browse through available work, and get matched with employers.
Anna: We were working with an organisation called SquareCircle. Their goal is to connect young people with employers who have adopted unbiased recruitment processes. The product owners wanted us to build them a website where they can share information about inclusive employment opportunities with jobseekers.
For many of them, these MVPs are just the start. How does it feel to have laid the foundation for future iterations?
James: For Groundworks, the aim was for this MVP to streamline some of their existing processes. The method they were using to match students with employers was quite labour-intensive, and Alex was doing a lot of the work himself, which meant he had less time to spend on other things. I’d like to think that the marketplace we’ve developed will reduce the time they spend on manual tasks, and help them to grow faster. It’s a nice feeling!
Anna: I think our product owners are planning to use the website we made for them, which is cool! Regardless of how much traffic it gets, I think it’ll make their lives easier. SquareCircle is a new organisation that they’re still in the middle of setting up, so they’ve obviously got a lot on their hands. It was nice to contribute and just make something that will be useful for them.
Sam: I’m not entirely sure if the game we made will be used as a final product; it’s playable, but it’s still in an early state. That said, it’s the kind of thing that our product owner can use as a proof of concept if he decides to apply for funding in the future. And, it feels good to know that he’ll be using what we made to tackle quite an important problem.
In the run up to making these MVPs, you spent several weeks experimenting with different tech stacks, design techniques, and ways of working on your own mini projects. How did those learning experiences come in handy?
Anna: Putting agile working principles into practice was challenging, but super valuable. Standups, build sprint planning, and team retrospectives—I don’t think we got all of those things completely right the first time around! But, like with anything on the course, you make mistakes, then you learn from them. By the time real clients got involved, our team’s processes and communication had improved immensely. Being exposed to agile methodologies has totally changed the way I think about any sort of work now.
James: One thing that I really appreciate about the course is that it gave us the confidence to learn lots of new things. The pace of the mini projects was so much more intense than anything I’d experienced in any role that I’d done before. Doing those projects every week for two months set us up really well to work on these MVPs. It gave us the confidence to try something new without being scared of not finishing it. So, when it came to our final projects, we didn’t hesitate to push the boat out and implement technologies, like Webpack and Mocha, that weren’t even a part of the curriculum.
Sam: Yeah, during the first part of the course, we had about a day and a half every week to build a new mini project from scratch. Having to pull those together so quickly meant that by the time we got to work with clients, three weeks felt like all the time in the world—that is, until the end of the first build sprint!
View the Founders and Coders curriculum here.
Scoping projects can be easier said than done, and even experienced teams sometimes fall prey to ‘feature creep’. Is this something you had to deal with?
Anna: Absolutely, and that’s why getting a dry run with our student projects was so great. Sam and I worked together on our penultimate student project, which was really fun; but we did make lots of mistakes, and scoping was definitely one of them. We came at it with a ‘just build all the features’ mindset, without truly realising what was possible to accomplish in the time we had. For our client project, we took more of a ‘just build something that will work’ approach, and we made a separate list of features that we’d add if we had time. It’s good to set up stretch goals, but it’s important to isolate them from your core features.
Sam: It brings to mind the car analogy—if someone needs to travel from A to B, you don’t build them a car; you build them a skateboard, and you add features as you go. Whereas, on that particular project I think we had a car in mind, we just didn’t necessarily get around to adding the wing mirrors, the doors, or even the wheels!
There’s a lot of talk in the web industry about whether you need a degree to be a good developer. After sixteen weeks of learning through doing, do you think a degree is essential?
Sam: Definitely not. I’d say my degree did give me certain life skills, and I enjoyed it while I was there, but it wasn’t in a subject I was particularly passionate about. Founders and Coders was very different; it was something that I chose to do specifically because I liked it.
James: On the web development side of things, I think I agree. I don’t think it’s essential to have a degree, although for general life skills, it’s probably a good option. I think the most important thing is to be interested in it, and to be prepared to put in a lot of work to get good at it.
Self-teaching is another popular way into the industry these days. What do you find are the benefits of group-based learning, as opposed to going it alone?
Anna: I’ve found teamwork to be one of the most valuable things about Founders and Coders. It’s been amazing being together everyday, learning from each other, and lifting each other up when we needed it. And we got so much support from our mentors, who only completed the course a few months before we did. You look at them, and you think, “Well, I may not understand this concept now, but this person just did it, and they get it—so there’s hope for me too!”
Sam: I feel like working in teams stopped me from writing bad code, because I had to consider that someone else is going to be reviewing my pull requests, or that I’m going to have to explain a particular function to someone. If you’re doing a presentation where you have to explain the logic behind some confusing spaghetti code you wrote, the rest of the group isn’t going to learn much. I think if I’d just covered the curriculum on my own, I probably would have ended up writing code that no one could read.
James: Yeah, I do think that if you are self-teaching, it’s easy to lose your way a little. Founders and Coders is there to keep you on the right track. If I hadn’t had Founders and Coders, I don’t think I would have been able to stick with coding for four months straight without a break. The other students in the group really spurred me on—not in a competitive way, but more as a source of healthy motivation.
Founders and Coders has equipped you to enter an industry where your skills are very much in demand. What would you like to do in the future? What kind of software excites you?
Anna: I guess the sort of work I enjoy has to do with social impact. Building useful products for people—things that are well thought through, and that will actually help people in their everyday lives—is what I want to be doing. At least, that’s what I think at this point in time! But it’s interesting hearing other people’s perspectives, because their answers to this question can be quite different.
Sam: Yeah, I always thought I’d be a front end developer, but I was surprised to find out part-way through the course that most people had me pegged as a ‘backender!’ It’s a difficult question to answer. We’ve covered so much, so fast, that it’s hard to make a decision about what to specialise in. I don’t think there was anyone in our cohort who got through the course just by writing either front end or back end code; there was no way you could have done it. So, being able to try everything has actually made it really hard to choose.
James: I’m interested in the full stack, and like Sam said, I don’t really want to pigeonhole myself at this point. Having said that, there are certain things that I really want to make sure I’m learning in my next role. Good culture is also important to me; if you can offer that, and your work has a positive social impact, I’m interested.
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