Dev

California’s hacker bootcamps prepare for a long regulation process (exclusive)

Above: Hack Reactor's offices

Image Credit: Flickr

The Internet was up in arms late last month when VentureBeat broke the news that a little-known regulator intended to crack down on California’s hacker bootcamps.

Initially, it seemed irresponsible and short-sighted that these schools (with the exception of relatively well-funded General Assembly) had not made much effort to comply with state regulations.

But the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) is a relatively new agency; it was only created in 2010 by the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009. Moreover, it typically regulates beauty schools, career schools, and nonprofit colleges — not hacker bootcamps. BPPE regulators hadn’t even heard of “learn to code” schools until recently, when a staff investigator saw them mentioned on a technology blog.

Since we broke the story last week, a few developments have come to light.

  • ABC7 reports that the schools may have to refund past students’ tuition until the schools are licensed by the state. “If one of these places closes unexpectedly, right now, we don’t have a means to help those students get their money back,” BPPE spokesperson Russ Heimrich explained in a more recent interview with the Huffington Post.
  • BPPE has continued to stress in press interviews that it merely needs to see these bootcamps taking steps toward compliance. As we initially reported, it’s not taking aggressive steps to shut them down immediately.
  • Some of the “learn to code” schools assumed that they would be subject to every compliance both within the Act and within California Code of Regulations. Now TechCrunch is reporting that BPPE is planning to enforce a far “less nefarious” set of rules: Instructors must meet some basic requirements, for instance, and the schools must present a basic course catalog.
  • Finally, BPPE is concerned (as are other education experts) that these hacker bootcamps should not exaggerate job placement rates. Most of the bootcamps I spoke with have claimed that 98 or 99 percent of their students have landed a job on graduation. But they’ve only been operating for a few years, so it’s not yet clear whether graduates are staying in their new positions. That’s an important detail that prospective students will want to know.
  • Most of the hacker bootcamps have told me that they intend to begin the compliance process, but founders from Hack Reactor and other schools are fearful about the consequences. According to state law, these schools need approval for every change they make to their curricula. But their courses are changing all the time, as they adapt to student’s feedback. Worse, BPPE’s code is not in step with modern technologies: For instance, it requires these bootcamps to have a working fax machine.

Education analysts have called for the state to support programs that seem to be working, particularly given the high rates of student dropouts in the state.

“Hopefully, the innovators will be able to put enough pressure on the regulators to figure out a way to accommodate these new and alternative learning pathways that clearly lead to excellent outcomes for students,” Michelle R. Weise, a higher-ed focused researcher at Clayton Christensen Institute wrote to me.

MORE: California bootcamp will work with regulator: ‘Whatever the cost — it’s worth it to satisfy the state’ (interview)

We’ve seen tussles like these flare up time and time again between regulators and innovators. Ride-sharing startups Lyft and Uber have butted heads with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and genetics testing startup 23andMe received a stern warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, Hack Reactor reached out to Lyft’s general counsel for guidance when its founders first received a cease and desist letter in mid-January. These kind of conflicts will be a theme for startups in the future, particularly those that are disrupting entrenched industries such as health, education, and transportation.

To answer some remaining questions about this most recent regulatory crackdown, I sat down with Hack Reactor’s founder Anthony Phillips and Zipfian Academy’s founder Ryan Orban. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation, edited for brevity:

VentureBeat: Seven of the “learn to code” bootcamps received cease and desist letters. Are you all working together?

Phillips: We are all planning to continue to work together, but I wouldn’t say that everyone is on the same page. That said, I don’t think anyone wants to have an adversarial relationship with the BPPE.

VentureBeat: Since the story broke, developers have critiqued the bootcamps for their steep prices. How would you respond to that?

Phillips: We actually raised our prices to $17,780 to provide the most resources necessary to make our students amazing. We also needed to recruit the best developers to work for Hack Reactor. Our staff is elite; they mentor the students. We also wanted to have a space for people to work and provide breakfast. We also raised the tuition recently due to demand.

We also offer scholarships. The students that are more well-off are subsidizing some of the students who can’t afford the tuition.

VentureBeat: Are all your students actually learning to code? Or is it a skill set that some people find to be far more difficult to master than others?

Phillips: I think everyone can learn to code. For different people, it will come at different speeds. For people with a background in math or something tangential, it will probably be more intuitive.

One of our students was a hostel clerk in San Francisco. He is now a software engineer in San Francisco and earns five times as much as he used to. He still works in that hostel though — he seems to enjoy it!

It is an intense program that isn’t for everyone. The minimum time commitment is six days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.. We will go bonkers if they leave at 7 p.m.. It is in the contract that students have to show up.

VentureBeat: What types of students are you looking to recruit?

Phillips: We would love more women to dip their toes in. Currently about 10 to 20 percent of our students are women, but it’s increasing with every class. Most of our students are in their twenties, but it’s a mixed bag. Students aren’t required to have a university education.

VentureBeat: Talk to me about your curriculum. Was it a challenge, given that employers are looking for vastly different skill sets? Does it frequently change as you consider students’ feedback?

Ryan Orban: Yes, data science means different things to different people. That’s the central struggle with trying to create a data science curriculum from scratch. What’s been important for us is to have our hiring partners [primarily tech companies] send our students real data sets.

VentureBeat: If you’re regulated through an agency like BPPE, will that turn your program into something that is more traditional and slower to adapt? 

Phillips: Perhaps. Universities are highly regulated and take a long time to change the curriculum. It’s challenging for them to keep up. I love the fact that we can iterate so quickly. Every week, a staff member asks the students, “What’s going well, and what isn’t?” One of our teachers, Marcus, iterates over and over. He will stand in front of the room and talk about an algorithm. He’ll spot a funny, confused look, and say, “I know what you’re thinking, and it’s this.” It’s incredible.

VentureBeat: Are you trying to replace traditional universities? Are many of your students forgoing college altogether?

Phillips: One of our students won a place at an Ivy League school on a full scholarship. He dropped out to take a job as a software engineer. Universities are great for teaching all sorts of complicated theoretical problems. It’s a different skill set. They are nailing computer science, but we teach software engineering. I don’t even think many of the best known universities have software engineering courses — we’re filling that gap.

Orban: There is always going to be a place for universities. We are offering something different. It’s also more intense — six full days a week.

Phillips: That said, what I see is people graduating from university programs who are ill equipped. We are really trying to shape a curriculum around the needs of the industry. Our students should graduate with skills that can use on day one of a job. That’s what we focus on. Most computer science programs at universities don’t have version control as part of their curriculum. These are things that are industry standard.

VentureBeat: What are the next steps for you and BPPE?

Phillips: What makes sense is to be regulated but in a way that doesn’t eliminate what’s unique about our program. We don’t want students to feel in any way that they’ve been ripped off. We still need to find a way to accommodate new and creative thinking. We are looking at all our options before we proceed.

VentureBeat: What’s the reaction been like from the community since the news got out?

Phillips: People are coming out in support of us, on the whole. These are the people whose job it is to see innovation, which is encouraging. [Editor's note: Marc Andreessen tweeted about the issue last week.] We’ve received a hurricane of emails from students. It’s been really unifying.

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