Dev

Hacking the hacker school: How the bootcamp is being taken to scale outside the coding world

Above: Python Obscura was the theme of the Hackbright-led Master Class at DevBeat 2013.

Coding bootcamps have proven their value to the students, operators, and employers. Despite their steep cost, generally about $1,000 per week in tuition, schools can’t find enough instructors and expand quickly enough to meet demand. Those students are drawn by advertised placement rates of 90 percent or higher in software developer jobs with salaries that return their investments almost immediately.

The growth of coding bootcamps, at first glance however, appears to be limited by their labor-intensive model. An industry analysis by Course Report finds that 43 schools have emerged in recent years and that they have projected revenue this year of $59 million from 5,987 customers, a growth rate of 175 percent over the 2,178 graduates last year.

But it would take about 7,000 such schools to cover the gap of 1 million computer science graduates by 2020 projected by Code.org. And for the most part, these in-real-life versions are only in major tech hubs, requiring a relocation and 12 weeks to spare, along with $9,000 to $20,000.

Ironically, it appears that the industry with the most enthusiasm for tech-enabled efficiencies is running into a difficult reality about education. It may take too much face time to be scalable. Although coding camps exist on the premise that “software is eating the world,” they haven’t found the software that will quickly get a lot of software engineers into the workplace.

Or, as David Yang, co-founder of Fullstack Academy of Code in New York says, “Teaching is a full contact job. I’d love to be able to scale up and teach more people. We have so many applicants for this program who I feel terrible turning away, but I just can’t service everyone.”

And that’s only in the most glaring skills gap of coding. Startups and other employers also need talented people who can find paying customers and keep the lights on. Is the bootcamp model useful in areas like sales, marketing, management and HR?

We may find out soon. New forms of training are emerging that are in the same orbit as the developer’s bootcamp but with a variety of interesting differences. Some are in the same vertical but using different models, including online versions with potentially more scalability. Some are the same model but in different verticals like data science, marketing and “generalist” skills.

And some are less clearly related, working on more of an apprenticeship or mentorship model. But what they all these new startups have in common with the coding bootcamp is a time-limited, intense (and labor intensive) attack on a specific skills problem that traditional higher ed and traditional workplaces aren’t able to solve on their own.

Are in-person bootcamps scalable?

One VC funder, who asked not to be named since he is considering investments in this market, says, “It’s a pretty simple business and the value propositions are clear and powerful. It’s working. But at what scale does it stop working? There’s no data on how scalable it is.”

“It’s weird how quickly they developed,” he adds. “There’s no sense of history. They got to this high point in an accelerated time frame, so there are few data points to go by. The barrier to entry is low and the price point is high, so new ones are cropping up like mushrooms.”

To be fair, a coding bootcamp’s first priority is the quality of the education it provides, so they don’t have closing the larger skills gap as a goal. For example, Dan Pickett, co-founder of Launch Academy in Boston says, “We’re really obsessed about the educational experience here. Finding folks who can educate as well as our team does is a slow and steady process, so that’s the way we’re growing.”

Similarly, Duncan Logan at Rocket U, which operates out of the Rocket Space incubator in San Francisco, says, “The companies [who hire our graduates] have been told by their VC’s to set a bar and not hire below that bar. So we have to produce a product that is going to get us to that. The student is the product for us and not the education syllabus. The quality of that student in the workplace is absolutely everything.”

Yang expects to see lower-cost, lower quality players emerge and compete with this first generation of bootcamps. “But most people who are doing this are well-intentioned,” he says. “They love programming. They love sharing with other people. The one thing I’m not going to do is compromise the quality for quantity. Right now, all of us are trying to figure that out how we can give a high-touch outcome-driven program.”

Whom can coding bootcamps serve?

Another way of thinking about scalability is asking who they are suitable for? Right now, student demand exceeds the supply of seats, but on the surface, these projects appear to serve a limited demographic, and it’s reasonable to wonder if they can serve a larger customer base.

The most common student was described to me several times as a career changer in their late 20s coming out of finance, consulting or law. That reinforces a common impression that the model works best for well-educated professionals who are looking for a way to ride the next economic boom.

The most common student isn’t necessarily the only student, however. Emil Lamprecht, Chief Marketing Officer at Career Foundry, says of their customers, “We have students who are leaping from flipping burgers, from high level banking positions in London, from being designers. We have a guy in San Francisco who has been a successful print designer and is bored with it, looks at the tech scene and wants the right tool kit to move into that scene.”

