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Parachuting Into Coding

Boot camp coding schools promise big salaries after just a few months of training. But are they all they're cracked up to be?

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App Academy has taken a different approach to tuition. It doesn't charge its students any upfront costs, which cofounder Kush Patel, another member of the inaugural class at Dev Bootcamp, said allows them to find and train the best talent — regardless of their ability to pay. Instead, students sign a contract agreeing to pay App Academy 18 percent of their first year's pre-tax salary over the first six months of their new job. The Academy boasts similar figures of success: a 95-percent job placement rate, with an average starting salary of $91,000. Using that average, tuition ends up costing $16,380.

A large part of the programs' success is due to stringent application processes and the incredible amount of resources they throw at students. The thought is: Anyone can learn to code, but not everyone has the desire or will to spend hours staring at symbols on a computer screen. So prospective students without any experience are asked to learn some basics before formally applying.

In addition to aptitude, the schools are looking for personable students — those who will be able to contribute to the collaborative environment of development teams. "This idea of a lone coder writing amazing code is something you see in Hollywood," said Donnie Flood, cofounder and chief technology officer of Bizo, a digital marketing technology company. "Software is a team sport that requires a lot of communication."

Before accepted students even step in the door, they're asked to spend 50 to 100 hours learning to code on their own and given specific projects. Classes are small: At Dev Bootcamp, there are approximately 18 students per session; at Hack Reactor, the number is between 25 and 30. Teacher-to-student ratios hover around eight to one (or less), check-ins are very regular, and students are coached on giving interviews. At Hack Reactor, they're even asked to BCC their teachers on emails with potential employers.

Calhoun regularly communicates with employers and alumni (even going so far as to hold alumni office hours) to ask, "What could we have done better? What do you find yourself wishing you knew? Are there any questions you're too embarrassed to ask your employer?"

In some ways, this model is quite different than pursuing a four-year degree. But is it legitimate? It seems so, and that may be because coding schools have a lot to gain from running their programs well.

"One challenge of for-profit education is that it's difficult to see what the real McCoy is from what has slick marketing," said Dev Bootcamp's Lee. "That's part of the tragedy of for-profit education — there are going to be predatory institutions that make a lot of promises and deliver very little. How do you validate what's real and what isn't?"

But there's another element besides education involved in becoming a valuable computer programmer, and that's personality. The people I interviewed told me that many companies are more interested in a "culture fit" and care less about where or how an engineer has mastered his or her skills. "What we're really looking for is culture match," said Flood, who has been in charge of hiring new developers at Bizo. "There are a lot of smart people who can do this job. In computer science in general, a lot of what you learn is the dedication and the grit and the grind of computer programming. That's part of what makes a good developer: long hours and the tenacity to work through bugs without pounding your head against the wall."

Dan Croak, chief marketing officer at ThoughtBot, said he has hired students from App Academy and Dev Bootcamp after an additional three-month apprenticeship period. "We don't have a bias towards [a background]," he said. "Our CEO doesn't have a college degree. What's nice about these boot camps is that you have a pretty good expectation of where someone is going to be."

And some students are finding coding academies more attractive than four-year programs. Savannah Kunousky began studying computer science in the honors program at Western Washington University last fall. But she was frustrated by what she perceived as a total lack of caring by her teachers and a general lack of resources.

"I was in a one-hundred-person lecture with a teacher who didn't care about what we were learning," she said. "Maybe he had other stuff going on or didn't want to deal with teaching beginners. I began studying for finals and just felt like, 'This is a horrible way to learn.' There's no reason for me to sit here and do these projects that I'll have to spend twenty hours in the lab on when I know this project should not take me twenty hours."

So Kunousky applied and was accepted to study at Hack Reactor this summer. She's not alone. Calhoun told me there are a "significant" number of students who have formally studied computer science or a related field who enroll in Hack Reactor. Patel estimated that 5 percent of his students have come from four-year programs. ("If you tried to learn this for four years, maybe this isn't the best fit for you," he said).

Mike Ng graduated from Amherst College with a degree in computer science in the spring of 2012. But when he began interviewing for computer programming positions, he quickly discovered that there were large gaps in his practical knowledge. He knew how computers worked and about data structures and algorithms, but that wasn't what employers were looking for. So he enrolled in App Academy.

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