Our guest today, Marco Morawec is the CEO and founder of the Firehouse Project; where they make online education personal and smart through coding boot camps. Their main course teaches web development through a learn-by-doing curriculum, 1-on-1 mentorship and career support that helps their students earn the coding roles they’ve worked hard for.
Started over 4 years ago, Marco and his co-founder Ken taught hundreds of students at places like Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Babson University, Brown University, and Rhode Island School of Design through in-person classes before they even thought about applying their understanding of how people learn complex technical concepts to their online education platform.
Today Firehouse is one of the leading online boot camps that helps people who are stuck in their current job or are looking to break into tech, the boost they need. They've graduated close to 1,000 students around the world and have tens of thousands coding with them on their free courses.
Marco is originally from Germany, earned a Master’s in Public Policy, and came to the US in 2006. Next to teaching coding and web development all over the place, he's helped improve the learning outcomes for over 4,000 students at Kamehameha Schools while living in Hawaii and was leading the user experience efforts at tech companies like FlyWire where he built an international tuition payment platform that handles well over a billion dollars each year.
It’s truly a privilege to have Marco on our podcast today. Marco, welcome! And let's dive right into the thick of it.
Marco: Thanks for having me.
Ross: So why should somebody learn web development?
Marco: I mean if we're looking at where the world is going, where the industry is going. Everything becomes more and more technical I would say and if I'm looking just comparing from where we were 10 years ago to where we're now, how often we use our smartphone, how often we use technology for transportation, Uber, Lyft, anything we're using a health care, anything financing. How much I do in my smartphone all of that technology, all that is software. Somebody got to build this and there's the saying that goes around that's about that says software is eating the world and I think that is true. Like technology reaches in pretty much any area of our lives and being part of that change that we going through right now as a society is really exciting and then web development is part of that. Where we can actually build tools that impact lives of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and that's really exciting if you could ever launch something or build something and that gets used by just ten people and they actually enjoy it and they like it, that's really amazing. Having that feeling, I want to be part of that wave of software that's reaching into every aspect of lives I think is something really exciting. So learning web development is part of that learning how to code. So that would be my reason for why somebody would need to learn web development.
Ross: Yeah I mean I absolutely agree there's a lot of power and it's very rewarding when you create that first line in code. you know even if it's like hello world or something very basic to see what you've typed in, what you've created come alive. Much less at a much larger scale, interactive scale as web development provides. What kind of work and responsibilities would a web developer experience in a job in the real world?
Marco: As a web developer if you're part of a team you know it really depends what the company is. But the most exciting I think is like if, you know, a smaller a mid-sized team, where actually get to build features that our users using. So, for example, like if you are thinking about what we're building with our education platform, so just you know recently we launched features to rate our mentors. So we have a lot of 1-on-1 mentorship sessions happening on our platform and one thing that our mentors asked us and our students asked us was to give each other feedback so the next session would be even better. It’s a feature that it's like was requested and so we now do it. Now they're starting, and feedback what can be improved, what should we expect in the next lesson and any challenging assignments that need to be reviewed. What should we start, stop, or continue doing? And that equal feedback really helps everyone. So, for me as a web developer, I get to build this and now at scale, I have hundreds of these and thousands of these feedback notes flying back and forth and I'm improved between mentor and mentee and now I'm improving entire learning experience through that. So what that means it's like I need to figure out how to build not only in a technical aspect or a technical side but also decide how it should look from the user experience and I should have been designing with that flow. So, that's something that you would build a specific feature and I can talk about I don't know if you want me to jump in like how would that look actually on the step by step process of how we're building that. But I'll leave it at that and you tell me how much detail you want.
Ross: We'll jump into that in just a second. But you had it an excellent lead in there on learning online and how there is that much more immediate feedback. When you have education in a brick-and-mortar institution, the curriculum they teach semester after semester is generally pretty rigid and pretty consistent from what it was 10 years ago to what it is today. Would you talk a little bit about the benefits of learning online since you're involved in coding bootcamps? Maybe how those maybe are different compared to some of the more affordable options are out there. Because there's certainly pros and cons to both.
Marco: You mean affordable options out there. You mean like comparing online coding boot camps to in-person coding boot camps?
Ross: Right, online coding boot camps too, something like Udemy or something that. Maybe like Udemy, MOOCs, or Open Course Ware. Things like that.
Ross: Yeah exactly!
Ross: So you've mentioned that the courses are kind of built toward getting you to your goals depending on what those are. so other than somebody kind of coming to you and having an idea of where they'd like to be in a year or a year and a half when they actually want to start working full-time as a web developer, other than having that goal in mind what other prerequisites or things should people prepare ahead of reaching out to coding boot camp.
