When it started, Make School’s Product College was just a gap year program with a different outlook on higher education. In a few short years, the Product College has grown into a respected two-year residential college program that serves as a more focused, affordable, and personalized alternative to the standard college experience.
The Product College gives alumni a leg up in the ultra-competitive tech job market, because they are treated more like junior developers than students. Junior developers have to solve problems, continually grow, and work together. That’s the Make School mindset, and it’s what Sam Drozdov―a member of the original gap year class―loves most about Make School.
“After attending the Summer Academy, I was hooked on the Make School culture,” Sam explained. “So when Make School asked me if I wanted to be in the founding class of a gap year program, I was really excited about continuing that experience.”
“I decided to enroll because I felt like I was not learning applicable skills as a computer science major at the University of Maryland, and Make School was entirely focused on applicable skills. Also, since it was a gap year, I felt like I didn’t have much to lose, because I could just return to school the following year.”
Today, Product College students spend their first year learning foundational theory, current technologies, and the soft skills needed for a software engineering career. Most students spend the subsequent summer interning at a tech company, then come back for a final year of advanced product-based curriculum which involves developing several of their own projects.
The original gap year program condensed this learning experience. “We did iOS first, so I continually worked on my iOS skills throughout the whole program.” Sam also got the chance to develop a few products during his gap year. “I worked on an app, Stitch, with another student,” Sam said. “Stitch was a news aggregator that allowed you to highlight and save snippets of text from articles… Phil and I read a ton of news and articles, but we felt like we couldn’t remember enough of the information. So we wanted to make it easier to store and recall interesting pieces of information. The snippets acted like enhanced bookmarks that included key pieces of information.”
Sam also worked on a music sharing website, Tracksense, with two other students. “Tracksense was a cross between Reddit and Soundcloud. It allowed people to create communities around music genres and create collaborative playlists.”
At the end of his gap year, Sam ended up putting his newfound skills to work right away.
“Right after my program ended, I got an internship with a startup as an iOS developer,” Sam recalled. “I was the sixth person on the team, and I was able to actually contribute as a developer, which I was not expecting to be able to do that early in my college career. That experience definitely helped set me up for future jobs.”
Sam opted to finish his bachelor’s degree after his gap year experience, but he didn’t settle for the path that UMD set out for him. After starting as a computer science major, his experience at the Product College helped inspire Sam to create his own major — Product Design & Software Innovation. He recently took over as a maintainer of http://umd.io/, an open source API for UMD data. “I’m a designer, developer, and serial maker. I spend just about all my free time working on side projects. I have a technical background, but now I’m mainly focused on UX/UI design.”
An entrepreneur at heart, when he returned to UMD Sam got involved with Startup Shell, a student-run incubator for student-run startups. “I joined two years ago when I was working on my own startup, Passenger, with my brother,” Sam said. “The next year I became the Director of Events. We’d do ShellTalks (which was our equivalent of TedTalks), workshops, retreats, networking events… Startup Shell became my outlet startup community after Make School.”
Looking back at his gap year experience, Sam reminisced, “The community and culture killed it for me. I love being surrounded with makers. It motivated me to push myself and turned me into a self-starter.”
He went on, “I’d wake up in the morning around 7:30, and I remember walking out into the dining room and another student, Morgan, would already be out there drinking tea and working on a project. Everyone was working all the time. There were no real deadlines, but people were pushing themselves. I don’t see a lot of that self-starting at my college. It’s really lacking.”
Sam added, “I also liked that everyone was really interested in learning and collaborating. You could walk up to anyone and ask them about what they were doing, and they’d take the time to teach you.”
Sam is keeping an eye out for more people like his gap year classmates so that he can launch his next startup. “A great team coupled with a great idea is essential for success.”