Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

410: Ada Developers Academy with Alexandra Holien

February 10th, 2022

Alexandra Holien is the Vice President of Revenue and Strategy and Deputy Director of Ada Developers Academy. She talks with Chad about working for a nonprofit that prioritizes teaching Black, Brown, Latinx, Indigenous, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and low-income folks software development for free.

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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Alexandra Holien, Vice President of Revenue and Strategy and Deputy Director of Ada Developers Academy. Alexandra, thank you for joining me.

ALEXANDRA: Thank you for having me. I'm excited.

CHAD: Let's start right off the bat with giving folks a brief overview of what Ada actually is.

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I'd love to. Ada Developers Academy we are a super unique non-profit, and I think, well-functioning business. We're a tuition-free 11-month software developing bootcamp academy for women and gender-expansive people. That may sound like some of the other bootcamps you've seen out there, but we're completely different. We have this really cool intersection of education, social justice, equity, bringing money to the people that need money sort of drive about us.

We prioritize serving Black, Latine, Indigenous, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander folks, and low-income folks. And we prioritize them because they've been left out of this capitalistic system the most. And we think if we can really put money in the hands of these gorgeous, resilient communities through the career of software development and one of the hugest wealth engines of our time, then we're going to change the world. We're crazy because it's like we're free for our students.

CHAD: [chuckles]

ALEXANDRA: There are wraparound services, ridiculous, not even ridiculous, just like, natural. And it seems unique, and it seems crazy. But these things that we're doing to support our students are actually just human and basic needs, providing comprehensive support for our students financially, childcare, mental health care, free laptops, just making sure that they're set up for success, unlike I think other more traditional education systems. So they can go and be really amazing software developers.

And it's proven time and time again if you just set people up, open the door, give them the opportunity, make sure that you're creating equity, then 92% of those folks what we're seeing is our numbers are going to go out there and get full-time software development jobs. So that's Ada in the smallest nutshell and believe me, I'm going to tell you way more.

CHAD: Well, we're going to dig into each of those things and more. I interview a lot of people who graduate from bootcamps. We have a pretty wide-reaching apprentice program. And I'm pretty familiar with what it looks like when people are graduating from those programs. And you can graduate from a three-month program and be successful, and I don't mean to imply that you can't be.

But I do see folks who go to slightly longer programs, up to 11 months, a year like at Ada, and those people are often much more well-rounded developers not only with the technical skills but with all of the other skills that are important to development. How intentional was the length of the curriculum? And was there pressure early on to get people into the market faster?

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, great question. I think that so many...let me answer your first question, which is how intentional was it? It had to be at the forefront of what we wanted to do. And the reason why it had to be is that we were taking a group of people that had already been left out of the system.

And we already knew that there were going to be steps that they had to take to get, once they got into the tech industry, getting in and staying in was going to be harder than their counterparts, harder than the white dude who took apart a computer or a Nintendo when they were in the 80s and growing up because their dads were software engineers. And then went on to college and knew they were going to be software engineers.

So our founders, Scott Case and Elise Worthy, were so intentional in making sure that the technical bar and the technical merit of our students going into the industry was not what they were going to have to worry about. That was not going to be the thing that kept them up at night thinking like, oh, man, I don't know if I can do this because I don't understand it. That was not going to be it because we knew there were going to be other things.

We knew there were going to be people mistaking you for the secretary. And these are examples that are all true. It's mistaking you for the secretary or the person that's the assistant or the executive assistant when they walk into the room or that person that constantly misgenders you. We knew there were going to be other really big obstacles that they're going to have to overcome when walking into a very homogenous industry like the software development industry of the United States. We knew that that was going to be the big thing.

So being intentional about the programming that we were going to offer our students that five and a half months of nine-to-five intense programming that also concentrates on what I don't think a lot of bootcamps really concentrate on, that CS fundamentals part of it, showing people that that is a part of the world. It's not the part of the world of the most entry-level software engineers, but it is there, so showing them that that's there.

And then giving them that internship, giving them that on-the-job training that Ada does that no other bootcamp does like we do. That sort of on-the-job training where you go in, and you see what does that practice of what you learned in code look like in real-time when you put it next to one of our sponsoring companies' tech stack?