Marco: Got it. So I think one of the biggest things is to figure out if you actually enjoy coding all right. so that's where again the free you know coding courses out there udemy comes in. take a course see if you actually enjoy the mental aspect of solving problems, coding, building something; the creative aspect of like shipping something live. Do you enjoy that right and if you do then that's a really good first sign right. so what we have we have a fundamentals course that's free that takes about two weeks where we give you feedback and we provide support in case you get stuck. So that's usually what we're telling people to start and then from there they can figure out do they actually enjoy coding. Do them like that if they've never coded before and then also they get feedback and they learn from it. Do they like that type of feedback too right? Because these are different jobs if you a developer you're going to get feedback on your code very very frequently, say daily and a lot of our jobs you don't get feedback on your performance that frequently. So that's something like to think about to like that constant mindset of improving and doing things better and optimizing your code. It is something that's very ingrained in development and coding and that's something we're doing already in our free fundamentals course. So I think with that goal also comes like do I enjoy that field right. So that's something that I think makes a lot of sense to have beforehand.
Ross: Yeah and that makes a lot of sense. I mean you've decided that it's the right opportunity for you after thinking through a little bit, deciding what your goals are and in going through that the free courses that you have available. Okay yes, this is really something that I'm interested in and want to pursue full-time. So once the students enrolled what does that curriculum look like? And kind of what is it entails and how much does it cost for folks that are signing up for Firehouse Project?
Marco: Yeah sure can run you through. So think before that we have our fundamentals course and in there we actually have challenges and we want all the potential members to solve them and if we give you the thumbs up on your coding solution then we actually accept you into our full program. So there's a bit of a like a hurdle and that makes sure that everyone is comes off the same kind of foundational knowledge level and then we start the full program. So first things first, at the full program we need to again clarify what are your goals what's your technical background and we actually look at multiple other variables as well and then we match you with a mentor. So we take that really seriously. Where we look at like who are you, who's the mentor right. So if you have somebody who says like hey I've been in tech for a while now I want to get into web development or I want to work for a bigger company with like several hundred employees, probably going to match them with a mentor who actually currently works at the bigger companies. So they can give them much better guidance. If you are somebody who's like I want to break into a startup with like just a handful of employees and build something really from the ground up, we match them with a mentor who is actually maybe at a startup right now or actually works at building a product from the ground up maybe as a CTO or the founding CTO and then you get that insight. So that's kind of happening at the very beginning to set you know right trajectory of reaching your goal. And then we have the program itself. There's two tracks that run in parallel. One is the algorithms and a data structure track which includes all of our computer science fundamentals and that's all meant to make you think and solve problems like a developer. What I mean by that is developers you should take a problem, that's a big problem. They tackle it by breaking it into individual components and they tackle each of those components as steps and once they have solved all the steps they have the big problems off and that mindset of thinking is really important. That’s why you get hired. So we're teaching you that through all the algorithms and the coding that we do in. so that's kind of one track and the other track is our web application track where you build multiple web applications that get increasingly more complex. So we start out with a pretty simple one, you need to build that in the first week, launch it life. That’s all about that project-based learning. Learning by doing that we're pushing through our entire course and then we take the training wheels on and we take them off step-by-step and then you're going to build more and more complex applications. So there's a Yelp clone and there's a two-sided marketplace in, there's test-driven development in. We're both image uploading apps, there's a lot of apps like those. But that all is kind of like to me the foundational work that you need to do and that all leads toward our Agile team project. Which is in the last eight weeks of the program.
Ross: You've mentioned that the company has both mentors that work one-on-one with each of the students and you also have the multiple tracks that are going simultaneously during the courses to teach you different but both equally very important aspects of becoming a web developer, is that pretty similar to what other coding boot camps are doing or is this something that Firehouse Project does differently and kind of why did you all choose that direction?
Marco: Got it. So, it makes a lot of sense that you have both skills. It’s like you need to first learn the front of mental and it's like computer science fundamentals. It’s like all thinking like a developer and solving challenges and then also being familiar with how to actually build web applications and then you have your mentor on top of that. I'm interested in training both. They’re all senior developers, multiple years of experience. So they can help you with the algorithm side, they can also help you with the web application side of things. So you have the same mentor.
Ross: And is that different from what other coding boot camps provide?
