Idle Time

As a thought experiment, imagine you were restricted to use a single device to interact with the whole digital ether. Exclusively one: laptop, tablet, smartphone, e-reader, you name it, but for the rest of your days, this is the one and only device you would ever be "touching". The good news is that you get to choose, of course.

I have presented this riddle to many friends and, invariably, their answer is always the same: smartphone. To their surprise, my answer is — and has always been: old fashioned PC, precisely, macOS[1].

My answer to this question has its raison d'être, since most of my waking hours go by in front of a computer. Not just at work, but even during leisure time. The computer is the tool I use to funnel my creativity: from writing, coding, designing, reading, communicating… but also my go to device for absolutely everything.

I do not dislike smartphones, I understand you can get plenty of stuff done with them, but for me they never "clicked" as creation tools. My iPhone home screen is almost "factory settings" and the main uses it gets are limited to podcasts, audiobooks, music, messaging and hailing a cab from time to time.

The computer is the machine I grew up with, the one I discovered a whole new world throughout: from DOS to the dawn of the Internet, I learned to love its design, appreciate its craft, but ultimately, I became fascinated by how it worked.

For these reasons, I have always been drawn to the keyboard as an input device, hence keyboard shortcuts are my thing. Although I don’t use them as much as I love them, still today, every time I invoke one, something feels right deep inside.

My approach to remember, use and learn new keyboard shortcuts has always been the same. I do not employ heavy machinery such as Text Expander or Keyboard Maestro. I just try to be aware and spot routines I repeatedly perform with the mouse, until the inevitable thought of "I’m sure there’s a shortcut for that…" pops up. Then research for the shortcut and meticulously log it in a "Shortcuts in Use" note that has been in the works forever.

Believe, after this 500 words introduction detour, the story eventually lands somewhere. As a matter of fact, this post was inadvertently and without permission seeded in my mind a few months ago, when this product escalated to the very top of the Product Hunt ranks. It caught my attention immediately because somebody just "productized" the list I had been curating for years, I loved it.

After a more than deserved "upvote", the product itself inspired a broader examination on how we interact with our devices and the impact they potentially have in our minds.

Before we dive in, please, keep in mind that these lines are not grounded in academic research, there’s plenty of studies available documenting this phenomenon. But rather my personal journey and a humble observation on how to ensure our time is well spent in front of our devices.

My working assumption revolved around the idea of how much of the time spent in front of a computer had actually become idle time. Non-productive time, without a clear task or particular goal to achieve, but rather wandering around, just being with the computer, or well, procrastinating.

For a curious, monkey mind, sitting down in front of a computer with no predefined task to accomplish, will inevitably become a recipe for failure. In my particular experience idle time meant playing around with some app settings, re-reading an article or rethinking the way my filing system worked. Unremarkable activities that directly translated to anxiety.

While in idle mode your mind runs fast, it operates in autopilot, but it is going nowhere. This is a nasty loop, because it feels effortless and comfortable being in idle land, but at the same time you are also aware you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Well, at this point you might be wondering what keyboard shortcuts have to do with idle time and if there’s even a connection between the two. A few months ago, I was wondering exactly the same. It turns out they have a lot to do with one another and, indeed, such connection exists.

The trick that ties everything together is one of the simplest, silliest things I’ve done lately, that has had a major impact in my daily life: setting aside the mouse to the left of the keyboard.

Its immediate consequence: using the computer now required deliberate effort.

Thoughtless, fast paced, muscle memory mechanics were not available anymore. Therefore wandering was not an option because the ease in which I used to navigate the computer was completely gone. Every single time I was about to fall back to idle mode, I encountered the inconvenience of a lefty mouse, not easy, then the itch immediately vanished.

The computer wasn’t effortless as it used to be, I just unlearned — to put it in Star Wars terms, thus our relationship was changed, forever, for the best. Now every time I sit (well, stand) in front of the computer I have a clear goal in mind. It has earned back its purest creation soul.

It is a funny feeling, though. Everything I could "do" now ties back to my keyboard expertise — or, well, if I want something badly, I know a fall back to the uncomfortable mouse experience is still an option. This has inevitably expanded my shortcuts portfolio in ways I could have never imagined, to the point that I stopped logging the new ones onto my note — and where Shortcuts.design came in handy :)

Finally, and most important, the anxiety associated with the idle time has completely gone away and I find myself in "flow" state more often than ever before.

That was quite a long story, so, to wrap everything up, I want to go full circle, back to Michel van Heest, the man behind Shortcuts.design. This week I randomly came across his Medium post about the "behind the scenes" story of his product, which I not only clapped the shit out of it, but also reminded me how much my life has improved just by embracing the keyboard.


[1] That’s a subtle distinction though, because the question presumes platforms, which is not entirely fair. I’d rather use white labeled hardware running macOS, than a MacBook running Windows or some Linux distribution. But that’s beyond the point and food for an entirely separate conversation, that won’t be happening in these lines either.

Months and Terms

I have been receiving quite a lot of feedback from my recent post about enrolling the Udacity’s Data Analyst Nanodegree. Unexpectedly, even prospective students contacted me out of the blue asking for some advice on whether they should enroll or not, which totally came as a pleasing surprise.

One of the things that recurrently showed up during these conversations was the fact that I deliberately sticked to the monthly structure rather than switching to the updated term model, given the opportunity.

This is actually a great question, but one that I am not going to answer here. I will instead focus on why I think the term-based structure is a superior approach when it comes to incentivize student retention. On top of that, I will also drop some thoughts about bridging the gap between offline and online education and how to replicate the social aspect of in-person programs into online experiences.

From Months to Terms

All Udacity programs used to be offered as a monthly subscription. The student paid each month and was presented with an incentive to get to the "finish line", thus decreasing drop outs. The incentive was no other than: get half of your money back if you complete the program in less than a year.

It is a clever approach because it seems the student would be primarily driven to finish as soon as possible since money is at stake. The sooner the student graduates, the less money will end up paying. Although after taking a closer look at the issue — but also having gone through the experience myself, I would argue that this is not how incentives ultimately work, at least when it comes to education.

A lot of research has been already published around the topic, but long story short, the takeaway is that extrinsic incentives (getting some of your money back), only work to a certain extent. Udacity’s money back strategy is a paradigmatic example of these dynamics at play. Getting your money back is a perfectly reasonable motivator, but when dealing with hard, creative and non-repetitive tasks, there is something more at stake: we just stepped into "unreasonable territory".

