Coding boot camps teach a trade for the digital age

Mmost colleges have no ready niche for teaching students to write software.
Mmost colleges have no ready niche for teaching students to write software.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

SAN FRANCISCO — A new educational institution, the coding boot camp, is quietly emerging as the vocational school for the digital age, devoted to creating software developers.

These boot camps reflect the startup ethic: small for-profit enterprises that are fast (classes are two to four months), nimble (revising curriculum to meet industry needs) and unconcerned with SAT scores or diplomas. Most are expensive, but some accept a share of the graduates’ first-year earnings or a finder’s fee from employers as payment.

Most important, at a time when so many young people are underemployed, most graduates, especially those from highly selective boot camps, quickly find well-paying jobs. In a recent survey of 48 boot camps, Course Report, an online boot camp directory, found that three-quarters of graduates were employed, with raises averaging 44 percent from their pre-boot camp pay and an average salary of $76,000.


Enrolling 20 to 40 students at a time, many boot camps have venture capital backing; in May, Dev Bootcamp, which started here and expanded to New York and Chicago, was bought by Kaplan, the educational services company.

With trade schools out of fashion, for-profit colleges often dismissed as expensive dropout factories, and community colleges failing to graduate a majority of their students, the rise of boot camps over the past two years is challenging assumptions about higher education, at least for some smart, highly motivated people.

Many boot camps are clustered in the South of Market neighborhood here, a center for software startups. But 60 such schools have been started across the nation since 2012, attracting students with the promise that anyone — even someone without a computer background — who works hard can learn enough to qualify for a job developing software in an industry desperate for programming talent.

On one recent evening at Dev Bootcamp, where class officially ended at 6 p.m. and faculty members were long gone, a sixth-floor classroom was still humming at 9, filled with students sitting in pairs, working on their projects.


“It’s a lot of hours, it’s exhausting, and each week I think I can’t do it anymore,” said Shakrah Yves, 31, who three months ago was working as a seamstress. “But each week I learn so much, and it’s so exciting to be able to build your own app.”

Most boot camps charge $1,000 a week or more, and attract a mix of career changers — lawyers, consultants, artists — and students who left college to learn to code, looking for a fast track to a well-paying career.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that in the old industrial economy such training took place on the job, but today’s economy relies on postsecondary schools to prepare young people for jobs. And most colleges have no ready niche for teaching students to write software.

“This is too applied, too hands-on, too small-bite to fit easily into a college curriculum,” he said. “Think of it as a place where technology outruns education.”

The schools’ revenue models differ substantially. App Academy, in San Francisco and New York, charges no tuition, but takes 18 percent of graduates’ first-year salaries, with a $5,000 discount for those who take a job with a partner employer. At the Flatiron School, in New York, tuition is $12,000, with a $4,000 refund for students who take a job with a partner employer. (Employers are also asked to pay the school 15 percent of the students’ first-year salaries.)


Many schools offer discounts for women and minorities. Some accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants, culled through Skype interviews and coding exercises.

Working 10 hours a day, boot camp students cover a semester’s worth of material in four days, said Anne Spalding, who left a tenured computer-science post to teach at Dev Bootcamp.

“It’s a more engaging way to learn, through projects, and each group amazes me with their final projects,” she said. “My goal is that in 10 years, the boot camp approach will be part of higher education.”

The most selective boot camps claim job-placement rates of nearly 100 percent and average salaries of $85,000 to $100,000 (lower in New York than in San Francisco). But the numbers are self-reported, and some count temporary jobs and internships as employment.

At some point, the market will be saturated, but for now the demand for skilled programmers is enormous.

“There are almost five jobs for every one Web developer,” said Bethany Marzewski of Stack Overflow Careers, a computer job website. “It’s absolutely the toughest job to fill.”

Alyssa Ravasio knows the problem. She founded Hipcamp, which helps people choose California camping sites, after finishing Dev Bootcamp last year.

“It’s a talent war, especially for people with a few years of experience,” Ravasio said. “I’ve tried to hire a couple of my classmates, but they all had jobs they were happy with.”


Dev Bootcamp’s students must spend nine weeks mastering fundamentals on their own before starting the nine-week residential program. A new group begins every three weeks, and students falling behind can repeat a three-week module for free.

“I was at the lower end when I started,” said Ian Root, a former schoolteacher, recalling his Dev Bootcamp experience. “I had to work 100-hour weeks here to keep up.”

Now an evening coach there, he sits calmly, waiting for students to approach, laptops in hand, seeking advice on where their code has gone wrong. Root looks hard at their screens, then makes a suggestion or sends them back a few steps.

Root’s group included a 20-year-old who had not finished college and a Harvard graduate who later returned to the same company where he had worked, but as a coder. Some boot camp students have taken college computer classes, but realized that while they had learned a lot of theory and algorithms, they had not gotten fluency in Ruby or JavaScript, the programming languages favored by industry, or real experience in building things.

Boot camp students spend time working in pairs at shared stations, taking turns as the “driver,” who types lines of code, and the “navigator,” who reviews the lines and suggests changes.

While skeptics say a few weeks at boot camp is not enough to produce a functioning developer, some employers disagree. Indiegogo, a San Francisco-based crowdfunding site, has hired six people straight from boot camps, and Victor Kovalev, vice president for engineering, pronounced them “awesome.”


“It’s very impressive to put your life on pause and learn engineering in a boot camp,” he said. “The boot camp engineers tend to be very sharp, very driven, very excited to be engineers.

Many boot camps emphasize that software developers need more than technical expertise, and aim to develop students’ ability to work with diverse partners and meet new challenges.

“We do all kinds of crazy things to keep people in that beginner state, like teaching them lock-picking, origami and yoga,” said Adam Enbar, president and co-founder of the Flatiron School, which he said admits about 6 percent of applicants.

This summer, along with the regular class at Flatiron’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, a mostly female group in Brooklyn took the course for free through a New York City job-training program.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” said Kate Brender, a Barnard College graduate who majored in astrophysics and worked as a paralegal before participating in the Brooklyn program. “I’ve always liked logic, but I was surprised at how much I liked this. Even though I’m still a beginner, I know this is what I want to do.”

One month after graduation — when about half her classmates had started a job — Brender was still interviewing but was not discouraged.

“I have three interviews next week,” she said. “And it just takes one.”