Marco: Most other coding boot camps don't actually teach you Algorithms and data structures. So they leave that out completely. Which to me is a big you know red flag if you need that. That’s required for you to actually build something that is more complex than a few simple, than the simplest apps that you've seen tutorials. So without that knowledge, it's going to be hard in the technical interview for you as well when you need to solve coding challenges on the whiteboard. So that's something that might be unique but not necessarily how the mentor is set up. But definitely that we're teaching a fact of algorithms data structures and the computer science fundamentals.
Ross: Now I mean, obviously you spend your full time advocating for these things. I mean obviously, it sounds like that's the right way to approach teaching somebody how to code. Are there outcomes or statistics that you have about your graduates that you can share to kind of back up the success of your programs?
Marco: Sure. so what we're seeing right now is like from within three months of graduating we having 50% of people in technical jobs and then we're seeing within six months that jumps up to 80% and that's the people who are looking to transition careers. We also have people in the program who want to launch their own companies and build their own applications. So that's a different group we're having. So that percentage is based on the people who wanted transition careers.
Ross: And then, are there I mean you've talked about the importance of mentors. But I mean other than being partnered with somebody who's helping you reach your goals, what are other things that you've noticed about your graduates that have helped them like best practices that helped them be successful. Because obviously a coding boot camp takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of time, it's expensive and it's frustrating. Learning to code is not easy. because there are lots of challenges that you don't know the answers to and it just seems impossible and you spend hours googling and going on Stack Overflow to try to find the best solutions to what you're facing .but what are some helpful hints for those that are maybe struggling or looking to get into coding boot camps with an imminent struggle.
Marco: Got it. So what you just pointed out, you spent hours googling and going on Stack Overflow is something that we actually solved. Because that's not, this to me is spinning your wheels or not focusing on learning when you're stuck with a problem. We obviously teach you how to fish, you're not giving you just fish. But we have our immediate support. So if you're stuck while learning with the Firehouse Project you actually can take a screenshot of the error message and we'll help you out within like depending how complex your problem is. But within 10-15 minutes you should have an answer and a solution and you can focus back on learning and moving forward rather than spinning your wheels and being stuck. So that's something that is really important. Because that comes together with the mentorship sessions where you then come to a mentor and then we can actually pair a program and work on something together. Maybe restructure organize your code. But we're not troubleshooting together. You don't need to have a senior developer pointing out that you have a typo or missing comma in line 39 of your code block. so that you need to get help the moment that you need it and if you think about differentiation routes which we talked before, that's exactly what you either you get one or the other at most online coding boot camps. Where you either get a mentor and you have to wait for them to be available or you get just the chat support. But then you don't get actually the support that you need to get to the next level, pair program and work together with a professional on a one-on-one basis. So does that answer your question?
Ross: Yeah absolutely and one of the things like that people kind of struggle with when they're evaluating their various options whether it's something simple like Udemy, whether it's coding boot camps which are somewhere in the middle, we're even going to like a full four-year university to get an accredited degree. so something that people are kind of held up by before signing up for a coding boot camp is maybe the difficulty in finding jobs and in the experience that I've seen coaching a bunch of clients going into tech is that the personal projects and things that they do beyond just the curriculum that they're taking these courses. The personal projects are what really help them get hired. While going through these multiple tracks, that's part of your curriculum, how many projects are included and is that generally sufficient or enough for folks to find job successfully or is there more that people should do on their own as well once they've completed the curriculum with you.
Marco: Ok now I know which angle you're going. So now I can give you much better answer. Thanks for clarifying. That’s always helpful. No, I totally get it. So you're building five web applications with us in the full program and then you go through agile team project and you're building a six application. Those five that you built before they can go in your portfolio, they go in your coding portfolio and a portfolio website. But the main differentiator here is what you do in the agile team project and that's what I described before and that's pretty much the only thing that will be exciting and actually sets you apart. The rest as I said is foundational work. That’s great and you need to know that. But I'm not going to hire somebody because completed five six apps following a tutorial step by step. I'm going to hire somebody because they've proven to me that they can be able to work on a team. They prove to me that they can hit the ground running and then work together with my existing dev team. So that's why for full eight weeks we actually pair you up with several other students. You get a mentor from a place like PayPal, eBay or GitHub and they run you through building a complex application the same way it's done at their company in the real world and that experience is something you point to when you actually apply for a job right. That’s where you say look at this one particular feature that I built in this web application and you can see my algorithms, how I included that. The business logic, you can see my automated software test that I wrote. See the code review, the feedback that I received, how I responded to that and how I improved my code based on the feedback. That shows me within 30 seconds to two minutes I can tell the quality of code you're able to produce in a teamwork environment. Where you're not following instructions. Where you come up with the solutions yourself and you're able to defend them and argue why you did organize your code this way, not the other way. Why did you integrate with this tool, not that tool and now we're having a real discussion. That is what matters. So I would say don't focus on like how many applications you have, focus on getting one that's really complex and doing that in a team environment. That matters a lot more than you have in ten applications. Because we can build that in a week and if we have enough experience.