So it had to be really intentional. I don't know if it was like, yes, this has to be perfectly like this. I think we definitely iterated and made it better over the years. But making sure that the technical bar of our students was at the technical bar of everyone else was something that we really wanted to make sure that we hit on. So they didn't have to worry retention was not that they couldn't quote, "hack it" like everyone else like the people say, or they didn't have the aptitude. The retention was all about is the company creating a good enough environment for these folks to want to stay at that point?

CHAD: What is the tech stack that you're teaching now?

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, we just switched. We talked about this for a little bit. We just switched from our beloved Ruby on Rails. We were Ruby on Rails for a very long time. But we just switched to Python, React, JavaScript. HTML and CSS is part of our curriculum. And yeah, that's it, Python, React, JavaScript.

CHAD: I don't take the switch away from Rails personally. [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: People did. We had companies being like, "What are you doing? We love Ruby." And we were like, "Yes, we do too, but we had to move forward and on." [laughs] Ada started at the same time Ruby was in the spotlight, too, eight years ago.

CHAD: So is that what you're seeing in the industry now, is Python, React are in more development, in more demand?

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, we're seeing that definitely come up. We put together a steering committee for our curriculum when we made this switch. We basically just brought in our partners to help us like, okay, what is the thing because, you know, our partners range...every cohort, we have a company that sponsors the education of one of our students, and then they take that student on as an intern. So we can't please everyone. We knew we couldn't please everyone here. But we wanted to find a good middle, and Python seemed like a really good middle. Python, React was a good middle for us to go towards for just the future.

Eight years from now, again, we'll probably be in the same place we are right now. But we say it's like teaching Spanish. We're not teaching you building out a bunch of Python engineers. We're building out people that know how to be agile, know how to learn different curriculums, know how to be flexible and all that, and know that the industry is changing, and you have to be a lifelong learner, right?

CHAD: Yeah.

ALEXANDRA: You know this to be a part of this industry.

CHAD: Well, beyond the tech, what are some of the other things that students in Ada learn or focus on over the course of the program?

ALEXANDRA: I would say our curriculum is broken out into three distinctive pieces that are all a part of our everyday classroom. So that first part being that technical part that our students really are just getting the chops of what it means to be a software engineer, understanding a full tech stack, understanding the frontend, backend, the APIs that all connect the stuff, just making someone that sort of bare bones of what I think is a good software engineer.

The next step is that social justice piece, which is held up by our equity and policy team. They're really teaching students once you get in the door, it's not just about getting in the door; it's about staying in the room. And it's about not just diversity; it's about inclusion. And we're seeing that we cannot just expect just because someone's decided to sponsor an Ada student, we can't expect someone knowing how to support someone that is outside of what they've supported in the past, and we know what that looks like.

So we have to really create students who know what allyship looks like, know what advocacy for themselves looks like. So they can really manage up in this process, bring people in. We do not want to say someone did something or said something to me, so we're just going to push these people away because we found that when you push those people away, especially in the tech software engineering space, you're really just left out of it. You're just out of the system. So we have to figure out how to change the system from within.

So really teaching students how they can talk about gender expression, how they can talk about racial expression, how they can advocate for themselves while they're on the job. And the goal of all of this is actually to keep people on tech. We don't want our students having to talk about these things all the time. We want them to be talking about the tech that they're doing just like they want. And so we want to just keep things as much on tech as possible.

The third part is our professional development part. How do you manager up, take yourself in that first block to that SE2 SE3? And that's just helping folks with career development.

CHAD: When it comes to the inclusion piece, I imagine it's a little bit of a fine line to walk because you don't necessarily want to put all of the work of creating an inclusive environment on the people who have been historically marginalized. But at the same time, you want to set those people up for success coming out of your program. How directly do you provide training to the companies that are sponsoring?

ALEXANDRA: Completely directly. [laughter] We know that if we can get a whole...I would say I sign people at the CTO level and the senior manager level. They have the budget. They're the ones pulling the purse strings. But once we figure out, once you sign on as a company, your manager and mentor are going through our corporate accountability training. While our students are learning the technical part of it, our managers and mentors are going through a monthly training with our team to make sure they are ready to receive these interns. So when that intern comes on-site, they're speaking the same language.