Stan Idesis, a mentor at Bloc, an online developer’s school, points out that a lot of people want to learn software development even if they aren’t “going into” software development. One of his students is currently building a videoconferencing business and wants to handle more of the coding himself since, “They hired contractors and got garbage in return. They turned to Bloc, because they thought, ‘Let’s build it ourselves, because it’s way cheaper, and we’ll actually get what we want.’”

Christina Wallace, VP of Marketing at Startup Institute, says many of their students are “millennials coming out of the nonprofit world who say, ‘I’m not making a difference. The bureaucracy, the pace. It’s just not doing it for me. I’d rather find a social cause that has a business model behind it.’ We’re not interested in creating a company that serves only the elite on the coasts. We’re not the finishing school for the Ivy League.”

And all of the bootcamps and other projects interviewed emphasized how much a passion for the subject and personality fit are a part of their admissions process. Lawyers and consultants, for example, says Wallace, don’t necessarily have an advantage when Startup Institute places its graduates: “Anyone whose resume reads corporate across the whole thing, the big question is going to be the cultural fit. Are they going to run fast and break things, or are they gonna need the two-month plans or the quarterly reviews? For them, the mindset training is more valuable than the skill set.”

Anthony Phillips, COO at Hack Reactor, says, “It is more of a personality trait that’s successful. It’s the people you can get to spend all day working on a coding project and not realize that it’s been all day. Those are the people we want in the class, because if you love programming, whether you’re a hotel clerk or a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, eventually you’ll pick it up over the course.”

Eye on the future

Despite the careful growth at many of these businesses, others are thinking about ways to leverage their early investment. For one thing, like any business, coding camps can find efficiencies within its labor intensive model. Phillips jokes, “We’re at this intersection of tech and education, so I can’t tell you how many of our meetings are, ‘Oh, we’ll just build some software for that.’ We’re able to increase the scalability of our teachers and of our education through building tools to help more people effectively and gather more data about how they’re doing.”

And he says they are trying to create a “virtuous circle” by cherry picking students who have a potential to be strong teachers, which he hopes adds capacity over the long run: “The bottleneck is for sure finding people who are adapt educators, but teaching people how to teach well is right in our wheelhouse.”

Hack Reactor is also putting some of its basic coding curriculum online and having customers use that in the weeks before arriving on campus. “This has done wonders to make sure people are ready on day one and they don’t get shell-shocked,” Phillips says. “The more of that you can do, the more they can hit the ground running.”

And last week, Hack Reactor announced a new online offering where remote students teleconference in during the regularly scheduled classes.

Wallace also speculates that scalability might come from repurpose its curriculum. “If you look at the MBA model,” she says, “Harvard Business School loses money on their core, two-year MBA. But they’re able to parlay that curriculum and reputation into other products like publishing or executive education. I think it’s going to be the same for programs like ours where we can say, ‘We’ve got this great product of two months in person. How can we translate pieces of that experience into a part-time program?’”

Another strategy is to set up more seats in more places. Startup Institute, for example, is expanding rapidly, with schools in the tech centers on both coasts and adding more recently in Washington D.C. and St. Louis.

Like Yang, Darrell Silver, CEO of Thinkful wonders about the competitive pressures that will come to bear on the original model. “Bootcamps are scalable as an industry,” he says. “The sheer volume of bootcamps and the tuition that’s being generated speaks for itself. But, if I was investing in a bootcamp, I would wonder if there can be one winner or if it’s really a local business.”

The bootcamp goes online

So Thinkful, and other startups like Career Foundry, TalentBuddy and Bloc are experimenting with running coding schools online, though even these are surprisingly labor intensive sometimes. They prefer to characterize themselves as apprenticeships or internships, but they have in common with the bootcamp model the intensive focus over a defined period, usually a few months, with an eye on workplace readiness and job placement at the end. And they use a combination of automated instruction and one-on-one mentor time.

For Talentbuddy, starting an online school with a high-touch mentor element was a way to leverage other infrastructure. They launched the school in response to opportunities the company saw in their original business, Talentguide, which is an online service employers use to test software engineering applicants. So many people were failing the tests, they decided to make a virtue of necessity, building the curricula and support services to help applicants improve exactly the skills employers were looking for.

But even online versions will have trouble finding enough instructors, because they typically use one-on-one mentorships. Lamprecht says, “Scaling is only scary in the sense that right now we have amazing mentors, and if we suddenly have to onboard a thousand students, it’s going to be much harder to keep that quality consistent. We’re focused on high-level education, and if anything changes, it’s probably that the price at some point has to increase.”

