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Our Google Hangout with Applicants (Video)

Hack Reactor

Pre-Course Details and Why We Focus on JavaScript

Gerald: Can you comment more on the pre-course work and why the substantial focus on JavaScript vs Ruby - what's Hack Reactor's philosophy about that?

Blake: It seemed like you had a couple questions there, like what the pre-course is? Or why we do it?

Gerald: Yeah, so when I say pre-course work I'm talking about the pre, pre-course work. For example, Doug (Calhoun) fires off the emails and blog posts that provide just a ton of different resources and exercises to go through, which from what I've seen is the most comprehensive pre, pre-course work out there.

Ben: Are you talking about what you do before you actually come to Hack Reactor?

Gerald: Correct.

Blake: Are you talking about the stuff before you even apply?

Gerald: I've applied and I have an interview coming up next week, so it's after the application. There's a significant amount of pre, pre-course work that Hack Reactor focuses on.

My question is can you comment on the purpose behind it and why there is so much compared to other schools. Is that a major differentiator for you guys? It looks like you're just simply more disciplined about the pre-course work.

Blake: Sure. So, the stuff Doug sends out in the emails - I know he sends weekly updates with new exercises and blog posts and what not - that stuff is meant to be helpful links and guides and opportunities for you to be increasing your skills before you apply and come to Hack Reactor. It's by no means required work or things you have to do.

There is a structured component of actual pre-course work for admitted students. So once you're admitted you have about 50 to 80 hours of work that needs to be done before the first day of class.

That is so that everyone comes in with a common background and that we can immediately start talking with a common vocabulary about what you're going to be doing for the next 13 weeks. It also gets you familiar with the new technologies we 're learning about, if you haven't seen things like node or backbone.js before.

To your question as to why we focus on JavaScript over Rails or Ruby - that's pretty easy. It''s because JavaScript is taking off like a rocket and there's good reason for that. Specifically, JavaScript is great for mobile devices and for pushing logic and app mechanics to the client - your actual computer rather than on the server. And since mobile devices are taking off all over the world - there's more mobile devices than desktops right now - JavaScript is enabled on all of those devices. 

Because of that many apps are being built in JavaScript, and everyone wants to push more things to the client, because we have these wonderfully powered computers on your smartphones that people aren't taking advantage of. We want to push more app logic to the client side and help those smartphones take advantage of their power, and you do that through JavaScript.

Plus we have new frameworks like Node which allows you to use JavaScript on the backend which allows your whole stack to be in JavaScript. You can just look at the numbers, more and more people are starting new projects in JavaScript, and Rails is on the decline. And that's because Rails was made back in 2003, when the web was a very, very different place. Everything was going back to the server every single time rather than going right to the client.  So having nice, dynamic rich web apps that we've come to expect is a lot easier to build when you're using pure JavaScript.

Hack Reactor is focusing on skills that are going to be more and more marketable as time goes on, and JavaScript is the most in demand skill. You can go to Indeed.com, which is a big jobs website, and they show the trends. Rails is definitely trending downwards and JavaScript is trending up very, very high for the reasons I just talked about. 

That's one of our big differentiators because all the other schools are focusing on Ruby and Rails, which is great and there are still a lot of apps being built in that, but that's going to be declining. The web moves so fast, and in a year there's going to be a big difference.

Hack Reactor's Class Structure and Teaching Style 

Gerald: Let me ask you, if I may, one more question - walk us through what a class looks like. Let me live vicariously through you for a moment. What does the classroom look like in terms of instructors, number of students, interactions - is it socratic in its method? Is it more pair programming? Is it a combination?

Ben: The classes are usually about 25-30 students and our main instructor Marcus will lead you through - he'll kind of use a format that let's you discover the answer. So it kind of starts from the ground up and leads you to figuring out the answer for yourself. It's actually a pretty demanding environment. It's not like what I had in colleges. It's a much more engaged format.

As far as material. It starts with a lot of computer science. One thing I was worried about was that I would come in and just be reviewing things because I had already had some previous CS experience. I had studied it in college. I had done JavaScript on and off for a few years, nothing really serious. So I had applied to a few different programming bootcamps, and I was afraid the first week or two would be a wash. Because of all the pre-course material and emphasis on core CS stuff that you wouldn't normally do in JavaScript, I really hit the ground running. It was really difficult and challenging from day one which is what I was looking for.

Blake: We do a lot of pair programming. Basically the school is broken up into two day sprints. Each sprint covers a new topic and you just do that one topic for two days at a time. For the first six weeks as a junior you work with one other person for those two days and you will pair together on an assignment continually, and then the next two days you'll pair with a different person.

Each of these pairings is interspersed with lectures where they introduce the concepts, tell you about words you should know and things you're going to need to know. Then you dive right into it and code yourself for hours at a time. Then you'll come back and get another short lecture with more information and then the second day there will be another lecture with the solution.

But you've already solved it yourself. So the solution is review but also a chance to compare what you did with what the instructor is doing, and the pair programming is really helpful because you get to learn all sorts of things by constantly talking them through with your classmates and by seeing what they did and how they would approach.

I think this is another key differentiator for Hack Reactor. They're very selective about who they take in. The people who are accepted are all very bright and very motivated and you learn a lot from them. It makes the environment around here very positive and extremely driven. You want to succeed and you want to do well. 

Ben: I think even more important than smart and motivated is they're all very sociable. I was surprised by that. Like studying CS in college, you don't get to know everyone in your class. But coming to something like this you get to know everyone. It's kind of like a family.

Blake: Yeah we definitely make sure the engineers are both strong technically and also strong communicators.

Hack Reactor's Relationship with Alumni

Josh: Thanks guys these are all great questions and thanks for pushing out all the great blog content. I was wondering, what kind of relationships do you maintain with alumni?

Blake: We actually have just finished a sort of MVP version of an app to help keep alumni connected. We also are throwing - last week we had an alumni and staff party. Since so many people stay in the S.F. area, there are a lot of informal connections. For example, tonight there's a birthday party between people two classes apart. A bunch of alumni will be going to that just to hangout and see each other.

It's still so small. We've graduated roughly 120 people, and we're going to be doing at least double that next year. Even so that's only a couple hundred people and it's easy to stay connected when everyone is in the same city. 

We want to make sure we keep a really strong alumni network because it's so valuable to the school. We've seen that a lot of companies who hire our alumni want to come back to our Hiring Days because they're having such a good experience with the alumni they've hired. 

Also, from a value standpoint for the engineers, it's a huge asset to have this network for developers who have positions at almost every top company in the city. So wherever you want to apply you can say, "Hey is there a Hack Reactor grad there?"

We just got our first person in at Google hired yesterday. We have engineers at Pandora, Groupon, OpenTable - you name it we've got engineers there.

Ben: Just to add on to that, at the famo.us release party last Wed., there were lots of people there from different Hack Reactor classes. Once you come to Hack Reactor and get integrated into all these community events, you never really lose contact with that. It's a small S.F. tech world. You run into people at different places.

Blake: Yeah,  and Hack Reactor is only going to be making that stronger in the coming months.