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This is not a test, this is a summer camp - part #1

This is the first part of the story about setting up a live remote coding workshop in the midst an economic downturn. Part one is about the circumstances that led to all this and the way we're going with the flow.

Let's try to do this differently

I knew the road to starting a company is rocky, but dealing with the sudden surge of a pandemic was not on my radar. Once the risks of COVID-19 became clearer and the measures to stop the spread of the virus started to take shape back in March, their impact on our social lives and the projected consequences for our economy forced all of us to start coping with the idea of a future that is way more uncertain than just a couple of weeks before. If this mental state reminds you of what grief must feel like, you're not wrong.

I guess Daniel and I have arrived at the final stage of the grieving process relatively quickly: acceptance for us meant, let's move ahead and change our initial plan of opening our own coding bootcamp for now and figure out how we can contribute in a meaningful way to help people. Unlike with other natural disasters, there is no blueprint for what you should do in order to support your community (beyond the social distancing and hygiene measures), so we had to get creative. That's how we ended up with the concept of a free live remote data engineering course for individuals and businesses who (we think) can leverage the value of this type of expertise to a) reduce the risk of unemployment by diversifying their competencies and to b) enable organisations to become more efficient and therefore more resilient to an economic slump. Teaching data engineering might not sound as compassionate as organising the umpty-umpth hackathon against corona where the only comprehensible output is the participants’ vehement virtue signalling under a new hashtag, but hey, that's what we think we're good at. It was reassuring to see a lot of companies launching their makeshift initiatives to actually help others in need parallel to us in the following weeks, I think Tom Hayton put it very well in his new book comparing this process to the movie classic, Groundhog Day:

[...] Phil eventually realises that he can turn the situation to his advantage, mastering new skills and trying to win over a love interest. Only when he focuses his energy on serving others, though, does he achieve true fulfilment and happiness... [...]

Before you accuse us of being not just utterly handsome and smart, but extremely generous and altruistic as well, allow me to set the record straight: we have told all interested participants that ex post facto we would like to have one thing in exchange: their feedback.

Preparation for validation

So the overarching concept of the Pipeline Data Engineering Summer Camp was born, but the details had to be worked out:

  • What is a good intersection of useful, valuable data engineering expertise and practical content that we can transfer to our participants in a five day workshop?

  • What are the technical and methodological constraints of using live videoconferencing instead of a real classroom experience? How do we need to change our approach?

  • What can we expect from our participants? What should they expect from us?

  • What platforms and tools should we use for the virtual classroom and communication in general?

  • How do we make it motivating and fun?

  • How do we stay on top of our personal obligations (babysitting, homeschooling, watching Tiger King etc.) and manage WFH in parallel?

Don't get me wrong, it's not that there is no literature on these topics or we haven't thought about them before, but our approach based on our gut feeling has to be verified, adjusted and tested before launch.

This workshop is supposed to resemble a miniature version of our original plan, a full-blown coding bootcamp for data engineering. Our vision for creating a broader platform for the data workers of the future remains untouched, we've only adjusted the next step on the roadmap. This is important because in order to understand our rapidly growing niche even better we have to hear what works and what doesn't, especially now, when consumer sentiment and attitude are on the brink of a major realignment. Needless to say, we have a very good idea about what we should be teaching and who our ideal corporate partners would be, yet the question remains: what do our customers think about our ideas? We have to validate our assumptions and gain direct feedback from our target group(s), and this is what the Summer Camp can be used as a vehicle for.

Ultimately, we're trying to create a win-win situation here: first and foremost our participants should benefit from the workshop and based on the gained experience and feedback we should get better at what we do as well. Even though our initial motive came from a selfless place, in the end our intention has forked: helping others while helping ourselves.

Less talk, more rock

Carving out the details included sticking to our guiding principles when doing business: creating value for every stakeholder involved through an enjoyable high-quality experience. Achieving this required some ground rules, so Daniel and I agreed to the following:

  • No more than eight participants so we have sufficient time to focus on each person's individual challenges,

  • As little frontal teaching as possible, individual problem solving and working in pairs is going to be encouraged,

  • The goal for everyone is to deliver an end-to-end data product in five days, so the workshop will be extremely hands-on,

  • The scope and the way we interact with the participants should resemble our fairly unique approach to the subject matter ("the little black dress vs. fast fashion"),

  • The party is going to be invite only, it's meant for the network of our networks in the first place to make sure that we have participants who benefit from the camp.

After we've set the date to end of May, we started reaching out to our respective networks in order to fill the virtual room with the right people. Our assumption in April was that with the lockdown still going strong and with online courses experiencing a renaissance (especially the ones revolving around data), with the job market being in a major turmoil and with organisations still trying to get accustomed to the new normal, the demand for a free workshop about a red-hot topic like data engineering will be through the roof.

Well, this turned out only to be half-right: we've offered a spot to only 15-18 data leaders from Berlin (CTOs, CEOs, engineering leads, head of product etc.) asking them to nominate somebody from their respective data/tech teams for the workshop if they think they have a person who's a good fit (has the basics, is eager to learn and would benefit from the camp) and in case they can release them from work for a full week. In addition, we had two spots reserved for people who we knew directly and expressed interest in taking part. After two weeks with some back-and-forth about availability, we've had eight people on the list.

In the meantime, both of us were busy setting up the tools required for class communication (this involved some cursing), benchmarking competing services for live remote education (a lot more cursing), doing actual live rehearsals to get accustomed to the online format and making sure that the agenda and the schedule work fine. We've picked Zoom for videoconferencing not because it is good in any way, but it's the best out there. Using it was just like you would expect it: like sitting on a plane that is being assembled during takeoff while the flight attendant explains the nuanced meaning of the word 'operational' and their unique concept of security.

Ready for liftoff

Just a couple of days before the workshop one participant had to drop off due to an unforeseen conflict in their schedule. By sheer coincidence, the same day a person reached out to Daniel via LinkedIn: he was looking for some guidance to get his foot in the door in the world of data engineering and prepare for a new chapter of his career. He was not aware of the summer camp as we kept it under the radar (no public promotion at all), but after he learned about the scope, he was in. We've ended up with a data scientist, data engineers with different levels of experience, two data analysts and a software engineer with background in mobile and backend development on the roster. It was the perfect mix of varying skill levels and competencies, the fact that we had people from prestigious startups and scale-ups from the Berlin scene was just icing on the cake. We were ready to go.

Part #2 is about how the summer camp went and the feedback we've received. Follow us on social media and sign up to our newsletter to learn more about our adventure!