Here is precisely where intrinsic motivators kick in and this is why a term-based model is better suited to recreate the conditions for them to thrive.

A Time Constraint

On the other hand, term-based programs provide something far more valuable than getting your money back: synchrony and a time constraint. Synchrony is all about the sense of community and sharing the learning experience with other students. The time constraint helps handicap the program from a time perspective.

While the monthly model places an imaginary, soft deadline of twelve months to get your money back, it doesn’t set a specific point in time where the program ends. In other words, as a student you can get stuck, indefinitely paying every month until the end of time, without having graduated. The term structure instead delivers a much clearer time framework, because you either graduate within the given term, or you don’t.

A healthier relationship comes out from the fact that if you don’t commit to the given time frame, you won’t graduate. Which ultimately means you’ll lose all your money. A clearer, more transparent and of course, far more effective value proposition.

Synchrony

Finally, and most important, a term based approach brings synchrony to the cohort and the sense that you belong to a larger community, aka. peer pressure.

During my time enrolled at the DAND I felt lonely. I knew more students were simultaneously going through the same experience, but I had no way to "feel" it. Despite there was a dedicated Slack community aimed to bridge this gap, overall, it felt scattered and it was difficult to cut through the noise. Each student was in an entirely different stage of the program and the sense of "class" was nowhere to be seen. You were absolutely on your own.

Terms improve, to a certain degree, these dynamics. I don’t have Udacity’s exact graduation numbers, but the fact that each term starts at a fixed schedule must help students feel closer to the rest of the group, sharing questions, struggles and most important, aligns them around the vision of graduating.

Despite trying to recreate the social aspect of an offline experience through an online program remains extremely challenging and something nobody, as far as I know, has entirely figured out.

Online experiences are exclusively focused on having cutting-edge curriculums, the latest and greatest materials, but still missing the point on how "the 99%" of people learn. These programs are truly amazing, but sadly targeted to the "1%".

Because at the end of the day, life will throw at you a shitload of distractions and other priorities. The lack of offline attachment to other students and teachers make these programs the perfect candidates to be the first thing you will set aside.

Yet this is a separate discussion, way beyond the scope of this post.

Even though, I do believe a term-based program is a step in the right direction, but still far from the place where social dynamics, arguably the most powerful of the incentives — specially for obligers, can kick in.

Ready Player One

Last month I went to the movies. This is kind of an extraordinary event by itself, because I never go. Turns out a wise friend extended the recommendation, told me the movie was worth it, and as I always do, I trusted his advice.

I knew nothing about the movie until I found myself staring at the backlit billboard, next to the cinema front door. It read "Ready Player One", never heard about it, but truth be told, the artwork looked really cool — something I could enjoy, I thought.

Long story short, I loved it, good thing I trusted my friend, as I always do.

I’m not here to talk about how much I liked the movie, though, but the follow up conversations I’ve been having with several people about its underlying message. The last one, just a few minutes ago, and actually the spark that led me to start typing these lines in the first place.

The widely shared opinion I keep hearing about is that the movie belongs to the science fiction realm, that it is a good thought experiment for something that will (most certainly) never happen — or it will far, far, far away in the future. In other words: "it is just a movie".

I felt kind of lonely on the other side of this argument, because I firmly disagree.

I’d argue we are already living in the early stages of this "dystopian" reality. Nowadays, as a society we are building (with astonishing amount of success) parallel, digital worlds — say games or social networks, for people to lose immerse themselves into. The results of this massive societal experiment speak for themselves, anywhere you go or look.

Despite our current means to recreate these experiences are still flat, bi-dimensional, backlit matrixes of colorful dots (aka. screens), just pay close attention at how these devices, still far from rendering an accurate picture of reality, are already captivating human attention.

Look no further: during my commute, despite the multitudes, I can still count the amount of people I see with their heads up. Although if you want to experience this phenomenon in its full extend, watch out for younger generations, the truly digital natives, the ones that grew up with an iPad attached to their fingertips: they live in there.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in love and deeply fascinated with technology, but our current gadgets pale next to the ideas envisioned at RPO. Our state of the art smartphones are still far away from being fully immersive experiences.

Precisely for this reason I am convinced this future is inevitable. If given the current state of our technological development, we are already attached in ways we could never foresee fifteen years ago, imagine how it will all look like with mainstream availability of devices capable of recreating RPO.

I don’t think this last point can be even argued, but this is just one side of the problem. The true, underlying narrative I see around this whole "parallel world" debate is not technological, but societal.

The question we should be asking is not "if" we’ll eventually be capable of developing a digital world virtually indistinguishable from ours. Not even "when". This is inevitable and we all should acknowledge it is going to happen, sooner or later, period.

The question we should be asking, the one this movie is subtlety exposing, is at which point it will become cheaper to recreate an entire new (digital) world rather than fixing the one we live in.

Just food for thought 🤔

Udacity Data Analyst Nanodegree

udacity data science nanodegree

Last January I proudly finished the Udacity Data Analyst Nanodegree (DAND) and this is my attempt — I hope in 1.000 words or less, to publish the kind of post I wish I’d read back before I enrolled: relate why I did it, who is it for and, of course, how the experience was like.

Why I Did It?

Despite Udacity’s Nanodegree programs certainly claim to employ their students[1] in the most cutting-edge, on-demand jobs, the main reason I joined the program was to level up my (data) game in my current job as a Product Manager at Ironhack, not to start a new career as a data analyst.

More often than not, I found myself dealing with situations involving data flows I didn’t fully comprehend. The idea of making decisions without a solid data driven foundation backing it up made me sometimes feel uncomfortable about the path I was leading my team towards. Product meeting after meeting, I had this nagging thought of knowing that there was something missing all the time, that we were not getting the whole picture because of our data ignorance, but still, couldn’t see it.

But let me be crystal clear here before we move on: by "data" I’m not referring to the "big data" everybody is talking about as if it was teenager sex. Believe me, very few people deal with truly "big" data. The DAND is also not about "big data", but neither "big data" was what I was looking for. On the contrary, I wanted to address rather smaller things: statistically inclined issues, biases or widely opinionated meetings that were clouding our decisions and ultimately setting the stage up for an HiPPO driven environment.

