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Coding Bootcamps Seen as a Way into the Techie Class

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“I’m here because I’m thinking about a career change,” said a woman holding a plastic cup of wine. She and roughly 20 others were gathered in a brightly-lit building that itself had gone through a career change. Known as the Standard Oil Building, it was designed for John D. Rockefeller to house his California headquarters. Now it’s home to General Assembly, a bootcamp-style web development school.

The group had gathered to learn about the school’s Front-End Web Development course, which promises students will “gain a competitive edge by learning web development skills.” During an icebreaker participants were invited to help themselves to red or white wine, and asked to tell those assembled what they do and why they’re interested in the course.  There were graphic designers and people who worked for technology companies in non-coding roles. One woman had moved to San Francisco from Ukraine, where she taught Russian literature.

As the tech wave continues to spill over San Francisco, pushing out other employment opportunities, residents are finding themselves faced with a difficult decision: adapt or move. With higher housing and food prices, a salary that created household prosperity just five years ago may now mean barely scraping by. San Francisco Unified School District educators can attest to this; they didn’t see a salary increase between 2008 and 2014. According to Matthew Hardy, communications director at United Educators of San Francisco, “We have folks living in living rooms, saying, ‘I can’t live like this and be what my students need me to be.’” With an influx of more than 12,000 people a year, many of them young, tech-savvy recent graduates, those looking for a new job face strong competition.

Literature majors, restaurant owners, and others are looking at ways to muscle into the techie class. To meet this desire coding bootcamps have emerged, offering crash courses with flashy marketing. Just as 19th century gold miners flocked to the West Coast with the hopes of making it big, technology prospectors are leaving their lives behind in pursuit of the new California dream.

Part-time classes like the one General Assembly offers reflect the inexpensive end of the bootcamp spectrum. For $3,500, it meets for three hours twice a week for 10 weeks. At the high end in the Bay Area is Hack Reactor, which charges a hefty $17,780 for a 12-week full-time program. The school’s website boasts a $105,000 average graduate salary and a 99 percent hiring rate. Its homepage informs prospective students, “Nearly all of our graduates receive at least one full-time job offer within 3 months of graduating. Our developers work at places like Adobe, Groupon, and SalesForce.”

While there may be gold at the end of the coding rainbow, Elvio Cavalcante can attest to the sacrifices involved in taking such a course. Cavalcante previously worked in the visual tech industry in Brazil, creating animations and visual effects for commercials and films. In 2009, he started his own post-production house, Mad FX, which was ultimately acquired by Elemidia Group, Brazil’s largest digital media company.  He oversaw a team of engineers.  Working alongside them, he began to wish he could help prototype and build the projects that came through the company. “So I started coding,” he said. “And I fell in love.”

Cavalcante tried to teach himself, taking more than 20 coding classes online, including Harvard’s introduction to Computer Science, CS 50. “I realized that you need a really well-structured path because there are so many resources, so many technologies, that it’s really hard. You know a lot about everything, but you can’t actually put them together.”

He left the company he’d helped build, his stock options, and his home to fly to San Francisco and enroll in Hack Reactor. “I paid at least four times more than anyone here because of the difference in the currency,” he said. When he accounted for all expenses, including housing – there are hacker houses located South-of-Market and in Potrero Hill where people can live while attending such courses – and travel, he said the decision cost him roughly 100,000 reals, which, according to Cavalcante, has the buying power of $100,000 in Brazil.

Halfway through the course, Cavalcante was confident he’d made a good investment. “Because time counts too. What you learn here in three months would take much more time somewhere else. My life was pretty much a startup. So now I want to change. I would like to know the environment of a company like Google or Facebook.”

Late in the 20th century vocational schools – teaching welding, automobile mechanics, truck driving, and other courses – lost favor.  But now educational advocates, including President Obama, are calling for more job-oriented programs. The idea that a three-month program can provide the same benefits as a four-year college may seem nonsensical to some, but students that attend coding bootcamps argue that it makes perfect sense.

Felix Tripier studied computer science during his time as a Yale University undergraduate. His goal was to get a tech job in the Bay Area. In 2013, he attended Hack Reactor during the summer to get an edge in software engineering, and was offered a job at after he completed the course. Faced with taking the job or finishing at Yale, he chose the job. Recently, he received an offer from Facebook.

A considerable amount of web development curriculum can be fit into a three month course. Hack Reactor meets six days a week, 11 hours a day, or more, including guest speaker forums. That’s 72 days of instruction. Each semester at Yale contains just 64 days of teaching.

