Salman came to General Assembly as an engineer looking for a tech community to jump into. He ended up as a beloved Back-End Web Development instructor, both in New York City and San Francisco. Realizing the importance of “soft skills” for developers, he started the Laugh & Learn newsletter to provide a well-rounded continued learning experience for his students and job-seeking techies.
Salman will be teaching Building Startup Ideas at our San Francisco campus on Thursday 7, May, 2015.
Follow Salman on Twitter: @daretorant
What were you doing before teaching at General Assembly?
My career really started in San Francisco in late 2007. I had joined a couple of my friends to found a startup called Involver—we built software to help brands market on Facebook and Twitter. I was a founding engineer and spent a lot of time developing our products in Ruby on Rails. We grew significantly over the years, and in late 2012, Involver was acquired by Oracle.
By that point, I had moved up into an engineering management role, and was responsible for the SF engineering team. After some soul-searching, I realized I really missed building products myself, and decided to go back to being a full-time engineer. Being a part of the developer community was and continues to be something I truly value.
Of course, I wanted to learn new things and challenge myself, so to change things up I started doing iOS development, and also moved to NYC, which is where I first got in touch with the GA community.
Tell me about your GA NYC experience.
I had learned about GA’s web development programs through some friends, and eventually connected with some of the producers to see if they were looking for instructors. Before I knew it, I was teaching the Back-End Web Development class (10 weeks long, twice a week at night), and had an amazing experience. It was the most involved form of teaching I had done so far, and it taught me a lot.
I really started to hone my skills through teaching, as teaching a concept requires an incredibly thorough understanding of it. Also, I was able to use the platform to teach students in creative ways. For example, I am a part-time DJ, so every class I would take a few minutes to play the students one of my all-time favorite tracks. Later, I mixed all the tracks from our class together into one long mix and played it during a live set. This gave the students a mix that would take them back through the memories of their class.
Many of the students went on to become some of my best friends, and my teaching assistant, Brooks, also went on to be an instructor for the class. It was a great experience overall.
What brought you back to San Francisco?
I love the Bay Area. The nature, the food, the community… pretty much everything about it. Luckily, my wife felt the same way, and so we both moved back from the East Coast late last year. A lot of my friends from the Involver days are still here, and so when I get to the point where I want to take the next step in my career, this is really where I want to be.
What has been the most rewarding part of teaching?
Connecting with students. There are very few experiences in my life that have touched me and inspired me as much as my interactions with my students. I love having the stage as a teacher, and I love going the extra mile to help students enjoy themselves as they learn. I try to show students that development is meant to be fun, and if you treat it that way, you will be far more successful in your efforts.
I still stay in touch with many of my students through a variety of ways, and they continue to keep me updated on things they are working on, next steps in their career, and so on. Teaching is essentially an opportunity to build life-long relationships at scale. I hope I can continue to do it at some level for the rest of my life.
We heard you working with a GA alumnus in South Africa, building an immersive tech entrepreneurial course. Can you tell me more?
Aaron Fuchs, who was a graduate from WDI, decided to return to his home in Cape Town and start a new company, iXperience, to enable students from schools across America to travel to South Africa and learn web development immersively. It was a crazy, exciting idea, and I was lucky enough to be approached by him and offered the chance to be the inaugural instructor.
As part of this opportunity, I was tasked with building the entire curriculum from scratch (a scary proposition, but something that gave me so much creative freedom), and teaching two full iterations of 30-day long courses with 20-30 students each class. In addition to the lectures on web development, students would also experience excursion trips (such as surfing, hiking, and more), and live together in a dorm across the street from the school. All in all, it created an environment of immense creative freedom and community, and built friendships that I don’t think will ever be broken.
I wrote a (tad lengthy) post about my experience teaching at iXperience on my blog. Needless to say, I hope to teach there again soon!
And then comes your newsletter! Tell me about Laugh & Learn.
As I built more and more communities from teaching all these classes, I started to wonder how I could help my past students as they continue in their career development efforts. I found that there were many resources out there to help them learn new languages, new frameworks, and so on.
However, there aren’t really any resources out there to teach students the “soft skills” of being a developer. Specifically, most of the educational material you find online is very focused on one technical topic. Sometimes, the materials out there can intimidate us into thinking we need to be “experts” in particular languages or frameworks.
I don’t think that is the best path for most developers — in fact I think it’s dangerously discouraging for the majority of the community. For more on this, I wrote a post about how it’s okay not to be the best at everything. Instead, I believe that a developer needs to be more balanced in their technical knowledge. I think they should diversify their learnings to include other passions, such as design, entrepreneurship, self-motivation, public speaking, and so on.
I built Laugh & Learn to help anyone achieve that goal. I wanted people to be able to get a digest of interesting articles about a variety of different topics (including silly entertainment, like cat videos!), so that their education can be more well-rounded, and so they can feel comfortable being who they are, no matter how varied their interests may be.
Any advice for job-seeking techies?
I think the #1 piece of advice I can give to people is to spend the time and effort needed to build your personal brand. Too many developers focus solely on the technical development, and never the personal development. You can do fantastic work, but if know one knows about it, you aren’t doing yourself justice.
The main issue that stops people is that they assume it’s a goliath amount of work, and that such things are reserved for the “superstars” of the community. This simply isn’t true. Everyone who builds products has the capability of presenting their work, and it will without a doubt provide a value to someone out there. Moreover, it is likely to inspire others as well.
Check out my post on how to get started with public speaking, build your personal brand, and inspire others all at the same time.
Who is your favorite teacher?
My all-time favorite teacher is my old professor for my Economics class at the University of Waterloo, Larry Smith. While his content wasn’t the most compelling of all my classes, given my major of Computer Science, it was his delivery that really inspired me. He had an incredibly captivating style of speaking, and mixed humor with gravitas to keep every students on their toes for the entirety of the class.
He managed to fill an auditorium of over 250 students, and there was always a wait list for his classes. This was an incredible feat, given that most classes were half-empty, and students generally attended other classes out of obligation. With his class, students looked forward to it the same way they would a new episode of their favorite TV show. At the same time, we were so inspired by him that we really took the material seriously, and I still recall the principles of micro and macroeconomics he taught to this day. As a teacher, I always aspire to reach the high bars he set.
Melanie Albert oversees alumni programming and communications at General Assembly. She interviews alumni from around the world to collect success stories that serve as inspiration for others.