After an unreasonable amount of research — lets save this for another post, and factoring in my time constraints, a random Wednesday of April I decided to enroll. It was my first attempt to commit to an online program this big, and I must admit, for better or worse, back then I didn’t fully understand what I was signing up for.

In a nutshell, I didn’t aim to become a fully fledged data analyst — despite Udacity claimed you could if that was your goal. I just wanted to bring the data skills to my current job, hoping they’ll help me with these:

  • Ensure our product team was accurately using and making the most out of our data
  • Set up an environment led by healthy and meaningful metrics
  • Back and make decisions supported by data as an anchor of agreement, kind of a source of truth for our team
  • Leave behind this wild guessing mode we were living in and start doing things right :)

The Program

The whole curriculum was broken down into eight modules (seven plus introduction)[2], requiring a dedicated project delivered by the end each one. Each project came with its own submission process — which they don’t take lightly, where a Udacity reviewer inspects and grades your work until it meets the rubric’s criteria. It goes without saying that in order to graduate you must submit and get all your projects approved by the reviewers.

Despite the program structure has changed a little bit since it shifted to a term based structure, the topics it covers still remain mostly the same:

On top of that, each module and project builds on top of different technologies: R and Python for data analysis and statistics, Numpy and Pandas for data wrangling, Scikit Python library for machine learning and of course, Tableau for data visualization. And if it was not enough, certain modules also brought in additional libraries, which made the tech toolkit even more fun — and complex.

The amount of topics and technologies covered during the program is massive. You definitely walk out of the program with a solid understanding on both the fundamental concepts behind the data analysis and the tools a "real" data analyst will encounter in her daily routine.

This a great approach for the program if its ultimate goal is to put their students in a job ready position with the least amount of time. In my particular case though, I felt the program was a little bit too broad, especially judging by the number of "supporting tools" you have to learn from scratch lesson after lesson.

Let me explain: while learning this wide range of technologies (R, Python, Tableau…) is definitely an enriching experience for the mind, it also dilutes the value of the learning outcomes by changing the underlying technology all the time.

If I were to design the program around my personal outcomes, I’d have bet for a single technology, say Python, and build all the curriculum on top of that. The benefits of this approach would have been twofold. First, the students would have achieved a higher level of "code mastery" in said technology, which would have enabled them to build stuff quicker and with more ease, even after the program. Second, by not changing the underlying technology, the program would have been able to focus more on the content itself and go deeper at every stage, letting the technology fade away in the background.

Months after graduating, back to my job — and not working as a pure data analyst, I often find myself scripting some code with Python and building small helpers to automate some nasty, undesirable ground work. But I’ve to admit that I’ve never touched RStudio, Tableau or Jupyter Notebooks ever since. I’m grateful to be aware they exist, but maybe I could have leveraged that time to go even deeper with Python.

But again, that’s just a personal opinion based solely on my own experience. And don’t get me wrong, the program design is superb, but maybe I was probably expecting something the course was not intended for.

The Experience

Finally, how is it like to go through the program? I won’t lie: it is hard. Although the course structure is extremely clear, the materials are first class and all the projects really engaging, still, setting aside the time to work on your own, without social pressures of any kind, remains the most challenging endeavor, even for Udacity.

I finished the program in eight months[4], but I was not consistent with my schedule and the amount of hours per week I was investing, which I believe is the ultimate "hack" to stay on the program’s track.

The main problem I faced would go like this: the amount of effort it takes to re-engage again with the course is (exponentially) related to the amount of time you spend away from it. In other words, the more time you stay away from the program, the more difficult it gets to just go past the Udacity’s login screen. It becomes an ongoing battle against your willpower.

I suffered from that, big time. I remember some time around June where after over a month without completing a single lesson, the thought of dropping out even crossed my mind. I endured, but the chances of not writing this post right now were then higher than you might expect.

On the other hand I also remember periods where I literally opted out of life and did nothing but Nanodegree. I was pretty unreliable with my efforts and, as far as I can tell, getting this right is something that will totally ease your way into the program.

Besides the disconnection from the social experience, which I definitely believe is the most pressing challenge online courses must solve for, the course was really good and definitely delivered on its expectations. The materials were well crafted, the projects had a clear purpose and the support you receive from Udacity is extraordinary at each step of the way.

So, upon graduation, if you were to ask me: would you do it again? I’d say "absolutely yes" if you are looking for a career move to a data related role. The DAND is the perfect bridge to land an entry level job in-field or even as a prep stage before joining an immersive, full-time data science bootcamp.

But as a "career booster" maybe I should have explored other softer options that would have allowed me to customize a little bit more my journey. As a counter to that, I’d also argue that it is easier to see this pattern looking backwards, now that I’ve already explored the data analyst path. A hypothesis I couldn’t have articulated back when I started, because my depth of knowledge on the matter was way narrower.

Well, no matter what, beyond the program specs, overall I’m extremely happy I enrolled (and graduated) the DAND. Because it has not only helped me out at my job the way I expected and planned for from the beginning. It has, unexpectedly, also proved to be an invaluable resource for everyday life and has transformed the way I perceive, through the data lens, even the smaller situations and decisions.


[1] When I enrolled back in April most Udacity programs were paid in a monthly basis and offered a 50% money back guarantee if you graduated in less than a year. On top of that, there were two payment options, the "basic" for $199/month and the "plus" for $299/month. Only the latter offered (subject to certain fine print) "jobs guarantee" and I quote from their marketing copy: "While all of our Nanodegree programs are built with your career success in mind, you must enroll in our Nanodegree Plus program to secure a jobs guarantee. Since then, most of their programs have been gradually migrating to a term-based structure and their approach to "job assistance", that’s just an opinion, has become less aggressive and more loose.

[2] The DAND program structure was upgraded two times during my enrollment. The first one, in September, was a small tweak to the curriculum structure, which I opted in. The second, in December, was a major change where they moved the whole program to a term based structure — mainly in line with the rest of their new Nanodegrees. Udacity kindly offered me to upgrade to the new one, but I personally sticked to the old model since I was about to finish anyway.

[3] Machine learning is no longer available in the new curriculum, all the contents have been moved to its own Nanodegree program.

[4] Ideally you’re expected to finish in six months, but you got half the money back if you did it in less than twelve. Now the program has shifted to a term model though, the option to get your money back if you were to finish under a certain time frame is no longer available.

