Dev Bootcamp: A Few Months for a Job or a Few Years for a Career

Mark Werwath brings us this article on the potential pitfalls of quick and cheap development education compared to the long-term investment of an MEM degree. 

On Tuesday, I watched the Dan Rather Report cover a story on a new kind of education that is popping up. He used Dev Bootcamp as the example of what this new form of education represents. Their claim to fame is that for a mere $12,000 they will take people off the street and turn them into (Ruby on Rails) programmers in just a few months. They are very employable at this point and hence they (the school) can claim success. The statement made was that this is (becoming) a viable alternative to a college education. My concern is that this doesn’t address the realities of creating and nurturing a long-term career. If one wants to write Ruby on Rails code the rest of their lives, then this is a good solution, but sooner or later people need to make serious investments in themselves and their careers—an investment that will transcend the current programming fad of the day.

Lotus Notes from the 1980s offers a comparable programming fad. Back in the day, programmers who knew Lotus 123 or Lotus Notes had a distinct advantage over those that didn’t, but that didn’t necessarily insure long-term career success. Some people with Lotus Notes training had long employment relationships of five to ten years, but then the demand for Lotus Notes dried up, and the employees who didn’t invest in themselves were stuck. Conversely, those who knew Lotus 123 were in perpetual demand as the software morphed into MS Excel and the skills needed became commonplace and almost mandatory in every corporate and financial setting.

I agree that having practical programming skills is a great thing, but only when combined with long-term educational investments that are more strategic in nature. I myself took training, during my MEM years right here at Northwestern, in the application of Lotus 123. Ruby on Rails training might last for several years as a useful skill, but the career market and technological developments are unpredictable. Schools like Northwestern train people to run serious businesses, commercialize a variety of technologies, and lead teams of people. MEM is about teaching students how to teach themselves in the pursuit of life-long learning. Alumni know how to stay up to date so they can predict market changes before they occur and successfully adapt to unexpected shifts rather than risk getting stuck in one track that might fizzle out in less than a decade. Ruby on Rails training might seem cost-effective at the time, but the difference between an MEM graduate and a Bootcamp graduate five years down the road could be a completely different story.

7 thoughts on “Dev Bootcamp: A Few Months for a Job or a Few Years for a Career

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for taking the time to look into Dev Bootcamp! My name is Jesse and I’m one of the teachers at DBC.

    I wanted to address some of your concerns directly. The core concern seems to be that we’re “teaching to the test,” so to speak.

    Our program runs the risk of being overfit to the current job market and our graduates might not be adaptable enough to take up new technologies, skills, or attitudes as the market changes.

    Is that a fair characterization of your core concern?

    First, I want to say the whole “Dev Bootcamp vs. a college degree” narrative comes more from the Dan Rather Show than us. Speaking personally, I have a BS in mathematics from the University of Chicago and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    We think Dev Bootcamp gives universities license to be universities again. If you were to walk up to 10 people on the street and ask them, “What is the value of an education?” you’d get 10 different answers.

    Some would say it’s about job training, some that it’s about credentialing, and others still that it’s about “living the life of the mind.” These mandates often contradict each other. One thing I loved most about the University of Chicago is that it had a very strong opinion about how to answer “What is an education?” That answer wasn’t for everyone, but the school was comfortable not being “for everyone.”

    In my mind, by taking care of a small subset of those mandates, Dev Bootcamp helps free universities to have a strong opinion about that question again.

    Second, we avoid “teaching to the test” at all costs. Adaptability, “learning to learn,” etc. are the core of what we focus on. We work in close collaboration with companies who hire from us to refine and adapt our curriculum. We also tell our students we’re looking to graduate world-class beginners — developers so good at learning that after DBC someone else will pay them to continue learning for the next several years.

    Here are some answers on Quora that outline our pedagogical philosophy: http://b.qr.ae/SV0D6R and http://b.qr.ae/Sk00Ea

    Rather than repeating here what I’ve written there, I’ll just add some highlights. Two students from our most recent class were hired by Hipmunk, a venture-backed travel startup whose main language is Python. They obviously didn’t hire them for their Python expertise. 😉

    Our students have also been hired into companies like ThoughtBot, Pivotal Labs, Groupon, and TapJoy.

