March 20, 2020

Interview With A Hiring Partner: Kevin Boers from Leapfrog Online

The Best bootcamps share a common goal: to help alumni jump start their new tech career with a job they love.

At Actualize, a robust network of hiring partners helps to create opportunities for students and better prepare them for careers in tech. We sat down with Kevin Boers, Director of Technology Operations at Actualize hiring partner Leapfrog Online, to learn more about how bootcamps and employers can work together.

Learn more about how Leapfrog Online partners with Actualize, what they look for in new hires, and how bootcamp grads can prepare for the the job market.

Tell us about Leapfrog Online. What does the company do, and what is your role there?

Leapfrog Online works with companies to improve and optimize their consumer journey. We take their data, combine it with our data and 3rd party data, and connect it across the entire consumer journey. By instrumenting the entire 'purchasing funnel' (from brand intention and ad impressions all the way to the final click), we can activate personalized experiences — at scale. To accomplish this, our engineering team has architected a robust service-oriented platform that allows our marketers to plug-and-play features based on client needs. In my role as Director of Technology Operations, I manage projects for the greater technology organization, with a focus on infrastructure and operations. In addition, I am responsible for hiring, on-boarding, and coaching engineers at the beginning of their careers, many of them straight from various coding bootcamps.

Leapfrog Online Engineers

How did you start working with Actualize?

Back in January of 2015, a friend of Leapfrog connected us with a recent Actualize (then known as 'Anyone Can Learn to Code') graduate, Chris Walsh. At the time, we were hiring Test Engineers for our team and, after interviewing Chris, we were all impressed enough to recruit him. After his graduation from Actualize, Chris continued to be active with the bootcamp program, serving as a mentor for the three cohorts following his and as a tech lead/mentor for a couple of the voluntary apprenticeships that Actualize students join after graduation. In that role, Chris was able to connect us to Zev Jacobs, the former COO of Actualize. We met Dev and Jay Wengrow, the founder, and started having conversations with Zev and attending Actualize's graduation showcases. Since then, we've hired five additional Actualize grads, and many more made it through first-round interviews here.

You've hired a number of Actualize graduates over the past few years. What roles have Actualize grads filled at Leapfrog?

Leading up to and including our first couple Actualize hires, we were recruiting people into our Test Engineering practice. As part of our on-boarding for that role, we had developed a short curriculum aimed at building good testing disciplines. The curriculum started by having the new hires build small testing scripts and then building multiple layers of abstraction on top of them, to increase their maintainability and scalability. As we started to hire more people from bootcamps, though, we realized that the bar for less-seasoned engineers had been raised, and we would need to evolve our practices. In response, we created our own bootcamp program with a 6-week curriculum designed to teach newer engineers about industry and Leapfrog best practices for building reliable, secure, scalable applications. All of our bootcamp hires go straight into this program, assuming the role of an Associate Software Engineer. Several have been since promoted to a Software Engineer role. Many are on a path for even more senior roles in the future.

Leapfrog Online Planning

Why do you think Actualize grads are a good fit for your team?

There are a couple reasons that Actualize grads fit well here. First, the very structure of the Actualize program seems to select for dedicated, driven personalities. The bootcamp takes place outside of business hours, on weeknights and weekends. That's fantastic for people who don't have the savings or desire to take a few months off of work, but it does mean that you're going to be working non-stop for quite a while (particularly if your day job is already demanding). Taking on that challenge and completing it successfully says a lot about you in terms of your drive to continue learning, which is one of the most important traits for someone entering the Software Engineering world — there's always more to know, more to learn.

Second, Actualize favors independent final projects; each student has their own capstone project at the end of the bootcamp. With other bootcamps we worked with, final projects were the result of a group effort, so it was often difficult to tell how much each group member contributed to the final product. With an individual capstone project, we get to see hands-on how much each student learned, and they are prepared to answer all of our questions about the challenges and opportunities that came along with it. The individual project also gives the student a chance to bring their other passions into the software realm and craft technology solutions for everyday questions and problems. Someone who is looking to reduce their carbon footprint can design an app to help calculate their impact on the Earth. Or, someone who loves to play basketball can build an app to help them find other people interested in a pick-up game around town. We love getting to see what people care about, and the ways that they've tried to solve them using their new engineering skills. It's an exciting thing to see someone get over the mental hurdle to the point that they realize that almost anything they can imagine is possible to create. We've found that people who apply their passion to build things they care about and want to nurture is a strong leading indicator of future success here at Leapfrog.

Bootcamps are a new form of education. Did you have any reservations about hiring from a bootcamp?

