How A Podcast-Turned-Startup Is Trying to Get More Non-Traditional...

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How A Podcast-Turned-Startup Is Trying to Get More Non-Traditional Students Into Tech

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 4, 2018

How A Podcast-Turned-Startup Is Trying to Get More Non-Traditional Students Into Tech
Ruben Harris (center) with fellow Breaking Into Startups co-founder Artur Meyster and Timor Meyster

This article is part of the guide: How to Score a Job in Edtech: Tips From Experts, Experienced Job Hunters and More.

Some of the earliest and largest coding bootcamp programs shut their doors for good last year. And it left many people wondering if these short term tech training programs are actually worth the investment (for investors and students alike).

One person who’s remained optimistic about the shake ups in the industry is Ruben Harris. Harris is a CEO of Career Karma, which aims to help prospective students navigate the bootcamp market, and he also hosts his own podcast about breaking into the tech industry, called Breaking into Startups.

We spoke to Harris recently about how his company is trying to shift the demographics of the coding bootcamp industry and what that looks like.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: Coding bootcamps are often pitched as a solution to a so-called skills gap. But many students who enroll in coding bootcamps have some sort of prior academic experience. How well are coding bootcamps doing at getting people from non-traditional backgrounds into tech?

A lot of times, [universities] are able to benefit from tuition without being held accountable for getting students into a job. But coding bootcamps have only existed since 2012, and they’ve been pushed to hold themselves accountable to getting people into jobs.

Bootcamps are really good at training [non-traditional students], but they’re not very good at job search or alumni engagement. So what we’ve done is create the software layer on top of coding bootcamps that doesn’t just match you to the program, but also gives you that support system to know what the technical bar is at these programs, what the financial resources are, where housing is, what scholarships opportunities are.

It’s also valuable to connect to other people who are in it, because bootcamps are intense. It’s very psychological. Pushing through these assessments is difficult. Then even after you’re in a job, it’s helpful to connect with other people that might have been through bootcamps that are recently employed.

Do you think that coding bootcamps could be doing a better job at recruiting non-traditional students?

Yeah, I think coding bootcamps want to address as many people as possible outside of tech who want to break in. But if you think about any institution, or if you’re starting a company, attracting users is difficult. Now, most of [the coding bootcamps] either rely on Facebook ads or Google searches, or just the reputation from influencers talking about them and hoping that students fall from the sky. Figuring out how to track users is difficult, and so, to your point, a lot of these coding bootcamps reflect the demographics of the actual tech industry. It’s people that went to college, white or Asian.

But there are some examples of like things that have a completely different demographics. Full Stack Academy and Hopper Academy, the majority of their cohorts are women. But to your point, most people that are in the 99 percent aren’t aware that coding bootcamps exist, which is why we created the Breaking Into Startups podcast.

How have your thoughts about the coding bootcamp industry evolved with it, especially in the last year after high-profile closures?

It’s kind of like the airlines industry, like the Wright Brothers. They proved that you can get something off the ground and get it to fly. But like there’s no Wright Brothers airline that continues to exist today. So Dev Bootcamp, they said, “Hey, I’m going to teach you how to code in three months for X amount of dollars, and we’re going to do it fast.” And they did it.

But when you do something quickly and you’re moving fast and breaking things, those things are not going to be perfect. People start improving on the model, and some of them are going to work, some of them aren’t. Some people are going to get excited, some people are going to get bought out like how General Assembly was bought but Adecco, a staffing firm. MissionU was acquired by WeWork. Flatiron School was acquired by WeWork. Now they have capabilities and vehicles to expand quickly.

If you think about education in general, like universities, those are very well endowed. They have all these resources versus coding bootcamps which don’t even have 1 percent of the resources of the entire education system. So they’re very scrappy. And they’re doing very well. But I think that we will see more consolidation. We will see more institutions popping up. We will see more improvements on the model. I will say, we’re still at the Wright Brothers phase.

So you’re pretty optimistic about these examples of like the WeWork acquisition of MissionU?

