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Ways We Work

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How the team at Bloc wants to change the way we learn online.

On one of our recent trips to San Francisco, we spent an afternoon with the team at an online coding school, designed around 1-on-1 mentorship. Founded by Dave Paola and Roshan Choxi, the team at Bloc is aiming to change the way we learn new skills online. With such an abundance of online coding bootcamps and programs, we wanted to learn how the team at Bloc was approaching the challenges in that space and what they’re doing differently.

We met up first with Bloc’s design lead Emelyn Baker, who took us through their office space in downtown San Francisco. The office was divided into two main physical spaces, the first opened up right in front of the elevator where the majority of the team was heads-down and working. The second section of the office was off to the left and opened up to more desks, with a lunch area and meeting rooms in the back.

Talking with Emelyn, she explained that the team had done some significant restructuring just a few weeks before our visit. Previously, the company had been divided as stakeholders, design and engineering, with projects flowing through those teams in a linear fashion. Having experienced quite a few pain points in that process, the team had recently moved to instead work in two main pods: growth and product. She described how much faster that allowed the team to move, “if you can have a designer, a product manager and an engineer working collaboratively earlier on in the process you can make much greater strides, much faster and it feels like a team. It feels satisfying, it feels like working with a group of people that you enjoy and want to see every day.”

“There's a lot of institutional memory or scar tissue that many people have in the country around online education and paying for it. We want to be very mindful that we don't fall into the same trap.” —Dave

Sitting down with Emelyn and one of the founders Dave in a meeting room just off to the side of where the growth team was working, Dave told us how Bloc got started and some of the core values. He explained how he and his co-founder Roshan were inspired by other online coding tutorials, such as Codecademy but noticed that not a lot of people were able to actually secure jobs after completing those. An early version of Bloc focused around building full projects, instead of rogue fundamental skills, but they noticed they still had a lot of similar problems to Codecademy; like engagement levels falling after a certain amount of time and people still weren’t learning enough to become full-time programmers. Inspired by another company that was launching the first physical developer Bootcamp, Dave and Roshan decided to take a deeper look at the problems of learning these skills online and how they could solve them.

At the time they had a list of around 5000 users that they had gathered from their first free version of the platform, and they asked those people if anyone would be willing to pay them $500 for 8 weeks of coaching to become a web developer. The response was positive and those users became their first batch of students. Being the first two mentors, Dave spoke about how the bulk of the product is the relationship between the mentor and student and how they can use technology to support that, rather than detract from it. He explained that early on they understood the importance of a high-quality experience, “there's a lot of institutional memory or scar tissue that many people have in the country around online education and paying for it. We want to be very mindful that we don't fall into the same trap.” The solution was to provide each student with a 1-on-1 guide, someone with real world experience to help through roadblocks or to explain more difficult concepts.

“When you add new people they kind of look to their left and look to their right and in some sense copy some of the behaviour they see around them. If you add too many people at once they're copying behaviour that maybe wasn't around originally.” —Dave

Now with the team at around 50 people and offering 5 courses–with 2 more in-depth full-time tracks–I asked Emelyn and Dave what they felt the main challenges were for them as a team. Emelyn described how in the last few months they had added around 20 people to the team, and that maintaining the original culture at that level of scaling was proving to be a challenge. She explained, “we have a great culture, we work well together and we're passionate about what we're doing. As we add more people to the team and as we add more mentors to our community that's going to be increasingly difficult to preserve. We've seen that happen to a certain extent and we've done a good job at reducing some of the dangers that come with that.” Dave added to that with an explanation of what happens during the onboarding process, “when you add new people they kind of look to their left and look to their right and in some sense copy some of the behaviour they see around them. If you add too many people at once they're copying behaviour that maybe wasn't around originally.”

In addition to scaling, Dave added that communication amongst team members is always something they’re working on and improving. An example being that an engineer might come at a problem with a very different outlook than a designer or a product manager. He illustrated to us on the whiteboard how two different people approach the same problem differently, where the pain points often occur, and the importance of trying to lessen the friction and frustration there.