    We see ourselves as part of the constructionist tradition that includes John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Seymour Papert. If it helps, think of Dev Bootcamp as a Montessori education in programming with an extremely tight deadline.

    Alternatively, if you subscribe to the “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” theory from Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, Dev Bootcamp constitutes the first 700-840 hours of that — 70-85 hours a week for 10 weeks. That’s time spent physically in our space, collaborating with other students working just as intensely, and guided by industry veterans and mentors.

    Here are the numbers I could find around the MEM degree.

    The total cost of a MEM degree is ~$70k and the quarterly rate is ~$14k (http://www.mem.northwestern.edu/program/tuition.html).

    Assuming a full-time student, if you take 4 courses per quarter at 3 hours of class time per week, that’s 12 hours of class time per week (liberally).

    Ignoring breaks, you’d have a maximum of 624 (12*52) hours of hands-on classroom time per year at a total cost of ~$70k.

    Dev Bootcamp’s tuition is $12k (max). We’ll say an extra $3k required for living expenses for those 10 weeks, putting it at $15k max. Students who get placed through us receive up to a 50% tuition reimbursement.

    Maybe that comparison isn’t fair — please correct me if it isn’t — but so far our results speak well. We have a 90%+ placement rate and the median salary for those students is $75k-$80k working at great companies in the SF Bay Area.

    Many people can’t move to San Francisco for 10 weeks and work that hard, so there’s a whole class of people for whom Dev Bootcamp is a non-starter.* At least when it comes to time committed and intensity, a MEM degree would serve those students much better.

    Assuming they have ~$70k to spend, that is.

    Best,
    Jesse

    *: Although our ages range from 17 to 42 and about 50% of our students come from places other than the San Francisco Bay Area.

  2. Very good points. However, why can’t it be possible for Dev Bootcamp to both teach students about contemporary technologies, and at the same time, provide students with the skills to become effective learners?

    My understanding of your essay does not prove to be mutually exclusive with the claims of Dev Bootcamp, so I fail to understand how your essay is at all relevant.

    Disclaimer: I am a former student of Dev Bootcamp.

  3. Hi there,

    I’m a Northwestern University graduate (class of 2008) who also just graduated the summer session of Dev Bootcamp.

    I’m really not sure why you assume that we’re going to stop learning at Ruby on Rails. Before attending Dev Bootcamp, I actually took the free online Java course from Stanford. This is the first course I would take if I enrolled into a CS program at Stanford. I then moved on to Ruby, picked up some Rails, and enrolled into Dev Bootcamp to fill in many of my gaps. Throughout Dev Bootcamp, I made sure to learn a lot of JavaScript and JQuery on the weekends. And once I graduated, I actually got my first job working with Python. I’m very proud to say that I was able to push code to production on only my second day on the job.

    I keep learning every weekend, and I plan to stay on top of the latest development trends throughout the years. My peers at Dev Bootcamp are just as passionate about learning as I am. We’ve had meetups to learn more about Node.js and Backbone.js and other cool technologies we’d like to play with.

    One of the things I really loved about learning to program on my own is the fact that I absolutely LOVE programming as a result. I was completely not interested in Engineering at Northwestern, because it always seemed dry and extremely competitive. Even the online Stanford course I took was a weeder class designed to get students to drop out of the program instead of encouraging them to stay in and have fun.

    Now, my Northwestern degree in Psychology definitely gave me a big edge – I ended up working at some of the world’s top companies upon graduation. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to actually make stuff, and Dev Bootcamp has really enabled me to become a world class beginner software engineer.

  4. Hi,

    I’m a Northwestern alum, MMSS grad, and a graduate of Hacker School in New York City, which in some sense is similar to Dev Bootcamp, except Hacker School is free. From personal experience, I don’t believe that good engineers can only be produced by universities, nor that universities necessarily and always provide good engineers. The argument here, if any, should be that a liberal art education provides one with various methodologies to consider problems and be creative. That may translate to some difference down the road. The lack of a “serious investment in themselves” argument is not supported, as it is entirely possible to be obtain such information via self-learning than obtaining a degree.

    Jane

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