Coding Bootcamps vs. Computer Science Degrees: What Employers Want and Other Perspectives

Credit: Ulrich Lange, Dev Bootcamp

Employer Views

Many people I’ve talked to about my coding bootcamp research wanted to know what employers are looking for from potential coding bootcamp hires. I have better answers now because a group of researchers I met last week at a computer science education conference (SIGCSE) went out and asked employers at twelve software development companies what they wanted from potential hires (paper). Some companies were small (less than 50 employees) and others were large (over 250 employees). Different companies focused on automobile technology, healthcare, digital marketing, and consulting.

The researchers found that employers at these companies look for a mix of hard skills (technical knowledge) and soft skills (adaptability, team work, creativity, etc.). In the interviews, employers talked about soft skills twice as much as hard skills. Most said they want a baseline level of technical skills that are assessed with screenings, but beyond this they put significant effort into evaluating soft skills.

When looking at how potential hires were trained, many employers want a four-year degree, though not necessarily a computer science (CS) degree. They recognize that a CS degree may be preferred when you need someone who can figure out the best algorithm for a problem. They also consider math background in jobs like data science. Employers may look at other four-year degrees, even ones that are not CS, for building problem solving skills in other areas, or for soft skills like breadth of education and perspective.

On the other hand, some employers (especially in small companies) said they actually preferred coding bootcamp graduates for some jobs (see also this Indeed survey). These employers liked that bootcamp graduates often had more experience solving problems with teams, had more perseverance and had more practical and up-to-date knowledge. The employers in this study said they wanted four-year degrees, even from coding bootcamp graduates. There is other evidence, though, that a four-year degree might not be required for employment. CourseReport found that 30% of coding bootcamp graduates did not have four-year degrees, and 71% of them still found employment in jobs requiring their technical skills. The discrepancy between the employers in the study and the data from CourseReport may simply be due to the employers in the study not being fully representative of the software industry.

Professor, Instructor and Administrator Views

I’ve described difference between employer views on coding bootcamps and CS programs, but how do views differ between those running coding bootcamps and running CS programs? To answer this, the same group of researchers also talked to 11 coding bootcamp instructors and administrators, as well as 9 CS professors.

The CS professors were primarily focused on teaching technical skills, and only some explicitly taught soft skills in CS courses, though they sometimes teach soft skills implicitly through the organization of assignments and curriculum (e.g., teamwork, communication, the value of continued learning). Still, non-CS courses in a CS degree or courses in a non-CS degree may explicitly teach soft skills. The coding bootcamp instructors and administrators, on the other hand, focused strongly on certain soft skills in their courses, which they taught explicitly by mimicking real-life teams and projects where students focused directly on learning these skills along with the technical knowledge. Additionally, coding bootcamps tried to respond quickly to industry needs and the latest technologies. CS professors said it was difficult to update department curricula, and some said they didn’t think teaching up-to-date technology was their purpose anyway.

My Views

At a panel I was on at the conference, I presented my view: The purpose of a CS degree is to give students an overview of the scientific field of computing. While this includes some programming, programming is done primarily for the purpose of learning about other areas (e.g., operating systems, algorithms, machine learning, human-computer interaction). A CS degree is a good first step into the academic field of computer science. In addition, the overview that a CS degree gives can also be used as a starting point for a wide variety of programming jobs. Coding bootcamps, on the other hand, focus on training people for a specific type of programming job (normally full-stack web programming). This means most bootcamps teach some general programming along with specifics of the latest web-programming technologies (e.g., mean stack) and the latest team-work styles (e.g., agile development, pair programming). Coding bootcamps are unlikely to cover the fundamentals of operating systems, and CS programs are unlikely to cover the latest web technologies or have much team work. University programs change slowly, but so do the fundamentals of computer science, while coding bootcamps change rapidly, and are able to keep up with the rapid pace of technology change. I expect coding bootcamps and CS degrees to continue existing as separate tracks in the future, whether run independently or jointly (see poster abstract, poster abstract, and paper).

Because CS degrees and coding bootcamps have different purposes, they cover different materials and offer students different sets of skills to take to employers. This difference explains in part why some people with CS degrees also attend coding bootcamps (as I found in my earlier study), and explains why some employers value coding bootcamp grads for some jobs and CS grads for other jobs.

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References:

Q. Burke, C. Bailey, L. A. Lyon, and E. Green, “Understanding the Software Development Industry’s Perspective on Coding Boot Camps Versus Traditional 4-year Colleges,” in Proceedings of the 49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, New York, NY, USA, 2018, pp. 503–508.

“What Do Employers Really Think About Coding Bootcamps?,” Indeed Blog, 02-May-2017. [Online]. Available: http://blog.indeed.com/2017/05/02/what-employers-think-about-coding-bootcamp/.

K. J. Lehman, M. Doyle, L. A. Lyon, and K. Thayer, “Alternative Paths to Computing Careers and Their Role in Broadening Participation,” in Proceedings of the 49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, New York, NY, USA, 2018, pp. 670–671.

K. Thayer and A. J. Ko, “Barriers Faced by Coding Bootcamp Students,” in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research, New York, NY, USA, 2017, pp. 245–253.

L. A. Lyon, Q. Burke, J. Denner, and J. Bowring, “Should Your College Computer Science Program Partner with a Coding Boot Camp?,” in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, New York, NY, USA, 2017, pp. 712–712.

L. A. Lyon, Q. Burke, J. Denner, and J. Bowring, “Visions of Computer Science Education at Coding Boot Camps and University Classrooms,” presented at the AERA 2017, San Antonio, Texas, 2017.

Y.-C. Tu, G. Dobbie, I. Warren, A. Meads, and C. Grout, “An Experience Report on a Boot-Camp Style Programming Course,” in Proceedings of the 49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, New York, NY, USA, 2018, pp. 509–514.

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