Learning in Public: Springboard Students on How to Build Your Network and Take Charge of Your Career
Unsure which direction to take her career after graduating with a degree in English literature, Abby Morgan decided to keep her lucrative bartending job as she considered her next move. While she was eventually promoted to bar manager—overseeing inventory, invoicing, and a team of 5-10 bartenders—Morgan didn’t plan to stay in hospitality long-term.
Shortly after she and millions of other service industry professionals lost their jobs during the first wave of the pandemic, Morgan enrolled in the Data Science Career Track at Springboard. A brief stint working as a COVID-19 contact tracer had afforded Abby her first exposure to data science, and she was hooked.
A few months into the program, as Morgan started updating her LinkedIn profile and preparing for the job search, she was struggling to frame her prior bartending experience as a complement to her new data science skills—a common dilemma for career switchers. She turned to her mentor, LinkedIn groups, and Slack discussions with her fellow students for help.
“There was a point during my Springboard experience when I stumbled upon this idea of ‘learning in public,’” Morgan explains.
What Is Learning in Public?
Also known as networked learning or peer-to-peer learning, learning in public is an especially potent tool for those enrolled in online learning programs, which are often perceived as isolating and deficient in providing students with the accountability they need to complete their studies.
When students support each other throughout the learning process, whether virtually or in person, they naturally embrace more of a “take charge” mentality rather than passively ingesting information, while the instructor’s role changes from authoritative figure to shared learning facilitator.
“If anything, studying online has opened a lot of doors for me to talk to a wider network of people,” says Andrew McGrath, a student in Springboard’s Tech Sales Career Track. “We already communicate so much online as a society that it makes sense to use social media and messaging apps to build your network.”
Practicing networking techniques while studying—cold-emailing seasoned professionals to request informational interviews, working on problems with other students during virtual study groups, and posting about the learning journey on social media—reduces the perceived scariness of actual networking when it’s time to job search.
Students also emerge with a network of their own contacts including fellow students, alumni, as well as formal and informal mentors.
“Learning in public means being open, vulnerable, and humble about your learning experience, but at the same time being confident enough to share what you do know and ask for help when it comes to things you don’t know,” says Morgan.
Alongside 11 of her peers, Morgan was one of the first Springboard students to join the Community Advocates Program, a group of current students and recent alumni who mentor other students and organize virtual community events on a volunteer basis.
“While I was enrolled in Springboard, I began to appreciate what a community does for someone’s learning experience,” said Morgan. “So the prospect of being able to give back to other students really excited me.”
Peer organizers run events for students to connect with each other including study groups, workshops, fireside chats, panel discussions, hackathons, and more. There’s even a dedicated mental health meetup that convenes monthly on Saturdays for students to check in with each other. With the majority of Springboard students working full-time while studying at their own pace, having the support of those who are in the same boat goes a long way towards ensuring students finish their studies even when life gets in the way. Since the program started in April, over 40 community events have been hosted by students and Springboard staff.
“The program came about because historically many Springboard students and alumni have taken the initiative to form study groups or come back after graduating and offer advice to current students,” says Annalicia Anaya, a community lead at Springboard. “We wanted to work with students who cared a lot about community-building to design a program and identify resources that would make it easier for others to give back.”
Simulating On-The-Job Situations
While classrooms often try to simulate the work environment, they can’t prepare students for every conceivable situation. For example, what do you say if a senior executive disputes your data insights? Or if you push new code to production and it breaks the server? Or if your A/B tests return lukewarm responses for both versions of your designs?
“Software development is not usually a solo sport,” says Dave McConeghy, a student in Springboard’s Software Engineering Career Track and a peer organizer in the Community Advocates program. “So I’ve been focused on creating opportunities to put students side by side and give them coding challenges which they can work on together.”
These sessions give would-be developers the opportunity to engage in pair programming, an agile software development technique commonly found in industry settings. Two programmers sit at the same workstation, taking turns to be the “driver” (the person who writes the code) and the “navigator” (the person who provides the overall direction).
In fact, these collaborative skills are so universally demanded in the tech industry that McConeghy says that students from the Data Science Career Track often take part in his Leetcode sessions to practice coding in Python.
“It’s been really helpful to meet people from other career tracks as well as students who may not be active on Slack for whatever reason,” says McConeghy, a former religious studies professor. “These hands-on exercises provide them with a space for community and collaboration.”
He also hosts occasional Saturday hackathons where all participants work from a single codebase and practice test-driven software development. Students not only learn to get comfortable with writing code in front of another person, but brainstorm edge cases, discuss inputs, and write tests.
