by Sam Harnett
Even from outside on the street I could hear the screams.
After braving the morning rush of the financial district, I had arrived to cover the first day of Dev Bootcamp, an intensive web development course held in a nondescript building not too far from Chinatown. That’s where the screams -- well, more like cheers, really -- were coming from.
The program claims to transform, in nine short weeks, normal people into programmers. Price: $12,000. I hoped to be out of there and onto my next assignment before the coding got too heavy and the morning coffee wore off. But the very point of these bootcamps is that no one slips into the background and the energy remains at a constant boil.
Thus after my Dev Bootcamp contact caught me slinking away from the 18 cheering participants, he soon had me walking through the rows, slapping their hands. Soon we went into forced mingling and touchy-feely ice breaking. A loud burst of “Gangnam Style” signified it was time to form a circle and engage in intimate AA-style personal introductions. Here I linked arms with the would-be devs and discussed in earnest the most embarrassing moment of my life.
Looking for a new career
None of the students sitting around the circle resembled the stereotypical programming geek that still sometimes crop up in movies or TV shows. No coke-bottle classes or pallid skin, and not even the remotest sign of anti-social behavior. Even those with a computer science background were witty, enterprising and self-deprecating. Everyone in the circle talked about startups and areas of interest as if at an NGO round table discussion on how to save the world. How could web development reform the justice system? Could it change how we get our food? What about education reform? Linguistic analysis?
The students come from a broad mix of backgrounds. One is a Spanish ophthalmologist, another a Ph.D student in Japanese literature. A smattering of young college grads are also in the mix. These aren't slackers with dim employment prospects; they’re overachievers, with varying reasons for signing on.
"I wanted to work for a small company doing something that I loved, something that I was interested in," said Brayden Cleary. "With my major, what I learned in college, I didn't have an in at any of those companies – no marketable skills. I am doing this so that I have a fundamental understanding of programming technology ... "
Eno Compton, the Japanese literature Ph.D., said he likes the educational approach. "As I came close to finishing my doctorate ... it became clear that there is something really wrong with the university system now. To me, Dev Bootcamp is ... this tremendous new beginning for education ... that isn't [biased] towards what kind of degree you have, or did you get good grades. None of that. It's all about really loving something and wanting to learn it."
These are all bright, determined people, dead set on making the jump to a new career. But can they really become programmers in just nine weeks?
Beyond just programming chops
The Dev Bootcamp curriculum centers around Ruby on Rails, a versatile web development language. But as the founder, Shereef Bishay, explains, the language doesn't really matter. The focus of the camp is to develop basic programming capacity while refining “soft skills” like teamwork and self-reflection. That includes sessions on counseling, yoga and something on the F word. It's hard to imagine Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gave these topics much thought as they built their empires. But times have changed.
And the truth is, programming itself has changed, too. Computer languages have evolved to be less code-intensive and more intuitive than what self-schooled programmers once punched out on hulking mainframes in the basements of universities, or on astronomically expensive home computers. Programmers who once had to write thousands of lines of code to complete a task can now do the same thing in minutes with Ruby on Rails or Python.
These innovations have dropped the technical bar significantly for an entry-level web developer. You still need to have the problem-solving skills of a programmer, but you don't have to memorize massive tomes of language rules or churn out lines of immaculate C++. According to recruiter Lisa Hall, what companies are putting a priority on when they look for developers are motivation, drive, creative thinking, team orientation and learning ability. These qualities, says Hall, are now prized more than pure programming power.
Hall works at VonChurch, an agency that specializes in hiring for the digital entertainment industry. She’s currently working with two recent grads from a program similar to Dev Bootcamp based in New York. Neither had any previous experience in programming, but now that they've graduated, tech companies have come calling with offers of a job interview.
Hall says companies still need great hardcore programmers with the kind of deep background developed at four-year college computer science programs. But to meet current demand, there just aren't enough of those to go around. So the tech industry is hungry for progammers with even basic qualifications. The rewards can be great. In the Bay Area, the starting salary for an entry-level web development position is roughly $85,000 a year, says both Bishay and Hall.
Dev Bootcamp says 16 of the 17 job-seekers who graduated with its first cohort last spring found employment. Twitter and OUYA, a maker of video game consoles, confirmed to me they have hired Dev Bootcamp graduates. Bishay is set to open another school in Chicago, and his classes are booked through June.
Bishay says the acceptance rate into the program is about 15 percent, around the same as it is for a prestigious college. But the attributes that will gain you a spot couldn’t be more different. First off, traditional factors factors like grades, prerequisites, and tests matter very little. Applicants only have to plug in some basic information and upload a video of themselves. To make the final cut, Bishay conducts an interview over Skype. He says he is looking basically for “nice people.”
Not everyone in the industry is so sanguine about the ability of novices to ramp up so quickly and attain parity with those who have taken a more traditional route.
"There have always been bootcamps in the tech skills business," says Scott Melland, CEO of Dice, a tech employment site where job-seekers post profiles and recruiters can search for particular skills. "The most successful ones have been training programs where they are taking existing tech professionals and updating their skills, or helping those people learn new technology or new programming languages ... The ones that profess to take someone from no familiarity to great skill-sets in a short time, I think you have to look very closely at them before jumping to go and use them.
"I would say that the most successful software developers we see are ones that actually have a broad background, either get a college degree or an engineering degree, and then specialize into various technologies. They’ve shown the ability to learn, and the flexibility and the general understanding."
It will be interesting to see how the job placement rates for these intense bootcamp programs evolve as more pop up to meet demand. How companies view the programs will depend much on the performance of the first few rounds of graduates. And while they have shown initial success as employable beginners, whether any will find a spot in the next generation of ground-breaking programmers remains to be seen.