The rise of Silicon Valley-style coding bootcamps promises cure for skills crisis

Australian businesses need employees with coding skills yesterday. Every sector is searching for suitable candidates and the traditional pipelines are running dry.

According to the Government's Cyber Security Strategy the number of people taking up information and communications technology degrees has halved over the last decade. Meanwhile, the changes to 457 visas are likely to make hiring from overseas yet more complex and costly.

The crisis shows no signs of abating. A recent report, from the NBN and Regional Australia Institute, forecast that half of all Australian workers will be in roles requiring high-level programming by 2030.

Stepping into Australia’s gaping skills gap is a small number of providers of Silicon Valley-style ‘coding bootcamps’ which promise to produce job-ready graduates with proficiency in the most popular programming languages.

The providers say they are the solution Australia has been looking for, citing high employment rates among their graduates. A new US survey suggests employers are pleased with them too.

But is it really possible to produce a fully-fledged developer in a matter of weeks?

Sticking the boot in

The coding bootcamp concept originated in Silicon Valley around five years ago. With tech companies there unable to hire engineers quickly enough and job-seekers lacking the necessary training for desired roles, bootcamps stepped into the fray.

“In the US they were feeling an acute lack of available talent, so there was a real poaching war going on across different companies,” explains Raman Nambiar managing director of Coder Factory Academy which runs bootcamps in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. “It's really aggressive and really competitive. In Australia we haven't yet reached that stage but we will.”

The concept has really taken off. By last year around 18,000 Americans graduated from 91 bootcamps, according to Course Report, close to double the number that did so in 2015.

In the US, students typically pay US$11,451 for a 13 week crash course in software engineering. Some schools however charge more than US$20,000 for courses and many allow students to defer upfront payment by taking a cut of future earnings. Tuition revenue across US camps totalled an estimated $199m in 2016.

Coding bootcamps are only beginning to gain a foothold in Australia, offered by three main providers: Coder Factory Academy, General Assembly (GA) and Academy Xi.

Coder Factory’s bootcamp – which costs $19,700 – runs for 25-weeks, during which candidates work from 9am to 6pm, five days a week, learning how to become an “employable Junior Developer” and taking an industry internship. The provider took on its first cohort of students in 2016.

Academy Xi – based in Sydney – doesn’t offer a coding specific course but does have a 10-week full-time User Experience Design course for $10,000.

GA – the more established of the three which started in New York in 2011 and now has campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – offers a number of full-time 12-week development courses for $15,500.

"It’s technical training that helps to set people up for a successful career in tech, without them having to commit years of their time," says Ryan Meyer, GA's senior regional director in APAC. "Our programs are appealing because they send students down the most efficient path to achieve their career goals."

The bootcamps' continuing rise in Australia is inevitable, adds Nambiar.

“There's only really three ways to get those skills,” he explains. “One, from overseas, number two is universities and there are only so many of those grads being pumped out each year; and number three is an alternate education model like a bootcamp.”

Nambiar added that he was aware of a number of US providers that were eyeing the local opportunity.

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Practical makes perfect

“Australia’s universities closely monitor developments in industry and amongst other education providers. Our universities are demand driven and continue to do what they’ve always done – evolve to meet the needs of each new generation,” Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson told CIO Australia.

“Our best evidence is that there continues to be a very strong demand from Australian employers for university computer science graduates.”

Australian universities offer a wide range of computer science, software development and related degree courses. The likes of Mike Cannon-Brookes have recently dubbed them “amazing” but lamented the “brain drain” of graduates to overseas.

At last count – in a report published by Graduate Careers Australia – recruiters said graduates of information technology related disciplines were the most difficult to source and a point of concern.

Coding bootcamps seek to provide a quicker, cheaper fix to the problem. Robinson said she didn’t consider them a threat to university computer science courses.

“We don’t see it that way,” she said. “The higher education sector in Australia is highly dynamic. It’s constantly innovating and evolving to meet the changing needs of prospective students and employers. Our universities are constantly adapting content and delivery.

A common criticism levelled at coding bootcamps in the US, is that they fail to provide the foundational knowledge a degree course does. Coder Factory’s Nambiar concedes he had heard this on industry steering committees in Silicon Valley.

“But in terms of practical skills they find that pretty much on par with the university graduates,” he added.

GA's Meyer said there was a place for both bootcamps and degree courses: "Of course there will always be a place for people with in-depth theoretical knowledge of a field – that’s where long form degrees step in. But when it comes to technical knowledge in a fast-evolving sector like digital, bootcamps and intense immersive courses play a huge role in keeping our workforce competitive."

Happy hirers

Employers appear pleased with bootcamp graduates. A survey of 1,000 US-based technology company hiring managers and recruiters, released yesterday by job-listing site Indeed, found that 72 per cent say coding bootcamp graduates were just as prepared and just as likely to be high performers as candidates with traditional computer science degree backgrounds.

Some 80 per cent said they had hired a coding bootcamp graduate for a technical role within their company and 99 per cent would do so again. And while 40 per cent preferred candidates with a computer science degree, an equal number had no preference.

"If the US experience is anything to go by, it's likely that Australian employers will be seeing more applications from candidates with bootcamp qualifications," said Chris McDonald, managing director ANZ at Indeed.

"Employers in the US believe they are a good way to close the tech talent gap, retrain workers from other professions and even bring more diversity to the tech industry. There’s a lot of work to do here in Australia but also a huge amount of potential."

McDonald added that Indeed itself had hired from bootcamps, and the individuals had proven to be ‘really strong performers’.

“Now that a few cohorts have gone through and we're starting to see those high employment rates, employers are starting to take more notice,” added Nambiar.

Of the 150 Coder Factory bootcamp graduates, “almost 75 per cent” had found employment within three months of graduating.

“Combine that with all of the stuff going on around 457 visas and the restriction on bringing in foreign labour…for those higher-demand, skilled occupations the employers are getting a little bit worried," Nambiar said. "They're starting to think well I need to look at alternative avenues than university to fill my pipeline.”

"Bootcamps are extremely effective and create very hirable talent so I trust they’ll help to fill the void," added Meyer. "Our mission is to create a pipeline of diverse talent for today’s most in-demand jobs and in doing so, shorten a skills gap in today’s workforce – particularly in the tech industry."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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