Lambda School - Week 1: A Baptism By Fire

As mentioned last week, I started Lambda School’s Full-Stack Web Development program last Monday. If you don’t know what Lambda School is, check out my previous post first! In short, Lambda School offers 30-week programs in web development, data science, and iOS development, all of which are free until you get a job. If you don’t get a job, they don’t get paid.

As I move through the program, I want to give brief updates on my experiences, thoughts, and covered topics over the course of the ~7-month course.

Baptism By Fire

On January 7, I woke up at 05:00, went to the gym, showered, and sat down in front of my laptop at 09:00 sharp. (Lambda’s EU track starts at 8 AM GMT, I live on CET - hence the difference.)

Day 1 started off with a bang. We immediately got right into it and were bombarded with info. We got sorted into teams, met our Team Leads, and got a brief walkthrough of the normal workflow. We started off nice and slow; covering positioning and semantic HTML. Already knowing most of it, it felt like a gentle introduction to an otherwise hectic day.

Our instructor, Gabriel, was great. He explained things thoroughly and gave students plenty of opportunity for questions. He tried to break the ice and get students out of their shells. The initial awkwardness quickly abated and we got on with it. After a relatively easy project during the afternoon, we'd just finished our first day.

From what I could tell, the instructors, Team Leads and founders all share the same passion for both the subject and the end-goal of getting students job-ready.

Lambda is for real.

A Day In The Life

I’ve gotten more questions about Lambda School's schedule than almost any other thing. The first week had its fair share of introductory meetings and set-up, but it was mostly illustrative of what is to come.

Generally a day of Lambda School consists of the following:

  • 08:00 – A coding challenge on JavaScript or Python. These remind me of algorithmic challenges you'd do on HackerRank or CodeWars. It’s a great way to start the day. You’re in problem-solving mode and start the day off with a small win. If you complete the admittedly difficult challenge, that is;
  • 09:00 – Live instruction via Zoom on that day’s topic. There are regular 5-minute breaks, time for questions, hands-on demos, and micro-challenges. The students are also provided with mock projects they can use during the lecture to code along.
  • 11:00 – Lunch break. You’re highly encouraged to step away from the keyboard and exercise, relax, take a nap, whatever. Just to give your mind a moment to rest. Odds are you'll need it. I personally go for a quick run or do some light stretching or foam rolling.
  • 12:00 – Start on the day’s project. These (often fully-fledged) projects incorporate and test the topics covered that morning. You can opt to do these either by yourself or with a fellow student. Accompanying each are a number of stretch goals to further challenge you, should you finish early or want to work after-hours.
  • 15:45 – Wrap-up, daily reflection, identifying breakthroughs or challenges you had that day, and planning for tomorrow.
  • 16:15 – Finish up the day with a stand-up meeting with your team and Team Lead, answering any lingering questions, providing feedback on the completed project, and giving pointers on where to focus next.

From what I can tell, people tend to work around the rather arduous schedule in a number of ways. I personally wake up early (05:00-ish), go to the gym, shower, eat, meditate and review the class notes for that day’s lecture. (Students have access to a private wiki with recordings of previous lectures, relevant links, and the class notes themselves.) Others opt to wake up ~15 minutes before the first code challenge gets shared. I assume they do this to maximize the amount of free time they have in the evenings.

During lunch, I either take a nap or go for a run. Whatever the case, I have to step away from the computer for a bit. The project usually flies by in the blink of an eye, which only leaves wrap-up and the daily stand-up before classes are over for the day by 17:00 GTM (which’d be 18:00 for me).

In the evenings, I'll occasionally do an extra project for fun or review some extra material. I mostly spend it on maintaining some semblance of a social life, though.  Whatever the approach, the pace can be hectic. Honestly, I prefer it this way.

An approximation of what the pace is like.
An approximation of what the pace is like.

Tools Of The Trade

The pace on every four-day Sprint is intense. Every day, a new topic gets thrown at you, followed up by a project to further cement the knowledge. Fridays are reserved for a Sprint Challenge (an assignment testing that week's topics). For three hours, you're building a project as big and bad-ass as you can manage, based on guidelines given by Lambda. Depending on how you did, you’ll be receiving extra instruction and help and moving onto the next week. The Sprint Challenge is not meant as a test but rather as a general checkup to see if you're on-track.

This week, we covered the following:

  • Getting up and running with Git & GitHub;
  • Command Line Interfaces and how to use them;
  • The CSS Box model;
  • Positioning through Vanilla CSS;
  • CSS FlexBox & Grid;
  • Basic design principles like PixelPerfect;
  • The basics of UX design and accessibility;
  • Semantic HTML tags;
  • Basics of Search Engine Optimization.

