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Behind The Scenes Of General Assembly


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Over time I have been approached by far too many people asking me to give them a detailed inside look at attending General Assembly. There is no way I can get back to everyone who has asked me this, so I have decided to write an article instead. I hope the intended audience reads this article.

My experience at General Assembly went by as a blur, as the program I went through was only 10 weeks long. It took some deep thinking and soul searching to discover what I truly learned during General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive program. That lead to the six truths about the program, which I have outlined below.

Things are never what you expect. The first 2-3 weeks of the program were incredibly difficult, as my classmates and I did not understand my instructors’ way of thinking and teaching. What should have been simple “yes” or “no” answers were answered with a shrug or “there is no right answer.” This left my classmates and I feeling left in the dark. However, as the weeks passed, we learned to change our expectations, and to view things differently. What we finally realized was that our instructors simply wanted us to learn in an organic fashion. They didn’t want to give us too much guidance early on, because they wanted to see what our raw skills were. If someone could have given me that head’s up, I would have given them a massive hug. Knowing this piece will make your time in the program much, much easier.

You’ll learn different things than you expected to learn. Something that I didn’t know going into this program is that all of my classmates and I will get stuck. There is some point in the design process where we all get stuck. For some people it is defining the problem to solve, for others it is synthesizing the research findings, for others still it is coming up with design solutions for the problem at hand. No matter who you are, you will get stuck at some point. And the program is not long enough for you to be stuck. *Queue epic meltdown* I think if my classmates and I had realized we would get stuck at certain points in the process, we would have put together a list of which students are strong in which areas. That way, say, if someone gets stuck synthesizing information, they will see that that is one of my strengths, and they’ll come to me. Creating a support system like this would have really helped us all avoid preventable hurdles.

It’s An Emotional Journey. Now this part we were forewarned about. On the first day of school, the instructors warned us that going through this program would be an emotional journey. My classmates and I all looked at each other in disbelief. However, over the coming months I saw every single classmate blow up or break down, myself included. I haven’t been able to figure out why it’s such an emotional journey, but it is. Make sure to surround yourself with a loving support system while you go through this program.

There Will Still Be Some Gaps In Your Knowledge. I feel like the program is marketed as “By the end of 10 short weeks you will be a UX designer.” It’s not that simple. My classmates and I all have different backgrounds. Some classmates used to be programmers, some used to be visual designers, and others have completely irrelevant backgrounds. The students with backgrounds in programming or visual design have easily found jobs. Some of the students with a more diverse and different type of background have found it more challenging. The fact of the matter is you can only learn so much in 10 weeks. Set realistic expectations for yourself so that you won’t be disappointed.

Many Companies Won’t Value Your Education. As a recruiter, it bothers me that not more companies will accept General Assembly education. Hiring really should come down to what someone is capable of, not where they went to school. There are just a lot of companies that aren’t willing to think outside the box and consider alternative schools. However, I think that the longer schools like General Assembly are around, the more employers will warm up to the idea of hiring people from alternative schools.

You Will Have The Experience Of A Lifetime. I cannot emphasize this enough. You go through so many ups and downs and so much turmoil during these 10 weeks, that you really bond with your classmates. And speaking of classmates, I’ve never met so many nice people all in one place. General Assembly may have been a crazy ride, but I’m so happy I did it. If you decide to go to General Assembly or a similar school, I hope these lessons I’ve shared will make the journey a bit easier for you.

If you have any further questions, ask away, and I’ll do my best to respond.

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Very informative writeup! I get emails from other engineering managers about this all the time so I will share. In my experience the problem with this type of school is that they are very focused on getting a high starting salary for their grads, which often leads to negative perceived value. If graduates of the school aren't perceived as good value for money/time, it quickly leads to a company just passing on all candidates from that program.

Throughout my career I have developed junior engineers by paying them something like $20 - 30/hour to learn on the job. If they excel, I give them a full-time job with a big raise at the end of 6 months or so. But code academy graduates are trained -- and motivated, given how much money they've just spent -- to ask for six figures right off the bat. That means they have to be worth more than any junior dev I've ever hired... something much closer to a mid-level dev. You can't let them learn on the job any more, now they have to be productive from day one or they're a bad hire.

As you mention, people who are basically ADDING skills to a thriving career in tech are able to find jobs easily... but the ones who are looking to completely CHANGE their career direction have trouble. Well, guess what -- those are the people who are the most attracted to the code academy concept! If I worked at General Assembly I would give different advice to the two groups about how to price their warez... in particular that the career-changers should ask for way less up front and then a raise in 6 months if they excel.

"Hiring really should come down to what someone is capable of, not where they went to school."

Well said. I wonder what it will take to get employers to realize that skills matter most. 

I think it will take there being enough competent people in the workforce who went through alternative schools. Right now alternative schools are so new that they don't have all that many graduates, so for employers it still feels like taking a risk. The more employers see successful graduates, I think the more comfortable they'll become. 

I think you're right. 

I also hope that General Assembly will work more on placing its graduates in jobs.

That will in turn create a more robust alumni network.

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