I asked them how they go about adding members to the team and what they look for in potential hires. Both Dave and Emelyn emphasized to me the importance of value matching, that the person really cares about quality and the outcome of the students. Dave stressed the importance of authenticity in potential hires, that someone is the type of person who will really follow through when they say they’ll do something. What was the most interesting however, was how they’ve hired several of their own students. Dave explained that it’s a surprisingly effective way to find people who match in both value and skill level. He also added that they have an incredible work ethic and a real eagerness to learn and improve.

Currently, Bloc teaches 5 courses: Rails Web Development, Frontend Web Development, UX/UI Design Course, Android Development and iOS Development. They also offer two more in-depth tracks: the Full Stack Web Developer Track and the Software Engineering Track. I wanted to know how they choose what to cover in terms of curriculum and how they stay on top of trends in the industry. Emelyn told us how over the last year they’d developed a team of curriculum developers who are knowledgeable in their field and are responsible for keeping up with new things and generally improving the content. Although she did add how challenging it can be to keep up with software trends and that often the curriculums are never really finished.

Dave added that the entire curriculum team is remote which has been a huge benefit, “they don't always necessarily live in San Francisco, the hub of technology, it's like Florence in the Renaissance, most people don't live here, they live elsewhere across the country. It's not the same, so the fact that we have part of our company distributed in that way is a big advantage for us.”

We spent the rest of the conversation talking about Dave’s philosophies around learning and the current education systems that are in place. We discussed how the traditional model of a lecturer disseminating information to a classroom may no longer be the best way to learn. Using the technology available it's now possible for a student to learn from an experienced mentor anywhere in the world. We're no longer limited to learning only from local experts and so the barriers around learning from the best practitioners in the world are diminishing. It was incredible to see this in action at Bloc, where a student in San Francisco was learning with a mentor from Australia. For Bloc, it means they can screen mentors for quality first and foremost, without worrying about where they're located. While Bloc is focused on web development and getting people into real jobs, I left wondering if this model might work as well for other disciplines, or what other models might disrupt the current education systems in the near future.

Before we left Emelyn and Dave shared their three favourite student success stories, and in the spirit of pursuing meaningful work we’ve shared them below:

Student success stories from Bloc

Emelyn: “A common one that we continuously come back to is Brittany Martin, she's a very holistic success story. She started as a marketing manager and took our rails course. Eventually she became a support engineer for a company called Ninefold and was able to work remotely, I think their offices are based in Australia. From there she started to get engaged with the local Rails community and became one of the leaders of her new code chapter. Since then she's moved back to Pittsburgh, she's engaged and she now has a job as a full-time engineer, that essentially started with us. Which is totally crazy and now she's a mentor for us which is even more exciting.”

Emelyn: “We could also pick anyone we work with too, like Brian for example. Brian has a wife and a child and he took the rails course, worked as a developer and now he's moved out here to San Francisco to work with us. That's a huge change and there aren't any dev boot camps in Orlando, there's no way to get that in-person intensive bootcamp feeling, but we're able to provide that one-on-one mentorship online so we can access a huge market of people that can't afford to quit their jobs and spend 12 weeks in a really expensive city and work non-stop in a bootcamp.”

Dave: “There's a story I like to tell. I remember very early on before we had student advisors or program coordinators I was the one who talked to the students before the application process. I would interview every student before they enrolled and ask them the same five questions. One of the questions was: “Can you actually commit the time?” It's not like you’re going to pay us and we're going to do this, this is a two way street. One woman took her interview in the back room of her parent's warehouse in Las Vegas, she was a single mother, and yes she got a job but her income level went from A to B. She changed her life. It was this realization that “Wow, her kid is going to have a totally different life now because of this.” I keep that in my back pocket.”

*Update: Before publishing this Emelyn informed me that the team recently decided to hire all of their full-time and part-time mentors as staff rather than as contractors. This puts the Bloc team at around 90 people now.