Is a coding boot camp right for you?

Coding boot camps are popping up everywhere as demand for programmers grows. But with high tuition costs and a lack of proven oversight, are they worth it? 

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Andrew Sorensen got a degree in classical music in 2013, but he didn't want to perform or teach. After finishing college, he tried his hand at sales and worked for a while at a Bellevue, Wash., car dealership, where he sold Audis, many to software engineers.

Today, Sorensen is one of those software engineers, thanks to three intense months at a local coding school, Coding Dojo. The training landed him an entry-level job at Expedia where the 26-year-old makes around $70,000 a year, which is more than he made selling cars. Now he can pay off the $12,500 his mom loaned him to go to the school, and he can start saving so he can move out — and one day buy his own Audi.

"It was definitely one of the best decisions I've made," Sorensen says. "My career is set."

Nonstop demand for software developers and other IT professionals is leading to boom times for coding schools and boot camps, with career-changers like Sorensen signing up in droves.

If one word characterizes coding schools in 2017, it's more — more students, more schools, more teaching formats, more efforts to increase diversity and more loans to help students pay tuition. There's also more scrutiny of the programs' graduation and placement rates.

Computerworld - Camp for Coders - Andrew Sorensen quote [2017] Computerworld / Expedia

In 2016, the number of coding school graduates mushroomed 80% to an estimated 18,000, according to Course Report, a research firm offering reviews and advice to help people evaluate coding schools. Between 2010 and 2016, job-seeker résumés showing some kind of coding school experience shot from fewer than 1 per million to 1,044 per million, according to job site Indeed.com.

Schools are adding locations, classrooms and instructors to accommodate rising numbers of learners who don't mind spending three or more months in full-immersion training if it leads to earning an average of $68,000 a year as a full-time entry-level software developer. Community colleges and four-year institutions are catching on to the trend, offering their own coding boot camps or partnering with local coding schools.

The adjective more also describes the number of companies willing to hire coding school grads. And contrary to some reports, those employers include big names in both tech and other sectors, according to consultants and coding school officials. "We think of giant tech companies when we think of these jobs, but nine of 10 are outside of Silicon Valley," says Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report. "Every industry requires tech workers. Finance, healthcare, insurance — coders are going into those kinds of jobs."

Paycor, a Cincinnati-based human resources software maker, is one of the non-Silicon Valley companies hiring coding school grads. In the past 12 months, 14 of 300 software developers and other technologists the 1,500-person company has added have come from coding schools and other non-degreed programs. "Some of the [coding school] folks I hired two or three years ago are now the managers who are hiring individuals," says Jon Toelke, Paycor's senior manager of talent acquisition. "We've had tremendous success."

But as coding schools gain prominence, they're facing more scrutiny over graduation and placement rates — statistics that would-be students should know before they agree to pay the pricey tuitions. Several groups are working on industry transparency and standards, trying to help coding boot camps avoid the fate of for-profit schools that have been investigated by state and federal regulators for lying about their success rates and pushing students into risky loans, among other things.

IT expertise in demand

Tech job openings are multiplying as baby boomers retire and more industries go digital. In particular, positions for U.S. software developers and web developers are forecast to grow 3.5% and 4.5%, respectively, in 2017, according to IT trade association CompTIA.

That growth is fueled in part by companies' unwillingness to provide on-the-job training, a holdover from the recession, says CompTIA CEO Todd Thibodeaux. Employers still prefer candidates with college degrees and three to five years of experience. But they can't fill all their open spots just by recruiting people from competitors. "Boot camps are supplementing the gap," he says.

As employment opportunities for developers expand beyond traditional tech hubs like San Francisco and New York, coding schools are moving into new areas, too. In 2016, 91 full-time schools were operating in 70 cities and metro areas, up from 67 schools in 2015, according to Course Report.

Taken together, coding schools appear to be fulfilling their intended purpose: helping people get jobs. According to Course Report, 73% of the most recent group of grads found positions that require skills they learned in boot camps. In 2016, 28.5% of grads were hired within a month of graduating, 66% by the end of 90 days, and 89.3% after four months or more, according to the organization.

Nine of 14 coding school members of a new coalition called the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR) reported graduation rates of 81.25% to 100% from programs running between January and June 2016. On average, 64.18% of graduates from the CIRR schools reporting had jobs in the field within 90 days, and 78.36% within six months, according to a report released in early April. In addition, an average of 1.44% got post-graduation jobs at schools they attended.

Most on-site coding boot camps follow a format like this: Students take nine to 12 weeks of in-person training where they may be in the classroom or working on group projects for 40 to 60 hours a week or more.