Curiosity Trumps Everything

If you are somewhat up to date with the news coming up from the education world, you will have noticed some controversy, to say the least, around inaccurate placement metrics, programmers bubbles and this whole apocalyptic narrative about bootcamps and the future of education.

Under other circumstances I would not indulge in commenting on a such critical subject. But after more than two years as a Campus Manager at Ironhack here in Barcelona[1], I almost feel the obligation to tell the story of what it is like to join a bootcamp and the prospect of getting a job afterwards.

The Students

First of all, I wanted to shed some light on the background of the students we take in and demystify this whole Computer Science myth. While it is true that a small subset of our graduates already held an engineering degree when they joined the bootcamp, the majority of them did not. Moreover, I can assure you with the data right in front of me there is no correlation at all between prior “formal engineering education” and higher hiring rates at the end of the program.

Then students are usually recent grads or early career changers. They are attracted by the prospect of doing creative work, mastering the craft and joining the tech industry. They come from very diverse backgrounds, true, but they do share something unique: they are insanely motivated individuals that want to see change in their lives.

This is not a coincidence though. It is no secret we select our students — of course we do. But we don’t do it in a are-you-already-an-engineer basis. Our criteria is easier than that: we look for passion, grit and resilience, regardless of your background.

So is a bootcamp suitable for everybody? No, it is not. A bootcamp is a remarkably hard experience. But it is also not a matter of being a CS or not, it is a matter of willingness. I do believe anybody can learn anything, but the question is: are you willing to sacrifice, prioritize, commit in order to fulfill a larger vision and build a remarkable future? Again and again, the ones who answer “yes, I do” to this question are our students.

The City

I was born and raised in Barcelona. I have been living here for almost my entire life, but what has happened to this city during the last 5 years is beyond extraordinary. I do not have the proper words to accurately describe what it has been like to go through this whole transformation, but I can focus on a small portion of this change: the tech ecosystem.

For several reasons, beyond the scope of this post, Barcelona has become home to the creation of countless startups and incumbent tech companies headquarters. They have turned the city in one of the most prominent European ecosystems.

Want it or not, tech companies create tech jobs. Barcelona has been an exceptionally fertile tech ground, and as a byproduct the demand for tech jobs — i.e. Web Developers, UX Designers or Digital Marketers, has exploded. Thus “where to find tech talent” is a conversation I am having, without exception, every single day. At this pace it is about to become the favorite water-cooler theme.

To put it in other words, there is a gap: companies need certain skills that traditional education is not providing. We aim to close this gap by teaching the skills companies need. While I understand this gap is not infinite nor will it last forever — as with any other market need, osmosis will take care of it, I can assure you, at this point in time, we do not graduate enough students to even begin to meet this demand.

The Hiring Week

The last week of our programs is called the Hiring Week. As its name suggests, this week is the mechanism that fulfils our vision of being an outcomes driven institution, maximizing the ROI of each penny students invest. Just think about it for a second: for any given investment, you expect a return, the bigger the better. We do not understand why education should be any different. We are convinced returns can be measured anywhere, and our golden metric is, without a doubt, the ability to employ our students right after they graduate.

But let's not detour from the topic, because for all intents and purposes, going through a Hiring Week is a remarkable experience[2]. The week starts with two entire days where recruiters and HR professionals come in and simulate mock interviews, review CVs, optimize LinkedIn profiles… It is a two day sprint (right after a once in a lifetime exhausting experience) in order to set everything up for prime time.

It is usually Wednesday when the magic happens, the day we summon all our hiring partners to come to campus and meet our recent graduates. Believe me, after two years and 300 graduates in Barcelona, it has become a BIG network. Regardless of its reach, I personally curated this network and I do know every single person attending to hire our students. It is a subtle detail, but it makes all the difference in the world. Because this is not a random job fair, this is the place where companies looking for certain skills come to meet people that have been specifically trained in this direction.

So it is Wednesday morning, all the graduates are already sitting at their designated spot, waiting for the doors to open and the companies to start flowing in. And yes, you have read that right: the students are the ones fixed in the hiring equation. Unlike most job fairs, where there is only a handful of companies and an ever growing crowd of applicants, at our Hiring Week is the other way around: there are usually more companies than students. That’s what happens when you are faced with an industry that is thirsty for talent.

The dynamics of the day are rather easy: companies come in and sit down, one by one, with all the graduates. For our students the experience is as natural and fluid as it gets: wide ranging, inspiring conversations with no time constraints around what they’ve built, their passions and whether they see themselves in a certain company. It is all carefully designed to recreate an environment where our graduates feel comfortable and secure, a place that enables them to show the full extent of their potential.

On the other hand, for companies it is also a great place to be, where they can meet talent that most certainly will suit their needs. But it is at the same time a challenging situation where they come to realize they do not have leverage the way they were used to. They find themselves without the hygge of their comfy headquarters and they can see other companies contend for the same candidates, the pressure is also on them.

The experience is intense. Conversations span through the whole day, until late in the evening. On their way out, with no exception, they repeatedly share with me the same comment: “it is incredible they were able to learn so much in such short period of time”. They are, indeed, impressed. Because at the Hiring Week tables have turned. It is the most vivid realization that talent is at a prime in the tech industry and there is no hint, at least in the short term, this situation is going to change.

What Will Get You the Job

The Hiring Week is a soundly engineered artifact that helps us get the job done (no pun intended), and it does work. In Barcelona, the combination of a thriving tech ecosystem and our relentless efforts to bridge the gap between industry and education is rewarding us with a hiring rate over 80% three months upon graduation — which no matter what, is in itself an impressive feat.

At the end of the day, getting our graduates hired is what success looks like from my perspective. It is actually one of my most important KPIs, definitely a pressing one. But after witnessing more than 200 graduations, I can assure you the most successful hires were not ultimately because of the Hiring Week. They were because of passion and hard work.

Passion and hard work were the ultimate reasons we could help a guy find a job “next to the beach, in a workplace where I can catch some waves during the lunch break”. Or maybe that one that wanted “a startup job” in a city that had no tech ecosystem at all[3]. Or a coal miner, a flight attendant, a photographer… the list goes on and on, but they do share something and it is not a tech background.

Companies are not looking for a “Junior Web Developer”. Instead they are looking for problem solvers, curious individuals that can relate to the company vision and bring something to the table beyond mere technical skills. Don’t get me wrong. By no means I am saying skills are not important. You need to know how to code to get a job as a programmer, but coding skills alone will only get you the interview, not the job.

