At Lighthouse Labs, we believe that having incredible teachers is an invaluable part of our students' success. We are lucky to have amazing teachers who are top craftsmen in their field. Like our students, they are gritty, passionate, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Unlike our students, they have been working as professional developers for over 10 years and are ready to pay that experience forward. We want to take the time to get to know these teachers a little better.
First up, our Head Instructor Don Burks! Anyone who has been to Lighthouse Labs Vancouver knows that Don is the lifeblood of our web development bootcamp. He works tirelessly, mentors with the utmost of patience, and never shies away from a good (bad) pun. We sat down together to learn more about him:
Where did you work before teaching at Lighthouse Labs?
Before Lighthouse, I was the CTO and co-founder of a startup here in Vancouver, called Nickler. We were solving a specific invoicing problem for small businesses in the restaurant and construction verticals.
What's one cool non-development job you've done?
When I was seventeen, I got to demo a new Donkey Kong game on SNES at Christmas time in Walmart. They gave me a safari vest and pith helmet, and set me up with a full booth in a Walmart. I got to stand there for eight hours and play the game.
Why did you first get started with coding?
My father was passionate about technology and bought a Commodore Vic20 when I was about eight years old. One of the things I picked up on very early in interacting with this machine was that it simply made sense. The way the devices connected, the way the computer accessed data..it just made sense. And when I found something that was confusing, I asked myself, "Why?"
Those 'why' questions led to reading other people's code, realizing it made sense, and starting to write my own. That led to a lifelong hobby of learning new languages, frameworks, and technologies so that I was never limited by the software other people wrote. I could make my own.
What was your first coding project?
My very first coding project was a blackjack game that I wrote on a Commodore 64 computer. It used regular characters like '#' and '/' to draw cards on the screen. It had a dealer, kept score, and even had a way to cheat.
What do you enjoy most outside of teaching and coding?
I have a number of hobbies, but my primary passion outside of teaching and coding is music. I am still an avid amateur performer. Originally, my career path was to become a professional musician, leading to my getting a Bachelor's in Music Performance. Coding was my hobby then, but about twenty years ago, my career and my hobby swapped places. I play with two organizations here in Vancouver, and I do freelance work as well.
I am also a published author and I still write frequently. I read avidly, enjoy hiking and swimming, and love to cook.
Why did you get into teaching?
In the early 2000's, I had the opportunity to do some corporate training with MSN and Microsoft, and that awakened a passion in me for teaching. The idea that I could take my knowledge and understanding of a topic and couple it with my passion for technology in order to inspire others to chase their own excellence was a powerful one.
Tell us about your teaching philosophy.
As I said, I'm very passionate about technology. I have always been able to wrap my head around technical concepts. Even if they have been difficult to learn, I have been able to break a concept down into its component parts and rebuild an understanding of that concept. Because this process excites me, I try and structure anything I teach towards building this excitement in my students.
Also, I try and balance the analytical side and the synthetic side of every concept, showing students how to understand the basic ideas that underpin each technique as well as how to apply them in unique ways. Ultimately, I want to empower students with the skills they need, and build their own excitement around being a developer.
What do you love most about teaching at Lighthouse Labs?
I honestly believe that my job at Lighthouse Labs is the best job in the world. Every month, I get to meet 20 smart, driven, capable students and inspire them to be passionate developers over the next two months that follow. Being a teacher means that I get to motivate, I get to solve problems, I get to share successes and help overcome setbacks. More than all of that, I get to create opportunities. I love the idea that I am having a small part of creating the next generation of technology and product.
What is the most rewarding part about teaching at Lighthouse Labs?
Seeing students succeed. Seeing those moments when understanding blooms in the mind of a student, when the concepts they have been struggling with become building blocks and tools for solving a problem in front of them. Those "a-ha!" moments are what I wake up for each day.
What open source or side projects are you working on right now?
Right now I am working with two startups. One is a social media-based application called Pintellect, the other is an application to help families preserve their rich history and traditions - LeftStuff.
As well, I am working on libraries for working with OpenGraph data and audio/video capture using WebRTC.
What is your advice for aspiring developers?
I have two pieces of advice:
First, build. Put your hands on the keys and build. Don't worry about not having an original idea. Build. Build things that have been built before so that you get the experience. Build variations on tools you use every day so that you know how to solve the problems they face.
Second, fail. You will learn more by fixing your broken code than you ever will by trying to be perfect. Don't be afraid to write code that doesn't work. No one writes perfect code, all the time. Overall, you are striving to a point where you spend more time writing working code than fixing bugs. And the more you build (See advice #1), the quicker that will happen. But don't be afraid to fail.
What has been your most memorable moment at Lighthouse Labs so far?
Fortunately, it is a moment that has repeated itself a few times. After graduating, after presenting their final project at Demo Day, students will come up to me and shake my hand or hug me and thank me for changing their lives. Those expressions of gratitude will never be forgotten. It means that I've done what I've tried to do, which is inspire others.
What's one thing students should know about you before coming to Lighthouse Labs?
I would have to say that students should be prepared for the fact that I am very outspoken. My sense of humour is sarcastic, and I have strong opinions that I'm not afraid to share, so that often translates to some shocking and often funny statements.
Don is our Head Instructor for Web in Vancouver, and has helped develop our curriculum as well. Read our web curriculum here!