Personally speaking, I definitely was skeptical (another important trait for an engineer) that 3-6 months would be enough to acquire all the knowledge you would need to join an engineering team working on a complex project. How could that amount of experience stack up against people on the team who have *years* of experience implementing design patterns and using engineering best practices? As it turns out, that's the wrong question to ask. Any good and diverse team is going to have a wide array of different experiences that give you a number of different, valuable perspectives. Sometimes, a less-experienced perspective is exactly what you want, so that the team doesn't prematurely optimize the things they're building. Additionally, experience is not the only qualification — we've found that some people are just innately creative at problem solving, and that goes a long way. In any case, as a hiring manager, you should be looking to add different types of people and experience to your team. Otherwise, you might be creating a monoculture that is going to limit your teams unnecessarily. All that said, there is a fair amount of work to be done in preparing your team to bring in diverse and less-seasoned engineers. Just as law firms have the obligation to teach law students how to be practicing lawyers, you need to think about how you approach the continuing education of your engineers. In our case, we tackled the problem of teaching best practices by creating our own bootcamp. We were very fortunate to have a sufficiently compelling business case to gain buy-in from our leadership. So we were able to take the time to document the way we work and create a curriculum that aligns with the architecture of our platform. Other companies with fewer resources or less alignment could focus on documenting how they work and fostering a teaching hospital mentality.

What was most exciting about working with Actualize?

For me, the most exciting part about working with Actualize is getting to connect with the students in their program. We love attending the showcases where the graduates get to show off the products of their hard work. Talking to them in a science fair-like setting gives us a ton of insight into how they think and how they approach problems. With every showcase, it gets more difficult for us to choose which projects we like best — we love them all! We've also been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk to groups of students outside of the showcase. We've been able to sit down and talk about our program, about hiring in general, and about the state of the industry. They're eager to hear things from our perspective, and we're happy to share our approaches.

What are you looking for in a new hire?

One of the most important qualities we look for is demonstrated motivation and ability to continually expand their knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, Engineering is pretty high on the list of jobs that are constantly evolving. Obviously, there are a lot of practices and philosophies that exist mostly in their original forms, but there will always be new languages, new syntaxes, and new models for how to build abstractions. We can teach a lot of the practices and philosophies, but it's much harder to coach someone into being a lifelong learner if they're not already there. I'd also re-iterate the passion and creativity components. I really want to see that someone has found a novel solution to a problem that aligns with their interests.

Leapfrog Online Meeting

Walk us through your hiring process. How can a recent bootcamp grad prepare?

We recently evolved our hiring practices to have more of a focus on diversity and inclusion. This is partly because the entire industry is evolving and it's the right thing to do. But it's partly because of bootcamps. Bootcamp graduates have over twice the diversity of university Computer Science graduates — that's a great thing for us and the industry. With that in mind, we set out a couple years ago to make our team more inclusive and welcoming. A key component of that was updating our hiring practices to remove as much bias as possible.

The formal process starts with an anonymized questionnaire about the candidate's experience. We ask them not to reveal any component of their identity, and to not mention any specific projects. Instead, we ask them to describe their responses to a set of different challenges. In addition, we ask them about their non-industry experience, and how they feel they can bring that to bear on the types of problems that engineers are asked to solve. We also ask them about team dynamics and how they've overcome various challenges with communication, feedback, and problem solving. From there, the candidates move on to personal phone conversations with me. This is less of an interview than it is an information-sharing session. We talk about who we are, our values, and what the work looks like. Candidates then participate in a blind coding challenge. We ask the candidates to solve a set of problems in a language they're comfortable with.

Their submissions are then anonymized and passed off to a board of reviewers made up of people from all strata of our engineering team, who use a defined rubric to help them score the code. Candidates who move on from that step will now meet with a wide array of folks from our Technology, Product, and Leadership teams (excluding anyone who participated as a coding challenge reviewer). There is a technical interview with more coding challenges, and cultural interviews with a diverse set of representatives. At that point, we'll meet internally to come to a decision about who we want to invite to join the next cohort of our bootcamp.

Will you hire from Actualize in the future?

We will absolutely continue to hire from Actualize in the future! All five graduates that we've hired so far have thrived on our team, so we will continue to partner with Actualize.

What should other employers keep in mind if they wish to hire from a bootcamp?

To recap some of the points I've already made, I would say that it's worthwhile to step back and take a holistic look at your team culture as well as your hiring/onboarding practices. You need to set your team up for success, and you need to set up your new hires for success. If you haven't already started to incorporate diversity and inclusivity practices, start now. Think about what your team values are, and how you're going to communicate that to your new folks. Ask them for feedback, and do your best to meet everyone's individual learning styles. Create a mentorship program so that new folks have a buddy to talk to, and encourage them to grab a coffee together every once in a while. Also you need to think about how you're preparing new hires to work on your systems/platform. There's a lot of context and history built into your architecture; try to make that more transparent. Your bootcamp grad will be able to build apps, but they won't necessarily know how to scale them or make them secure. There are guiding principles that went into your software, and it's valuable to have that context when working on a new project. Diagram your systems from all levels, high to low. Finally, consider crafting a mentored project for your new hires that teaches them about the levels of abstraction in your system. With these practices, we've had great success in hiring, on-boarding, and retaining engineers at the beginning of their careers, and you can too!

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