Bootcamps: the way forward

The bootcamp market grew to around 16,000 graduates in 2015, an increase from about 7,000 in 2014. And last year there were 67 full-time coding bootcamps in more than 200 locations across the US, according to a 2015 market size survey conducted by Course Reports. For the sake of comparison, Madeline Vuong writes in GeekWire, ‘there were just 49,000 undergraduate computer science graduates from accredited U.S. universities in 2014.’ But after the recently announced closures of both Dev Bootcamp and the Iron Yard, do providers need to look at more sustainable models for their business?

The bootcamp bubble was in fact predicted by Issie Lapowsky in a Wired article early last year. ‘Thanks to all of this attention, the number of bootcamps around the country has ballooned. So have the number of graduates. And while many of these schools are reputable institutions with solid relationships in the tech industry, others are, like so many for-profit schools before them, just jumping on the bandwagon and offering a less than satisfactory education in the process.’ Lapowsky criticised the model — ‘as financing options for these bootcamps proliferate, and more students take on debt to pay for them, the model will only become more controversial.’ And whilst acknowledging the great power of bootcamps to close skills gaps, she noted the tide would turn on quality. ‘Another threat facing the coding bootcamp world is the fact that many tech recruiters are still skeptical of bootcamp graduates. They’ll come around eventually, but for the people who are putting their lives and careers on hold to take these courses today, change may come too late.’

Whilst it’s undeniably true that coding bootcamps fill a need — the desire to gain skills to make you employable in a fast-changing marketplace, without the long-term financial commitment of a computer skills degree — they are suffering as an industry because of fears over financial stability and whether or not they have a sustainable business model. Low barriers to entry and an increasing number of new players have undercut existing bootcamps, leading to Dev and Iron Yard’s problems.

In fact, there are several things that bootcamps can do to revitalise themselves and ensure they stay fit for purpose for future business.

The first is to consider expanding your reach. For Clive Thompson, writing in Wired, the ‘Silicon Valley stereotype’, a ‘hoodied college dropout who builds an app in a feverish 72-hour programming jag’ with the goal of ‘getting insanely rich and… changing the world,’ doesn’t represent the truth of what being a coder is like. And, if we started to see coding more pragmatically as a blue-collar job, our changed perceptions might make the presence of bootcamps a standard part of the educational establishment, not something different and exotic. ‘What if we regarded code not as a high-stakes, sexy affair, but the equivalent of skilled work at a Chrysler plant?’ Thompson asks. ‘Among other things, it would change training for programming jobs — and who gets encouraged to pursue them.’

With this in mind, focusing on being tech leaders is the way for bootcamps to raise their sights and create a larger slice of the educational pie to benefit from. Consider the need for data scientists. ‘According to the job website CareerCast, data science is the toughest job to fill in 2017,’ Ben Pring argues on CNBC Makeit. ‘Technology companies aren’t the only ones that rely on data, rather than guesswork, to run their operations. Many businesses, including banks, airlines and manufacturers, are scrambling to hire data talent.’ Broadening the scope of job roles that can benefit from bootcamp training is likely to bring more potential candidates to the door.

We’ve already seen how bootcamps are likely to evolve with a mix of consolidation and differentiation. But for continued survival, perhaps what’s needed is more third-party validation. This is something recommended by Nick Ducoff, the founding director of Level Boot Camp, Northeastern University’s data analytics training program. ‘Some of the other companies providing these boot camps don’t provide direct assessments to their students,’ Ducoff claims. ‘Think about school — there were quizzes and tests, that was how progress was measured. Coding schools that don’t measure their students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills don’t seem very viable in terms of education.’ And GeekWire quotes Ed Lazowska, University of Washington computer science professor, who jokes: ‘at many bootcamps, the standard is — “can write a check.” ’

So bootcamps should have regular assessments and Ducoff reckons they ‘should give students a full year of full-time instruction, split into six months of classroom training and six months of job training through an internship.’

Another suggestion is to focus more on the service element of your offering — use marketing techniques and customer retention management to hold onto your potential audience. In other words, have customers rather than students. ‘We don’t see ourselves as an educational institution,” says Richard Wang, CEO of Coding Dojo. ‘We see our students as customers and we treat them as such. We give them customer satisfaction surveys every two weeks to make sure they feel they’re getting what they paid for.’

Finally, differentiate yourself. Perhaps the closure of Dev and Iron Yard was intentional, as we explored in the previous article. But perhaps there are simply too many players in the market suddenly putting financial squeeze on the major players, and because of the latter’s unwillingness to compromise on quality, the financial model has proved unsustainable. So, bootcamps need to demonstrate to potential customers that they are ‘best of breed.’ Don’t go to the very cheapest, is the argument that must be communicated — instead, show value to your potential students.

Principal sources

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/programming-is-the-new-blue-collar-job/ 
 Data scientists https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/07/these-4-jobs-will-keep-you-safe-from-robots.html

Erin Carson comment http://www.techrepublic.com/article/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-coding-camps/

Treat people like customers and Nick Ducoff comments https://www.geekwire.com/2016/coding-schools-plan-expansions-betting-that-they-will-be-winners-when-the-market-shakes-out/

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