One of the beautiful things about the Toronto tech ecosystem is not only the rise in terms of high quality startups that are started and based in Toronto or the venture capital that is flowing into Toronto from world class investors. What I’m referring to is the foundation that has developed in the last few years that helps support and continue feed into those world class companies, namely the tech schools (or coding bootcamps as some might call them). They produce competent and resourceful junior level technical and design talent with the real world skills that those companies are exactly looking for.
In this first instalment we have Craig Hunter, CEO of Bitmaker Labs who took the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.
What’s the purpose and mission of your school?
We want to disrupt education and promote programming literacy.
What are some of the values of your school?
We believe the best education outcomes for our students stem from the right learning atmosphere and the right focus. It’s no question that a more diverse class advances the education of everyone in the room. More questions and more solutions expand the potential of every learning exercise.
Diversity in the classroom is a core value at Bitmaker Labs, which is why we have created the Grace Hopper Scholarship for Women in Technology to help more women with the financial commitment of joining our bootcamp. This is also why we have attempted to make accommodations for the core accessible to students joining us from out of the city or country.
We also believe strongly in personal empowerment through education. Coding is not just a workplace skill – it’s a tool that lets you make your visions a reality. We can use technology solve a lot of problems not just for profit, but also for social good. We play host to tons of hackathons that can expose our students to the amazing impact they have have with their new skills throughout the year.
Finally, we know a lot of our students join the program because they want to change careers or open new doors. Above all, we care about our students and helping them realize their dreams. Our instructors are industry professionals who have made a living utilizing the skills they teach. Outside of the classroom, we offer career placement assistance to students during and after the 9-week course.
What makes Bitmaker Labs different from other bootcamps?
We’re incredibly proud to be Canada’s largest coding bootcamp, having graduated more full time students than any other coding bootcamp in the country. We take learning to code very seriously, so all of our instructors are industry leaders in code or design. Each comes with over 5 years experience from prestigious companies like Shopify, educational backgrounds like software engineering at the University of Waterloo, and their own entrepreneurial successes with some of Canada’s top brands. We invest heavily in our teachers and feel it’s the most important part of the learning experience.
On top of our teachers, we also invest heavily in the student experience. We’re located in the heart of downtown Toronto, right across the street from the iconic Roy Thompson Hall. We have 8,000 sq ft of brick and beam, startup style space for students to hang around 24/7. Unlimited coffee, lighting fast wifi, ping pong, foosball, and plenty of beer nights keep our community tight. Given the large number of graduates, you’ll regularly have the opportunity to hang out with alumni and interact with leaders from the Toronto tech scene at our monthly Think Thursday events.
How did you find your instructors at Bitmaker Labs? Do any of them have a formal background in teaching?
We exclusively hire the best. We hire instructors for our courses who have excelled in the workplace with the skills they’ll be teaching. While a prior background in instruction helps, development is a very collaborative industry on the whole. We believe in finding the best technical talent and vetting for personality from there. Typically senior developers have worked in mentorship relationships throughout their careers and spoken at events, so instruction comes naturally. Since we invest heavily in our teaching staff, we feel lucky to have a strong pipeline of top talent at the ready for new courses as they launch.
What’s your take on online courses like Codecademy, Treehouse and Code School in terms of their efficacy? Are there instances where you would recommend students take a look at online options or other schools before considering your school?
Online courses can be an asset in the learning process. In fact, we utilize such external resources in our prep course before your first day of class. These courses are very good at helping cement the learning of fundamental skills through repetition.
Where self-driven online learning resources really start to fall apart is once you attempt to take on larger, more complex projects. The availability of real time feedback and assistance is inferior to what is available in a classroom. It can also be very overwhelming to try to organize your education from course to course, with options scattered across the web. Bitmaker Labs provides the structure that is missing with these self-driven courses and the hands on help to tackle the challenges every single person faces along the way.
