There are those who know early on in life that they want to lead an education institution and develop the bright minds who will make meaningful contributions in the workforce. And then there’s Heather Payne, the founder and CEO of HackerYou.
“I didn’t study to be a teacher and didn’t have a plan in my life of getting into this kind of work at all,” she admits. “It came from looking at the situation at hand.”
The situation Payne is referring to is actually based on two different forces. First is the realization that, due to the ways we now buy, sell and manage our lives through digital channels, every company is starting to look more like a technology company. Then there are the big tech vendors, from Facebook and Google and beyond, who are setting up local offices in Canada.
Launched in 2012 as a not-for-profit aimed at women called Ladies Learning Code, HackerYou recently became one of the first institutions of its kind to achieve accreditation as a private career college through the Province of Ontario. It is on track to graduate more than 1,000 people from its full and part-time programs in 2018, according to Payne, an achievement that is largely based on the best kind of marketing.
“We’re seeing so much growth really because of word of mouth,” she says. “We’re lucky because the longer we’re around, the more students that are talking about what we do and how they’re having good experiences.”
The Educational Experience At HackerYou
If there are some jokes internally about the “HackerYou cult,” that’s okay with Payne. She says the organization deliberately wanted to create the same kind of easy-going collegiality that you might normally associate with a college sorority or fraternity. Payne actually describes it as a “summer camp” vibe.
“We’ve had so much feedback about how the environment we’ve created makes you feel like you’re a part of something here. They’ll say it’s so nice that it almost seems like it can’t be real.”
That said, studying at HackerYou doesn’t mean you’ll be working in a messy frat house. Four years ago the team designed its offices based on inspiration such as the Apple retail stores, with clean lines and furniture to make the space inviting.
HackerYou also keeps things lean with a dev team of seven, six instructors as well as a CTO. Everyone is responsible for ensuring curriculum stays as up to date as possible, given how quickly technology changes. The organization also has a culture of continuous improvement, Payne adds.
“Every time you run a program you learn things,” she says. “We’re passionate about being able to take those learnings and change to make things better. Only in our case, we’re not only going to make them one percent better. When you’re running a course 10 or 20 times a year, certainly your program is going to really improve.”
What Leads Students To HackerYou
One of the biggest challenges in staying employable is figuring out where to get started with digital technologies. This is HackerYou’s strength. According to Payne, its programs tend to be beginner-focused, getting people familiar with the core tools and techniques of things like web design, while also getting a sense of what it’s like to work on a team, client expectations and creating a product on a tight deadline. HackerYou will have at least 630 students who are coming to learn HTML and CSS in 2018, for example.
“We’re interested in anything that is having an impact on the tech industry and making sure our students are familiar with it,” she says.