Inevitably, any hard skill at some point in time will become a commodity, even programming. But the ability to adapt, retool and learn new things is the wild card that will open any door and allow you to be the master of your professional fate.

And that’s deep. In fact, its implications bring us again full circle to the very first paragraph. Because it moves the bootcamps-will-get-you-a-job discussion to a whole new dimension. It is abstracting the skills out the equation. So it is not a matter of what we teach anymore.

This is precisely what relieves me, what makes me believe that life changing education is possible and it will continue to be. Because it is not ultimately about the Hiring Week. Because it is not a matter of what we teach. It is a matter of attracting exceptional individuals and enabling them with the right tools, the ones that will get them through the company doors.

Then just wait and see how curiosity, passion and hard work will do the rest.


[1] As a Tech School we don’t limit ourselves to coding skills. We also have an extremely successful UX/UI program, with similar hiring rates than its Web Development sibling, and plan to open new tracks in the near future. Though this particular post is mainly focused on coding and the Web Development track, its conclusions apply to any other craft.

[2] We have come a long way since our first Hiring Week and in just two years it has already gone through several iterations in each campus. While the essence remains the same, we have taken into account an insane amount of feedback, fine tuning the format, the contents and always optimizing and obsessing over hiring rates.

[3] Still today I believe the guy literally got the first tech related job in the whole town. In fact, he was employee number one for that company. Therefore if the bare minimum expression of a tech ecosystem was ever created there, make no mistake, that guy was one of the founding fathers.

Community

Out of the blue, last month, one of the most prominent startups in town invited me to lecture their marketing team about the lessons we (at Ironhack) have learned building our amazing community.

On one hand, I was happily surprised they extended such invitation. Just the fact their top notch marketing team was curious about our community building efforts was a pleasant wink at our work, and something we should definitely feel proud of.

On the other hand, there was this disturbing thought I couldn't get off my head: the more I mulled over the content of the presentation, the more I felt I truly didn't know what to say or even where to start.

At Ironhack, our community is one of our most precious assets. We devote tons of time and resources to develop and nurture it, without even expecting the slightest return in the short term. We do it because we care, because we truly believe it is the right thing. But I had never written down an ordered list with our tactics or how-tos when it comes to build a community.

To begin with, I am neither expert in marketing nor I thought of myself as knowledgeable about community related strategies. But since I wanted to prepare the lecture, I started drafting ideas, thoughts... and dived deep into the raison d'être, the building blocks of our community. I rejoiced and found the exercise fascinating and I wanted to share a few lines with some of the takeaways.

Why Do You Want One?

First of all, it is important to understand why, nowadays, all the cool kids want to run their own communities. The upsides of a healthy community are well understood and kickstarting one seems rather easy. But the hidden challenges of building and nurturing one are far less documented.

A community is neither a "build it and they will come" thing, nor a passive asset that takes care of itself. It takes time, resources and dedication. Most people don't have time and usually resources are constrained or better allocated to other, shorter term, projects. That's the number one reason communities don't endure, they lack care and fade away.

I have witnessed countless community attempts announcing their brand new thing. Over time I have learned to contemplate it with deeper perspective and wonder how many of those will still be there in the long run.

This is the first realization I came across: your community must be embedded in your DNA. In other words, unless you run a NGO, community must be supporting and reinforcing some aspects of your culture or business model. Otherwise, chances are you will fail to invest in it. Incentives matter, a lot.

In order to thrive, your community must be deeply integrated in the way your business operates. That means all your stakeholders should derive value from nurturing the community and your business should get healthier when the community is engaged.

Identity, Product, Partners

But back to our community at Ironhack. After giving it a lot of thought, I came to realize our community reinforces three key aspects of our business and culture: identity, product and partners — this last one dealt in a separate post.

When it comes to identity, there are many factors playing in, some of them we control, others we do not. Community is something you can, to some extend, manage or control, but its implications extend far beyond what you might presume. Our community shapes the way people perceive us: what they say about us, how we look like in people's minds and, ultimately, how we fit in the world.

I find fascinating this ability to ultimately control the shape of our own perception. We do it through our events, the strategic involvement of alumni, random interactions around campus, all of it, every single bit adds up. It is a reflection of our culture, one in which our community is deeply built in.

I don't know why, but at the end of the day, I picture some friends, having this informal conversation over dinner. They talk about us without us being there, and this is exactly how our identity spreads without our full control. Nowadays when we (almost) can send a rocket to Mars, the most powerful referral is still the word of mouth. Therefore, each member of your community will define who you are, one interaction at a time.

But of course, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are here to deliver an amazing educational experience. It is precisely at this point where the integration with our product is the most transformative.

At this moment in time, where all educational content is being commoditized and distributed for free, experience becomes not only more important, but essential when it comes to having the best product. Given this environment, I would argue that our community is the most powerful asset we have to compete in this new axis of performance.

Our community is the answer to the question: how are you different than your competitors? Why are you a better choice? I once struggled answering this question. But now I see it crystal clear: a strong, deeply engaged community is the most powerful answer to why you should join Ironhack.

Community and Culture

I like this idea of defining culture as "what happens when nobody is looking". Sometimes we take it for granted, but in a way, community and culture are two sides of the same coin.

Alumni, hiring partners, other friendly groups, public institutions... all of them orbit around us, helping create a unique environment for our students to develop their craft. Scattered people working together under the Ironhack theme to provide an educational experience that none of our students would never forget.

This idea of community doesn't come naturally to me. Like it or not, my engineering background makes me perceive the world in 0s and 1s. Community is an extremely complex artifact composed of the most polyhedral entities: human beings. This makes analyzing, even talking about community a really challenging endeavor.

But also simpler things, from how we deal with the dishes after lunch to how we open the door and receive random people to our campus. Definitely not something we have fully engineered, but figure it out by doing, by imprinting our care and passion for what we do.

It is our culture who attracts our community, and at the end of the day, all of it happens because we care to the extend other people would think we are insane. The amount of attention and devotion we put to everything we do goes way past sanity by standard metrics. All of us want to see our culture winning, and this feeling radiates across the whole organization.

Building Yours

As we discussed, community (potentially) pays off in the long run. Its growth follows kind of an exponential path. At the very beginning, you feel like you are investing plenty of time and resources, but cashing almost no returns. The early efforts clearly do not scale and most attempts fail at this stage.

