Building a Professional Coding Portfolio: All About Launch Academy Student Projects

Launch Academy

By Launch Academy

February 1, 2022

At Launch Academy, every student needs to complete two software development projects in order to graduate: a group project and a solo project (aka a Breakable Toy). I recently sat down with several members of the Launch Academy curriculum team to learn how our coding bootcamp curriculum guides students toward building a high-quality portfolio that showcases their new coding skills.

Q: How does Launch Academy define a student project?

Justin Huynh, Senior Experience Engineer: The Launch Academy curriculum defines a student project as a deployed application. So we have two: One is a group project, the other is an independent project.

Q: Can you discuss the particulars of the student projects each cohort member needs to complete in order to graduate?

Eben Lowe, Experience Engineer: The first is the group project, where several people work together to create a fully functional deployed app. As with many of our projects, it starts with a set of specifications that the students are responsible for turning into user stories and then implementing. [The group project] is as much a simulation of actual workplace experience as we can make it, which is why we have them work in teams. It gives them the opportunity to program as part of a team, which many of them are going to be doing [at work], using a source control like Git, which most of them are going to be using. They get code reviews so they can be sure their first project is coming along smoothly.

All of which sets them up really well for when we turn them loose for the solo project. When it comes to the solo project, they already have a working project, they’ve seen the pitfalls and stumbles and have done that as part of a team, so it’s less intimidating to take on a solo project.

Huynh: With both projects, we’re actually teaching more than the code: We’re teaching working in a group. Software development workflow. Version control. With the Breakable Toy, aka the solo capstone project, we also coach each student individually on that independent project. So we talk with them, one on one, and have many conversations with them about what makes a good project.

Once their project idea is decided, the second step is to start outlining what the student’s application will be, and now take the smallest chunk of that, that’s like their minimum viable product (or MVP). So we talk about not just what makes a good idea for an application, but also how to structure your application, and your workflow, in a way that allows you to take small steps to make consistent and sustainable progress in building out a larger application.

The third step is the student actually goes ahead and writes out the user stories for those small first features. We coach them through those pieces and give them feedback along the way. [The project] isn’t something where one person pulls four all nighters and it’s done. That’s not at all what we do. We want them to think through the process and structure it and do it in a sustainable way.

Lowe: If part of the job of a software engineer is communication and translation, in the group project we say to students: “Imagine a product owner has given you these specifications, they want an app that’s like this, now turn those into user stories, turn those user stories into code.”

With the Breakable Toy independent project, we say: “OK, now you can do whatever you want, now you are your own product owner. You have to decide what to build, which means you have to be the one who comes up with those specifications that you are going to turn into user stories. We gave you a little bit to start the first time, now we give you literally nothing except guidance about what to choose.”

That’s super valuable for those who go out to the workplace, because it means that [our graduates] can do both the job of “all right, we have a pretty clearly laid out feature, and I just need to build that feature” to “oh, someone wants something that sort of does this, how do I turn that idea into a feature? What are the questions I have to ask, how do I break that down into the elements that I can even make into a feature?”

We also encourage a lot of side projects, as appropriate. In any cohort, there are a good percentage of students who do a ton of stuff, who work on projects that maybe don’t end up being a deployed application, but are a deployed piece of working code on their Github, which is still something they can point to [at an interview]. It’s like craftspeople and artists: They can point to works-in-progress that they’re still tinkering with, but the works are still of value to the artist and can demonstrate value to someone evaluating that artist.

For examples of previous student projects, visit the Launch Academy Youtube channel.

Sarah Pascarella oversees digital content for Launch Academy.