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Boom or bust: The lowdown on code academies

Dan Tynan | Feb. 11, 2014
Programming boot camps are on the rise, but can a crash course in coding truly pay off for students and employers alike?

Located on the top floor of a five-story brick building in the heart of San Francisco's downscale Tenderloin district, Hack Reactor is as far removed from the ivy-clad walls and rolling lawns of top-tier universities as you're likely to get.

On any given day, the school's single "classroom" is hot, cramped, and buzzing with activity. Dozens of instructors and students sit cheek to jowl in front of 40-inch monitors set up on rows of conference room tables. They are learning how to code in JavaScript. Fluorescent lights and ventilation ducts hang from the ceiling, and the exposed brick walls make it look more like a not-quite-converted warehouse than an elite learning institution.

But Hack Reactor shares two common traits with other top schools. First, it's incredibly selective about whom it allows in; only one out of every 30 applicants is accepted, says co-founder Shawn Drost. Second, high-tech companies are scrambling to hire its graduates., creators of a 3D JavaScript rendering engine for the Web, partnered with Hack Reactor to host teams of students who build their final projects using the platform. CEO Steve Newcomb says these academies are a great way to identify programming talent, but Hack Reactor is "the Harvard of them all."

Hack Reactor aims to provide a "computer science degree for the 21st century," says Drost, a former software engineer at dating site OkCupid who co-founded the school along with language instructor Tony Philips and his brother Marcus Phillips, a former senior software engineer at Twitter.

Photographs of recent grads, all of whom are now employed by Bay Area tech companies, line a whiteboard on one wall. Hack Reactor offers no guarantees of employment after graduation, but so far it hasn't needed to. Of the 80 students who completed Hack Reactor's first four sessions, says Drost, all but one has snagged a job in Silicon Valley's intensely competitive environment, garnering an average salary of $110,000.

The academies: Filling the coding void
The reason these schools exist is simple. There's an enormous number of openings for people with coding skills and a serious shortage of warm bodies to fill them. The 40,000-odd students who graduate each year with four-year computer science degrees are only a fraction of the 1.4 million coders the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will be needed by 2020.

"At last count there are nearly five job openings for every developer, and unemployment rate in this field is under 3 percent," notes Bethany Marzewski, marketing coordinator for developer job site Stack Overflow Careers 2.0.

In a world where there are four times as many openings for programmers as there are qualified people to fill them, coding schools like Hack Reactor — as well as General Assembly, The Starter League, Dev BootCamp, The Flatiron School, Hackbright Academy, and dozens of others — have stepped in to fill the void.


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