The online version of the coding bootcamp, though, can cast a wider net for those instructors as well as for students. Clint Schmidt, COO of Bloc, says of the first bootcamps, “We’re seeing that difficulty in scaling in the market right now play itself out. They’re trying to take this physical experience to as many cities as they possibly can, but there are logistical issues in finding the right number of mentors. I think that’s going to be almost an existential challenge as they try to reach critical mass to serve the demand that is very clearly present all over the world. It shouldn’t make any difference what city they’re in or what hours they can participate. So we tried to remove those barriers to learning from our model.”

Not just for coding anymore

One of the most interesting twists on the bootcamp model is how it is being picked up in other domains, some of them surprisingly specific.

CPG Camp, for example, is an online one-month class targeting a very precise niche market — recent MBA graduates applying for jobs as brand managers in blue chip companies like Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Procter and Gamble. The founder, Kirk Keel, as a hiring manager himself, saw how difficult it is to sort through highly educated applicants to find the person who had “the last 10 percent” of real-world knowledge and were ready to contribute on day one.

“We purposely made it online, so our particular business model is very scalable,” Keel says. “We’re getting the assignments to a place that are turnkey in terms of issuing and grading.”

Michael Li, the founder of Data Incubator uses the same “last 10 percent” term to describe the pain point his new business is targeting. His students are recent Ph.D. grads in data science who are not quite ready to thrive as quants outside of academia.

“As a former hiring manager, I saw this a lot,” Li says. “Ph.D.s know the theory and math behind data science, but they’re really lacking how to transform it into the form you need to do the analysis. These are skills important for your job, but they often are neglected. That’s where we come in.”

The demand for talented data scientists is so high that Data Incubator’s 6-week in-person camp in New York is tuition free to the students. The entire business model is built on the finder’s fee charged to companies hiring on the other end, whereas most coding camps are making money only partly on the back end or entirely from tuition.

And even the projects originally focused on software development may start to explore other verticals as demand rises. Bloc and Career Foundry have added a user experience design curriculum after seeing growing demand there. “We’re confident it’s needed,” Lamprecht says, “but it’s interesting to see how the world is reacting to it, because it’s a new thing. People didn’t even know to go looking for it.”

Bootcamps for English majors

Then there are projects that provide training on what might be considered generalists career skills. These new startups don’t necessarily think of themselves as in the same category as bootcamps, and instead sometimes describe themselves as career accelerators, but they share the characteristics of being time time-intensive and bridging the gap between traditional education and workplace readiness.

Lynxsy, for example, plays matchmaker between “non-tech generalists” and tech startups, placing junior professionals in temp-to-hire trial positions. A lot of their value add is in the pre-screening of candidates for small startups that struggle with recruitment, but they also include support and training for the employee.

Working with more established tech companies, Beyond Business is launching its first class this summer in San Francisco, providing mentorship and a business fundamentals curriculum to recent college grads.

“We have a lot of smart capable students coming out of the liberal arts and not a lot of defined skill sets,” says founder Becky Fisher. “And companies don’t have time to train them. Right now, everybody needs to be their own marketer to stick out when tons of people are looking for the same types of jobs in sales and marketing and HR, which are non-technical roles, in a tech company.”

Wallace also describes Startup Institute, which includes product design, technical marketing and account management in its curriculum, as a career accelerator: “The bootcamps start out with obvious things like Ruby On Rails, because there’s a big shortage. But you need more than founders and engineers to build a company.”

One interesting new model is Enstitute, a nonprofit that arranges one-year paid apprenticeships where young people — many of them on leave from college — have a one-to-one relationship with senior leaders in the host company. Before the placement, Enstitute provides a short bootcamp, and during the year they provide a curriculum to “help the fellows be high performing in their roles,” says Katie Gage, Director of Programming.

“It’s designed to reset their brain and get them thinking like entrepreneurs and give them basic beginner tools they need to hit the ground running,” she says. “There are a lot of projects that focus on coding, but we don’t think there are a lot that focus on general business acumen and being able to function at a high level in a real environment. That’s something you don’t see in a college grad. College doesn’t necessarily equal employment, and there needs to be a supplement to make folks ready for the workforce.”

Yang at Fullstack Academy expects to see the bootcamp model imitated in other non-tech verticals. “There’s a skills gap in a lot of domains,” he says.

“I’m actually really jealous of my students, because had this model existed, I would have definitely chosen this over school. It’s just such a fun, immersive way to learn. There are many other things in my life, if there was a bootcamp for it, I would do it. ”

Robert McGuire is editor of the SkilledUp Thought Leadership Blog.


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1 comments
Marcelo Roque
Marcelo Roque

Maurício Calazans, Lindalia Sofia Junqueira.