Boom or bust: The lowdown on code academies

Programming boot camps are on the rise, but do crash courses in coding really pay off?

Located on the top floor of a five-story brick building in the heart of San Francisco's downscale Tenderloin district, Hack Reactor is as far removed from the ivy-clad walls and rolling lawns of top-tier universities as you're likely to get.

On any given day, the school's single "classroom" is hot, cramped, and buzzing with activity. Dozens of instructors and students sit cheek to jowl in front of 40-inch monitors set up on rows of conference room tables. They are learning how to code in JavaScript. Fluorescent lights and ventilation ducts hang from the ceiling, and the exposed brick walls make it look more like a not-quite-converted warehouse than an elite learning institution.

But Hack Reactor shares two common traits with other top schools. First, it's incredibly selective about whom it allows in; only one out of every 30 applicants is accepted, says co-founder Shawn Drost. Second, high-tech companies are scrambling to hire its graduates., creators of a 3D JavaScript rendering engine for the Web, partnered with Hack Reactor to host teams of students who build their final projects using the platform. CEO Steve Newcomb says these academies are a great way to identify programming talent, but Hack Reactor is "the Harvard of them all."

Hack Reactor aims to provide a "computer science degree for the 21st century," says Drost, a former software engineer at dating site OkCupid who co-founded the school along with language instructor Tony Philips and his brother Marcus Phillips, a former senior software engineer at Twitter.

Photographs of recent grads, all of whom are now employed by Bay Area tech companies, line a whiteboard on one wall. Hack Reactor offers no guarantees of employment after graduation, but so far it hasn't needed to. Of the 80 students who completed Hack Reactor's first four sessions, says Drost, all but one has snagged a job in Silicon Valley's intensely competitive environment, garnering an average salary of $110,000.

The academies: Filling the coding void

The reason these schools exist is simple. There's an enormous number of openings for people with coding skills and a serious shortage of warm bodies to fill them. The 40,000-odd students who graduate each year with four-year computer science degrees are only a fraction of the 1.4 million coders the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will be needed by 2020.

"At last count there are nearly five job openings for every developer, and unemployment rate in this field is under 3 percent," notes Bethany Marzewski, marketing coordinator for developer job site Stack Overflow Careers 2.0.

In a world where there are four times as many openings for programmers as there are qualified people to fill them, coding schools like Hack Reactor -- as well as General Assembly, The Starter League, Dev BootCamp, The Flatiron School, Hackbright Academy, and dozens of others -- have stepped in to fill the void.

For fees typically ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 a week, students can enroll in intensive 8- to 16-week courses on topics such as JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, Python, or iOS programming. At the end of their terms, many graduates can expect to receive high-paying job offers from both startups and well-established tech firms. Depending on the academy, students may get a partial refund of their tuition, which the schools more than make up for by collecting a finder's fee from the employer. Some schools claim to place more than 90 percent of their graduates within three months.

Little wonder, then, that these schools -- known variously as code academies, hacker dojos, or programming boot camps -- have been sprouting up like mushrooms after a deluge. But opinions about these institutions, most of which did not exist before 2011, are sharply divided.

For some tech companies, these programs offer a way to quickly find desperately needed talent without struggling with H-1B visas or protracted college recruitment programs. Other employers and recruiters, however, steer a wide path around them, saying a three-month course cannot possibly provide the engineering fundamentals required for being a productive member of a development team.

"Programming boot camps can't serve as a substitute for formal training or real-world experience," says Jon LeBlanc, head of developer evangelism at PayPal. "If you want to advance in your career, you need to have a complete understanding of languages and concepts that is developed far beyond the limits of a 12-week course."

Recently, these schools have come under fire from state regulators as well. In January, California's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education sent cease-and-desist letters to Hack Reactor, Hackbright, and several other popular academies, demanding they come into compliance with state laws regarding vocational education or risk being shut down.

The students: Jump-starting a career change

A wide variety of students are attracted to these kinds of programs, says Adam Enbar, co-founder of The Flatiron School in New York City, which offers 12-week programs in iOS and Ruby. Some are experienced programmers who want to master a new skill set. Some work in nontechnical jobs and want to add coding skills to make them more valuable to their current employers. Some are entrepreneurs who want to build their own products.

But the majority of enrollees at code schools tend to have little or no programming experience; for them, these boot camps are the fastest way to jump-start a career change.

Baylee Feore is one of the latter. After she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with multiple degrees in business and public policy and international studies, she went to work as a management consultant for Booz & Co. in New York City.

After two and a half years, though, Feore felt it was time for a change, so she moved 3,000 miles to San Francisco to enroll in General Assembly, one of the larger coding academies with schools in nine locations worldwide. For three months Feore learned the principles of Rails, logging 70 hours a week in class time and project work. Despite the fact she had no programming experience prior to attending General Assembly, within two weeks of graduating last August Feore had a job with Yeti, a small mobile and Web apps development and design shop in San Francisco.

"The biggest reason was I wanted to make things," she says. "And I really love tech. I know a lot of people who want jobs with startups because they like the idea of wearing jeans to work and getting their lunches for free. But I just like solving problems analytically and making cool stuff."

