Instructor Spotlight: Giles Phillips

At Startup Institute, a variety of “tracks” let students specialize in areas like Sales, Web Development, and Product/Design, creating an environment that mimics a real startup, and instructors work together to teach each course. We sat down with Giles Phillips, one of the instructors in Startup Institute’s Product & Design track who has been involved with the program since it’s inception.

Tell us about your background, how you got started with Startup Institute, and how long you’ve been working with the school.

I got involved with Startup Institute around the time that it was conceived. I was working at Brightcove at the time and and Bob Mason, one of Brightcove’s founders, introduced me to the team and described their mission. They were in the process of building out their first curriculum for their first class, they had the idea all established and they were searching for people who could help structure curriculums and break apart the different topics and key learnings in each of the different areas of the boot camp that they were designing.

So Bob introduced me to Aaron O’Hearn, the CEO, and we started working on design-focused curriculum for the product track and it really grew from there.  So I’ve been involved as an instructor, occasional speaker and also I’m a hiring partner with Constant Contact so I’ve been a part of the Startup Institute community for a few years.

Startup Institute is an 8-week course, right? Can you tell us how the 8 weeks are structured and how 8 weeks is enough to learn all that information?

I think one of the operating theories around the 8-week model that they’re implementing is that you gain a lot of benefit from an intensive curriculum. I have a lot more experience with the Product/Design track and there has been an interesting evolution over time. Initially, we would spend a few weeks looking at fundamentals of design and product strategy, thinking about things like user personas, how to formulate a market strategy, and interaction design. How do you implement a good, elegant workflow, what different parts of the user experience do you need to think about in formulating a product? We started with just basic theoretical fundamentals over the first few weeks and then quickly got into more of the advanced and applied concepts.

Lately, we actually found it to be more performant to start with the traditional jump-right-into-coding techniques at the beginning of the boot camp to make sure that students have sufficient foundation in the technical skills to be able to actually generate functional prototypes or working code to deliver their product concepts.

So there is this notion of applied learning. We do a lot of intensive learning sessions. For example, my regular touch point with the product students is that I’ll come in for a few sessions to talk about wireframing and navigation in flow; those will be structured as basically half-day or day-long intensives where I’ll work through some content and the students all have done some pre-work and then we’ll talk about some of the implications of their work. It has a very studio-based mentor model in terms of the way the instruction is delivered. Which is probably a unique component compared to a lot of the boot camps. It was interesting to be involved in the curriculum over such a long period of time, it’s evolved some, so we’ve definitely be iterating it. We found it to be better to give students the skills upfront.

So how does it work to be an instructor at Startup Institute? I’ve heard that there are multiple instructors for a course; how does that work?

The instructors are focused on the specialized tracks. So as an instructor, I come in and teach some subset of the concepts around Product. I think for Product there’s probably about 15 or so instructors lined up to deliver content just for the product track alone. As an individual contributor, you have the pieces of content that you’re responsible for but you have to think about that in a broader picture. So there’s an interesting negotiation that happens between instructors and you have to adapt your learning module around the relative readiness of the group. But it also creates this instructor ecosystem, which is really interesting, where you throw ideas off of each other, and you challenge each other.

Do you leave work to go give a lecture?

Oh yeah, absolutely. From Constant Contact’s perspective, there’s a tremendous amount of value in these touch points. For one, it creates access to a really interesting, talented and passionate community of potential prospects. The actual teaching time commitment is not necessarily full day. Sometimes it’s as short as 4 hours but I usually carve out the whole day just to be onsite and engage in longer conversations or follow up conversations, so that I’m present. We treat it like a really high-value external engagement into the local startup community, which is really what it is. It helps Constant Contact to be seen as part of that community.

Because instructors are not full-time, It makes it totally manageable for professionals in the field to come in and teach. It keeps the instructors fresh, so we’re a group who have applied skills and are actively working to build stuff.

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