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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A few years ago, Doug Calhoun was working at a technology company doing basic, low-level tech support. Seeing how well the developers around him were treated — they had to be, or they could simply walk across the street and find another job — he decided he wanted to join their ranks. He didn't know how to code, so he asked his employer if he could be trained. When his bosses declined, Calhoun quit, bought himself a bunch of textbooks, and locked himself in his bedroom for five months.

"When I was starting out, I read a book on Python. I read a book on Ruby. I read a book on JavaScript. I read a book on PHP. I read a book on everything! And when I got to the end, I had a scattered, disparate set of knowledge without a real solid foundation to start to build on," he recalled.

Running out of steam and unsure of where to turn for help, he gave up and left the country to travel. "When I get back to the States, I'll just get some crap job somewhere," he told himself at the time. But while he was in Kuala Lumpur, he read a post on Hacker News that piqued his interest. A man named Shereef Bishay was offering to teach people how to code. Calhoun flew home to join Bishay in San Francisco in February of 2012 for the inaugural class of what is now Dev Bootcamp — one of several immersive coding schools that have cropped up in San Francisco in the last year and a half. After attending the class, Calhoun went on to briefly work as a developer, and eventually cofounded his own coding school, Hack Reactor.

The demand for computer programmers far exceeds the supply. According to Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to growing computer programming education, at the rate computer programmers are being produced today, there will be a million more jobs than programmers by 2020. Surprisingly, less than 2.4 percent of college graduates major in computer science, which is actually fewer than ten years ago. The effect on the tech industry has been well documented: Companies compete mercilessly to attract talent, offering ever-increasing benefits like entry-level salaries that exceed $100,000, equity, bonuses, and office perks like meals on-site, lavish parties, free booze, and the like.

Coding schools like Dev Bootcamp and Hack Reactor are stepping in to meet that demand. They promise that after just nine to twelve weeks of training, students can obtain a position as an entry-level web developer with a starting salary of $90,000. But how realistic is that promise? Apparently, the answer is very — that is, if you have a knack for staring at a computer screen for hours on end.

"Dev Bootcamp was one of the first to know that this was even a possibility — that you could take folks with an amateur interest and scattered, half-learned set of skills from online resources, textbooks, friends, from hacking alone in their bedrooms, and gather that into a skill set that could be valuable to employers .... that you could give these people a foundational understanding and turn them loose on the job market, where these skills are massively in demand," said Calhoun.

According to Chris Lee, vice president of operations and finance at Dev Bootcamp, Bishay was inspired to found the coding school after graduating with a degree in computer science, only to discover that he was using only about 10 percent of what he studied in college at his job. As a profession, computer programming is primarily vocational. But college programs focus heavily on theory.

"The world has enough compilers and operating systems. What we need are people who can build tools and web apps," said Calhoun, citing examples of theoretical aspects of computer science that are taught in college, but rarely applicable outside the classroom.

The handful of coding schools that have cropped up in San Francisco lately — App Academy, Dev Bootcamp, Hackbright Academy (which is exclusively for women), and Hack Reactor — defy traditional education models in many ways, perhaps most significantly by explicitly defining their goal as preparing students to become entry-level developers. As Calhoun put it, "We live and die by the stories of our graduates. Nothing is hidden."

Acceptance is highly competitive. At Hack Reactor, one student is accepted for approximately every twenty applications received, according to a post by cofounder Shawn Drost on Quora.com. Although differences exist among the schools, they share a similar format and philosophy: that coding is best learned by doing, and that absolute immersion is the best way to go. Programs are brief (between nine and twelve weeks) and intense: Students spend six days and between 80 and 100 hours a week learning code and working on projects, which sometimes includes paid client work. At the end of their course, students have a portfolio of completed work to show prospective employers on hiring day, when companies are invited to view students' work. Sessions are held every few months.

Schooling doesn't come cheap, however. A twelve-week course at Hack Reactor, the most expensive of the schools, costs $17,780. But, according to Calhoun, all his students who wanted to get jobs as developers — i.e., not entrepreneurial-minded ones who preferred to strike out on their own — have been hired, with an average starting salary of $100,000. And he said that figure continues to grow.

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