Java boot camp helps students launch new careers
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
In a 23-year career with the Air Force, Bill Palowski inspected.
Implemented technical training.
But he wanted to do something different.
“I wanted to get into the computer industry, the tech industry,” said Palowski, who retired from the military a little more than a year ago, then was laid off from a contract job at Lockheed Martin.
He thought, “Oh, great. What am I going to do now?”
Even though he earned his bachelor’s degree in information technology, squeezing in classes wherever he could around his military job, he wanted to code. He tried to learn coding himself online, but that wasn’t working for him. Then he saw an advertisement online for Grand Canyon University’s Java Programming Certificate Program.
He called. Thought he could take night classes.
But when he found out the camp was an immersive 9 a.m.-5 p.m. commitment, five days a week for 16 weeks, he balked.
“I was, like, so I can’t work?”
But after he thought about it, he did what he thought he couldn’t do. He decided to sacrifice a steady paycheck and signed up for the University’s first Java boot camp, which falls under the helm of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.
“It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” Palowski said. “It’s been a little rough keeping up with all the bills, but it’s well worth it now.”
Palowski, along with fellow boot camper Christina Herman, did the improbable by landing jobs in the industry before even graduating from the camp with their certificate.
Both will start work in February for a large technology consulting firm and also will receive hefty sign-on bonuses.
It’s a coup for the program, which was preceded by a pilot Java course in the spring to test the curriculum.
“I’ve done boot camps before,” Palowski said. “Trying to learn it online without anybody there to watch is a lot harder. So the opportunity to actually come and sit and watch an instructor do it here is one of the best experiences I ever had.
“The camp’s amazing. I know it’s young, and it’s going to have a lot more to grow on as they go and do more and more. But it’s been great for me.”
The Java program is the latest in the University’s efforts to establish itself as a leader in STEM education. Just four years ago, it launched its engineering program — the first engineering graduates will walk the commencement stage in April — and it has partnered with such organizations as the Arizona Cyber Threat Response Alliance and added a master’s degree in cyber security.
Java certificate programs aren’t anything new. But GCU’s program, a collaboration between CSET and Strategic Employer Initiatives, is distinctive.
“Being tied to a university like GCU is what makes it totally different,” said Rob Loy, head of nondegreed programs, during one of the Java classes.
The classes are kept small intentionally. The current class touts seven students.
“We obviously have a smaller group here,” he said. “We’re dedicated to making sure they get the personal knowledge and attention. We really care about them being employed.”
The focus also is on students who, like Palowski, have earned a degree, are established in a career but are looking for a career change.
That focus makes for a unique classroom dynamic. Students in the class range from a retired military material supply manager, a couple of college students, a sales representative, a graphic designer and also cement truck driver Eric Stoll, who said he struggled to learn coding by himself before signing up for GCU’s Java program.
His dream, he said, is to work remotely so he and his wife can travel and work from anywhere in the world.
“Hopefully, in 10 years or so, we can do that dream,” he said.
Herman racked up quite a few credit hours as a student at GCU: “I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a while. I’ve always liked computers. Beforehand, I kind of jumped around majors, and I was working in a boutique. I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
So, like the others, she found her way to the Java boot camp.
“Diversity — that’s what we’re aiming for,” said boot camp instructor Stephen Williams, who taught the camp with Loy and associate IT professor Glenda Dilts.
Loy said one big change, going from the pilot program to this first camp, is moving from teaching Java Script, a front-end technology — and what most similar coding boot camps teach — to Java in the back end.
“They’re completely different technologies. Industry has told us, ‘We can find 10 people to do Java Script, but we can only find one person that does Java.’”
“I really like that it’s hands-on from the start,” Herman said of the camp. “I feel like in regular college classes, it takes a bit of time before you actually start writing code and getting into it.”
The students in the class spent a lot of time whiteboarding, in which they solve programming problems by writing code by hand on a whiteboard. They’ve done pair programming, in which one student writes the code and the other reviews each line of code. They listened to industry speakers and learned interviewing and resume techniques, too. Palowski and Herman actually landed their jobs after meeting representatives at GCU’s Engineering and Technology Job/Internship Fair in September.
They also talk about “I Do,” “We Do” and “You Do.” The instructor first covers concepts by writing code to solve a problem, while the students watch; then the instructor and students work on a solution to a second similar problem together; then the students solve a third similar problem individually, without instructor assistance. The instructor reviews a solution for the last problem after sufficient time for students to solve it on their own.
“It’s probably one of the best learning models I’ve ever seen in a boot camp-type setting,” Palowski said.
“It’s a great learning model, it really is,” said graphic designer and coder Koddie Becker. “On the ‘You Do,’ you figure out what it is exactly you don’t understand really quickly, so that way you have a chance to get help and ask somebody, ‘OK, I’m not getting this. I thought I got it.’ And then you go and try to do it yourself and you’re like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”
Students showed what they can do at a showcase Wednesday for faculty and industry leaders.
They presented three projects — a shopping list app; a banking database, in which the user can create a customer, add savings and checking accounts, and the like; and then the big capstone project, which was to help a nonprofit.
For the capstone project, students built a program for Back to School Clothing Drive that merged information from two databases — Salesforce and the Magneto Shopping Cart — into one report.
“They wanted us to build a program where they could sit there and they could pick out and generate reports based on their customer orders, customer information, order information,” Palowski said. But the information they needed is split into two databases. “… We had to design the piece that would grab from each database, collectively put the data together, then put it into an Excel format or PDF format.”
The team had one week to complete their capstone project.
Collabera National Account Manager Alicia Weitzel, who recruits for the IT industry, said she was amazed by the students’ presentations: “I’m very impressed. When you get in front of those interviewers, I can’t tell you how many times they will put you on the spot. You’re going to be so much further ahead (than other job candidates).”
Just ask Christina Herman what it was about this camp that helped her secure a job.
She just smiled and said, “Everything.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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