The evening rush-hour traffic has faded. The streets of an urban campus are near-deserted. Just one strip of brightly lit fourth-floor windows illuminates a college building.
Coding boot camp is in session.
The 28 students, a near-even ratio of men and women, span 20- to 60-somethings of diverse backgrounds. As befits the range of occupations, attire ranges from ties and suits to sweatshirts and jeans. Two young men wear baseball caps, a Muslim woman, a hijab.
Emily Turner-Sherwood, taking notes on algorithms on her laptop, is in pursuit of a good job. She once hoped her two film degrees would be a springboard to producing. She wound up an underpaid talent agent.
She researched the fastest-growing industries and ways to ramp up her skills. Then she took a day job as a receptionist, training Wednesday nights and Saturday nights in web development. The Chicago resident signed up for boot camp, a full stack, college-run coding camp for working professionals.
Coding is a way “to channel my creativity and problem-solving skills,” said Turner-Sherwood, 27. She chose Northwestern University’s inaugural 24-week coding camp over non-academic competitors due to the school’s reputation, proximity, and cachet. “I want bang for my buck,” she said.
Diverse Range of Boot Camps
“Boot camp” evokes images of barking drill sergeants, of recruits enduring hours of push-ups, of punishing drills designed to shape grunts into a battle-ready team.
Coding boot camps are as intense, immersing enlistees in the basics of computer programming.
Born with the dot.com bubble, for-profit camps began proliferating in the early 2000s and have emerged as an educational juggernaut that produced nearly 18,000 graduates in 2016. Now, traditional universities and colleges are getting with the program, launching their own camps for students eager to rewire their careers.
The calisthenics are mental. These three- to six-month courses instill the basics of writing codes to create apps, computer software, and websites. Programs culminate with a capstone project, where students are matched with a corporate or nonprofit partner and apply their skills in a real-world context.
Industry-watcher Liz Eggleston of Course Report, an online directory of boot camps, estimates just 30 of the 350 North American programs are college-run, and newcomers all. “There are a number of nuances,” she added, citing in-person, online, and hybrid camps.
Campus origins are as varied. Northeastern University in Boston pioneered the concept in 2015, forging its own data analytics camp. Rutgers University, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Central Florida engineered coding camps through continuing education programs.
Others schools align with ed-tech partners. Code Undercover has partnered with Boston College, Tufts University, and Harvard University. Trilogy—which teamed with Northwestern University to run the camp where Chicago resident Turner-Sherwood studies—has launched similar educational platforms at University of California, Berkeley Extension, UCLA, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Learning House has signed contracts with five institutions (Baker University, Kent State University, Oregon State University, the University of Georgia, and Wichita State University) to build online camps.
Commonalities include relative cost-effectiveness (programs run the gamut between $1,300 and $10,000), flexible part-time schedules, and the “halo effect.” The student is associated with recognized institutions of education, a seal of approval that enhances credibility with employers. By contrast, for-profit boot camps are typically full-time with an average tuition near $12,000.
The rewards, though, are the same. According to Course Report, the majority of grads find full-time employment with an average salary increase of 64 percent, or $26,021.
The average salary for a computer job is $77,530 and software developers command six figures, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic reports. These are substantial hikes above the median household average of nearly $54,000. “I think everyone’s in it for the money,” Turner-Sherwood said.
Profile of a Boot Camper
Boot campers are the new non-traditional learners. They enroll in courses to reboot, reinvent, and future-proof their careers.
- The typical attendee is 30 years old, has 6.8 years of work experience, has at least a bachelor’s degree, and has never worked as a programmer.
- 43.3% of boot camp graduates are female.
- Graduates report an average satisfaction rating of 8.83/10.
- 73% report working in a job requiring the skills learned at boot camp, compared to 1.4% working as full-time programmers beforehand.
- The average student paid $11,792 in tuition.
- Use of external lending partners has increased drastically since 2014 (from 8% in 2014 to 17% in 2016).
Course Report, 2016 Bootcamp Alumni Outcomes Demographics Study
An Innovative Path for Colleges and Universities
For traditional colleges, boot camps are an opportunity to reboot curricula and redefine ongoing education, an opportunity to expand their brands and academic development.
