Life reprogrammed: Inside the infomercial

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 Zip Code Wilmington student Sean Strauss presents a project to his classmates. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Zip Code Wilmington student Sean Strauss presents a project to his classmates. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

This is the second installment of a four-part series that follows two young men through a 90-day software coding boot camp. You can hear part one here.

The pitch for Zip Code Wilmington sounds like something you’d hear at 3 a.m. in between reruns of “Bonanza.” Something like …

For the low, low price of $2,000 you too can transform your life in just 90 days.

Tariq Hook, Zip Code’s lead instructor, hears it, too. 

“It does sound a little too good to be true,” he says.

So before going any further, let’s define what Zip Code Wilmington is. And what it isn’t.

The 90-day boot camp runs Monday through Friday. It’s officially 9 to 5, but most students spend 50 hours a week or more at school. And that’s before counting homework.

As the boot camp portion ends, the students will apply for six-month apprenticeships at a handful of preselected companies. They include financial giants JP Morgan and Capital One, as well as local, boutique firms. The companies pledge to pay the students a starting salary of roughly $25 an hour — and they pay Zip Code $10,000 for the training their new hires have received. The students owe just $2,000.

Work ready

Now Zip Code isn’t claiming it can produce coding wizards — just that it can produce work-ready developers to meet the predefined needs of select companies. And it isn’t claiming that just anybody can be work-ready after 90 days.

One hundred and forty people applied for Zip Code’s first class. After a five-step application process with multiple interviews and a logic test, 19 were left standing.

“We’re definitely picking folks who not only have the desire to this, but we’re picking those people who may not have understood they had this innate talent,” says Anthony Pisapia, Zip Code’s head of school. 

But like the 3 a.m. infomercial, there is something distinctly American about Zip Code — the idea that no matter who you are or where you are, there is always room for reinvention. So long as you’re willing to work hard and take risks.

“Technology has always offered these opportunities, whether it’s the technology that made Henry Ford and the production line possible or the printing press,” says Pisapia. “Technology has always allowed people who are on the cutting edge and learning quickly the opportunity to really get ahead and form a new path.”

Beginnings

For Zip Code students, that new path begins on a Tuesday in early September.

Zip Code occupies the third floor of a prominent skyscraper in downtown Wilmington (the building was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei). The school’s layout is simple and open — a large room ringed by a half-dozen offices and conference rooms. Clusters of desks — each with four computer monitors — dot the main room. And except for two mounted television monitors, the walls are largely unadorned.

Students trickle in early on the first day, starting around 8 am. Hook, the instructor greets each with a bellowing hello. The veteran software developer has a big personality and an even bigger laugh. He is the tone setter and the pacesetter.

“We’re gonna go fast,” he warns the students on their first day.

Zip Code is light on structure. Students receive roughly three lectures a week and complete readings at home. They spend most of their time on group coding projects — with each group working at its own pace in its own corner of the main room. It is a workplace environment that occasionally resembles a classroom — not the other way around.

Hook and his fellow instructor, Froilan Miranda, provide guidance, and they occasionally intervene when students appear desperate. For the most part, though, students find their own way, either by asking a peer or consulting a search engine.

“It’s not my job to beat the information into your heads,” Hook tells the class on day one. “It’s your job to make me teach you.”

Welcome to ‘Woundsday’

Hook sees learning as a series of peaks and valleys. He shoves students out of their comfort zones and into what he calls the valley of despair — and then offers a hand up as they climb out.

Within a month, that pattern starts to play out on a weekly basis. Hook introduces a new project on Monday that tests some concept the students are trying to master. One example:  Code a program that would rank users based on their usefulness in a Zombie apocalypse.

Students make a little progress on Tuesday. By Wednesday, their progress stalled, they begin to despair.

“Take things in smaller chunks. You guys are taking too big of bites out of things and it’s starting to frustrate you,” Hook tells the students during one of these Wednesday nosedives. “All of you choked this morning.”

Hook calls these midweek sessions “Hurt Locker Wednesdays.” One student offers an alternative moniker — Woundsday.

“Woundsday,” Hook says with a laugh. “ I like that even better! Woundsday.”

The students see a sliver of light on Thursday. By Friday, they’ve broken through and are ready to present completed projects. And if that isn’t satisfaction enough, sometimes Hook throws in a little extra prize — like, say, a class trip to play dodge ball at a nearby trampoline park.

But as the students move toward the end of September, it’s clear some aren’t emerging from the valley every Friday. Two have already dropped out. And Joel Guevara, the former carpenter we profiled in part one — he’s thinking of joining them.

In the next installment, we catch up with Joel and his colleague, Sean Strauss, as they tackle the most daunting intellectual challenge of their lives.

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