When Hack Reactor student Matthew Brown was asked to compare his experience in college at New Mexico Tech to his time at bootcamp, he said, “The learning here is much, much better.” Brown saw studying the same subject continuously for three months instead of spread out over four years as an advantage. “When you’re at a normal school, you’re learning a bunch of different subjects, so it’s a lot harder to retain information from any one of them. But we build off of the same knowledge base every day, so the knowledge base gets really, really strong. It’s the only thing you’re doing. That’s why I think we have the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two years of school. By the time you get out of here, all you can think about is Javascript,” he explained.

Before bootcamp graduates can prove their coding prowess they have to make it past the potential obstacle of employers’ perceptions.  According to Rob Stolle, a talent coordinator at Mindtree, “I prefer people with a CS degree over a three-month cert because there’s a higher chance of them passing my coding challenge.”

But as students prove themselves those perceptions might change. Increasing numbers of employers will be encountering bootcamp grads in the coming years. Hack Reactor alone produces more software engineers than the entire University of California system every year, according to the school’s public relations manager. The coding camp predicts that, including its partner schools, it will have 1,300 graduates in 2015. Combine that with the graduates of other intensive programs, such as General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp, and significant numbers of freshly-minted tech workers are being produced, a flow that might start to make a dent in the 500,000 tech jobs the White House claims need filling.

Bootcamp hiring fairs are drawing more employers, including big names like J.P. Morgan, LinkedIn, and Yahoo!.  As Brown pointed out, “Before, it would have been unheard of for someone with three months’ experience to get into Google. But people have done it here. So it is possible.”

Coding schools often characterize themselves as startups with curriculums that evolve at the pace of technology. They refer to each cohort as an iteration, as the experience continually changes. Brown said the course frames change as a positive from the outset: “They set expectations in the first week: ‘We shuffle things around so we don’t get stuck in any one old system.’ They pride themselves on their ability to iterate on the curriculum much more quickly than universities can.” He admitted that this could lead to “things here that were a shit show sometimes,” but said he didn’t think it bothered anyone.

Some students find that constant change makes for a difficult environment to achieve success. A Dev Bootcamp graduate who wished to stay anonymous said the inconsistency makes it hard to compare one cohort to the next, but in his experience neither the curriculum nor the teachers were what he expected. “I didn’t feel like they were prepared in their lectures,” he said. “And it seemed like a lot of things were done on the fly rather than with preparation; what you would normally expect from an instructor.”

He thought that part of the reason for these missteps was that Dev Bootcamp, like most coding schools, sometimes hires back its graduates as teachers. He felt the ones that he worked with lacked sufficient experience in the programming community to guide students strategically. “Their mentality was to empower us to make the changes we wanted ourselves,” he explained. “But even so, they should have the knowledge of what best for the students. And I think sometimes they failed at that. They gave us too much leeway.”

Others expressed reservations about their bootcamp experience online, almost all of them anonymously. John Uke, who graduated Dev Bootcamp in 2013, thinks that’s a problem. Of coding schools, he said, “I think they’re a good time, but people aren’t willing to talk about the negative side. They don’t want to lose face with their schools, or they aren’t willing to psychologically face the fact.”

Uke is happy he took the course, but thought the bootcamp industry was falling short of its potential. Aside from poor organization and instruction, he felt he’d been misled as to the number of employers who would be present at students’ final presentations, guest speakers who would give talks, and months it would take to find a job. “A lot of people don’t have realistic job expectations,” he said, noting that it often took graduates more than three months to find employment. “After the program, it takes a few months of intense training on your own before you’re qualified. I don’t want to say it’s deceptive, but it’s a misconception. You haven’t coded enough yet.”

According to Uke, Hack Reactor is a step above other bootcamps. “But they already expect you to have been coding for months,” he said. “And they only accept the top of the students anyway.”

Hack Reactor students are typically people who would have considered graduate school in computer science if they’d not opted for the program. While those in part-time programs will learn new skills, they’re unlikely to make the jump from blogger to Google software engineer.

Two weeks after his graduation Brown had 10 interviews at various stages.  Cavalcante had begun to realize his dream of working at a big company—he was going through the interview process at Walmart—when he learned that the United States had already filled its limit of visas for his occupation. The cap is set at 65,000 visas each fiscal year; he’d have to wait until October to resume the process. Instead, he’s booked a return to Brazil, where he plans to start his own education company.

When asked if he’d do anything differently, Cavalcante had two pieces of advice. He’d have done the course online and stayed in Brazil, and he’d have studied algorithms instead of focusing on Backbone and other frameworks. “If you ask, before you join the course: should you have a math or engineering background? They will tell you that it doesn’t make a difference,” he explained. “But it makes a lot of difference. If you are used to mathematical problems? Yeah, you are totally fine. But if you’re not used to it? You’ll have a bad time.”

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