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Alumni-Founded Fullstack Academy Offers Cutting-Edge Coding Education

7/20/2016 4:12:00 PM Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

At a classroom a few blocks away from New York’s Battery Park, a cohort of aspiring programmers are hard at work, tossing around ideas, hacking together projects, and building their software development skills from the ground up.

David Yang
David Yang

This is Fullstack Academy, an immersive software engineering school founded by Illinois alumni and software professionals David Yang (BSEE '04) and Nimit Maru (BS CS '04). Yang and Maru met as freshmen at Illinois at an election meeting for Engineering Freshman Committee, and rapidly became best friends through the course of their college career.

“I didn’t know anyone, and sat down after my speech, and David tapped me on the shoulder and asked ‘What operating system do you run?’” Maru said. “I sat there and instantly thought ‘This kid really gets me.’ And we’ve been best friends since.”

Nimit Maru
Nimit Maru

After graduating and spending a few years on career tracks in software engineering and entrepreneurship, both decided to quit their current positions and started teaching a series of coding workshops at MBA programs and colleges across the nation. Realizing their passion for teaching, the two went through a rigorous entrepreneurship training process through seed fund provider Y Combinator, and came out with the idea and funds for Fullstack Academy, which they founded in 2012.

At Fullstack’s campus in New York, Yang and Maru try to recreate a bustling college atmosphere. Students from all age ranges and careers, typically ranging anywhere from fresh college graduates to middle-aged career transitioners, take three months off to stay in New York and dedicate time and effort to intensively mastering software development. Maru noted that the student body at Fullstack comes from more than 17 different countries, from Hong Kong to Moscow. Fullstack boasts a 97 percent employment rate for its alumni, and students from the boot camp have gone on to work at companies like Dropbox, Accenture, and Visa, and some have formed their own startups, like

Yang and Maru grew up in the Midwest and worked in places as diverse as Philadelphia and the Bay Area, and they settled on New York as the location for their academy. At first, the choice seems odd, as conventionally Silicon Valley is popularized as the nation’s hotbed of digital innovation.

“We’ve both worked in the valley, but there’s something magical about New York,” Yang said. “It’s the most frenetic place in the world, there’s so much energy here, especially in the tech ecosystem. New York is becoming the next Silicon Valley, and tech seems much more applied here; there are rapidly growing industries in technology for finance, e-commerce, and fashion. Every industry is being reimagined here.”

Fullstack’s overall philosophy of education is to make students comfortable developing for the entire range of low to high-level web development: the literal full stack of development areas, from base levels of data manipulation to high levels of design. This is also why the academy chooses to teach its students JavaScript. While many other boot camps provide a grounding in Ruby on Rails, Fullstack argues that JavaScript is the only language that is used at every layer in the stack of web development.

Yang and Maru have implemented a project-oriented approach to learning at Fullstack, and students have responded with a variety of projects that apply the coding skills they’ve learned to areas that inspire them. These areas could range from the whimsical to the real-world, and some of Fullstack’s students even tie their newfound coding knowledge in with social justice issues.

Students collaborating on a project at Fullstack Academy.
Students collaborating on a project at Fullstack Academy.

For example, students Seema Ullal and Sarah Muenzinger created an algorithm called the Bechdelator, which analyzes movie scripts through the famous Bechdel test for their representations of female characters. This test, created by feminist artist and writer Alison Bechdel, has one basic criterion: two female characters have to have a conversation about something other than men.

Ullal and Muenzinger built their algorithm as a web scraper that could search for and analyze any script the user was curious about, analyzing female speaking parts, and combing conversations between women for male pronouns.

The environment at Fullstack is rigorous, creative, and collaborative, and Yang and Maru admit they’ve worked very hard to make it that way. Their natural inspiration was, in fact, the undergraduate environment at ECE ILLINOIS.

“After graduating, I realized there were so many amazing things at Illinois that I took for granted,” Yang said. “We owe a lot of gratitude to Illinois, and work hard at Fullstack to create an atmosphere that Illinois has by default, in terms of the incredible number of extracurricular activities, clubs, projects, and hackathons available to students there.