However, some schools are adopting different approaches. For example, at the Turing School of Software and Design in Denver, students take classes for seven months. Instructors use the extra time to go deeper into computer science principles behind the languages they teach, says Lia James, partnerships manager at the 3-year-old nonprofit school.

And Ada Developers Academy, a women-only coding school in Seattle, runs an 11-month program that includes six months in the classroom followed by a five-month paid internship. Tuition is free, subsidized by locally-based companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstrom and Zillow.

Regardless of how they're structured, boot camps cover the hottest programming languages, including JavaScript and popular frameworks built on JavaScript, such as React and Angular, as well as Ruby on Rails and Python.

Curriculum varies by region, based on the needs of local companies. North Carolina coding schools teach .Net and Microsoft languages because local enterprises use them, Eggleston says. LearningFuze, a coding school in Orange County, Calif., teaches HTML, CSS and JavaScript Node for front-end development and PHP for back-end, along with MySQL, Firebase, and Bitbucket and GitHub for version control.

"You can't learn languages without learning the tools to manipulate the languages," says William Cunningham, LearningFuze's director of operations.

The popularity of coding schools hasn't gone unnoticed by traditional two- and four-year colleges. Some, such as Seattle University and Rutgers, have started their own camps. Other colleges partner with national or local coding schools and allow students to earn college or continuing education credits while they learn to code at a boot camp. For example, New York-based Trilogy Education Services runs boot camps for Northwestern, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin.

In cities with multiple programs, competition is driving coding schools to offer extras and perks in an effort to gain an edge. Dev Bootcamp, which offers classes in San Francisco, Chicago and four other cities, has a clinical psychologist on staff to counsel students feeling stressed out by team projects or the prospect of job hunting.

Peter Macaluso [2017] Dev Bootcamp

Peter Macaluso

Pete Macaluso says he evaluated a few schools but chose Dev Bootcamp's Chicago program "because they have a heavy emphasis on the whole person." He worked as a teaching assistant for a brief time after finishing classes and before snagging a job as a web developer for a Chicago financial technology company. Macaluso says he liked the school and teaching so much that he has accepted an offer to become a full-time instructor.

Career counseling

Dev Bootcamp and some other schools also employ in-house counselors — often current or former tech industry recruiters — who help students with résumés, prepare them for job interviews and may even introduce them to potential employers.

Some coding school career counselors travel the country promoting their graduates. James, Turing School's partnerships manager, flies to New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago to introduce the school to companies hiring junior-level developers.

Startups are more amenable to hiring boot camp grads, but that's starting to change, says James, noting that big employers like Allstate, OneMain Financial and Procore have hired from Turing.

Since 2015, Allstate has hired at least seven agile software developers from Turing, all of whom are still working there, according to Megan Shaffer, an Allstate technology community advocate for infrastructure services based in Tempe, Ariz.

OneMain, a loan company with more than 10,000 employees, has hired eight graduates of Turing and other boot camps as software engineers and one as a UI/UX designer, according to Ron Smith, vice president of technology, digital operations.

At Paycor, Toelke initially struggled to convince IT managers that coding school grads were worth the risk. But over the past few years, as the company sped up development to support rollouts of new services, people with coding school backgrounds have gained stature because they've shown that they're able to adjust to changes quickly. "They don't freak out," Toelke says. "They regroup and change direction and crank out work."

However, while some large companies are catching on, boot camp grads are still more likely to be hired by startups, says April Wensel, founder of Compassionate Coding, a consultancy whose services include helping tech companies integrate coding school grads into their teams. "The startup mentality is a little more open to different types of backgrounds," says Wensel, noting that young companies also like the fact that coding school "talent is cheaper."

Subbu Rama, co-founder and CEO of Bitfusion, a 2-year-old Austin startup that makes GPU virtualization software, has hired two coding school students for three-month paid internships. He anticipates hiring one or two more interns this summer from the Austin campus of Galvanize, a coding school with nine locations. Paying an intern $15 to $25 an hour has been a good way for the 12-person company to tackle low-risk, short-term projects such as building a website and doing data mining to support other work, says Rama, who adds that he's encouraged to see that coding schools are starting to teach data science skills. "That's where demand is high and supply is low," he says.

A big-ticket item

For all their advantages, coding schools aren't cheap. But there are scholarships and other financing options available to help students defray the cost.