Panel discussions with seasoned industry professionals, group study sessions, and AMA (Ask Me Anything) events with Springboard graduates help students learn the real-world applications of the concepts they’re learning. For design students, the weekly design support/stand-up meeting is a chance to get feedback on design projects and practice defending design decisions—another situation most students encounter only after landing a job or during the interview process.
Fireside chats are intentionally open-ended conversations for discussing industry developments, sharing the travails of career switching, and socializing with fellow students. In a recent data science fireside chat, participants discussed the news of a Google engineer being put on leave after claiming the AI chatbot he was working on had become sentient. A debate ensued over the feasibility of Artificial General Intelligence—the notion that advanced neural networks can reach the level of human cognitive abilities, including emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
“If you ask an AI model, ‘Are you sentient?’ of course it’s going to say yes. If the model said ‘No, I’m not sentient,’ maybe we should be more worried,” joked one student.
While most of the community events at Springboard are peer-led, the career services team hosts group coaching events for recent graduates who are active in the job search to offer advice on staying motivated and finding their “why.”
Building Connections for Life on Social Media
Building a personal brand can be as simple as cultivating habits that help you garner greater visibility within your professional network, such as posting career updates on LinkedIn, answering questions on Quora, regularly pushing code to a Github repository, and participating in industry-specific Slack channels.
“Don’t be shy about announcing your career change on LinkedIn; tell people what you’re working on, what you’re learning, what you hope to achieve,” says Matthew Dillon, a front-end developer at LaunchBadge and a graduate of Springboard’s Software Engineering Career Track. “It took me a year to finish the bootcamp because I spent 50% of my time networking on LinkedIn, Twitter, Discord, and other dev communities.”
These habits of learning in public can make the difference between fruitlessly cold-applying to jobs for months on end and having industry contacts who can make referrals on your behalf—which is especially important considering that an estimated 70-80% of jobs are never published.
Sarah Savage, an alumnus of Springboard’s Data Analytics Career Track, landed a data analyst role at MOOC provider edX after joining a Slack group called Locally Optimistic, where current and aspiring analytics professionals discuss their experience of working with data.
“Shortly after I introduced myself in the Slack channel as a former schoolteacher and administrator, my now-boss sent me a message,” she says.
Before that, she joined Lunchclub, a social networking platform that connects like-minded professionals over 1:1 video meetings.
“Lunchclub is a great way to practice your networking skills and talk to people who are in the field you’re aspiring to enter,” she said. “I received a lot of advice about how to frame my former experience as an educator by emphasizing my customer-facing skills.”
5 Tips for How to Learn in Public
Learning in public isn’t just about vaunting your achievements on social media or answering Slack messages. It’s about open-sourcing your knowledge. According to what scientists have dubbed the “protégé effect,” the best way to understand a concept thoroughly is to teach someone else.
Here are some ways you can build your personal brand and participate in online communities while you study.
- Create content. Solidify and share your knowledge by writing blogs, tutorials, and cheat sheets, starting a newsletter, or making YouTube videos and Twitch streams.
- Build relationships. Think of networking as making connections with people in your industry with no expectations other than to build relationships. Find professionals on LinkedIn whose career you admire and ask for an informational interview. If cold-emailing seems intimidating, start by joining networking communities like Lunchclub, or industry-specific networking groups where you’ll meet other folks who are looking to build connections.
- Help others. Commit code to someone’s open-source project on GitHub, answer a question on Quora, Stack Overflow, or Reddit, speak up at a virtual event, or offer to mentor another student.
- Lean into your career switch. Find out what transferable skills you have and use those as part of your personal brand. Leverage the connections you built from your prior career and emphasize the soft skills you cultivated. When contacting professionals for informational interviews, don’t be afraid to mention that you’re switching careers and would like advice from someone who’s been in the industry longer than you.
- Take advantage of everything Springboard has to offer. Stuck on a specific exercise or topic? Reach out to a teaching assistant on Slack or other students in your Slack channel. Nervous about the job search? Attend weekly office hours with career services or request a call with a career coach. Get the most out of your regular mentor calls by writing down a list of questions or topics you’d like to discuss ahead of time. Finally, consider joining the Community Advocates Program to help organize events, mentor other students, and build your network.
Our Community Advocates are on a mission to create a more inclusive, supportive and engaging space for everyone to get help, stay motivated, form meaningful connections and ultimately transform their lives! If you’re interested in becoming a peer mentor or peer organizer, apply here today.