In the last three years, the coding boot camp [19,20] has truly established itself as a quick-fix aiming to plug the developer shortage emerging from a perceived gap between education and industry [17,18]. Software development companies have struggled to find suitable university graduates to fill their positions and have pointed the finger firmly at education [15]. With a growing gap between the number of graduates and positions available (Figure 1), the issue has become very public. The boot-camp concept, offering a viable alternative to the university degree route, has tapped into that potentially lucrative market, gaining promotion from the likes of former President Barack Obama in the US and ex-Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK [2,35]. The popularity of the coding boot-camp concept is twofold. Budding entrepreneurs with a decent business model provide a fresh stream of developers for industry, and keen developers can fast-track their careers, while avoiding cumbersome student debts. This article compares the coding boot-camp concept with the traditional university degree model, evaluating the impact on the sector. Do they deliver on their promises? Are they transparent enough? And, are they truly addressing the skills shortage in the sector?

Although the concept of the boot camp is traditionally associated with children or adolescents [13,38], one such endeavour, Makers Academy, a coding boot camp in in East London (UK), proposes to train adult developers from diverse backgrounds [19]. Recruits include out-of-work developers and those seeking a career change, or simply wishing to upskill. Makers Academy is highly selective in their recruiting, rejecting 9 in 10 applicants, with a fifth of successful applicants also ejected in the first few weeks for 'not working hard enough.' A huge emphasis is placed on problem-solving ability and computational thinking, with interviewees deliberately given problems they cannot solve. For Makers Academy, candidate reaction to failure measures strength of character [19].

Given that Makers Academy offers an intensive three-month training regime costing £8000, it seems surprising that the course provides a minimal support framework, with trainee developers working in pairs and encouraged to be self-sufficient [19]. The determination of Makers to churn out independent-thinking and highly employable graduates, while touting themselves as a start-up aiming to plug the developer shortage, appears to be an honorable endeavour. But, the levy Makers elicits from trainees and from employers subsequently hiring their boot-camp survivors, could be viewed as an exploitative and opportunistic driving force [19].

Guardian newspaper columnist and former political editor at The Observer, Gaby Hinsliff, considered the difficulties Makers Academy initially had persuading companies to hire their graduates as junior programmers [19]. While software development companies want the best talent, the stock of readily available talent has dwindled [15] and Ruben Kostucki, chief operating officer at Makers is in no doubt [19]—"If juniors cannot get experience, then ultimately you run short of experienced people."


Not only have the financial motivations of some boot camps been regarded with caution, but also the quality of training and graduates that they deliver.


Established in Edinburgh in 2015, the CodeClan boot camp appears remarkably like Makers Academy, offering an intense 16-week boot-camp 'software skills experience.' [14] Unlike Makers Academy, CodeClan only recruits "STEM graduates and individuals who have an aptitude for coding and need a route into the industry." Recruits must pass a mandatory three-week long pre-entry course and "rigorous selection process" to gain entry [20]. Both ventures detailed are market-driven, attempting to plug a recognised skills shortage in the software development industry, but are they merely exploiting the skills gap to obtain considerable external funding, while also eliciting substantial sums of money from desperate trainees and employers? Success is seldom guaranteed, with words such as 'passionate,' 'dedicated,' and 'committed' highly suggestive of a survival of the fittest mentality. Aiming to churn out 20 graduates every 10 weeks, CodeClan could become highly profitable, while those who fail to make the grade are cast aside [14,20].

Dev Bootcamp, based in San Francisco, typifies the US-style equivalent of the coding boot camp, charging $12,200 tuition fees in 2013, and now $14,000 and, with "a new class of 20 students every three weeks," classes can generate $244,000, with 17 sessions per year suggesting a $4.1 million annual income [42]. When such figures are bandied about, it is unsurprising that there is an element of public and industry distrust in the boot-camp model.