The high-tech spin on higher education blurs standard boundary lines in education, where individuals are often classified and organized by previous knowledge or credentials, rather than learning goals.
“You have students in the same classroom who don’t have a degree and students with PhDs,” said Nick Ducoff, Vice President of New Ventures, an incubator that pilots education models at Northeastern.
And these students are armed with skills typically learned on the job. Given that coding and data analytics skillsets are new to the 21st-century economy, “there’s a distinct gap for what employers need and the talent pool,” Ducoff said.
For employers, boot camps serve as talent pipelines into the tech sector. The dot.com bubble burst, but the demand for job-ready workers keeps expanding due to cloud computing, Big Data hubs, and the Internet of things (devices with wireless capabilities and Internet access). The ranks of computer and information technology workers will swell 12% annually to 2024, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Web technologies evolve so fast that only about a dozen of the estimated 8,500 computer languages remain in active use. Instructors must be nimble to introduce—and students to grasp—updates in software, said Kevin Saito of Coding Dojo, a tech-ed training startup. “There’s a lot of content-shifting.”
The Obama Administration promoted interest in boot camps, launching the TechHire and EQUIP initiatives in 2015 and spurring discussions about scholarships for students, accreditation for providers, and potential alliances among colleges. TechHire teams regions with employer-partners to create fast-track training programs to fill tech jobs with middle-class Americans. EQUIP is evaluating the prospect of scholarships and credits for non-traditional students who complete boot camps at postsecondary institutions. Both are bold departures from typical degree-based programs for students seeking financial aid.
Data Analytics Camp At Northeastern
Northeastern, the forerunner in the nascent college boot camp industry, launched its Level program in October 2015 via New Ventures. The cross-functional New Ventures team incubates new business ideas, ways to diversify revenue streams, and advances new models of higher education.
A dozen students enrolled in the first data analytics camp in Boston, Ducoff recalled. Businesses rely on data analysis—the identification of behavioral data and patterns—to identify markets, enhance productivity, and to determine gains.
The hands-on, experiential pilot quickly expanded to Charlotte, Seattle, and Silicon Valley, with a Toronto campus to follow. Offerings now include Data Analytics Core (introductory), Data Analytics Set (intermediate), and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Foundations in Cloud Computing. A tiered program, the stand-alone boot camps range in tuition from $2,995 to $7,995. Northeastern has graduated approximately 150 Level students to date.
Like students in other programs at Northeastern, which has long championed experiential learning, attendees forge contacts and real-world skills through Northeastern’s Experiential Network. The initiative matches hundreds of students annually with capstone projects across the University’s employer network of over 3,000 organizations. Level grads have designed training programs for the Better Business Bureau, OpenIDEO, and Integrated Device Technology (IDT) to date.
In a way, the boot camp both challenges and runs parallel to traditional university designations of undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate, Ducoff mused. Level is a fitting name. “We want to meet the learners where they are and take them to the new level,” he said.
Level has designed custom training programs to date for OpenIDEO, Better Business Bureau, and Integrated Device Technology (IDT). Grads are working as analysts at companies such as Uber, AAA, VMWare, Raytheon, and International Data Corporation (IDC).
P.K. Agarwal, Dean of the Silicon Valley campus, is working to embed the Experiential Network in the Bay area. The first of a series of “educational hubs” will be located at ITD in Redwood City. He is also approaching multiple companies for joint projects. Tech titan Cisco is collaborating with Northeastern to start a boot camp this month focused on Internet of Things.
Yet Agarwal advocates a long-term outlook for junior coders. Only about 25% of openings are for entry-level workers, he said. Techies are expected to rise through the ranks. Fifty percent of jobs are for experienced developers and the remaining 25% for senior management.
The industry is ever-evolving, so “don’t think of this as the end of your learning journey,” he said. “Think of this as a transition job for the next three to five years.”
Coding Camp in the “Silicon Canal”—Bellevue College and Coding Dojo
As in real estate, location, location, location is a mantra for boot camps. Bellevue College partnered with Coding Dojo to launch a campus-based program last summer to build a job pipeline to the “Silicon Canal.”