Ross: And that makes a lot of sense. So when a student finishes their curriculum they have something to kind of to go from it and be able to explain to sell themselves in an interview. But before they get to that interview there's a big hurdle of finding companies that are an interested in hiring folks without diplomas. But then also finding which of those companies that are available the right spot are for you as a student. So how do you help students both find the companies that are right for them, but also the companies that feel like these candidates could be right for them as well.
Marco: I mean I think you have, Ross you have a lot of really valuable input as well. Because you're helping people with that as well. But I can tell you how we are doing it and you can add your comments and help your listeners there too. What we're doing is like so we're thinking about the entire job application process and entire what's your story and how can we connect that right. So to me, this starts with like okay there's the agile team project, there's your experience. And obviously there’s like your resume, how do you present yourself, LinkedIn, your online channels, what's your brand online. “Have you blogged before?” which is something that we tell all our students to do as well and we coach them through. but then it's like thinking about the funnel of almost looking at it as like what you would think about a sales funnel clearly a job hunt right and that's all about how where are the jobs, how do I apply for them, what I do for networking, how do I follow up. what's my follow-up cadence to each of those jobs, who am I going to email to multiple people individual people, am I just going to apply on search engines, job search engines, am I going to apply like in person through networking events getting coffees and that's like the whole strategy that we've built behind that and we teach our students how to do that. We have a system that they can apply to the individual job search and then obviously it's like the technical interview practice as well. We also do this is again you need to get that show that experience. So there's, our students usually team up to build a passion project after they graduate. so two students built, both of them were vegans and so the two women build a simple app that pulls when you type in mac and cheese into their search box it pulls in the vegan recipes they queried a few API's with the nutritional information for mac and cheese with the vegan recipe for it right or like you can even put Hamburg in and gave you like how can you do that in a vegan way. It was really interesting, technically wasn't necessary that complex. But it showed that they built something outside they're just like you know what they're passionate about another thing and then we also do like volunteer for a nonprofit right. If you like animals, go to an animal shelter ask them hey I'm a developer I can help you out, which challenges do you have right? That might take you 20 hours of volunteering work. Maybe even make get a stipend out of that. If you update their website if you help them with an internal tool so they can manage to inventory better or managed to communicate internally better with client’s right. That is all experience and you learn from that and that's what I want to see when I hire you. So that's why we're like telling our students how they can get there. So then and you are walking away with like a solid portfolio on the coding side. you know you have your coding portfolio, you have experience with agile team project with the nonprofits, you've built a passion project out and you know how to present yourself and how to go through an entire job funnel and that combination is like, it puts you in a really good position.
Ross: Now you're absolutely right. That’s one of the things that I also coach my clients. With is the importance of building that online presence. both so you can demonstrate what you've learned so far and put evidence up there, talk through your mindset, why you approach the problem toward a solution the way you did and just being able to tell that story. because just explaining that thought process and why you pursued one direction instead of another interview is generally a great indicator of how well someone understands the fundamentals and understands the problem-solving aspect of it. Because ultimately learning the languages is the same as learning any other language. But if you have the grammar just right or you don't have the mindset behind it, you're not using the tool as well and you're not really setting yourself up for much success. So I agree that there is a whole lot more beyond just learning to set skills. Even if you are applying to business problems to make a candidate really desirable and help them get hired for that job that they're going after.
Ross: Yeah exactly. So it sounds like you're doing a lot of the right things to help students become prepared and then actually go out and achieve and earn the job that they're seeking. So what's next for coding boot camps? What sorts of things are y'all working on to make it an even better process for students?
Marco: I think a lot of it is that the educational level. How do you make sure that you know everyone learns differently? How do you customize that for people having different skills? So what we're working on right now is a lot of like improving our support, helping people, even more, everything that I mentioned here we're doing. But there are obviously things we can do to improve that. We’re working right now heavily on figuring out assessments throughout the program. meaning like how it's not only that you understood what we taught you, but how well did you understand that and so that context then allows us to make sure we give you the right information at the best moment in time when you go through our program and then we constantly improving our career support and figuring out how can we get you into the job and make sure we help you reach your goal. So I think these are the two biggest things that we're doing on the curriculum side obviously always improving that as well. But the whole like thinking about helping you understand and make sure it clicks when you learn with us and helping you how to get to goal. And we also launched several courses. We have a react course, we have an angular 4 course, we have a node jess course and like keeping up with everything that's happening in the industry right now. So our students always learn cutting-edge technologies while also focusing on the fundamental skills. Keeping that balance. So I think I guess three things that we're doing.
