Learning to Code: Finding the Right Fit in the Education Marketplace

Even though we sometimes like to think of it as existing on some higher existential plane, for practical purposes, we need to think of higher education as a marketplace. We are, after all, selling a service. In exchange for a student’s time, and tuition dollars, we hopefully help them form dispositions and habits that encourage a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, and learning. We also cultivate skills, and approaches to work, that equip those students with the assets sought after by employers.

This enterprise, however, is not like many other businesses. We don’t simply compete with other education providers on price, or convenience. Learning is a very personal process. It requires a good “fit” on private, professional, cultural, emotional, and social levels.

Consider the options for learning how to write code, and for launching a career as an application developer. They all have considerations related to finding the right individual fit.

Extremely self-directed individuals can find countless free online courses, videos, and training resources. It is a relatively rare, but not uncommon approach. This approach, however, does little to let the isolated student experience the practical reality of being part of a development team.

A second, increasingly available option is the coding bootcamp. Bootcamps offer accelerated, immersive training, often lasting 10-12 weeks. A course might run Monday through Friday, for 8-10 hours a day. These bootcamps are not self-paced, 'let's learn the basics' courses. They offer extremely intensive training that is intended to give you the skills to land an entry-level job.

Minnesota’s Bootcamp Landscape

Big players in the for-profit education field are all placing lots of eggs in the bootcamp basket. Minneapolis-based Capella Education, spent nearly $40 million to purchase two coding trainers, DevMountain, a Provo, Utah-based programming school, and Hackbright Academy, a San Francisco-based coding bootcamp for women.

Probably the most aggressive player in the sector is The Iron Yard, the largest enterprise of its kind in the country. About a year ago, The Iron Yard received a significant investment from Apollo Education Group, owner of University of Phoenix. One of The Iron Yard’s 22 U.S. locations is in Minneapolis. The company also has a site in London, England.

Other Minnesota organizations have entered the bootcamp business as well. The Twin Cities web development powerhouse, The Nerdery, launched its Prime Digital Academy in 2014. Concordia University has expanded its traditional academic CS offerings to include a bootcamp option.

Bootcamps are not cheap. For example, The Iron Yard offers four different 12-week, 40-50 hours/week immersive courses. They currently offer the courses at a cost of $13,900 each. The Iron Yard’s four courses are: Back-End Engineering (Ruby, C#, Java, and Python); Design (User Interface Design - HTML, CSS); Front-End Engineering (JavaScript and MVC Frameworks); and Mobile Engineering (Swift, Objective-C, and iOS SDK).

Many bootcamps come in at over $10,000 a course. Some are less, some are considerably more expensive. There is another consideration regarding cost. If you are "all in," gambling that you've chosen the right bootcamp to develop the skills you'll need for the job you want, you could potentially be faced with having to double your investment to get the required skills to move beyond an entry level job. For example, let's say that you can write great code, but you don't know anything about creating relational databases. Are you willing to pay for another bootcamp?

Finally, there is the traditional college or university option. A four-year Computer Science (CS) degree is heavily weighted toward theory, and doesn’t always include enough practical coding experience to transition easily into a development job. CS graduates often find themselves in the market for additional coding education.

At Central Lakes College (CLC), we train developers for the workplace through a 60-credit Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree. Students learn multiple programming languages (SQL, C#, HTML, Java, JavaScript, CSS3, & Swift). They take two database design courses (MS SQL Server/Oracle), learn both Android, as well as iOS mobile application development, and because of the college’s commitment to cybersecurity, they are also learning how to develop secure applications. The estimated total cost of the 64 weeks of course work, including tuition, and books, is $12,768.

If posed as an apples-to-apples comparison, you might think that offering more content for less money means that CLC holds all the cards, right? Not necessarily. Remember, learning is personal. The bootcamp-inclined student is often motivated by the desire for a 180 degree career change with the shortest possible training time possible. They may understand enough about themselves to know that they have the self-discipline to thrive in an immersive environment. The blinders that they wear to keep their focus, are of their own construction. They are willing to tolerate more risk.