Past a certain point, your community will greatly pay off, but most won't make it there. Building and scaling a healthy community is not an easy endeavor and the future returns can't be your primary motivation.

Community is an end by itself, one you must appreciate, care and nurture beyond rationality or balance sheets. The main takeaway of these lines is that community is one of the most powerful tools to differentiate and build your business on. But the approach when it comes to create yours, can't be transactional. You must definitely care, love what you do, only then gravity will do the rest.

Alignment

It is sometimes surprising how easily we get used to things others find fascinating. The boundary conditions define your new normal and it has to be somebody else who suddenly comes in, to remind you how biased your perspective is.

It just happened this week. I was explaining our application process to a prospective student. Which consists, first, in a personal interview to ensure the applicant is aligned with our mission. Then a technical interview to test their motivation and capacity to learn. And finally, if our admissions committee decides to accept the student, she has to complete an online pre work before she can start the program.

After this brief explanation, she was gently surprised, specially by the first step, the personal interview.

But before we move forward with the story, let me digress and explain the idea behind this first interview.

All of our programs are extremely intense experiences, if you have not been there, you can't even begin to imagine what it is like. During two months, every single day, students spend +12 hours coding, designing, learning, struggling. It feels overwhelming at the beginning, but it compounds at the end. When that happens, it is life transforming.

I know it because I have seen it many times. People with no prior coding experience, transitioning their careers into tech and becoming software developers, in just two months. It is powerful and rewarding. You are bending reality, redefining your limits and what you thought it was possible. But during the process, if you do not feel exhausted, you are clearly doing something wrong.

It sounds hard because it is and one of the key aspects of the endurance is wanting it so badly.

But we only have twenty seats per edition and we want to make sure they will be filled with the ones that want it the most. The most committed students, the ones that will succeed no matter what.

This is precisely the raison d'être of this first personal interview: to test and ensure the class is filled with this attitude.

I have seen many cohorts come in and out. This dynamic in a class is the prerequisite for the whole group to succeed. In my humble opinion there are two reasons for that.

To understand the first, let me tell you something. Before I went to college I used to compete in sailing - Europe class for the curious. Our team traveled across the country for the national championship, and it felt like family to me. We developed such a profound friendship and trust with each other, that I have never felt with, say, college friends. It is also a relationship that has gone beyond our sailing days despite choosing completely opposite life paths.

I used to take these relationships for granted, until somebody unexpectedly told me the reason why: the most harsh and rough environments become the catalysts for the strongest relationships to develop. In my story, sailing in the ocean.

Back to Ironhack, there is the exact same dynamic at play here. It is a tough experience, but you see all the people looking at each other faces, they feel they belong there. They know everybody shares the same goal and it relieves them. They are not alone in this crazy two month mission and the bonds they create with each other transcend the bootcamp itself.

This is how your class becomes an amazing and inspiring, but also safe environment for the students.

The second one is what I call the marathon effect - and yes, I just made that up, but bear with me, it all makes sense. If you have ever taken part in a race you know what I am talking about. Say you are running a marathon. You get there in the morning, all the crowd prepared for the race sharing this same goal - by now this should sound familiar - and you blend yourself with this bright atmosphere.

You are aiming for 42 km, but you are not running alone anymore and the atmosphere literally pushes you beyond your capabilities, it lifts you. You achieve what you thought was impossible and it is because you run with the people. It has happened to me, many times. I am unable to run a sub 3:20 marathon on my own. I tried, and I failed. But I did it the race day.

Ironhack is no different than that. Having twenty extremely motivated students that share the same goal help each of them achieve the impossible. Something they would have never did alone. It is the magic of having a group of students that share a common vision in the same room.

This is how your class becomes a transforming experience where each student can unleash their true potential, far beyond what they could even imagine.

Maybe you do not remember, but we were talking about my interview with this student. She was gently surprised because she remembered her experience back in college. She told me everybody in there had a different aspiration. She was passioned and had this clear goal in her mind, but could not relate to anybody. She felt powerless and alone.

She remembered me the importance of creating these dynamics in the class. In a way, she remembered me the importance of having this first personal interview. Something I definitely knew, but never thought from this perspective. I got used to it and took it for granted.

We live in a society where college is this place you go because you turned eighteen. You go there because this is what you are supposed to do. It is what your parents did, it is what your friends are doing. But many of you, like me, did it without purpose. It was so embedded in our society, that it seemed to be the next step in life, no questions asked.

Because of it, college has become an end to itself. It has lost purpose. They just put random people in big building, with completely misaligned goals, and passively wait four years until they come out on the other side. Nothing good comes out on the other side.

College should be a system designed to help you achieve your life's vision, not just a place you go and exchange four bright years of your life to earn a useless paper. You do not need a paper, there are plenty of those out there.

Today our society needs passion and craft. Enthusiasm to build great things. The best way to foster this mindset is to just have these enthusiastic students in the same room. Sharing a common vision and pushing one another. Only then is when magic happens, but the necessary condition is always the same: alignment.

Detachment Strategy for the Apple Watch

Apple has hit roadblocks in making major changes that would connect its Watch to cellular networks and make it less dependent on the iPhone, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The company still plans to announce new watch models this fall boasting improvements to health tracking.

Every single time I run into an Apple Watch user, out of curiosity, I ask about their experience with the device. Hence I have heard plenty of valuable feedback, beautiful user stories, but also curious challenges they encounter. But without question the main complain they usually bring up — besides battery life of course, is the ability to untether the Apple Watch from the iPhone.

It is a perfectly reasonable claim though. At the end of the day, the narrative for the Apple Watch is about bringing technology closer, creating a more intimate experience without the inconvenience of having your phone in your pocket all the time.

But this narrative breaks down every single time the Apple Watch loses the "connectivity support" from its parent. Which usually happens when you need it the most: hiking, going to the beach or any activity where you would prefer "not to" bring your phone with you.

Some improvements have been made along the way with the introduction of watchOS 2 and the ability to connect the Apple Watch directly to a Wi-Fi network. But in order to get full autonomy the Watch needs to connect to a fully fledged cellular network, the same way an iPhone does. But of course, it is tricky. On one hand, data transmissions through cellular connectivity drain batteries quicker than BLE or Wi-Fi. On the other, the smaller the footprint of the device, the smaller the batteries you can fit inside. If your challenges come from both ends, it follows that from a technological standpoint, we are quite not there yet.