Zoe Kay had a degree in social science and was working as a temp at a hospital before she decided to become a programmer. Encouraged by her developer boyfriend, Kay spent several months at the free online Code Academy learning programming fundamentals before enrolling at Hackbright, a small San Francisco school that caters exclusively to women. She also completed a three-month post-graduate internship at New Relic before joining the application-performance monitoring firm as a full-time employee in January 2013.

Sometimes, though, Kay says feels like she's suffering from "imposter syndrome."

"I have wonderful co-workers, and I really enjoy where I work," she says. "But sometimes I can't believe they hired me, as I have such limited experience compared to my team members. I have to remind myself that I am just starting out and they have been in the business for years. Being in a male-dominated field just accentuates the pressure to learn quickly, since in some ways I am representing women who are entering the programming field just by being here."

The employers: Skeptical but warming

But for every firm that's eager to hire a recent boot camp graduate, there's another that wants no part of them. Part of the problem is these schools are so new that most have limited track records, making it hard for employers to assess the success or failure of their graduates over the long term.

Drew Sussberg, VP of sales and recruiting at Workbridge Associates, a tech staffing and recruiting firm, has placed graduates of several top coding academies into well-paying jobs.

He admits that salaries for graduates with no prior coding experience tend to be closer to $50,000 a year instead of $100,000. And some of his corporate clients won't even consider hiring someone who lacks a four-year computer science degree.

"If you have good communications skills, are presentable, and can pass a technical interview, you are as likely to land a job as anyone with a four-year degree who interviews for it," Sussberg says. "But I do have clients who won't interview people coming out of one of these programs because they believe they don't have the skills required to do the job."

Will Cole, project manager for Stack Overflow Careers 2.0, says, "It is unlikely we would hire someone who had no previous programming experience and had only gone to a 12-week boot camp."

He adds that larger companies with the time and resources to train inexperienced programmers would likely be more inclined to hire academy grads. And all types of companies could benefit from sending their data analysts, product managers, or designers to these boot camps so they can work more effectively with the dev team, says Cole.

Jason Polancich, CEO of HackSurfer, an information security data services company, says he hired roughly a dozen graduates of coding schools at his previous company. But only one of them was able to do the job -- and that one had been trained as a sys admin in the Navy.

"Engineering is really hard," he says. "You can't just decide one day you're going to be one. Some people come out of these 12- or 15-week programs and are successful, but most of the time it's bad for both the employee and the company. They get really frustrated because they lack the fundamentals of computer science, data theory, and math."

Hack Reactor's Drost argues that academies like his offer a more practical real-world education than he received as a CS major at USC.

"While I was at college I never learned the fundamentals of software engineering, never wrote code in the same room with an instructor, never learned the tactics and tools of debugging," Drost says. "There's an amazing amount of wasted time in the college system. We don't waste time here."

Traditional CS degrees focus more on the science of computers and knowledge for its own sake, adds Shaun Johnson, co-founder of Startup Institute, an 8-week program with locations in Chicago, New York, and Boston, that trains people to join startups as coders, designers, marketers, and salespeople.

"Web development, however, is a rapidly moving trade where your depth of knowledge is largely measured by what you can build," says Johnson, who has a CS degree from Georgetown. "If you're looking at a boot camp or other program to get into Web development, knowing how to think on your feet is just as important as really deep comprehension of how computers work, if not more so."

The first step on a long journey

Still, Johnson admits that "zero to hero" success stories are rare.

"Most people won't go from knowing nothing about computers to joining a startup as a Web dev," Johnson says. "The benefit of these schools over a traditional degree program is that they offer a more flexible option for people to reach their career objectives depending on where they are in life."

People with no prior coding experience are "not going to be great developers when they graduate -- that takes years," admits Flatiron's Enbar. "But they will be productive and know how to continue their journey. After graduating from Flatiron our students will know enough to get an entry-level job, add value to their companies on day one, and have a foundation to build upon for years after they begin their careers."

Still, for people with little to no coding experience on their résumés, these schools can provide a foot in the door, says Paul Solt, an adjunct professor on iPhone app development for Rochester Institute of Technology. And that might be enough.

"I think the 12-week boot camp is a great way to get started," says Solt, who also teaches development courses online. "You work on building portfolio pieces, and that's really all you need to get a job in the tech industry. Showing what you can do is worth more than a résumé without proof."

Many businesses that are looking at a shortfall of more than a million programmers by the year 2020 are more than willing to give inexperienced grads a chance, even if some are destined to fail. The zero-to-hero success stories may be relatively rare, but they happen often enough to ensure that the boom in quick-and-dirty coding schools is only likely to accelerate.

For some people, it's not always about the money. Unlike many people who enroll in coding academies, Feore says she is making less than she did in her previous position. But that wasn't the deciding factor for her. She just wanted to build stuff.

"I am ridiculously, fabulously happy," she says. "I love the people I work with and I love the work I do. We have a lot of fun, and I learn something new every day. It's pretty awesome."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.