Not only have the financial motivations of some boot camps been regarded with caution, but also the quality of training and graduates that they deliver. Web Developer and Code Mentor Ken Mazaika (Editor at Techspiration), claimed that "the largest coding boot camps have a reputation among hiring managers for churning out developers who have the professional maturity of a teenager at a One Direction concert" and that "marketers and the media have brainwashed people into thinking that it's a cakewalk getting a job paying six figures as a developer" [25] The quality of some boot-camp teaching was called into question by Mazaika [25]:

good coding bootcamps out there will cover CS topics around algorithms and data structures, but 9 out of 10 coding bootcamps won't cover these topics at all -because these topics can be difficult to teach.

Melanie Pinola, Editorial Manager at the tech solutions firm Zapier, alleged that 63% of boot camp graduates do attain fulltime developer positions, although potential employers are decidedly sceptical regarding perceived skill-levels [32]. Antonio Reyes (CTO of Trading Ticket) expressed his disdain for boot camp graduates and the targeted training they receive:

instead of teaching their students how to think like coders, most coding bootcamps teach very heavily to the tests that recruiters at the big firms are known to give out [8].

Pinola highlighted a lack of regulation as a major concern for IT companies and a preference for university degrees over boot-camp training in those securing positions, arguing that "it's more important to learn how to think like a computer scientist than to learn how to code" [32] Despite this, the bootcamp phenomenon has taken hold rapidly, growing from 45 offline camps in 2014 to 121 in 2017, in North America alone [7]. (See Figure 2.) The number worldwide is over 500. These are principally located within the major cities and therefore could offer a direct alternative to a university degree course.

Former President Obama's depiction of the coding boot camp [35] as a "ticket to the middle class" has encouraged some lenders to open the sector to student loans, providing more than enough incentive for many entrepreneurial developers to risk investing in the boot-camp model [26]. With similar starting salaries for degree and boot camp graduates, and the prospect of substantial financial and time savings, the explosion in the boot-camp model is easily understood, although there are other advantages and disadvantages to consider—Figure 3 presents an aggregated cross-section of some of these. Issie Lapowsky, senior writer at WIRED, proposed that the US boot-camp bubble was about to burst, as the number of institutions had ballooned to the point where graduate numbers would soon reach saturation point:

The more people are encouraged to enroll in these boot-camps, the more likely a good percentage of them will find themselves six months later out several thousand dollars and out of a job [21].

Should the boot-camp model crash, many would-be developers will have to carry the cost, while the boot-camp entrepreneurs will be able to walk away largely unscathed. The boot-camp business model, which takes financial advantage of recruits up-front and out-the-back, was also criticised by Daniel P. Gailey (aka dpg), a venture capitalist, hacker, and writer for Techendo, who claimed that the approach would "inevitably turn out lower quality individuals, while trying to maximize profits." Going further still, dpg claimed [40], "I'd be willing to bet the majority are unemployable if it weren't for such a talent drought."

Bjarne Stroustrup, inventor of C++, had this to say about accelerated training programs in 2006, long before the current boot-camp phenomenon:

The idea of programming as a semiskilled task, practiced by people with a few months' training, is dangerous. We wouldn't tolerate plumbers or accountants that are poorly educated. We don't have as an aim that architecture (of buildings) and engineering (of bridges and trains) should become more accessible to people with progressively less training. Indeed, one serious problem is that currently, too many software developers are undereducated and undertrained [33].

The computer scientist Peter Norvig (Director of Research at Google) had previously considered the naivety of many would be developers, and, observing that online retailers were selling books purporting to help the reader learn to program in 7 days or 24 hours, proposed his own title, "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years" Norvig suggested [29] that:

Either people are in a big rush to learn about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else.

Norvig noted that Bloom had proposed roughly ten years' experience necessary to become an expert in a specific area [3,29], and Winslow referenced that same timeframe directly regarding computer programming expertise [5]. Examining studies in classical music [11], Norvig suggested that rather than ten years' experience, 10,000 hours' practice would be necessary to become an elite performer [29], a perspective from which the notion of code academies producing industry-ready developers in as little as eight weeks seems preposterous. Ericsson and Pool subsequently revised the findings of their original research into classical music [11], contending that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" might be a more realistic estimate [12].