Every single day has a number of stretch goals and skills the instructors encourage you to check out. I also opted to look into the following by myself:

  • The trade-offs between Yarn and NPM;
  • Brushed up on my knowledge about CSS preprocessors (which we’ll cover next week);
  • Played around with Media Queries and Keyframe animations for a bit;
  • Best practices for my Git workflow and how to write proper PRs.

Healthy Skepticism

After signing up for Lambda School, I was bombarded with questions by a number of people who were skeptical or on the fence. Some of the most common ones were:

  • Doesn’t an Income-Share Agreement imply indentured servitude?
  • How do they make lessons compelling despite only having digital instruction? Is the lack of physical presence noticeable? Is there enough sense of community between the students?
  • Is the curriculum up-to-par?
  • If it doesn't teach liberal arts or contribute to making you a better member of society, will it still make you a well-rounded member of society?

Now, I can answer almost all of these from experience.

An Income-Share Agreement would imply indentured servitude if they were subject to the same bankruptcy-exemptions and predatory interest rates of student loans. They're not. An Income-Share Agreement makes sure the incentives are aligned for both the school and the student. Since a school doesn’t get paid unless the student gets a job, they are incentivized to offer the best training they can and support a student in getting a jump. The student stands to benefit from a career change, a higher (semi-guaranteed) income, and not having to pay a dime until they actually get a job. The percentage of gross income you have to hand over might seem steep. Though given a large enough jump in income, your take-home pay will still increase. When the ISA is paid off, the take-home pay simply increases.

The fact that the ISA deduction is based on the student's pre-tax income is a bit of a downside. Given the fact that I live in the Netherlands where income taxes can go up to 50%, I am a bit worried. Nevertheless, it should be doable given a large enough increase in income.

Generally, I am extremely excited about ISAs and how they can disrupt the college loan industry. I expect to see a lot of growth and fanfare about this in the coming decade. I am probably going to be writing a more in-depth piece on this in future. Stay tuned!

The instruction, primarily done via Zoom, is definitely compelling enough for students to pay attention. The instructors definitely make it work. That’s not to say it’s flawless, though. There are some issues with microphones, spotty connectivity, and there are occasionally some hardware or software issues. As for community, the school-wide Slack channel is filled with people chatting back and forth, sharing gifs and tomfoolery, and people helping each other out with assignments or job hunts wherever they can. The founders also regularly reply to anyone with serious feedback or issues.

Honestly, I don't think it will measure up to the real community you'll find at a normal school or college. The closest approximation would be going to evening classes. You're there to learn, not necessarily for the campus life.

To touch on the previous point, the drawbacks are more than worth it for most people. Lambda has tried to hire some incredibly-talented teachers and have tried to work within the limitations of digital learning. Coming from a small town in the Netherlands, having access to such incredible talent and not having to fork over $200k+ for an Ivy League education is more than worth the few technical difficulties.

Finally, Lambda doesn’t cover the liberal arts or mold you into a well-rounded citizen. Guess what? Neither do most universities! I spent three years at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and never had the option of taking a single class that wasn’t related to my Business Major! (By the way, never go there for any length of time. There’s enough bureaucracy there to make Congress look efficient and lean.) As a matter of fact, I don’t know of a single university in Western Europe that covers liberal arts as part of every curriculum. There might be a couple out there, but it’s mostly an American thing. Fact is, Lambda is a vocational school. Think of it as a trade school, where you'd go to become a welder or plumber. You attend to learn skills to either get a job or start your own business. We don’t force mechanics-to-be to read Hamlet, do we?

State of the Lambda Union

This week wasn't too challenging. There were a couple of little tidbits that I did pick up on. Mind you, this is from someone who's already worked as a web developer. So it was to be expected. I'm hoping that the difficulty will ramp up over the course of the next few weeks. I would've liked to have some of the material be covered in the pre-coursework rather than during the actual program. Things like semantic HTML tags and the Box Model could be covered with a quick 20 minute video, not a full day of classes. That's my only critique so far. Set higher standards for entry.

So has everything been to my liking thus far? Pretty much, yes! So far, the school has delivered on what it promised. Warts and all. They’re still a startup that’s rapidly improving and growing. Not everything will work perfectly during its first run. Things break. However, Lambda’s response when things do break has reassured me more than anything else.

So far, it seems Lambda School is the real deal.

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