As Elrond famously says to Gandalf describing the fateful moment when the One Ring is kept alive by an ambitious king, "I was there Gandalf, I was there 4,000 years ago when it all began." Four years in from the onset of coding bootcamps, it is worth reflecting on what has come, what is happening now and things that might yet come to pass. I have had a front-row seat to the birth and rise of a disruptive educational offering that has drawn the attention of students, educators, government and industry. To understand where coding bootcamps are and where things are going let’s use the Gartner Hype Cycle as a model and understand its implications.
Gartner's Hype Cycle describes the five phases of maturity of an industry and is a model for how to think about new technology adoption. It includes five stages: "Technology Trigger," "Peak of Inflated Expectations," "Trough of Disillusionment," "Slope of Enlightenment" and "Plateau of Productivity." The names are colorful but describe a key insight: excitement and product maturity are not always matched in new industries and the imbalance of expectations can damage an industry in its early stages.
Code schools quickly iterated and found a compelling and high-performing model: three to six months, intensive industry-driven curriculum, practicing instructors and a community of equally dedicated and like-minded learners. Very quickly we were getting amazing outcomes for our students—almost 100 percent placement with companies, great salaries and the most compelling new path into the modern technology workforce.
These early successes brought press adoration and many ebullient stories.
Mini-biographies of students graced the New York Times on a monthly basis with pictures of them sitting on ball chairs at their new startup jobs. Venture capital and public company investments poured into the space, with Kaplan's acquisition of Dev Bootcamp in 2014 marking the start of the expectations “Peak.” Dev Bootcamp was perhaps the first and fastest out of the gate, with three campuses and a name eponymous with the industry. Numbers have not been released publicly by Kaplan but it will be a great partnership for the two companies, and Kaplan has shown commitment to marketing and growing the company.
The EQUIP program announced by the Department of Education marked another expectations peak and signalled how excited everyone had become about the bootcamp industry. The government's proposal was to enable coding schools to quickly navigate Title IV financing by partnering with accredited universities and thus providing a channel for coding schools to access government funds. Coinciding with the announcement was increased government scrutiny on underperforming colleges and the juxtaposition of that timing started to sound like “out with the old.”
The first pushback to coding schools came out of the developer community: some members shared a disbelief that someone trained in a short time could perform a job as well as someone who had devoted his or her lifetime to the profession.
Around early 2015, stories also began to emerge of less-than-savory coding schools popping up around the country. Even high-quality bootcamps received their first negative reviews and questions arose around placement metrics and how they were calculated. The limitations of coding bootcamps are real, especially when it comes to scale. I tell many applicants that no school has magic pixie dust that they can sprinkle on people to make them programmers. Bootcamp outcomes, like most educational ones, will always be a mixture of what the institution and the student bring to the table. As predicted by the Gartner model, expectations returned to earth, and many bootcamps began to sell, merge or close down.
Returning to the Path
What strikes me about hype is that media usually leaves the party just as it gets interesting. We are now four years into the coding-school world and
the industry continues to see record enrollments, growth and excellent outcomes by the top schools. The schools that have focused on what I call the "Five Cs": Curriculum, Community, Coaching, Commitment and Career, are now providing an educational experience that is unmatched at any traditional college and perhaps the highest ROI investment you can make in yourself. Consolidation continues with recent acquisitions by Capella signalling that traditional higher-ed providers are interested in growing and refining this model.
We’re approaching a new point—a “plateau of productivity”—for bootcamps. I have a few predictions/recommendations to help ensure that coding schools play a valuable role in the educational mix:
For fellow coding schools:
As proprietors of coding schools, we are privileged to be entrusted with the future of our students. We should continue to push for transparency around career outcomes, and quickly—if we don’t then government entities will step in and do it for us. We should continue to reach out to students who might not be aware of coding schools as an option, and focus on improving diversity of gender, race and economic access.
Second, scale is tempting and coding schools live in the same psychological neighborhood as hypergrowth startups. Many coding schools are self-funded or have taken very little venture capital, and I’m hoping that this will continue. Coding schools founded by less experienced founders should remember that venture capital comes with growth expectations. Fortunately, the productivity plateau means that there is a lot of growth ahead, but our focus needs to continue to be on students first.
If you asked me four years ago whether Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon would hire from coding bootcamps, I would have been only cautiously optimistic. However, I have continued to see innovation from top employers on how to engage, recruit, train and retain bootcamp students.
Some models I’ve seen work well include the short-term apprenticeship, interview prep training and student mentoring. StackOverflow has developed a bootcamp apprenticeship program where it works with bootcamps to identify strong performers and invites them for a three-month internship. Google has a program to prepare bootcamp students to help navigate the interview process. Even though bootcamps train students on the types of interviews that top companies perform, it’s still helpful to hear it directly from the company. Finally, I’ve seen strong results from companies sending a few engineers to work with a bootcamp: engineers get a chance to meet students, give tech talks and paint a compelling picture of a work environment.
Students must continue to do their research, as it can be difficult to tell a great program from a good one as an outsider. Due diligence is important, and I tell all students considering a coding school to reach out to alumni, visit the campus (in-person or virtually) and look for blogs/reviews by students. Great coding bootcamps will have plenty of these and be happy to provide them to you. I also recommend checking out students’ projects to see if you are impressed by what they build.
This is truly a great time to be passionate about entering the technology workforce—there are several great coding schools with a strong proven track record. Private and public financing options are expanding access. Employers recognize this excellent source of talent and are supporting further education for bootcamp grads. If you believe that software development is something that can contribute to your career (and in many ways,
all careers can benefit from some familiarity) then there are many great resources available.
We are also seeing early signs that the success of the coding bootcamp model will be duplicated to other fields (healthcare and manufacturing being the first examples). Intensive, immersive education survived the early hype and will continue to grow as the best option for many types of students. As the heated conversation around education opportunities, STEM skills and a trained workforce continues, it’s assuring to know that we have this new productive model in the mix.
David Yang (@dyang) is co-founder and lead instructor at Fullstack Academy.