Absolutely. When people think about the coding bootcamp market, they think about the people that are currently in bootcamps, and they think about how many bootcamps exist right now. And if you think about it from the perspective of anybody that wants to learn how to code, that’s kind of like been introduced to it, but never had the follow-up for it, that couldn’t afford college, that market is massive.

Look at the people that are in Blacks Girls Code or Women in Tech that really want to learn and want to keep going to the next level. There’s a lot of amazing people that have a fervor for wanting to learn how to code, but there’s no follow-up. There’s no collaborative effort that like helps these people that are working on solutions to the same problem, to work together and move collectively, and measurably and accountability.

Where does traditional higher-ed get into this world that you’re living and working in? I think a lot of people would say today that traditional degrees are still what most employers look to.

Traditional degrees, you do learn a lot. You learn how to start something, and how to finish something. I have a degree, my co-founders have degrees. It’s valuable for us. Whether I’m going to send my kids to college or not is a question that I ask a lot of people. For me, I don’t know, because it really depends on how the university system adapts. If the university system adapts to the future, yes, I will. But in the current way, no, I wouldn’t unless I can pay for their student loans, because student loans are toxic. I think the same thing that happened with the housing crisis is going to happen with student loans, and people are going to blame college for that.

But some colleges, like Rutgers for example, is a 250 year old brand. They’ve been around for a long time, which is why I like what Trilogy is doing, which is leveraging the bootcamp brand, and powering them to have these accelerated bootcamps that are available, not just for students, but also for people in the community as well.

There’s many millions of people here that have some college and no degree, that want to take things to the next level. I think bootcamps are a great model for them, even if they don’t want to learn how to code, because there’s like all kinds of different models, that’s always higher, the sales. I think that you’re going to see the bootcamp model applied to any skill set that is necessary in the future.

Bootcamps are such a stripped down version of the computer science education, and it often lacks theory behind coding, or any sorts of GE courses, maybe courses in ethics, which more CS programs are introducing these days. Could removing those sorts of lessons perpetuate some of the diversity issues that Career Karma is tackling?

Yeah, I think that’s a valid critique. But let me push back onto a little bit. As far as ethics is concerned, there are some programs that do teach you the soft side of tech, or the soft side of people, in general, and how to use tech to not take advantage of them, but build with them in mind and make sure that they aren’t taken advantage of.

As far as the theory is concerned, to your point, people are starting to realize that three months and six months is sometimes too short. You start seeing alternatives pop up that are longer. I think the most recent example of an interview that we’re going to drop soon is 42. So 42 was started by Xavier Niel in France. It is a free school that’s graduated thousands of people, and now, they’re in Silicon Valley.

They are also a completely free school that also has housing in San Francisco, where this is like a big issue. Completely free, no strings. All you have to do is like have the motivation and dedicated to go through. To your point, there is no teachers. But it’s pure learning.

It’s interesting that you brought up 42, because for folks coming from a really traditional academic background, it can be nightmarish to think that there are no instructors, especially for students who are coming from non-traditional education backgrounds. Why do you think that that’s a good way to throw students in, and assume that they can teach themselves?

I mean, I was there. I’m very resource-driven. I don’t like to talk about things that I can’t prove. I don’t like to promote things that I haven’t seen outcomes with. I visited [42] myself last week… Students can be in this program, and they can leave at any time.

During the hackathons [at 42], people are so good that the prize is companies actually giving them internships at the end. They’re being invited into like competitions with some of the best developers all over the world. It’s amazing.

When you’re out at events, and you meet a student who wants to break into tech, and has that non-traditional background, what’s the advice that you give people for when they’re just starting out?

If you really want to do this, I got your back 100,000 percent, you just have to commit to start and finish it, and recognize that even after you break in, that that’s just the beginning, and you’re at the bottom of a new hill. Most people that make it all the way through, it’s not ’cause they’re extremely intelligent and they were born smart, it’s just because they stuck with it all the way. So if you’re willing to commit to it, so am I.

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