We're not only teaching the students how to be allies and advocates. We're teaching the managers how to be. So many times, they're like, "Someone on my team keeps misgendering someone, and I don't know what to do." We had enough of those calls, so we decided to teach them what to do. And not only do we teach them, but we also put them in peer learning groups together so they can teach each other what to do because that's where they really start listening to each other. When two folks coming from the same background are having a conversation on how to be a better manager, we love that.

CHAD: Yeah, that's great. And I think that's really likely a very important component to overall success. Well, let's talk economics a little bit because I've gotten up on my soapbox before around how companies have traditionally been way too comfortable saying, "Well, we have this position open, and we're using recruiters." And the position has been vacant for months. And in the meantime, they're willing to pay recruiters tens of thousands of dollars trying to fill the position.

And I've always made the case like, tech and the way the economics work it would be better to invest that money that you're willing to give a recruiter into training people. When I learned about Ada, it really resonated with me. So what is the complete picture of how students afford to attend Ada, where the funding comes from, and how that all works out for them?

ALEXANDRA: Oh, you're speaking to the choir. [laughs] When I talk about this with companies, I am oftentimes like, "How much did you spend on recruiting last year?" And then they tell me the number, and I'm like, wow, okay. We work with companies we call them our company partners because they are partnering with us to complete this mission of Ada that we have, which is to educate more women and gender-expansive people to be software engineers.

Our business model is simple, but it works. We wanted to remove all barriers for entry for people that wanted to become software engineers within that group. So we wanted the program to be free. We knew that was always the case. We knew that there was this hole with bootcamps that was out there. This was seven, eight years ago where it was like people were going through these bootcamps and then not getting full-time jobs. And so we knew we didn't want to fall victim to that.

So what we did was put an internship on the backend and really got companies to not just put their money where their mouth is but put their time and resources where their mouth is. That's more money. So they pay $55,000, and that $55,000 educates the student while they're in class with us, keeps the program completely free for our students. And then the other part of their buy into this whole shebang is you have to now make this person a hireable junior engineer because they're going to do an internship with you. And then everyone's always like, okay, the return on investment. To me, the return on investment is you did good, company.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: But also, the return on investment for a lot of our company partners, I call it the icing on the cake because it is not a part of our model. It is 70% of them convert their students to full-time jobs, full-time FTE offers from these internships. We had a company give...they sponsored six interns, gave six offers, and then went on to do a hiring loop with our graduating cohort and gave another 23 offers.

CHAD: Wow.

ALEXANDRA: And this happens every six months. So these companies that are out there saying it's a pipeline problem or I'm just going to spend money on this recruiter to go find talent, I'm like, are you kidding me? We're either in your backyard, or we're a phone call, phone call, excuse me, an email away.

CHAD: [laughs] A fax away.

ALEXANDRA: I age myself. I said Rolodex to our students, and people didn't know what it was, and I was so embarrassed. I was like, wow, I guess a LinkedIn I'm sorry.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: But we're like, you know, the resource is there, the talent is there. We have 120 students in our cohorts, and that's only growing. We're expanding to Atlanta. We're expanding to the DC area. It's there. So when companies are like, "I don't know." I've seen us move the needle at mid-sized companies. There are companies like Amazon, and there are over 100 graduated Adies there. We've moved the needle.

So it's like, you just got to call or email at this point. There are other ways to do it. And if you keep going to the same well, you keep going to the colleges; you keep going to that recruit, yeah, you're going to fill up the same thing over and over again.

And we know 70% of jobs are received’re networking with your friends, and you’re networking with your peers. And if something like 75% of the industry is white dudes or just dudes in general, then we're just going to keep bringing in the same person. And it's not just diversity is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do, but it’s also like you build a better product, period. That's just a better product.

CHAD: Yeah, the different perspectives that people have, the different blind spots that people have. When you get rid of those, you build a better product.

ALEXANDRA: And we're talking about building the future here. We have to include the other 50% of the population. So it's imperative. It's not necessary; it is imperative we get up to that. You're at 40% in your company. We got to get up to 50%. We got to get a little bit more. And we got to make sure that 50% is diverse on all intersections of what diversity can mean.

