Will Richman is the co-founder of Bitmaker Labs, an intensive web development school located in Toronto.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Originally I am from Vancouver, and I moved to Toronto to go business school. I always have been interested in tech, but I never thought I would have the chance to learn to develop my own applications. I went into finance, and realized that wasn’t for me.
Me and a couple buddies came up with a few tech ideas. We found that managing a tech team was extremely difficult and costly. So we headed to The Starter League in Chicago. That’s when I realized that anybody could become a developer.
Did you have the idea for Bitmaker Labs before The Starter League, or did you develop it along the way?
We had the realization that it was something that needed to be done all over the world. When we came back our friends were asking us if they would teach them how to code.
We were curating coding materials for friends, so it was a logical progression of what we were doing already. It just seemed obvious at that point Toronto needed a web development school.
How do students find you? Do you accept students from outside Canada and the U.S.?
Most of our students are from Toronto, but we have four from outside Canada. We have an ex-major league baseball player, who played for the Arizona Diamondbacks. There is a lawyer from Switzerland, who decided he wanted to become a developer. We have people from all walks of life.
Where are you in the semester right now?
I’m imagining Lego Mindstorms. What type of robots?
One of our teachers is a hardware engineer, who builds robots in his spare time. He went and and 3d printed parts of this robot, found the motors, hooked up a Bluetooth and Arduino board. He patched those together and set up a Node server. We created a Rails application that allowed us to post to it using AJAX.
I need to come up with some better hobbies. What other types of projects are you guys working on?
We started everyone out building their own resume and portfolio site using HTML and CSS. Then we had them build hangman to practice object oriented programing. They had to create certain classes to build the game. Then we built a photoblog app, an imgur clone. The next app was an Amazon clone that is how we taught databases.
Where does Bitmaker Labs fit in with traditional education?
We are the antithesis of traditional education.
We realized that lecture is nice, but it doesn’t let people learn what they need to learn at the right time. Everyone learns their own way at different rates. So we flipped that traditional model on its head. We have them do reading in their off time and use class for troubleshooting.
Do you guys have tests?
Yes. We like to make sure that the information sinks in. But it is more to see what they know, and then to review the quiz together.
Five years down the road where do you see Bitmaker Labs?
Good questions. Right now we are looking just a year ahead. Ideally, we would like people from any walk of life to be able to come into this, and feel that they could easily make the transition into a web developer.
Do we go into other cities? Who knowns. We’d like to do what we do well in Toronto first.
Where do you see traditional education in five years? Are students coming to Bitmaker Labs instead of college?
Yeah. There is a guy from Arizona who dropped out of college and is doing this instead actually we have two drop-outs.
If I could do my education again, I would do something like this. University is good for different reasons, but if you want to get hired this is the program for you. I think you can do a lot more in a lot less time.
As far as where education is going I’m trying to convince my little brother to drop out and do this, because I believe in this so strongly.
College is expensive (at least here in the U.S.), so $7,000 seems like a good investment.
Even if you don’t get the same depth as you would in a four-year computer science degree you still have three and a half years to go to college.
Breaking the model that you have to go to college straight out of high school is important.
We’ve been indoctrinated to thinking that you have to go to university. I think that is completely wrong, you should find your passion first. Once you find your passion, University can be a great place.
What are some of the challenges that you guys have had to overcome?
Where do I start? Besides organizing everything, it was difficult to figure out how to tailor the curriculum. Web development is so large, you can do so many different things. How do you boil it down and put together a curriculum to match exactly what employers are looking for?
We went out and asked. We asked people to fill out a technology survey and talk about their staff, and what they are doing. We just built our curriculum around that.
What would you say to someone who is learning to program?
Just go and build stuff. You need to start building stuff right away. You aren’t going to be able to read a bunch of books and get it right away.
Are there any books that you would suggest?
Accelerated Disruption has changed how I look at technology. It is by Eric Lefkofsky who started Lightbank, is a major investor in Groupon, and other high profile startups.
The book is 17 laws on disruption. It goes in and looks at the things that flip an industry on its head.
Do you have any other comments? Are there any questions I didn’t ask that I probably should have?
This experience has made me realize that people can take their education into their own hands, and that people don’t have to look to some external higher power to enrich their life.
Everyone had the ability to find what is necessary, to find what they have to do, and figure out how go learn that. We’re just curating. We can provide the materials and help you out, but learning isn’t done by anyone, but yourself.
I think it is time we took education into our own hands.
Where can people follow you?
I’m not that active on Twitter, but we have a blog, Bits and Bytes, feel free to check us out there.