Fireside Chat With Tulsa Lead Instructor Phil Krull

Meet Phil Krull. Since 2016, Phil has taught more than 400 students at our Tulsa, Seattle, and Dallas campuses as Lead Instructor. So, we sat down with him to get to know him and learn more about his approach to teaching. Stick around for the whole interview and you’ll even pick up Phil’s secret barbecue steelhead trout recipe!

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What do you like to do when you’re away from work?
Thanks, Luke. I am 36 years old and have been married for 14 years. We have 4 kids of our own, and my wife and I recently became foster parents. We love camping, fishing, hiking and anything else that gets us outdoors. For hobbies, you can find me doing pretty much anything where I can build something. Whether it’s woodworking or tying flies to go fishing, really anything that I can have my creativity shine, but also just working with things in my hands. And a fun fact is that my family spent one and a half years full-time RVing when we live in the Seattle and Dallas areas. It was a blast!

What’s your educational background?
My first major was to be a math teacher for secondary education. I always enjoyed math going through school, and I thought going into education would be a good thing. Even through my college or high school years, I was always doing some kind of training. I was in boy scouts pretty heavily, so I got into leadership through that and shared my knowledge with people. It was always something that was in the back of my mind, and I figured it was a good fit within mathematics.

But then I quickly found my focus shifting to something else. After a year or so of doing math education, I got into architecture and jumped into it because I was able to really use my creative side. I went through an Associates program, then went through the University at Buffalo and got my Bachelor’s of Science in architecture. I’ve always enjoyed having a thought or idea, then seeing it through all the stages of development.

What was your professional background? How did you land on coding?
My education took me through 2008. And I got married a few years before, and my wife and I decided that once I was done, we were going to pack up and move out to the West Coast. So we did that and moved to just outside of Reno, Nevada. Little did we know, the economy was going south at the time, and we ended up in the number one foreclosure city in the country.

I had a connection with somebody from Buffalo and tried to get with an architecture firm, but their work stopped immediately and I was hit pretty hard. Everything that I knew was either architecture or construction. And my background was education and I couldn’t find any education work, so I found myself working in whatever job that I could to support my young family.

I was an operator at an oil refinery, then I got into working at Amazon in one of their warehouses. And that’s where I took the divergence. I could either continue my path at Amazon and get into management where I’d be working with people who didn’t want to come to work every day, or I would make a leap and do something that would be a little more challenging and more interesting to me. I went with option B, and I quit my job to attend Coding Dojo as a student.

If you were a Coding Dojo student, how did you end up as an instructor?
I went back to Nevada right after I graduated, and I was trying to find some jobs there. Some of my instructors mentioned that Coding Dojo was going to be hiring some people. I always had education in the back of my mind because of my interest in teaching to begin with, and even when I was at Amazon, I was training managers on how to do their jobs. 

I always just had that job description, one way or the other, of sharing my knowledge. And what actually brought me back is when I went up to Seattle after about a month and a half to attend a job fair. I was just working out of the Dojo, and I started talking to the instructors more. They were really looking into bringing somebody on and that’s when my two day trip to Seattle turned into a one month job, and I didn’t leave until I got the job with the Dojo. I did whatever I needed to do to come on board, and I left as a TA and helped the online team out for about a month and a half before. All of this was happening while I was selling my house and getting ready to pack my family up and move out to Seattle.

You were the student, and now you’re the instructor. So you get to see it from all angles. Does that help with teaching?
Absolutely. I know exactly where the students are because I’ve been there. I was definitely not the stand-out in the class. I was the one who came in with not a lot of programming background, the one that would struggle because college and high school came fairly easy to me. In the past, I didn’t have to work very hard to do well, and if I worked harder I did really well. That was not the case as a student at Coding Dojo. I did 10 or 12 hours a day, six days a week. And it seemed like the harder I worked, the less I understood. 

It wasn’t until I got to that 8 to 9 week mark when it finally clicked. I just wrote a simple callback. I was about to hit enter, and when I did, the callback did exactly what I wanted it to do.

And it was at that moment, the “aha moment,” that was very rewarding. That’s the moment that I teach to. It comes down to the students who are coming in, and understanding the struggles that they have and knowing that eventually, they will get to that point. When they do, that’s when the transformation turns over. That’s where the true benefits of hunkering down into the program come into play. You can just power through it because eventually, it’s going to click. When it does, it’s actually pretty remarkable what you can do and in 14 weeks.