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CHAD: So you mentioned the companies pay to sponsor individual students. You also have mentioned earlier in the conversation that you provide things like child care. So are the pooled resources of all of those sponsorships also going to pay for those additional benefits while in the program, or do you have another source of funds?

ALEXANDRA: We are still very much so a non-profit. [laughs] We have a good amount of philanthropic dollars coming our way, and it's individual donors. I would say one of our biggest clumps of donors, our biggest group of people that donate to Ada, are our alumni. They come out with 160% salary change, and they are the first people to see the value in giving back to Ada. We also have some major donors out there.

We just got a pretty large expansion grant from the Pivotal folks, which is Melinda French Gates, MacKenzie Bezos, and the Schusterman Foundation. They invested $10 million in helping us expand. That expansion has served more students. Wraparound services mostly come from philanthropic dollars. So donating to what we do, donating to keep our program equitable, is always very much needed because about 10% of our budget is all philanthropic dollars, and that's covering those wraparound services barriers to entry.

CHAD: Is healthcare one of the wraparound services that you provide?

ALEXANDRA: No. I wish. I mean, geez.

CHAD: I know.

ALEXANDRA: If the U.S. government gets it right, after they get it right, we'll follow soon. [laughter] But we're trying. We are trying to do it differently. We're trying to meet people where they are and see the reality of people's situations. And the reality is that if you're a woman or gender-expansive person and you want to take this chance, we offer a zero-interest either loan or a zero-interest grant that comes directly from Ada, or from our partner, Community Credit lab. And that's a zero-interest loan. We don't even check your credit. If you're in it with us, then we're going to get it in it with you.

And that zero-interest loan just gets recycled back to serve more people. So that zero-interest loan is while you're in class for that five and a half months, you're going to need still some money coming in. So we make sure you still have money coming in. The stipend hits when you get to internships, so from that 55,000, about 17 goes directly to the student for their stipend while they're interning.

Also, we give a childcare stipend. We're looking for a childcare partner out there because we really want to be able to make this more of a national program. But we're looking for that out there. But we give that stipend out to folks so they can pay for daycare or whatever they may need so they can actually come to the program.

We have a laptop program. You need a Mac to come to Ada. Everyone can't afford a Mac. We take donated Macs from companies that...companies sometimes give them a two-year life cycle for their Macs. So we can use it for another couple of years. So we take donations for Macs. And we also have a fund that we fund every year so people can buy a Mac.

And my favorite and I think one of the most needed things is we partner with BetterHelp and offer our students free therapy while they're in the classroom and while they're in their internship and a little bit after that as well. The free therapy was just...we're in a pandemic, and it's hit women hard. It's hit gender-expansive folks, parents, Brown folks, it's hit people hard. And so we're like, hey, why don't we, while you're in a pandemic, send you through the most rigorous part of your life? [laughs]

And so, making sure we were supporting people all around was really important to us. And it did nothing but create success for us. This did not make a deficit in our bottom line. This actually created more success for us. We saw when we did this; we got more people graduating. We get more people donating back. We get more people paying back their loans faster. So it just does nothing for the community but make it better and stronger. So we're going to continue to do it. It's going to continue to always be a part of who we are at Ada. But the wraparound services are key to the success.

CHAD: That's fantastic. So you mentioned you're expanding. Where is the original location?

ALEXANDRA: Seattle. We are a Seattle-based school.

CHAD: And you're expanding to Atlanta and DC you mentioned.

ALEXANDRA: Yeah. We first went digital because you know --

CHAD: That is what I was going to ask.

ALEXANDRA: [laughs]

CHAD: How have you dealt with the pandemic with a primarily in-person model previously? And then how has that affected your expansion plans?

ALEXANDRA: The pandemic was shitty and just horrible in so many ways. And out of a lot of shitty and horrible times, it creates a lot of innovation, and that's what it did. Our leadership team is a group of Brown parents. And they went to work immediately. We switched from being an in-person classroom where there's a lunch club, and a push-up club, and there are hugs everywhere and to being 100% online program in three days with systems. And companies were coming to us saying, "How are you creating community in this time?" So we did it very quickly. It taught us that we can educate people digitally.

