Technology boot camps – do they work?

The tech sector is one of the fastest-growing industries globally – and with this increasing market comes the need for more jobs. In the US, demand for computer specialists is expected to have increased by over three quarters of a million jobs in the decade up to the end of 2018, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor. ‘New com­puter specialist jobs will rise in almost every industry,’ says David Clinefelter, Chief Academic Officer at the Learning House in The Evolllution, and ‘roughly half will be located in the computer systems de­sign industry, which is expected to employ more than one in four computer specialists in 2018.’


But where will all these highly trained computer specialists come from? And in such a fast-changing marketplace, how will computer science graduates stay up to speed for these new roles? A criticism sometimes made of traditional degrees is that students ‘don’t always get the hands-on experience they need to land their first jobs,’ writes Tara García Mathewson in Education Dive. That’s compounded by the fast-changing nature of tech jobs – what worked a year ago doesn’t work now, and what worked five years ago is ancient history. Because of the nature of the role is so quick to change – people always want the latest technology – there’s a perceived skills gap.


In response, ‘several coding boot camps have incorporated project experience into their programs,’ says Mathewson. These include Free Code Camp, which places students with not-for-profit organisations that have vacancies for programmers.


‘Traditional computer science programs have not been able to keep pace with the demand,’ agrees Clinefelter. ‘The combination of highly motivated students in an immersive environment with veteran practitioners as faculty, coupled with a competency-based curriculum focused on entry-level knowledge, in an industry with a shortage of talent results in an ideal learning environment.’


On the way up

Boot camps are a rapidly increasing market. In North America there are more than 300 camps across 51 cities in the US and Canada. According to Course Report, which compares different coding schools for prospective students, the market is expected to have grown by almost 250% in 2015, to an estimated 16,056 graduates – an increase from 6,740 the previous year. All this from a flat base just a few years ago.


What happens in these immersive programmes, which can involve studying up to 10 hours a day, or longer? ‘Generally… students spend six to 15 weeks with small groups of peers learning web development skills’ says Michelle R Weise, Executive Director of Sandbox ColLABorative, Southern New Hampshire University, in a separate article in The Evolllution. Costs vary, but will usually be ‘between $10k and $20k.’


Impressive figures 

What about job placement rates? The Software Guild claims a 95% placement rate within 90 days of graduation. Most will present job attainment rates from somewhere between 63% and 99%, according to Weise. These are better odds, as she points out, ‘than the 57% placement rate of law-school graduates’ that the American Bar Association quotes. Alice Truong in Fast Company refers to Hack Reactor, which looks for candidates who have some coding experience, boot camps them in San Francisco and then promises a 98% job placement rate within three months of graduating, with an average subsequent salary of $110,000.


However, these figures are perhaps not quite as straightforward as they might first appear. Many boot camp graduates will already have completed a first degree, and some will have coding experience already, as the Hack Reactor example makes clear. In these cases it’s not a substitute for university; it’s a top-up experience that talented workers use to hone their skills and knowledge. Fast Company, quoting the founder of Course Report Adam Lovallo, points out that ‘the goal is to find whether these coding programs are just taking in people that are already employed and highly qualified and helping them change careers, or if they are taking in people and producing graduates that really substantially increase their earning potential.’


In other words, are the figures indicative of great success by the boot camps, or are they essentially highly-qualified people who would be likely to get jobs anyway? There’s no way of disentangling that from the stats, but it’s worth bearing in mind when reading figures of close to 100% placements.


What can’t be denied is that the major players in the tech industry like the look of boot camp grads. Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter are all known to hire straight out of boot camps. Politically, too, an awareness of their value is rapidly increasing. As Michelle R Weise says, ‘the Obama Administration has been particularly enthusiastic about boot camps. In fact, the federal government seems to be fully aware of the burgeoning of alternative learning pathways that lead to middle- and high-skills jobs in demand today.’ Examples of these programmes include Udacity, which offers ‘nanodegrees’, edX which runs ‘Xseries’, and Coursera’s ‘Specializations’.


Such partnership models are likely to increase, as businesses and universities try to close the gaps between what traditional education models offer, and what workplaces actively need.


Matching workplace needs with learning outcomes

So could coding boot camps eventually replace traditional computer science degrees? It seems an unlikely question, but one which is being asked in some quarters. At present, boot camps are still seen as a poorer relation to university; but if the key purpose of university is to get a job, and boot camps can provide them, how vital is the traditional schooling model?


Online boot camp Bloc, for example, offers a course that can be taken part-time over a period of 72 weeks and includes computer science fundamentals ‘that top engineering companies continue to look for in employees,’ according to Tara García Mathewson. Mathewson quotes Bloc’s CEO Clint Schmidt who ‘says it’s a common refrain from employers — that computer science fundamentals are important and that they teach students how to think about software and how to use it to solve complex problems.’


Significantly, Bloc offers a job placement guarantee. ‘Graduates are eligible for a complete reimbursement of the $24,000 tuition if they don’t find a job within four months that offers at least $60,000 per year,’ Mathewson writes. ‘We’re designing this software engineering track to meet the very acute need in the market,’ Schmidt is quoted as saying, ‘but without requiring students to spend four years and a couple hundred thousand dollars in tuition to do it.’


Funding issues 

As tuition costs at traditional institutions have risen, prospective students are more aware than ever of the need to ensure their investment in their education pays off at the other end. ‘Coding boot camps are providing a tempting alternative to a two- or four-year program, especially when they offer such job guarantees,’ Mathewson writes. She goes on to mention the Viking Code School and the App Academy, which operate on a ‘free’ model similar to the way student loans work – collecting tuition fees further down the line by taking a proportion of the graduate’s salary once they are in the workforce. Both Bloc and Code Fellows, Mathewson points out, ‘offer a refund to students who don’t find jobs using the skills they acquired through the program.’


Then there’s Flatiron, which offers a 12- to 15-week program for $15,000 and places students into jobs ‘99% of the time with median starting salaries of $74k,’ according to Michelle R Weise. ‘Students who may not even have a bachelor’s degree are landing jobs at places like the New York Times, Etsy, Goldman Sachs and Google,’ she adds.


Even so, one of the factors slowing down the growth of boot camps as a viable alternative to traditional universities is funding. To date, they have not qualified for federal funding in the US in the way that classical study centres do. This situation, however, is rapidly changing. EQUIP – Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships – is an Obama-led initiative designed to help some non-traditional educational providers, such as boot camps, access federal money.


‘What this experiment does is waive the rules (for a small number of test sites) where schools are limited from using more than 50% of content or instruction from another entity,’ says Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed. The aim is win-win for students, enabling them to use non-traditional learning establishments, helping them get the tailored education they need, and achieving the hands-on skills that employers want – without breaking the bank.


A mix of skills

It’s not time to start sounding the death knell for traditional models just yet. The advice to potential students is to choose your course carefully and decide if a boot camp on its own is really going to be enough, or whether your career prospects are best served by a mix of university and boot camp top-up. Certainly, be cautious about online-only courses. A mix of face-to-face learning and online components is the optimum way to get the best education at the best price. And whilst boot camps work well for tech – we are talking specifically about coding – nothing compares with the wider benefits of being in a university scenario; having time to absorb and apply the information you learn, the social benefits of mixing with peers, and the distillation of theoretical knowledge to accompany the practical.


As Rob Gonzalez in The Crunch points out, ‘the field is constantly evolving and changing — with more things to learn and discover every year than you could learn in a lifetime.’ Universities might have their work cut out a little more to compete with boot camps, but the wider picture is still of vital importance.