Why I feel at home at Dev Academy

Emma McKenzie shares her experience at Enspiral Dev Academy.

The Dev Academy staff from both Auckland and Wellington campuses

Enspiral Dev Academy is a New Zealand web development programme that takes students of any level and trains them to become junior web developers through 9 weeks of remote learning and an intensive 9 week in-class bootcamp.

86% of Dev Academy students who graduated over four months ago have found work in the tech industry. The Productivity Commission’s report into tertiary education referred to BusinessNZ who noted that learning was different at Dev Academy, “project-based and hands on under the guidance of a mentor and expert teacher… students graduate [with] a body of work (or portfolio of evidence) to show to potential employers, together with the skills and experience to do the job” (p.322). The report added a submission from Ed. Collective, who had talked to tech employers. “One put it bluntly, ‘we would hire someone out of Enspiral’s Dev Academy before we took a uni grad’” (p.322). The evidence shows that it’s clearly an exceptional learning environment.

But when I entered Dev Academy as an intern from Victoria University, I was immediately struck by the sense that there was something else going on too. Startup CEOs were chatting to second-week web development students over fairtrade coffee in the kitchen. Dev Academy teachers were taking a break to play foozeball while discussing sexism in artificial intelligence. Graduates from years ago were popping in for vegetarian lunches to share stories of their new jobs at Xero or Powershop. There was a sense of community that was overwhelming. Through the enormous amount of diversity in the room, it felt like everyone belonged there, and I wanted to belong there too. Once I realised I had already been invited to belong, I did a little digging to find out how and why this was the case.

Dev Academy team caption

Dev Academy’s points of difference seem to stem from three key factors: its kaupapa, the energy put into wellbeing, and the importance of creating an inclusive community.

Dev Academy co-founder Rohan Wakefield spoke to me about the kaupapa, stating “empathy, kindness, integrity and effort are the pillars that hold up Dev Academy.” Rohan saw these values as integral to being a great web developer, but also found they were deficient in nearly every business. So when he and Joshua Vial were starting Dev Academy, they thought, “Why don’t we train for this?” They saw that it could be beneficial in any workplace.

This is the key driver of Dev Academy’s kaupapa: getting students ready for employment in the real world by training them to create a better world — for people, for community, for business and for the tech industry. Rohan notes, “Most conventional learning spaces are aiming for bums on seats and paper qualifications. We’re aiming for something different. We’re aiming for employment.”

To do this, Rohan follows the journey of every student, showing what they should be aiming for day-to-day if they want to get employment. He runs career support, helping students with important aspects of finding a job such as confidence, CVs, cover letters, networking, interviewing, how to approach a company and how to get feedback after an interview. After this he is a point of call for ongoing career support. He has graduates coming back to him after their second and third jobs for help getting even better work, which shows that this support is valuable to the students.

Human skills facilitator Sarrah Jayne is in charge of the pastoral care support that the students receive. Every staff member has an integral role in generating the most caring environment where students can learn, grow into their own and become ready to enter into the working world of IT. Sarrah notes that employers come back with feedback that their graduates from Dev Academy are “changing, learning and growing faster than anyone they’ve ever employed before.” This indicates that the focus on wellbeing is effective.

The Human Skills program is an 8 week deep-dive into the interpersonal and communication skills that are integral to becoming a great developer, but are currently lacking in the tech industry. It covers topics such as giving and receiving feedback, internal dialogue, navigating the inner critic, and resolving conflict. These skills increase employability, but are ignored by many tech institutions. Sarrah states that Human Skills is all about the how. “The JavaScript is about the what they’re learning, this is really all about the how they’re learning it, how they’re learning in pairs, what’s holding them back”.

As a result, students come out of the bootcamp journey having learned a lot about themselves, and having “really built resilience and adaptability as employees and team members”. The Human Skills curriculum is so effective that Sarrah is taking the programme out into the tech industry for businesses. “We’ve just had so many requests to share this material with the sector, so we’re now running workshops for corporate clients to change the nature of their workplaces. It’s fantastic!”

Sarrah also runs one-on-one sessions with each student every week, which helps Dev Academy create the best environment for students to grow. She is passionate about making students feel supported, “because we do care, we want them to succeed”. Sarrah loves seeing the transformation that students go through and the feedback she receives. “A lot of them have said that they feel really cared for throughout the course. We’ve had a lot of students saying that, ‘Look, I’ve tried university and it wasn’t for me and then I’ve come here,’ and they’re like ‘Yeah wow!’ and really love it.” She states that stewardship is a huge part of creating that experience for students, arguing that everyone in an intensive programme needs and deserves that kind of care and attention.

Ming Janssen, the space and community manager of the Wellington campus, also plays a huge part in creating the supportive environment at Dev Academy. She runs events, including community lunches and hui, movie nights and yoga sessions. She feels that yoga, meditation and pastoral care all provide a balance to the intellectual work of web development, and this balance helps foster resilience.

When asked about their favourite parts of their roles, Sarrah, Ming and Rohan all declared that it was seeing students grow and transform. This transformation and enabling of students is something that Dev Academy strives for. Rohan states, “We’re not interested in this standardised type of education… we want a hugely diverse and interestingly different group of people coming out of our programme, that have qualities and a baseline of brilliant technical skill, but are diverse in their own way.” He believes that this an integral part of Dev Academy’s mission: to graduate students that will “be scooped up by the market”.

So between the employment aim, the wellbeing focus, the pastoral care and value of balance, the commitment to community and the mission of diversity and inclusivity, Dev Academy seems to have created a place that feels like home. Empathy, kindness, integrity and effort abound through every aspect of Dev Academy life, and, on top of the razor sharp technical curriculum, that must be why the programme produces such well rounded graduates.

I was only at Dev Academy for two months during my internship, but I learned so much about working in a team, and what it takes to create a workplace and a learning environment that enables everyone in it to flourish. I’ll leave the internship having learned a lot, but also with a sense of belonging that means I’ll definitely return to the Dev Academy space again and again to check in with everyone, see how they’re evolving, and just to be part of something bigger. A kaupapa and a movement to prepare students for work by training them to create a better world — for people, for community, for business and for the tech industry.

If you’d like to join the kaupapa, apply now for Dev Academy. You could be graduating with the tech skills to transform the future in just 18 weeks.