Regardless, there always have been rumors about Apple becoming its own cellular carrier. Which makes perfect sense, since it would allow Apple to integrate the single most important chunk of the experience they are not in control of. It would automatically translate into seamless activation of the devices, cross-country compatibility, simplification of the product line and an endless list of enhancements ultimately benefiting the customer experience.

But it remains an extremely complex endeavor. First of all, closing deals with operators that are now partners. Then scaling capacity to provide data to all devices, in every single region. Google did something similar last year with Project Fi, but the service was deployed in a more controlled environment, only for selected Nexus models. Which not only accounted for less devices, but also targeted a more early adopter type of user.

Where I want to drive this at is: what if Apple rolled out the next generation Apple Watch with a built-in, low power, world wide, cellular connectivity that helped detach the device from the iPhone. Of course I am not talking about a 4G connection here, but something more like (please, I need a leap of faith here): SigFox. The nature of this network would not be intended to watch videos on YouTube, but rather to receive an important notification or send a critical message that can't wait until you reach the phone.

Probably this would be the kind of service only Apple apps could use in the very early stages. Maybe afterwards would be accessible to third parties through a private API with highly strict rules, as it has happened in the past with the rollout of other Apple products. Moreover, the Apple Watch would be the perfect device to start with: it is already targeting pre-chasm users, more willing to support "experiments", and also operates at a smaller scale than the iPhone does.

It is not the exact same thing, but Amazon has been doing something similar for their Kindle lineup for more than ten years now with outstanding results.

I acknowledge there are plenty of flaws in the idea. But wouldn't it be a clever way to bridge the detachment gap of the Apple Watch, while laying the foundation for a world wide network to power every single Apple device in the long term?

The Designer I Wanted to Be

This fall, at Ironhack, we are introducing a brand new UX/UI bootcamp. Despite this writing has nothing to do with that — well maybe a little bit, but more on that later, it is a great segue to a more personal story that recently has brought back some memories from my 23 year old self.

The launch of any new product at Ironhack always involves the industry from the very beginning in order to craft an educational experience that trains students with valuable skills for employers. Since we started researching for this new bootcamp, we have already met with a lot of companies to understand their needs, reached out to dozens of experts to iterate on the curriculum or gathered our industry friends to discuss about the importance of UX.

Because of it, I would say all the team is right now pretty fluent in UX parlance. But at a personal level, from the beginning I was particularly passionate about this new bootcamp. I kept providing resources, apps, blogs, people doing great work in the field... and consequently, my team kept asking me the (reasonable) question: how do you know all of this?

And I know all this stuff because believe it or not, when I was 23, fresh out of college, I wanted to become a UX professional. Maybe back then I did not coin the exact UX term, but it was crystal clear to me that I wanted to be the guy who designed the interactions with products.

Crafting the experience, what actually happens when you tap that button, was absolutely mind blowing to me. Back then I did not understand how this role played out within a team or if it even existed inside a regular company, but I loved the idea of designing a holistic experience: Design with capital D.

But despite this has been a recurrent theme of mine after college, it is obvious that I have failed to become a UX professional. Life routed me to other paths, but the obsession with interaction and design, has stuck with me in every single thing I did.

That is the reason why regardless I have been pulled away from explicit design roles as my daily job, I have always tried to embrace design principles when making product and business decisions. I quote from the iomando’s design recap I wrote last summer:

During my years at iomando I understood that design is a much more profound concept than "how it looks”. To me, design means falling in love with the problem. You are really designing when you break the problem down to pieces and get to the roots of it. Because getting features out of the door is an easy task, but getting the right ones, the ones that are really solving a problem in a meaningful way, that is hard.

Yet this precise thing, the joy of building great products and putting them in the hands of people is the ultimate reason why I started this company. And my job, everyday, is to just try to instill this enthusiasm to every single corner of iomando.

We built an entire company around this foundation because we deeply cared about what people experienced when they interacted with our product. That is exactly what I mean with "embrace design principles". I loved the idea of designing for experience, and despite I could not allocate all my time to this endeavor, I have always made sure that the we were putting attention to the last, small detail. I think I put it much better here (emphasis mine):

I co-founded iomando almost 4 years ago with just one goal in mind: building an amazing product and putting it in the hands of people. That’s all I cared about. I was thrilled watching our customers fascinated by the fact that they were able to access their parkings, factories, or whatever place, with their mobile phones. That feeling was the fuel that kept me going, and to me, the most tangible expression of happiness, aside from my family.

Crafting this experience, building something that people were actually in love with, has always been my guidance, my little contribution to the world.

Anyway, I have countless examples like these. You can read it here, or here. But going back to the point, despite learning some of this fascinating stuff on the side, and doing my best to deliver a great experience in everything I did, I did not become the UX designer I wanted to be.

But back when my professional career started, I did not know where to start. I did not know what the hell a UX job was. And I was afraid because it was not clear to me how I would get a job out of this. It was 2011 and some industries have changed a lot since then, but I am sure nowadays someone who wants to become a UX professional, still shares the exact same fears.

Luckily for all or them, there has never been a better time to be a UX designer. I keep hearing people talking about UX and how we desperately need to put more care in the products we design. I hear it and read it over and over again. How we need to humanize technology and ask ourselves whose problems we are solving to begin with. Without a question, the demand for these skills is right in front of us.

As technologies commoditize entire product categories and industries, the experience will be the differential factor that will drive the next generation of successful products. The information age has brought us stuff that we could not even imagine a few years ago, but it has also overwhelmed us with tons of products and data.

Now more than ever, we need to allocate time and resources to make sure the products we build are actually useful and aimed to address real needs. Therefore, and circling back to the beginning of the post: what an amazing time to be a UX designer.

All of it made me think a lot of my 23 year old self. The doubts I had back then, and what would have been of me if I had pursued that path. I wish I had found a program such as the Ironhack bootcamp to kickstart my career back in 2011, because I was not brave enough to go on my own. The frustration that derives from knowing where you want to go, but not where to start, is usually the precursor of giving up.