Computerworld - Camp for Coders - Mathilde Mouw quote [2017] Computerworld / Mathilde Mouw

In 2013 when Mathilde Mouw decided to go to coding school, she got a $500 scholarship through a Dev Bootcamp outreach program to improve diversity in the tech workforce. Mouw funded the rest of her $11,700 tuition through a credit-union loan she paid off after finishing the program and landing a job at a San Francisco health-tech firm. She now works for a different Bay Area tech business. One year into her career, she was pulling in $70,000. Before boot camp, she made $9.80 an hour in a part-time box office job at a comedy theater. "My life would be totally different if I hadn't done the boot camp," she says.

The range of tuition financing options is growing, with third-party lenders, such as Skills Fund, Climb, Pave, Credible and Upstart, partnering with schools to offer students ways to cover tuition and living expenses. The percentage of coding school students who have borrowed money is now between 30% and 40%, according to Skills Fund CEO Rick O'Donnell. Loan terms vary depending on the school, the student and other factors. O'Donnell says most students who get loans from Skills Fund start making interest payments while they're in school.

Climb withholds a small portion of a student's loan money until the student shows an ability to pay, typically by getting a job. That puts schools on notice to hold up their end of the bargain and graduate students with marketable skills, says Climb CEO Zander Rafael.

As the industry grows, schools' success rates have come under fire. Some programs artificially inflate graduation and placement rates by excluding students who drop out or start their own companies. Others have failed to obtain required licensing.

Lenders such as Skills Fund and Climb, along with Course Report and top coding schools, are participating in at least two initiatives to hold schools more accountable to standardize reporting of success rates. The group included 17 schools, and O'Donnell says another 25 have contacted him about participating. Graduation rates "are the most divisive issue in the coding school space, so to us, this is tremendous momentum in the right direction," he says.

For its part, Climb is part of a U.S. Education Department initiative called Educational Quality Through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) that aims to assess the quality of for-profit schools and offer low-income people federal funds for tuition and other means of financing their educations. Climb plans to start screening coding schools as part of an EQUIP eligibility process soon.

Some schools have chosen not to participate, in part because they don't want to be forced "to report in a certain way," Rafael says. Even so, he says he expects scrutiny to continue, especially as the number of coding schools grows.

The need for truthful advertising will increase, says Rafael, because graduation and placement rates are likely to decline as the industry expands and schools start enrolling students in greater numbers. As he points out, "If you're admitting 100 a year, it's easier to be more selective than if you're accepting 1,000."

4 tips for choosing a coding school

Picking a coding school used to be easy — because there weren't that many of them. Today, would-be software engineers and web developers can choose from 91 schools offering full-time, in-person training in 70 cities, with other classes available online or through universities and continuing education programs.

With so many options, you need to do some research to find the right program before spending $10,000 or more to make a career change or brush up on skills. Here are four tips to help you choose:

1. Know what you're getting into. Some schools pride themselves on transforming absolute beginners into entry-level software developers. Others expect students to be familiar with HTML, CSS and PHP basics before classes start. Figure out which category of student you fall into.

If you're not convinced coding is your thing, spend a weekend on Codecademy, Khan Academy or another site that offers free classes. "If you spend 20 hours and you're feeling pretty good, it's a good sign you'll enjoy it," says Zander Rafael, CEO of Climb, a firm that offers tuition loans to coding school attendees. "If you spent 10 hours and hated it, it's not for you." If you decide to go, be prepared to work. "People show up expecting it to be easy, and it's not," Rafael says.

2. Get first-hand information. Visit the school and sit in on classes, or go to open houses or join meetups. That will help you decide whether instructors' teaching methods fit your learning style. Employers want to hire developers whose soft skills are as good as their coding abilities, so look for programs that require team projects, which can help you master collaboration and communication skills. And find out what career resources the schools offer. Top programs typically help students create résumés and cover letters, polish their portfolios, LinkedIn and GitHub profiles, prep for job interviews, and connect with potential employers.

3. Look at graduation and job placement rates. Schools should share these statistics — and if they don't it's a potential red flag. Some schools report numbers that exclude students who drop out, take non-tech jobs or start companies. If you're not sure what a school's data represents, ask. A growing number of coding schools are partnering with either the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR) or the Education Department's EQUIP project to create industry standards for reporting those numbers.

4. Investigate financing options. Unless you have $10,000 or $15,000 stashed away, you'll have to borrow money to pay tuition and cover living expenses while you're in school. Many schools offer financing through specialty third-party lenders such as Climb, Skills Fund, Pave, Credible and UpStart.

Interest rates range from 5% to 18% and monthly payments from $300 to $400, depending on the amount of the loan, its duration, the borrower's credit history and other factors. Some loans require you to start making interest payments while you're in school. Others defer all payments until 60 days after classes end or you start a job, whichever comes first.

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
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