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Reactor Core founder: short-term programs, not four-year degrees, are the future of tech education

TechRepublic's Scott Matteson spoke with the co-founder of Reactor Core about criticisms of coding schools, and how his organization addresses those.

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Students at Reactor Core's San Francisco campus
Image: Scott Matteson

The demand for software engineers is huge right now— there could be as many as 222,600 jobs that need filling by 2022. Coding schools and boot camps seem to be popping up left and right to train students, who can go straight into a job with a six-figure salary, in some cases.

There's also been some criticism of these programs. In 2014, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education sent cease and desist letters to several boot camps because, the agency claimed, they were running educational institutions without a license.

Reactor Core, which currently has about 210 students on multiple campuses and online, offers 12-week programs in software engineering and mobile app development, was one of the organizations that received a letter. Now they're trying to address some of the criticism coding boot camps have gotten. I spoke with Shawn Drost, co-founder of Reactor Core about the future of these programs.

What are some criticisms that coding bootcamps have gotten?

SD: "The primary concern so far has been that bootcamps have not been sufficiently transparent about student outcomes. The media has called attention to the fact that most bootcamps don't explain how the numbers are calculated. This is precisely why we've put so much effort into building and publishing our methodology. Everything we do at Hack Reactor is to better serve our students and giving them this transparency into our students successes is transformational for the entire industry."

Is the Standard Student Outcomes Methodology (SSOM) your organization developed part of this effort?

SD: "Being a relatively new form of education, there are currently no standards in place in terms of how to calculate student outcomes in the coding academy industry. We feel it's important to not only hold ourselves responsible as an industry, but also to be transparent to those we serve - our students. We developed the SSOM in order to improve both of these things and see this as something bigger that needs to happen industry-wide. In order to help foster movement toward that, we are in regular communication with our peers to see how we can work together to achieve this. We are focused on using the power of education to transform lives and continuously are looking at ways to enhance our students' academic experience."

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Reactor Core's Standard Student Outcomes Methodology
Image: Reactor Core

Have any other schools adopted the SSOM?

SD: "At this point no other schools outside our network have implemented the SSOM, however we remain in regular communication with our peers in the industry about how to improve student outcomes and reporting. Our SSOM has the industry's strictest way of measuring outcomes. For example, we collect third-party documentation, like employer offer letters, as proof. We do not count adjacent non-coding jobs in the placement rate while many others do. We do not count part time contract work as employment."

How do the skills students graduate from coding bootcamps with compare to the skills of students who graduate from four year university programs in similar disciplines?

SD: "The programs at Reactor Core's network of schools are designed to teach students a complete skill set and help them to begin a career in engineering. Our goal is to give students the knowledge they need to transform their lives, and for the majority of our students, this is by focusing on the vital skills they will need to start a career. While this approach may be different than that of a four-year university, one is not right or wrong. We are targeting students who are looking to jumpstart their careers, and we have found that there is a strong demand for programs to do just this."

What does it take to succeed in a fast-paced, immersive program like this?

SD: "When considering applications from potential students, we look at a wide range of qualities. One part of this is their technical qualifications and readiness, which we evaluate through a skills assessment, but this is only one portion of a successful candidate. Given the fast-paced structure, we look for potential students who are hardworking and ready to dedicate themselves to an intense immersive program. I suggest everyone read the many student reviews on Yelp because they give a clear look into what it's like to be in the program. At Hack Reactor we need potential students to be able to throw out any expectations they may have about how to learn because we teach differently, and finally, we are looking for people who are going to put in the effort to find a job. Our outcomes team does a phenomenal job but ultimately it's our students that are in those interviews."

Are there skills or attributes necessary to succeed in a coding and development career that this program (or similar programs) can't teach?

SD: "It takes more than just technical skills to succeed in a coding career. A big part of a career in the programming field is troubleshooting and responding to problems that arise day-to-day. In order to do this successfully, it is vital to be an inquisitive, intelligent learner who likes working through challenges. Additionally, while some may think of programming as solo work, it is quite often done in a team environment. Being able to communicate clearly and work together cannot be underestimated in these roles."

How you would describe the differences and advantages of doing a three-month program versus a four-year degree, as well as what the disadvantages are?

SD: "A three-month program like those offered at our schools offers a different type of learning environment. We are able to focus on the key coursework that will help students get in-demand jobs, and our student outcomes back this up. Additionally, we've found that this program creates a unique atmosphere among our students - classmates become family and teachers become mentors. We are also able to focus on each individual student going enrolled in our program and provide a high-level of job placement assistance. However, because shorter programs are quicker in pace and more focused, an accelerated program might not be the right fit for a student who isn't sure what they want to learn or what type of career they are interested in."

Do you think people going to start opting for programs like this over a traditional university education?

SD: "We have found that many students find accelerated programs like those our schools offer attractive for a variety of reasons, whether they like the shorter program timeframe or view it as an entryway to a new career. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for education just like there is no one typical Reactor Core student, and this is why we believe we have seen interest in our network of schools only continue to grow."

Do you think boot camp-style programs will pop up for other careers in the tech industry?

SD: "I think we will see bootcamp-style programs continue to grow in the tech industry, and in other industries as well. We have seen this already in the wide range of boot camp programs that are offered, ranging from specializing in attracting particular students or focusing on certain programs or elements. While we are teaching programming, our immersive method of educating students can be applied to other subjects, and we have successfully transitioned this approach to an online program for Hack Reactor, Hack Reactor Remote Beta."

We're focused on outcomes to open up a lot of different careers that many don't think of as being achievable outside a 4 year degree. What really gets me excited about this organization is that I don't think there's anything specific about programming to this educational model, meaning it can be used elsewhere. I think higher education is headed in that direction. There are a lot of holes in our economy where there aren't any professionals at present. Our focus is teaching to prepare for for new jobs in an innovative future. The university system not designed for the same purpose we're using here. At present about half of high school graduates go on to to college. Our whole economy is based on knowledge work now, so using this as job training system is not the best approach. We work through immersion and a focus on job placement; those are intrinsically better ways. We'll see this in other fields."

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About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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