Bellevue, the third largest city in Washington State, is home to Expedia, Intelius, and T-Mobile.
Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters are across the street from the college’s north campus, and Amazon.com and Google are in the vicinity. So are Starbucks, Adobe, and dozens of brand-name firms with high internet and online presences.
The community urged the two-year college to develop a training program for entry- and mid-level workers, said Mark Velikov, product manager at Bellevue. He investigated the prospect of growing a home-grown camp but found startup costs prohibitive.
“We were looking at $25,000 to $40,000 to get the curriculum built and designed and ready to deliver. I said, ‘You know, we’re going to have to charge $5,000 per student to recoup our money over the next year or two and we still have to pay for good instructors because this is a quality program.”
Each part-time, 15-week modular camp costs about $1,300. A third development platform followed in January. “We try to keep the classes for 14 to 17 students, max,” Velikov said.
The partnership is symbiotic. Bellevue depends on Dojo to provide instructors and adjust the curriculum as new languages and software arise; Dojo relies on Bellevue to provide classrooms and career services for graduates. Students, who meet two days a week, complete online assignments through Coding Dojo systems and receive feedback within 48 hours.
“From a computer science perspective, colleges are great at teaching theory,” said Saito, of Coding Dojo. “Boot camps teach practical skills. It’s a great way to get a student job-ready.”
The Northwestern/Trilogy Alliance
At Northwestern, which is in the first year of its partnership with Trilogy, instructor Mark Thompson has divided Emily Turner-Sherwood and her classmates into teams of four. Each group has a week to design, create, and demonstrate an interactive website in class. The 10-minute presentation must be stellar.
“Be excited! I want everyone to be bouncing out of their chairs,” the software engineer urged.
“Resist the temptation to rush to a keyboard and hack away. Think it through!”
A student asked if he should wear a suit and tie to class on Demonstration Day. “I like that energy,” Thompson said.
Warming to the idea, the instructor segued into career coach. Job applicants may be asked to defend codes in their online portfolios at programming interviews. Be prepared to write out answers to coding problems on a whiteboard to demonstrate technical knowledge. Stand up straight, move deliberately, and look confident. “Nine times out of 10, when you present to someone, they want you to be good,” he advised.
The Northwestern-Trilogy partnership—overseen by the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies—includes Savrut Pandya, who helms careers services for grads. A veteran of boot camp industry, Pandya meets three times with each boot camper to discuss his or her career goals and strategize for the job hunt.
“Communication is huge,” he stressed. “We make that a point in our program, so students are able to be successfully early on and land their jobs”
Key tip for the job search: Maintain a strong online presence via LinkedIn, AngelList, Stack Flow, and other go-to networking/job sites. Attach a resume with bullet-pointed skills plus an electronic portfolio. “They invite employers to call students,” Pandya said. He is negotiating capstone projects (cars.com requested six students for paid internships) to build those resumes.
Two ambitious boot campers have already lined up jobs. But for Turner-Sherwood, the digital sky is the limit. Remote coding jobs are plentiful, she pointed out. Once she graduates, she has the freedom to work from home, part- or full-time, or freelance. And she’ll still earn a higher wage than she does as a $15-and-hour receptionist.
The opportunities are endless, the reason why she and her fellow coders are rebooting their lives. “Everyone’s motivated, trying to hustle, and make good,” she said.
Chances are there’s room for plenty of hustle—and more colleges to board the boot camp bandwagon—as software innovations accelerate. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts one million job vacancies in the tech sector by 2020. “I don’t see saturation being an issue any time soon,” said Eggleston of Course Report.
Like Agarwal, she also expects boot camp foot soldiers to advance steadily, whether they sign up with startups or tech titans. If they’re on active duty, they will receive ongoing training to upgrade their skills, and that means promotions. Junior developers graduate to mid- and senior-level rooms, Eggleston said. “I think they’ll just enter the tech ecosystem and grow in their careers, making room for more junior developers in the future,” she said.
Molly Woulfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about higher education, academic medical centers, and health/lifestyle issues. An award-winning newspaper reporter for 25 years, her stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Shore Magazine, Medicine on the Midway, American Medical News, the Joliet Herald-News, and the Times of Northwest Indiana.