Looking back it seems that all I needed back then was somebody who trust. Somebody that clearly knew what was talking about and could light up the path. Maybe a mentor, or maybe a program that not only would teach me how to build stuff, but also connect me with the industry and create the opportunities so I could get a job at the end. I have never thought of that from this perspective, but this is exactly what we are doing at Ironhack for our students.

UX designers have one of the best jobs in the world. It is a job for the curious minds, a field that nurtures itself from countless disciplines spanning from Technology, Psychology, Data Analysis... being in this intersection has to be fascinating. I could go on and on, but for you, aspiring designers of the world, you have been presented with a unique opportunity to become the UX I have always wanted to be.

What If I Had Skipped College?

Since the day I joined the Ironhack team, I have witnessed — from the very first row, more than one hundred students graduating from our bootcamp here in Barcelona. Right after the program, most of them successfully land amazing jobs as developers or start working on their own projects. Because of that, sometimes, I can’t help but ask myself what would have happened if I had skipped college altogether.

I know it is a useless exercise and just food for thought — I'm not getting back my college years anytime soon. It helps me, though, better understand how I got here, and also share with the newcomers what I have learned — and got wrong, from the experience.

The best way to frame this exercise is to go back to your eighteen year old self, facing the decision of "what to do next", right after school. Giving some thought to the matter, you soon realize that there were three main factors driving the decision making:

  • Lack of information
  • Peer pressure and societal momentum
  • Asking the wrong question

Lack of Information

Again, back to the eighteen year old, fresh out of school, preparing for a long summer and an unclear picture of what would happen in September. With this amazing, yet confusing scenario, you are given a few days to make, arguably, one of the most important decisions of your life: what to do next.

Maybe, maybe, you have already discovered your life passion during your childhood and laid out a master plan for the next five years. But data shows us that this is not usually the case among school graduates, and if I may, although you think you know, you are probably wrong anyway. In other words, nobody has a clue of what happens next.

I presume each country would have its own rarities in the way college programs are chosen, but for the most part, it was not clear to me how to link studies of choice with a future professional path. Sure, I got lots of propaganda, lots of workshops, but I did not get a clear understanding of which options were available outside the box.

Because of the lack of information, it is almost impossible to decide on which path is the one that will get you closer to your future self. At least to me, it was not clear how such programs would help me get industry valuable skills.

Despite the lack of knowledge, somehow, I wandered with the idea that in order to get there — this promised land I didn’t even know what it was, I had to enroll a college program. I didn’t understand how it worked, but the message I got sounded like this: proper citizens have meaningful jobs, obviously, you want a good job, but you can’t have it right now (don’t ask), first, you need to do something to be valuable.

The most fascinating part to me it is not how the argument was laid out without a structured logic reasoning behind, but this one size fits all approach and the amount of things it presumed to be true:

  • Being employed is always the end game.
  • In order to be employed you need help from a 3rd party, you won’t get there by yourself.
  • This third party looks a lot like college.
  • You are useless the way you are — because the end game is being employed, right now you are not, but you can’t fix it on your own.
  • A good job looks like you wearing a suit sketching something in a meeting room’s white board.
  • If you join college, then you will get a job. Despite the data says otherwise and the process is not clear to you.
  • You have to choose right away, because losing a year is an unmitigated disaster (a topic for a whole other post).

Now, back to the eighteen year old dealing with all this stuff. I can’t remember which where the exact feelings I had back then, but I assume they were related to fear, anxiety, but overall, failure.

And here comes the most interesting part, when avoiding failure becomes the driver for decision making, the natural reaction is leaning towards the safer place, not taking risks, and this is the moment when peer pressure and societal momentum kick in.

Peer Pressure and Societal Momentum

These are the main reasons why college, as it is, still prevails as the main mechanism we are educating the new generations on. When you are about to make a decision and there is an asymmetry in the amount of information available for both parties (those being you and the University) you always default to the safer choice in order to decrease risk.

Your incentive is not about winning the most, but losing the least. In this situation, less risk means following (mimicking) your peers path. But if everybody is thinking exactly the same, the line is already drawn and it goes straight to college.

The main drivers for the decision making are not aligned with starting a meaningful career path. They are influenced by the fear of making a bad choice, or worse, one that can disappoint in societal terms.

And this gets us to the most worrisome part. If the newcomers are joining college because of a false promise, the lack of information and the fear of getting it wrong, then Universities are not incentivized to provide an outstanding education. Because whether they do it or not, students will keep joining for a different set of reasons.

That is the worst (depending on which side you are at) thing that could happen to an industry. If you are not judged by the quality of your craft, and business keeps going because of a societal momentum, you are not incentivized to improve or innovate. You are just ripping the benefits of a false construction that we have all agreed on, for the time being. Enjoy while it lasts.

Asking the Wrong Question

Although we can acknowledge the former points, as an eighteen year old looking for a better choice there is not much you can do about it.

What you could do, though, in order to choose a path that is intimately aligned with your future goals, is ask yourself “why” instead of “what”. The default thinking goes about asking what to study, because the rest of the options have already been chosen or preselected, for you. Asking what, presumes the path is already set, but you get to choose the flavor.

But maybe instead of what, you can ask why you want to study. The answer for “why” will get you much further down the road and will reveal several options you were available from the beginning. Answering this question will force you to think of the career as a way to fulfill a vision, not just an end by itself.

Despite every industry keeps evolving and changing its needs, college degrees remain exactly the same. They are not incentivized to adapt, because they thrive under other premisses than preparing the students for their next job.

For example, if you want to become a carpenter, maybe you don’t need a mechanical engineering degree. The same applies if you want to build software, maybe you don’t need to go for five years of CS. Just try to figure out which is the end game and trace the path backwards. Sometimes it might not be 100% defined, and that’s ok, but at least try to understand how each step in the way will help you move closer to your end goal.

That being said, I am not, by any means, against University or college degrees. I believe they provide a ton of value and they are a great choice for a lot of people. I have both admiration and respect for Universities and I look up to them, from time to time, as a source of inspiration.

What I am not comfortable with, is the way we have set the path for education, and how we have created a false correlation between college degrees and preparing for a job. I know a lot of people who has pursed the college dream because of the false promise of getting a job at the end.

I am not sure how it all played out, what I do know is that we have created the false illusion that college is the one fits all solution for a properly working society. I don’t want to hold a dogmatic truth about it, maybe I am completely wrong. But I find it worrisome that we have rooted this issue so deep in our societal believes, that we are not even questioning why is it there in the first place.