Ross: Yeah you and I spoke about one of those last time we talked and it's how you talk about the curriculum kind of learns and adjusts for each student and so they're getting the right curriculum at the right time based on what they're learning level is from the curriculum that's already been covered. Will you touch on that just a little bit more in detail?
Marco: Yeah sure. what that means is like we have you go through our lessons right you're working on an app and we're seeing how you're doing on that and then we should be like hey at this point I'd say Ross you know you should watch this set of videos that actually will help you understand that a lot. If you're building your first web application, we might ping you and be like hey look at this right now. this will actually explain you how the different pieces that you've just built fit together and we're zooming out and rather than you've been at the 3-foot level where you're deep in the code we're actually streaming out to 10,000 foot level and you see how everything fits together and works together and that's when these clicking moments happen. Where you're like oh now this makes sense, cool and then you understand not only the why we're doing this and how we're doing it, but how everything works together too.
Ross: Now that's great. So how can students learn more about you and Firehouse Project and the things that you're working on? The latest and greatest.
Marco: Yeah cool. So you can go to firehouseproject.com. Find us there or learn more there. You can download our curriculum there or learn more if you want to, if you serious about switching careers, apply for our program. We would jump on a call with you and figure out if you're a good fit for you. We also have our fundamentals course. People can go there too. It’s also in the home page. You can find it there. Start coding with us. Learn HTML, CSS and some Ruby you get feedback get help when you get stuck. Test out the platform a little bit. But yeah that's pretty much it I think applying for the program is the first step and then we can see if you know we can help you reach your goals. So I would say go there and maybe you can jump on a call with me then or some of our fine folks here at the Firehouse Project and we can help you out.
Ross: Perfect. So I have one last question for you. One of the things I always encourage the WehnerEd community is to continually improve themselves; personally and professionally each day. So my question for you is what are you working on in 2018 to better yourself and make this your best year yet.
Marco: This is a great question. I love it. Okay, I mean how many things I can say. There’s a lot of things that I'm working on.
Ross: Just pick your favorite couple. J
Marco: My favorite couple okay, great to limit me. Okay, so one thing I always like to do is be outside of my comfort zone and get comfortable with that as comfortable as I can. So that's something that's a mindset of mine. It’s like life starts outside of your comfort zone. so I thought about this year like what am I not good at necessarily and what puts me a little bit out of my comfort zone. so one of my goals for it's not maybe 2018 it's more like the first half of 2018 is to go and publicly dance salsa with my wife. So we're taking salsa lessons right now. You know I'm this German who doesn't have the rhythm in his heart necessarily. So I was definitely hard following those instructions. So that's one thing that I'm doing right now and it's all about you know life starts outside your comfort zone. so if you feel a stuck like that's usually where I look next and so that's one of the things I'm doing and then the other thing is like you know here at firehouse I'm the CEO and one of the founders and it's like so get better at have been the best team to help all our students succeed and help us succeed and that's like me being a leader and leading everyone. so that's something that I'm actively working on and seeking advice from other leaders and see how can I put everyone in the best position here at Firehouse Project. Because I know that will also help all of our students and the entire community. So that's another big thing that I'm actively working on.
Ross: Yeah, this has been a lot of fun thanks for chatting with me and the WehnerEd community tonight Marco. Online education has opened up a world of opportunity for learners around the globe. So as that continues to grow and it becomes more accessible we certainly appreciate all that you're working on day in day out and are looking forward to what's next. Thanks again.
Marco: Yeah Ross thanks so much having us. I mean a lot of really good questions, that is kind of fun.
Ross: Thank you, sir.
This wraps up our episode for today and of course, links to each of the items we mentioned will be included in the show notes on WehnerEd.com/podcast. For those that don't have the budget for one-on-one personalized coaching and can afford the time to read dozens of books written by the highest achievers, WehnerEd is now releasing power up PDFs at WehnerEd.com/power-ups. These quick action guides will quickly and affordably give you the tools and knowledge you need to change careers, rock your next interview or level up your game in your current position. Our selection of guides grows weekly and can help you be your best while feeling happy and fulfilled. Check them out today at WehnerEd.com/power-ups. Thanks for listening and take care.