The Bootcamp Model Is Dead – It Just Doesn’t Know It Yet


Is it time to disrupt the whole ‘bootcamp’ industry? I’m going to say, DUH: YEAH!

And that overdue disruption’s already started.

First off, a couple of observations from the Future of Workplace learning perspective. The fact that so many people are committed to changing careers and are prepared to shell out their hard-earned money on what can often be a pretty intense and expensive experience - with no guaranteed pay check at the end - is something anyone passionate about lifelong learning should be applauding.

Equally, the fact that coding bootcamps in particular seem to be getting a reputation as a bit of a con should also concern us. There are WAY TOO MANY unhappy testimonials on places like Medium outlining less than stellar bootcamp experiences, like this one (“In one interview with a startup, the interview immediately went south once they realized I’d done a bootcamp”) and here (“78% of graduates have jobs as developers. This includes people working as web, game, app and mobile developers… but what about that 22% who don’t have jobs?”) - and there were some painful headlines back in October about Apple founder Steve Wozniak’s bootcamp (‘Former Woz U students and employees say the Apple co-founder's coding school is not worth the $13,200 in tuition… "I feel like this is a $13,000 e-book”).

Not acceptable - all this is letting dedicated learners down. You may even have experience from peers or family members who also struggled to make this process work for them. And even for those who it works for with, it’s a big check to cut - at least $10,000.

Still, the basic idea is a sound one: few people post-College really want to take the time and accumulate yet more student loan debt to do a full CS qualification; immersing yourself in a super-practical, intense coding experience can be an excellent, ‘sink-or-swim,’ thing to find out if it’s for you. (Heck, I know this myself - I did a bootcamp-style thing back out of my Literature degree in the UK; it’s tough - but it got me on the job ladder.)

A way to deliver family-sustaining incomes

So - disrupt it. Find more effective ways of bootcamp provision. And like I said, folks are doing this. An excellent end of year New York Times piece on social entrepreneurship tail end of 2018 included a great example, an outfit called Pursuit, which uplifts non-standard software industry entrants into successful coders… an amazing 500 so far.

Pursuit’s model works because its founder, Jukay Hsu, has created a structure that supports newbies over a much longer time-frame than the vast majority of camps; we’re talking about a 10-month boot camp where students learn coding, professional skills and how to navigate the tech industry. - but which is supported by a further three years of coaching and support while working to cement them into their new profession.

Boy - is he doing something to make a positive difference by doing that - helping Pursuit’s graduates totally transforming their lives, lifting its post-training graduate annual incomes from an average of $18,000 to more than $85,000, therefore making direct economic and social impact by helping graduates earn family-sustaining income. There are a couple of things that I really like about this:

  • It starts with a social mission, and disrupts the learning industry with next generation business models tailored to support the “always learning” needs of our economy: reaching everyone not just a few, affordable not leading to more debt
  • How New Style Bootcamp leaders like Pursuit’s Hsu don’t pretend learning to cut code for employers is easy - he’s upfront that learning new skills can be hard, expensive and takes time.

Flipping the Bootcamp Classroom Model

Another organization pioneering innovative approaches to the re-skilling challenge and which is doing really well at making it affordable is a bunch of great people up here in Seattle called Nucamp. Founded by Ludo Fourrage, an ex-Microsoft colleague of mine who’s got a great track record in adult learning technology, Ludo wanted to apply a key Learning Futures Group core concept of use what’s available to you now, and not wait until you have the Apollo Moonshot portfolio of tools.

So Nucamp has charged ahead, working to redefine traditional education with campuses that are replaced with co-working spaces, with training provided by part-time professionals who take on the role of instructors, and a curriculum developed by the best Universities and which is fully available online. There are three aspects of this approach I really like

  • Serving The Underserved The Nucamp team are going where they are perhaps most needed, as a light footprint model allows them to set up Nucamps in underserved cities such as Tacoma and Spokane. The Nucamp team are also planning massive expansion to take the approach and platform where it’s needed most.
  • Content is King, But Motivation Remains Key Leveraging the fact that there is outstanding content available online anyway, Nucamp curates the best of it, but adds the secret learning ingredient we all need; the motivation of a cohort group, and the guidance of a great instructor.
  • A Risk-Free Solution To Re-Skilling Individuals seeking a new career can do so while keeping their current day job and without taking on loans to pay for their tuition, - really helpful for anyone living paycheck to paycheck.

All of this helps Nucamp reduce the price by a staggering factor of 10. Now, sure - you don’t get the intensity, the cool office furniture and Lattes ‘on tap’ offered by other programs. But that’s not the point; Ludo’s students bring the motivation and love the flexibility of his offer, with the coaching and teaming provided by his dedicated instructors being what works for them.

The program is also getting results. I spoke to one Nucamp graduate, Aaron Goodrum from Tacoma WA who completed the Nucamp program in July 2018 and is now employed as a Software QA Engineer at Intrepid by Vital Source. Indeed, Aaron loved the experience so much he is now helping instructors lead other cohorts through the program himself.

Aaron told us that, “The hybrid approach of learning online during the week and in-person with classmates and your instructor on the weekends was a great way to learn. It was also nice to be in a relaxed environment on the week-ends, in coffee shops or co-working spaces.”

Another Nucamp supporter is Sergey, employed as a Lab Technician in Marysville: “I chose Nucamp school because of two reasons: (1) convenient location; (2) low cost. The responsiveness, commitment and flexibility of instructors (as well as other Nucamp staff) toward students are so special and something I never experienced before in any other institutions I have known.

“I'm really enlightened by studying software development in this school; every workshop becomes like a holiday vacation for me, after long hours of work.”

You and I could be looking for all kinds of bootcamp help sooner than you might think

What I’m taking from what Pursuit and Nucamp are doing is that there are new ways of delivering the value of the bootcamp approach without necessarily the hefty price tag and the scatteshot success rates of the established model. I avowedly welcome this, and wonder if there’s not some clues in here about how post-College learning could be delivered across the board.

Why do I say that? Because so far, I have talked about all this in the context of job seekers who maybe have kind of mis-fired first time round or who need a way to access middle-class jobs they can’t really do otherwise than a tech re-boot.

Which is true, but you and I could be looking for all kinds of bootcamp help sooner than you might think. As Satya Nadella says, in the future all companies will be software companies - increasingly looking to create value based on the insights they can derive from the vast quantities of data our increasingly digitized business.

That means more and more of us will probably have to become more digitally competent, even if we don’t intend to become full time data scientists or Ruby On Rails ninjas. And to do that - we’re going to need waaaay better training ideas than the average bootcamp, I am beginning to think.

What do you think?

CEO, Learning Futures Group