Finally, it’s both motivating and comforting to be in a supportive environment. Not only are experienced professionals available to answer questions, there are also dozens of students working through the same problems and experiencing the same emotions. No online tool can replicate the community we have, both within the classroom and our extended alumni network.
9 weeks immersive full time is pretty intense. What’s the study / life balance while at Bitmaker to keep things somewhat sane and sustainable?
There’s no denying that this course is one of the most intense education experiences that you can take on. When you’re in our full-time program, it has to be your primary focus. If you can set aside other obligations for 9 weeks, you’ll be ready to launch a new career.
Bitmaker Labs isn’t all work though. From our waffle ‘Breakfast Club’ every Monday to our ‘Think Thursday’ speaker series, we try to keep things fun and help our students create connections. Whether arranging weekly site visits to top Toronto tech companies or bringing our students out to exclusive tech events in the city, we know how important it is to become immersed not only in code, but in the lively development community.
What are your thoughts on the other schools in Toronto? Do you necessarily see them as a threat or do you refer them to other schools on a case by case basis if it makes sense?
We’ve got great relationships with top boot camps in major cities all across North America, as well as local friends here in Toronto. We’re always trying to learn from anyone in the education space and are focused on making our course offerings the best we can.
How will Bitmaker Labs continue to innovate and provide a more effective education?
Our courses never stand still. Every time we run a cohort of Web Development, we introduce new skills and refine projects. Our students pay for a cutting-edge experience and this is what we aim to deliver.
We’ve begun expanding our course offerings to bring our brand of education to more workplace skillsets. Likewise, we have adopted more flexible, modular formats where possible to help educate students who cannot commit to a bootcamp-style education with supplementary night classes.
How has the intervention of the Ontario Ministry of Colleges, Universities and Training affected the quality of education being offered to students?
We have a great relationship with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and they’re fully on board with our model. To date, we are the only coding boot camp in Ontario to have a formal accreditation exemption from the MTCU. They believe in what we’re building here and have really been supportive.
Given our cutting edge curriculum, we need to adjust our courses on-the-fly to include the latest and greatest technologies that are expected by prospective employers. As such, Ontario curriculum review timelines would negatively impact the outcomes for our students. We maintain a close working relationship with the MCTU and will continue to in the future.
How does Bitmaker fit into the Toronto startup ecosystem? When do you know a student is not a good fit for your school? What’s the cost of your program? Are there any early bird prices, financing, bursaries or scholarships?
Bitmaker Labs works closely with dozens of startups in Toronto. While we work with many development organizations to help our students cultivate new careers, we also work with many other stakeholders in the Toronto tech community to help our students gain real experience. Whether this means hosting socially-conscious hackathons or promoting interesting events, we see our students as part of a larger community and facilitate that connection.
We have courses for people with virtually any level of experience and availability. When we interview students for our programs, we present all course options and explain the outcomes you can reasonably expect from each course. We don’t tell people what they can’t do, but its our responsibility to be clear about what they need to do in order to be successful. Generally speaking, anyone that displays they have the passion and commitment to a course is able to succeed.
There’s no denying that education is a big ticket item for most students, whether the institution is traditional or workplace-focused. We’ve worked extensively with community partners to bring scholarships and discount opportunities to the groups and organizations we feel are underrepresented in the technology community. For example, our “Grace Hopper Scholarship for Women in Technology” is our small way of encouraging women to participate in the technology sector, something we’re proud to play a role in.
We’ve just recently introduced our ‘Early Bird Special’ pricing program and have seen a great response. Not only do early applicants save money, they get an extended opportunity to work on our prep course and build confidence heading into our intensive full-time program.
How do you take into account accessibility from visible minorities or those who might not be able to afford Bitmaker’s bootcamp but otherwise would be a good fit?
