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The Effectiveness of Coding Camps

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Which is more efficient in getting one a programming job?

Coding schools typically focus on providing specific programming skills, while university computer science students learn the theory behind programming and computer science.

Credit: Course Report

Andrew Sorensen has been working as a software engineer for technology company Expedia for the past 16 months, but unlike many programmers, the former car salesman didn't spend years toiling away at a university studying computer science. Instead, lured by the promises of a good salary, Sorensen enrolled in 2015 as a student at Coding Dojo, a 14-week, intensive coding school that emphasizes a narrow focus on hands-on programming techniques, and wound up landing a job at the travel website company within a few months of graduation.

According to coding bootcamp directory Course Report, there were 95 coding boot camps active in the U.S. as of 2017, and over 300 worldwide. While these schools aren't inexpensive—tuition averages about $11,400 for about three months of intensive classroom instruction—the ability to quickly attain the skills needed to land an entry-level coding position is a major draw for students such as Sorensen.

"The boot camp is expensive, but it's not as expensive as going back to college," Sorensen says.  "And it also doesn't take nearly as long. If I can get stuff done faster, but work harder, I would rather kill myself for three months."

From a compensation perspective, coding school graduates generally earn about $66,887 per year upon landing a job after graduation, according to Course Report, which tracks the success of coding schools.  That is slightly lower than recent computer science graduates, who achieved initial annual salaries of $70,400, according to data from millennial job search platform WayUp's 2016 State of College Hiring report, which tracks hiring and salary levels of recent graduates.

Coding schools claim they can provide this "shortcut" by focusing only on programming skills, generally having students work in groups to solve coding and programming problems to teach them the real-world skills they will need, rather than addressing larger overarching issues such as understanding computing systems, logic, algorithms and hardware, according to Minh Nguyen, Web development instructor at Coding Dojo. And that's where the primary differences generally lie between coding schools and traditional universities.

"[Computer science] grads will have more experience in the theory behind programming and computer science, but less hands-on experience building software unless they worked outside of their school degree," Nguyen says. "Coding boot camp grads will have lots of hands-on expertise in the languages and tools they covered in their boot camp, but typically less breadth."

Most coding camps are not accredited by any independent commission or authority, and the quality of instruction may vary widely from school to school. Any statistics on graduation or placement rates, even in third-party tracking services such as Course Report, may not be verifiable. That's why some in the industry feel that despite coding camps' lure of a "quick route" to a coding career, a job at the end of the three-month camp may not be there, due to significant competition from others who have spent the time and effort to secure a more well-rounded computer science degree.

"The easiest people to recruit in the world for a technology job are recent college graduates," says Mark Dinan, a 20-year-veteran technology industry recruiter for large technology firms in the San Francisco Bay area.

"I look at where people are getting hired, and they're not coming out of coding academies," Dinan says.  While he doesn't blame people for wanting to use coding camps, he does say that some coding camps are unlikely to be able to deliver on the promise of a good job for most people who attend their schools. 

"There's always exceptions to the rule, but for the vast majority of people, they're just taking [their] money and flushing it down the toilet," Dinan says. "Even for an entry-level job, who would you rather hire, someone with four to six years of university training, or someone who went to a coding academy? It's pretty basic math."

Still, coding camps may be useful for those who have already earned traditional college degrees, according to Fred Martin, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and chair of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) board of directors. "Earning a four-year degree, in my opinion, is a testament to not only an individual's perseverance, but also their economic stability," Martin says. As a result, most successful boot camp students generally have already had some success academically, as compared with those who enroll with little or no formal postsecondary training.

Martin also notes that "the notion that a boot camp is replacing a $200,000 degree is actually wrong; it's augmenting it," pointing out that people such as Sorensen, who holds a bachelor's degree in an unrelated subject (piano) from Central Washington University, is a far more typical candidate for coding schools, compared with someone who has no higher education experience.

Indeed, Dinan recounts a conversation he had with a friend who runs a tech company, who told Dinan that he hired people who graduated from a coding academy, but "every one of them already had a four-year degree from the University of Michigan or MIT. If I really wanted to go back and make a transition, and I only had like an English degree, I'd go back to get a master's in computer science from a reputable university. It's more work, but even if you don't end up working as a software engineer, it's something you can point to on your resume," which would be useful for other jobs including sales, support, or other roles. 

So why are people choosing coding schools in lieu of a traditional computer science education, which may provide a deeper background into the coding process, which may be more valuable as entry-level workers progress through their careers?

"There's a lot of really good people out there in technology [for which] the thought of them sitting in a classroom for four or five years would absolutely drive them nuts," says John Reed, senior executive director with IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, noting that these people might simply want to do the work, instead of listening to lectures. For some basic programming jobs, he adds, basic skills may be all that are required, particularly if the training matches the needs of the employer.

Coding Dojo is one example of a company that is working directly with tech firms to come up with specific curricula. "At Coding Dojo, we research the job demand for different programming languages in the cities where we have locations, and tailor our curriculum accordingly," Nguyen says. "We actually just changed our curriculum to reflect the high demand for Java developers."

The majority of potential coders would be wise to carefully evaluate a coding school's curriculum and any promises of a job after graduation, particularly given the high cost of attendance. Nevertheless, CSTA's Martin says coding camps may be suitable for extremely motivated students.

"Like rock music, computer science is a field in which there is a surprisingly high proportion of practitioners who have unconventional pathways," Martin says.  "I do think that intensive learning formats can be successful."

Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in Lynbrook, NY.


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