Boot camp backlash: Cracks in the code academies

Many coding academies boast of near 100 percent placement rates, but behind the sales pitches lie cautionary qualifiers

After the graduation celebrations are over, May becomes the month when many college seniors question whether their four-year investment was time and money well spent -- particularly if no offers of gainful employment are on the horizon. Once buyer's remorse creeps in, those coding "boot camps" that boast of 98 percent placement rates after an eight- to 12-week course can look awfully tempting. But opinions about these programs remain sharply divided, and the institutions themselves have begun dialing back their sales pitches.

Employment rates for computer science majors have remained a bright spot in the economy, so it's little wonder that Computing Research News' latest survey of college enrollment trends shows the number of undergraduate computing majors rose for the sixth straight year. But in an era of almost instant gratification, alternative "schools -- known variously as code academies, hacker dojos, or programming boot camps -- have been sprouting up like mushrooms after a deluge," says InfoWorld's Dan Tynan.

In an in-depth report on these "hack schools," Fast Company details the money to be made in this relatively new field: Dev Bootcamp can generate $4.1 million per year on tuition in San Francisco alone. (The company also operates in Chicago and recently opened a location in New York.) Like pigs to truffles, venture capitalists are sniffing out the field, among them Learn Capital, which is exploring a $100 million-plus fund to invest in what it calls "career accelerators."

Schools like Dev Bootcamp -- as well as Hack Reactor, General Assembly, The Starter League, The Flatiron School, Hackbright Academy, and dozens of others -- have their boosters. InfoWorld's Andrew Oliver says, "of the people who earned a computer science degree, most don't know any theory and can't code. Instead, they succeed at putting things on their resume that match keywords." Oliver claims he's "stopped relying on computer science degrees as an indicator of anything except a general interest in the field" and finds graduates of coding schools to be capable and incredibly motivated.

Shawn Drost, co-founder of coding school Hack Reactor, which CEO Steve Newcomb has called "the Harvard of them all," argues that academies like his offer a more practical real-world education. "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. There's an amazing amount of wasted time in the college system."

Unlike many schools in the field, Hack Reactor offers no guarantee of employment. However, "of the 80 students who completed Hack Reactor's first four sessions," Tynan reports "all but one has snagged a job in Silicon Valley's intensely competitive environment, garnering an average salary of $110,000."

But these programs have plenty of detractors, and on the flip side to the Hack Reactor success story are the students who get kicked out to improve job placement numbers. Khara Muniz says she was asked to leave a Dev Bootcamp class after she struggled with the instruction. "These boot camps are not schools, but essentially businesses. They have financial goals to meet. They also have a product to produce. If I don't fit that mold, then I don't belong there," Muniz told Fast Company.

Many employers make a point of not hiring graduates of the quick-turnaround programs. Jeff Atwood, a software engineer for Discourse, told the Wall Street Journal that he "worries about a 'gold rush mentality' among students and instructors. Wrestling with thousands of lines of code on long-term projects with shifting requirements can be a frustrating endeavor, he says, so the industry isn't a good fit for those seeking quick success."

Will Cole, project manager for Stack Overflow Careers 2.0, concurred, telling Tynan, "It is unlikely we would hire someone who had no previous programming experience and had only gone to a 12-week boot camp." And Jason Polancich, CEO of information security data services company HackSurfer, says he has "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."

While many schools tout job-placement rates of 90 -- even 100 -- percent, there are no industry standards for whether internships and temp jobs are counted in those placement rates, and some schools' founders are dialing back their claims or at least adding a caveat emptor.

Jeff Casimir, founder of Denver-based Turing School, told WSJ, "I don't think you can be a career-ready programmer in nine or 10 weeks" without prior experience with other aspects of engineering or computer science. And more schools are beginning to stress that they are preparing students for entry-level, junior developer jobs. "We're not promising you're going to make $120,000 after three months," said Peter Barth, CEO of the Iron Yard school.

As Tynan says, "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." These schools can provide a foot in the door for people with little or no coding experience. But as always, consumers beware -- or at least be wary.

This story, "Boot camp backlash: Cracks in the code academies," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.


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