Cracking the Code: Are coding boot camps really the solution to the tech talent crunch?

Learning how to become proficient in web and software development basically requires learning a second language. Coding boot camps have sprung up in Utah and other places in recent years with the goal of training students how to master programming languages from Python to JavaScript.

More than 70 coding boot camps operate in the United States and Canada. Courses in a typical boot camp can last up to 12 weeks and cover coding languages ranging from iOS to Python depending on the camp. Full-time programs can require students to spend 60 – 70 hours per week learning a coding language. Part-time programs require approximately 20 – 30 hours per week.

Coding boot camps offer the promise of opening doors for graduates so they can nab entry-level positions at high-tech firms. Do these camps live up to such a promise? Are they an effective alternate route for getting into the industry?

Initial investment

Attending a coding boot camp either full-time or part-time isn’t cheap—it requires a significant financial investment from students. DevMountain, a camp which offers 12-week courses in Provo and Salt Lake City, charges up to $10,500 in tuition for a full-time student and up to $4,500 for a part-time student. DevPoint Labs, a camp based in Salt Lake City, charges $8,500 for full-time students and $3,500 for part-time students enrolled in its 11-week coding courses. Acceptance rates for both boot camps range between 20 to 30 percent.

Financial assistance is available in some cases. DevPoint Labs, for example, offers a scholarship program for women for the purpose of encouraging more women to enter the software development field. This program reduces tuition for its coding boot camp by as much as 50 percent. In most cases, however, students must pay their own way through the camp.

One key thing that differentiates one coding boot camp from another, according to tech employers, is the selection process for getting accepted into a camp. Some camps are affiliated with tech companies and can train their students with the specific programming and development skills that company wants to see in a new employee. Other camps can offer a basic foundation for entry into the industry, but offer no guarantee you can find employment after graduation.

Vance Checketts, EMC vice president and general manager, says it’s important to do your homework before enrolling in a coding boot camp to see what you can expect to get from it before spending your money. A good starting point is to contact past graduates from the boot camp and get a feel for their experience. Ask them what specific information courses covered and what influence graduating from that camp had in their ability to land a job.

“The best thing that you can do is talk to the people who’ve been through the program,” Checketts says. “Get their feedback on the quality of the program and what they’ve done since being in the program.”

No substitute

For many high-tech companies in Utah, coding boot camps merely offer a starting point for boot camp graduates. They do not take the place of a four-year degree at a college or university when considering candidates during the hiring process.

“Our preference would be to get someone who has gone through a regular degree program in a university or has an industry-standard certificate,” says Checketts. “Those things have been around for a much longer period of time and are a little bit more reliable indicators. They’re not perfect either, but they are a little bit more reliable indicators of whether someone is going to be successful.”

One key issue is that not all boot camps are created equal. Camp graduates can pick up marketable skills in a few months. Still, many tech employers feel more comfortable drawing from a talent pool mostly composed of graduates of four-year programs or experienced programmers.

Colleges or universities typically offer four-year degrees in computer science, information systems or other related fields. Students also have the option of attending technical colleges and earning a certificate with one or two years of class work. In both situations, they have access to financial aid in the form of government loans and grants to offset tuition costs.

For an aspiring software developer or designer, a technical background gained from the coding boot camp can help. Still, it is only one step among many steps they must eventually take toward building a career within the high-tech industry.

“I don’t think the training itself is enough as it’s only 12 weeks,” says Dave Grow, COO for Lucid Software. “However, a determined person could take the knowledge gained at a boot camp and go find an entry-level job, work hard, keep learning and prove themselves. It still largely comes down to the individual to make success happen.”

A supplementary education

Where coding boot camps have proven useful at Lucid Software, Grow says, are infusing non-technical employees with a technical background. Lucid Software enrolled a product manager, a creative manager, and the company’s head of business development and partnerships in a coding boot camp to help them gain a stronger technical background.

Sending these non-technical employees to a coding boot camp helped them improve their internal communication skills with employees who function in technical roles, says Grow. It also enhanced external communications with technical partners.

Grow sees coding boot camps filling a useful role when it comes to broadening a current employee’s skill base. It gives them a better foundation for interaction in a technical environment.

“Regardless of your role, there will always be a need to expand technical understanding in order to be successful,” Grow says. “A lot of people can pick up additional skills by simply working with talented people. But to really take it to the next level, some formal training is always helpful and the boot camps can be a source for that.”

Polyglots wanted

Going through a coding boot camp does not offer any assurances that a graduate will not need further training once they land a job. Some high-tech companies will require additional training because their products are advanced beyond what a coding boot camp graduate can master during a 12-week course.

It isn’t unusual for a graduate to be asked to learn an entirely different coding language once they start at an entry-level position in a tech company. Many Utah tech companies have advanced needs that go beyond what coding boot camps cover.

“There’s very few people that come into EMC and we say, ‘You’ve got everything you need. You can just hit the ground running,’” Checketts says. “We’ll take people often times that come out of a degree program— they’ll get a bachelor’s in information systems management from one of the local universities—and we’ll put them through a 12-week training program. They go back to school as soon as they get into EMC.”

That’s exactly the scenario that faced one coding booting camp graduate, Checketts says, after EMC hired her. While attending camp, she learned how to code in Python. When EMC gave her a job, they hired her to be part of their Java development team. This meant a new round of training in JavaScript.

It worked out for the EMC employee. She had earned a four-year college degree before enrolling in the boot camp and decided to attend the camp as part of a career change. Checketts notes that this EMC employee made her camp experience work to her benefit because she had the internal drive and natural abilities to master any programming language.

Coding boot camps, he says, can work for job seekers when they treat it as one tool among many in their development tool box and not as the final step into a high-tech career.

“You just can’t say coding camps are the solution to the tech talent shortage here and anywhere else and we just need more coding camps,” Checketts says. “They’re just another really good tool in the arsenal of tech employers to promote their prospective employees and job seekers to be able to get the right skills we’re looking for as tech employers.”