You also get both perspectives on education because you have a Bachelor’s degree in addition to the coding bootcamp experience. How do you feel bootcamps prepare students for the workforce versus a traditional degree?
I think part of it is psychological. For me, I just had a lot of assumptions when getting out of the university. I had this piece of paper, and thought, “Now I’m marketable and people are going to want to hire me because I graduated.” It was definitely years later until I understood that people want to see what you can do. That’s what I had when I got out of the bootcamp. I had samples. I had a little bit of experience with more of the confidence knowing that I can build something that somebody wants to see.

And that’s where the difference is. Being able to have direct, relatable skills that you can put into a problem and come up with a solution, instead of the theoretical background. Without hands-on experience, how would I even walk through a project? There’s no way. I didn’t get that experience in school. Not that I’m not glad that I went through college. I’m glad that I did it, but it was just a different mindset afterwards. I mean, 10 years later looking back at it, now I can see where I was mentally, but at that moment the bootcamp definitely prepared me more.

If you were talking to a prospective bootcamp student, what piece of advice would you give them?
You can’t be afraid to fail, that is the biggest thing. True growth begins when you step out of your comfort zone. That’s what the whole experience was for me. Pretty much the entire time my wife has stayed at home with our kids, so it was either I did something or we didn’t eat. That was definitely the first leap: acknowledging I had to make a change and may have to figure it out as I go. That’s where I got out of my comfort zone.

That’s something that you have to be comfortable with, knowing that it’s going to be a lot of work and you’re going to have moments where you’re second-guessing your sanity or whether you made the right decision. But you’ve got to continue to move forward, and make sure you have a good network of people for support. That will give you what you need in order to put 100% into it. Because if you give anything less, you’re just short-changing yourself and you’re not going to get the outcome that you’re looking for.

What’s your teaching ethos? How do you approach teaching?
I’ve had many students tell me that they love the “breadcrumbs” that I leave for them to follow. I don’t connect the crumbs and I don’t give them a clear path. It’s always just trying to lead them into the direction they need to go, but letting them connect the gaps because you’ll have more of those “aha moments.” Even if it’s a small success early in week one or two, it could lead to a huge success later on. It helps build confidence in the beginning that students can play around with things and know that their instructor is going to be there if they need help. It kind of creates a little safety net, if you will, for them where they can be uncomfortable but still can continue to explore.

What gets you up out of bed every morning? What’s your favorite part of teaching?
Well, I think the success stories in the end. There’s quite a few that we’ve had here. I remember one of our first students from our first class here in Tulsa. It was the first and second day, he came in and he said, “If you guys can teach me to code, this program works.” Here’s the guy who was a welder. He worked on a farm and had very little access to a computer. But kind of something similar to what I did. He just said, “Alright, this is kind of the wave of the future. I think I could be interested in this. And I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to put everything into it.” He was the first guy out of the class to receive a job, within a matter of weeks, after graduating.

It’s those kinds of success stories where you lean into them a little bit and you just let them know that, “Hey, this is what you need to do and I’ll be here, but I’m not going to be doing the work for you. If this is what you want, you have to follow these steps.” When they buy into it and have success afterward, it’s very rewarding to be a part of that. And that’s just one story. Pretty much every cohort has at least one or two people that have kind of the same story to tell in the end. And it’s pretty rewarding as an instructor to experience that.

What challenges do you face as an instructor, and how do you overcome them?
Well, technologies are changing, so that’s always a challenge. Also, trying to identify where students are when you meet them. That’s probably one of the biggest things because everybody has a different learning style. I have eight different people here and each one of them has a unique way of how they go about accomplishing things and what they need to feel supported. 

You may think you have to be perfect at all the languages to be a coding instructor. And yeah, that’s important and you have to know what you’re teaching. But it’s actually more important to be able to connect with the students in a way that they feel comfortable in being able to move forward. And that’s a challenge because everybody’s a little bit different. Most technical people are not as people-focused, or that’s not their strength. So it takes the right kind of a person with good balance between technical and people skills to be a successful instructor.

Have you got any success stories happening right now, or success stories in the works?
Oh, let’s see. This last cohort that we had graduate here in May or the end of April, we had five students in that class. One student found a job three weeks out of the bootcamp. I just sent him a message today. He received another offer. And now these two companies are basically in a bidding war at the moment. And this is all pretty much one month out of the bootcamp. People are trying to figure out how much they can pay him to keep him on board.

And we had another from the same cohort of students who just received a position last week at another company who hired one of our alumni about three or four months ago. So that’s another second hire from this program. It’s always good to hear when employers come back for more.

Any other final thoughts? What’s your favorite way to cook fish?
I have a barbecue steelhead recipe that always turns off phenomenal. A little lemon juice and paprika and a tiny bit of pepper, and then right at the end you just put your favorite barbecue sauce on it. 

If you’re interested in learning from Phil in Tulsa, or any of our instructors at other campuses, apply for our program today!

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