The rising popularity of the boot camp is indicative of a problem which may have emerged from an educational failure to maintain pace with technological development ... For dedicated and talented individuals, the boot camp provides a means of entering (or re-entering) an industry purporting to be desperate for recruits.


The rising popularity of the boot camp is indicative of a problem which may have emerged from an educational failure to maintain pace with technological development [9]. For dedicated and talented individuals, the boot camp provides a means of entering (or re-entering) an industry purporting to be desperate for recruits [27]. Regardless of the duration and intensity of any boot camp, they cannot be expected to equip graduates with all the necessary skills in such a short duration, and extensive further training is frequently required. However, it has been suggested that colleges and universities also fail to provide graduates with the requisite skills over an extended timeframe [24]. As an alternative to a university degree, the advantages of a boot camp are clear, particularly the prospect of a quick route to a six-figure salary. Drawn by the immediate appeal of the approach, some university students have opted to drop out of their degree course and enroll in a boot camp, saving money on student loans, and starting to earn almost immediately [16]. The impact that this has had on education is not entirely apparent and may be negligible, because it is unclear to what extent college or university graduates are competing with boot camp graduates for positions.

There are also concerns that boasts about massively successful boot camp placement rates are made-up, or fudged and misleading, often accounting for the 12-month period following course completion. Completion rates often remain undisclosed and very few boot camps have had their figures audited [34]. Jonathan Lau, co-founder of SwitchUp, an independent directory of boot camp reviews and rankings, claimed [34] that "boot camps will make these numbers up" and that "[t]hey'll exclude students who they think were bad and mark them as a failed student and do all sorts of weird things that bump up their numbers and make it look better. With a third-party auditor, you can't really do that." A large part of the backlash against boot camps has stemmed from their lack of transparency, several highly publicized instances of students getting fleeced while receiving little or no training in return, and erroneous success rate claims. However, the more scrupulous boot camp providers have taken steps to agree to industry-wide standards, to regulate practice, and to provide greater transparency [37].

While Winslow [44] and Bjarne Stroustrup [33] were likely correct in their assessment that a world-class programming expert will require 10 years of deliberate practice to reach that level, most boot camps are not aiming to produce experts. However, neither are universities, and in both cases significant workplace experience will be required before a graduate can become expert. That could come later. The top 10 boot camp languages at present are all web-focused [39], as in the US where the main area of talent shortage was initially perceived to be for Ruby on Rails (shifting towards Javascript in 2015). However the UK demand for software developers with experience in Java and C++ may be reaching a crisis point [36]. The lack of interest in Java, C++, .NET and C# from coding boot camps, appears to stem from a perception that tech companies prefer to hire university graduates and experienced developers for those specific languages [31]. This assumption may have a sound basis. Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, suggested that,

Leading-edge tech companies of all sizes focus on recruiting the top Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral graduates from the top Computer Science programs – programs such as those at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT... [22].

Dan Garland, founder of the agile web development consultants We Got Coders, takes a different view, suggesting that his computer degree got him nowhere and that a vocational boot-camp qualification would have allowed him to hit the ground running, as well as saving considerable time and money [6]. Kevin Wang, VP Product at the tech solutions company Appboy, suggested that there were few differences between college and boot camp graduates in the initial stages of employment, however, after six months, differences in technical knowledge became apparent in terms of efficiency, with college graduates able to "draw on these deeper experiences when tackling more complex problems." [28]

A potential problem faced by graduates when it comes to getting hired may be a lack of interpersonal skills. These have been identified in several studies, noting that teamwork, communication, business, professionalism, and self-management skills, often take precedence over technical ability [21,24]. It is possible that boot camp graduates have an advantage over college or university graduates in getting hired, because they have had an opportunity to develop these essential skills, even if only over a short duration. They are also often better prepared for interview and testing. Little wonder that even degree graduates may be inclined to seek out a boot camp experience, not only to sharpen up their skills, but also to help develop the interpersonal skills they will need to exhibit in the workplace.

