What grade do coding schools deserve? The answer is personal

Given the global need for software developers, the existence of coding schools isn't surprising. Coding schools' impact on individuals, however, just might be.

People learning software engineering

Image: nd3000, Getty Images/iStockphoto

There are roughly 22 million developers globally, according to IDC. That's many millions too few. With the world increasingly composed with software, organizations of all kinds are trying to recast themselves as "technology organizations," and need to hire developers to substantiate these ambitions. Code boot camps and coding schools have mushroomed to try to fill this gap between short supply and heavy demand of developers, but are they any good? 

Answering that question, it turns out, almost immediately becomes very personal.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Grading the coding schools

In response to a question from Adron Hall, I decided to start evaluating the impact of coding schools. The claims many of them make sound like get-rich-quick schemes: "94% of our graduates work in tech and make an average of $80,000! You can, too, in just four weeks!" Thanks to the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, it's possible to peek beyond the claims to see actual results (at least, for those schools that participate in CIRR--many don't).

For example, for The Software Guild Louisville (second half of 2018), 72.7% graduated on time, and 88.9% were employed in tech within 180 days of graduation, earning a median pay of $44,340. For Hack Reactor @ Galvanize NYC (second half of 2018), 83.6% graduated on time, and 73.8% were employed in tech within 180 days of graduating, earning a median salary of $95,000 (presumably higher because graduates lived/stayed in New York). 

Across the industry (and geographies), software developers in the US make an average of $70,618, according to PayScale, or $80,018, according to Glassdoor data. While these numbers are very different (likely caused by sampling in different geographies, levels of experience, etc.), one thing has been consistent: The salaries keep going up. How much? By some estimates, software engineer salaries have ballooned 15% within the last 10 years. Coding schools have not been enough to saturate industry demand for developers, leading to ever-increasing salaries. 

SEE: The truth about MooCs and bootcamps: Their biggest benefit isn't creating more coders (cover story free PDF) (TechRepublic)

It's personal

As much as we may try to evaluate coding schools in aggregate, or to evaluate them one by one and their impact on the industry, ultimately the best criterion for success is how they impact an individual. Which makes me think of Emily Freeman.

Freeman is a developer advocate at Microsoft, a high-profile job for a high-profile company in a high-profile area of tech (cloud computing). But that characterization obscures how Freeman got to this point, and the critical role a coding school played in her development. Essentially broke and trying to single-parent her way to financial viability, Freeman tells of packing her things one day and moving from the D.C. area to the Rocky Mountains to start a seven-month coding program:

I spent seven months entrenching myself in something which I had no experience in and for which I had no natural inclination. I made another decision. I wasn't going to quit….

And I can't tell you how powerful that was. The decision to stop saying "no" to myself. To keep pushing until some more powerful outside force stopped me. It was freeing. I took the brain capacity I would normally dedicate to worry and fear and instead dedicated it to learning.

I wasn't the most brilliant person in my class, far from it. But I live by a saying, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." 

After a huge amount of work, Freeman received four job offers. Through some fits and starts at different companies, she found her way into developer relations, where she thrives today. So much so, in fact, that she wrote the book that teaches organizations how to get smart about implementing DevOps

Getting there, however, almost certainly depended on what she started learning at the coding school. So, is a coding school right for everyone? Maybe, maybe not. Was it right for Freeman? It's hard to imagine otherwise. 

The chance to "prove it"

But maybe, as Andrew Oliver told me, coding schools simply signal intent, giving people like Freeman a way to demonstrate that they're serious about code: "In interviewing people I'd posit that the code school/boot camp is nearly irrelevant towards anything but intent. The people that I found compelling were already doing things and learning on their own and the code school was just the credential they were using to 'prove it.'" 

This wouldn't invalidate Freeman's experience. As she explained in her blog, coding camp didn't set her up as a master developer: It simply paved the way for her to get the chance to keep learning and, yes, "proving it." 

Which brings us back to the question, "Are coding schools any good, and what's their impact on the industry?" It now feels like this is the wrong question. Coding schools, both good ones and bad ones, are trying to fill the gap between developer supply and developer demand. But their real impact isn't easily measured at the aggregate level. Their impact on an individual like Emily Freeman, however, is fairly straightforward to measure, suggesting that they serve a valuable role.

Disclosure: Matt Asay is an employee of Amazon Web Services. The views expressed are his own, not those of his employer.

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