Meet Nick Anderson, User Experience Design Immersive and Web Development Immersive Instructor at General Assembly Denver

Nick Anderson

Leveraging Coding, Design, and Community

Nick Anderson, a Web Development Immersive and User Experience Design Immersive instructor at GA’s Denver campus, has always enjoyed wearing multiple hats. Throughout his career, he’s led teams that encompass both of those fields, and sees them as being two halves of the same skill. While working in agencies, Nick has worked for brands including Bacardi, Rovio (Angry Birds), Sonic Restaurants, and more. Read Nick’s article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Branding.”

What do you love about UX design and web development?

I love the pure creative power it gives you. Once you know how to develop and design, you’ve basically got the world in your hands. Have a cause you want to empower? Create a web presence and give it a brand. Have a message you want to spread? Package it and give it context, and share it with anyone who wants to hear. There’s never been a better time to learn how to create digitally — the industry is wide open and welcomes the individual, personal touch of creative, driven people.

Why should someone learn UX and web development at GA?

GA has a much larger focus on soft skills than other programs. It’s easy to assume that technical ability is the only result that matters, but I’ve hired other bootcamp grads who broke down during their first week simply because they were unprepared for the meta tasks associated with doing creative work for a team. Simple things like fixing a merge conflict or negotiating project scope will be completely foreign unless you build them into the curriculum, which we do. Many companies that previously had no interest in hiring junior talent have changed their policy when it comes to GA grads, simply because they know the spin-up time will be closer to a mid-level applicant.

What are the most exceptional strengths in GA’s curriculum, teaching style, and community?

The community here at GA Denver is incredible. It’s not unlikely to see two or three grads hanging out in the lounge, coming to happy hours, or collaborating over the weekend on side projects. I wish I could say this was our doing, but the alumni and current students generally coordinate it themselves. I think it really says something that the students continue to work together after graduation.

I also really enjoy the personal spin we get to put on our lessons. I always try to pepper in lots of real-world examples of how I’ve used various techniques on the job, and it always kills any skepticism the class may have about learning something new. I often think about how much better I would have done in high school if someone could have just explained to me why I needed to know something, and how I could expect to use it in a practical setting.

What personal qualities will set someone up for success in web development or UX design?

Grit is the single greatest trait a student can develop — it will unblock you from any other problem you face and build up any skill you’re lacking. As long as you can keep working through problems, you can keep solving them and get better, faster, and more efficient.

What was your path to becoming a teacher and leader in UX design and web development?

I wanted to teach from very early in my career — I’ve always loved training developers and designers who are new to the industry, and leading teams of new talent. I definitely got pushback from companies that wanted to only hire senior talent, but when given the chance I could always build a more effective team from novices who are hungry to learn. After enough practice, I began to learn the common failure points and got better at avoiding them — so even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I’d been leaning this way for a good portion of my career.

Why did the opportunity to teach at GA appeal to you?

Until I started teaching at GA in October 2016, I’d only associated higher education with stuffy college lecture halls. After graduation, I tried to help my college with its curriculum as a professional adviser, but changes to the course material took so long to approve that by the time anything was being taught it was already obsolete. I started pouring my energy into on-the-job training for new hires — but that wasn’t something I got to work on daily, or even monthly.

I saw what was happening at GA and realized that they were creating the type of learning environment I wish I’d had. All the roadblocks I’d been fighting against were absent, leaving us free to innovate and iterate on our course material at the pace the industry demanded. It was like being handed a paint roller after years of using only a detailing brush — I was finally able to do the work I wanted to do, with freedom and efficiency.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I always start a new cohort by talking about Pixar’s Ratatouille — specifically Gusteau’s philosophy that “anyone can cook.” As you learn web development or design, it’s easy to feel like a rat in a fancy kitchen — and even easier to tell yourself that you don’t have any right to be trying. But the desire to try is the only prerequisite to mastery.

Personally, I was so bad at math in high school that I almost didn’t graduate. No one — especially my teachers — would have told you that I was destined to be a decent logical thinker. Then one day I realized the only way I was going to get better at JavaScript was to revisit all those horrible subjects that had embarrassed me growing up. So I did, but this time I didn’t let them hold the same power over me. I simply broke them down, piece by piece. Maybe slower than my other classmates, and later in life — but I did it. I did it so well that I now teach it to others, with the added sympathy of a near-dropout. So that’s my philosophy: Anyone can dev, anyone can design, anyone can learn math. Given enough time and effort, I’ve never been proven wrong.