The job market needs Java, C, C++, and Python developers, yet the number of boot camps providing training for those frameworks is low (see Figure 4).

Despite a recent general shift towards Javascript, the number of boot camps offering training in Ruby on Rails remains high [5]. The demand for Ruby on Rails developers is however presently low, with the language recently slipping out of the top-ten (to 11th place) in the TIOBE Community Index (see Figure 5). Besides a greatly expanded pool of Ruby developers graduating from boot camps, part of the decline in Ruby on Rail's popularity may be attributable to the increasing popularity of relative newcomers Node.js and Go [10].

The boot camp model may not be addressing the real and international software developer shortage which sparked their existence in the first place [30]. While the model is viable in terms of producing a steady stream of developers, particularly for web-based languages such as Ruby and Javascript, the skills gap for developers in Java, C++, and .NET persists. It would be expected that many of these positions could be filled from the pool of university graduates, however, despite a general international increase in enrollments, there is little to suggest that


From a boot-camp perspective, the traditional degree route is an outdated model and out-of-step with the pace of technological development. Perhaps both will need to adapt significantly to meet the insatiable technological demands looming ahead.


CS graduate numbers will witness any dramatic increases soon. If Issie Lapowsky is proven correct and the boot-camp production rate (currently 18,000 a year) reaches saturation point [21], will boot camps begin to fold? There are some indicators that this may already be happening. Former boot camp graduate Ted Wang suggested that the market is already flooded and that the sense of desperation formerly prevalent in recruiters has now shifted onto boot camp graduates struggling to get hired [43]. There also appears to be little inclination to adapt the business model and shift the training emphasis away from Ruby and Javascript towards the languages where developers are most needed.

The boot-camp phenomenon has almost certainly helped, at least temporarily, to plug a gap in developer recruitment. It is certainly a model to which education does not appear to have any direct response. As college and university graduates often find it very difficult to get a foot-in-the-door, tagging a bootcamp experience onto the end of a degree program could potentially provide a much-needed route into the industry. Many graduates are already taking such a path of their own accord. CodeClan and similar boot-camp models aim to help graduates find positions by preparing them for industry and, although their training comes with a hefty price tag, they would argue that it is small change next to the potential salary their graduates can rapidly attain. The only viable educational equivalent is the work placement scheme, and, where universities do provide such opportunities to undergraduates, these are generally viewed as successful in enhancing future employment opportunities.

While there is no significant conflict between the education sector and coding boot camps, colleges and universities may have experienced the loss of some students to boot camps and come to regard them as some sort of oppositional threat. Initial concerns over the boot-camp model have faded somewhat, with the model gaining a reputation for quick success. Public trust has grown and enrollments have escalated dramatically. From a boot-camp perspective, the traditional degree route is an outdated model and out-of-step with the pace of technological development. Perhaps both will need to adapt significantly to meet the insatiable technological demands looming ahead. Just as a computing degree is not for everyone, neither are boot camps. Both pathways require dedication, determination, subject interest, and financial investment. Clearly more needs to be done by education to help graduates into work. They may have the technical ability, but often have no comprehension of what they need to do to attain that vital first posting, or how to go about it. If a boot-camp experience provides them with that, then we as educators need to consider carefully how we can provide a similar experience.

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Author

Graham Wilson
Moray College UHI
Moray Street, Elgin
Moray IV30 1JJ
Graham.WilsonMoray@uhi.ac.uk

Figures

F1Figure 1. The skills gap in computing [1]

F2Figure 2. Boot camps located in US [4]

F3Figure 3. Boot Camp Advantages and Disadvantages

F4Figure 4. Boot camp Training Provision [5]

F5Figure 5. TIOBE Programming Community Index [41]

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