Tue May 27, 2014

Programming bootcamps: will they shake up the industry?

Around 20 students are standing in a circle in a big open office space. There are both men and women, mostly in their 20s or 30s.

One-by-one, they give an update on their projects, using terms like “blocker” and “refactor.” They refer to this particular meeting as a “stand-up.” But only a few months ago, these students probably didn’t know these terms at all.

They're all students at Dev Bootcamp, a training program in San Francisco that teaches people to become employable, beginner software programmers in only nine weeks.

“It just never occurred to me that I could do computer science,” says Erin Snyder, a Dev Bootcamp student and former journalist.

Many students come without a technical background. Alumni include a former yoga instructor and a chimney sweep. So they have a lot to learn upon arrival.

“It’s pushing me, but it’s also very exhausting,” says Snyder. “I feel like there’s not enough time to do everything I want to do.”

For the nine weeks they’re here, students put in between 80 and 100 hours per week. They put in money too; tuition is around $12,000.

“But I think it’s worth it,” says Snyder. “It’s a career that actually has promise to it.”

Dev Bootcamp’s founder, Shereef Bishay, concurs. “I wouldn’t do this model if there wasn’t demand for engineers. Our students come because they want jobs, so part of the promise is access to livelihood.”

Bishay says that the faster students can be trained, the better. “What I usually say is, if you were going to learn French, would you rather spend a few hours a day learning French, or would you rather be dropped in Paris for three months?”

Bishay started Dev Bootcamp kind-of by accident in 2012. He was a programmer, and he had a friend who wanted to learn how to code. “And I said, 'look, I’ll teach you and I don’t think it will take that long,'” recalls Bishay. “And he said, 'if you’re willing to do that, I’m willing to quit my job.'”

He did quit. So the challenge was on.

Bishay thought it would be more fun to do it in a group, so he posted about it on Hacker News. Bishay says the post read: “I’m going to teach my friend to code in eight weeks. Who’s interested?”

“My inbox got flooded,” says Bishay. “I had to shut down the posting.”

The first bootcamp was a success. Sixteen of the seventeen students looking for jobs, got them, including Bishay’s friend, who’s now an engineer at Apple.

Bishay attributes the program’s success to its practical, learn-by-doing approach. “You’re doing what you’d be doing on the job,” he says. And like in a real job, the students work together, because, he says, “Software programming in the real world is a team sport.”

Bishay says his own computer science education - a four-year degree - was more about working alone, and learning theory. “Really, I graduated not really knowing how to code," says Bishay. "About 10 to 15 percent of what I learned in university, I’m applying in my job, and everything else I learned in university is not applicable to this job.”

“We’re not just trying to teach the technology of the day or the week,” explains Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University. “I think the way we think about it here is that we’re giving students a foundation for lifelong learning.”

Sahami says computer science needs people with a broad overview who can craft its future. Sahami says computer scientists are “like geometers in the time of Euclid. There are real deep questions in the field, and because the field is still young, there are things that in our lifetimes will be explored and answered.”

Still, Sahami knows a college degree is not accessible to everyone. That’s why Stanford offers free online computer science courses. One of Sahami’s lectures now has over a million views. Sahami says the department is still trying to assess the value of putting courses online, and programming bootcamps are an even newer option they haven’t explored yet.

“You need to see how it evolves. It’s a little early to tell now,” says Sahami. “The long-term question, I think, for the dev bootcamps is: are they preparing someone for their first job or are they preparing them for a 40-year career in the field?”

Either way, the bootcamps know a career starts with that first job. So they host career fairs for their graduates.

Hackbright Academy, a woman’s-only programming bootcamp in San Francisco, is hosting its sixth career day since it was founded. The fellows share their projects, while employers rotate around, like speed-dating.

Hackbright fellow Shannon Burns explains her final project to a company called Stripe. She built a meme generator. “When I worked at Lyft, I was known in the office as the meme czar,” she says. “And when I was leaving, everybody was sad that I was taking my bucket of memes with me. So I said, I think I can automate that.”

During the lunch break, Burns says her meetings have gone well. “As much as they’re interviewing me to see if I’m a good fit, I’m also interviewing them to see if they’re going to be a good fit for me in my life and what I want to do,” she says.

Employers need to make a good impression too, because talented programmers are hard to find. “It’s impossible. The market’s totally dry,” says Chris Joel, who works at a small healthcare startup called Dabo Health.

“We’ve been hiring nonstop for the last five months and the yield from that is five people,” says Joel. “The quality of candidates here at Hackbright is certainly much higher than anything we’ve seen over the last few months.”

These women have a pretty good chance of getting hired. Hackbright says around 90 percent of their graduates get jobs.

Software engineer Dare Kolawole, who is here representing Google, says, “I have really high hopes for code bootcamps and things like this because it brings people with really different backgrounds into a field that’s been kind-of monotone, in a way. So it’s kind-of like a revitalization of the field in a way, and I think it’s very necessary.”

Hundreds of bootcamp graduates have already landed jobs at places like Yahoo, Pinterest, and Uber, but their learning isn’t really over yet. They’ll still have to catch up to coworkers with more education and experience. Luckily, these programmers know they’re fast learners.

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