What has been your favorite memory as a GA instructor?

During my first cohort of the Web Development Immersive, I watched students walk up to the podium in abject silence to present their projects. They were always so nervous-looking, the atmosphere understandably tense. I asked my co-instructor, Zeb, “What if we played walk-up songs for them, like they do at a baseball game?” He loved the idea, so for Project 2 I secretly connected to the Bluetooth speaker in our classroom and blasted a specially-picked pump-up song for each student.

While comparatively trivial to the rest of their education, the look on their faces when they heard their “theme song” was maybe the best feeling I’ve received. Now at the end of every cohort, Zeb and I burn a mixtape of the students’ songs and distribute to them on graduation day. I regularly blast them in my car and remember the amazing students they represent.

How do you help struggling students break through to meet or go beyond their minimum GA course requirements?

Most of the obstacles we run into are self-imposed. We see the goal and think of reasons we’re not qualified to meet them, rather than trying and finding out for ourselves. When students come to me facing tough obstacles, the first thing I check is whether this an actual failure, or just a failure to try. Sometimes this is as simple as asking, “Did you try to read the documentation, or did you just see how long it was and get intimidated?”

I’ve never seen any problem — in my life or with my students — that couldn’t be fixed by taking a deep breath and trying to step through it slowly. Reaching your first big obstacle is a very important rite of passage. After you overcome something you thought was impossible, every problem you face from that point on is viewed in a different light.

How do you push high-achieving students to go beyond the minimum GA course requirements?

This is fairly easy, because these students generally already have the drive and confidence to push through tough problems. The best way I’ve found to motivate them is to open them up to work beyond the skills of a typical student, and see how close they can get. For instance, we had a student in our last WDI cohort who was exceptional at front-end development and made Project 1 (a browser game) look like a cakewalk.

So I introduced her to the work of a local developer who had built a fully 3-D, in-browser Jenga game with their own physics engine. I watched the color drain from her face as she realized where the bar was set outside of her peer group — but that was quickly replaced by the determination to take it apart and understand it completely. Throughout the cohort, we continued to trade notes on games we’d played, and how they could be recreated with the tools she knew. When it came time for Project 4, she made an incredible, fully functional desktop/email simulation that allowed you to roleplay through a number of emotionally charged email exchanges, with real-time story branching and optional side conversations.

This wasn’t my doing — the student had all of this inside of her from Day One. All I had to do was point to higher and higher challenges, and she did all the footwork. Since graduating, she’s gone on to release a game on the game platform Steam, and interview for Nintendo.

What are a couple examples that embody the best of what the skills you teach can accomplish in real life?

The most important thing I teach is problem-solving — breaking issues down into small chunks, and stepping through them logically. This has huge benefits in your non-professional life as well, from home projects, to budgeting, to time management.

Another core discipline we teach is organization. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with projects and disregard file structure, folder names, or where we left our coffee mug. But prioritizing organization is the best way to solve problems before they happen. For instance, one of our grads started her first job at a prolific but chaotic agency and found herself constantly tracking down passwords and links. In order to make her own life easier, she organized all of this data into a shared document for the company. They were so surprised that they tasked her with running project architecture from that point on. A few weeks in, she was playing a significant role in their project design!

Between taking the course and finding a job, what’s the best way to get practical, real-world experience in web development or UX design?

Keep making things. For developers I suggest starting a collaborative project with peers, and for designers I recommend doing a daily design challenge (there are lots of email lists that will send you one a day). When you’re done making something, show it to people and let them tell you honestly what’s wrong with it. Then, make it better.

What are some free resources and tools a student can use to stay up to speed in the field?

I tell a lot of students about my experience watching movies with film students at my college — it would take eight hours to watch The Godfather because they would pause it every few minutes to dissect the lighting, blocking, and camera work. This is because they weren’t watching the movie, but studying it; tearing it apart until they understood how it worked. So if you want to design great layouts or build exceptional web platforms, go find the ones that work, and tear them apart until you understand them. Pull their code down, read what people write about them, watch as they make changes and see how their user base responds. This, more than any book or online resource, will teach you how to make things that work.