So the first thing we decided to do is like we've got our digital cohort up and running. So still, I would say in quotes, "our Seattle cohort and digital cohort," but digital cohort basically means you're partnering with a company that is fully digital, and they are not attached to anything geographically. And that helped us expand to Atlanta because it helped us jump over the hurdle of like, oh, we have to go get a brick and mortar. We have to set up this brick and mortar. Instead, we just decided to educate people still digitally.

If you're in the Atlanta cohort, you're still having your education 100% online, and your internship is going to be in person with an Atlanta-based tech company. So you might be but and see [inaudible 24:11] in Atlanta later on, but we can educate you digitally. So we didn't have to slow this down.

We saw the need just like the amount of women that lost their jobs in the pandemic. We were completely energized by the fact that we can do this. We have people that believe in us. They're giving us money. They're funding this. We can do it. So we went for it. And Atlanta is the first campus. We already have staff there. We already have a campus director on point there.

And then, the next expansion will be to the DC area. And we're excited to do the same thing. It's educate them digitally because that's what we've been doing for the last few years, and we're good at it. And find but and see partnerships in DC because that's how we can really make sure we have good programming that we know they can do and then give them to the sponsoring companies to complete their programming with the internship.

CHAD: So where are the current limits of growth for you then?

ALEXANDRA: Current limits for growth, I mean, we've been such a Seattle-based place, and COVID pushed us into that national arena, so not a lot of people outside of our geography know who we are. Pacific Northwest was our sweet spot because people used to have to move to Seattle to be a part of Ada. So we got a lot of Californians. We got a lot of Oregons, Montana, Idaho, some Floridians because Florida knows about...we have a very huge population of Floridians. I don't know how they know, but they know.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: Our thing is, how do we get the Ada Developers Academy name and model out to the rest of the country? So they know that we are here, and we're an option for them if they want to become a software engineer.

CHAD: And right now, it sounds like you have your sights just set on the United States, not internationally.

ALEXANDRA: Not Internationally. I always joke about Ada at sea, but we'll see.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: Give me 10, 20 years to get that spun up. But I would just love to...[laughs] but yeah, over the next five years, there'll be five markets in Ada. By 2025, we're hoping to educate 10,000 women and gender-expansive people. We just graduated a class of 72 last Thursday. And we just admitted another class of 120 that starts in March. So we're chugging. But right now, it's Seattle, digital, Atlanta, DC. I imagine there'll be a Southern region, and then probably a Midwest region coming after that.

CHAD: So, and then you have the purely digital cohort too?

ALEXANDRA: Yep. And that's that sort of the sixth market, purely digital, which means there are so many companies that went fully remote and have no plan on coming back. And so that's just a market that we want to make sure that we're...we want people to opt into that. That's for some people who want to be fully remote forever. Some people are seeing that they need some sort of community while doing this work. And so they want to have a but and see internship. And there's every which way in between. So we'll figure it out as we move through this pandemic like the rest of the folks.

CHAD: You've shared some numbers there. And I think sometimes it's good to put that in context because people don't realize that 10,000, on one hand, sounds like a small number in the grand scheme of the United States. But actually, it's a very large number.

ALEXANDRA: It's huge.

CHAD: The U.S. only graduates around 65,000 CS graduates a year in the whole United States, so just to put that in context for people.

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, it's huge. I looked at the numbers for...I'm in Seattle, and I'll just say there's a college here, a large college here in Seattle, and they graduated 300 CS folks last year, and 20% of them were women. And we graduated in six months, 72 women and gender-expansive, and our focus is Brown folks, low socioeconomic folks. So you could just imagine underneath that umbrella of women, even under that, the diversity that you see. We're getting up there with some of our colleges, and we're doing this every six months.

And so it's a powerful model. It's the reason why I've been here for six years. It's the reason why I get really excited talking about this program. [laughs] I don't know if you can tell, but I get really excited talking about it. Because once people get in, they love being a part of our program, and they love being a partner with us. And it's a cool place to be. It just feels like a transformative place right now. And I think that we can really make a difference.