We’ve been fortunate to have consistently had diverse cohorts – gender, nationality, ethnic background, and more. We strongly believe in the importance of diversity in a learning environment and the need to help bring people with more backgrounds into the development industry. We have worked with several organizations that cater to specific demographic segments in order to make our courses more accessible through scholarships.
In addition to working with a financing partner, we also worked with many communities that have a broad reach in order to help students with financial need join Bitmaker Labs. While we still need to turn a profit to keep our courses available, we try to do everything we can to make the cost as accessible as possible in cases of financial need.
What’s your school’s stance in helping students land their next opportunity? Whether freelance, entrepreneurship or a job? How involved is it?
We do everything we can to help students launch the next phase of his or her career. Our full-time course is designed to help people get workplace-ready skills, so this is a core objective of our entire team. For example, ‘Lunch & Learn’ sessions provide skills on topics such as resume writing, creating a strong online presence, handling technical interviews, and interfacing with the community.
We also help students prepare with mock interviews and problem-solving questions. Finally, there’s no substitute for cultivating connections within the Toronto tech community. Through networking events and site visits, we aim to help our students discover companies and organizations that they would like to work with. Creating these connections can get your foot in the door.
Since our part-time courses are much smaller is scope, our primary objective is to help students accelerate their education or open new opportunities within their existing workplaces. Further, everyone in the Bitmaker community, whether part-time or full-time, is able to attend any of our events and get access to the same interfacing opportunities.
Outside of design and development do you see yourselves branching out into other disciplines like sales, product management or online marketing?
We’re solely dedicated to teaching the most in-demand skills sought by the technology market. If there is a major demand, we’ll be there. That said, we prefer to stick to hard skills.
How do you keep alumni engaged after they’re done with your bootcamp with the current and past cohorts?
Our alumni are a valued part of our community. We regularly welcome alumni back to share their post-Bitmaker stories with current students. We also regularly re-engage alumni to join us for events, advanced workshops, or to share news about what’s going on with our newest cohort. Our alumni are a great sounding board for students as they are absorbing information during the course and we try to facilitate connections wherever possible.
The Bitmaker Labs experience doesn’t end on the last day of class though. We set up alumni demo days, check-in on career progress, and provide workspace. Membership to the Bitmaker Labs community doesn’t expire – we love to keep in touch.
What’s the success metric that Bitmaker Labs measures itself against above all else?
We believe student satisfaction is the most important metric to our business. If we provide our students with a high-quality product, every other success metric will follow. Education outcomes improve, placement rates goes up, and more students are comfortable recommending the program to friends. Everything else about Bitmaker Labs is driven by the classroom.
What percentage of your students get jobs immediately after the bootcamp? How would that compare to a year after finishing the bootcamp?
We measure our placement rate based on regular check-ins following the program. We give alumni three months to research their options, evaluate different categories of business, and assess individual opportunities. As such, we wait 90 days to ask about employment and are proud that 90% of students have typically found employment by that point.
On the last day of the immersive program, we provide a ’90 days after Bitmaker’ guide to help students pursue further education and research opportunities during this period. While we certainly help students look into placement opportunities during or immediately after the course, we find this window fits best for most students.
While we’ve only been in business for a year and a half, our earliest students career trajectories have been impressive. We continue to check-in and it’s my favourite part about the job, watching how their careers evolve post-Bitmaker.
How many students have gone through Bitmaker Labs since its inception and where do your students end up after they’ve completed your bootcamp?
We’ve graduated hundreds of students from our full-time Web Development program alone, not including our expanding part-time options.
In terms of where they end up, we’ve had graduates raise over a million dollars in venture capital funding, others who have been featured on TechCrunch, and many end up at top companies like Shopify, Hootsuite, and Chango. It’s amazing to see.
How can prospective students contact you?
You can contact me via Twitter or email craig at bitmakerlabs dot com
Thank you to Craig Hunter for taking time out of his schedule to answer these questions. Please also check out the Bitmaker Blog to see what’s life like at their bustling campus.