Next generation of software engineers need training, not retraining

Got a job? Coding boot camps can help you polish your résumé. But what about the tens of thousands leaving high school today who want to become software engineers?

Developers in an open space office

Developers working in a open space in San Francisco

Credit: Sylvain Kalache

Boot camp watcher Course Report found that the typical coding boot camp attendee is 31 years old, has 7.6 years of work experience and has at least a bachelor's degree. These people have jobs, are already well down the higher education road and have decided that a career shift to the shiny tech industry is how they are going to change their world. Good for them.

And coding boot camps can show promising results. Respondents report an average $18,000 boost in annual salary in their first coding gig after camp. Coding boot camps also help U.S. companies recruit candidates for their 545,000 open positions requiring IT skills. And many coding boot camps also help bring some diversity to the predominantly white male software engineering game. All of that is great, but we are still not solving a bigger issue -- who trains high school graduates? Or the unemployed?

Coding boot camps are on average 13 weeks long -- a length of time best suited for people who already have jobs, have bills to pay and families to feed. But let's be realistic: 13 weeks is not enough time to become a software engineer.

So boot camps turn out superficially-prepared software engineers, and prestigious companies are beginning to realize that some are just not well equipped to meet industry standards. What's more disheartening is that many companies don't even consider interviewing boot camp graduates. At the same time, too many college graduates have been studying too much theory for too many years. They lack the practical skills that the industry needs. What's the right balance between three months of boot camp and four years college?

Some are betting on longer programs, starting at seven months, and a few coding schools are already going down that road. These lengthier programs work better for recent high school graduates who have more to learn about soft job skills and how to navigate the workplace. The problem with longer programs is that students still need to still and house themselves. The U.S. Department of Education understood the value of this new type of education and decided to launch a program called Equip. Short for Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships, Equip is designed to provide financial aid to low-income Americans so they can acquire skills that colleges have trouble teaching -- such as coding. Ted Mitchell, U.S. undersecretary of Education, says that the initiative "represents a critical first step in broadening access to high-quality programs" and argues that "our economy depends on it."

As Hackerrank CEO Vivek Ravisankar recently wrote, we should stop believing "the false notion that there's only one entry into the world of programming." Colleges are good at training Ph.D.s, and coding boot camps are good at retraining employed people as junior coders. We really need a third alternative to train the critical mass of skilled software engineers that the industry needs.

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