CHAD: Yeah, your excitement, and I'm a big believer in the opportunity. Your excitement is clear [laughs] when you're talking about it. How did you get into this work?

ALEXANDRA: I was in recruiting before. I did technical recruiting, contractor for a few different places. And I just saw the amount...and I came from a working-class. My family is from the Deep South in Louisiana. And the average income from the town I'm from is $26,000, and that was my reality.

And then, when I started technical recruiting, it was insane. The amount of wealth that was a part of this churn, the going to these colleges, early recruiting, paying people $6,000 a month, paying them a living stipend, making sure they had a plane ticket home, hot air balloons, tours of people's, you know, these millionaires houses. I was like, holy crap, this has to be more readily available.

And again, having two working-class black parents, they didn't even know what software development was. We didn't even know that was a possibility. My dad was like, "We're getting a computer," because he wanted to be on the forefront. And we got to that clear Mac that was like a purple color. We had that purple one.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: And my dad was like, "We've one." But still, there were kids in my school and in my college that had been around computers their whole lives; their schools had programming and things. So they just had that extra step. My opportunity to see in was recruiting. And after that, I was like, okay, where do I find the intersection of this and what I want to do, which is making sure that black folks have money? To be crude about it. [laughs] If we’re going to work and live in a capitalist society, then I want us to have some coins to play, and that is where I found Ada. And I love having this place.

I just get to be a part of this place where I just get to open doors or show people a door. They can open it themselves and go through, and just that's the amazing part of me, a part of this is watching people change their lives, buy their grandparents' homes, pay off their student debt, get a divorce, anything they want to do. [laughs] But to have the agency to do it in this world we live in, in the society we live in, and that's all I care about is that agency.

CHAD: Yeah, I was very privileged to be exposed to computers really early on and get to experience that spark of I love this. This is what I want to do. And I talk to so many people who just never had that opportunity to discover that that was even a thing that they could do, let alone love. It's just incredible when I meet someone who's like a plumber, and then they somehow get that exposure to computers or technology, and you see that spark go off for them. And it's amazing.

ALEXANDRA: It's so cool. It's one of my; our admissions process is pretty rigorous. I think the average is like 15% or 20%, depending on the cohort admissions process. And to hear how obsessed these airline stewardesses or hairdressers or mothers are obsessed with coding, I'm like, yes, yes. Or these folks who are like...Oh, we had this woman who she was an immigrant from...she fled Israel, and she came to the U.S. And she's like, the only thing she knew about coding before she started was she had one time saw someone with two screens in a movie.

CHAD: [laughs]

ALEXANDRA: And she saw them on the computer, and she saw two screens. And then she started going through finding free stuff online. She found Ada. And this person's sitting in front of me talking about how geek they are about arrays and loops, and I'm like, yes, this is amazing. And to watch that person graduate less than a year later with just the salary that she got from Microsoft, and just the feeling that she felt when she got to call home and say, "Hey, I'm a software engineer now," I was like, all day, all day. That's like the gravy for this.

CHAD: It has nothing to do with aptitude. It has everything to do with opportunity.

ALEXANDRA: Oh my gosh. Yeah, opportunities. Yeah, it's everything here.

CHAD: Well, that's great. And Ada is providing folks with that opportunity. And I am so excited to hear about it and share it with our audience. Hopefully, students are listening and want to sign up but also those sponsoring companies too, right?

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, for sure. Sponsoring companies too. We love you too. You keep the wheels on this bus. So definitely give us a call.

CHAD: So if folks want to get in touch, where's the best place for them to do that?

ALEXANDRA: Our website that's the best place to start, And there there is stuff on corporate partnership. If you sign up on the partners' email list, it leads you right to my email. And then, for students, we have full admissions. Our admissions opens in March for the next Atlanta cohort. There are going to be 48 seats in Atlanta, 60 seats digitally, and 60 seats in Seattle. I would say get ready for that via our website.

CHAD: Awesome. You can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode at along with all those links that Alexandra just mentioned and a transcript of the entire episode. If you have questions or comments, email us at You can find me on Twitter @cpytel.

This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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